The ride out of Assiniboia brought up some nostalgic feelings for me. It was very cold, the sky was overcast, and rain was specking down - not enough to completely drench me, but enough to make everything damp and dreary, enough to make my muscles and joints ache, enough to ruin my day.
Except it didn't quite ruin my day, because as i cycled out across the flat landscape, though a field of windmills... it reminded me of living in Holland as a teenager, and riding to school every day. I had to get from Hazerswoude Dorp to Leiden, which was a bit over 15km, and us kids from the village did it rain, hail or shine. Mid-winter, with the cobbled roads iced over, we still cycled. It was cold and wet and miserable, but that's life, you fucking grit your teeth and do it anyway.
So riding out of Assiniboia, all those memories came flooding back, and it was bittersweet, because being a teenager in Holland was pretty much the happiest time of my childhood, back when i was full of excitement about the world and hope for the future, before i got jaded.
But then i kept on riding, and i got colder, and wetter, and there was no place to stop and warm up. Not for 80 damn kilometers.
Aside from the rain, it's very clear that i am no longer in the dry prairie any more. Maybe already since i went north of Mankota. Now there are marshy wetlands in the middle of every second field. There was a huge, fenced-off lake on some farmer's property that probably had more water in it than the whole of southwest Saskatchewan combined. There are millions of birds. Like, when you cycle past a bullrush-filled pond, suddenly a massive cloud emerges from the undergrowth and flies into the air. It would've blacked out the sun, if there was any sun shining today.
It reminds me of Europe. And Ontario. Welcome to the rest of Canada, it's basically just one giant bog. Soon there will be swarms of mosquitoes everywhere and i will truly have entered the Canada of my nightmares. Which is to say, most of Canada.
But before i left Assiniboia one good thing happened. Two good things, actually. Three!
The first good thing, i found a Vietnamese restaurant that actually made a couple of real Vietnamese dishes, not just Canadian Chinese. They had a dedicated vegetarian section on the menu, so i got a summer roll stuffed with veges and rice noodle vermicelli, and a spicy tofu/vegetable dish that for the first goddamn time in the prairies was actually really, really spicy. I asked specifically, and showed a picture of red Thai chilis, and they fucking delivered. They even gave me a little cup of hot sauce that was so delicious i wish i knew what brand it was. It was very, very slightly sweet, but mostly spicy. You could see the chili seeds in there. It was a bit like sambal, but less salty.
Then i went to the liquor store for a couple cans of booze and found a 1L Smart water bottle, so that is now in my pannier, giving me 3L in total. I can survive a day with 3L, although 4L is more comfortable. But 3L will do, in a pinch. Next time i do a run through the backcountry i'll buy another bottle.
The next morning i hit up the grocery store, and they had Starbucks Via instant coffee, which isn't great coffee, but it's leaps and bounds better than any other grocery store instant, so i stocked up. And bought some unsalted peanuts and quick oats and fruit too. What a haul!
Then came that ride to Ogema. The worst part is that i got to Ogema and immediately got bad vibes from the place. It has two restaurants - a BBQ joint and an Italian joint - and a café, and a huge campsite that appears to be linked to a large rodeo site. There were horses riding around. I dunno, the whole place made me uncomfortable - too many things i dislike packed into a small space. I resolved to press on to Pangman.
Pangman is a much smaller village, but it still has a gas station and a grocery store and a Chinese restaurant. There is also a campsite, which when i saw a Google review saying it was "full service" i foolishly assumed that meant toilets, showers and wifi. Actually it's just a field with full hookup for RVs and no toilets at all. Sucks to be me because the only place in town with a toilet is the Chinese restaurant. Thank God it's open Sunday for breakfast, otherwise tomorrow morning would truly suck.
Obviously, i went to the Chinese restaurant. I managed to keep it vegetarian by ordering spring rolls and fried rice. Oolong tea. I asked for added vegetable on the rice, and they were happy to add a bit of greens in there. They even brought hot sauce when i asked too. It wasn't anything special compared to the food last night, but it was much better than any of the white people food i've had in the prairies and almost reminded me of getting 炒飯 fried rice from the Cantonese street vendors in Shenzhen.
