On January 4th, 2020, I arrived home on a plane from India after a month of exciting and fascinating travel experiences. Two more things arrived at about the same time.
The first was a bout of self-pity for myself. I’d just finished the trip of a lifetime and was now going back to a boring life. I’d never have the chance again to do the bike trip I’d dreamed of for decades again. I felt absolutely terrible and sorry for myself and am incredibly embarrassed by it.
The second thing that likely arrived at about the same time was SARS-CoV-2 which has given us all a year like no other. A friend of mine is an improv teacher and in one of his recent group emails he described 2020 as “The year we all learned to improvise.” As a lover of travel this was definitely true for me. Here’s what my year looked like:
January started off extremely slowly. After returning from India, I pretty much only went to work and did grocery shopping. Happily I did get to the Silent Book Club for the first time (I’d take Sage again in February.) Sitting with others and talking about books rekindled my love with reading. Picking up a little book called “How to Break Up With Your Phone” helped further, turning my commute from a time spent looking at social media to a time spent reading books.
The end of January was very strange. On a Thursday night I felt great and even came in second in a virtual bike race online. The next day I felt fine but by the end of the day I felt awful. I had a headache, fever, chills, a cough and was completely exhausted. That night started the first of several days of fevers as high as 103, cough, exhaustion, complete disinterest in food, confusion, and did I mention exhaustion? I would nap all day and wake up feeling like I needed a nap. After five days I felt a little better but for weeks afterward I would be so tired I could barely stay awake at work. My boss was worried for me, saying that she’d never seen an illness hang on like this. I didn’t feel fully myself until sometime in late March.
In February I started going out every Wednesday night to help out at the Avenue Road Food Bank. I really enjoyed being able to help and being surrounded by so many others who wanted to help made me feel really hopeful for the world. Sadly, within a few weeks the number of volunteers had to be minimized and only a handful of volunteers were kept and I wasn’t among them.
On March 16th, the weather had warmed up enough and the roads were clear enough that I rode my bike 20 kilometres to work. At our Monday staff meeting we had an agenda item discussing how we would be working a bit more from home. Our team would split in two and alternate days, half going in one day, half going in the other day.
The next day a state of emergency was declared and our work plans were changed. We would all work from home and come in only when it was absolutely necessary. I didn’t know it then, but this bike ride would be the beginning of a year of human powered transportation. The last time I would ride in a motor vehicle in 2020 would be March 13th.
In April we are still getting used to what it means to live during a pandemic. Stock at stores is still a bit light, sometimes eggs or bread aren’t available. Often it’s toilet paper. Supermarkets are open but lots of smaller businesses are closed. We offer one of our e-readers to a friend of ours and I ride out on a drizzly day to drop it off at her house. She’s the first friend I have seen since early March and the only one I would see until late August. On the way home, on the front of a closed coffee shop I see the following:
On April 12th I resolve to go outside for exercise every day unless I’ve a very good reason not to. Since then, aside from two days of dangerously high winds, a migraine, and a sick stomach, I have gone out every day. Generally I alternate days, running one day, cycling the next.
The weather improved, as did my activity level and exploration. As the first “Top 10 destinations in 2020: The kitchen, the couch, the washroom, etc…” hit social media, I start finding my own top destinations.
Some people travel to experience foods from different cultures. So do I. In May, I get on my bike and ride east, a direction that used to be too scary to consider due to traffic levels. Now the roads are empty and soon I even find a long bike trail, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, which takes me most of the way to Hopper Hut, a Sri Lankan restaurant where I pick up lampries (spicy banana leaf-wrapped curries, like a thali in a football-sized wrap) and vadai, toss them in my pannier and share them with my family. It’s the first outside food we’ve had since the state of emergency was declared.
My daily rides and runs take me in different directions. As is often the case, I find advice in the form of graffiti along the way.
One particularly nice day, Daegan and I decide to go for a short hike through the woods looking for a place known for their samosas. The samosas were a let down but the 15 kilometre walk had some delightful views.
I travel even more in June than I did in May. With traffic reduced, going east to Scarborough opens up so many more opportunities to explore.
I explore other parts of the city as well, both urban and natural
Daegan and I also go out for another lovely 15 kilometre hike, this time in a loop toward the northwest.
With so many hours of daylight and wonderful weather, I am outdoors more than any other time in my life. This month I do more travel than any other month in 2020.
