Saturday, May 29, 2010

More Japan on Fietspad

On my map, it looked like a quaint little road, meandering for a while alongside a rambling brook. What it actually turned out to be was a four lane super highway of death and destruction. Seemingly, it was the only way out of Niigata where I had just taken a ferry to from Hokkaido 20 hours earlier.

I was heading toward Matsumoto where I was going to make my fabled Japanese Alp crossing. I had started looking at my Honshu maps while on the ferry ride down and decided that a bike tour of Japan really isn’t a bike tour if you don’t cross the Alps. Plus, what could be more fun then trying to ride a 60 pound loaded touring bike up and over the Japanese Alps? Well, I discovered what could be more fun.

The day that I planned to tackle the first half of the alps it started raining, lightly. I was in Matsumoto, foot of the Alps, and decided to wait a bit to see if it let up. I gave myself an abort time of 10am. If I hadn’t left by then, I would have to camp the night in Matsumoto. However, by 10 it looked like the rain had stopped, so I decided to make my push for Kamikochi, the half way point and where I wanted to camp for a few nights and do some hiking. I had heard only marvelous things about Kamikochi in my travel book. And so, I began the ascent, after of course buying a few pounds of apples that I thought would come in handy.

As I made my way up, what had appeared to be clearing skies turned out to be darkening skies, and the rain once again began. And this time, it didn’t seem like it would stop and it was too late for me to do anything about. I donned my rain jacket which meant that as I pushed hard up the hills I would sweat and basically get soaking wet regardless. From the light drizzle to a steady downpour, I toiled upwards as the cars and trucks splash, sprayed and generally caused me extra havoc as I couldn’t see with the water in my eyes and my tires slipped on every metal sewer cap or bridge joist I came across.

Somehow, I made it to the last tunnel I had to squeeze through to Kamikochi. This tunnel proved to be consistent with those I had previously encountered so far on my Honshu journey; that being a tunnel with no shoulder or sidewalk, four lanes of speeding angry cars that sound like trumped up spaceships hell bent on doing one thing: hitting me. And this one had an 11% incline and was slippery. I did the saddest, wettest, coldest thing: I walked my bike. The entire 2 miles of tunnel. Two Miles!!

At the other side of the tunnel is was still raining, and getting to be late afternoon. As I was freezing at this point, I jumped back on the bike and tried to go a bit faster so I could attempt to get warm, but the rain and slippery twisting road, sometimes uphill then strangely downhill wasn’t having any of it. I did arrive at Kamikochi, to the cheers of one group urging me onward to the campground (and by “campground” I actually mean swamp land). An hour of heartbreaking searching got me to a small tangle of tree knots that weren’t under half a foot of water, and so I began removing the largest of the stones in the area I could find and thought I might be able to scrap enough flat ground to pitch my tent.

It was still raining, so I thought what could be more clever then for me to try to pitch the tent with the rain-fly attached to the body to keep it from getting wet inside. Being in the initial stages of hypothermia, this didn’t work out as well as it did in my head. The stakes didn’t hold. The poles refused to go upright under the fly. And so, 15 minutes of agonizing, shivering, gut wrenching almost-giving up-ness, I had a pitched tent filled with water. A few mumbled (a few yelled) profanities and I threw all my gear in the tent and waded over to the one highlight of the campground: the bath house.

The Japanese Bath house is, after the first experience, one of the most pleasant, relaxing things. The basic principle is this: You enter the bath house to a locker/changing room where you remove all your clothes. You then enter the cleaning area where, sitting on a small stool, you wash your body very very well. There are little faucets and shower heads, and usually a thing of soap. All the men are sitting on little stools washing themselves as well, its a big room. After washing and rinsing, you are now ready to get into the bath. Traditionally fed with actual hot spring water, it can range from soothingly warm to blood boiling hot, sulfurously smelling to obviously just heated water. No matter what, once you are in, its 20 minutes or so of just relaxing and letting the hot water do its thing.

So I found myself at the end of this wonderful ritual, dreading getting out of the hot, anti-hypothermic water and back into my wet clothes and back to that sopping wet tent. So I sat for another 20 minutes. Eventually, I got out, dried off and put on the cold wet clothes. The rain was a little less, but still coming down. A row of sinks by my tent was roofed and I had left my bike there so I went over to it and saw the only other person camping cooking some food. He noticed me and thankfully asked me in better English than I speak Japanese if I wanted any of his soup. I said no, but he did heat up some water for me and gave me some sake and hot water. I gave him an apple. We talked for a bit, him giving me more and more sake, and eventually we headed to our tents.

Having the lulling effect of sake in me, I zipped open and zipped closed the tent quickly, grabbed anything with sponge like qualities and pushed the puddles of water to the edges of the tent and quickly sank into the wet cold earth under my tent hoping to never relive this day again.

I learned one of the hardest lessons I learned during my tour the next day. I awoke to clearing skies, birds chirping, and a musty wet tent. But getting out and seeing the sun, hanging up everything to dry and going for a hike, I felt elated. I realized that the day before was most likely the most miserable day I could go through, and while it certainly sucked, there was still the element of the experience, of living. It took the sunshine, the birds, and my stinky stuff to dry over the next few days for me to see that the miserable day was actually a test, a gentle way for the universe to make sure that I was paying attention and truly appreciated what I was doing. While I certainly didn’t pray for rain afterwords, I realized that when it rains, I get wet. But I keep biking. Of course, that is unless a typhoon comes along…

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Saving the Queen: A Canadian Bicycle Adventure

Often, when one thinks of May one thinks of warm lazy spring days, gentle breezes wafting with the scent of newly budded flowers.  The leaflets reaching out their tender tips to catch the seasons firsts rays of life giving sun. And so it was with this idyllic thoughts that i headed off into the hinter lands that we refer to as Canada.  In Canada (commonwealth of Britain) they speak French, English and Canadian, along with many indigenous languages that most people don't care about (ahh, just like home).  What i would learn on my trip is that Canada doesn't have the same beliefs regarding May as i do, and that the French were great at throwing up their hands even in Canada when the British came to invade Quebec, it was a whopping 15 minute battle.

