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How I spent my summer vacation...

September 22, 2017

North Van teacher cycled 8,000 kilometres for mental health advocacy

JEREMY SHEPHERD / NORTH SHORE NEWS

Cycle.jpg

North Vancouver English teacher Jane Weller holds her bicycle aloft after making an 8,000 kilometre cross-Canada journey over July and August in a bid to raise money for mental health advocacy. photo supplied

Bicycle salesman: “Now I’m not gonna make a lot of extravagant claims for this little machine. Sure, it’ll change your whole life for the better, but that’s all.”
– Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


She couldn’t see where Canada ended – but she knew she’d be there soon.

Jane Weller, 61, was pedalling to the end of her two-month, two-wheeled trip across the country when she heard something snap.

The derailleur cable was toast. She had no spare.

She’d ridden 7,930 of the planned 8,000 kilometres between the Strait of Georgia and the Cape Spear Lighthouse in Newfoundland and for a moment, she wasn’t sure she’d finish.

She’d rolled through Saskatchewan, where semi-trucks shed tires like snakeskins that flapped on the side of the highway and showered the bike lane with tiny tire-popping wires. She survived Ontario, where cyclists struggled against headwinds to stay on the thin white line between the gravel shoulder and the horn-happy highway drivers.
She’d swung through the Rockies without seeing a drop of rain but in Newfoundland the ivory-white wisps of cloud turned black and bloated.

“It was like the gods were saying: ‘Jane, you’ve had it too easy,’” Weller says with a laugh.
The rain was so heavy she spent one night sheltered in a campsite’s laundromat.
Weller never considered stopping but when she heard that snap, she felt her resolve weaken, just a bit.
In the universal symbol of bicycle distress, Weller put her bike upside down.
“I thought, ‘Maybe just this once, someone will give me a ride.’”
. . .

Weller specializes in one-on-one tutoring for North Vancouver high schoolers taking online courses, mostly university-bound kids looking to bump up their grade point average. But a few of Weller’s distributed learning pupils are studying online as a refuge from the classroom while they cope with anxiety or depression.

Before setting out on her journey, Weller acknowledged the gulf between herself and her students.
“I’m from another generation so I have absolutely no idea what they’re going through,” she says.
But speaking more recently, Weller recalled the embarrassment she felt as a kid with a schizophrenic mother.
“It’s so ubiquitous,” she says, noting the breadth of people impacted by mental health problems.
“I think it’s really, really important to give back to humans,” she says, before laughing at herself a bit. “It sounds trite,” she admits.

With 8,000 kilometres to cover, Weller made it her goal to raise $8,000 for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, a registered charity that advocates on behalf of mental health patients.

During the most recent reporting period, MDSC spent 74 per cent of their revenue – or slightly more than $1 million – on advocacy work and 26 per cent on management and administration, according to the Canada Revenue Agency.
Weller wrote an email to ask her friends to donate.

She remembers the cursor on her computer screen hovering over the Send key like an airplane in a holding pattern.
“I don’t like asking people for money,” she says.
Still, there’s a phrase Weller repeats in conversation, and it seems to serve her well: “It’s not about me, it’s about the people who I’m riding for.”

She hit Send.

There were some big donors. Telus kicked in $1,000. The Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary pledged $500. But the majority of the cash came in small batches.

All told, Weller’s solo ride raised $12,265 at press time, or 153 per cent of her goal.

But while she rode alone, she had help as she veered from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay and around Lake Superior to Sudbury, watching the road and waiting for the next Tim Hortons.

“It’s not the coffee I really like,” she allows. “But there’s no Starbucks in the Prairies.”
Her daily schedule involved riding before sunrise and stopping in at Tim Hortons to rest, check her emails and use the bathroom.

Crossing the border into New Brunswick Weller was low on caffeine when she spotted a woman cradling a cup of what she needed.

The nearest Tim Hortons is in Port Hawkesbury, 10 kilometres away, the woman told her.
Weller was about to suck it up and go when the woman ordered her to stay put.
The woman returned minutes later with a giant coffee and a $25 gift card.

“I got this over and over,” Weller says, discussing those small acts of kindness.
When the weather turned cold in Nova Scotia a woman she met in a grocery store invited her to spend the night.
“We drank wine until midnight,” Weller recalls.

In Regina, Sask., a pilot put her up for the evening before asking if she needed to rest or if she’d like to go flying.
From the window of a single-engine fixed-wing aircraft, Weller looked down at tomorrow’s route as the sun set on Saskatchewan.

But despite those kindnesses, the trip wasn’t easy.
“I had a sore knee and a sore neck and a sore back when I first started,” she says. “The first two days were hell and it got better and better. . . . I just became a cycling machine.”
. . .

Weller crouched by her bike on the side of the road in Newfoundland, looking at her snapped cable and ruminating on how she could finish her trip.

She was fed up, she says.
Given the hospitality of Newfoundlanders, she knew she could probably get a ride if she wanted. But that wasn’t what she wanted.

Weller flipped her upside down bike right-side up and did what she’d been doing for better than 7,000 kilometres: she rode.

She coasted downhill and walked uphill to start. But she found she could ride uphill as long as she kept her bike in a low gear.

Legs churning, she pulled into St. John’s in the afternoon and headed for a bike shop.

No, she was told, they couldn’t fix that.

“I pleaded and pleaded and pleaded,” Weller recalls, sweetening the deal by promising a plate of cinnamon buns.
They fixed the bike and Weller made it to Cape Spear.
. . .

Now more or less back to her normal routine in North Vancouver, Weller’s trying to replace the 10 pounds she shed crossing the country.

“I just could not get enough to eat,” she says. “I became very animalistic, eating free food when I could, camping behind churches, sleeping on the rough.”

She tried to cover 130 kilometres over the 10 hours she spent on her bike each day, fuelling herself with peas, fish, potatoes, and five or six bananas each day.

“I had real suffering days,” recalls Weller. 

She’d done three-day races. She’d crossed the Pyrenees in a week. But Canada just kept going and going.
Coming out of Calgary she saw canola fields painted a buttery yellow. But keeping her eyes on the horizon, particularly on the Prairies, was deflating.

“You get to the horizon and it’s more flat,” Weller explains.
But Weller found if she kept her eyes off the horizon and her mind on her breathing she could just think about the people she’d met.

“That consumed me, so I didn’t need music.”
She talked with a mother whose son was grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan.
She’s hoping conversations like that might have a ripple effect that’ll make it just a bit easier to talk about mental health, Weller explains.

“I got very intimate with people who were sort of throwing their heart onto me.”
For Weller, it was the trip of a lifetime.

“Nothing can top this, absolutely nothing.”

The trip made her a little more understanding and little less critical, she says.

“Even the guy that honks at me when I’m riding my bike . . . he must’ve had a hard day.”
Weller smiles as she discusses the trip. And when the conversation is over she hops on her bike and rides away.


© 2017 North Shore News