Birthday Ride 2020

Originally, many years ago I had a plan to do a bicycle tour in India but, thinking my work project would be too busy I did it a year early. Good thing, too, as the pandemic would most definitely have prevented it even if work weren’t crazy busy. While I was there my friend even organized an early 50th birthday party – again, something that now is impossible. Who knew how important doing these things early would be?

That doesn’t mean I didn’t get a wonderful bike ride in anyway. Thanks to Colin for sharing his route for the South Scarborough Loop, I was able to plan a really lovely ride.

I leave, as I so often do, later than I wanted to, running about the house trying to remember everything important. Pump the tires, bring the coat? Don’t bring the coat? It’s warm, don’t bring the coat. Snacks are good, go to the kitchen and get some water for the bottle. Oops, out of energy bars, no bananas. Have to remember to put a couple of oranges in my jersey when I leave. JERSEY! That’s it, change in to shorts and a jersey. At 13 degrees C, it’ll be OK for that. Oh damn, it’s already 12:30 and I have a long ride planned. Put the multitool in my pocket – never know when you might need to make a quick repair. OK, let’s get out. Forget the snacks, I can buy some when I’m out. Stop by the bike room to get my helmet from the other bike and the bike lock so I can lock my bike outside a store to get snacks.

I check my email and see that people have already started responding to my birthday request. I am loving it so much already!

Today, like every Thursday since mid-August, I’m making sandwiches that will be given to people who are homeless. I’ve asked others in my building to join me, and since we’ve started we’ve donated 1266 sandwiches so far. We drop them off at the leader of our Sandwich Sisters pod, which has collected and distributed 15,200 sandwiches since inception (the start of the pandemic). So happy to be part of such a grassroots community project of neighbours helping neighbours! Happy birthday Todd!

Someone in Toronto

We are adopting a cat from the shelter. Picking her up next week.

Someone in New York

Now I’m downstairs and I see the flaw in my logic. There is no bringing the bike lock without leaving my other bike unlocked. It’s OK, I’ll just go. It’ll only be a few hours. I can go without food. I’ve got water and that’s most important.

Out into the day I go and it’s lovely. Thirteen degrees feels a little brisk at first but five minutes in I’m completely warmed up and cruising along easily at 30 km/hour. OK, the wind is helping, a bit.

And now, 15 minutes after I leave the house I reach my first path, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor. I’ve been on this a few times since the pandemic started and it’s like coming home. A little superhighway. But it looks a little strange. It is the beginning of November but the weather feels like April and it even looks like April a bit with the new grass sprouting.

I zoom along the trail and am so happy to see others out too. There are people running, others cycling, moms walking together pushing their kids in strollers. I get to Lawrence Avenue, an extremely busy road and am steeling myself for the switch to that road to get to the next path as I’ve done before. But one look down at my GPS watch tells me my route goes another way. And then I see it: a path heading northwest. I follow it in to the trees, missing all of the stressful cycling among fast, dense traffic. Instead I see this:

This connects with the Highland Creek trail – the route I took Lawrence Avenue to last time, apparently unnecessarily. Through the trees and along the creek I go, coming to a bridge over it. My eyes are drawn to the view. It’s really gorgeous and the sound is so peaceful.

When I close up my camera app I see there’s a message notification in my email:

I apologize, but I don’t really plan my acts of kindness ahead of time. Sometimes I just see / feel a need and act.

Last week I went to A&W (I know. But sometimes a veg burger fits the bill). I ordered the beyond meat veg burger, and they always take longer because they don’t keep them on hand. While I was sitting and waiting, I overheard the busy young women at the drive through realize they had given someone the wrong order. This happened four times while I waited. Then it turned out that the cooks in the back hadn’t noticed my order. So my ‘fast food’ took half an hour.

When I was young, I had those jobs too. And I know that the less someone gets paid, the worse people feel they can treat them. And the feeling of getting things wrong in front of someone is really terrible and embarrassing. So when my order finally arrived, I gave the young person a twenty, told her to share it with everyone, and to consider it a fresh start.

I hope this carries them all through for a while.

Someone in British Columbia, Canada

I get across the bridge and turn the corner remembering the last time I was here – that time a doe was waiting for me on the other side of the river. She’s not here now, though, and I continue, a little disappointed.

