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Brain Versus Body – A Tale of Roast Beef

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“When the first snowfall comes, that’s usually it for the rest of the winter.”

The Winnipeg resident’s advice echoed at the forefront of my mind as the heavy snowfall fell to the ground in Sault Ste. Marie, on the eastern side of the grand Lake Superior. The falling powder, low visibility and the baltic chill showed no immediate signs of letting up. It was going to be a glove day, once I’d drummed up enough motivation to go outside.

There was no real reason to not be motivated, as I’d spent the night in a motel. Hardly hardcore but needed sometimes. It hadn’t been a cold night and there had been no suffering, but opening the door and being hit by the chill was a shock, even after all this time experiencing the seasonal change each day. It was enough of a reason to close the door, rustle around in the pannier bags, and find more layers.

After leaving the room and setting out, I rode for twenty minutes. Along the snowy pavements, with the rain jacket hood done up tight over the shell of my helmet. It was a balancing act performed at a slow pace. In the snow, it would be easy enough to fall and slide along the whiteness, especially with the bald tyres that were currently on the bike.

It took focus. Cars would drive by, their lights bright to tackle the fog, and the spray from the snow and the sleet would fire up from their wheels to land on the pavement. Offsets of that spray would hit the few exposed parts of skin that were left, and every time a chill would run down my spine as though someone had poured ice cubes down my shirt.

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It wasn’t a smooth start to the day, and acting on those initial signs had become a bit of a superstition. Over time you lose perspective and in the haze things like superstition seem to hold more weight.

Thank God – the big red logo and the cars in the drive through lane. That would be a good place to drum up motivation. A happy place, a familiar place, a warm place. A place that, like motels, if visited too much, makes you feel guilty that you’re not truly living the ‘adventurous nature’ of a trip like this. But the roast beef sandwich combo at Tim Hortons would warm me up and for a brief while there would be no guilt. There was motivation inside those four walls, there was time to get fired up.

It was only the end of October, but whoever was in charge of Tim’s music selection had decided that they would try to encourage some early Christmas spirit, by playing the corniest of songs to match the fresh Lapland-esque scene that was now on display outside the window. One in particular struck a chord that day. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.

In the comfort of Tim’s hospitality, some lyrics of that song seemed to sum up exactly, word for word, what was running through my head, like an internal monologue, brain versus body.

{I really can’t stay} – There was a narrow window of time left.
{But baby it’s cold outside} – It really was.
{I’ve got to go away} – Time was a fuse, like it was two lines ago.
{But baby it’s cold outside} – The roast beef combo was looking up from the plate like a mindreader.

The realisation that you’ve not set out on this journey to sit in a Tim Hortons listening to terrible pop songs whilst eating roast beef doesn’t take long to reach. It was time to go. MAN UP YOU BIG PANSY – the monologue was going off – an anti-pathetic alarm.

Once I’d put every layer back on and wrapped a doubled up bin bag around the leather saddle, I finally did set off, precariously rolling along the snow-filled sidewalks. The spray that was being kicked up from the spinning wheels made me long for the wheel fenders that were now long gone, left behind when in the summer they had seemed completely obsolete.

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It’s still a sweaty game, regardless of the cold. Sweaty enough for a wool shirt to become damp at any rate, even if it was flat. Pedalling away from Sault Ste. Marie, the landscape was for the most part level. Had the sunshine been out, there would be little to separate here from those long days in the prairies.

When it began to get dark, the landscape had turned remote, in the kind of way that would be perfect were it not reminiscent of a scene from The Snowman. There was plenty of land, and most land owners would surely be tucked up in their living room for the night. What’s not to like about that kind of stealth-camping freedom?

It wasn’t the kind of day where night riding would be fun at all, yet it also seemed like it would be wise to choose a place to sleep carefully, rather than just rush into it and pitch the tent at the side of the road or in the middle of a field. Pedalling towards the horizon, constantly scanning the farmland, it seemed like there were a couple of options.

