By Eric Walberg
Trying to have a good time without a car is challenging. There are lots of scenic bits in Ontario, in Canada for that matter, but the bike magazines just assume you have a car with bike racks and plan to drive ‘there’, park and bike. Sorry, but you’re still part of the problem. And you should be going somewhere, like Amundsen. You can be the first cyclist to reach the South Pole only in your dreams, but you can find Everests, what’s doable and a challenge, wherever you are. We have to reinvent tourism if we are to survive.
GO trains have been a godsend. When they added Kitchener (Berlin till 1914), armed with my faux sleeping bag, I planned my next adventure: Berlin Paris Brantford Hamilton. Europe, colonialism all wrapped up together. Kitchener/Berlin was newly discovered land for Eric Cyclist, and biking from Berlin to Paris? Cool.
GO’s rule is no bikes during morning and afternoon rush. Conveniently a daily commuter train (forget weekends) at 9:34am. Union Station is flooded with ‘customer care’ people in dayglow to shepherd people through the latest maze. As I prowled restlessly, waiting for the track number, suddenly there was a commotion, loud talking, and an orange bike with a trailer came around the corner, heaped with … everything portable.
Meet Robert Burner. I suspected he might be going to Kitchener. ‘Yes, follow me,’ Robert intoned, ‘to find the elevator.’ Clearly this is home territory for him. Robert has a slight case of logorhea (an actual medical condition for someone who can’t shut up), as proven during our 2 hour trip.
After some adventures in Kitchener (I include a sketch of Mr Homeless below), I stuck with my original plan to following the meandering Grand next to Stanley Park, which looked accessible from Google maps. First real snag. I caught a glimpse of the muddy brown river, then new subdivisions, ugly detached cookie-cutter houses, all vegetation removed using builder’s logic. And Indian music (the real India) coming from one, as I trudged up a newly fashioned hill.
One of my joys of biking in new haunts is to at least ask directions from locals. I realize now you must check for earphones, as the majority of people actually walking these days have music being blasted in their ears, oblivious to the actual world around them. Most helpful were those with thick Slavic accents, Russian or Ukrainian. I figured it was too intrusive to ask their ethnicity — their gripes about world politics would be fierce and justified on either side — so I stuck to pleasantries.
As usual, my careful plans went up in smoke, but I enjoy being a bit lost. Gps takes all the excitement out of travel. I spotted a father with a tiny son, the father pushing the boy’s toy bike up the hill. I heard Arabic and Adel, from Iraqi, gave me complicated directions. I congratulated him on getting out of Iraq alive. He looked sad, resigned to what was surely a nightmare life, his world blighted by the imperial monster close by.
My trips now have high points. Crossing the ribbons of death, in this case the 401 and 403. It is like accompanying Virgil past one of the circles of hell. My other joy is finding nice spots for prayer, marking the day from noon to lights out. Crossing over the 401 on a bike bridge, thanks to Adel’s directions, I felt the first obstacle had been overcome.
So my noon prayer Day One coincided serendipitously with the moment I finally got to the trail to Paris, called the Cambridge to Paris Trail, Cambridge being not my UK almater but a bit of urban sprawl just south of Kitchener. A peanut butter and honey sandwich and lots of water. Rail trails are deceptive. They are straight, boring after a bit, relieved by occasional glimpses of the Grand. So I barreled along.
Already my rocket fuel supply (H2O) was running a bit low so I stopped at what I should have realized was my planned sleeping spot, Glen Morris. Houses, but no one home. A nice couple who were packing up their kayaks, leaving. Hmm. I figured they might spare some fuel, their day finished. The wife pulled out a bottle of ‘spring’ water, smiling, which I took gratefully. So accuse me of being a parasite, hypocrite, using cars, plastic, stolen water when convenient. I plead guilty.
On my way, unbeknownst to me, to Paris. Again my map reading and map following are not of the same calibre. But it’s hard to get lost once you are on a trail, so I kept moving. Essential, as it was a hot, muggy summer day, and natural air conditioning required a breeze.
