Wandering below the poverty line: Meditations on a life on the road

Photo by Graham Holliday


Long-haul bicycling is easier on the soul than hitchhiking and can be as affordable as you want. My bike came out of a Kitsilano dumpster. Its wheel base is so short anything hung off the rear carrier bumps my heels and the bearings have seen better days, but it goes well downhill and on the level; old men and old horses have to walk uphill anyway.


Luggage consists of a Rubbermaid bin clamped onto the carrier. Light stuff I lash on top with the aggravation-saving trucker’s hitch. I never carry anything on my back. My $14 pup tent is a quarter-century old, but with a five-by-eight poly tarp fly it keeps me dry and unbitten.


I start each journey with some food that keeps, like boiled eggs and (Scotsman that I am) enough oatmeal to last the trip. The oatmeal is soaked overnight in a plastic jar with honey and olive oil. I don’t carry a stove, just a spoon and Swiss army knife equip my kitchen. Light plastic air pump, patches and minimal tool kit keep me rolling. Sweater and nylon shell fend off cold mountain nights. Soap doubles for shaving cream. A backpacker mindset is the best approach to gear.


Two potential sources of trouble when sleeping rough are humans and bears. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, I never pay for the right to sleep. Only worshippers of Mammon believe the rich have more right to trash the planet than I have to sleep on it. Just remember the old Gypsy adage: “Let no one know where you’ll be. Leave no trace of where you’ve been.” Using a little discretion I’ve camped in the ’burbs so close to Jay Gatsby’s mansion I could hear the champagne corks popping.


As for bears, avoid sites near berry patches, water or other sources of bear food, or where there’s fresh bear shit or recently turned rocks. I don’t open food in camp, and keep it as sealed up as possible and in the Rubbermaid on the bike. Hanging it between two trees just spreads the scent further. Avail yourself of bear spray, flashlight, pile of throwing rocks, club and a fractious Downtown Eastside attitude. Bear deterrent used to be more civilized: one wild, hair-parting blast from a Smith & Wesson .45, then you and Mr. Bear would go about your business with your ears ringing for the next several hours.


Heat and sun will waylay the unwary. I haul up to four litres of water and never drink from an untreated source unless it’s a spring used by locals. Thanks to depletion of the ozone layer, the sun will burn your hide and cause nasty skin cancer. I cover up, even wear fingerless bike gloves (ground-scored on Lion's Gate Bridge). An Arab-style headdress cut from the corner of an old pillowcase and worn under my helmet protects my neck and ears. Soaked in water, it will ward off heat stroke and double as a face cloth. When I stop for supplies I switch to my cap. No point in terrorizing the good citizens.


Cars are the key reason you won’t encounter many other long-haul cyclists. Get away from the cars on lightly travelled roads like Melsachie Lake to San Juan River or trails like the Galloping Goose, and cycling is pleasantly tiring. A busy two-lane highway with no paved shoulder is a white-knuckle horror. Trouble lanes on the four-lane expressways are safer, and it’s easier to find campsites along them in populated areas, but the air is foul, the massive pavements radiate heat like the desert and the noise is often so bad you have to plug your ears with Kleenex to reduce fatigue.


Examples of human stupidity and greed I encounter range from beer-can-throwing idiots in monster trucks to thousands of square miles of clear-cut ecological gang rape on which the poor aren’t permitted to so much as build a hut. So why bother roaming? Why not moulder in front of a TV like a normal impoverished senior? Hardship and disgust are just part of the adventure, something I’m willing to put up with while searching for a backwater where I might live a simple life removed from perpetual growth, consumer-slave Disneyland. Occasionally I meet kindred spirits and rejoice. Alone at dusk I may sit in bemused wonder as ghostlyrivers of mist flow through forest labyrinths. My very mode of travel is an act of defiance and, like an old dog wandering, I’m drawn into covert communion with the real world.



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