“You smell nice,” the cashier said without looking up as she slid my baguette and mesclun mix over the electronic reader.
I grunted and hoisted my dusty pannier onto the counter. “I don’t need a bag,” I said.
She looked up and her eyes widened as they travelled from the grimy gloved hand holding out a five-dollar bill to my sweat-stained T-shirt and helmeted head. I grinned, white teeth in a sun-pinked face, and she started to laugh.
“Really,” she assured me. “You smell fresh.”
I was on day four of a bike trip up Vancouver Island’s east coast during the hottest weather of the year. “Fresh” shouldn’t have entered her mind.
I ducked my head discreetly and breathed deep, curious.
I had long wanted to take a spa holiday. Great vegetarian food, pleasant walks in the woods, a massage every day, time for naps…the kind of vacation that would make me healthier by the minute, with precious little effort on my part. It would include great scenery, of course, and a comfortable bedroom, and the other guests (when I saw them at all) would be friendly but aloof.
What I got was a road trip. A few days cycling Vancouver Island’s back roads, nights between clean sheets in old-fashioned motels, a stint at a mountain-top resort…no, wait. That was Plan B.
Plan R, Reality, had morphed into two weeks with a tent and enough trail mix to pave the trail.
The first day, my sweetie and I left Victoria at the crack of noon and headed north. By the time we had our first break, waiting for the ferry at Brentwood Bay, the last knotted shoulder muscle had given in to oxygen-rich blood loaded with feel-good chemicals like serotonin and adrenaline. I sipped water and held my face up to the sun while I waited for the boat to take me across fjord-like Finlayson Arm.
The Malahat Drive between Victoria and the Cowichan Valley has an undeserved reputation for toughness and earlier in the year we’d proved it, so this time we decided to bypass the hill and take the ferry to Mill Bay instead.
The sun was warm, the sea sparkled, an eagle soared overhead. We stood on the top deck of the ship and looked at the sailboats in the marina as we pulled out.
“I like the Paradox,” Himself pointed to a lovely wooden craft. “But she’s a high-maintenance lady.”
“And you like your girls low-maintenance,” I said, smiling. I pride myself on being a low-m girl.
He grinned back. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I like Tupperware.”
Apparently I would receive no special treatment on this holiday.
From Mill Bay through Cobble Hill to Cowichan Bay we huffed up hilly backroads and swooped down again until the sun was far to the west. I needed dinner.
“One more hill,” my husband promised. “Then we can stop.”
He’s been saying that since I met him in September 1990, but this time it was true.
We got to the top of the hill and there below us was the little mill town of Crofton. Not what I’d have chosen for a four-star holiday, but my legs were willing to settle.
The last freewheel of the day is always the best because there’s no uphill afterward. Not until tomorrow and that doesn’t count.
We stopped at the grocery store to get dinner and directions and rolled the few blocks to the grassy, treed campground on the bay with resident kingfishers and a curious seal.
Once the tent was up and the new ThermARest mattresses unfurled, I took my new little camping towel (guaranteed to hold four gallons of water and squeeze dry in seconds) to the showers.
I pushed open the door and gasped. The gleaming white shower stall had a built-in bench. Now this was more like it! I turned on the taps and sank gratefully onto the seat. I rubbed the fine grit of salt off my limbs as the warm water sluiced over me, feeling dirt and sweat wash away. Afterward I rubbed down with the little magic towel and then pulled on shorts and a T-shirt. As I passed the mirror on my way out, I noticed that, instead of looking sunburned and weatherbeaten, my skin glowed.
We sat at our picnic table and watched the stars come out while we ate Hershey Almond bars.
The next day I lost my man early on and spent the next six hours desperately riding up hill and down dale in the blazing sun to catch him. I didn’t dare stop for long because he was ahead of me but didn’t realize it and thought that he was trying to catch me (don’t ask), so I just drank litres of water and ate a box of granola bars. By the time I found him, drinking coffee and reading his novel after a late lunch in a Mexican café, I was hot and exhausted.
We freewheeled down another hill and found a lovely waterfront campground. The owner had taken a bike trip through France once, twenty-five years before, and gave us a deal on the price. After another salt body scrub followed by a moisture wrap (aka a shower and a slather of moisturizer) I was ready for a dinner of canned chili, ramen noodles, fruit cocktail, and V8. Ginger tea and Cheez Pleezers to follow.
By the third day, we’d figured it out. We stopped for ice cream or fruit juice before we used up our blood sugar reserves. We ate fish and chips at a harbourfront café before retiring to our (of course) waterfront campsite.
A regular spa would have charged me for every massage. A regular spa would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars each for a long weekend, instead of the hundred dollars or so our holiday had cost us so far.
A regular spa might give me the illusion of better health – until I tried to hike up a hill or swim a lap. A regular spa probably wouldn’t provide Cheez Pleezers and Hershey Almond bars.
This story has also appeared in Adventure Cyclist and Focus magazines