Travels with Gnarly

June 19, 2016

Pre-journey tarot card readings are a family tradition. My mom, a bona fide psychic, says neglecting to consult the stars is foolhardy. In her opinion, there has to be someone out there plucking the puppet strings of fate. How else can we explain this beautiful madhouse of a world? After marinating in this belief for so long, I’ve taken some of that hoodoo to heart.

Still, as I shuffle my own inherited deck, I wonder if this is not such a good idea. How can one card speak for three weeks of solo bike trekking up the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia? What can it tell me that I don’t already know? Why cloud my adventure with a false oracle? Because the card begs to be overturned, that’s why. So here goes.

Damn. I pulled the Hanged Man.

Immediately I think of Henry David Thoreau’s most demanding nugget of wisdom. He says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Sage words. Definitive. Thing is, I don’t want to die yet. Death as a concept is ultimately intriguing, I know, but its taste is something I hope to keep from my lips until I’m at least King Lear’s age. I need a good omen for my trip; the Hanged Man looks the opposite.

My plan is to leave home in Cow Bay and haul my rig eastward to Canso, camping and scoping surf spots along the way. Canso is home to Stan Fest, Nova Scotia’s baddest ass folk festival, so it’s my only must-do. Then I hope to hitch a lobster boat across to Isle Madame on Cape Breton Island en route to my final destination of Louisbourg’s legendary fortress. All told, we’re talking over 500 km of asphalt and gravel. For a spandexed Tour de France dude, this might only take a week. For me and my beast, I’m banking on three.


Three slow and cellphone-less weeks of solitude. Here’s what I plan to bring: Lazarus, my battle-scarred 6 foot fish; wetsuit, boots, and gloves; a tent; a therma rest mat; a sleeping bag and pillow; a camp stove; a well-annotated map; a fishing rod; a first aid kit; a marine radio, camera, and voice recorder; a flashlight; bike tubes and repair tools; a rain suit; a G harmonica; a flask of rum; and, of course, a note pad and a copy of Don Quixote. And stacks of Clif bars. Oh, and my only real indulgence—a French press camping mug and a big bag of course ground goodness.

I want to see the Eastern Shore because it’s often the last and scrawniest section of any Nova Scotian tourism guide. When people visit our province, they rarely go east. It’s sparsely populated, super foggy, largely undeveloped—no Peggy’s Cove, no Cabot Trail, no Theodore Tugboat. But it also has infinite surf potential. Dozens of lonely headlands poke into the Atlantic, shaping swell into waves that almost always go unridden. I want to meet people along the way, but I also want to get lost for a while. I figure the Eastern Shore is the best place to disappear.

I’m modelling my trip on one of my surf hero’s adventures. Dan Malloy, pro surfer-turned-organic farmer, biked down the California coast a few years back, culminating in a beautiful Patagonia-sponsored book called Slow Is Fast. Dan is my Yoda.

After mustering up the courage to email him, I arranged a phone call to fire some technical questions his way. We talked set-ups (he had a different trailer and a longer board), solo versus friends (he had two buddies along), budget (they only spent money on food), pace (molasses), lack of road rage (no middle fingers but 4 shakas!) and safety. He said he always felt safe because he went at a snail’s pace. He didn’t crash once. His speed-loving friend Kanoa, on the other hand, “ate shit super hard but he just, like, miraculously pulled it.” Not exactly soothing words, but I appreciated his honesty.

His main advice was more philosophical. He underscored the value of loosened time.

“A big part of it was time,” he said. “The more time you have, the less of an agenda you have, the more flexible you can be around other peoples’ time. We were self-sufficient on our bikes so we didn’t come across as total bums. When people found out we were up for anything, they completely opened up. Having time is key.”

I plan to keep Dan Malloy on psychic speed dial while I’m away.

But what about the Hanged Man? With tarot, you can’t take things at face value. Interpretation is all. To me, the guy on the card looked pretty immobilized and maybe even doomed. It seemed like he was stuck. How could that spell anything but sorrow on a trip of pure movement?

Deep breath. Here is what the card actually says:

“If the Hanged Man pays a visit to your reading, prepare yourself for some sort of epiphany. But first, expect an uncomfortable time. Let go of your safety net, sacrifice your worldview, and trust the universe. You cannot rush this experience, so you may as well settle down and just take a look around. No doubt things will look different from here; enjoy the view.”

Not too shabby. I can roll with that. My mom was right, as usual.

Ryan Shaw