February 01,2014


"Tales From Outside The Underbrush" is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside "The Underbrush" of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This "outside world" is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month's entry continues the tale.


This little essay is dedicated to Lisa, who inspired me to write the story.

"I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I have long forgotten who between us or under what circumstance was generated the seed of the idea that germinated, but a plan sprouted for Walter and me to undertake a bike trip through New England together during summer school vacation. Again I cannot recall at what age this plan was formulated but I do know that we were still in primary school at the time which meant that we could be no more than twelve years of age, flunking a year providing the exception……….but not in our case. The plan was to map out a route that would encompass a roughly one thousand mile round trip journey through New Hampshire, Vermont and parts of upper New York State. Summer sleeping bags and groundsheets were to be attached to the back of our bike saddles. Bags would be fashioned to fit over the rear wheels of each bike, and in which to carry toiletries (razors and shaving cream not required!), flashlights and other assorted gear, including tire repair kits. Since the process of formulating meals and cooking them outdoors might require more equipment, not to speak of expertise, than we might be able to manage, the plan was to beg for food at farms along what would be a mainly rural travel route, and in exchange for doing odd jobs of an unknown nature, given our equally unknown skills but boundless enthusiasm, if not common sense. Having carefully, or as carefully as two incompetent juveniles could manage, saved some money from jobs delivering newspapers, dry cleaning and the like, we calculated we could also stave off complete starvation by occasionally dining out at a local hamburger joint.

Road maps were acquired and a route mapped out with daily mileages calculated according to the prevailing topography of the route on that particular day. The plan was in place and the schedule set. There was only one problem. Neither of us had told our parents anything of the plan, never mind asking them whether they would allow it to happen! Ah, the innocence of youth! What the hell were we thinking?

"Mom, Dad, can me 'n Walter bike over to the park a couple of blocks away and play?"

"Sure son, no problem; just make sure you're home in time for supper."

"Mom, Dad, can me 'n Walter bike a thousand miles through New England together?"

"Sure son, no problem; just make sure you're home in time for supper."

Was that what two idiots thought the replies might me? Somehow we must have thought that, or more probably did not properly assess the nature of what we were asking for. Such again is the innocence of youth.

It is far beyond my ability to recall a) the nature of the submission I made to my parents, b) their reaction to my desired bicycle trip, c) their initial answer, d) the special pleadings I most certainly must have made in pressing forward my case, e) and lastly, what persuaded them to agree to the venture. Walter had no doubt undergone the same experience, although being a year older than me, was perhaps considered to more capable of the undertaking. Whatever the details, we were ultimately a "go" and sleep became an elusive commodity as the gap between anticipation and reality rapidly narrowed.

Age once more erases the memory of our starting date but it was most probably sometime in early July, after the finish of the school year in June and notwithstanding still cool evenings, the warmth of summer had begun to set in. Early morning it would have been, a resolute time for two youths that normally had to be dragged out of bed during vacation so that we could all breakfast together, leaving Dad to get to work on time, and Mom to accomplish the same around the home. But we had planned an ambitious first day and that was to get to the area of St. Albans, Vermont, a distance of some 75 miles from Montreal. Although mostly flat land peddling, it was nonetheless a good day's ride for a couple of kids plus we had to get through the border, a process that although not related to the the congested exercise of present days, was nonetheless one that would eat up some time away from actual travel. In this regard, my mother had conducted an exercise that today seems anachronistically quaint. She had picked up the telephone and called the border post at Champlain, New York, where we were scheduled to cross into the United States. From there the plan was to peddle our way east over the northern end of Lake Champlain to St. Albans where we hoped to camp………………..somewhere!

"Hello, is this the United States border post at Champlain?" I can imagine my mother inquiring over the phone. "This is Florence Semple in Montreal calling. My son Ian and his friend Walter are this morning embarking on a bicycle trip through parts of New England. They should be arriving at the Champlain border crossing later today. I wonder if you could look out for them and make sure they safely get across the border? How old are they? Walter is twelve I think and my son Ian is eleven. Are they running away from home you ask? Good heavens no. I know they seem very young but they have our permission for this trip. They're really good boys you know. Well, thank you very much for looking out for them. Would you call me when they have gone through or should I call you? Oh, that's very good of you. Many thanks again. Goodbye now."

Can you imagine any part of that conversation being remotely possible today, never mind even reaching anyone at the border by phone? Me neither!

Our bikes loaded to the gills with equipment and waving goodbye to our no doubt anxious if not completely disbelieving parents, we two intrepid explorers set off on that long forgotten date, intent on achieving our first day's objective before night fell. It was as I recall a beautiful summer morning and the sweat of effort did not take long to become apparent. There were several things that distinguished me from Walter, both of which I deemed to be to his advantage but also serving as challenges to be overcome by me. Firstly, he was a year older than I was, and bigger and technically stronger by that fact. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly and with particular relevance to our trip was the fact that he owned a three-speed English road racing bike as opposed to my classic Canadian single speed conventional bike. This meant that technically, Walter had more control over the efficiency of his bike, especially on hills where he could gear down and achieve greater ease in ascending hills and accordingly preserving his energy over the long haul. I, one the other hand with only one gear ratio had to deal with various topographies employing only a single option, that is, the particular gear of my bike, and a relatively "high" gear at that, making hill climbing a particular challenge. This meant that I had to be in better physical condition in order not to be left behind. Ascending hills also required me to often lift my butt off the seat and "stand" on the pedals in order to provide sufficient peddling momentum to power the bike up the slopes. Devoid of bragging, I must report that throughout the trip I not only held my own but outperformed Walter on most occasions.

