By Scott Morris
Day 42, July 12, 2019
I made it!
The final day wasn’t easy, but I made it to the end of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route in Owen Sound, Ontario.
Sometimes the bicycle teaches spiritual lessons, as was the case yesterday.
I may not have the faith to move mountains or to calm strong headwinds, but I can ask and receive enough strength to endure those mountains and headwinds. That’s important when they team up against me.
The day started in wonderful fashion. From Collingwood, I immediately hopped on the Georgian Trail, a former rail line turned into a trail for hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers.
As the pea gravel crackled under my tires, I could look left and see the ski slopes of the Blue Mountains and on the right, the vast Georgian Bay, an arm of Lake Huron. The skies over the Great Lakes can turn the most beautiful hues, and yesterday’s was turquoise.
Steve Shirtliffe rode up while I was shooting photos and wanted to know my story. He was on vacation from the Saskatchewan region.
I told him my family watched several Netflix episodes of the comedy sitcom “Corner Gas,” which is set in Saskatchewan.
“That’s pretty much how it is there,” he said with a laugh. “Probably a lot like Alabama.”
After Steve rode away, I had to leave the trail and head toward Owen Sound. The red and white Canadian maple leaf flags were flapping in my direction.
At the same time, I had to ascend the Niagara Escarpment one last time, after going up and down it for a week.
The wind and mountain were a brutal combination. I shifted to the lowest gear, put my hands on the handlebar drops to be more aerodynamic and gave it everything I had for miserable mile after miserable mile. Most of the time, I could only muster about 5 mph.
I finally got to the top and collapsed in the shade of an old Anglican Church steeple. A banana and some Gatorade perked me up and I set off again.
I took my next rest stop in the village of Walter’s Waterfall at a place called Corner Gas. No lie. They don’t actually sell gas at Corner Gas, but you can get cold drinks and a fresh caramel muffin.
The proprietor told me he has met thousands of cyclists through the years riding the Underground Railroad route, but not many who did it alone. He asked me how many flat tires I had.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to who had none,” he said.
So I guess I owe a shoutout to Eero Wilson and the guys at Spinning Spoke Bicycle Hub in Florence for recommending the puncture-resistant Bontrager H5 tires. I spent a lot of miles on the shoulders of highways in broken glass and other hazardous debris with no problems.
I did have an issue yesterday when the rear disc brake quit working, made a weird sound and emitted an odor similar to burned banana peel. Later, I discovered the peel from my snack stuck in the brake. I had placed it on the bike to dispose of it and forgotten it.
It was a relief to finally descend the escarpment that leads to Owen Sound. I was a gritty, limestone-colored mess from seven miles of the day's route on wet gravel roads when I arrived at the end of the official route and a memorial to the Underground Railroad. I read all the displays. Then I sat sat on a bench for a while and thought about my journey to this place.
When I set out from Mobile, Alabama, I dipped my shiny new bicycle tires in Mobile Bay. When I passed by Lakes Erie and Ontario, I did the same. Sometime today, I plan to baptize the muddy, worn tires in Lake Huron. Then I'm going to sit back and let Daughter No. 1 drive me home.
Day 41, July 11, 2019
I may be the most excited man to see windmills since Don Quixote.
Cervantes' character tried to fight windmills because he thought they were giants. Any other parallels between me and the would-be knight errant will rest unsaid.
The miles and miles of gentle giants I passed yesterday kept watch over fields of yellow canola blooms, amber wheat, and dark green corn stalks, alfalfa and soy beans. And this high-tech revolution is occurring in a countryside populated by Amish and old-school Mennonites.
The seemingly endless rows of power generators mesmerized me as their white fan blades swooshed in the breeze. I couldn’t quit looking or taking photos.
As someone who loves riding through farm country, it was the perfect day on secluded county roads. Add a brisk tailwind, a route that descended 2,851 feet and temperatures in the low 80s, and the 62 miles were the easiest I have pedaled on the trip to Canada.
The 12-mile home stretch to Collingwood, Ontario, dropped from 1,650 feet elevation to 600 as I rode through Pretty River Valley Provincial Park. It was a lazy rider’s dream.
Collingwood is an adventure town on the banks of the Georgian Bay, off Lake Huron. Everywhere I look, I see bicycles, kayaks, paddle boards, hiking boots, and snow-ski shops. The Blue Mountain ski area is part of the Niagara Escarpment that I descended to get here.
