Flat

Posted May 9, 2011 in Canada, Cross-Canada 2011

Flat feels like this: a dull thud-thud.

Your bicycle just bumped over a centimetre-wide crack in the pavement of the Trans-Canada Highway. It might be Alberta or it might be Saskatchewan; the road knows little difference.

Look along the road and notice more cracks. Here comes another.

thud-thud.

Bizarrely, the cracks are evenly spaced. They're not alone: the plains hold rhythm. Fenceposts, power lines and crossroads all follow a beat.

Rain is regular, too. Farms are getting their turns in the distance. You'll get yours soon.

You've grown rhythm yourself. You rise with the sun and set your head when the sun does.

thud-thud.

You breathe in rhythm with your pedalling. In-in-in, out-out-out, in-in-in, out-out-out.

Your feet make 90 revolutions per minute, according to your tiny bicycle computer. One breath counts as three revolutions (in-in, in-out, out-out), so that's 30 breaths a minute.

thud-thud.

The ground is flat, but that's not all. The sky and scenery are flat, too.

It's hard to describe. Early astronomers believed the stars were like studs on a sphere that rotated around the Earth. Aristotle argued that if the Earth and stars weren't positioned such, we'd notice "parallax" and nearer stars would move more quickly than distant ones as we adjusted our viewpoint. Since the constellations don't change, the logic went, we're in the middle of concentric spheres of flatness.

thud-thud.

Fences and farms move, but beyond that the Prairies scenery doesn't change. You're at the centre. Clouds morph silently like a slow-motion movie. Distant hills follow you like eyes in a creepy portrait.

The road might be a five-kilometre treadmill. That would explain how these cracks got here.

Oh wow, something new is coming.

thud thud-thud thud.

That was the feeling of two cracks, half a metre apart. That was exciting.

Oh no, here comes the wind.

thud-thud.

The gusts are viscious. They break your rhythm.

You downshift, trying to maintain 90 revolutions per minute, three revolutions per breath. You drop from 30 kilometres per hour to 15. You can muster a rhythm by shifting gears as the wind changes, but you're barely moving.

There are two ways to eke more speed out of your suddenly-heavy bicycle. You resort to both.

First, you bicycle at half-power. You bide time, waiting for the rare 18-wheeler that passes you in the slow lane.

The truck punches a hole in the wall of wind. For ten seconds, you're a god. You upshift and regain 30 while you can.

thud-thud.

The problem with that strategy is that there's no rhythm to the trucks.

You look around, absorbing the scenery one last time.

It's time for plan B. You shift your arms to the lower handlebars and you duck your head for good. You're looking straight down.

Down here, the wind is slightly less awful.

Now that you're looking down, you're climbing to the sky. The pavement slips beneath you from ahead to behind like a waterfall. You keep the white line on your left, and you glance up the road every so often to make sure no pebbles are coming.

thud-thud. Glance.

You're practically stationary. And you're missing it all.


Oil wells are scattered around Alberta.


Enormous sprinkler systems can water acres of land.


Even in May, bales enliven the Saskatchewan horizon.


The Prairie skies are sometimes raining, always shifting.