The first day was a glorious May day (as described above), cycling in shirt and shorts, i crossed over Lake Champlain islands, into New York State and hurriedly left it for the international border into Canada.  Where i crossed is where a lot of cyclist cross, though the border dude raised an eye (in hindsight this might have been because he understood what May means in Canada).  After my outright lies and half truths, they let me into their commonwealth.  Yippie!!!

And so I went north by north west through flat farm lands until i reached the island of Montreal, where i would lay my head for the night.  I stayed with a couchsurfer I stayed with once before, and before long i was snoozing away.  It was off early the next morning to follow the St. Laurent river towards Quebec.  I would follow various parts of the Route Verte bike route system.  This day it begin to dawn on me that perhaps the normally happy bicycle gods were not in favor of me biking at this time.  I narrowly diverted two torrential downpours proceed by lighting and thunder, all trying basically to hurt this little biker.  It was by mere seconds that I ducked under gas stations awnings that i am here today to write of my tales of woe.  After completing my first back to back century, I found myself in Trois Rivierais, another place the Birtish took from the French and where i camped near a huge cathedral.

The next morning was crisp.  Cold might be a good description but us campers like to say crisp because it makes us seem more rugged like the cold doesn't affect us, nay, we revel in it.  But it was cold.  It could be that it was 5am and the sun hadn't even rubbed it's eyes yet, but there i was striking camp and getting ready to head off.  The first three hours usually are the coldest as it takes a while for that wonderful black asphalt to heat up.  The day proved to be nice and the huge black clouds of death were on the other side of the river, so all was good.  I even dilly dallied knowing that i was only 85 miles out of Quebec and had more than 10 hours to bike there.  So i stopped every so often (and stopped and stopped.  My saddle was proving to not be the wonderful entity that the one i used in Japan proved to be)

Coming into Quebec i hit my first hills in three days.  The bike route takes you along the water whilst the village is actually up on the cliffs (Quebec is the oldest walled city in North America north of New Mexico or something like that)  The entire waterfront was a bustling park with great bike routes and benches and places for people and grass and pigeons.  Part of me was bummed i wouldn't get to crash camp there, it looked that nice.  I fiddled around the oldest part of Quebec, nearly 400 years before finding my way to my couchsurfer where i would spend two nights.

My host took my on a little walking/history tour that evening explaining the history of the village and some of the interesting facts about the area in general.  Like, why is there only one bridge across the river?  Because there isn't room for another.  Or, in Canada, why does the chicken cross the road?  To get closer to America.  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

Anywho, after a night in the biggest bed i have ever slept in, the spent the day in the chilly drizzle walking the city again, trying to get into city hall but it was locked.  Saw some art, some church and some fair trade market.  Quebec is a great place, much nicer in my opinion than Montreal as it's big but not really, has a European feel and despite the rumours, I never once felt my less than fluent French was a hindrance or secretly despised by the Quebecers.

After another night in the bed that God made, i was off in the chilly (aka COLD) overcast morning.  Rain loomed.  Winds winded.  After crossing the fabled bridge over the river, i put my camera away as for the rest of the day, for the entire day, ALL DAY, the winds blew at me and it held a steady rain.  As anyone knows, a rain coat keeps the rain out and the sweat in, so i was wet.  And as anyone knows, this makes you cold and shiver.  Around, when i thought my brain was finally succumbing to the elements, the snow began snowing.  It was snowing.  In May.  While I biked.  In shorts.  Not good.

At 4am the next morning, i felt a little stiff.  So did my tent.  A punch to the wall sent a crack and a cascade of ice off the tent.  My tent had been covered by ice.  For an hour, i dreaded leaving my sleeping bag, but by 5am I stood outside in my sandals (all i had) to witness the snow covered ground and ice covered tent.  Being rationale, i thought, " Hmmm.  This might not be good".  It was freezing.  And that's putting it nicely.

It took me awhile to strike as my fingers didn't like to move too much, and I biked 10 miles to the first gas station where i drank two cups of coffee over an hour period.  My left toe that entire time didn't thaw out.    I realized that i might have serious issues if i continue onward.  So i did something that i really, really, really, really didn't want to.  I called for help.

Another 10 miles and 3 hours later, i was sitting in my housemates car being driven back to Vermont.  As we crossed the border, the sun was shining and the air was warm (at least comparatively).  Sure, i had only biked 400 miles and been away for 6 days, but it felt glorious to be back in Vermont.  Seems they had snow too.  The mountains got two feet of snow.  Stupid May.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Not if, but when;

aside as thunder with mollusk eyes and streaks of accusation, becoming what we laid aside dreaming contemptable dreams, you'll come to me as the divine erato, as crashing curtains upon applause, with streaks and instances flapped across the pages, you'll come to me only as stolen glimpses from the other side, shifty smiles and unsaids drifting in the sultry air, the glance dance delicately performed, come to me as whispers crawling on their knees, grovel for a precious moment of my time.

For when you come to me,
I will be ready,