It’s 7:00 AM on Saturday and I’m already showered, fed, in a cycling jersey and shorts and my bike is packed. I’ve got a spare tube, a few tools, lunch (bean burrito), three energy bars, three litres of water, a lightweight jacket, lights, wallet (including proof of vaccination), keys, a lock, my phone, and a power bank.
Oh, and a blindfold.
My friend Paul (important note: we are both fully vaccinated) pulls up in a white hatchback. I throw the bike in the back and sit down in the passenger seat. After a brief stop at the bank to get a little cash, it’s time. I put on the blindfold and we start moving.
A couple of months ago I put out a call on social media asking if anyone who had a car would be willing to take me and my bike, blindfolded somewhere and just leave me to find my own way home without a map. Paul was one of the first to respond and I responded back with a few parameters. We’d need to stay somewhere within 80-90 km of Toronto. I wanted to be within an attainable distance of home that allowed for extra distance for wrong turns or even riding in the wrong direction. I also provided him with a heat map made from location data stored in Google that detailed most of my travel in the region for almost ten years.
Red and yellow areas are really close to Toronto so if you dropped me anywhere there I’d be near somewhere familiar and then find my way home quickly. Blue areas are places I’ve been a few times. If there’s no shading I’ve probably never been there before. It would all be brand new to me.
Paul and I had only spent a little time together since the pandemic so we had lots to chat about as I rode along in darkness. At first I knew where we were. I could feel us turn north, then a left turn meant we were going west. But after some time we were on a highway. I had a few ideas about that, I thought maybe we were on Highway 400 – that blue line in the heat map going between Toronto and Barrie. We stayed on it quite a while and eventually I became really focused on the conversation and lost track of where we were until our speed dropped dramatically. A few seconds later there was a bump and the telltale sound of tires on gravel. We stayed on this longer and longer and the road got worse with big bumps. I could feel him dodging potholes and I began to wonder how far into the wilderness we were going. Thank goodness I anticipated possibly being too far from a restaurant by lunch that I brought something to eat.
When I take the blindfold off, my eyes are so dazzled I can’t even see where we are. I hear other people so maybe we aren’t in wilderness. As my eyes adjust I see a lake, a few people fishing, a camper, a couple of guys getting ready to lower their small fishing boat in the water.
We get out and Paul takes out a microphone in anticipation of possibly using this audio for a story, and we do a short interview about the 52 Adventures project, where we are and what we’re going to do.
One of the people with the boat comes over and, seeing Paul’s large directional microphone plugged into a large recorder he’s slung over his shoulder and asks “Are you guys looking for aliens with that?” His voice tells me that we’re likely pretty far from Toronto – he has an accent that’s more common in rural areas. It sounds like this:
Paul explains that I don’t know where we are and am going to have to try to find my own way home on my bike and that they shouldn’t say where we are. He seems pretty surprised then wishes me luck and turns back toward the boat, thinks a minute and then says “Oh, by the way, we’re in Sudbury!” and we all laugh. (Sudbury is about 400 kilometres from home – maybe in the future a multi-day version would be fun, though!)
Paul wires me up with a microphone and recorder so I can talk about the experience as we go, we say our goodbyes and I turn to the water. There are three different dirt roads leading away from the lake.
I walk up to one of the smaller roads and look down it – it peters out after a little bit. Likely not the road we came in on. I see another truck and boat coming in on the widest of the roads and decide that this is my most likely way out. I clip in to my pedals, and start off.
Pedalling is really hard. I click my shifter to drop it down to an easier gear and nothing happens. There’s no resistance. I look down and see the problem. The cable is broken somewhere and the bike is stuck in the hardest gear. The cable is also really lose and could pose a hazard, getting caught in the wheel or wrapping around a pedal. After trying a few things I see that this is not something I can fix myself. Likely the cable got caught on something when I put it in the car or took it out. Twenty metres after I started, it’s over. I call Paul to see if he can give me a ride home. I’m pretty disappointed.
Paul asks me if I want to keep this location a secret but I’m not up for having the blindfold on for another couple of hours. I’m also really curious. And so I decide that Paul can drive and I’ll navigate. We head out on the road I intended to go on had I been on my bike. It’s 9:00 AM and the sun is on our left. We’re heading south. This is a good sign. As you can see from the heat map, no matter where I would start, south will lead to the lake. Along the way I would hopefully find out which side of the city I’m on and then I could decide what to do. As if reading my mind, we pass a sign: Durham region.
I’m shocked by this. Durham region is to the northeast of Toronto. I was quite sure we were northwest of Toronto.
I was likely off by over 100 kilometres. But now as we drove, even though I still didn’t know our exact location, I had a solid plan for how to find my way home: head southwest. And so we did this, taking a couple of detours along the way including heading south on a dirt road a few kilometres south then west and then the westbound route was marked “No exit” – so we turned northbound. Then we got back on the main road west. It was all pretty easy to sort out as within a few minutes I was well into the light blue area around Uxbridge – areas where I knew a few major roads, and even ones that were reasonably bike friendly.
As disappointing as the initial shock of having a non-working bike was, I’m actually a bit glad to have had this as a dry run. On the way home Paul and I talked about some tweaks for another try, hopefully before the cold weather comes. This time instead of having Toronto as a goal, what would happen if we took a more central location with a few different possible directions. Look at this map, for example:
While I’ve ridden from Guelph to Elora and back once, and have gone from Hamilton to near Brantford with Daegan once, this area is mostly unexplored by me. If my goal was to return to Kitchener, I couldn’t assume that heading south would lead me in the right direction. If I were dropped in Stratford and headed south I might be in trouble. So the sun would be no help. Other humans could be helpful but they could be too helpful so I need to work out the details of the rules – and be ready to potentially stay the night somewhere if I got it really wrong.
So watch this space for a second try at this. And meanwhile, if you think of any other adventures, large or small that I should do, message me – or better yet, surprise me by sending them to my partner, Sage.