When I created this site and bought my domain name, I chose the name “Go Outside Today” because I wanted to inspire people to do the things they were interested in instead of sitting idle thinking they should do them. Take that class, learn that skill, visit that place, take that risk. But I also meant it in the literal sense. Don’t just sit indoors but actually experience the world.
I was good at doing the first part of the theme – less so at the other part. Living in a highrise in a major city and working from home often meant that if I wanted to I could just stay indoors, have things delivered, and never move. When I wasn’t working at home that could also mean just going to/from work and nothing else. I could literally go days without going outside.
And then the pandemic came and out of necessity and in some places in order to obey the law, we all stayed indoors. I am lucky in that living here our own directive even in the strictest lockdown was to stay indoors except for shopping for necessities, essential work, and daily exercise.
I’m not even sure exactly how I came up with the idea of aiming for a streak of daily activity but soon I was doing it before I even was tracking it. I would run one day, cycle the next, and break that up with the occasional trip to fetch groceries. My runs and cycle trips grew longer and eventually, after my streak grew longer than a month, it became something I didn’t want to break. Every day I go out, explore and get active.
It’s made a huge difference in my outlook, I’m sure. Physical exercise always does, and getting in to nature has its benefits. But I also know that seeing other humans is really important now. And while I’m not meeting anyone outside my family, just waving to another human on the other side of a path is a connection.
Last night was a typical night for me. I started by procrastinating and wondering where to go, finally heading out the door an hour or so before sunset. I start in the ravine nearby, following a mountain bike trail I saw on the map.
The trail starts off fairly smooth as you see, looking as if at one time it was a road that has long since closed. A few hundred metres later I reached a steep downhill. There I was forced to face my fear of commitment.
I’m learning that cycling on paths is very different than cycling on roads. Sometimes a path can be steep and the surface slippery. At the top you need to decide if you’re committed. You are either going to ride down this hill quickly or you’re going to walk. There’s no riding the brakes down the hill or you will skid and fall off. I clip in to the pedals, physically attaching my shoes to them and descend. It’s faster than I am comfortable but I can’t brake. I also can’t hold then handlebars with a death grip. Doing that will mean that if I hit bumps I could hurt my arms or fall off. I have to be able to flex a little if I hit a bump. My wheel bounces on the hard clay surface and my wheel goes in to one of the ruts from long ago trucks. If the rut gets too deep and I veer too far in one direction or another I will come up against the side and likely crash. Overthinking won’t help, though – and might make a crash more likely. And so, even as my mind is afraid of crashing in a few different ways, I keep my hands off the brakes, relax my hands and arms and resolve to deal with any errant ruts when they happen. Whatever might knock me from the saddle, I won’t know what it is until a second before it hits so I just need to do my best.
It’s like life, isn’t it? We have to make decisive moves like we know everything’s going to be fine because if you don’t do it you’re ironically more likely to fail. Feel tension all you want but don’t let it affect you. If the tension makes you unable to flex with the unexpected, you’ll fail. Finally, don’t overthink. Don’t borrow trouble. It is impossible to know what is going to cause you to fail and imagining ways you’ll fail will make it more likely. In most cases whether a small failure, or a failure so big it ends our life, we don’t know it’s coming until just before it arrives. So worrying about it distracts us from the hard work of living. Or of cycling down a rutted path.
This part of the trip is an exercise in trust and commitment. There are rocks, roots, and small tree trunks laying across the path. Go too slow and any one of them will stop your bike in its tracks. But you won’t stop. You’re going to fall. But go quickly enough and with commitment and the obstacles will magically recede.
I come to a narrow path up a steep hill leading up to a gravel road. Again, I have a choice. Do I have the strength to go all the way up? It is steep enough that if I can only make it half way before losing steam I will be unable to unclip my shoes from the pedals and I’ll roll backward and fall. Again it’s time for commitment. I’m either doing this or not and I choose to do it. Up I go, hammering the pedals and a few feet from the top I give an extra push and my front wheel lifts off the ground. Uh-oh. I might be going over backward if I’m not careful. I stand a little and lean forward to put weight back over the front wheel and it goes back down on the ground and I ride to the top.
The path goes back in the woods. It’s flat and smooth and I increase my speed as I approach a gentle s-curve. Half way through the S I stop. There on the side of the path is a man asleep in a chair outside a makeshift tent. COVID-19 has affected the homeless here a great deal and many have moved in to the woods. It is extremely rude to cycle through a stranger’s living room so I turn the bike around, going back on the gravel road and taking a parallel path until I am sure I’m past the man’s home and then riding without a path through the woods until I pick up the trail.