I talked to the owner and turns out she is from Fujian. It is not always the case that "Chinese" restaurants in the prairies are run by actual people from China, so it was neat to be able to speak a bit of Chinese and also contrast life in China to Canada a bit. The owner was a fair bit more free-spirited than a lot of recent Chinese migrants who still have that "can't speak poorly of the motherland" reflex, so it felt good to have a real candid conversation. We talked about travel, and smalltown life.
She moved from Xiamen to Calgary just before COVID hit and flights got grounded all over the world. She lived there for a bit, but lost her job due to the pandemic, so decided to take over this abandoned restaurant in a random village in the middle of nowhere completely on a whim. The local people love it because they finally have a restaurant in town again, and she has gotten to know everyone, has set up her own vegetable garden, and is basically living the rustic village life in a much cleaner, quieter and more spacious village than any village in China.
A lot of the immigrants i talk to who ended up in these small towns don't seem to regret it, or at least they don't show it on their faces. It seems they really are happy to have the quiet life. I suspect there is also some kind of status involved in being "the only immigrant in the village". I experienced it myself living in an urban village in China. You become a bit of a neighborhood celebrity, because you are the one immigrant who dared to tread where others would not. I think a lot of expats secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy that feeling, the sense that they are now suddenly exotic and interesting, when before they were just another unremarkable person.
You know... being a bike tourer is a bit like that too. Nobody cares if someone drives through town in an RV. But come through on a bike, now you're the talk of the town. People treat you a bit nicer, perhaps.
Well, they might treat you nicer, but that still doesn't always get you a campsite with a toilet or a spigot of potable water.
Fuck fucking Weyburn and this whole shitty, soggy, tree-, bird- and insect-ridden corner of Saskatchewan. I have almost spent more money in the last hour than i have on an entire fucking motel elsewhere.
I had hoped that because Weyburn was a decent sized town (around 10000 people) it would provide more and better food options than smaller towns, but it just provides more and worse. Literally every restaurant bar two, i think, are chain restaurants. What the fuck is the point of going to the same damn restaurant you can eat at anywhere else in the whole of North America, eating the same bland, bullshit food, completely lacking in soul or flavor or nutrition? God i fucking hate chain restaurants so much. It's bad enough so-called locally-owned restaurants in the big cities just recycle the same Sysco ingredients so they all end up tasting the same anyway.
So, fuck. I went to the bar and got a poutine, a garden salad and a beer and came out $35 poorer, and none of it was very good. Then i went to a campsite out of town which the website said would be $17 and it was $28. Twenty eight bucks for a tent campsite with no services! I think this is the most that i have paid for a campsite yet. There is no wifi, nowhere to charge my stuff, and when i asked if the water was potable the girl at the front was all "uh, i dunno, i mean, i wouldn't drink it". What the fuck am i paying for then!?
To make matters worse, the six (count 'em) tent campsites in the whole damn place (which has about 100 RV spots) are not flat, and they're right under a bunch of trees. Who the fuck camps under a tree? It is the worst possible place to camp. It blocks out the sun, so when it inevitably rains or your tent gets condensated, you can't dry your shit out. Birds land on the tree and shit on your tent. What the fuck is the fucking point? I'd rather have wind than a fucking wet, cold, bird be-shat tent. And there's fucking midges, because of course there is, because Canada is one giant fucking bog. Disgusting.
I am so annoyed.
This morning actually didn't suck. I held on till 9am when the Chinese restaurant opened again and went in to use the facilities and have a hot coffee. It had rained all night so my tent was all wet, i was damp and miserable, and a hot coffee was the best fucking thing.
There were four farmers there drinking coffee and shooting the shit. I joined the conversation. I learned there is such a thing as a Big Farmer (the capital letters hung in the air), the kind of farmer who owns a spectacular amount of land, "yeah that guy owns a whole township, he has 10 combines, and his own oil truck!" The Big Farmers rent their gear out to small-f farmers so they earn two ways. "He's not just a Big Farmer, he's Oil Rich!"
