Two kilometres before you enter Manitoba along the Trans Canada Highway there is a rest stop. Transports, RV’s, a few cars. You are the only bicycle. You pause and sip the warm sugary remains of what was, forty kilometres ago, a frosty bottle of Pepsi. The washroom is reasonably clean. A notice in English and French cautions that the water is for cleaning purposes only. Pas potable.
Back on the highway, you pass a tall sign: Manitoba. Welcome. Bienvenue. It is a giant jigsaw piece in the shape of the province’s borders. A depiction of a polar bear looms over you as you roll by. The sign has seen better days.
You have been longing for the prairies. Wide shoulders. One way traffic. No more hills... except this final steep ascent. You are tempted to dismount and walk the worst of it.
It’s Manitoba, damn it! You are not walking up a hill in Manitoba!
And then, there it lies. The onset of the prairies. The road stretches to the horizon in a straight line. The sky is suddenly everywhere at once. The weeks of daunting hills are behind you. No more dodging transports or standing in the gravel as an oversized load roars past followed by five minutes of closely packed traffic stalled in its wake.
Now comes the wind.
It is late afternoon and you can see the path of the wind as it chases its tail in the waist high grass. You put your head down and grind through it. It comes in gusts. You can see it shaking the trees ahead of you before it catches your panniers like sails. It is a wind out of the northwest.
Traffic is heavier than you have hitherto experienced. It is Sunday. Likely folks from Winnipeg are returning from weekend camping. Visits to the cottage. Long afternoons on some vast lake. But you scarcely hear the vehicles. The wind is shouting in your ears. It stirs the shoulder-high grasses seething like a sea-green mosh pit.
You see the sign, at last: Pine Tree Campground 2 km. Your destination. On the flat, straight highway there is no way to sense your progress. No distant corner to turn. No summit to attain. No descent delivering you miraculously to your goal. If you stop pedalling to adjust your position on the saddle, you slow as suddenly as if you had braked. The final two kilometres seem to stretch themselves farther west. Frustrated, you shout a choice expletive into the wind.
And there you are.
Another tent pole cracks as you are setting up. Over several years you have slept in this tent on scores of occasions. As you apply yet another strip of duct tape you know its days are numbered.
Another cyclist arrives and greets you. She is heading east. She should have enjoyed tailwinds much of her way across the prairies. Instead, she says, she fought the wind most days and was rescued from a tornado in Saskatchewan by a passing pickup.
We talk bikes and gear and tents. She dons a fully netted outfit to escape the mosquitoes. She is cheerful and optimistic and knowledgeable. She looks a little like a beekeeper. She has used her bear spray twice on this journey. Once during a tug-o-war with a determined raccoon. Once on a would-be bike thief. I would not want to be the bear who crosses her path.
Six o’clock in the morning and the rain begins. A hard rain. The mosquitoes seem to multiply between the netting and the fly. The sound of their buzzing nearly drowns the drumming of the rain.
It is nine o’clock before it relents. The rain. Not the mosquitoes. As you roll out of your sodden tent, they attack in droves. You wonder if they’ve descended from the sky using raindrops as parachutes in an airborne invasion. You find your long pants and your yellow long-sleeved windbreaker with a snug hood.
The rain holds off while you boil water for coffee. You down a few small flour tortillas smeared with peanut butter. Have a quick shower in the washroom near the registration office. You ride a couple kilometres down the gravel road to the Esso station. Drink half a litre of chocolate milk and tuck another plastic bottle of Pepsi into your pannier.
The wind is calm but it rains for the next two hours. But it is warm enough that you don’t really feel cold. There are no rest stops so you ride fifty kilometres stopping only to check your phone and sip some Pepsi. By noon you see another Esso with a Subway. You use the washroom. Order a sandwich. Sit and eat at the picnic table in a grassy spot near the gas pumps.
You take a farm road to Ste. Anne just outside of Winnipeg. The wind is picking up. But the road is quiet. Sheep graze peacefully. You pass a golf course but no one is playing this afternoon.
Ste. Anne is where an old friend and her partner drive out to greet you. They load your bike onto the truck. Offer to launder your sour smelling clothes. Cook a lovely dinner. You reminisce about the old days. Your body understands that it will rest here for two days and a lethargy creeps into your limbs.
Tomorrow you will get a fresh chain and cassette for your bike. You dream of wind.