One of my favourite trips was a “Robot Ride“. On this day, I headed off on my bike and told Sage to message me after one hour and then, whenever she liked, send another message. In her messages would be instructions like “Take your next left.” I wouldn’t know what she was going to suggest and she wouldn’t know where I was. It worked a treat and I had a fantastic time.
In July a new volunteer opportunity came up, Bike Brigade. This organization connects cyclists who want to volunteer with groups and organizations either needing marshals for protests to keep traffic orderly, or what I do, to deliver necessary goods while maintaining physical distancing and all other necessary precautions. From July I have been going out nearly every week to deliver 4-5 boxes of fresh produce for FoodShare who help people in need get fresh vegetables in our city.
I never know until the night before where my Bike Brigade deliveries will be. They often take me to places I have never been. This month I saw a number of interesting pieces of graffiti on those runs.
Realizing I hadn’t gone west, I take a trip down the Beltline trail to almost the western frontier of the city.
With case counts going down I am happy to see that things are slowly opening back up. Here under a bridge downtown a farmer’s market has reopened.
On Raksha Bhandan, August 3rd, I go out for what has been, so far, my longest bike ride ever. In one day I ride 200 kilometres (124 miles). It takes me from near downtown Toronto all the way up to Georgina on the shores of Lake Simcoe and then through York Region.
Daegan and I do another long walk, this time along the Don River. On one side is a paved trail used by hundreds of people every summer day. On the other side is a beautiful singletrack trail used by a handful of trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers.
This month I also make one of my first trips out to Warden Woods, a park in Scarborough. The way out takes me along a lovely multiuse trail. On the way back, though, I detour south to the Danforth. During the pandemic they installed bike lanes and outdoor dining along much of the route and it is now a lovely place to cycle..
Some nights my rides are not so epic. One night, I ride just a few kilometres north, back to the East Don Trail near where the rainbow tunnel is and head south this time, exploring yet another new route that leads me to the Aga Khan museum & Park.
In September, I go to Guildwood and find a park where old building facades go after their buildings are gone.
I go back down down to the lake first to see the R. C. Harris water treatment plant, a fantastic art deco building with beautiful grounds. The water and sky on this day were the most beautiful shade of blue. No filters were used in these photos.
In September as an early birthday gift I got a used gravel bike and took it back out to the Leslie Spit to explore a bit.
Bike Brigade deliveries take me all over the city – 25-30 km/week. I go to space, underwater, to a place where stones can give advice and another place that asks the question we’re all beginning to wonder.
Elsewhere on a run, other rocks share memories of people.
The weather is getting cooler and it hardly seems possible but the forests are looking more beautiful. I’m spending more time on trail runs now.
In October, the days are getting shorter and now my activities are happening more and more after dark.
I go to a pasture downtown and hang out with the cows.
I ride down a narrow path through a tree-lined ravine.
As it gets close to Halloween season, I think of The Headless Horseman when I ride through the Moore Park Ravine. Can I out-sprint him and get to safety before he takes my head?
I come across gargoyles in the park while passengers ride the subway, unaware of the strange creatures that lurk below.
Trail runs are getting prettier and prettier.
I travel to the Taj Mahal and to Aztec Pyramids.
And at the end of that ride, I’ve written a nearly 48 kilometre long message on Sage’s birthday: “Happy 48th, Sage”
I ride my bike to a bridge on Bayview Ave that hasn’t been used since 1929 listening to traffic going over the new bridge high above. On this trip my bike chain gets jammed next to the crank, and though I’m in the middle of the woods, a cyclist appears from nowhere and fixes it.
On another ride I go out and see lots of excellent art.
Soon after November starts, I turn 50. In honour of that, I get on my bike intending to ride at least 50 kilometres. In the end my birthday ride is over 70 kilometres. I take my gravel bike and using a route I found in a Facebook group manage to ride for over 50 of those 70 kilometres off-road.
I visit Cherry Beach at sunset.
I visit some places that feel a little haunted.
As always I see some graffiti.
On the day I am to get my bike tuned up and have winter tires and fenders installed, the first significant snowfall of the year happens. I ride my bike on its nearly slick tires through the park, sliding around but surprisingly not falling.
