The weekend before I left, every moment I was thinking about the trip, imagining the long haul on the bike, neck pain, sweating, muscles operating at full capacity hour after hour, adventures, getting lost and found, a challenge with many rewards. Southern Georgian Bay is (or at least was) idyllic. Good farmland but not on the way anywhere, so still relaxed. Worth three days of biking, and accessible by bus for cyclists.

It wasn’t the same worry as 2 yrs ago from Kingston to Cornwall or the Orillia Gravenhurst jaunt, more just a delicious anticipation of the (reasonable) challenge. My search at couchsurfing: 5 requests, within an hour, an invite from Josh from Collingwood, my supposed destination. ‘I am teaching in Russia, but home for the summer.’ yes!


Everything went like clockwork till the usual ‘getting lost’ clicked in north of Barrie. But looking back, I realized I’d actually found a good route, avoiding the dreaded highway #26, stumbling on Horseshoe Valley road and eventually Flos rd 4 through the Minesing wetlands, the only road through, (wonderfully) forgotten, with a narrow one-lane rusty old bridge. The perfect bike route.



On the way there, I passed the wetlands visitor way-stop, presumably for school children, researchers and canoeists. Not scenic. Just real nature quietly, unmolestedly at work. There are several mapped out routes for hardy canoeists on the Mad and Notawasaga rivers that flow through the wetlands. Their remoteness, lack of the spectacular, and uselessness for developers and farmers has saved them, even as the newly rich continue to invade the Georgian bay area for cottages and skI chalets, ‘to get away from it all’. But not much use to cyclists.


I was forced onto ‘26’ to Collingwood, stopped for a breather, checked out the library, checked my email, stocked up on a few beers. Then the last leg. It turns out Josh isn’t from Collingwood, but tiny Clarksburg, a twin to the slightly older Thornbury. Note the tired colonial names. Everywhere -- Mary/ John streets, Elgin, Grey, Simcoe countries. These second rate colonial aristos ‘possessing’ the land in perpetuity. Thank god for Wasaga beach and Notawasaga river, Minesing swamp.


Epiphany courtesy of Hollywood


Josh is a 27 yr old wanderer, much to his Lutheran Reform parents’ shagrin. He is 5th of 7 kids, my place in my equally large family. I could feel the connect right away. The fifth plays a special role in 7 -- conciliator, thinker, able to see first hand the mistakes of parents and older siblings, lost in the battles, having to excel to be noticed, with lots of help from the older siblings, caught up in their teenage angst and rebellion.


Josh had his epiphany at 17 when he watched Jim Carrey’s Yes Man (2008) He decided to say ‘yes!’ Sold all his possession, including his precious motorbike, took the TESL course and set out to see the world. Parents of course aghast, but he has now been to 27 countries, had countless crazy adventures and a few love affairs, spending 2 wks at a girlfriend’s parents villa near Nice, etc etc.


He ended up teaching in Catalan, a program where parents can have the foreign teacher live with them free (extra teaching). Spain has private, private/public, public education. This ngo fit the private/ public, with a state subsidy. Everyone happy. The family took him all over northern Spain and southern France (skiing in Andorra).


He’s now teaching ‘new Russians’ in Moscow, the children of the elite, but young enough (7-10) not to be too spoiled, still relishing life as a great adventure. From Moscow, Josh flits to Thailand, Germany, wherever for holidays. Back to work in his dad’s garage for the summer, bought an 1100cc Yamaha V Star. He left with me Wednesday 8am, heading towards Algonquin Park, visiting a brother in Pembroke, then on to Quebec City and PEI to visit another brother, before heading back to Moscow.


A vegetarian (factory farms are a crime), knowing the world’s a mess, but still not armed with much book knowledge. He found another way: just invite a 67 yr old traveller (me) to stay. ‘I love to learn from people who have lived an interesting life.’ But now ready to get a B Ed and pass on his own worldly wisdom to a new generation. It’s hard to beat that for youthful excitement and smarts.


When I returned to Toronto, I was reading Safransky’s biography of Goethe, whose credo was much the same, the so-called “selfish principle: the power of the individual to preserve his uniqueness even--or especially--when exposed to a multiplicity of influences and complications. Purity means preservation of uniqueness. Only an individual who preserves and asserts himself as such becomes a self.” It’s heartening to know that there is the odd Hollywood movie that makes you think, and that it can find open minds to take it seriously.


His family is church going, the Reform Lutherans are not bible thumpers, but like all Dutch (they both arrived in 1960 as kids), Albert said: ‘I was told Dutch are unflappable, straightforward, and say what they think.' [Albert and Emma to a T] They have a steely backbone and take their faith seriously. Grace before dinner, regular church goers. Josh sat politely at dinner, but later, when I confessed I lost my parent’s Christianity as a teen, he replied ‘me too. So many people not sincere.’


