Robot Ride

I’m always looking for ways to inject unpredictability in to my life and recently I invented a new one. The principle is simple, I choose a direction and ride out of the city. After a delay to let me get a bit further from home, Sage starts sending me messages telling me which direction to turn and how far to go. She has no idea where I am, and after enough random turns, I’m likely to not know where I am either.

I leave Friday morning and head north on Don Mills Road. Normally my way out of the city is a quiet path but the pandemic has significantly reduced traffic so the roads are low on traffic but very speedy for cyclists.

I mostly share the road with buses which in my experience is very genial. When passing me they give me tons of space and if I’m passing them at a stop they are sure to wait a long time before pulling out behind me. And when we’re both stopped at a light, them on the right picking up passengers, I always let them merge back in front of me and we usually share a smile and a wave. It’s always nice to be on a road where everyone is trying to be their best selves.

About 15 kilometres from home I reach Highway 7. It’s a busy six-lane thoroughfare cutting across the northern suburbs. Lately, though, they’ve added bike lanes to it so it is actually relatively pleasant. Also there is a Tim Hortons which I often stop at. It’s already above 30 degrees C (86F) and very humid so hydration is extra important. I go inside, buy another bottle of water as I’ve already had one of my three in the first 40 minutes of riding. I also get another treat – a tradition I picked up from as far back as when Daegan and I were cycling from here to New York City back in 2012.

Frozen Lemonade – the perfect combination of cold and sweet. Don’t drink it too fast though!

It is strange to be back inside a restaurant. There are a few others and we’re all getting takeout, of course. There is no seating allowed inside. And so I go outside and search for a good place to sit. There is no outdoor seating either, and thanks to the timing of my stop, the sun is directly above me. There is no shade. I drink my lemonade as quickly as its iciness will allow. While I wait my first email arrives from Sage:

  1. At the next opportunity turn right.
  2. In 3 kilometres, take a photo of something DELIGHTFUL.

Highway 7 is in front of me and so I look to the right, west, toss out my lemonade cup and pedal off.

A typical suburban Toronto street. Without the bike lane it’s pretty awful but with it, it makes for a great east-west highway.

After a kilometre the bike lane disappears and the speed limit increased. This is the suburbia I’m most familiar with. But even this has changed a bit as now the sidewalk is called a “shared path” and so I can ride on it. I go the three kilometres and stop at Yonge Street. Highway 7 has turned in to a divided highway and there isn’t a light for Yonge Street, but instead there’s an exit ramp. I look around for something delightful.

I send these photos to Sage with an apology. She has no idea where I am so how could she know how dismal it all is here. But then something to the northeast catches my eye. At the edge of the highway it looks a little incongruous here and reminds me of my bike trip in December. While I wait for my next set of instructions from Sage, I ride down to get a closer look.

Here along with the mandir is the Canadian Museum of Indian Civilization. And outside of that is a peace garden. Inside are various statues, quotes and even next to this busy highway, a sense of peace. There it is – something delightful

As I sat in the garden, another message from Sage arrived:

  1. At your next opportunity, turn left and then right again.
  2. In 4 km, take a MACRO photograph.

I pull up to this intersection, prepared to take my left. With all the traffic and construction here I’m extremely happy to be led down a quiet street lined with “Bicycle Route” signs.

Turning left!

The road quiets down significantly and my right turn takes me on a northbound residential street. As I ride I’m surprised at how normal everything feels. People are out walking and running, there are other cyclists, and when I pass a park, a splash pad is running with kids dashing in and out of cool water streams. It’s a good day for it. It’s now 34C (93F) and feels like 37 (98). But for me this is not uncomfortable. Yes, it feels warm but it feels energizing and makes me happy. In fact, I’m happier riding on a day like today than when temperatures are in the single-digits and I need a jacket. I am aware, though, that there are risks and so I don’t push too hard and am sure to drink lots of water.