But I’m at the bottom of a bowl and must climb out to reach my final destination today, So, as bicycle karma would have it, I face an 800-foot ascent to start the day. But it’s only 43 miles to the end.
Until this tour, I didn’t think 43 miles was short.
Day 40, July 10, 2019
When I run into people on the road, they ask me where I spent the night before.
Usually, I have trouble remembering.
That’s what happens when you combine age with sleeping in 39 different places in 39 days. Besides, I’m usually thinking about where I’m going instead of where I’ve been, which sounds like a good habit to continue.
It’s strange to think only two more days of riding remain before the tour of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route ends.
I’ll keep riding and writing for the next couple of days. Then, please, may I go home? In a car? With the air conditioning running?
I plan to rest a few days, catch up on my neglected chores and write an epilogue. Maybe by then I can better explain why an old white dude from the South chose a route that commemorates slaves who escaped to Canada.
I hope I haven’t offended any of you with the weird mix of history, humor and travelogue contained in these blog posts. I can tell you with all my heart that I mean well.
The mental and physical effort to keep this journey up for so long has prevented me from taking as many photos as I intended and visiting as many sites as I planned.
But maybe I will come away from the second greatest adventure of my life as a better person. I know the greatest adventure of my life - marrying Jenny and helping raise six children - led to self-improvement.
I popped open my sixth bottle of sunscreen yesterday and enjoyed a ride that was an improvement over the previous day’s tour of big-city streets. After leaving Milton, I entered several miles of farmland that looked like the Midwest, with wheat fields and corn. Then it changed to hilly tree farms and giant nurseries.
Then I rode three beautiful mountain miles along the Forks of the Credit River, a popular fishing stream for brown and brook trout. The region includes the famous Bruce Trail for hikers and an area called Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, which sounds like the queen herself just showed up for a picnic.
Ascending back up the Niagara Escarpment from the stream was part of the 3,800 feet of climbing fun contained in the short 43-mile ride.
Just for the record, I spent last night in Orangeville, Ontario, at the Atlanta Motel of all places. And I treated myself to a handful of fresh cherries and a beigne, which looks suspiciously like a sour-cream doughnut.
Next up, I head to the hinterlands for about 62 miles with very few places to get drinks and food. I’ll be hauling more water than a fire truck.
For my cycling friends from the Shoals, my destination today is Collingwood, Ontario. If you guys are riding to Collinwood, Tennessee, on the Natchez Trace, think about me. And say hello to the Dragonfly.
Day 39, July 9, 2019
When the women I left at home read this post, they will think I've shed all my inhibitions along with any weight I've lost on this road to Canada.
But no account of my journey would be complete without a litany of the physical indignities I've suffered.
Early on in the trip, I discovered what cross-country cyclists have in common with runners and breast-feeding mothers.
Yes, we’re talking about sore nipples.
I almost quit the tour back in Mississippi after the pain caused by my jersey chafing against my chest day after day.
But I decided not to give up without seeking a solution.
The internet is the go-to resource for embarrassing medical conditions, but you have to be careful when you choose your keywords. You can’t just search for “nipples,” because who knows what might appear on your computer screen.
I can’t remember the exact word combination I used, but I stumbled upon the condition called joggers nipple. It can cause bleeding and scabbing in severe cases.
I learned women generally don’t have this issue because they wear sports bras. This made me wonder if anyone makes sports bras for men. Maybe something called “The Bro,” as once referenced in the TV comedy “Seinfeld.”
But I couldn’t find a Bro. So I went to that place where every internet-savvy person goes when seeking obscure products, Amazon.
There I found something called Nip Guards. I read the customer reviews. “My wife and kids walked in while I was putting them on and I think they’re scarred for life,” one reviewer wrote. But he endorsed the product.
So while I was home for a two-week break, I risked the ridicule of the three women in our house and ordered 20 pairs of Nip Guards. They arrived in a discreet plain brown box, so the mailman and neighbors wouldn’t talk.
Nip Guards look like pasties without tassels. They consist of a octagon-shaped piece of foam about a quarter-inch thick covered with a thin beige plastic film. They have adhesive and stick to the body through hurricane conditions.
I’m happy to report they work so well that I ordered enough to get me to Owen Sound, Ontario. Maybe the ride for world peace should become the ride for joggers nipple. Let's remove the stigma and find a cure.
There have been other pain points, too. Just about any part of the body that touches the bike presents a problem after too many miles.
The outer edges of my palms stayed irritated and the skin was peeling until I bought a new pair of cycling gloves with more padding.
I won’t provide details for another issue, but the cure is a wonderful product called Chamois Butt’r.
