On his first trip out of the United States since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Sebastian Modak takes the long way north.

The rain returned just as I crouched down by the curb to fix my fourth flat bicycle tire of the day. The sun was inching toward the horizon, casting a thick gray-gold blanket over the nondescript suburb of Montréal I now found myself in. “It’s not the bike’s fault — it’s bad luck,” I insisted, as my partner Maggie threatened to throw the tire in a nearby dumpster and call a cab. We cursed in unison, a steady crescendo of progressively more creative expletives, as the rain resoaked our soggy clothes and I went through the all-too-familiar motions of changing a bike tube. My cuticles bled as I struggled to push the tire into place with whatever strength I had left. Mosquitoes closed in as the clock crept closer and closer to sunset. 

This largely improvised journey from New York to Québec by rail and bicycle wasn’t supposed to be a capital B, capital T “Big Trip.” I had always thought of those as the ones that required long flights and disorienting time zone shifts. They necessitated months of planning and the meticulous allocation of frequent flyer points. This, by contrast, had felt spontaneous. But after 18 months in and out of various lockdowns, crossing an international border also felt important. Doing so on a bicycle raised the stakes even higher. As night fell on the outskirts of Montréal and I climbed back on my now barely functioning bicycle, home felt very far away and this trip started feeling very big indeed. 

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A paved portion of Route Verte in Quebec, with green trees and waterfront
Québec's Route Verte combines country roads with recreational trails like this one, the P'tit Train du Nord © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea for this week-long bicycle journey first hooked onto my consciousness, but it had to be sometime in the long and strange summer of 2020, when I fell down rabbit holes imagining where I’d go if I could go anywhere. That’s when — in some dusty corner of a long forgotten travel subreddit — I stumbled on a mention of Québec’s Route Verte, the Green Route. The name alone lit up my imagination like some kind of real-life Yellow Brick Road. I envisioned rolling emerald hills, thick pine forests; a meandering bicycle path between two points that didn’t matter. 

Then, a year later, as summer 2021 drew to a close, the US-Canadian land border reopened to Americans (but, incomprehensibly, not Canadians) and suddenly I could go. So, with about one week’s notice, I started poring over Québecois tourism websites, reaching out to long-distance bike touring experts and bouncing around Google Street View to better understand what this route, so fabled in my imagination, really was. I felt long-dormant travel-planning muscles awaken as I started researching how we would get our bikes to Canada and where we would go once we got there. 

The Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail in Vermont
The Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail in Vermont runs from the town of St. Albans almost all the way to the US border with Canada © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

I quickly learned that the Route Verte is not a single A-to-B route. Rather, it is a collection of paved bike paths, wide-shouldered country roads, and gravel trails that spread across the province of Québec like cobwebs. In all, it covers 5300 miles, making it the longest network of bicycle trails in North America. Averaging around 50 miles a day for a week, we’d maybe experience five percent of it, at most. 

Then there was the matter of getting to Canada, carless New Yorkers that we are. A nine-hour trip on Amtrak’s Vermonter train could get us as far as the town of Saint Albans, Vermont, 15 miles from the border as the crow flies, but 30 miles from it on the scenic route we decided to take. We skipped the roads dense with trucks to instead follow the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, a dirt and gravel double-track trail that passes seemingly infinite cornfields and candy-red barns that look like they’ve been pulled out of the pages of a children’s book.

That first stretch was everything I have fallen in love with about cycling over the course of the pandemic: feeling the contours of the changing terrain beneath me and the instant feedback of effort and reward as I pedaled and coasted; the way I could move through the world fast enough to cover serious ground, but slow enough to let the passing scenery be more than a fleeting impression.  

Both sides of the Québec-Vermont border have wide-open farmland
The landscape on both sides of the Québec-Vermont border is dominated by wide-open farmland © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

Eventually, we came across the first signs pointing the way to Canada, as if it was just another one of the small farming communities we had ridden through that morning. The sense that this could really be one of those Big Trips I missed so dearly intensified. There were scarcely any signs of life as we rolled toward the Canadian immigration checkpoint. If tumbleweeds flourished at these northern latitudes, there would have been a few catching the breeze. After a few minutes, an immigration officer emerged looking surprised to see us and beckoned us forward. There was the new normal of bureaucracy — vaccination card, proof of a negative PCR test, confirmation that we had submitted our information in the required smartphone app — and we were waved through.

