Old ladies on bikes in Prince Edward Island

Tignish, the Western beginning of the trail. All good…so far.

I was in Prince Edward Island in Canada, steps away from the Confederation Trail, in an outhouse. An outhouse. My biking friend Claire was inside too. We were trying to smoosh together the soggy remains of our map so we could figure out where the heck we were before it was too dark to read. We had many kilometers yet to go and it was getting late. It was our first day of a long-planned six-day adventure. And maybe our last.

Outside we heard thunder crack and rain hammered the metal walls of the outhouse. Does lightning ever strike metal outhouses? Would one dramatic flash cook us like sardines in a can? I hoped not, because that outhouse was our refuge in the storm.

It was dry, as clean as any outhouse can expected to be, mosquito free, and big enough for both of us. It would, I thought, be a perfectly fine place to spend the night. We could worry about the trail another day. With thoughts like those, my mind reached a new low.

It had been sunny when we left Tignish, the western beginning of the trail. Claire left her jacket with Cynthia, our tour operator, who was taking our luggage to our first night’s stay. “I shall not need a jacket today,” Claire had declared. “It is not going to rain.” And to be sure, rain was not in the forecast.

Cynthia’s van pulled away and we cycled to the next little village before we heard the first claps of thunder, saw the first streaks of lightning, felt the first drops of rain. We huddled on the stone steps of the local library for a bit. Surely it would stop soon. It did not. We had to get back on our bikes.

Storm after storm passed through with scarcely a break between. Buckets of water fell on us. We were soon drenched: hair, clothes, shoes, our feet, our rented bikes, the bike bags, everything in the bags. (Too late we would understand why Cynthia had included large, empty zip-lock bags in both our packs.) 

I wondered if we should fling our bikes aside and lay in a ditch to be safe from the lightning—or were we safer staying on them, considering the rubber tires. I didn’t know; we kept on pedaling. 

As time went by, the crushed stone trail turned into two narrow rivers of water with a bumpy ridge between. We pedaled through the rivers, with dirty water splashing up our legs. 

We hadn’t seen another soul for a long, long time. No doubt everyone else was sensibly, safely inside charming cottages, watching the storms through picture windows.

Minutes before the outhouse, we stopped to look at our maps at a picnic table near the trail. A mistake. Not only did the maps get even wetter, monstrous clouds of mosquitoes rose from the wet shrubs and grass and trees that late  afternoon. Deadly mosquitoes determined to swarm over us and  suck the last drop of blood from our bodies. A scene from the African Queen was playing in my head, a scene in which Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn venture too close to shore one evening and the bugs swarm over them, almost driving them mad. (Some of you, old like me, will remember that scene.) It was exactly like that. Claire had a bottle of repellant in her pack. (I had left mine somewhere. I didn’t remember where.) As fast as we could, we sprayed and rubbed ourselves with the Skin-So-Soft repellant. It did nothing. We needed industrial strength DEET. Claire is a doctor.  I think medical schools ought to teach their students how to repel killer Canadian mosquitoes.(OK, that’s not rational or fair. But I was way past rational.)

After we’d reached the outhouse and after we’d spent some time there, both Claire and I knew we had to get our wet bodies back on our wet bikes and pedal through those narrow rivers. And we did. We didn’t even bother to complain. We’d save that for another day. Things had to get better. Five more days to go.

When we were planning our trip, I’d admitted to Claire that I might not be a good cycling companion. I hadn’t been on a bicycle in years—in decades, actually. (I had originally hoped to walk the trail instead.) She assured me I would be fine. Now, Claire is a wonderfully confident person. She’d gone on many bike tours before, several in Europe and one that took her from Vermont all the way to Montreal. She regularly takes spin classes at the gym. She is an attractive, athletic, unstoppable woman who looks and acts much, much younger than I. But she isn’t, and we were both very, very slow. 

Saratoga Spa State Park, near home. I wobbled here often.

To be perfectly honest, I was not ready to bike the length of a province, no matter how little that province might be. I had bought a bike and tried to train at home, mostly in the state park near my house. The first day I smashed into a flaming euonymus bush. I hoped my neighbors hadn’t noticed. The next day I learned I couldn’t manage a little hill and a little curve at the same time. I tipped off the trail, scraped my knee, and smashed the light on my bike. After that I was afraid of most everything: narrow paths, rough paths, ditches, hills going up, hills going down, cars, other bikes and pedestrians. I was especially afraid of families walking on the trails near my home, families with several little children wobbling on little bikes, accompanied by rambunctious puppies. They had no way of knowing that I was as wobbly as their little children and as unpredictable as their dogs. Sometimes irrational fears consumed me, and I’d get off my bike and walk awhile. More than once I wobbled out of control into tall grass beside the paths.

After considerable effort I was able to manage slow circles in empty parking lots. It would have to do. I met Claire and we drove to Charlottetown.

That had been a few days ago. Before the trail. Before the rain. Before we finally left the outhouse.

Claire and I rode further down the trail. When the rain had almost stopped, I called Cynthia to ask for directions. It turns out that she had been trying to reach us. Repeatedly. For quite awhile.

“Are you all right? Where are you? I heard you haven’t arrived at Mill River yet.”

I had turned my phone off. I didn’t want it to go dead. I was worried about an emergency—like wobbling into a ditch, falling off my bike, getting all banged up, and having to spend the night on the trail somewhere with a broken leg.

“You have an iphone, right?” Cynthia said.“Tomorrow we’ll stay connected on Find My Friends so I’ll always know where you are. If you ever need help, I can get to you.”