Four kilometres ticks off and I stop. At my feet in the bike lane is a dead bird, nesting material still in its mouth. It is being carried away in tiny tiny pieces by a diligent group of ants. I take a macro (close up) photo. It’s a little morbid, though, so I take a second photo for sharing here.

How we perceive the world really is a matter of where we look. Do we focus on the dead bird or the newly blooming flower?

I send my photos to Sage and continue north until her next message arrives.

  1. Record a short Instagram Story about your project and how it’s going.
  2. Turn right, and continue right for 5 km. Then take your next left.

I load Instagram back on my phone for the day, record a quick story about the project and then take my next right. I’m still in a residential area so the roads don’t go far before they end long before I reach 5 km. So I stay with the spirit of the instruction, going east (the original ‘right’ direction) as far as I can then turning north when the road ends. Eventually I’m back on another busy road, Major Mackenzie.

This road isn’t as busy as Highway 7 but it is still filled with cars. I pull in and am pleased to note that the wind coming from the northwest is now helping me along. The speed limit for cars here is 60 km/hr and I’m managing half that much of the time. Whether perceived or real, I feel safer in busy traffic when I ride faster – maybe because I’m less worried that I will make drivers impatient and careless.

At the 5 km mark I’m surprised to see I’ve arrived back at Leslie, just a little north of where I had my frozen lemonade some time before.

My next left will take me further north, continuing the way I started when I left the house hours before. I look at my phone and there’s a new message from Sage:

  1. Continue straight for 3 km.
  2. Stop (as soon as it’s safe, obviously) and take a photo of something
    UNIQUE.

The wind is picking up and now as I head north there’s an invisible force pushing back at me, slowing me down noticeably and putting a loud roar in my ears. The next few kilometres pass slowly and then at about 2.8 kilometres, orange barrels narrow the road to one lane in each direction. The right side of the road is filled with construction machinery and dust. Traffic slows and thickens. Most of the road is gone now. It’s a little stressful with loads of dump trucks, cement mixers and impatient drivers. At 3KM I pull off on a side street, not caring where I am and look for something unique.

Looking around me I’m in the most dismal spot I’ve seen so far. Signs tell me I’m actually on a construction site, not a real road. Where once there was forest and farmland, now townhouses are being built around me. The cheapest of these will be nearly one million dollars each.

I admit, I have a bit of an attitude about cookie cutter-like suburban developments. I can’t think of them without thinking about this moment from the book A Wrinkle in Time where they end up in a suburban development where all the children, dressed identically, all leave the house at the same time, stand in the same spot and bounce their balls at the same time, perfectly conforming to expectations.

Another email arrives and Sage says:

  1. First right, third SAFE left. [Does she know about the state of the roads under construction here?]
  2. Take a photo of something DYSTOPIAN.
  3. Straight for 7 km.

I steel myself to get back in to the construction traffic. There’s no way out but through. And fortunately it isn’t too far before I reach an intersection. I turn right and traffic immediately thins out to near zero. I’m so glad.

Closer to the city, finding my “third left” might take 2-3 minutes. Here, though, streets are much less frequent. It’s over 8 kilometres before there’s a street that goes left. Finally I reach it.

I see nothing dystopian here. Not even close. I make my left and head back in to the driving wind, a wind that is now compounded by a hill. But the ride is beautiful. I can’t complain. I take a lot of photos but none fits the “dystopian” description.

And then, finally, I saw it. An image from a day when there is no more postal mail. Packages are delivered by drone, bills and letters by email, and Instagram has replaced postcards for sharing your holidays with friends. So who needs mailboxes in this future?

Just past this little prophesy of Canada Post’s future, the road turns steeply upward. Those seven kilometres are not passing quickly and I expect this big hill will need to be climbed today with the wind pushing in my face. However, I have a choice. I can look at it as a chore, tortured by wind, taunted by a hill all so I can just go back down it later. Or I can choose to see another reality: It is a lovely summer day, the kind I dream of in February. I am on my bike with a three day weekend ahead of me. What day do I really want? One where I challenge myself and get a nice view in exchange for it or the one where I say “Oh well, this is close enough.” and turn back toward home.