One was to pitch in a field – maybe in the corner of one it would be possible to find shelter from the elements. Another was to find somewhere that was truly sheltered. The latter would be good, as it was clearly going to be one hell of a cold night, both water bottles now frozen solid with no liquid inside them, silently attached to the bike frame instead of the normal slosh, slosh, slosh.

What is that? It looks like a barn. It is a barn. Far ahead, slightly off to the side of the road, there was a wooden barn with a green roof. It had three walls, and was open at one side.

As it was still a distance away, there was a few minutes of cycling time to consider a) whether it was trespassing and b) because it clearly was trespassing, whether I was willing to trespass for the benefits of shelter.

A question of morality and legality. The private land dilemma had come up many times before, but this felt a little different because a barn is actual shelter – it’s not like sleeping in the corner of a field. To decide became an internal role-play exercise. Brain versus body yet again.

If I was a farmer, and it was freezing outside, would I care if someone camped in my barn?

The answer was: not really, as long as they didn’t burn the place down or steal anything.

With a decision made, I pedalled over to the barn, finding that inside was a bright orange Hesston combine harvester and some other heavy-duty farming machinery. The ground was dry, and the roof was solid. It was still going to be a cold night, but it would be a sheltered one, at least on three sides.

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You know when you just can’t get a song out of your head? The second verse of that song was running over and over, an irritating loop, impossible to drown out as the dusk disappeared and nightfall arrived.

{This evening has been}
Been hoping that you’d drop in.
{So very nice}

I’ll hold your hands. They’re just like ice.

Under the roof of the barn, nestled in the space between the machinery, shivering as my hands were sandwiched tight under each armpit, the last line seemed appropriate. Half of it, anyway. Just like ice.

Surely it had been a foolish decision to not upgrade to warmer sleeping kit, even if it would only make these last few weeks more comfortable and nothing more? The right gear would change this situation completely. I didn’t have a good reason for why, but enduring these nights seemed like a challenge that was worth taking on. Maybe it was because it was these kind of shivering moments, that didn’t involve motels or Christmas music or roast beef sandwiches, that were the ones I’d been looking for.

On a continent where it can seem like ease and comfort is never too far away, there is value in these moments of relative suffering and isolation, and in a twisted way, they are cherished times. 

With two weeks of this way of life left, this had been the coldest night. It wasn’t the Antarctic or anything. At -9 Celsius, my army pal might laugh and wonder how it compares to the time he skied into a cut out hole in the middle of a frozen Scandinavian lake, however I tried to think back over the previous 11 months – there had been plenty of freezing nights, extreme weather, solid water bottles – but nothing that seemed as brutally cold as this.

It can be easy to lose track of time when days and weeks blend together like they do when travelling by bike for a long time. Time in general becomes a blur. When I woke up in that barn the following morning, and touched the merino wool t-shirt which had become rock hard in the night as the moisture froze, I realised the cyclical nature of this journey (excuse the pun), and of long journeys as a whole, whatever kind they may be.

The bike ride had gone through every season, each one bringing challenges and opportunities. I’m not going to pretend that waking up in the barn was a particularly pleasant one, but it was worth it. Winter 2012 to Winter 2013. 4 seasons ticked off like the boxes on a questionnaire. That full-circle nature had made the trip more vast than it was ever imagined to be. Anything that takes a chunk of time to endure and which, at times, can seem overwhelming to take on, is worthwhile.

Ignoring the frozen t-shirt and perhaps cursing it just a little bit, at that moment, there was no doubt at all that this would be a valuable chapter to look back on once it was over.

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Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
Available now: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com



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2 comments on this post

  1. foz zie says:

    reet good post that davidos! hows croatia?? no closer to coming over there i’m afraid but offer out to swizzy is still on if you want a lift back?

  2. Patbat says:

    Brilliant!!!!! x

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