There you go. More than you ever wanted to know about bicycle touring.
Yesterday’s 50-mile ride from Stoney Creek to Milton, Ontario, was not very exciting. It included 3,300 feet of climbing.
The day began with an ascent of the steep Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that runs 450 miles and has cliffs almost 1,700 feet high. For the first few miles, I could look down on Lake Ontario and the city of Hamilton, population 535,000. Across the lake, I could make out the sprawling skyline of Toronto.
But most of the day was spent on crowded urban streets getting through Hamilton and the adjacent bedroom communities.
Next up is 45 miles to Orangeville, Ontario.
Day 38, July 8, 2019
The seed that led to the Underground Railroad began on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.
If the British Empire had not abolished slavery here, slaves trying to escape from the United States would have had no place to go.
And it all started with Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman in Queenston, Ontario.
This was just one of the history lessons I came across yesterday as I passed the 2,000-mile mark on my bicycle ride into Canada.
On March 14, 1793, Cooley was bound, thrown into a boat and sold across the river in New York, which once had the second most slaves in the U.S., behind Virginia.
“Her screams and violent resistance were brought to the attention of Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free black and former soldier in Butler’s Rangers, and William Grimsley, a neighbor who witnessed the event,” states a historical marker along the Niagara River.
Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. But he met opposition in the House of Assembly where some members owned slaves.
They reached a compromise to prohibit the introduction of any new slaves into this region of Canada and to slowly abolish slavery altogether.
This decision was significant because it was the first time the British Empire limited slavery and it set up Canada to become a safe haven for fugitive slaves from the U.S.
Trying to capture everything about this region’s history and natural beauty in words and photos is beyond my abilities.
As long as I have memory, I will treasure my 36-mile ride along the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. I have never seen water so magnificent in color and power.
It was surreal to stand and watch the river as a wide and swift stream on its way to roar over Horseshoe and Niagara falls then to churn white through a deep gorge and swirl in the great Whirlpool Rapids, before it pushed through power turbines in two countries at once, and finally settled into the waters at Niagara-On-The-Lake.
I expected less grandeur as I pedaled away from the river along Lake Ontario, but the region held another kind of wonder. The route took me through countless wineries, fruit farms and rows of colorful commercially grown flowers.
I passed so many fruit stands selling locally grown cherries, strawberries and blueberries that I finally had to stop. I bought a small box of strawberries that were the best I have ever tasted. At a rest stop earlier in the day, I had a delicious fresh strawberry muffin with a cold bottle of Gatorade.
The only trouble Canada has given me so far were two miserably hot days in Niagara Falls and a problem I have encountered in other areas of my route involving road signs.
I stayed last night in an Airbnb built in 1893. The old mansion was magnificent in every way but one. There was no air conditioning.
The Asian woman who owns the house is still struggling with her English, which caused her to sound bossy in an endearing way.
“You come to breakfast now,” she said after knocking on my door at 8 a.m. An hour later, she knocked again. “Time for you to take tour of house now,” she said through the door.
But she was a wonderful host to me and about 20 other guests, and she was constantly checking to see if we needed anything.
The other challenge has been navigation. Many of the rural roads either don’t have signs or the signs don’t match my maps. So, yesterday’s 55-mile ride turned into 67 miles.
But I met several nice people who helped me find my way, including Pip and her husband. They actually drove part of the route in their car and then came back to show me the best way to go.
“If you didn’t already have reservations, we’d take you home with us and let you spend the night, and I’d cook you a good meal,” Pip said.
Next up is about 55 miles - plus navigational corrections - to another Airbnb in Milton, Ontario.
Day 37, July 6, 2019
The ride to Canada would have ended one bridge short of the border if it weren’t for a guy named Skip.
Construction crews have been building a new cycling/pedestrian lane across Peace Bridge from Buffalo, New York, to Fort Erie, Ontario. According to news reports, the new lane opened about two weeks ago.
When I arrived at the bridge yesterday, however, an orange sign said the bridge was closed to cyclists. It gave a phone number to call at U.S. Customs for a shuttle ride across the bridge.
When I called the number, it went to voice mail and said the mailbox was full. I tried to find a real person at the entrance kiosk, but it was vacant.
This caused me great stress on a day when the temperature had already climbed to an Alabama-like 87 degrees with high humidity. Was the ride going to end here after all my effort?
I knew there were other bridges across the Niagara River downstream, but I had no idea how to reach them on a bicycle in Buffalo traffic. I thought about standing at the crowded bridge entrance with my hitchhiking thumb in the air in hopes someone in a pickup would have pity.
