Monday, July 23, 2007
Earth Is An Island
Earth is an island. We are islanders. Whether we act for its benefit or detriment, it will be known. Somewhere on the island, the scales will be tipped and there will be change, for better or for worse. It is hard to see this change from a place of comfort, say from within our routines or inside our homes, offices, and automobiles. It is, however, easy to see this change from a bicycle while riding across the vast spaces of Canada.
We would begin in Vancouver, British Columbia, with the intention of heading eastward with the prevailing winds at our backs. Four thousand miles later, we planned to arrive at Halifax, Nova Scotia. You prepare for this type of journey with one certainty in mind; that it will change your life. When we dreamt of our trip, my girlfriend and I saw peace. We saw green fields, snowy mountain peaks, close encounters with wildlife, and blue skies that spanned and never stopped. In our minds, Canada was one of the last vestiges of frontier. It presented a grand challenge. We took that ideal and held it close for eight months of excitement, until we could cash in on our hard work. Then we trimmed our possessions down to thirty pounds of gear, clothes, tools, water and food. The rest went into a 10ft x 10ft storage container while our cat Huxtable went to his Aunt Zoee's. Our touring bikes, or Donkeys as we called them, were wrapped purposefully in bubble wrap for the flight.
Our first two days in Canada were spent stirring about a quaint little guesthouse, sharing tentative adventure stories with fellow foreigners. When we explained that we were about to spend our summer riding bicycles along the Canadian highway system, the looks we received were 50% admiration and 50% are-you-crazy. There was an electric charge in the air. We were about to combine our passion for the outdoors with our passion for self-sufficiency and environmental awareness. At home, we had just sold our car and vowed to make cycling our primary form of transportation. If we could ride through the Rockies, over the prairies, and around the Great Lakes, commuting in Philadelphia would seem like a cakewalk.
The first three weeks of our trip were devoted solely to British Columbia, whose terrain was varied and extremely beautiful. We followed the Fraser River, the world’s greatest salmon river, from its mouth to its origin in the Rockies. The ascents were formidable, but the descents felt akin to flying. The grassy foothills transformed into a desert canyon, which in turn transformed into a mountain-lined valley where we saw giants. Mount Robson, the tallest of these, claimed the same vertical height as Mount Everest.
Then we entered Alberta, whose western border was built of mountains that sloped into the prairies as we continued east. These flat grassy lands stretched across the three provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba until the border of Ontario. The green and yellow fields were immense in breadth, and the air was never still. The hills returned in Ontario, where the rocks, lakes and forests were reminiscent of the old Appalachians. We were granted the magnificence that we had hoped for.
Everywhere we pitched our tent was home, whether it was a wooded hill along the coast, an island wildlife preserve, a farmer’s Canola field, a riverbank, or the shores of a lake. We made friends with schoolteachers, old timers, hostel occupants, bicycle mechanics, curious squirrels and even more curious cattle. Our pace allowed us to experience so much. There was no window between the fresh air and our lungs. The world was no longer so complicated; it was simply the world and we were simply creatures in it.
Our journey, however, was laced with something we did not expect. Our adventure slowly became less of an adventure and more of a learning experience. It started in B.C. with local people warning us about unusual snowmelt and the threat of flooding. Then we began to notice an alarming number of dead pines dispersed over the landscape. Winter’s cold snap, which controls insect hatchings, had been too short this year, leaving the pine beetles’ numbers unchecked. The beetles had ravaged the forests, and logging companies were now faced with the daunting task of removing the dead to prevent fire. The mosquito had also survived the winter, and upon standing still we were instantly covered by their hungry hordes. Signs of a big change popped up everywhere until they became impossible to ignore. British Columbia and Alberta flooded behind us. We listened to the weather forecast religiously but in spite of our efforts to stay dry, rain became a daily occurrence. We rode in downpours and thunderstorms and savored our time in the shelter of our little tent.
As we traveled deeper into the prairie lands, the weather became more and more severe until eventually the word “twister” entered our vocabulary. We had settled down for our first night in Manitoba when a plump, low-lying green-gray cloud appeared in our picnic shelter window. We watched its approach with wonder as it began to rain. Flags ran circles around their poles. Then came the hail. We laughed at the thousands of dime-sized white balls as they bounced off of the ground. As their speed intensified, we exchanged a look that we had never exchanged before. The world was at once deafening and terrifying. The laughter stopped as we pulled each other under the picnic table. Water came in from all directions. We looked to our blue tent to be our wind gauge. We thought to ourselves “This is it."
Fifteen minutes later, we were elated to discover that it was not, in fact, “it”. We ran into town, happy to be alive, looking for the solidarity an event like this might inspire but found that folks were only concerned with the dents in their car. Beyond that, the gravity of the storm was lost by their indoor perspective. To our shock, the storm that passedt over us gave birth to five separate tornadoes over the course of one evening. From then on, each time we checked the forecast, there were reports of a tornado or hailstorm somewhere in Canada, spread over the path that lay before us. It became clear to us, because of the absence of concrete warning system or emergency plan, that tornadoes of this frequency and severity were somewhat new to Canada. We could not help but ask why.
The answer was right next to us. We were sharing the road with a different kind of threat, one that could be reasoned with to a degree. Traffic was our constant companion over every kilometer of asphalt. The first two provinces had shoulders wide enough to be considered our own private bike lane. Unfortunately, the shoulders tapered off into nothing or were limited to small sections by the time we reached Manitoba. Cars,trucks, RVs, and tractor-trailers routinely passed within inches of our knuckles. Road kill served as a reminder of the frightening possibility of death posed by the endless stream of vehicles. Sadly, this was also our most common opportunity to see wildlife. We would see moose, deer, songbirds, coyotes, grizzly bears, and bear cubs scattered along the highway, almost exclusively in their lifeless forms. The Trans-Canada Highway bottlenecked in Ontario and alternative routes disappeared. We spent our days and nights listening to the constant hum and rumble of automobiles. We lost count of the litter. We breathed exhaust. This, we realized was the catalyst that caused so much to go awry. The human way of life and all its conveniences has become the harbinger of destruction. It felt as though humanity’s constant conflict with natural order was itself an unstoppable and inescapable force, much like the tornadoes. The maddening difference is that we are conscious of the damage our actions yield; yet we continue on our path.
Much of what we were beginning to think and feel was foreign to us. We had left home idealistic and romantic, subscribed to the belief that anything was possible, and felt as though the universe had an unseen order to it. We had been mindful that nature was in harm but did not fully understand to what extent. We found comfort in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and trusted that a general awareness was growing. In the end, our trip challenged everything that we believed. We were 25 and invincible, so we were shown mortality. We believed that mankind was unified by a greater good; the trip explained that it was also unified by a greater bad. And having been out there with only our bare necessities, we realized that normal everyday life had too many barriers that prevent people from fully understanding their effect on their surroundings. We were so disheartened by what we were seeing and felt so endangered that we could no longer enjoy the beauty that we so dearly loved.
At the two thousand mile mark, our trip ended prematurely. The relative safety of home was calling. And home was where we could do our part to prevent the bad from getting worse. The trip had thrown everything into such sharp contrast, giving us the lightning bolt revelation that we needed. The trouble is, unless you spend a number of days living outside, this revelation may not attract your notice until it breaks down your door.
Most of the islanders here consider their house to be their island and miss the big picture. But nature is an immense force that dwarfs us, and it is indifferent. People can no longer afford to be indifferent in response. If our island Earth sinks under our stewardship, it will take everyone and everything we know with it and we will be at fault. This is what we know. It is within our power to balance the scales with what we make of our life here on this island.