The tires hummed lowly together with the mechanical sounds of the bike chain that spun at my feet’s command. The wind blew on my face, and the fabric of my shorts and T-shirt waved like a flying flag. Overhead, colossus, white cloud formations floated softly across a blue sky, at times greying suddenly as if with old age and spelling signs of the inevitable fall of rain. There was a change in the wind, I could feel it, I could smell it. A change in the wind that was blowing away the intense heat and humidity of summer, a change in the wind that brought with it the gentle cool and colours of autumn.
Together with five others, I cycled some 80 kilometres northward along the route of the old railway track that led into the heart of the Laurentians. Dozens of others biked too, but on a shorter route through the many parks and green spaces of Montreal. A ride for charity, to raise money and awareness about legal aid for vulnerable and disadvantaged refugees and immigrants new to the country. The Dean of McGill’s Law Faculty was present, as was a former Minister of Justice, to kick start the event with speeches and applauses. We were reminded of the great cause we were about to embark on, and how as proud members of the student body and future lawyers, we are continuing the legacy of the activist of Dugald Christie to emphasise the importance of access to justice for all. Later I would learn from the organisers of the charity ride that despite the lofty speeching and involvement of a number of professors, financial support for the event from the faculty was sadly minimal.
The long, long journey took us through picturesque towns, fields and forests. With the occasional breaks and energy boosts from granola bars, it was relatively easy to bike the route, as most of the journey was along paved and marked cyclepaths of la Route Verte, which criss-crosses this region of Quebec. Even so, at times the weather was not so cooperative, and its rapid mood swings reminded me of the indecisive and at times treacherous weather back in Europe.
Speed, direction and destination were all mine to control, and once again like so often when I am on my bike I felt that sense of freedom that can be so liberating for the body and mind. As I pedalled, a leaf fell and clung momentarily onto my arm. Its fringes were yellowing and crisp, and suddenly a gust of wind sent it flying off again. On the trail behind me, among its fallen brothers and sisters that were sent moving by the breeze of a bike speeding past, I tried to find which leaf I just that brief moment with. More and more leaves are bound to drift and fall as the winds blow stronger and nights become colder, and colder.
When I look back, I realise how with determination and a destination, you can strive to accomplish what originally may seem like an impossible feat. In the back of my mind, the motivational speeches that reminded us all of the great cause of cycling for justice, cycling for the underprivileged, echoed and hurried me on. With their branches like upturned arms, the trees that lined the path seemed to cheer like a crowd of bystanders. The rustling sound of silvery green leaves was like muffled applauses, waving me forward. If only writing my thesis were so easy.
Later at night, a group of us stayed at a cabin owned and run by the McGill Outdoor Club. The cabin is fully equipped, with enough bunk space for eighty people. The walls are decorated with signs and rusty saws used by lumberjacks to fall trees. With dusty novels and boardgames, old copies of the National Geographic dating from the eighties, and even the remains of a puffer fish, a very ‘studenty’ feel hung in the air. Nearby is a river and lakes nestled between unspoiled forests in the mountains, and in the winter it is a great starting point for cross-country skiing and the quintessentially Canadian activity of snowshoeing.
Some volunteered to cook, others did the eating and merrymaking. After a feast of lentil soup and rice with vegetable stir-fry, we sat down together outside around an open fire and shared the battles with the elements and distance we had endured earlier during the day.
The talented ones played lonesome sounds with their guitars and sang melancholic country songs about love and longing. I quietly watched the fire, mesmerised by its sounds and movements. Sounds and movements that seemed to soothe and distract from the muscle aches and agonising moments during the long bike ride when I felt like giving up. Occasionally, I held out my hands to feel its warmth and affection, and once and twice I exploited it to grill marshmallows softly melted away in my mouth. Through quiet conversation, and at times moments of quiet silence, we bonded over the fragrance of wood burning and the sweet scent and taste of oven baked brownies.
Against the chill of the night and a faint drizzle, a flickering glow of orange and warmth was cast on our faces. The flames tossed their long heads in a wild, unpredictable dance above the burning wood. At times little sparks would fly off, fly and drift freely like fireflies. Fireflies that eventually faded and died. The fire cracked, its voice a mixture between the sound of twigs breaking beneath your feet as you gently tread on the forest floor and the sound of dripping rain.
Together we huddled around the fire, attracted by the vigour of life and gentle smell that sprang up from the burning wood. Together we made a vow to raise money for people we have never met but whose lives and wellbeing was what brought us all from different levels of study and from different origins and countries together. And there is a sense of warmth and joy in that, which lingers on and on like the scented smell of burning wood around a campfire.