Finally, I decided to ignore the sign to the nearby duty-free building that said no pedestrians beyond this point.
That’s when Skip yelled at me to stop. When I explained the dilemma to Skip, a U.S. Customs agent, he said he would call for a shuttle. But he couldn’t get anyone on the phone either.
Then all hell broke lose. An 18-wheeler illegally drove through the duty-free car lane and Skip had a conniption.
A second problem presented itself when another driver pulled up and told Skip he got on the bridge by accident and didn’t want to go to Canada.
As Skip tried to juggle these issues, he looked back at me.
“Are you a good rider?” he asked.
“I’ve made it almost 2,000 miles,” I answered.
He glanced at the bridge and then back at me again. “If you want to go that badly, you can ride in traffic.” He said it with hesitation, like it was a bad idea. “Just stay as far to the right as you can and be careful.”
As I rode away still thanking Skip, he yelled “Good luck.”
Only one northbound lane was open, and because of construction barriers, cars didn’t have room to pass me. By the time I got to Canada, a long line of drivers was backed up behind me. So as soon as the road widened, I kindly pulled over and let them pass.
Then a Canadian customs agent yelled at me to follow him. I thought I was in trouble, but he escorted me to the front of the line - in front of all the traffic I had just held up - and told me to go next.
I had heard terrible things about Canadians - things like they provide health care to everyone - but the customs agents were
polite and even helped
me find the best way to the bike path.
The ride that followed was probably the most scenic trip of my life, along the swift-moving river to Horseshoe and Niagara falls. I was too hot to enjoy the falls, but since I’m staying two nights here, I plan to spend lots of time there today.
The ride will resume Sunday with a 55-mile spin to Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Day 36, July 5, 2019
The decision to abandon all hope of camping on the ride to Canada has been a good one.
I mailed the heavy camping gear home from Pennsylvania, and threw away my old tent and sleeping bag.
The results on the road are positive. I wouldn’t say I’m zipping up hills like Lance Armstrong on performance-enhancing drugs, but the experience is definitely more enjoyable.
On small hills I’m able to stay in the large chainring. Of course yesterday’s 42-mile route was mostly flat from Dunkirk to Hamburg, New York. But I think the weight difference is significant enough to help me up the steeper climbs in Canada.
Even with a lighter load, I was apprehensive about riding on the Fourth of July, but the traffic wasn’t bad on the rural route.
One small beach community where I stopped to check the map was bustling. Three guys on the porch of a cottage were getting a midmorning start on their celebration when they started shouting questions at me in New York accents.
Where you going? Where did you start? How many miles have you gone? Why are you doing it? Have you had breakfast? Do you want a drink?
One of the guys walked over with his phone to record me answering the same questions again. He said he was going to send the video to his cousin, who “just thinks” he’s a cyclist.
We all laughed, they held up their glasses and yelled “cheers” and I was in my way again.
As I rode along Lake Erie, I could see the skyline of Buffalo on the distant lakeshore. I intentionally stopped just short of the city for the night so I could hit it early today and hopefully avoid the worst traffic.
The map from Adventure Cycling Association said to expect urban road conditions and to ride defensively. That sounds intimidating to someone accustomed to riding quiet county roads in Alabama.
From Buffalo, today, I will cross the Peace Bridge into Canada. Total mileage to my Airbnb in Niagara Falls should be about 60 miles with the last leg on a bike trail.
Day 35, July 4, 2019
Danger lurks on the shoulders of American highways.
That’s why I have always avoided riding a bicycle there as best I could. But I surrendered to the shoulders on the ride to Canada in the name of self-preservation on high-traffic roads.
If you aren’t a cyclist, you might ask what hazards hide on the highway shoulders. Terrible things. Things that flatten fragile bike tires, break wheels and send cyclists hurtling over the handlebars. Things that keep the pedaling public up at night.
Pretty much anything that used to be on the road eventually ends up on the shoulders. It stays there until the end of time unless it attracts a team of adopt-a-mile buzzards.
A rider has to be vigilant to avoid catastrophe. Below is a partial list of hazards I have seen (although it can be hard to see through steamed-up cycling goggles) on highway shoulders:
-Walnuts, crabapples, mud, dirt clods, falling rocks, sharp stones, loose gravel, tree limbs, meteorites and quicksand.
-Live snakes and alligators; dead birds, possums, armadillos, raccoons, deer, buffalo and African elephants.
