Cycling through history

I’ve been referring to myself as the ravine queen for the past three years. After my brain injury occurred, my love for Toronto went from urban art and architecture to the abandoned rail lines, unexplored river trails and forest paths of the Don Valley.

Now the streets are empty and quiet. There’s no one around. A pandemic seems the perfect time to reacquaint myself with the city.

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1: Anniversary ride

I’d been thinking about how to mark three years since I fell off my bike. On the morning of May 27th, nothing seems right except a ride.

“Go somewhere beautiful,” suggests my eldest daughter, Marika.

I’m thinking the same. But when I get on my bicycle, I automatically start pedalling toward my old workplace, where I haven’t visited since my failed return.

It’s my second ride of the year, maybe the sixth since my crash. It feels good to be in the saddle, but what if I fall? What if I bonk my head again?

Marika has explained that the probability of another accident is as unlikely as the first one. But feelings don’t have much to do with math.

*

I bike along the waterfront. Any remaining lake views are now blocked by condos. Because of Covid-19, there are no tourists or boats. The Queen’s Quay pedestrian bridge is lifted high.

The Music Garden. The Canada Malting Silos. I spent many lunch hours exploring this area. I know it well.

People exercise alone and jog with face masks. This ride turns out to be as much about being back on my bike as witnessing the effects of the coronavirus.

A dishevelled woman spills out of one of the tents set up on Éireann Quay, which leads to Ireland Park. The park’s closed: more Toronto construction. At Billy Bishop Airport, I stop in the middle of the road to snap a photo. Usually this street is bumper to bumper with cars and taxis. But no one’s flying now.

Another park, more tents. I stop for a rest at the end of the quay that edges the Western Channel. It’s one of my favourite places and has somehow escaped development.

“It’s so quiet,” I say to an older, masked couple taking in the view.

“Yes, the airport killed that in 2006,” replies the man.

But I mean more than that. There are no planes whatsoever. Traffic on the Gardiner has ground to a halt. It’s a sunny, quiet pandemic Wednesday.

*

I cycle past the Princes’ Gates, so beautiful against the blue sky. (There will be no Ex this year – à cause de Covid.) I wend my way up to Toronto’s under-the-Gardiner version of NYC’s Highline. Last September, we joined Choir!Choir!Choir! and hundreds of people singing songs to the moon. Now the Bentway’s empty, save for a couple of dads pushing strollers.

Ah, the stunning new Garrison Crossing! The bridge crosses train tracks which have lush vegetation on both sides. My beautiful, evolving city. I see the CN Tower in the distance.

I make my way back east. Past a new cannabis emporium (definitely not steps away from the financial district three years ago). Past Draper Street, which Heritage Toronto has saved from demolition. But as two bystanders point out, the Victorian-era street will be dwarfed by the buildings going up next to it. “Bye-bye sun,” they say.

Wellington Street is crisscross full of bulldozers and busy construction workers in neon vests. The Clarence Square fountain cherub remains hidden behind its green, winter protection box. There’s no summer in Toronto this year.

I bike up to my de facto destination: the building where I worked. Is anyone home? Given Covid, will anyone ever be? Will I?

Half a block north, a TV journalist explains he’s reporting the double-murder of last night. Covid couldn’t stop that.

I pedal up Sherbourne. It’s a hot morning and the street’s full of homeless people. There’s a sign for Fudger House. Wait a minute: that’s a Covid hotbed! I cycle faster and am immediately ashamed of doing so.

Cycle, cycle. The city’s changed so much. We’re in the midst of a pandemic.

 

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2: America’s burning

I wake up early and check my phone: America’s burning.

I can hardly believe this is happening in my lifetime, I write in my diary. Minneapolis isn’t safe. Gas stations, pharmacies and police stations have been torched.

My Sunday ride begins with a loop on Lakeshore Avenue, which is closed to traffic to provide pedestrians with more room to walk. At 7:30 a.m., there are just me and two cops.

My bicycle swings downtown. I bike through the Distillery District. Shops are closed and the Young Centre for the Performing Arts is dark. But Balzac’s Coffee is open, and I’m suddenly pining for the Stratford Festival, which also has a Balzac’s.

I bike straight north (I don’t want to pass the homeless again) and coast down River Street, which is also closed during the weekend. I’ve been saying since this pandemic began that it’ll get harder and harder to find unoccupied spaces as the weather improves. At least we’ve got this.

I decide to try biking up Pottery Road. My heart is pounding and feels like it’s about to blow out of my chest. Halfway up, a woman my age shouts, “You can do it!” and cheers me on. I haven’t done this climb since I was biking 20 kilometres to work and back every day.

