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Day 26: Blenheim, ON to St. Thomas, ON

I definitely needed that lighter day today. Got up at 7:15, and the only reason I got up that early was because Chris leaves for work at 8 and I wanted to be a gracious guest and chat over breakfast. I was still feeling exhausted and slow to get moving, so I had a leisurely chat with Anne (who works from home) and finally hit the road at 10.

A couple of things about Ontario roads: First of all, they’re very poorly maintained in general. According to Chris and Anne, at some point a Conservative Provincial government decided to demote a number of Provincial highways to county highways, because it was “wasteful” to spend taxpayer dollars on maintaining infrastructure. Then the counties didn’t really have the money to maintain all the roads they were now in control of, so a lot of them started getting cracked and were never resurfaced. And when they do maintain them, they just pour tar in the cracks, which is not a surface on which my tires get very good traction. It was quite a bumpy ride in some places and quite slippery in others!

The other thing is that they really don’t seem to like hard shoulders here. When I’m lucky there’s been a foot or two of hard shoulder, but often there’s no hard shoulder at all, even on designated bike routes. There’s usually a wide soft shoulder, but there’s no way I’m biking on a soft shoulder.

Separately, I was also thinking about how the original English settlers in this part of Ontario must have come from similar areas as the English settlers in Massachusetts. Blenheim is surrounded by Harwich Township, which borders on Chatham. There’s also a Shrewsbury not too far away on the shore of Lake Erie. And nearby counties are named Essex, Middlesex, and Norfolk. Stop making me homesick, Ontario!

Anyway, once on the road the terrain was pretty flat, and I was back to heading northeast with a light headwind. One interesting thing I noticed was that a lot of the farms I passed had wind turbines on them. Like, in the middle of the fields. Even if some of Justin Trudeau’s energy policy isn’t the best (*cough* Keystone XL *cough*) it’s cool that the government presumably encourages wind companies to lease land from farmers in the middle of their farms to install wind turbines. It would be nice if we could do that in the US. [Ed. note: According to a friend of mine, this is done in Illinois and Indiana. I just didn’t see it in any of the states I biked through.]

About 10 miles in, I passed a couple riding a tandem bike laden with considerably more baggage than I have. At 12 miles I stopped for a break under a tree, and they joined me when they caught up. They looked to be in their 50s, and they said they were biking from Oregon to DC via a very circuitous route. They had come over the Cascades near Bend, gone through Missoula and Lincoln in Montana, but then they took a dirt road down to Bozeman. They stayed north of the Twin Cities and Milwaukee and took the ferry to Ludington, but then they went all the way down to Ann Arbor before going back north to take the ferry across the St. Clair River. (There’s no way the Tunnel Bus could fit a tandem.) Then they came back south to Blenheim and were planning to go up to Niagara Falls before going back down through Buffalo and Erie to Pittsburgh and then continuing on to DC. Given their baggage and routing, this whole ordeal was going to take them more than 3 months. I’d go crazy if I were on the road for that long!

A bit further along, the road entered Elgin County and suddenly became hillier. They weren’t big hills or anything, but it was a noticeable change from the totally flat terrain I’d been on, and it meant I could actually coast occasionally. On one of the downhills though, I hit a sizable pothole that appeared out of nowhere. Amazingly, while it gave me quite a jolt and knocked my saddle bags loose (though fortunately they didn’t fall off), there was no damage to the bike. No flat tire, no popped spokes, nothing. Surly really makes these bikes tough!

At 24 miles I came to Take A Bite Inc. restaurant, which had been signed 4 miles back, and decided it was time for lunch. The restaurant was closed, but it was shortly before noon so I Googled to see whether they were scheduled to open at noon. While I was in the process of discovering that they only serve lunch Fri-Sun, the owner pulled up and said that even though they weren’t technically open his wife could make me a shawarma if I was really hungry. So I wound up eating a nice chicken shawarma at a closed restaurant! And given the favorable exchange rate, a shawarma, a soda, tax and tip only ran me US$11, if that. Please give them your business if you find yourself in the area. I can’t believe the owner was nice enough to open the restaurant for me!

