I got an opportunity to bicycle across southern Ontario in Canada; the north shore of Lake Erie. It would give me an opportunity find out; is Canada really different?
This trip came about when my friend Tom offered me a ride in his car from North Carolina up to the Midwest, where he would be driving to visit relatives in Wisconsin. He would drop me and the bicycle off in Detroit, which is across the Detroit River from Ontario, Canada.
On the drive up we stopped to see old friends Dave and Gail, who both of us knew from back in New Orleans. They have been living the past thirty years out in the country near Blacksburg, Virginia.
Tom and I stayed in the “guest house”, a delightful older trailer in their side yard.
We had time to take a hike up a mountain to a waterfall.
The next day Tom and I got back in the car and drove about ten hours to Detroit. We had lots of time to talk about his and mine and the world’s problems.
The plan for the bike trip would be for me to bicycle by myself the over 250 miles from Detroit, via Windsor, Ontario, to Buffalo NY. The trip would be almost entirely in Ontario along the north shore of Lake Erie.
Tom was to drop me off at about 7:30 AM the next day, a Monday morning, in an area of Detroit called Midtown. We first exited the freeway to a sketchy looking neighborhood full of abandoned buildings. He felt guilty leaving me in such as dingy looking area so he insisted we drive one exit further closer to downtown. We found a school parking lot. He helped me pull the PBW bicycle out of the trunk. The high rises of downtown Detroit rose in the distance.
Tom drove off towards Wisconsin and I had a moment of silence, pondering that I was alone in an unknown part of Detroit. I pedaled in the direction of downtown, which abuts the Detroit River. Across the river is Windsor, Ontario.
Detroit covers a huge area. “Midtown” is about two miles inland from downtown, but when looked at on a map, this midtown/downtown area covers only a tiny part of the city. Much of the rest is miles and miles of semi-vacant residential neighborhoods and mostly abandoned factories.
Midtown Detroit, with its nineteenth century mansions, is undergoing apparently serious renovation.
From that the neighborhood transitioned into the high rises of downtown, many of them from the 1920’s.
I had known transporting me and the bicycle across the river into Canada was going to be difficult. My plan had been to use Uber. I stopped in a Starbucks downtown and got some breakfast. I knew that both the tunnel and the bridge to Windsor prohibited bicycles. The Uber app offered rides for about $8.00, but when three consecutive Uber drivers showed up, each was a self-confessed person with immigration problems who would not go to Canada. I ended looking on the internet, where I found a much more expensive taxi service for the ten minute drive through the tunnel.
On the Canadian side they seemed to think a taxi with a bicycle in the trunk looked suspicious, so the two Canadian customs officers meticulously went through all my possessions with strong flashlights. Finally released, my driver Sam let me off on a Windsor street.
If someone needs a cab across the border, Sam is a good guy to call.
A few blocks down the street, on the Windsor waterfront, I could see Detroit back across the river.
The impressive thing about bicycling through southern Ontario is that there is nothing particularly impressive about it. I can be boring, really. It is more about what is NOT there. In hindsight what southern Ontario lacks are abandoned commercial buildings and neighborhoods filled with empty houses and blight. Cities are more compact. The downtowns of towns are not as vacant as those in the USA. On the other end, I did not see as many overt displays of wealth.
This whole week I watched the TV show Handmaid’s Tale on my iPhone while sitting in Canadian hotel rooms. In a fictional near future the show portrays Canada as a refuge, a place that is welcoming when the USA has been taken over by right wing crazies. Isn’t this just a little bit overboard? Or maybe not?
Windsor has a nice bicycle path that runs along the riverfront.
The bike path transitioned into a bicycle route established by the Ontario government, where they have put up signs for Waterfront Trail guiding a bicyclist for hundreds of miles along the Great Lakes shorefronts. While not an actual bike path, it allows the bicyclist to dispense with looking at a map every few minutes, guiding a bicyclist onto small roads.
Later in the day, I ran into this group of French (and English) speaking bicycle tourists from Quebec City; two couples who had driven over to Ontario as a group and were then biking along the north shore of Lake Erie.