As a consequence of my mother's call, our arrival at the US border with Canada was not unexpected. A border agent emerged to verify our identity by means of a few simple questions……….no passports or other identification required in those days!……….as well as addressing the usual inquiries as to the purpose of our trip, its destination and the duration of our stay in the USA.

All properly answered, and just when I thought we were through and on our way, the agent looked at me and asked, "What's that you're carrying on your hip son? Looks like a gun to me."

Startled, I blurted out in reply, "no sir, that's an axe I am bringing with me for when we camp out and I have to cut some firewood."

Sceptical, at least to my unknowing, juvenile and unworldly eyes, the agent frowned and gruffly demanded that I unholster the "gun" and show it to him, implying that it looked like a dangerous weapon and might prevent our entry into the United States. Well, you can imagine what effect that had on the two of us. Conjuring up images of shame and rejection and a retreat home in disgrace, I imagine the sweat that ran off me greatly exceeded that which was expended during the morning's cycling to the border.

The object of the border agent's inspection was a very nifty little device that had been given to me by a close friend of the family, one of those people who become known as "Uncle" even if they are biologically not. The device was a small hand axe. Its blade was protected by a metal shield that pivoted out of the handle and over the blade of the axe when it was not in use. Together, they fitted into a handsome, flapped leather holster that could be slid onto the belt that kept one's pants from falling down. Worn on the hip, it did indeed look like a holstered pistol, an effect that today I have suspicions may have secretly pleased me at the time, and that represented the fantasy and accompanying ignorance of youthful boyhood. After a suitable period in which to make us both sweat with apprehension and fear, the border agent, with a gruff and begrudging manner returned the axe to my possession, and in a seemingly reluctant fashion allowed that we could proceed "this one time." I imagine there were a few chuckles exchanged with his colleagues as we frantically peddled our way into the good old US of A.

The rest of the day was uneventful, as having been released from the prison of uncertainty that the border "incident" had generated, we lusted in the freedom of adventure and exploration in a "foreign" country, albeit one indistinguishable from ours as observed by those with inexperienced eyes and a paucity of life experience. With renewed effort and determination we arrived in the vicinity of St. Albans, Vermont before dark, and wonder of wonders, more on less according to plan!

The details of what ensued upon our arrival in St. Albans have been obliterated by time. Approaching exhaustion by the events and efforts of that first day, I suspect we abandoned all plans to "beg" a meal in exchange for work we were probably incapable of fulfilling. Instead, some portion of our meagre funds was probably expended in some roadside restaurant before seeking outdoor shelter for the night. In that regard I do remember us unrolling our groundsheets and bedrolls in a farmer's field outside town. That our specific location was the product of polite inquiry and permission, chance, subterfuge or just plain trespass I cannot recall. I do know that we were so exhausted we were beyond caring about anything other than respite. That said, I do recollect that, having seen some cattle in the field, we decided to camp out on a gentle slope above them, under the misplaced belief that cows do not like heights, and do not climb hills, however innocuously gentle in nature those hills might be. Hey, don't laugh too long or hard. We were just a couple of ignorant city kids who wouldn't know cows from cowpat. Dropping into our sleeping bags we were instantly asleep in probably dreamless slumber. While it was indeed the beginning of summer, the nights were still cool enough to allow dew to form on the ground. As a consequence, the following morning found us at the bottom of the hill, having slid down its slope on the slippery ground during the night, presumably as a consequence of the dew and hopefully not helped along by slippery cow "patties." As a further "indignity", now a laughable memory, I was awakened from my slumbers by the insistent licking of my face by a curious cow, presumably searching for and probably assuming I was a salt lick!

From the second morning on, the details of our little adventure have become blurred with time. Remembered in general are the mostly sunny days and generally good weather we experienced, the fifty mile a day average bike travel in spite of the incessant hills that while not having Rocky Mountain proportions, were nonetheless locally steep and bun-burning along the road to conquering them. Rewarded for this were the sound sleeps outdoors, the more marvellous ones on the soft mattresses of a hay-filled barn, the wonderful meals prepared for us by friendly rural folks in return for work obligations that at the worst might consist of washing up after ourselves but usually were nothing more than good conversation about our adventure. Most of all I recall the incredible generosity and hospitality of those New Englanders that we encountered along the way. Friendly almost to a fault, we were always received almost as family, and accordingly cared for and fed like lost waifs returned to home and hearth. In almost every instance, our hosts would also allow us to use their telephone to make a quick call home to let our parents know we were alive and well.

Ultimately, it all came to an end as a couple of perhaps slightly more mature kids, enhanced by their adventure but tired and peddle-weary puppies nonetheless, straggled into Montreal and back to the familiarity of home, the relief of family, and the suspected secret jealousy of friends. It is perhaps instructive that while details of our little adventure have become eroded from memory as the ravages of elapsed time and age begin to take their toll, the essential details remain vivid, those being the essential goodness, hospitality and generosity of the people of New England that we encountered, and who helped ensure the success of our trip. It would perhaps be instructive to fully understand to what extent the youthful experiences of our little adventure, and the lessons, overt or subliminal that may have been learned along the way, have played in the development, philosophy and pattern of a life subsequently lived.

Walter moved away sometime during my high school years, and as is often wont with youth, we each went our ways without much thought of future contact. I suspect however that wherever he may presently be, he has from time to time also experienced the pleasure that fond memories of adventuring youth can bring to the aging mind.

"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live."

Mark Twain

Copyright © 2013 Ian de W. Semple

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