Sleeping on the floor of a dirty retrofitted bus on an English dairy farm is an activity likely reserved for, well, more adventurous folks.
If that’s the case, put Calgary grandparents Wendy and Charlie Hunter squarely in that crowd.
As of Wednesday the retired couple, 67 and 68 years old and grandparents to six, were still working off the jet lag from their recent 4,750-kilometre cycling trip through Europe in which each were armed with three pairs of socks, a pair of pants and biking shorts, a few shirts and camping gear.
The trip was the Calgary couple’s second major bike-packing trip — in 2017, they cycled across Canada, checking off one of Wendy’s dream rides.
This trip was Charlie’s dream, she said, so the two took off from Alberta in mid-August and didn’t return until Nov. 27.
But back to the bus.
“It was kind of dirty,” Wendy says.
“Very dirty,” Charlie chimes in.
While the couple’s accommodations included Airbnbs and hotels, they often used Warmshowers, a gift-economy lodging platform for bike tourists in which hosts offer up their homes for free. (Wendy and Charlie are Warmshowers hosts in Calgary and have welcomed more than 100 cyclists into their home.) It’s where they found the bus, which sat in the middle of a North Ashton dairy farm owned by an English fellow named Nick.
Near the back was a swivel chair that allowed Nick to pivot between his piano and desk; during their short stay he played piano (“He was just an amazing pianist,” Wendy says) and supplied nine types of ice cream from his farm for taste-testing.
‘Everything was so beautiful’
The bike started on the northern tip of England and cut through France, Italy and finished in Greece. Compared to their previous Canadian tour which covered more distance, Wendy said she found Europe’s steep hills — not graded for long-haul trucks and poor weather like many Canadian highways — more difficult.
To prep, the couple cycled the well-known “Road to Nepal” cycling route southwest of Calgary, which features the elevation they needed to mimic Europe’s steep rolling hills. Oftentimes Charlie attached 40 pounds to his bike to prepare for the loads they’d later carry.
Wendy and Charlie were inspired by a CBC radio segment featuring an elderly long-distance cyclist who went by the mantra EFI: “Every f—ing inch,” Wendy said, meaning every piece of gravel travelled over is powered by their bodies. “Charlie and I talked about that, and we wanted to do EFI as well.”
With just each other and no backup, the trip was rife with challenges — chief among them was simply keeping their bearings.
“Everything was so beautiful, but the navigation in England was enough to pull our hair out,” Wendy said.
Despite possessing a catalogue of harrowing stories, bike packing is one of the couple’s favourite ways to travel. Much of their days were spent with Charlie leading the way in front taking the directions he’d created, and Wendy in tow working to keep up.
“Sometimes (Charlie) is the dot on the horizon. Sometimes it can be frustrating … we lost each other a few times,” Wendy said.
The pair don’t talk about slowing down any time soon, either. Just over a week since arriving home, Wendy is looking at doing something similar in Portugal. The one adjustment they might consider is cutting down their time away from home. “Charlie hasn’t weighed in yet,” Wendy says.
‘Biking, you see everything’
There are plenty of factors that would alone be deterrents for others: eating powdered milk in muesli for breakfast, getting caught in the rain with a flat tire and making many wrong turns, just to name a few.
But the couple still talks about those long days of cycling like a person they love.
“You’re self-sufficient, you’re riding with everything you need .. and you’re self-propelled. It’s amazing — and it’s a good speed, too,” Charlie said. “Walking is too slow, driving you miss stuff. But biking, you see everything.”
“Every single day, at one point or another, I said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’” Wendy said. “But at the end of the day it was always like, ‘Man, that was an amazing day. Just an incredible day.’”