One other thing at the restaurant: The owner had an interesting collection of political cereal boxes from the last election.

Note that Canada, like the UK, uses red for the left-wing party and blue for the right-wing party. The US used to do the same, and Massachusetts still prints Democratic primary ballots in red and Republican primary ballots in blue, but somehow the networks switched the colors in the 2000 election and that stuck. Incidentally, both Chris and Anne as well as the restaurant owner characterized the upcoming election in October as a lesser-of-two-evils contest. Trudeau has proven to be a disappointment in their minds, but Harper’s successor in the Conservative Party is probably worse.

Another 11 miles brought me to Wallacetown, where there was an ice cream parlor and I enjoyed a rich milkshake. My plan from Wallacetown had been to go out to Port Talbot and see Lake Erie, but the owner of Take A Bite had warned me that there was a really steep climb coming back up from the lake and I should avoid it. I asked some locals at the ice cream parlor, and they also strongly urged me to avoid that route, so I continued on a more inland route to St. Thomas. At this point, the wind had also shifted, so I finally had a bit of a tailwind, at least until I turned east for the final approach to St. Thomas.

As I was coming into the city, I passed a memorial to Jumbo the Elephant. Jumbo was in the Barnum & Bailey circus and was the largest elephant in captivity at the time, when in 1885 he was hit by a locomotive in St. Thomas and killed. Even 134 years later elephants still figure heavily in how St. Thomas markets itself.

Near the Jumbo memorial is an elevated park, similar to New York’s High Line only higher. It’s currently still under construction, but it seems like it should be a pretty cool park when it’s done.

I continued on into the center of town and shortly arrived at Caps Off Brewing, a new brewery conveniently located downtown that only opened in April. They only have 5 beers on tap currently, but that means I got to try almost all of them.

By far my favorite was the Stove Pipe Stout. Most stouts in the 5.2% ABV range are dry, Irish styles. This stout was much fuller bodied and not at all dry. As I told Fran, the co-owner, it really tastes like a 7% stout, and it’s an accomplishment to get that much flavor in a stout with lower ABV. Other good beers were the Hold Onto Your Tam Scottish ale and the Drop of a Hat IPA. Neither is remarkable, but they’re both solid and worth trying if you’re at the brewery.

While I was chatting with Fran and telling her about my ride, it came up that one of the other patrons moonlights as a reporter for the local newspaper. So I did a short interview with him on the spot. I’ll post the link when it’s published.

In contrast to Caps Off’s convenient location, Railway City Brewing is on the edge of town. And by the edge of town, I mean that the smell of manure from a nearby farm hung heavy in the air. They’re also a much older and larger brewery. As a newer, smaller brewery they actually started in what’s now Caps Off’s space, but as they grew they needed a bigger location, and I guess this is how far out of town they had to move to find such a location. I somehow forgot to take a picture here, which is disappointing because they had a statue of an elephant drinking beer and I really wanted to show it here, but I just plain forgot.

As for the beer, they had way too many for me to taste all of them, so I needed to choose wisely for my flight selection. Unfortunately I did not. Most of the beers I ordered for the flight were disappointing, and the only one that was better than average was the amber ale. However, I also asked for a couple of samples after I finished the flight. (Trying to drink in moderation, so I didn’t order any full pours.) Of the samples, the Orange Creamsicale was the best. It’s a cream ale with oats, oranges, and vanilla, and it definitely has notes of creamsicle to it. Creativity points here, though it’s also a good beer that I’d happily drink again. The Black Coal stout was also nice, though this one was decidedly a dry stout.

And then it was off to my AirBnB to conclude my short day. As opposed to my full century rides yesterday and the day before, today I didn’t even do a metric century, but I needed the rest. Tomorrow should be back to comfortably within my target 80-100 mile range.

Total distance: 61.1 miles
Average speed: 14.9 mph

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