By midafternoon the sun was relentless. Robert (see below) would be cool wandering in a mall in Kitchener. Homeless and he never wears a hat. Not me. My baseball cap and an open thin shirt, lots of rocket fuel and constant motion are my working relationship with mother nature in the heat. Biking in the heat is great, as you inhabit a strange world of you and birds, ‘out in the midday sun’, everyone else unable to enjoy the sizzling outdoors. Noel Coward’s lyrics need updating. Mad dogs and cyclists.
The problem with intercity biking is hardly anyone does it. Hardly anyone bikes, for that matter, and those that do, are happy on their local treadmill. So one path ends and where in the blazes is the entrance to the path to Paris? From Paris to Brantford?
You have to learn to read people. In Paris I found the library. I figured they would know. No, no idea, said the librarian. Losing patience I said I figured the library would be the one place that could help. As I was leaving a patron, the only patron, a 30ish woman came up to me and obliged. Again, complicated directions, which I realized were how I just arrived in ‘downtown’ Paris! So I trudge back up a long hill to find Curtis St. But she said ‘turn left’. Then I saw a tiny sign pointing right.
Another victory! The Johnson Trail to Brantford. Having corrected my faulty gps, I looked forward to crossing another Lethe, the 403. It’s almost a religious experience, crossing hell and emerging safely, but the real worries started on the other side. Google maps wasn’t really sure what was going on, and to find the next trail would not be easy.
I found myself biking around a new Brantford airport site. My Google map was plastered with nonsense like ‘Wayne Gretsky Memorial Arena’ (nowhere to be seen) but no useful info like street signs. I biked on. Already beat, I stopped to breathe. Suddenly a bike whizzed by before I realized it. Oh well, I must be close, like Noah seeing a bird, a sign of land.
One last hope. That turn off marked by a sign 185 Park St and an arrow. In despair I trudged up the hill. Wow. A sign for the bike trail and the bike bridge across the Grand. Are these info gaps to tease the cyclist? Challenge him use his inner gps?
This led me to the Brant Conservation Area, where I had planned my second night. Across the precious wooden bike bridge, the Grand gleaming in the late afternoon sun. I was sticky with sweat and laid my bike down in the long grass and went down to the water. No one around, so stripped and lay in the cool water. my baptism.
The Grand and its tributaries go through Guelph, Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford, the lower Grand mostly just farming, before entering Lake Erie near Port Colborne. It was supplemented by canals for shipping prior to the railways built after 1850 which are now abandoned. The area is a palimpsest, with our colonial past written in abandoned railways, majestic collapsed bridges, the good bits all private.
But the water now is relatively clean, lots of fish. The Grand follows an earlier, long-buried river (millions of years ago) and as a result there are many underground springs constantly replenishing the river. In winter, they did infrared areal surveys and found 500 springs gushing water at 9 degrees whatever the surface weather is. (Don’t tell Nestles!)
It is safe but muddy and I noticed something on my ankle as I put my shoes on. It only managed to take some skin, but a bite on my calf had me thinking of Lyme disease. I gouged away at it and put some whisky on for disinfectant.
Then ‘asr prayer in the field and on the the cemetery, my proposed accommodation. Past a tiny crammed cemetery and then a huge open field of cut grass. There was a shiny white car and a service vehicle but the latter left and I found a corner where a car at night was unlikely to see me.
Relaxing at last. I read Gerald Durrell’s The Bafut Beagles about his expedition in ‘the Cameroons’, ate. Finally sunset prayer at 9pm. Still warm, spattering rain, but it didn’t turn into anything.
I saw a shooting star. Or was it a boring satellite? No! Fireflies zipping among the trees effortlessly. A miracle in motion.
The white car went and came back a few times. I could hear two guys talking about their goals at work. Not druggies. They came near in the dark, as there was a rope down to the river nearby. But they were not a problem. I don’t think they even noticed me.