Now I’m back in Cedar Ridge Park. Last time I was here it was completely empty and nearly dark. This time there are a number of people here. I reach the edge of the ridge where a steep dirt path leads downhill. This time it’s covered in slippery leaves. A woman asks me “Are you going to ride down there?” At first I say I am, but then clarify that I’m surely not going to ride down this path. My bike is so light and the path so slippery that my brakes don’t really work. So I walk down the hill and it’s even a little slippery underfoot.

Last time I was here I had my first fall on my bike in years, riding slowly along some single track next to a 2 foot deep hole. The fact that I was trying NOT to fall in the hole seemed to make it inevitable and I fell. Then I got back up and went on. Today I pass that very hole with great confidence. There is no way I’m coming close to falling. In fact, I laugh at my past self for being so clumsy. It’s easy to avoid.

Five minutes later, I hit a rock hidden under some leaves, my steering wheel wobbles and I start to fall forward. My motion is stopped by my handlebars hitting a tree pinching my hand. And then, ever so slowly, my head gently taps the tree making a quiet “click” sound. Translation: “Always wear your helmet, kids, especially on single-track.”

I struggle to free my right foot from where it is clipped to the pedal and then stand up to take inventory. Other than my hand I have no injuries and it’s not that bad. However, one look at my handlebars tells a different story. My handlebars are pointed straight but my wheel is pointed to the left. It definitely will not be rideable in this state, and I’m in the middle of the woods, 20 kilometres from home and who knows how far from the nearest bus stop.

Then I pull out my multitool, loosen the handlebars, turn them back so they’re true to the wheel and tighten them again. All good. Oh but wait, my left brake lever is pointed far to the right where it hit the tree. Fortunately this also is easily repaired. Two minutes after I was sprawled beneath a tree I am back on my way. Yes, riding in the woods has resulted in more falls in the past two months than in the previous decade, but it has also been so rewarding. The falls are becoming easier to manage, and as I’m not going fast in these situations, they’re never serious. Instead they’re a reminder: Sometimes we have to encounter a bit of difficulty or injury in order to get to things that make us happy.

The path opens up with fewer trees and more soft grass. It’s easy going again.

Onwards I go back in to the woods and I find myself turning left on a trail where I turned right last time. Onward to new places. This one leads to the University of Toronto campus. I’m blown away by how beautiful it is, especially once I get to a recently installed walkway that provides a manmade switchback up the hill and out of the ravine.

This photo is via the U of T site. I couldn’t do this one justice.

At the top I get lost in the campus but it’s delightful. In some ways it feels like Vermont and in other ways like the number of brutalist concrete buildings, it feels like some other place entirely. The GPS track is difficult to follow but eventually I find my way back to the edge of the ravine again. Apparently I’m to go down again though the path is almost invisible underneath the massive quantity of dry, slippery leaves. I’m waking down this one too.

If I didn’t have the GPS to guide me I might not even know this was a path.

I come out on to Old Kingston Road soon after. I know where this is going to go now: the path that leads south to the lake. Onto the path I go, zooming down the comfortably paved surface.

My plans are clearly changing. I briefly consider just walking around the fence. It would be easy enough as the fence is only one segment. But on the other side there are loud jackhammering noises. Clearly people are actually working here.

One of the tricky bits of riding following a GPS is that you don’t always know exactly where you are relative to other landmarks. I’m unsure where to go so I look on Google Maps to see where I might pick up this trail again. In a couple of minutes I have a plan. I also have some more notifications of birthday messages:

I am volunteering to work with a group of children between the ages of 5-17 online doing fun inquiry projects of their choosing to help them get through the isolation and emotional imbalance caused by the pandemic.

Maryland, USA

We gave a friend, who is out of work and struggling, a goodly amount of money to pay his rent and car payment. We should always support our friends and family when we can even in the smallest ways, especially those who are struggling.

Arizona, USA

I am really moved by this. While some people might be specifically doing something with me in mind, most are just sharing that they are doing good in the world. For me this is the point. I learned after almost two years of getting messages like this that this kind of input can change your whole worldview. There may be lots of bad things happening in the world but there are for sure good people out there doing good things. This reminder is the best gift I could ask for – and one I for sure have to share with you.

On bike rides I often get lost in thought and today is no exception. Today is my 50th birthday and I’ve got a bit of an existential state of mind. There is lots of guidance for what one’s 20’s and 30’s are about. Even our 40’s are clear. First we’re building a life, then we’re having and raising kids. But after that what’s the point? I’m not upset as I think this but more curious. Where will my focus lead me in this decade?