One of the guys had worked on the road that goes down to Climax, way back in the day. I think he was a laborer, sometimes doing construction, sometimes doing farm work, whatever work he could get. They reminisced about how back in the old days before cellphones people knew how to communicate with one another. One guy said he refused to get a phone saying "if i'm having an emergency, i'll come find you, i don't need a phone so you can find me". He said most Canadians today wouldn't know how to survive if the power went out in winter. He was a survivalist, he said he taught his kids how to survive from nothing. The previous winter when the power went out he taught his wife to make coffee using the propane torch, because of course you gotta have one of those lying round. One of the other guys said the Russians could knock out a satellite and we'd all be screwed. Another guy said EMP would be a better way to take out all electronics. A fourth was skeptical, saying "they'll just put another one up".
It went on like this, just harmless banter, observations about the world, interesting stories about places they went, the water truck guy who delivered water to houses back in the day before there was a mains water supply, the next farmer up the road ("nice guy, terrible farmer"), and so on. It was a really relaxed, pleasant chat. Eventually i called it, though, because i had to get on the road.
The sou'easterly felt like it was pushing me backwards as i cycled in the direction of Weyburn. There are no towns in between, just 60km or so. I didn't think it'd be too big of a deal, but it was cold, and damp, and windy, and it felt like it took forever.
The closer i got to town the more rednecky things got.
I feel like there are two types of countryfolk. One is the type that actually lives off the country, real farmers who are all fairly independent and smart and have different manners of dress, different personalities, different experiences... And then there is this sort of cookie cutter redneck yahoo who perhaps just lives in town, and they put on this persona of what they think "country" should be, which is a raised up truck, fucked-with engine so it makes a lot of noise but probably doesn't haul trailers worth a damn, beer drinkin', steak eatin', Jesus praisin', Conservative votin', ATV drivin', whatever.
And then i got into town and it sucked. The best thing about Weyburn is it has a (very short) river trail that you can cycle along, and all the people hiking along there gave me a smile and said hi. So perhaps the people are nice. I don't know, because i left after the shock of the bill for lunch. And then got the shock of the bill for camping.
I suppose i should take a walk around this very expensive campsite to see if there is anything interesting to take a photo of. And then i will come back to my tent and eat a tortilla, finishing off the last of my peanut butter, wishing i was back in the prairie that's actually hot and dry and dusty and vast. Not whatever this watery grave is. Fuck. Not even getting to ride down the diagonal road for a few miles could save this afternoon.
Yeah, i was in a shitty mood that last entry. I felt a bit better after making my food picture post and eating some Elvis sandwiches for dinner (peanut butter and banana chips with some Tajin and coconut to give it vaguely baconish vibes).
I felt even better the next morning when a ray of sunshine lit up my tent around 8am. I had spent the first hour of the morning looking at OpenStreetMap and some reviews of restaurants and campsites on TripAdvisor and Google.
This is essentially how i plan my travels - i look at a map in the morning, see what's nearby that looks like it might be interesting, and if i am a bit unsure just based on the info from my OSMAnd~ app (which has offline maps, Wikipedia and Wikivoyage entries, and includes "POI" point of interest markers for gas stations, restaurants and grocery stores), i'll check some other sources too. In the very small prairie towns TripAdvisor is completely useless and Google is almost completely useless because whatever information it has is almost certainly out of date - the towns are dying and businesses keep shutting down. But you can also check the provincial tourism websites, sometimes the town itself has a website, or a trail might be listed on a local hiking enthusiast's webpage. Sometimes i have no information and just go blind, or ask someone at a diner or bar what they think. This is how i traveled in China and Europe too. I like not having any plans or destination in particular. Figuring it out on the day is half the fun.
