I am always surprised by the people I meet when I am on my bike. Perhaps it is because I am travelling slower, and see more. Maybe I am more relaxed, and open. Whatever the reason, I have met some of the most remarkable people while cycling.
When I travel in the car, there are few opportunities to stop, and it is usually to fill up, take a pee, or find food. On a bike there are innumerable opportunities to stop, listen, and talk. At street corners, in the local parks, and on the road while overtaking other cyclists.
My chance encounters with interesting people could fill a book. The young couple I met on a ferry in the Cyclades islands that had just travelled across Europe on bikes. The school principal I met in Quito that offered me a job to help pay for my trip. The distraught woman I met on a park bench in Stanley Park that I helped find a new job. The intriguing young woman I met in Douglas Park that was in transition. And, all the cyclists I met on long climbs that offered words of encouragement.
The most memorable encountered occurred 20 years ago. I was working in a small mill town in the interior of British Columbia. I had flown there with my bike, and used it to commute each day to and from the mill office. It was a short commute, 10 km at most. On sunny, warm days, I would cycle back into town for lunch at a popular cafe that boasted an outdoor patio with a scenic view of the mountains.
One day, as I sat outside with my customary black coffee and sandwich, an elderly Englishman rolled up on a vintage steel frame touring bike with fully loaded panniers, front and back. This man was heading somewhere. Curious, I asked him to join me.
After he got his tea and muffin, he sat across from me in the afternoon sun. We sat for an hour, maybe longer, as I listened in awe. I never asked his age but I would have guessed 75, maybe older. He had a small but athletic frame, and looked like a seasoned cyclist. Several months earlier, he had lost his wife of 50 years. It wasn’t unexpected but, nevertheless, devastating for him. They had been inseparable their whole lives. He had 2 grown children but, as he was quick to tell me, he didn’t want to burden them. No, he was a proud, stoic, and independent man looking for one last adventure.
He had always wanted to cycle across Canada. Since immigrating to Canada as a teenager, he never had the time, or the money for such a luxury, as he called it. After his wife’s passing, he wondered what he would do with himself, and his house. He wanted an adventure. He wanted to do something different, he said. He was healthy for his age, and had saved up a little money. It was time for a change, he thought.
He rented his house. He would decide what to do with it later. He tuned his bike, loaded his panniers, and headed off across the country. Alone.
If you have never visited Canada, you have to understand it is big. 6,100 km from coast-to-coast. And, it has a very substantial mountain range on the west coast. The Rockies. This is not an easy crossing for anyone, let alone a 75 year old on a fully loaded bike. When I met him, he was half way across the mountain ranges, and looked no worse for wear. On the contrary, he was having the time of his life. He wore a wide, permanent smile and laughed easily. I’m sure he had difficult days. But on this day, he was in a good mood, and anxious to share his adventure.
I never saw him again. I have no idea if he made it. This was before the internet, blogs, and cell phones. I regret not staying in touch, and have been curious ever since.
This gentle man has been an inspiration. Because of him, I realize you are never too old to chase a dream; that travel by bike is more enjoyable, and enlightening; and, when you have a chance encounter like this, always exchange contact information.
I have had numerous chance encounters like this. One day, I’m going to write them all down. Somewhere nestled amongst them is my epitaph.