Now, Sage and I have a bit of a silly disagreement: I think I’m completely rational. I mean, I work in the pharma/biotech industry, my favourite subjects were science and math growing up. But she thinks I’m a bit “woo” and superstitious, seeing “signs” in the world, “messages” as to what the right thing to do might be, or coincidental meetings that had to have been engineered by some higher power (how else could I have had such a great 50th birthday party early with a pandemic nobody knew was coming on the way). But really, I’m agnostic, I don’t even know if there is a higher power. And as for the coincidences, I think our brains are really good at finding patterns. It doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, though. Some might think that “the universe is sending me messages” while I tend to think that if I’m focused on something, I view what I see and experience in the context of my state of mind. When I get to the underside of a huge bridge, I turn off the trail and ride toward the western edge. Some might say the side closer to the sunset in search of interesting graffiti.

At the edge of the bridge I see someone has written a long sentence too big to photograph. I climb up the hill a bit to get a look:

One day you will leave this world behind. Live a life you will remember.

Bridge Graffiti

Whatever the source it seems like good advice. “Quit overanalyzing and do interesting things.” In fact, it’s the same advice I would likely give a friend in the same mindset. But somehow it wasn’t coming to myself.

Onward to new adventures!

Down the trail I go and as I get closer to the lake I can feel its cooling influence. I’m warm from exercise but I’m starting to feel chilled. Once I see this view, though, I no longer care how warm I am:

I turn east and follow the path out of the city along the edge of the lake. There are people of all ages out in groups and alone. One woman walks with what I think were her three young daughters. One, about 8 says “Hello cyclist!” and waves enthusiastically. I return her wave and enthusiasm.

Passing through another residential neighbourhood a sign catches my eye:

More answers to “What do I do now that I’m 50?”

Reminded of “Kindness” I look to see if I have more notifications. And I do!

Making pumpkin squares and taking them to a friend who has been going through some health issues. HBD!

Nova Scotia, Canada

Tomorrow I am going to a screening session at my local hospital to see if I can take part in a Covid-19 vaccine trial.

Scotland, UK

A path leads back out along the water and soon I reach a wooden bridge over the Petticoat Creek. A sign tells me to dismount and I do, walking across. An older gentleman calls out to me. “Hey! Thanks. You’re the only cyclist I have seen who follows the rule. Thanks for that. God bless you.” And though I’m not so sure if a God exists or not there is no doubt that that sentiment feels good.

The path turns and soon I’m at Frenchman’s Bay. The path narrows and heads due south into the water. I stop at the end. I am as far from home as I will be on this trip. A cold wind whips around me and I shiver a little, but it’s also so beautiful so I stay longer even though I know that doing so means the heat of exercise is going to dissipate leaving me chilled.

See the two dots in the distance on the right? They are two kayakers headed out into the open water. And that little bit of land way off in the distance? That’s New York.

I look to the west, toward home and I see that clouds are gathering. The sun is being covered and the temperature is dropping. I still am barely more than half way through the ride and consider making a direct route home instead of the more scenic one I have in my GPS.

As I said, I’m not superstitious but I am very susceptible to imagery and analogy. So while I don’t think what I do on my 50th birthday ride makes one bit of difference to how my next decade will go, I do think it can change my attitude. I think then that “Go outside your comfort zone.” doesn’t always mean doing cool things that are uncomfortable, skydiving, hanging off the CN tower, or cycling solo around India. Sometimes it means “deal with being uncomfortable in order to find enjoyment.” With that I head back west, determined to do the whole thing as I intended to at the start.

The ride takes me back through the Rouge river delta and I make a small detour to see the marshes up close.

I ride along the paved path, heading west, passing the path I came down on and then slowly back up the hill, through a park and back to the road. Soon I pass the Dow Chemical plant where I always turn right to head back toward home. My GPS has other ideas and tells me to go straight. I notice, then, that there is a slight depression in the grass just outside the plant’s fence. There is a path there. I follow it and it turns at the edge of the plant property and hugs up against the bluffs high above the lake. They’re just sediment so they’re not very stable. Fences keep people a safe distance away and signs warn that if you cross them, the ground could literally disappear underneath you. Still, even on the safe side of the fence, the view is lovely.

