Monday, July 21, 2008

P'tit Train du Nord - Bicycle path!

Bicycle paths with no traffic which extend for 200km (120mi) are what grabs my heart the most these days. This scenery is postcard beautiful around every turn. I couldn't be happier with my decision to bail on my other route and switch to plan B here. This allows me to ride through what I know to be some of the best scenery around. I was surely getting worried about my other directions, so this is a welcome change in that department as well. I have 200km of the P'tit Train du Nord, and some number of days on highway 117. I basically switched over to the same exact ride that I did alone last June; beginning the day after Nat's bicycle was stolen in Montreal and we parted ways. I didn't know how I'd feel about this - retracing my steps is something I have mixed feelings about, often negative. But aside from rain plus slugs and slugs, Quebec wins.

I woke up early and sat around the kitchen table at the hostel drinking coffee and eating bread, listening to everyone speak French. I sat for a good long time and added nothing. The jelly or marmalade or fruit spread was in a bowl with a spoon and light years more advanced than what I've seen. Delicious and bursting with big chunks of fruit. ie: half of an entire smooshed strawberry. I spread it on enormous fluffy hunks of bread. Dejunier petit, damn straight.

I packed and split with the knowledge that I needed to address my bicycle and find where Route Verte 1 got close to where I was. I went to where I knew I could get air in my tires, and paused to lube my chain as well. I looked at a shitty map of where I needed to be, and cross referenced with a detailed map to bring it back to where I was. I rolled toward the route with a silent, awesome, inconspicuous bicycle.

I remember getting pretty lost last year. I only got slightly lost this time. The route is dead easy to follow. Getting lost for me is like putting on socks. I usually do. The P'tit Train du Norde begins in St-Jerome, which apparently is over 40 miles from Montreal. Most of these miles are on smoothly paved bicycle paths which cross fields, cut through parks, and often aren't even within view of a car road. This is highly recommended riding. The paths have a decent cycle-traffic volume. You're far from alone out there.

The P'tit Train is a mostly gravel path built where abandoned train tracks existed before. This rails to trails conversion is a linear park connecting many of the small communities as you travel north. There are amazing views, reconstructed train stations, and plenty of places to get supplies. I've camped around on it, and I'm pretty sure that's fine. It seems nice and chill up here. Don't have cats suing each other and stealing each other's bacon.

So I got on this path and cruised. At about 45 miles for the day, I decided I wanted to go about 15 more. It was early afternoon and I wanted to travel when the sun went down some more. The sky looked uncertain. Possible rain. Seemed likely. I got a 40 of Wildcat. A screaming, clawing cat denotes a very serious beer indeed. I rode up the path to where a picnic table overlooks a clean reflective river surface headed around a bend to some honest rapids. I drank Wildcat and watched the clouds move in. The leaves of the trees were blowing in the way that assures you that it will rain. The surface of the water performed a similar act. I stuffed all my belongings deep into my panniers, and rolled everything in tight, expecting rain any time now. I smoked. I finished. It rained.

I put on my North Face pullover, and rode to warm up as the rain began. I wrapped my iPod in a bag and cruised through some light but true rain. I was pumped. If I kept cruising steady my body heat would keep me warm in spite of the wetness and the sinking sun. That plan works. I was cruising up very long slow inclines, keeping the juice on. I stopped in a tunnel to photograph graffiti. "Try Mushrooms" among others. Sage advice from an artist. I kept cruising. My shorts are awesome. If the rain blinks, I swear they try to steal second and dry out on the way. I rode out of the rain, or it stopped. It was almost dark now. I was sorta looking for a place to sleep, sorta ready to ride forever and ever. I stopped at the depanneur, grocery, that took me until my second day to pass last year. There were two other bicycle travelers there - a few years younger, carrying packs on their backs. I passed them when they stopped, later down the path. They passed me some time after this. When I caught them again they were fooling around with cheap flashlights and I had to say hi; it was getting weird. One of them at least spoke enough English for a short chat. Well wishes were wished all around. Bicycle travelers have a brotherhood. In my mind, there is a brotherhood. A set of values and understandings that don't need to be spelled out. We like trees and being outside, and efficient rewarding modes of transportation. No need to talk about it, maybe just nod or say hi for a minute. Riding around in the dark was cool. I only had enough moonlight though the clouds to make out the edges of the path. A few minutes up the way I saw flashlights swinging every direction and the sound of bicycle horns honking. A jubilant sound breaking the silence of the night, and three riders bounced by. It was a party in motion. I put batteries in my headlight. I found a place to sleep behind some trees.

Hiding spots ripe for camping are available for a vast majority of this entire trail. My problem was that I waited until after dark, and I hesitated to choose a spot that was either too densely grown in, or was actually a grassy stream or otherwise uncrossable or unsleepable spot. I found my spot. All my shit is slightly damp, but not complainably so. I got a replacement pole for my bivy - a cheap, thin, flexible steel rod from a hardware store. I left it in the bicycle box when I unpacked at the bus station in Montreal. I tried to use a flexible stick that I found near my spot, and that didn't really work. I was in bag-mode, and it didn't really affect my sleep much. It was cool enough through the night that the hood could fall down over the netting and not cause discomfort. This is impossible if it's hot. You suffocate. I got some amount of good sleep. I'm getting better at rolling over and moving and getting comfy-snuggly. That takes practice.

I woke up to all kinds of slugs on my bivy and on my shoes - which I left out. If you're excited about a sneaky-camping bicycle adventure, you need to be ok with slugs, mosquitos, heat, damp sleeping bags, and directional confusion. It's really fuggin cool though.

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