The land here is absolutely flat.
The sun was hot. A few kilometers before my destination of the town of Chatham I rested on a grassy lawn under a tree.
The Canadians still seem culturally attached to the mother country, much more than the USA. Here are some examples of this embrace of things British:
One essentially never sees the Union Jack flying in the USA, here I saw it quite frequently.
The Episcopal Church here is called the Anglican Church.
I do not remember seeing “fish and chips” for sale much in the USA, here I saw it all the time.
Somehow I do not think Men-In-Kilts window cleaning service would sell well in the USA. This was not just a tiny business, I saw billboards for the service as well as this guy in somebody’s driveway.
Street names were consistently conjuring Anglican fantasies, like here at the corner of Queen Street and Prince Arthur Avenue.
I biked into the town of Chatham, where I planned to spend the night. Most Canadian towns, even very small towns, include high rise apartment buildings. This just does not exist in most parts of the USA.
There is no question that Chatham is a depressed town. In 2011 a Navistar/International Harvester factory closed, ending 2,500 jobs at a factory that had been here since 1923. There were signs and newspapers talking about the opioid epidemic. Even if the level of pain and suffering were as bad as similar towns in the USA, the town just does not look quite as desperate. There are fewer abandoned buildings. Nothing I saw in Canada approached the level of despair I felt in Detroit, or that I have seen in countless towns all over America.
My hypothesis is that Canadian land use restrictions are tighter, so that buildings are re-used more frequently.
There are not many hotels in Chatham. Downtown I was surprised to find Retro Suites Hotel. It was quite nice, but the decor was just different from hotel I had ever visited. It felt like one person’s fantasy. Which it turned out it was.
The hallways had unusual art.
I am not picky about hotel rooms, but the room itself was the nicest hotel room I can remember.
I ate dinner downstairs at a fancy-level restaurant with mainstream prices. It was probably the best meal of the trip.
First course was almost raw tuna rubbed with spices.
Second course was monkfish, rice, and vegetables.
On this Monday night the restaurant was fairly empty but a party in front of me seemed to be having a good time.
I found out later that the guy on the right was not only the owner of the hotel, he was the owner of one of Chatham-Kent Ontario’s most successful businesses. The hotel, according to the desk clerk, is just his side project, a hobby. RM Classic Cars is one of the world’s top restorers of very old and valuable cars, with 150 employees and sales of $ 442 million last year.
About an hour later, I walked out on the balcony of my room just in time to see a car turning away up the street. I did not see it long enough to see if it was a gullwing or a roadster, but I know what I saw. It was a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, manufactured from 1956-1962. I got this picture from the internet. Also from the internet I learn that the current average value of a 300 SL is significantly over a million dollars.
This convinced me that the next day, on my way to the shore of Lake Erie, I would bike up to RM Classic Cars. The facility is about eight miles out of town, in the middle of cornfields. I had left Chatham quite early the next day because it was predicted to be hot. RM was just opening when I biked around their warehouses.
At RM the women at the front desk were polite but did not offer to let me walk around inside their buildings, which must have contained valuable cars. I sufficed with circling around by bicycle. I really only saw two cars. I give extra points to any reader who can identify these, because I really do not know. The guys around the second car did not seem happy to see me.
I decided I had pushed my luck far enough, so I bicycled southeast through the fields of corn and tobacco. There were enormous windmills by the dozens.
Eventually Waterfront Trail followed small roads lined with vacation homes along the Lake Erie. The lake looked like an ocean.
While there were vacation homes here, there was a remarkable lack of services of any kind; not only were there no motels, there were no restaurants, not even any mini-marts.
I did stumble into one restaurant and gift shop sitting by itself among cornfields. It sold knick knacks and chicken salad sandwiches.
Much of the rest of the day was bike riding was along razor straight highways through agricultural land, pushed by a tailwind. I rode further this day, about seventy-five miles, than I have ridden in one day in a long time. I really had no choice, because if I stayed near the lakefront there was no place to stop until I got to the beach town of Port Stanley.
A beach town. On Lake Erie. I had no idea such a thing existed.