Sleeping on hard ground is … hard. The secret is to keep shifting, fetal left/fight, balance on one hip left/right, lie flat, lie knees up. Eventually I slipped off. Like counting sheep while moving them along. To wake at dawn refreshed. That’s another highlight. The sun sparkling through the trees. Who would not wanted to give thanks?
A few more hurdles. Tracing the Grand in its windings to another bike bridge, Grant’s Crossing, in the heart of Brantford. Street bike directions took me to the boring car bridge, and I needed more rocket fuel for the last haul, so I got through the confusion of a 5-way intersection to find the local Timmy’s. Surely it would be open soon. I got there as they opened the door at 6:40am and paid 25 cents to fill my tank.
Next was Icomm Drive to Greenwich and Mohawk Lake. (high tech, old England, native). And the Glebe Farm Indian reserve No 408. More Slavic directions and I must have found it. A dark, thin lake. No signs, no cottages, just a beautiful little interlude which flows into one of the Grand’s many arabesques on the edge of Hamilton. (right on the city map)
Suddenly the trail to Hamilton, which I recall from last year. So the trip was almost over. Just the 40 km to Hamilton remained. But what a 40 km! As the baking sun gained ground, I was stopping more than I planned.
I passed this monster anachronism, a green lover but not to my taste. Two clipped and watered football fields and a pond?! Human creativity palls compared to nature. Later from the GO bus window as we were ploughing through downtown Hamilton I saw a graffiti ‘Evolution is monoculture’. Yes. Taking ravishing nature and mow it down to green nothingness.
The trails generally have benches every mile or so. My strategy to keep moving: see a nice bench but wait one more. Then it’s in the sun. Keep truckin’. Finally a shady bit, no bench but some logs placed to hold back earth, as there is spring flooding on the path. The logs now were nature’s platform for a rock garden, so I sat in the garden.
At another point, I saw a cooler and thought of going to sit on it for a rest. I suddenly saw bottled water and realized it was for cyclists in need. I foolishly spurned the free fuel (and finished my last drops at the bus terminal). Advice: If you want to do the Hamilton-Brantford trail, do it from Brantford to Hamilton, as it’s all downhill (Lake Erie to Lake Ontario).
As I approached the terminal, I saw an elegant, healthy-looking fellow in summer apparel tootling along on a senior’s scooter, puffing on a cigarette! What a contrast to using water (and protein bars) as the fuel to get places. Biking is also a good way to cut down on your smoking.
I was in better shape for this last leg than last year, when I started this 40 km at 10:00am, arriving at the GO bus terminal dazed at 3pm. This time I got there at 11:30am, in time for the noon bus, out of the midday sun. The downtown Hamilton part is awful. Aberdeen has probably never been resurfaced. Those last few kms count double.
I started in Berlin, visited Paris, slept in Brantford, biked to Hamilton, GO bused to Toronto. A tour in Canadian history, rule by empire but with the native life of the Grand like a secret spring, feeding the river of life, tolerating the white man’s folly.
Homeless Robert is, in his view, the elite of the homeless. Homeless by choice, using technology and his wiles. He doesn’t specialize in empathy. He is disgusted by the usual homeless. ‘They leave a mess, spoil it for everyone.’ As we settled into to the 2 hour trip, he whipped out his tablets. ‘Lifesavers.’ But two? ‘One for music, one for navigating. Even two skateboards.’ A proud homeless.
‘A house is a prison. This is my house,’ he pointed at his Walmart bike and Walmart two baby trailer ($300 at Walmart), piled high with gadgets, including heaters which he plugs in to electric car chargers through an adaptor. Total net worth $600.
My first thought: so you carry your prison around with you 24-7? I was too interested in what makes Robert tick, how he survives, to quibble. I rather directed his unending stream of chatter with questions to help him tell his story as we enjoyed the train ride.
Robert lives on welfare. Has no ID other than a laminated Ontario Works (sic) card with his name. No fixed address. The $350 welfare he gets every month is to invest in new gadgets. He almost never buys food, knowing where food banks are and if they will let him use them. He never pays for transport, bolding getting on and off GO trains (‘my lifeline in winter’) with his bike cum trailer. Which is illegal, but Robert can be such a pain that his tussles with authority leave him the winner. Every time!