I make it and I’m elated. Energized! “I got up Pottery Road!” I tell my daughters. While I biked, I forgot about everything that’s getting me down. Biking was. So good. So. Good.

One of my daughters recounts her nightmare from last night. I experienced something similar. The chaos in America brings up any old trauma. Times of no respect. Lies. A denial of rights.

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3: The day after

It’s a three starts-and-stops morning – the air feels like it’ll rain. No, maybe it won’t. If it does, hopefully later.

I head south not really sure where I want to go. But I’ve spent three years in the ravines and the streets are empty. That’s all I want.

I bike south on Yonge, because I saw a photo on Twitter of stores boarded up in anticipation of riots. The Eaton Centre has a few entrances blocked, but someone tells me that could also be from Covid.

I bike through Nathan Phillips Square and wish Toronto well. I loop along the cobblestones of Osgoode Hall and through the beautifully restored Queen’s Park, which reminds me of Europe.

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4: Where do we go from here?

I forgot to mention that yesterday was World Bicycle Day. I spent a good chunk of time reading about America. Canada. The National Guard on guard at the Lincoln Memorial in a scene reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. Trump, tear gas and the Bible photo op.

Silence the people. Silence the people. I write in my journal. Latvia 1939? The Soviet Union? That’s where our parents and grandparents came from. That’s why we’re here and not there.

It’s depressing and scary knowing the nation next to ours is battling itself.

“This is a very, very perilous time in our country,” says New York State Governor Cuomo in his daily address.

I think lots about how to retain balance. Follow what’s going on, but take care of myself.

“Give yourself room for the complexity of those feelings,” says Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams in an interviews on the Ten Percent Happier app.

*

I head up to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which is still closed because of the pandemic. At 8:30 a.m., the Kay Gardner Beltline is packed with walkers and runners. People are catching on that they need to get out early if they want space.

At the Allen Expressway, I’m not sure which way to turn. Proceed to the lake? Reverse back home? I call my dad and stop by for a coffee. We cycle through the past year and cry.

It’s a long, hot ride home. I take Rosedale Valley Road for the second time in my life and breathe in the vastness of the Don Valley.

I think about the live Instagram videos from the Black National Ballet of Canada dancer who’s speaking out about injustice. He’s high on his own words. I’m both excited and scared for him. (The incident ends well. The story’s ongoing.)

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5: My boarded-up-city ride

It’s the end of a long week and the beginning of another pandemic weekend.

I want to witness what I saw last night on Twitter: downtown all boarded up in anticipation of riots during Black Lives Matter protests.

The streets are empty. It’s a sunny, glorious day for a ride.

Bloor Street’s all boarded up. Gucci. Max Mara. Harry Rosen. I ride, stop, take photos. Ride and stop again.

I coast down the middle of Yonge Street like it’s 1955. (This pandemic has turned back time.) Almost everything is boarded up, except the old Toronto banks. They’re built of 100-year-old Don Valley bricks and can withstand anything.

At City Hall I strike up a conversation with a guy in an old-fashioned military uniform. (How beautiful to randomly strike up a conversation!) He’s from the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and is there for a flag-raising ceremony that, because of Covid, will be broadcast later.

“It’s June 6,” he explains. “D-Day.”

A friend notes that Saturday’s Washington Post has no mention of D-Day. I read The Globe and Mail cover to cover, and it doesn’t either. Current history is moving so quickly we have no time for the past.

I’m thinking a lot about oppression and silence. I’m learning so much. Black lives matter.

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6: Back in the saddle

What we repeat becomes the norm, I write in my journal.

I bike south to the lake, but this time I keep going until I reach Cherry Beach. There are two SUPers (stand-up-paddleboarders) on the water. (I want to SUP!) A woman swimming. (I want to swim!)

I watch a man trying to catch his runaway dog. There are six tents in the forest grove. The homeless? People without homes because they’re without jobs because of Covid?

I cycle up Cherry. So many dump trucks, so many cranes. The Port Lands is a forgotten part of Toronto that’s finally being developed. Hard to believe it’s taken so long.

The only part of the T&T Supermarket left standing is the sushi bar. The old recycling plant is now a series of little hills obstructing the skyline.

I bike to Harbourfront. There’s a cool breeze and no one’s on the trail. I can’t stop thinking that it’s the perfect time to be on a bike.

For the first time since my accident, I feel at home in the saddle. What a milestone! There’s no way I could bike to work, work, and bike back home yet. There’s no way I can do the long rides I did before my accident yet. But I’m biking. I’m biking!

My occupational therapist used to tell me to finish statements about things I couldn’t do with the word “yet.”

So here I am, safely arrived at a major yet. This might be one of the most significant things I’ve learned during my recovery: anything is possible.

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