The going gets tougher as I go deeper in to the forest. There are more gnarled roots and rocks on the path that I have to simultaneously be ready for and be going fast enough to manage. But there’s a new challenge too: Autumn leaves are falling in great quantity. It’s not always clear where the path is.
I come out of the woods and am on a paved path and the going is quick now. Many others are out cycling, running, walking dogs and it’s delightful. I ride quickly up a hill and head down the other side before realizing “Hey? Was that an interesting looking dirt path heading off to the left? I turn back to check it out and go off in to the bush. Soon there’s a forest on one side, and a high fence on the other. I come to a sign on the fence. “Caution – Police Dogs in Training.” Not wanting to be an impromptu training exercise I heed the sign.
The path leads me to a big hill. At the top I turn toward the downtown area. Twenty minutes after I was cycling alone through the forest, I’m on one of the busiest streets in the city. As I pass over the Don River and the path I was just on, I see an older man on the sidewalk wearing a sign.
“Toronto’s Walkman – Miles for Smiles – Bullying, Greed and Injustice Must Stop – We Are All Humans” I slow and consider stopping. I want to know what this man is about but it’s a pandemic and it’s this sort of thing that causes problems so I continue. Someone else saw him a couple of months ago so I can share his picture and a little story with you that they shared:
Down the street I go, headed west in to the sunset. Everywhere I go it smells like dry leaves. Now that there’s a bike lane here on Bloor Street, there are so many other cyclists – not just diehard cyclists and couriers but people of all ages and abilities.
I turn north and head in to a residential neighbourhood and enter a laneway and am faced with two doors:
I like the whimsy of both of these and wonder what is on the other side of each. I feel like I am in a moment in a fantasy book where my whole path forward could change based on which of these doors I chose. But then isn’t that life, too? One little choice like which door to go in could shape our lives forever.
I ride up a big hill to St. Clair Avenue. I pass a park and a woman is lying on a bench shouting to herself. Two men sit and drink on another bench. While this is a very affluent neighbourhood, it’s clear that throughout the city people are in trouble and parks provide refuge and a space to be where people are not close together in an indoor shelter risking infection.
I stay on this street for only a minute longer before I pick up another dirt road and leave the cars behind. I turn on my light as once I’m in the trees it’s too dark to see clearly. I pass doorway in to a cement wall in the side of a hill that says it is an emergency exit from the subway and imagine what it would be like to have to evacuate from the busy subway in to a forest. On the side of the bridge nearby I see some graffiti. Looking closer I see it’s a real sign of the times.
I realize now that this is something else I get from going outside every day and exploring. I get exercise and human contact but I also see a bit more of the true condition. I see more homeless on the streets and sleeping in the parks – the same parks I see people walking their expensive breed dogs and pushing thousand dollar strollers, riding expensive bikes or wearing expensive running shoes and triathlon watches. I see more and more graffiti about Black Lives Matter and I can see that the pandemic I am experiencing from the top of a highrise with Amazon and grocery stores delivering my needs is not the same as the pandemic others are experiencing.
But what to do with this understanding? There are some ways I can help: delivering vegetables (taking precautions and maintaining distance), volunteering in other ways where I can. In the end, though, it’s like riding in the woods. Move forward and do what you can, try your best and do it with commitment.
I come out the other side of the ravine and find I’m back at the bottom of the hill I had just climbed. I can be frustrated and overwhelmed at the climb. I can be angry that I came up with a stupid route before I left. Or I can just let the obstacle be what it is. It is a challenge I can face, giving it my best as well. Who says I was entitled to cycle only on flat roads and downhill, after all? Back up the hill I go. In the end my ride tracker says that this was my twentieth time riding up this hill, and I did it significantly faster than I ever have. Attitude is everything.
By the time I am at the top of the hill I’m quite warm even as the temperature is approaching single degrees. Now that I am on a flat road I can manage a good speed and cruise along at over 30 km/hr. The air, instead of feeling cold, feels refreshing – like drinking cold ice water feels on a hot day. I arrive home invigorated and happy and glad that I have done another day of outdoor exploration.
In only 25 km I saw forests, rivers, cities, residential areas, the cities wealthiest and most needy. Had I stayed indoors what would I have done instead? Scrolled through social media? Watched TV? This streak of going outdoors is now 184 days long – over half a year. In so many ways it’s made a huge difference in my state of mind and I’m glad I started it.