That was as we went for a stroll to his childhood river haunt. ‘We built a dam on the creek here and made a kind of luge to go down a shoot.’ We paused to smoke some weed, which was strictly forbidden within smelling distance of the house. I suspect a lot of strict parents of teens are still reluctant to see their kids hazed out on now legal dope. ‘I’m kind of sorry it’s legal now,’ I told Josh. ‘It used to be special. So hard to get. A hint of danger. Just what a teen needs most: make serious choices, suffer the consequences, keeps its use under control, even sacred.’ Josh agreed, though we both were glad it’s easy to get now. Just not really so special anymore.


‘The state cynically legalized it. it wants to regulate to get the money.’ Later in Barrie after the 'authors summer social' at Barrie library, Ahsun told me: ‘all the sins -- gambling, alcohol, now marijuana -- the state loves them to make money and thousands of (useless) jobs regulating them.’

Me: yes, just let people grow as much as they want. The ‘market’ will settle down. It’s hard work growing dope, and a good incentive for people to do some real work on the land, and to appreciate god’s gifts.

But that makes too much sense.


I regaled Josh with my litany of past adventures, especially Russia and the Soviet Union. Josh: ‘I envy you having lived in Soviet times. I was born june 29, 1991 and have no knowledge of it at all.’

Me: ‘You were born days before the coup that brought it crashing down. I was born June 22, 1951. You know what that date marks? Just ask any Russian. Ten years after the day it was invaded by the nazis.’


He, like my Pakistani friend Ahsun in Barrie, saw that the education they were getting in high school, other than geography and English, was useless. They both abandoned formal education and then came back to it on their own after some soul-searching and travel.


We charted a day trip for me on Tuesday south on #13 to Kimberley. A road with nice curves, the usual farmland. Everything closed Monday and Tuesday in little Kimberley, where I met two cyclists who warned me of rain coming, so I discarded anything too ambitious and made a beeline up #7 to Meaford, counting on taking refuge in the library if there was rain. The joys of putting yourself at the mercy of nature! This trip would have taken a few hours and been boring in a car, any rain making little difference.


#7 was a killer, but at least the elevation came in stages. From Beverley, it looked like a cliff rising ominously in the distance. A completely straight bare scar on the forested mountain side. As I got closer, suddenly it didn’t look so bad. A climbable rise with a few more bits peeking over the ‘top’. But as I cleared one hill, two or three more popped up. An optical illusion. But a useful one, like getting used to cold water. Each ‘step’ was feasible though exhausting.


About the fifth step, I paused to strip down and let the sweat evaporate from my legs and back. There were at least seven steps to finally reach the top. Then the cliff descent appeared. Straight down. Far too fast for comfort, and all over in a few seconds. Then another one! What took over an hour of hard climbing took a few minutes to undo.


Some crepes in the Crepe Factory on the main drag in Meaford. A laid back 50ish hippy woman, Michelle, off the grid, selling expensive delicacies, some of which I bought for celiac gluten intolerant Emma. Granola and cashew cheese. Ridiculously expensive, but the cashew cheese is wonderful. Along with a bottle of plonk, I would earn my keep.


Fascinating to be welcomed into the  family as a friend of their handsome young son. I’m sure they were puzzled at our odd fit, but delighted by my stories of growing up in a family of 7, comparing notes. In a way, I was more the friend of Josh’s father Albert, though 8 years older. Josh showed me their last family portrait from 2001. A chill down my spine: there he was on the right back, just like our last Walberg family portrait (at my prompting) in 1968, when I was 18. Same mischievous #5 smile.


Roller coaster ride in ski country


The rain approached and then struck with a fury 2 minutes after I settled into some internet at the Meaford library. 1 1/2 hrs later, it was stubbornly continuing, so I put on my flimsy rain cape and ventured out to find the elusive DQ I had seen advertised ‘just past the Tin Hortons on the left.’ I shook myself off and settled into a milkshake. I was ravenous, but after our talks with Josh, I couldn’t face the factory farmed hamburgers and chicken DQ bits. All so tacky and innutritious. Pasty, blond youth wolfed them down as I meekly drank my shake and ate some crackers.


Still raining a half hour later, and I’m getting a bit concerned. I’ve got to get back. But nature said: time for a toke in the lonely gazebo on the lake. The huddled stray pedestrians had gone by the time I got there, so I could smoke in peace and enjoy the view. The rain was now more a heavy mist. Another half hour and it was pooped, so I started out without the floppy (dangerous) cape and made for the rail trail.