Anyway, just before the sun hit my tent i decided to skip taking the diagonal road to Estevan, because it seems like Estevan is just Weyburn redux. Town is about the same size. Has pretty much the exact same chain restaurants and stores. The campsites all looked to be the same kind of places i was already in - large caravan parks where people from the city book a site for an entire season (or multiple years) and build out decks and BBQs and whatnot... It's more like a Butlin's than a campsite, which is probably why it was so expensive and didn't cater to solo travelers like me. So, if Weyburn sucked, Estevan looked to suck for the same reasons, and to make matters worse it's a dead end if you aren't continuing through to Minot (North Dakota), because heading east from there it doesn't look like there is much.
So unfortunately i missed seeing a rock formation i wanted to see at Roche Percée and decided to continue along 13 and try make Carlyle instead. The wind was nor'westerly, so 100km should be no problem, unlike the struggle against the headwind of the day before.
And then i cheerfully opened my tent to eat breakfast and pack up, and my tire was flat. Fuck fucking Weyburn, the cursed city.
I haven't mentioned it because it didn't seem like a big deal, but i got a slow flat after Osoyoos too. That is, rode fine during the day, woke up in the morning, tire is flat. Pump it up, ride fine during the day, wake up next morning, it's flat again. I traveled from Osoyoos to Christina Lake like that, then resolved to change it before camping overnight in the backcountry. Foolishly, at my last chance to go to a bike shop in Fernie, i did not buy a tube, so i have been running with one good tube on the tire and my backup tube is that slow leaking one. But now it seems i might have two slow leaking ones.
It has not escaped me that all three tire problems i have had on this tour have come after going through highway sections. The blowout coming into Kelowna on 97. The slow leak coming into Osoyoos on 3 and crossing 97. And now the slow leak coming into Weyburn on 13 and briefly going down the diagonal 39. All of these sections of highway were festooned with shredded truck tires, smashed windscreen glass, twisted scraps of metal, broken bottles, junk food wrappers and beer cans and cigarette butts and so on. It's fucking disgusting the disregard internal combustion vehicle owners have for the state of the roads that they drive on, treating them like a trash can. And they don't care because the wind pushes all the debris to the shoulder, so really it only fucks over hitchhikers, cyclists and wildlife.
So. Cycling on busy highways continues to suck, and my decision to mostly stick to lonely highways, gravel roads, hiking trails and even bushwhacking the backcountry is vindicated. It's not the traffic i'm avoiding so much as the trash.
Anyway, waking up to another flat threw a spanner in the works, because to get a new tube my only option would be Canadian Tire (large hardware store chain) in fucking Weyburn or fucking Estevan. I decided to cycle north along a gravel road to 13, then check to see if i was flat, then decide whether to backtrack west to Weyburn or just say fuck it and keep heading east. Next big town where i might be able to buy a tube is Brandon, Manitoba.
The tire held after the gravel, so i charged on east. Since i have spent so long on the morning thought process i won't bore you with the details. Southeastern Saskatchewan is far more populated than the southwest. The towns are far more lively. The people are "Minnesota nice", all talking like "don't ya know" and "sure ya can" and "you betcha". It doesn't feel like the west anymore, it feels solidly midwest. I had lunch in Stoughton (fish and chips and salad and a pint for $10 less than the smaller and worse meal i got in Weyburn), i admired the architecture and got a drink in Arcola, marveling that such a small town had its own theater, and i got a cinnamon bun and some tortillas in Carlyle.
I was going to camp in Carlyle, but then i saw there was a casino on the rez about 10km north. On a whim, i checked to see if they had frybread. Oh yes. They did. So i gritted my teeth and cycled against the wind onto the White Bear Indian Reserve. I saw a fox along the way. The reserve is part of the uplands where Moose Mountain provincial park is (just north of the rez), but after my miserable camping experiences in Cypress Hills and Nickle Lake, i don't trust parks outside of BC any more. My plan was to ask if i could camp in the RV parking area, but if not then just get a room at the casino hotel. Great news - they let me camp overnight on the grass by the RVs. No charge.
I think i am the youngest person in this casino by several decades. I didn't even step foot on the gaming floor because i don't understand the appeal of gambling, but the staff treated me super nice anyway. Minnesota nice! And the food was excellent.