I’ve thought of trying to live more like that. My sleeping rough on my bike trips is liberating, but my house is a thin sleeping bag and ground sheet. Disposable. Just find a nice spot for the night and relax, that is, if sitting, lying on hard ground is relaxing. Which it is once you get used to it.
You must use the local libraries? ‘Nah. Their books are out of date. I just use my tablets. I don’t follow news much anyway.’ He lived on P.E.I. for 15 years, in his car. ‘I like cars.’ he added nonjudgmentally. And he has nothing against flying. ‘Use technology. We’re hooked on oil so we just have to make the best of things till we roast.’ He looked after his mother 40 years in Montreal, though at this point I gave up trying to do the arithmetic with his claims. He finally said he was 56. Will you inherit the family home? ‘No. I don’t want money. A guy gave me $3 this morning. I’ll go for a donut.’
Robert lives from one mall, one GO train to the next. He urged me to go to a Mississauga gourmet soup kitchen. ‘It’s only a half hour by GO from downtown.’ I wondered what planet he was living on.
When we arrived in Berlin (sorry, Kitchener), he invited me to join him at the food bank near the station and then hop on the Ion train, Kitchener’s attempt at modern, elegant public transit. The food bank was down a seedy lane to a seedy courtyard with some homeless sprawled in the shade. Entrance a cheap plywood door into a dark garage lined with beans and rice, with fresh produce in the centre. Very depressing. It felt like a prison.
Robert followed me out and we proceeded to the tramline which was going part way for me. I’m a sucker for the new, so I figured a ride on the Ion was like a carnival attraction. Robert said Ottawa St was a long way, but when you are dragging your house behind you every day, 100 yards feels like a lot. I paid my $3.75 via an automated ticket dispense and we boarded.
Havoc followed as Robert dragged his ‘home’ aboard and demanded (please!) that a masked woman vacate her site for him. She refused. Even though we were already moving and he had his house inside, he harangued her with his smiley face. ‘You are one of those who think covid will get them.’ [He had had covid twice.] ‘You shouldn’t listen to those so-called experts. And if only you had moved when I asked, everything would be fine.’ She finally got up and I ended up in her seat. Robert laughed.
I was embarrassed. How can he be so oblivious to the irritation he causes day and night to everyone he needs? All his freedom was still a boorish, dog-eat-dog existence. Pathetic. Suicidal. He shouts boisterous. Jokey: ‘Where do 2 donkeys live? Ass-ass nation.’ He teased me for not understanding.
But he’s right about a lot. We are all going to be toast soon enough, so cape diem! Don’t waste your life doing stuff you hate. Smile and be happy. And though he’s clearly not a drinker or druggie, he must be very troubled.
It struck me his cold-blooded indifference is already a hallmark of the age. I see it in my own Toronto prison. A neighbour with her vicious dog howling from the second floor balcony when I go in or out. Robert’s answer is to milk the system for everything he could, break all the rules as long as it doesn’t land him in a real jail.
This assumption that everyone should accommodate him, whatever the cost, is like the entitlement of the lgbtqetc, who want the world to bow and cheer them on. Robert is acting out his version of identity politics. Making a mockery of it.
Why didn’t I take his picture? I chided myself after I fled the Ion tram. Was I too shy? No. Was I too embarrassed? Partly, though as a chronicler, it makes sense to entertain the reader. No, I was increasingly revolted as his real character showed through.
And I think in a way I was also honouring him for defying the world and not wanting any real ties anywhere to anyone. Don’t partake in the rape and pillage around you. Don’t get tied down to anything, anybody. Another neurotic celibate like me.
He admitted sometimes being jealous. I suggested a hadith: If you are envious of someone, pray that you can be or have what that person is or has. And ask for a blessing for that person. Funnily, atheist Robert liked that. Yes, try to be what you want.