May 31: Adventures in Montreal

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on May 31, 2005]
Hello again. I've covered a lot of ground since I last wrote, so I'm going to leave out a lot of details and focus on telling stories which I hope will interest you.

I last wrote from Whitehall, New York, just south of the Adirondack mountains. Fortunately for me, Lake Champlain forms -- or rather, is formed by -- a pass through the mountains. Here's a brief natural history of the area: http://www.lakechamplaincommittee.org/learn/natural-history-lake-champlain/ . So when I say I went "over the mountains," what I really mean is that I went between them. Even so, there were several places were I had to climb 500 feet all at once, and once I had to climb fully 1000 feet. I guess you could say that was the "high point" of the trip... unfortunately the weather was such that I couldn't see much of anything!

I should mention that I rode all the way through New York on an official state bike route. New York has at least four of these, possibly five by now, and not only are they signed on the roads and mapped online, but the state will mail paper maps to anyone free of charge. The paper maps don't show campgrounds, so I still had to do some research on my own, but they do show the topography of the route, and that was very helpful... I didn't need to buy or photocopy any other maps of the state. I hope other states follow New York's example; it really makes bike touring much easier.

Anyhow... the weather was just awful all the way to Montreal: cold and rainy and very windy. I made such slow progress that I stopped several times to make sure my bearings weren't rusting, the brakes weren't dragging, the tires weren't low, and so on. In Keeseville, after crossing that 1000-foot pass, I got a motel for the third time in a week (a record I don't care to repeat), but it turned out to be the nicest place I've stayed in a long time... more like a guest suite in someone's home or a bed-and-breakfast than a cheap motel. Motels in New York, unlike anyplace else I've ever been, supply little envelopes as a not-so-subtle suggestion that you should leave a tip for the housekeeper, but this was the only place where I felt that was called for, because the room was just impeccable.

In Plattsburgh on Sunday the 23rd, I was studying my map when a pedestrian approached me and helped me figure out how to get through town. She turned out to be the coordinator of some local outdoorsy group, and she offered to buy me lunch, but I was anxious to get down the road and declined. I kicked myself for that decision for several rainy miles because there was noplace else to stop, let alone eat, but then I found a marvelous natural-foods store where I got a great deal on a fantastic sandwich, and they let me check my e-mail while I waited in vain for the rain to let up. By this time I was well into bilingual territory, so I evesdropped on some French conversations trying to get used to the sound even though I didn't understand a word.

The bike map showed Golden Hill State Park just south of the Canadian border, and I had verified that camping is allowed at that park, so I planned to stay there Sunday night. But when I got to the place, no one had heard of the park... turns out it's several hundred miles away, near Niagara Falls! (I've notified the map people of the error.) Fortunately there was a private campground not too far away. They don't get many tenters... in fact, I was the only transient in the place; everyone else lives in the campground permanently!

As you approach the Quebec border, signs are more and more bilingual, and more and more people speak French as their primary language. When you cross the border, English disappears altogether and doesn't resurface until you reach Montreal. I had been warned of this, since I don't speak any French, but I was pretty sure I knew the way to Montreal and wouldn't need to ask directions. I was wrong. To say that the rural Quebeqois are "provincial" would be cliche but also an understatement... I can sympathize with their not wanting to adopt the language and culture that surround them on all sides, but they ought to at least know that the town of Chambly is a few kilometers due east of Montreal (due north of where I crossed the border) and not, as several of them tried to tell me with dramatic gestures, far to the south! Fortunately, I was back on the plains where the rural roads follow a grid, so I just zigzagged northwest until I hit a highway that I recognized on my Montreal map, and I found my way into town from there.

I stayed three nights in the Alternative Hostel, one of more than a dozen in Montreal. It's a very nice place, beautifully decorated, well maintained, and centrally located. I went out Tuesday night to sample the city's fabled nightlife, but I'm not much of a nightlife person and was unimpressed. I did sample some crepes, though, and they were wonderful. If I could get crepes at one in the morning in Minneapolis, I might go out at night more often!

On Wednesday I went to Mont-Royal Park and the Biosphere. In addition to its rather unfocused exhibits about water, the Biosphere features a very nice exhibit about the life and works of Buckminster Fuller. One amusing irony: Fuller the futurist failed to predict that people would one day want to use radios inside his domes. The steel framework of the Biosphere effectively blocks all FM, TV, and cell-phone reception! [Of course, he intended the Biosphere to be a temporary structure, so futureproofing was never part of its design.]

Thursday I tried to get up and leave for Ottawa, but I had one of my disabling bouts of fatigue... I can't blame it on legumes this time, because I hadn't eaten any, unless the folks at Couche-Tard (an urban convenience store) slipped some into my cheese-and-pesto sandwich. When I tried to carry one of my heavy tubs down the hostel's four flights of metal stairs in my sock feet (not the brightest idea, but I wasn't thinking clearly), I slipped and fell down the stairs on my back with the tub on top of me. I scraped a patch on my back that I knew would rub against the back of my bike seat, so I decided I'd have to stay another day in Montreal. I went back to bed and had all my energy back by noon, so off I went to see more sights.

The Biodome, not to be confused with the Biosphere, is an ecological zoo similar to the rainforest exhibits at many zoos around the world: rather than display one or two species in isolation, they strive to put a whole ecosystem together in one climate-controlled room. The rainforest and polar exhibits couldn't compare to the award-winning ones at the Omaha Zoo, but I was mainly interested in the St. Lawrence Valley exhibits, so I could learn about where I was going. I was most impressed by the diving ducks... totally ordinary looking brown ducks that would suddenly dip under the surface and swim about 25 feet down to the bottom of their tank, ignoring the fish, root around in the gravel for up to a minute, then rocket back to the surface in a stream of bubbles and emerge -- totally dry. Other hostellers were equally impressed: "You went to the Biodome? Did you see the ducks?!!"

When I was in Pittsburgh, I got to talking with Daniel about the Star Wars prequels. Daniel is a big fan of the original movies, but he said the dialogue in the prequels is so bad, it would be a blessing to watch them in a language you couldn't understand. There was a theater right next to the Biodome, so I decided to put it to the test! I watched "Revenge of the Sith" in French and understood about a dozen words, but I didn't let them distract me from the pretty pictures and music. When I told the ticket clerk what I was doing, she said she'd seen the movie in both English and French, and she preferred English, in which she isn't fluent!

I rode from Montreal to Ottawa on a bike route I'd found on the Web... basically just following the Ottawa River as closely as possible. There were hundreds of other cyclists on the road. Unlike in New York, this time whenever I strayed from the route, I hit gravel and hills! Also lots of French speakers, even though by this time I was on the Ontario side of the river. My back healed reasonably well, considering that, in the rain, and pressed against the back of the bike seat, my wet bandage and shirt kept sticking to the scab and peeling it off.

I rode like crazy Sunday morning to get to church in Ottawa, because my friend Leela, who's a student minister, was speaking. I missed the first half of the service but was just in time for the sermon, which was excellent and well worth the extra exertion. I didn't announce myself to the congregation, but somehow word got around, and all sorts of people wanted to talk with me about my trip. One couple invited me to stay at their house, which is two days' ride down the road.

If you look at my master map you'll see that I have a long distance to cover in this final month but no more scheduled stops... Now that I'm on the home stretch and will have plenty of thinking time, I welcome any questions you may have about the trip as a whole. (Some of you have sent such questions already; I've been saving them.) Just reply to this message, and I'll think them over as I ride through Ontario and send my responses when I get to Michigan!

Happy trails! --Ben