Then she gave me directions: “You’re almost there. Turn left off the trail at  the next road you come to. Ride a couple of kilometers, turn right at the T. You’ll see the sign for the Mill River Resort.” 

Soon enough we saw the sign. A golf cart was parked near it, and someone was sitting in the cart.

I had one fervent wish: “I hope it’s for us.”

Though really, who would be playing golf in a thunder storm? The young man who had been sent to rescue us maneuvered our bikes into the back of the cart and handed us a pile of dry white towels to mop our soggy selves off a bit while he drove down a long, wooded path. We checked in while our bikes were safely put away.

The man at the registration desk smiled broadly while checking us in, “Cynthia wants you to know that dinner is on her.” He paused just a second, “And she wants you to order wine.”

We got cleaned up, ate our dinner, slept. The next morning, it occurred to me that our bikes must be filthy. I should go down and clean them. Cynthia was already there. She’d finished cleaning our bikes and had checked to make sure they were running ok.

The fabulous Potato Museum

“I have an idea,” she said to us, not a trace of guile showing. “Why don’t I drive you to the Potato Museum and let you visit that. You can start from there—it’s a little further down the road.”

Claire spoke up immediately. “Great idea!” And it was a great idea—and a fabulous museum—especially if you like potatoes.

Every morning after that, Cynthia offered us scenic, shorter itineraries, and every morning we happily took her advice.

Now you should know that the Confederation Trail is the safest trail ever. It begins near the western end of the province and ends near the eastern. It’s where the railway used to run, so it’s flat and broad. It’s well-marked and usually in perfect condition.

And on every other day of the trip, the sun shone all day and the temperature was in the seventies. Perfect biking weather. We were never bothered by mosquitoes again. We biked along the ocean, through the woods, past farms and little villages. We ate fresh seafood twice a day, stayed in wonderful places, and met lovely people.

I hope to go again. But next time, I’ll walk. I’ll ask Cynthia to help plan an itinerary.

If you’re feeling inspired to ride bicycles in PEI, I highly recommend PEI Cycling Tours. Cynthia King is the best: helpful, kind, efficient, and very professional. (And she has a wicked good sense of humor too.) You can reach her at

PEI Cycling Tours – Cynthia King

copyright by Margaret French

Bloom Late…learning how to be ninety

I’ve always wanted to be a chrysanthemum, rather a daffodil. Chrysanthemums bloom late.

Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful, late-blooming chrysanthemums

When I was twenty-three, one of my colleagues announced she was getting re-married. She was thirty-three.

“How nice,” I thought, “that a woman so old can find somebody to marry her.”

Don’t shoot me: I know how awful that sounds. Happily, my definition of old has stretched by years and years and years, especially since I became a senior citizen myself. (And I cringe at the phrase “can find somebody to marry her.” But that’s another post.) These days I get senior discounts without even asking for them, and no one ever asks to see my ID. As one of my granddaughters sweetly confided: “Grammie, you’re the oldest girl I know.” 

Some of you may smile benignly and say, “What is she talking about? Seventy-one is not old. She’s a kid…I have bunions older than her.” Bless you.

I want to age well, and I don’t have much time to figure out how. I’ve begun to go to the gym more, walk in the park more, use my brain occasionally. I hope it helps though I realize it takes a certain amount of dumb luck to stay healthy to a ripe old age. Accidents and disease happen. I think about the ladies in the Alzheimer ward to whom a storytelling friend and I tell stories twice a month. Those ladies never planned to spend their last days in a nursing home, eating orange Jell-o, listening to our stories—and forgetting them. 

As it happens, thanks to storytelling and a lifelong learning group I belong to, I also have friends and acquaintances more or less ninety years old who are able to be active and engaged in life.

Recently I went to the ninetieth birthday party of a friend of mine from a writing workshop. She writes beautiful prose about her childhood home. She paints and writes poetry too. She is charming, gracious, and warm. She smiled broadly when she told her guests that she never thought she’d be lucky enough to reach ninety. Nice attitude, don’t you think?

Another friend also celebrated her ninetieth birthday in the past year, a fellow storyteller. The summer after her birthday, she and her family visited Yosemite–a long trip from NY state. She tells wonderful stories that are usually funny and always ring true—of her girlish crush on a baseball player living next door, of a walk across a frozen Niagara Falls, of boys who got trapped in a water tower on a hot day, of a loathsome lady who knew the answer to the riddle asked of King Arthur, “what is it that women want?” She is open-hearted, encouraging, frank, and humorous. 

One woman is leading weekly walks this spring in the state park near my home. I remember a hike she led a few years ago. Her passion for the environment and her knowledge of the plants we saw are stunning.

A former art teacher is leading a drawing class for seniors. She’s taught these popular classes every semester since she retired, twenty years ago. 

Another friend in my writing workshop is in several other groups as well. She self-published a book of her poetry a year or so ago and is editing a collection of poetry that her poetry group is producing. She’s a photographer, just signed up for a storytelling workshop a friend and I are leading, and writes a blog. When I ask her why she’s so active she said simply “because I don’t have much time left.”

Remarkable women, all of them. They have surely endured their share of hardships and loss and will endure more. But they choose to embrace life and look forward to the possibilities still open to them. They read, take classes, pursue their hobbies, laugh, meet with friends old and new, and care about the other people in their lives.

I don’t mean to gloss over the challenges of old age—or maybe I do. Friends of mine are dying or dealing with serious health problems and I become afraid. 

But I remember my friends who are ninety—or almost ninety—or over ninety.  I need them and other people like them in my life to inspire me, give me hope, and get me off the couch. 

When I grow up, I want to be just like them.