I climb the hill and as I expect, just over the top I hit seven kilometres. I cross the road and I’m alone but for a flock of geese.

And now, the uphill will be a downhill, the headwind will be a tailwind and off I go.

I zoom down the hill, hitting well over 60 km/hr and cruising at around 40. All those kilometres that I struggled to climb, zoom under my wheels so quickly. I turn on to a road that heads southwest toward home. It’s newly-paved but surprisingly there’s zero traffic on it. I pass houses with nobody outside. One house appears to have been nice in its day but is now abandoned. A cloudy green pond sits in its overgrown front yard, another flock of geese relaxing next to it.

The temperature is really rising now and thanks to the fresh black asphalt below me I’m in a sauna. It’s a relief when I reach a town border and the dark new pavement is replaced with old grey pavement that no longer radiates heat.

I choose another road to go south, not wanting to brave the construction again and get to Highway 7. Moving downhill means I’ve got a nice breeze to keep me cool. It also means that while I’m sweating it’s evaporating even faster. At every stoplight I remember to drink until all three bottles are empty. I’ve now had about four litres of water and a frozen lemonade and I’m still very thirsty.

I stop at a gas station and go inside. I pick up a huge bottle of water to refill my bottles from and a coke for some extra sugar and caffeine to push me home. The sun is still high in the sky but I manage to find a little patch of shade beneath a small tree near the road. I eat an oatmeal raisin energy bar and rehydrate. It’s clearly time to do so. I can feel a bit of a headache coming on. Even as much as I’ve been drinking I’m clearly heading toward dehydration.

A litre of water and a half litre of coke in me I head toward home. I’m happy that aside from a few rolling hills it’s overall a downhill ride from here. The breeze no longer provides relief, instead it feels a bit like being in a convection oven. As I ride I wonder why I am still so happy with this weather. This is definitely not better for my body than riding in 10 degree weather and yet it feels so incredibly good. I hope someday to find the same joy and satisfaction in a late-autumn ride or winter run.

As I lock my bike in the bike room, the woman whose bike is locked next to mine showed up. “Wow, it’s hot out there – and look at you!” I look at myself and see it from her point of view. My legs and face are covered in dust and road grime, my jersey is as wet with sweat as if I had gone swimming in it. And yet, I can think of no better way to have spent a day.

For those who want trip details (speed, elevation, etc) you can find it all on the entry in Strava.

15 thoughts on “Robot Ride

  1. Interesting game (as Sage sent you messages) and your ride. A fantastic way to keep yourself fit with no boring rides 🙂
    This might not be possible here due to the number of tunnels where cyclist and walkers are not allowed. We do nto have so much freedom.

    1. Right – I hadn’t thought of that but of course with all the mountains even if cyclists were allowed, there could be some big hills!

      Another friend I was telling about it told me that where she lives it is also something that she couldn’t do. Not everywhere is safe for everyone to cycle. I am truly blessed to live here on so many levels.

    1. Thanks! That’s what makes it fun for me also. As I rode to one destination I would be so curious as to what I would find there and what might be coming next.

    1. Thanks! One of my favourite kinds of days. Exploration and happy unpredictability, hot weather and a bicycle. I need little more than this.

  2. Great adventures on your bike! I remember seeing that Vishnu mandir and Hanumanji 😃 I also remember seeing the Indian and Canadian flags flying together, side by side by the mandir…

  3. Thanks! It was really fun. And that mandir and the park was such a nice find. The area otherwise isn’t so nice with traffic, construction, and everything paved over. I definitely wouldn’t have gone here on my own had Sage not sent me in that direction. So hooray for random directions!

    1. Thanks! I have a really fun, related idea but that one is of such a scale that I’ll need to wait for either post-pandemic or significant reopening as it requires travel to another province. More later, I have to keep a few secrets 🙂

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