"Epic," I'm given to understand, in climber/boarder/general-extreme-sport-enthusiast parlance, means something that's not really a whole hell of a lot of fun (to put it lightly) while you're in it, but which makes a good story afterward, or at least something you can look back on with more... perspective. Usually something that is pretty long and sloggish, with an increasing number of frustrating and "well-at-least-it-can't-get-any-worse; wait-yes-it-can" scenarios along the way.
By those lights my ride home today was pretty epic.
Now, remember, this is the first day that I've biked to work since the snow came down like a greasy, slushy, wet, smooshy hammer on Wednesday. The ride to work this morning was relatively fine. A little slippery, a little slower than usual, but more or less okay. I went straight down Bank Street to downtown, then hopped over the bridge to Vanier. Easy.
And usually, when there's no snow to contend with, I hop on the path at the bridge on the way home, and take the tree-lined, paved, quiet, peaceful bike path as far as Billings Bridge, where I get back on Bank and contend with traffic for less than a mile or so. Easy.
The problem is that between work and home, there's a great bloody highway. The 417, otherwise known as the Queensway, otherwise known as the main freeway running east to west through Ottawa. The bike path passes quietly, almost surreptitiously, underneath it and you barely notice it. But with the bike path gone, whatever I do has to get around the 417. You can't ride on the 417, of course, and you really don't want to be anywhere near the on/off ramps for it either. Around the on/off ramps the sidewalks vanish, the buildings get sparse and hideous, and all human (and cycle) life is dwarfed, diminished, and made to cower before the almighty and all-privileged automobile. There are only so many points, too - passes, fords - where you can get across the freeway conveniently.
So I had to find a way home that got me past the 417 and didn't take me too far out of my way. I pulled up Mapmyride.com at work and looked for a way to avoid the Vanier Parkway/Riverside Drive - a busy artery that parallels the bike path. It's fast and ugly and I didn't want to be there. So, I plotted a route that took me along the much quieter Old River Road, then hopped onto Riverside long enough to go past all the 417 ramps - which I thought would be nasty, but I could take the sidewalks if I had to - and got me to Alta Vista, which I discovered on Tuesday is a fairly nice street, all told. Would have been about 5 3/4 miles. It looked like this:
That was the plan.
I discovered that the sides of Riverside Drive were treacherously thick with slush, so I hopped onto the sidewalk. What the hell, no jury in the world and all that. But then the sidewalk vanished just after Coventry. I know there's a sidewalk there: I've taken it before. But it's not plowed. This makes a major difference.
So I stopped. Pondered. Turned back, went back to Coventry. Thought, briefly, of the moment when I turned onto River Road and thought, 'maybe I should just keep going on Montreal and go through downtown.' Not for the last time.
I vaguely remembered that Coventry and Industrial somehow connected, and that Industrial ends at the intersection where I would normally get on Alta Vista. So, I took Coventry. And wound up in the living hell of Cyrville Industrial Park. I thought it would be quieter, less busy. Somehow I also thought that would mean slower cars and less slush-encroachment into the tiny space afforded me by most drivers.
In brief, the path I wound up taking was more than 2 1/2 miles longer, and looked more like this:
It was, of course, dark at this point, and the wind started up (coming from the west of course) and the windchill took temperatures down to about -18. Every so often I would stop, and look around, and try to locate the apartment buildings that I knew stood near Hurdman. Try to remember the last time I was in the industrial park (this spring, when I got lost there trying to find a quicker route to work one morning.) And try to picture what direction Alta Vista lay in. Oh, and at mile 3, where I backtrack? There were no sidewalks there, either, and I panicked near the train station when I hit a huge patch of two-inch-deep slush and lost control of the bike, then turned around and headed back to Belfast. Which took me to St-Laurent, a nasty long street, but one I'm very familiar with, and which does have paved sidewalks so I didn't have to be in traffic; because at that point I was swearing out loud at all the cars that clipped close to me. But then I spotted Belfast again (the other end of it this time) and recognized it and remembered I could find Alta Vista from Belfast, and I was hell-bent on getting to Alta Vista where there was a bike lane, so I turned onto that.
All of these streets go through long, blank, faceless stretches of road, with big-box stores or trainyards lining them, no real pedestrian space, and drifts sliding into the road. The sidewalks appear and disappear. The snow slumps five feet out into the road in places. And people in cars can gun through them as fast as they like. Sometimes there isn't even a crosswalk, like some kind of crude joke. And the side of the road is slushy and untrustworthy. Where driveways empty onto the street, the plows have left wide trails of snow.
And when I finally made it to Alta Vista, I realized that the bike lane that was there on Tuesday night was occluded by slush. It was still better, though, than the industrial park - more travelled, slower, easier to navigate. And I knew where I was for sure. Which helped, although I had one more scary slide in a patch of slush on Heron before I finally got home, shaken and freezing. But by the time I got home it was already not so bad: I wanted to scream at everything when I had to screech to a halt and try to figure out how to get through the intersection of Belfast and Trainyards ... and almost did ... but by the time I was fumbling my key into the door of my apartment I knew I was home, and it was all a lot easier, all retrospect by now.
I think I still think like a driver sometimes. I think that the shortest distance between two points is actually the shortest distance between two points. It's not. And I keep forgetting that. Next time, I'm heading through downtown. Hell with wayfinding in industrial parks.