I pulled into town exhausted from the bike riding and the sun. It was summer, their high season. I was lucky I had telephoned for a room earlier in the day from my lunch stop at the chicken salad place, because the lady said that I had gotten their last room. The other place I called said they were full.
The lady who checked me in said she had been on bicycle tours through, get this, China, Central America, Africa, maybe a couple other exotic places. Some she had done with tour groups, some on her own.
She highly recommends this tour operator, with whom she has been on many overseas bicycle tours.
Later on, I walked around the town looking for somewhere to eat dinner. I ended up eating at the terrace of the hotel. The weather, at least at sundown, was delightful. More than expected, one can hear Canadian accents. I did not hear any obvious American accents here, nor did I see many Americans at all on this whole trip.
There was a choice of Lake Erie fish; I skipped the more common perch and got pickerel, which is a chewy fish and seemed better prepared broiled. It was really delicious. I count this as my second favorite meal in Canada.
In the hot sun the next day I wanted to take it easier. There was a hotel only about thirty-five miles away in the town of Tillsonburg, so I booked it over the phone. There is a grid of country roads through the flat lands covered by cornfields.
Tillsonburg (population 16,000) does not seem distinctive. Like everywhere I went on this trip it appeared overwhelmingly white. (A hundred miles north Toronto is described as one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the world. This spirit does not seem to carry out here. I saw exactly two ethnic African faces this whole week, except for a group of agricultural laborers I once saw in a tobacco field.)
I can only view Tillsonburg on the differences from a similar town in America. On the surface it looks exactly the same. On closer examination there are differences. When approaching Tillsonburg from the countryside, the town starts abruptly with residential neighborhoods. I saw no Walmart or other strip malls lining the outskirts. On the contrary, while the downtown is decidedly downscale, there is a downtown shopping mall that features a Walmart. Downtown.
There had been Mennonite and/or Amish families out in the countryside and I could see several women dressed as such walking around the Walmart, where I went to look for some cheap headphones.
My hotel was something you would not find in America; a low cost in-town restaurant and hotel in the same building. Imagine a Cracker Barrel, the American restaurant chain. Imagine it as locally owned, near downtown. Imagine it serves beer and wine. Imagine that it has some hotel rooms on the two floors above the restaurant. This is what this hotel was like. Nearly every open space was covered with “country” paraphernalia and the walls were wood paneling.
At five-thirty in the afternoon, I was not ready to eat dinner yet, but the restaurant was almost full.
When I came down to eat at seven-thirty, the restaurant was already emptying out. When I left at eight-thirty, the restaurant was vacant and they were sweeping up.
The food was low cost and delicious; “broasted” chicken, with mashed potatoes, gravy, and coleslaw.
The hotel room was just OK, there was a perfumey smell that made me uncomfortable, and the window would not open. When the A/C stopped working at 3:00 AM that was the final straw. I felt better by just leaving at 6:15 AM, letting myself out through the darkened restaurant. The cool morning weather was glorious.
The day’s destination was to be to another beach town; Port Dover. On the way I would pass through several other small towns. After leaving Tillsonburg, on a country road, there was serious fog.
The next town, the town of Delhi, bills itself as the center of Ontario’s tobacco industry. On both sides of town I biked through tobacco fields. I had no idea such an industry existed.
I needed a late breakfast. Tim Horton’s is Canada’s most popular homegrown chain, a doughnut place named after a hockey player. “Timmy’s” are in about every town in Ontario. I stopped at one in Delhi.
The drive-in window worked fine for the pickup trucks lined up outside, but I needed to go inside. There was a sign on the door, saying that the interior was closed for two days for renovations. Disappointed, I biked back into town to look for somewhere else.
A lady ran a small place on a downtown street. I was the only customer. She made me a nice cup of decaf from one of those little plastic packets on a Keurig machine. She also had homemade blueberry muffins.
Out of Delhi and back on the road, much of the bike riding this day was on lovely country roads.