On the way back I have to take a bike share. It’s now a mixture of rain and snow, the streets are filled with slush and sometimes as the drivers pass me, I’m coated in more slush. I have a warm enough base layer that I am mostly OK and so I just laugh, enjoying the fact that even on the day I have to give up my bike 10 kilometres from home I’m able to go without using a motor vehicle. 2 kilometres from home I have to drop off the bike share and walk home in my cycling shoes, cleats picking up tons of snow and ice and making it a challenge to walk. By the time I get home I no longer feel like I have ten toes, I feel like I have two. My feet are so cold. But I’m still laughing – and pleased with myself. There was a challenge and I faced it.
On the last day of November, it is cold – just above freezing and drizzling. What up until this year I’ve described as weather I hate. But as you saw above, back in April I made a commitment to go out no matter what, and so I put on some warmer clothes, steel myself and go for a 5 km run. A look at my face after the ride will tell you how much I “hated” the weather. If I’ve learned anything this year, attitude makes a huge difference.
In December the nights get darker and the challenges get a little bigger. At night the temperatures can get down to -7 and a wind can make that feel like -15. Meanwhile, the heater keeps our house at the same comfortable temperature it is in June. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. But that effort comes some joy. I start off the month with a new piece of gear: a headlight. Now I can keep trail running in the dark. It makes for a particularly joyful experience. During the summer and autumn, the trails have a number of cyclists on them. As I said before they’re incredibly courteous (sometimes I’m one of them!) but it’s still an interruption as you go to the side of the singletrack. But now in December there is nobody there. I actually feel comfortable listening to a bit of music now knowing I’ll see their light coming behind me. And so I add a layer and head out.
One of my first runs takes me out on another rainy night. This time I go in to the ravine and take a 12 km route along the river and then back along the road. What I didn’t plan on was the fog.
Another night it’s colder: a windy night that feels like -15. I put on a hat, thicker gloves and head in to the woods. Tonight there aren’t even people walking their dogs. It’s just me and the trail.
Bike Brigade is still going on with FoodShare deliveries but also other one-off needs. One night on Facebook someone posted looking for someone to bring a bag full of sandwiches made by the volunteer organization Sandwich Sisters from the home of one of their volunteers to a homeless shelter downtown. On went the warm clothes and off I went.
One late night I decided to go for a bike ride – another night where the windchill was hovering around -15. This night I took paved paths along the river and was surprised to see a few couples out walking even in the icy cold. I was even more surprised, though, at one point to see a headlight coming at me that was higher than my head. What sort of vehicle was this? Construction equipment at this time? But there was no sound. Finally it was close enough to see. A man with a headlight on his helmet was sitting atop a large unicycle.
Getting out in the cold might have its challenges but it also has its beauty.
On Wednesday night I went out to do one of my usual loops. I started on an off-road stretch and a gravel road.
But soon I emerged in Rosedale, a wealthy part of town. I made my way to Inglewood Drive, a street known for its Christmas displays. There was a fair bit of slow-moving traffic, cars filled with families with children, Christmas music coming from their windows. Other families walked together giving other families the space we all expect in a pandemic. It was immediately clear what we were all here for:
Up and down this street on both sides were dozens of inflatable Santas. As I told a friend later, it was wonderful to see so many happy families. It didn’t feel normal, but it still felt really good.
Just a couple of nights ago I went for a trail run on a trail I’d never been on before. Even after nearly a year of exploring different parts of the city from downtown to lakes to forests to rivers, there are still so many places even in my literal back yard that I have yet to see. That night I was feeling particularly uninspired creatively, not sure what I should do next or if I should do anything at all. As I ran on the muddy and sometimes quite slippery dirt path, a sign appeared out of the darkness:
If that’s not an appropriate answer to me, I don’t know what is. This year was a difficult year but ironically what has made it easier for me was, in essence making it harder. Strava tells me that so far this year I was active 288 days – meaning I cycled, hiked, or ran 288 days. That’s 272 hours of exercise that took me 4648 kilometres – more than the distance from here to Vancouver. In that time I climbed 38638 feet almost 10,000 feet higher than Mount Everest. And yet, looking back at all I see and did and how I feel today versus earlier in the year, I can say that choosing what felt at times like the “harder” way of going outside and being active is what has made this year easier for me than it would have been had I never gone out.
And do you know what else? It really has been one of my best travel years yet.