I think the hardest part of my journey across the country was when I cycled passed the Terry Fox Memorial on the eastern outskirts of Thunder Bay. I visited the memorial two years ago when my son and I were on a road trip to Saskatchewan. It’s a beautiful and powerful testament to an incredible person who has inspired generations of people around the globe.
As I cycled passed the memorial, memories of my friend Ken washed over me. I count myself so incredibly lucky to have had a friend like Ken. He was incredibly generous, kind, and charitable…always wanting to see the best in people. I miss him dearly.
I always thought that Ken and I would grow old together: two curmudgeonly old men sitting in a park watching people live their lives as they see fit…grousing about how society didn’t work the way we thought it should. We had the curmudgeonly part down. We had the grousing part down. What I’ve been robbed of is time. His was a journey cut way too short.
As I cycled across the country, people would frequently ask me if I was doing it for a cause. I would tell them about Ken, about GiveWell, and about Ken’s desire to have his memory of him associated with doing good in the world. It seemed that everyone I talked to had a story about how cancer had touched their lives. The stories I heard were powerful, and people were willing to share them pretty much anywhere…in line at Tim Hortons, at gas stations, at rest stops, in campground bathrooms…pretty much anywhere. Telling a complete stranger about how cancer has touched your life requires you to be vulnerable, but I found that there was always a moment of connection in that vulnerability.
People were genuinely curious about what I was doing and where I was going. Answering people’s many questions became a daily part of my journey. I found that once I started talking with people, it didn’t take long to find something that connected us. And it was sometimes surprising what that connection was. For example, Coco and I were campsite neighbours to a family who were originally from France, but who were all recent Canadian citizens. They were on tour of Canada. She explained that her grandmother had been born in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan…which is just a few miles north of where my grandparents and parents grew up, and where—if my memory serves me correctly—John Diefenbaker had a law office. It doesn’t take long to find a connection. All you need to do is be willing to talk to others.
All of the people I met had a story to tell and were willing to tell it. For the most part. Coco told me of an interaction he had with two teenage boys in a small rural community in Saskatchewan. He was camped in a park when the two curious teenagers came up and started asking Coco questions. Coco said the three of them had a great conversation. Coco had a journal with him and frequently asked the people he met to write something in the journal. It could be about anything. The boys declined, even with Coco’s insistence. Their reason? They were just nobodies from a small town.
I was gutted when I heard that. “We’re just nobodies from a small town” is not a conclusion that you come to just by yourself. That is something you have internalized. I grew up in a small town, and I remember feeling the same way in my early teens. I hope that these teenagers can somehow rewrite that narrative and realize that they don’t have to be extraordinary people from extraordinary places who do extraordinary things to have an important and meaningful story to tell.
My journey across the country afforded me the opportunity to share my story and listen to the stories of others willing to share. I feel like my loaded touring bike was an open invitation for people to approach me and start conversing with me. Added to that was my cycling clothing. I was always wearing a bright yellow cycling jersey and a bright yellow helmet which screams, “Hey, I’m doing something different over here.” I’m not sure if or how I can maintain that connection with people now that I’m back in my normal routine. I’m pretty sure I know how things would go if I were to approach someone on the LRT and ask them how their day was going and where their journey was taking them. But it was normal to ask those questions and to be asked those questions on my trip. I’m going to miss that connection. I feel like too often in our everyday lives we view other people as an inconvenience. “If it weren’t for all these people in the checkout line, I’d be done by now” Or, “If it weren’t for all this traffic, I’d be home by now.” Or, “If you don’t stop browsing the aisles of Costco, I’m going to ram my cart into the back of your heels.” Or, “Why is that person walking so slowly across the intersection, don’t they know I have important things to do?”
I have a story to tell. You have a story to tell. I desperately hope I can stay curious about yours.