This rail trail was mostly great. Asphalted at some point, so much less slogging than the sandy gravelly one to Orillia. Wide and occasional scenic. And with some turns. No lake views (thanks, cottagers!). I was now making haste as it was already 3pm, and Josh promised to take me for a real (motor)bike ride at 5:30, so I made my effort at exploring what looked promising from the map - Boucher’s Point and Christie beach, nestled off #26 and with access right on the water. I was warned off it by locals: ‘haven’t been there in years. Nothing much to see.’ I should listen.


Of course, the road I saw on the map, once just leading to the spectacular beach, was now merely an access road for the inevitable cottagers. I could see the lake as the road was only 30m from the shore and the sandy plots didn’t have much tree coverage. I saw one was abandoned and decided to investigate, but the watchdog neighbour was out and about, clearly anxious to drive the invader away. The beach was white sand, with no one swimming, though it was hot and muggy. The injustice and sheer stupidity of would-be elite plonking big monster houses down on a shore line for their private consumption -- and then using them only a few weeks a year -- was never more evident.


It was now 4pm and I had to trudge up the hill to the highway and get moving. Racing against the clock, I made it to Thornbury but then couldn’t reconstruct my route in reverse in the maze of little Anne and Mabel streets. No one had any idea where my host’s Matilda street was, and being a neanderthal, I don’t have internet cell phone access. Just as I thought I was in the right direction (up a steep hill) I spied a woman and hailed her across the street. She was on her cell phone, glared at me and turned away. The only rude person I met. Thank you cell phone mania. Probably chatting mindlessly, and unwilling to connect with reality and help a stranger. I wanted to grab the phone and stomp on it.


Instead, I looked for another person. An old man trimming a bush. He should know. ‘Let me think... Yep. Up there two streets and left.’ I rushed on, the clock ticking. He had sent me on a fool’s chase in the wrong direction, but it looked vaguely familiar. When I was already beyond Clarksburg, I decided to turn around. Slowly I recalled this was my original route the day before, and I returned to the hill where the ice lady and old man had been. I asked another man, who said (honestly!): don’t know. Me: maybe up that hill? With a smile, shrugging his shoulders: yes, maybe.


That was enough encouragement, and I climbed my last hill for the day and eventually found Matilda (actually #13 with pretty names for a few blocks as it passes through the town, a kind of silly practical joke on people actually needing to find a location).


Arrived at 5:35, 2 minutes before josh. We had dinner and his shy, younger brother, Mike, a carpenter, arrived. Me: so this is Mike, your favourite brother. I joked: like me. My carpenter younger brother Bob is my favourite. ‘Why have favourites?’ Emma teased. ‘Why not,’ I said as Josh and I headed for the motorbike. Number 6 is the peacemaker, builder, in a family of seven. Picking up the pieces.


Our flight through the hills, up to a peak where I had skied in February (so bleak then, so lush and welcoming now), up and down hairpin switchback roads climbing the mountain side. The perfect place to enjoy the bike’s speed, grace, thrills. Then the mist descended along with the sun, and we entered into a gray fog, a spooky hell, where there was no forward, no markers, almost no visibility. Then back up to the pancaked sun blazing through clouds like a spaceship hovering, and a rainbow across the valley, a colourful pillar out of the blue, which dissolved as the sun approached the horizon.


We were both leaving the next morning, Josh for Pembroke, me for humble Barrie. We settled on a route via Wasaga Beach, tooted ‘the longest sand beach in the world’. I settled on the rail trail despite its sandy slowness (not asphalted in some distant past), and hurrying, lost concentration at a crossing of the angry 26. I could feel the glare of a driver unhappy with me crossing the road, not suitably cowed by his superiority, privilege, as a noble car driver. My rucksack, loaded in the side basket was constantly swerving me where I didn’t want to go, making sharp steering unwieldy, and I crashed down into a nasty ditch full of big crushed, spikey stones. Bike upside down, me upside down. Ouch. my hand and leg were bruised but fortunately I had decided to wear my runners and long canvas pants, so miraculously I was whole, only shaken, and picked myself up and forged on.


4 1/2 authors in search of a reader


Wasaga was tacky, but ‘the kindness of strangers’ worked. My style now is to check every time I can to confirm directions. An auto mechanic is a lost soul’s friend, and I was told ‘yes, just past the go-cart track, up the hill and on your right.’ Everything takes far longer in reality, but patience served me, onto Vigo, down to Flos rd 4 again. No traffic, sunny. I was happy.


Then I somehow missed my route out of  Barrie 2 days earlier, and was stuck on the monster #26 -- six screaming lanes up a massive hill. I was cowed. I knew I would at least not get lost on this main artery, so climbed the monster on a sidewalk on the left. Funny, facing the screaming cars/ trucks on a safe sidewalk is a relief when I think of being chased by them on the right side. It was like an expressway, a deathtrap where bikes do not belong.