Hello Canada, hello bike lanes

According to online maps, the Route Verte begins right at the border. Still, I didn’t expect the transition to be so drastic. Everything changed, just meters (yes, meters) from the border. Besides metric measurements of distance and speed, there were suddenly wide, clearly marked shoulders along the road. Posted warnings, in French, cautioned drivers to keep their distance from cyclists. The little green signs demarcating La Route Verte showed up at regular intervals. Slowly, one pedal stroke at a time, we made our way north, through Québec’s Eastern Townships region.

Day One on the road, starting in Saint Albans and ending in the ski resort of Bromont felt like an eternity – in a good way. On a bicycle the days stretch until minutes slow down; it’s like every day is one of those interminable summer afternoons from childhood, when you could experience so much by doing so little. 

Sebastian Modak and his partner enjoying their ride in the rain
When the rain hit and before the smiles disappeared © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

Day Two — Bromont to Montréal — was equally long, but far less enjoyable. Rain poured down on us in angry daggers. My tires became magnets for razor-sharp gravel and shards of glass. While adjusting the bags on my bicycle, I accidentally wrapped my entire hand around a wasp. Over the course of an hour, my finger swelled into a juicy-looking bratwurst. We rode on. 

Americans love talking about how European Québec is: how you can enjoy cafe culture and cobblestones, baguettes and bistros, all without crossing an ocean. But, as becomes clear on a bicycle taking backroads, Quebec is still very much in North America. You notice it in the fast food joints and parking lots the size of small city-states. Just as you might hear the whisper of an old-time chanson playing from a tinny speaker somewhere in the woods, it’s drowned out by the approach of some tank-adjacent American pickup truck. You’ll find many quaint, family-run bed and breakfasts, but sometimes you’ll have no choice but to pull into the soulless Comfort Inn in a section of town dominated by strip malls. Still, after a full day of cycling, a bed is a bed.

Cyclists pass a bike shop on the Route Verte
Amenities like bike shops and bike-friendly cafes abound along the most popular sections of the Route Verte © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

A route within a route

La Route Verte started as an idea, spearheaded by Vélo Québec, a cycling advocacy and tourism organization. Developing the route — a mix of paving cycling paths, introducing protected bike lanes and wide shoulders, and providing clear signage — accelerated quickly in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Québec provincial government was looking for a major infrastructure project that could, as Vélo Québec’s CEO Jean-François Rheault described to me, “attract young people to the province and be beneficial towards society at large.” It was officially inaugurated in 2007, which makes it all the more surprising how little outsiders know about such a beautiful, well-organized piece of tourism infrastructure. 

“In tourism, people tend to promote things people can pay for — ski resorts, adventure tours, cruises,” Rheault told me when I asked about why the Route Verte has remained such a secret, including to some people I met in Québec. “The problem is that the Route Verte is everywhere,” he added. We were sitting outside a cafe in Montréal’s Plateau neighborhood. A woman passed by on one of the protected cycling lanes, one child on a seat strapped to her bike’s rack, another being pulled along on a tiny bicycle of her own. “It’s hard to promote it as a single activity or a single good, but it’s that widespreadness that makes it so sustainable and so appealing. We have to do a better job of promoting it.”

A shelter with bikes in front of it along the P'tit Train du Nord
Shelters serve as convenient rest stops along the 124-mile P'tit Train du Nord © Sebastian Modak / Lonely Planet

Well, allow me. Besides the sections of the Route Verte that were drawn to avoid major highways — it often zigzags through country backroads and suburban neighborhoods — the route also incorporates about 310 miles of bike trails that predated the route’s incorporation. One of those, the P’tit Train du Nord, was our next stop after reaching Montréal. Running along a decommissioned Canadian Pacific Railway line through the Laurentian Mountains, northwest of Montréal, the 124-mile “linear park” is now a mix of hard-packed gravel and asphalt, all wonderfully car-free. It cuts through small towns and dense woodlands, never hitting breath-shortening hills. Bicycle repair stations dot the route, and cyclists are given priority at campsites. “Bienvenue cyclistes” signs — another Vélo Québec program — denote inns where cyclists can expect a safe place to store their bike overnight and a hearty breakfast to get them moving in the morning.

