World by Bike: CANADA - Homecoming
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada - Port Huron, MI, USA
September 27th - October 2nd
Niagara Falls are pretty spectacular. I'd been three years ago in a -17°C January, catching the mist from the Canadian side of the border, but this time I could watch the falls from the US side, if I made it there before it got dark after a 180k ride. I eventually arrived about 10 minutes after sunset and proceeded to get in the way of every tourist and selfie-taker there as I tried to find a place to park my bike in fading light. After I irritated the tourists there for the 'gram, and after being counter-irritated by those yelling at their phones on FaceTime with people back home, I sat on a rock, got cold in the spray of the falls and ate my last remaining snack, reflecting on completing my ride across New York state.
A relatively straightforward border crossing at the Rainbow Bridge, an encounter with the McDonald's worker who didn't like my bike in the drive-thru, and an interesting night learning about marijuana use in Ontario later, I was sitting down at a Tim Horton's coffee shop (like a cheaper, better Canadian Costa but with doughnuts) , ploughing through a breakfast of bacon and muffins. This is where Howard, a fellow road biker who'd spotted my bike outside, came in and immediately reinforced the Canadian kindness stereotype by offering to buy me food as I went to order a second round of muffins - top chap! As a former trucker he had great intel about routes south, but our chatting meant I didn't leave the Niagara area until 10am and it was a lengthy 200k ride to London, ON.
The ride in this part of Ontario was relatively uneventful, dropping off the escarpment at Niagara down to the lower level where Lake Ontario lies relative to Lake Erie, then a slow climb back up again from Hamilton to an overcast Middlesex County and the University of Western Ontario, London, ON.
It was a particularly nostalgic experience arriving back at Western, a university town where I'd spent an epic semester back in 2015 on exchange,. Getting to Western for their Homecoming party - it's a big 'welcome back to university' party attended by students and alumni - had been the initial goal leaving the real London, England. It was far enough away that I'd be settled into the trip, but not too far that I'd struggle with motivation to get there, and the incentive to see everyone helped through some longer days back in Europe.
My arrival was particularly unceremonious, arriving at a friend's house to crash for a few days, not realising that the only housemate in at the time didn't know who I was, or that I was arriving. He was oddly polite to the strange person in a bright yellow rain jacket standing in his living room at 10pm. Confusion resolved, I immediately started the rounds, seeing all the friends I hadn't seen in three years. Cheap university pizza in hand, I spent most of my 4 days off the bike eating fast food and catching up with all the people I'd been too unorganised to FaceTime with when I was back home. It was an excellent few days seeing how much, and somewhat comfortingly, how little had changed. People were still just as positive, fun-loving, and outgoing as they had been, as well as still being just as inquisitive about a British accent as they had been three years ago. The main difference was that I now had a terrible travel beard, and former couples were now dating different people. It was lovely to be back, albeit briefly, and it was really hard to leave again. Western is a great place.
The main event of the few days break was Homecoming. A massive, all-day sesh with events all around the university area, with the epicentre on one street containing 20,000 people in house parties spread across almost every house. You have to be clear here that they’re house / garden parties, not street parties as it's illegal to drink on the street in Ontario. It's particularly funny observing policeman grab students as the try to innocently cross from one party to the next with drinks in-hand. Almost as funny as the insane size of the queue in the alcohol store because there's only one store in town to buy booze from, as you can't buy alcohol in supermarkets there - too comical.
Starting at 7am, people across the university are crushing cans of beer, doing shots and generally getting pretty wavy. By 10am you're out of the house, draped in purple university attire and at a pre-house party house party. By 11am you're at another house. By 12 you're on Broughdale Street for the non-street party street party. If you've still got some awareness you can observe first year students passed out on the street, throwing up into bushes and some people hallucinating after taking some more of the more intense substances on selection. By 2pm everyone crashes, finds whatever greasy drunk food they can find at a convenience store, naps for a couple hours then repeats the same morning process over again, culminating in either a club night or more house parties. It's a pretty intense experience and knocks out most of the university population for a few days. The local fast-food industry must see a significant spike on those few days in September.