I frequently presumed that Canada had a touchy feely sense of equality. These feelings were dampened when I went by this “house” on the outskirts of Port Dover, overlooking Lake Erie. I now know that it is owned by a local guy, someone successful in the fruit and vegetable business. At least he had the openness to put his name on the place. It is one of the largest private homes I have ever seen and looks recently built.
Port Dover is a small touristy town with a Lake Erie beach.
There were two or three nice looking bars and restaurants.
Because I had gotten up so early I arrived Port Dover in time for lunch. Tacos were made from Lake Erie perch, eaten at the bar.
Back to that Anglophile thing that Canada has, in the category of Dumb Sports Showing at Bars, I had never seen competitive professional darts, live from England.
I stayed that night at a really nice Airbnb, someone’s front bedroom. Everything was quiet and clean. It only cost US$ 46.00 including tax.
There was a huge storm front coming in and I wanted to get a very early start the next day, before the rain started. The day’s destination was Port Colborne, fifty something miles further on the Lake Erie coast; then it would be only about thirty miles to the USA border in Buffalo NY. I left the house in Port Dover at 5:50 AM. In a soft early light I crossed a bridge.
Across the bridge, garishly glowing in the half-light was a Tim Horton’s doughnut store. In a tribute to us old men, these guys were already hanging out here at 6:05 AM.
I got a maple-glazed doughnut to take with me and eat while cycling. Two hours later I stopped for a more proper breakfast in this place at the center of a tiny town. Towns in the USA rarely have places like this any more.
For the next couple of hours I cycled on one of the best cycling roads I have been on in years. It was like a residential street along the Lake Erie shoreline, except it continued for miles and miles.
About eleven in the morning I passed this trailer sitting about fifteen feet from the lake. Note the “English style fish n chips”. It was too early for lunch and I had to keep going to try to beat the rain.
There are very few places to stay in this part of Ontario and I had booked the only one I could find, a Knights Inn motel on the edge of Port Colborne. The clouds were gathering and the wind was whipping up as I bought a Subway sandwich about 12:30 PM. The first raindrops were falling as I arrived in my motel room. The skies outside opened up with torrential rain that lasted for at least five or six hours.
Later on the rain slacked off and I was able to go out in the evening; eggplant Parmesan while sitting at the bar of a place called San Marcos in downtown Port Colborne.
I had a little time to look around Port Colborne the next morning on the way out. It is not a wealthy looking town, but it looks less destitute than similar towns I have seen in the USA. They were having their yearly Canal Days festival.
For a late breakfast I stopped for a hot dog.
There is a quite nice paved bike path the twenty something miles from Port Colborne to Fort Erie, which is across the river from downtown Buffalo NY.
Bicycling up to Peace Bridge that connects Fort Erie, Ontario to Buffalo, New York, I could see downtown Buffalo in the distance.
An absurd rule, or law, said “walk bicycles on bridge.” I was wondering which country would arrest me for ignoring this, but in the current socio-political environment I complied. After crossing the bridge, U.S. Customs directs pedestrians and bicyclists to wait in something approaching a cage. I stood there for almost half an hour.
A customs official finally showed up, and I biked off into the USA. The bridge ends right in-town Buffalo. Immediately I was struck by what I had not seen in Canada; a poor neighborhood, boarded up houses.
In typical American fashion, the neighborhood changes from “bad” to “good”; after a week of mentally complaining about the USA, the tree-lined neighborhoods of Buffalo seemed like somewhere I could imagine living happily.
I met my bicycling friend Harvey Botzman for dinner; he had driven over from his home in Rochester. We went to a nice Italian restaurant.
Several weeks earlier I had made the now questionable decision to take the westbound Amtrak, overnight, from Buffalo to South Bend, Indiana, near Chicago. My friend Tom would pick me up there in the car, for the drive back to North Carolina. The fare on Amtrak was only fifty-seven dollars, leaving at midnight and arriving eight in the morning. Harvey drove the bicycle and me to the station in his car.
The only problem was that the train was two hours late. Myself and the other passengers sat around there in the bright lights, waiting for a train.
Eventually the train did show up. Tom picked me up in South Bend. And we were home in North Carolina late the same day.