The infrastructure, which gives the adventure a leg up, doesn’t end there. A shuttle is available to bring cyclists and their bikes from Saint-Jérôme, a suburb within commuter-rail distance of Montréal, to the end of the trail at Mont-Laurier, so riders can experience the gradual transition from the wilderness of the Laurentians’ farther reaches, into the progressively more populated towns closer to Montréal.

Getting off the shuttle and beginning our ride, it was as if the prior day’s painful, rainy, bloody armageddon had been karmic penance for a day of gentle breezes and warm sunshine. Autumn had waited for us to arrive, too. The leaves seemed to change minute to minute, as summer ended and autumn advanced. There were tiny bursts of orange and red in between a blanket of green. Unlike the prior days’ rides, where moments of serenity were interspersed with the harsh reality of industry and auto shops, this was all beautiful. Asters and goldenrods lined the trail filling my peripheral vision with blurs of purple and yellow. In steady intervals, the treeline broke open to reveal glassy ponds and fields of wildflowers. Insects sang with a ferocity that suggested it was always dusk. 

A wood cabin surrounded by trees
Les Jardins de L’Achillée Millefeuille is an inn in the village of La Conception along the P'tit Train du Nord © Sebastian Modak/Lonely Planet

When the first drops of rain hit on that third day in the saddle, we didn’t mind. We rode on, eventually finding our way to Les Jardins de L’Achillée Millefeuille, a bed and breakfast near the tiny town of La Conception. Surrounded by trees, the collection of wooden lodges and herb gardens more resembles an enchanted grove populated by gnomes than an inn. The host — a human — offered me an ointment in a small glass jar when he noticed my swollen finger. I don’t know what it was but it smelled like a spa and stung when I applied it. The swelling didn’t seem to subside, but no matter. As the evening vanished to the sound of rain, birds and squabbling chipmunks, I couldn’t have cared less about my finger.  

We covered the remainder of the P’tit Train du Nord in two more days. Along the way we encountered a father and son attempting to hike the entire trail; a group of 60-somethings from Ontario who may or may not have been swingers; and a trucker curious about what two Americans were doing at a roadside canteen in the middle of nowhere and dismayed at the unequal immigration rules along the border. 

A shady path passes an urban river
La Fontaine Park in Montréal was the perfect place to take a break after a few long days of cycling © Sebastian Modak/Lonely Planet

After a day of rest in Montréal, we made our way toward the border. Opting for a more direct route to Saint Albans, the transition back was jarring. The quiet farm roads, the funk of cut grass and livestock, the sound of nothing but our spinning wheels disappeared. In its place came roaring trucks, impatient SUVs and the very real worry that we were about to be turned into roadkill. 

But we weren’t. And the next morning, bikes onboard, we were on the Amtrak Vermonter, rocking our way back to New York. We had traversed some 320 miles by bike and we could feel it in our tired muscles. There was something else we felt though: the satisfaction that comes from an adventure embarked upon and completed. 

What makes for an adventure?

There has been a lot of talk about how the pandemic has rewired so much about how we travel. We’ve looked closer to home and beyond cars and planes — the so-called “bike boom,” for example, shows no signs of slowing down. We’ve been forced to take a hard look at just how easy it was to crisscross the world, just how simple it is to release planeloads of carbon dioxide and go about our vacation. Suddenly, with shifting regulations and risk considerations, we’re thinking a little more deeply about how, when and why we travel. 

A barn sitting in a green field under cloudy skies
A barn in St-Valentin, Québec, about ten miles from the US border © Sebastian Modak/Lonely Planet

Sitting in the dining car of the Amtrak train, glimpses of the New England autumn flashing by my window as I demolished a microwaved pizza and an overpriced beer, a burgeoning thought came into focus. There are people who climb mountains, cycle across the world, or throw themselves into extreme conditions to test the limits of what they’re capable of. I had always considered that to be the pinnacle of adventure; what I had just done was something else, something softer. But adventure — where you find it, how you measure it, the risks you take to achieve it — is relative. Big Trips can happen in unlikely circumstances; your days on the road can be lengthened, the mundane made epic, not just by where you’re going, but how you’re going and what happens along the way. Big Trips can start with little ideas. 

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