Part of the recovery process for me started the next day, re-visiting the church I'd attended whilst studying out in Canada. What made it easier was the fact they'd started an evening service on campus to try and reach out to students. I was greeted with typical North American enthusiasm, and we chatted about the church's effort, as part of their push to care for the student community, to help out people on Homecoming day. It was encouraging to hear that whilst most students abandoned all responsibility in the pursuit of a hedonistic indulgence, there were people out there giving out snacks, cups of water and looking out for the welfare of others. There was something nice about people thinking beyond themselves, beyond the moment, and working in service of something bigger. Hearing about how differently some people had spent their day was inspiring, knowing that the service they were providing freely was not just helpful for some students, but essential. Many students, beyond wasted, lose their friends and can get in serious trouble if no one is looking out for them - particularly at night.
It's interesting comparing those who'd been helping on the streets with those for whom it would appear Homecoming is the highlight of the year - judging by how hard they go as soon as their early morning alarm goes. Perhaps it's just new to me, but it would appear as if having the ultimate Homecoming (or more generally, the ultimate party) is so valued to some that's it's worth the expense, the multi-day hangover, the inherent risk in taking unknown drugs, and the potential total loss of awareness. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not judging anyone here, I just find it interesting as I don't understand it. I find it interesting to enquire as to how someone ends up at the point when they're chundering into a bush on the side of the street at 10am whilst tripping on some stuff in a bag that their friend gave them. It's pretty alien to me. I understand that on some level that the loss of inhibition, the drinking and the drugs could be fun, and I guess if there isn't something bigger you're consciously working for, then going super hard for one party makes sense as it unconsciously becomes your bigger picture, or it’s as big as your picture gets.
I'm not implying that Homecoming is the pinnacle of a student's life by the way, it just seemed like a useful contrast of hedonistic culture to alternative ways of living, so bear with me here.
If partying has become the bigger thing you’re working for, unconsciously atop your value hierarchy, then it follows that the day spent partying has to be such a high level experience that it's worth getting intoxicated to such an extent that you could cause some pretty serious health consequences - all in pursuit of your ultimate party, or ultimate short-term gratification. You could just say that's it's me being boring, but I find these sort of events interesting, as I don't really see the driver to go so hard in the pursuit of what narrows down to be basic self-indulgence unless you value that way of living so highly, consciously or unconsciously. I guess that's the beauty and the variety in people and the rich tapestry of life though - that some people do find reason to live that way.
Reflecting on those students and young adults from church providing support during Homecoming, aspiring beyond the party by serving into something bigger was particularly encouraging when the time came for me to depart Western. It was helpful because arriving at Western was the first big goal on this trip, the first major milestone, and now I'd reached it. It was time to move on. Without wider goals of completing this bike ride, learning more about people worldwide, and serving into something greater with regards to my faith, I think leaving would have been even more difficult than it was. Don't get me wrong, it was incredibly sad to leave, but without a bigger picture, Western could have easily pushed me to become like that student with her head in a bush at 10am, figuratively speaking. It could have pushed me to seek such a good time out of those few days, that no real experience could live up to, which would have made it even more difficult to leave Western behind, or sent my morale into a tailspin for days. After all, I was setting off towards LA with no familiar faces for 2,500 miles. However, the knowledge that I was working towards a bigger goal helped push me out the door, setting off on my own again out of the comfort of Western, towards the US border.
I suppose that reflecting on my experience made me realise that you're always serving into something bigger, whether consciously or unconsciously, and what you’re serving into helps dictate your thoughts, actions and outcomes. I'm glad that I feel as though I've consciously chosen a wider purpose to serve into, something that I believe to be worthwhile, because if I didn't have that, I think I could quite easily be living for the day, for that party, constantly seeking more fulfilment from any single occasion, then getting depressed when the occasion didn't reach the impossibly high expectations. The way I see things, and what I think I'm trying to say, is that I don’t think much could live up to that weight of expectation, and I think that you could do some serious damage to yourself looking for completion in the wrong picture. I think the main two things I can draw from these few days in Canada, completely unevidenced outside of my own experience of course, are that I need to:
Value and enjoy the day, but do so remembering that there is a tomorrow and it's exciting; and
Be conscious and deliberate about what you're serving into, otherwise you're serving into something you didn't choose.
Anyway, cycling-wise, it was just one long straight road from London over to Lake Huron, the Canadian-US border, the pick-up truck to take me over the Blue Water Bridge, and to Michigan state. It's a long haul to LA!