-Broken glass, fish hooks, nails, wood screws, galvanized bolts, barbed wire, butcher knives, Kevlar-bike-tire piercing ammunition, Freddy Krueger, the murder weapon from some chain saw massacre in Texas, WMDs, WTFs and weapons-grade uranium.
-Manhole covers, manholes without covers, covers without manholes, drainage grates, and potholes that lead through a secret underground labyrinth to a forgotten realm.
-A random guy who stands there all day waving at traffic, walkers, joggers made stupid by earbuds, flagman-ahead signs and the actual flagman.
-Underwear, trucker hats, beer cans, big chunks of truck tires, Mountain Dew bottles, previously owned diapers, hypodermic needles and portable meth labs.
I am rating the quality of road shoulders on my big adventure.
Alabama and Mississippi are the worst because the overzealous departments of transportation cut rumble grooves into every possible space in the shoulders to wake up sleepy log-truck drivers. If DOT misses a spot to cut a groove, a big piece of pine bark magically falls off a log truck and fills the void.
In Tennessee and Kentucky, packs of loose dogs protect the highway shoulders, making sure the cycling traffic keeps moving at a brisk pace.
Ohio is terrible because a six-inch depression in the asphalt surrounds every manhole cover and drainage grate to help you find it.
New York is the best, with smooth, wide shoulders and no dead armadillos, live alligators or loose dogs.
Yesterday, I rode 55 miles, mostly on the fine shoulders of Lake Road, from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Dunkirk, New York. It was a beautiful route, passing through miles of wine country. Vineyards surrounded both sides of the highway, and I could look out over the grapevines and see the blue waters of Lake Erie.
Next up is a short 40-mile hop to Hamburg, New York, on the outskirts of Buffalo. Happy Fourth of July, and remember to share the road.
Preview July 3, 2019
The final leg of the ride to Canada began today with a 52-mile spin to Dunkirk, New York.
I will spend the next few days negotiating the congested areas of Buffalo and Niagara Falls on what for some people is a four-day Fourth of July holiday. The timing is not ideal because of traffic, but I’m ready to finish this adventure and see my wife.
I do plan to spend two nights at Niagara Falls to allow time to explore the falls, which I have never seen.
And just to set the record straight, the ride to Canada doesn’t end when I cross the border. The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route continues another 272 miles to Owen Sound, where many runaway slaves settled.
By land’s end, I will have seen three of the Great Lakes: Erie, Ontario and Huron.
Yesterday, I went to the post office in Erie, Pennsylvania, and shipped the rest of my camping gear home. Fearing I would spend $50 mailing $2 worth of junk home, I threw away the heaviest item, a 20-year-old fleece sleeping bag. I tossed my ratty old tent back in Ohio.
I’m like a hot-air balloonist slinging ballast out of the basket in a desperate attempt to gain altitude. Look out below!
So I will be pedaling a lighter load. This is good because Adventure Cycling Association warns that cyclists will struggle to climb the Niagara escarpment and other steep hills in Canada with a fully loaded touring bike.
I’m starting to think former British Prime Minister David Cameron has the right idea about bicycle touring. He said the best way to carry your gear is in the car behind you.
Friends have asked if I have experienced any mechanical problems or flats. So far so good, although my rear tire is wearing thinner after almost 2,000 miles.
The rear tire wears out faster than the front because it bears a higher percentage of the rider’s weight. We cyclists ask a lot of our rear tires and wheels because of the rider’s weight and torque from the chain. Rear wheels are a common problem area for broken spokes and cracked rims.
On a tour, you prepare for common mechanical problems, but you can’t foresee everything. Part of my extra weight comes from spare tire tubes, patch kit, air pump, multi-tool, chain tool, chain lube and zip ties. I also carry a roll of self-fusing silicone plumbers tape, which only sticks to itself.
I met another cross-country cyclist in Kentucky who broke his chain and learned the nearest bike shop was 100 miles away in Missouri. He regretted his decision to save weight by not carrying a chain tool.
He was able to repair his bike by borrowing my chain tool and a pair of pliers from another camper.
I hope my good luck for mechanical issues holds out for the remainder of the trip. Breakdowns mean extra stress when you’re hot and tired and have limited time to reach your lodging.
Once I arrive in Owen Sound, probably around July 12, Daughter No. 1 is driving up to retrieve me. Bless her. It will save a tired old bike rider the hassle of disassembling his bicycle, shipping it home, renting a car, driving to Toronto and flying to Alabama.