The next step on my frybread adventure was to try what is known in the US as Indian tacos or Navajo tacos. Here it's called a bannock taco. Essentially it's a Tex-Mex taco salad put on top of a piece of frybread, and somehow that makes it about 10 times more delicious than the normally fairly pedestrian taco salad. The crispy, doughy texture of the bannock is a better match for Tex-Mex taco meat than nothing (or than those awkward hard taco shells). Having ground beef on solid hunk of bread just seems so much more sensible and fulfilling.
Then for dessert i saw they had a saskatoon berry crumble, and i never had a saskatoon berry before, so this was a twofer main and dessert indigenous fusion first time experience. The crumble was ridiculously sweet. I normally would not want to eat anything that sweet, but i suspect it suits the taste buds of the white oldies who come to gamble and love their sugar. Despite the overwhelming sweetness i still think i got a bit of an idea of what a saskatoon berry tastes like, so left feeling satisfied.
And what's next? Manitoba is next. More lakes, more wetlands, more marsh, more bog, more mosquitoes. I hope to be able to limp to Brandon on my leaky tires, perhaps via Turtle Mountain and the International Peace Garden, although that's a bit of a detour. We'll see.
Okay folks, disaster has struck. I have a bunch of broken spokes. I heard one or two pings the other day outside of Weyburn but i kept cycling, didn't seem to make a difference. I should've checked when i got the slow flat, but i figured the sluggishness on the back had just been about the flat, didn't think to check the spokes. This will only get worse. I need to get to Brandon asap.
Today i fucking booked it along the straightest, best sealed road i could find. I tried to dangle a few more things over my front handlebars to avoid putting too much weight on the back. I'ma need a new wheel after this, for sure. With the help of a tailwind i made it to Virden, Manitoba in good time. If my bike can just hold up cycling the shoulder of the Trans Canada Highway tomorrow, i will be in Brandon and at a bike store that can help me (i called ahead).
Along the route i encountered some more Minnesota nice.
A guy in a truck pulled over and asked what was up as i futzed with my spokes this morn. He offered to give me a lift to the next town "but my truck is full of bread right now, so here's my number". Complete stranger gives me his number to call in case i break down on the way to the next town.
Then i made it to the next town and stopped into the diner for a hot coffee to cheer me up. The owner took pity on me and said i should eat something. So she gave me a bowl of soup on the house - "fully loaded" potato soup, with bacon and cheese and green onions and soda crackers. It was extremely hearty and delicious. When i went to pay for my coffee she ran up with a little survival kit of baby chocolate bars and two homemade brownies. She said she'd give me a lift if she found me walking my bike to the next town after she closed up.
Checking into the campsite here in Virden, the host said if i broke down on the Trans Canada tomorrow just to call her back and she'd send someone out to pick me up.
I'm not used to people helping out like this. I feel a bit wary of it, like i owe them something, or they're expecting something and i'm not sure what. But i will say that it does boost my morale to have people offer to help, even if it's just a "politeness" offer and secretly they hope i won't call them on it.
Visiting the bar here in Virden is a much more pleasurable experience than the last two provinces. In Alberta only Asian and indigenous people masked up, and white people spent every moment complaining about it. In Saskatchewan nobody masked, anywhere, anytime. Here in Manitoba you need to mask and show proof of vaccination just to get into the bar. No proof of vaccination, no sit-down dining (or drinking) - take-out only. BC has done the same thing since this week. I don't like the idea of mandating vaccinations for people who don't want them, because i do believe in freedom of choice, but i do like the idea of restaurants putting in vaccination policies for eat-in, since it helps the majority of people who go there to feel safer. After two provinces of people not giving the slightest shit about this fourth wave, it's nice to get the sense that people here are still taking it seriously, at least until we hit whatever magic number of vaccinations we need to knock this stupid virus on the head.
Anyway. I had curly fries and deep fried mushrooms for dinner. It was vegan, but it wasn't healthy, and i don't give a fuck. I am going to get a White Claw from the off sales and go back to my tent to eat a brownie and fall asleep.
It's 78km to the bike shop. Along the Trans Canada Highway. Forecast says there will be a headwind. Will i make it? Stay tuned.