Practical Dances for Travelers
The Canadian customs line was moving slowly. Most of the passengers coming up from Seattle on the Greyhound waited sleepily in line, but I was curious about the unusual baggage of a couple of travellers in front of me.
Gurney-style, they’d carried a couple of beaten-up and duct-taped cardboard boxes out of the bus’s luggage compartment. They also unloaded two old canvas backpacks, a milk crate with a wire basket bungyed inside it, and a plastic Chinatown-style shopping bag. The tip of a bike’s front fork peeked out of one torn-up corner of one of the cardboard boxes.
Standing behind them in the line, I helped push their considerable pile of gear forward each time a passenger stepped forward to be questioned by a customs officer. I turned to one of them and asked if they were in the middle of journey. Her eyes shone as she explained that they’d just biked down the Baja Peninsula and would be finishing their trip in Coquitlam.
She was in her late twenties, with a light tan and French-braided ponytail. She wore a beige hoody and cargo pants. The fellow with her seemed a bit older: also tanned, he wore his salt-and-pepper hair close cropped, and ~ when he wasn’t bustling to move the boxes forward ~ kept his hands in his Mexican sweater and listened as she spoke.
While we were comparing notes, I watched her boyfriend and noticed that although he listened and participated actively, he didn’t say much. I got a sense that he was comfortable stepping back and not feeling obliged to do all the talking, and remembered how important an attribute that is when travelling with someone; the ability to perform a silent kind of dance so that you take turns at standard tasks like dealing with curious conversation-makers.
He reminded me of my last boyfriend. P.H. was arguably the best person I’d ever travelled with ~ and that’s saying a lot, because I usually biked solo.
Pierre-Henri was a consummate cyclist who’d grown up surrounded by the Tour de France. On weekdays he spent the entire time on his single-speed as a bike messenger, and on weekends he road raced to Richmond with the UBC clubs or track raced in Burnaby. I’d never ridden with a man who regularly cycled with a heart monitor. I was duly intimidated when I joined him on the Oregon Coast portion of his own Vancouver-to-Baja bike tour.
I wasn’t stressed about the ride or the distance…I’d cycled solo in southeast Asia for four months and knew I could handle weight, kilometers and culture shock if I had to. I was more worried about the delicate dance of our own interactions. I feared he’d either ride faster and further than me and ask ~ as one boyfriend did ~ if I was riding this slow on purpose; or he’d hang over me and ~ as another boyfriend did ~ continuously ask if I was okay, did I need a break, was I hungry and was this hill too big?
P.H. did neither. He followed his own pace and allowed the distance between us to naturally lengthen. Then he’d pause for a drink, photo or contemplative moment so that I could eventually catch up and share it with him. P.H. simply trusted that I was fine and capable and would let him know if I needed him.
As I learned to trust him, I discovered I could gently tuck my independent feminist rhetoric away into a pannier side pocket. I was happy to let him tune up our bikes before each day’s ride, and he was happy to let me deal with the 20 Questions we regularly played with head-shaking car campers.
After two weeks of letting the Pacific breezes push us southwards down the coast, P.H. and I had had enough funny, scary, wet, wonderful cycling days together that we could boast a confident beginner’s understanding of the travel companion dance. In Florence, Oregon, he boxed my bike at a cyclist-friendly hotel room as I booked a seat on a Vancouver-bound Greyhound bus. P.H. figured out a way to bungy my panniers and bike box onto his B.O.B. trailer, and I figured a way to double on his Surly and get both of us to the station without a cab.
Unlike the couple at the border, our adventures would end in different places: I’d return to my bike shop job in Vancouver, and P.H. would continue south to Baja Norte, then return to Vancouver just long enough to die suddenly and break my heart.
At the Coquitlam bus station, I peered out the tinted glass and watched the bicycle couple efficiently unload their gear and backpacks. As she pulled them out from the bus’s belly and stacked them on the asphalt, he carried them to the platform and leaned them against a bench. “I’ll get that, sweetheart,” I heard him call to her as she tugged on one of the bike boxes.
I could see him pull strips of duct tape off the smaller box and get ready to reassemble a bike. I waved to them through the glass, and as the coach backed out of the loading bay, watched them continue their practical dance under the depot’s warm yellow light.Published in the March 2005 Adventure West Magazine.