It’s all very beautiful but now not only am I cold, I’m also distracted by hunger. I wish I’d brought my oranges, or an energy bar, or a bike lock to stop somewhere for food. Of course where on this path would I stop to buy a snack? A few kilometres later, though, I have a choice. The route heads steeply back down the hill to the lake shore, or I could continue straight home and have food 30-40 minutes sooner. But then I ask myself, do I want to be the type of person who goes home when it gets a little too challenging or do I want to step outside my comfort zone. And so, I turn down the hill and on to the gravel road path, nearly empty of all humans and in the shadow of the bluffs I was just riding on the top of.

This is my second trip on this stretch but the first with the new bike, lighter and better designed for this surface. It makes a huge difference and even with stops for photos and appreciating views, I finish 10% faster than my last time here.

I reach the end of the path where “Passage”, a sculpture by Doris McCarthy rests. It is meant to represent the passage of time both in the land it sits on in geologic terms but also the artist’s life as well.

I look down at the plaque describing the piece which describes both the geologic and human timeline it represents. I’m particularly interested in the artist’s life. What did she do after she turned 50. I’m amazed to see all she did:

  • Age 49 – Purchased a cottage on Georgian Bay, built summer studio
  • Age 51 – Round the world trip for research and painting
  • Age 52 – First of many significant painting trips to the Arctic
  • Age 77 – Awarded the Order of Canada
  • Age 80 – Honorary Fellowship at Ontario College of Arts and Design, Awarded the Order of Ontario and five honorary degrees and an LLD (Doctor of law)
  • Age 88 – Donated a large piece (Fool’s Paradise) to Ontario Heritage
  • Age 89 – Artist of Honour (the first) for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

And she continued to be active for another eleven years after that. So any wondering about what I might do with my life from here on out is utter nonsense. The bridge was correct.

This spot feels like the last stop before I head home. The direct route home is now the planned route home. I am fully committed now to finishing whether I like it or not. But I have one more lesson to learn.

As I look at Passage, behind me is the biggest climb of the trip. It’s only 1 kilometre long but in that kilometre, I have 90 metres of ascent to do. It’s one of the toughest climbs in the city. I am cold and I am ravenous. I haven’t eaten in almost four hours and have burned close to 2,000 calories on the trip already. But there is only one way out, and it means stepping outside my comfort zone of always being fully fed and comfortable on the bike.

Up I go and for the first hundred metres it is a slog. I imagine that all the difficulty I’m feeling is because of the fact I haven’t eaten and even consider for a moment that I should just walk. Why not? After all, I’m not feeling my best so why try? But then I ask myself: Am I really in distress or am I just finding the task difficult and my hunger is a great excuse to make it easier. And so I push myself harder still.

Halfway up the hill I pass someone walking their bike up and I get a little burst of energy. They’re walking and I’m not. I can do this! I pass another person walking their bike as well and I’m totally energized. Soon I see the path leveling off and houses up ahead. I’ve done it! Later I will look back at my statistics for the ride and see that I’ve managed to do this climb at twice the speed of my last attempt. I guess “being too hungry” really was an excuse.

I am pretty winded, though and my heart rate is over 180 bpm. Not too close to my max of 192 but still a good excuse to take a momentary rest. I read some more notifications of birthday kindness:

I am going to refuse to get caught up with blaming and labeling the people in my nation who chose Trump. That is a true act of kindness to my family today!

Connecticut, USA

(I can sure identify with that one! Fingers crossed!)

Since the neighborhood has been on COVID sequester I’ve made a point of checking in on a friend who lives down the hill from me. Each time I go by her house, and have time to stop, I check her mailbox which is out at the road down a medium long driveway from her lovely old Victorian house. This wonderful lady had a fall and it is hard for her to walk to the mailbox. Her kids, who visit daily and take excellent care of her, often forget to check for the mail. I thought I was doing her a favor when we arranged that I would check her mailbox when passing, but found that just touching base a few times a week has been good for ME. Even if I just hear a cheery response floating out from another room in reply to my loud, “Mail call!” as I hang the bag I bring on her doorknob, it is reassuring to know she is okay. And I get to do so without hovering around or being too intrusive. It brings a small touch of routine contact with a friend to my week.

Vermont, USA

Many of the examples you list above, Todd & Sage, are just everyday acts to me! An extra act of kindness is that I buy extra groceries – especially things I know one person really likes and won’t ‘splurge’ on. This person lost 4 of their 5 jobs during covid. It takes 5 jobs for them to eat, pay bills and mortgage, keep debt at level to keep going.