I wanted to relax by the water. Barrie’s bay is stunning, but I checked into the library first. ‘Hmmm. don’t know anything about an 'authors summer social,' said the flustered librarian. Her sweet but goofy assistant: ‘Ahh, I remember something about an authors event. She whipped out the events calendar, and before the librarian returned with empty hands, triumphantly said ‘ It’s at the other library.’


I groaned but asked directions. I didn’t have a map of Barrie (drat). Somehow the smaller towns are much more help. Just ‘walking tours of historic Barrie’. Ugh. I got detailed directions. Left, right, right, left...‘You find the Zehrs and go through the parking lot.’ Ahh, directions in (big) small towns.


It was a half hour of busy traffic even mercifully without getting lost (though with a 10 minute stop to drink a lime cooler to keep me going). I arrived to find exactly what I expected. Three authors (+ an interloper) in search of readers. It was fun, but the only audience were my Muslim friend Ahsun, one author's photographer-husband and the interloper-author who crashed the program. Ha, ha.


Val Lovell looked at mine and said how much her husband would like it (he told me he did photos of bar mitzvahs). So we bartered books. Hers of poetry Holding up the sky (am a sucker for poets :) for my Canada Israel Nexus. Val suffered severe concussion and was a year in bed mostly in the dark, memorizing and reciting poetry to get her mind functioning again. Eventually painting and writing her own poetry. Her lovely watercolours, each of which inspired a poem. ‘I want the reader to read and imagine their own story and then look at my painting, my story in the poem.’


So what could have been just another limp book flogging ended up reaffirming my faith in myself, and humanity. (My Clarksburg host Albert also bought one, much to Josh's surprise.) Val’s mother said ‘I’m going to read your book as soon as Val finishes.’


3 1/2 ladies and a guy, all but one self-published. Bianca Lakoseljac, the star, a fiesty Serbian married to a Croat (wow). I tried to quiz her on Yugoslavia, where she grew up till 1971, coming to Toronto and dabbling in Yorkville hippiedom. ‘I’m not interested in politics or rehashing the Serbian-Croatian standoff,’ she impatiently cut me off, trying to interest me in her reminiscences of Yorkville.


As the alpha male (ie only male) in the group, I took charge and asked everyone to recite some of their writing. I love the automatic male role, with a faux harem eager for attention and admiration. Bianca boasted of writing a poem for 50+ Poems for Gordon Lightfoot, so I deftly steered her away from Yorkville hippiedom. (Her poem is very good.)


Go transit from hell


I arrived at the bus station 3 minutes before the next bus. A schizoid, skinny meth addict was flailing around paranoid, frantic. Yes, the seamy side of Barrie. Settled in for the 2 1/2 hr milk run, complete with transfer half way in Newmarket.


I hoisted the bike onto the second bus, only to be angrily attacked by the short, angry driver. He insisted I remove the carrier (it's welded on), stating Go transit policy. it was approximately 11pm and I was exhausted from biking and the driver (he said 'I can't give you my name, it's Go transit policy' [not true]) was threatening to leave me stranded. I said, 'This is the tenth time, and all 9 drivers were fine with it.'


The ride was unpleasant not so much because of the doped up (pathetic) druggie, but because of the surly driver. He had refused the teen with his teen bike in the rack too, so the silent teen had put it under without a murmur. Then he went after me, not giving me the option till he had had his fun putting me in my place, enjoying his complete control. He bullied the druggie who couldn’t find his/her ticket, even though it was clear. S/he said ‘I can’t find my f-ing ticket.’ and he demanded s/he ‘not use that language with me.’ A budding psychopath, Mr. x. Then a jolly student got in and they buddy bonded, shouting a mindless dialogue for all to hear about fares (the student had paid too much), and where to shop and where to get good fast food (the student worked in Wendy’s).


I almost shouted ‘keep it down’ but refrained. Psychopaths aren’t amenable to criticism. But the junky vocalized like a sick wolf and then I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke (barely a whiff, clearly just a drag to taunt Mr. x.). He turned the lights on and solemnly declared: will the person smoking please stop.’ She did, but that wasn’t good enough. He texted ahead and asked for police when we arrived.


As we pulled into the Union Station terminal, two burly cops rushed in, as if to ambush the criminal. Poor junkie. When the cops let the innocents off, they peered aggressively at me -- guilty until proven innocent. They asked Mr. x ‘how are you sure it’s the girl at the back?’ showing what just and competent cops they were. As Mr. x opened the storage compartment, I pulled my bike out and said I would report the bike incident. Mr. x smirked.*


*’Consumer Relations was classic bureaucracy. Mr. x’s smirk was corroborated.

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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