Washington, USA

I love seeing this empathy and kindness. I am also happy that there were a number of posts that said that they weren’t doing some special kindness because kindness is a way of life for them. I love this. Generally speaking, people don’t talk about the kindness they do as it can feel like bragging. But the flip side of that is we don’t hear about most of the good things happening in the world. It skews our worldview as we hear lots of negative stories about how people are treating one another. So like all of the other posts these, too, restore my faith in humanity and I hope yours as well.

Just a little over a kilometre away from “Passage” I now find myself on Kingston Road, six lanes of fast traffic headed in and out of downtown Toronto. I turn on to it and join the stream, ramping up my speed to 30 km/hr or so as I ride downhill toward the city. Cars, trucks and buses pass me as loud motorcycles weave in and out between us all. The road narrows and starts to look more like a city street at Victoria Park as I return into the city limits. But here is where I find my way back into the forest. Down to the Taylor Creek trail I go, the path that leads me home. Once again I am sharing the space with cyclists, runners, and dog walkers. I’m also sharing the space with unseen ones, deer, beaver, frogs, coyotes and rumours of coy-wolves, coyote-wolf mixes known to be a bit more aggressive than the usual coyotes. But I’m not concerned. We have to take some risks to find our joy, and since the start of this pandemic, these forests have been my constant friend. They show me beauty, give me time to think, give life advice, and sometimes when I get overconfident they push me over to put me back in my place.

I’ve said I’m not superstitious, and I really am not, but I do know I left this ride, and start this new decade with a load of great advice gleaned from an afternoon’s exploration:

  • Don’t rest in mediocrity, have unique experiences.
  • Do things where you may not know what to expect. There is joy in the unexpected.
  • Sometimes in order to find joy we need to experience discomfort. Turn away from the discomfort and you’re turning away from joy as well
  • Always, always spread kindness

24 thoughts on “Birthday Ride 2020

  1. Nice work Todd!

    You captured the route beautifully, in words, and in pictures. I know the route so well that I recognized every location.

    Btw, the hole that tried to swallow you at the bottom of Cedar Ridge is likely the old cistern for the Fraser mansion at the top of the hill. If it was lined with bricks, that’s it.

    Also, glad you found your way back down at UTSC. That trail was hidden to me for a long time.

    There are a few more bits that aren’t included on my map because they actually don’t track on the GPS–hopefully you’ll find them next time you ride it.

    Happy Birthday!

    1. Thanks! And thanks again for posting the route. I truly enjoyed it. The UofT wasn’t too bad but my GPS said the track went along the top of the ridge after coming up the switchbacks and then back down but I never found it. Instead I went deeper in to the campus and back to it. I think I missed a couple smaller ones along the bluffs as well. The best find for me was going straight ahead at the Dow plant. I had no idea that trail was there.

      Thanks again for sharing this. I’ll definitely be doing it again and looking for those other routes. I did see so many other little side trails that were worth investigating.

      Oh and yes, I think that was the hole that got me last time. Nice to know the history.

  2. Many happy returns of the day Todd. I had to take some small breaks before I finish this post but I am so happy and inspired at the same time. Your positivity and kindness is contagious. When we support others we support ourself to be a better human. Stay blessed.

  3. I encourage you to consider submitting an essay like this one to a publication. You weave things together in an excellent way reflecting on the ride, your life, and kindness of others. This writing deserves a larger audience, whether in print or on-line.

  4. Happy birthday Todd. Thank you for commemorating this day with us through the beautiful photos in this post (and on IG), and also through your Kindness Challenge.

    Hope the spill didn’t create too much of a dent on the occasion.

    1. Thanks! It was a really lovely one on so many levels.

      The spill was forgotten after about 10 min except for some minor pain in my hand that is almost gone 🙂

      1. So glad to hear you are mostly unscathed from the spill!

        Meant to tell you after reading your birthday post that I realised why we watched many of the same programmes and listened to the same music when we were growing up – I am 53 this year so we are not so different in age. For some reason, I thought you were much much younger!

      2. Yes – the little falls build character 🙂

        Interesting – despite our growing up so far apart, we still have a lot of the same cultural references. That’s pretty interesting. I know you likely got a few in school in the states but still. I guess North American pop culture travels quite a long ways.

  5. Thank you Todd for sharing your ride and I enjoyed looking at video, almost a year ago, good you came then.
    I have four senior friends, I talk to them at least once a week. They like it , specially during these times when life can be lonely for people who cannot go out. Just listening to them makes a lot of difference. I call some others too because I feel talking is much better than sending messages. Take care and all the best to you and your family. Waiting for Saturday 🙂

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