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A Sober Sojourn On The Eastern Divide

Follow Ali Becker on a transformative adventure along the Eastern Divide Trail, where rugged landscapes frame a journey of personal growth and sobriety. Discover how she confronts physical challenges and internal struggles through a sober lens.

A Sober Sojourn On The Eastern Divide

A surge of giddy energy courses through my body as I cram the last of my belongings into the already overstuffed frame bag on my fully loaded touring bike.I swing my leg over my top tube and place my foot on the pedal, looking over to make sure my partner, Mathieu, is ready to roll. I'm always two steps ahead of him, but his bike always looks more dialed than mine.

He gives me the nod of approval, and we push down on our pedals in unplanned unison. As the momentum of our tires takes hold, I fall in line behind him, sitting back gently into the soft curves of my broken-in Brooks saddle.

As we cross the broad shoulders of New Brunswick’s mighty Miramichi River, the giddiness gives way to that familiar feeling of 'first day on a bike tour freedom', and the knowledge that months of wide open, off-road adventures lay ahead of us.

We take the quiet lane on the other side of the river to ride side by side, smiling at each other, knowing full well that we have just embarked on the hardest bikepacking route of our lives, under a mutual pact to do so totally sober.

Early Beginnings

Mat introduced me to bike touring back in 2013 by sharing journal entries from his solo cross Canada cycling trip with me. At the time, exercise was not in my vocabulary, and although I had spent the previous few years learning how to mountain bike, I had only ridden further than 5 KM on one occasion (to get beer) and I complained about it the whole time.

My fitness was horrible. I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking a six pack of beer each night and living off (and for) coffee, pastries and fried food. I was overweight, out of shape and had no business thinking I could ride my bike across the entire country. But something about my stubborn mindset told me, "If he could do it, so could I." So, in 2015, we quit our jobs, sold anything of value, packed a bunch of junk into a storage unit and piled the rest of it into four panniers and a duffle bag on our brand new Surly Disc Trucker touring bikes and took off across the country.

Despite the hard effort that starting our trek in the mountains of British Columbia offered, every day still felt like a holiday. We would wake up without an alarm clock, put back a couple cups of coffee, eat some instant oatmeal and ride off into the day. A few miles down the road, we'd stop for a puff of cannabis, pop in some headphones and keep on pedaling. At lunch, we'd make more coffee and smoke more weed. Afternoon snack, more coffee, more cannabis. Later on, we'd find somewhere to set up camp, make dinner and then wind down the day with a beer—or two, or three. At the time, this was my idea of freedom.

Post Trip Blues

When that cross Canada cycling trip came to an end on the East Coast of Canada, I was a whole new person. People literally didn't recognize me, and at times, I didn't recognize myself. Not only had I lost forty pounds of excess weight and quit smoking cigarettes, but I had grown into more of the person I wanted to become. I believed for the first time in my life that if I could ride my bike across a country, I could truly do anything I put my mind to. I felt empowered.

A few weeks later, we returned to our adopted hometown of Nelson, BC and I was shocked to discover that this new, empowered version of me didn't fit into my old life anymore. My old job, my old friends, my old stuff—everything seemed like it had been stuck in time while everything about me had changed. I remember staring into our storage unit like I was looking into a stranger's past. What was all this stuff and who was the person who had decided to keep it?

Coming down off the freewheeling nature of the bike trip was hard on me, and like so many other times in my life, I turned to alcohol to cope with the hardship. Thankfully, it didn't take long for me to discover that the deep depression I felt the morning after, and days following a drinking binge was not helping me combat the post trip blues.

"When's the last time you took a break from drinking?" Mat asked me one night as we split a six pack of Phillips Blue Buck on the only piece of furniture we'd acquired since returning from the trip. I looked at the bottle, took a sip and lowered my eyes to the floor, embarrassed to admit that the answer was never.

At that moment, I decided to take the next thirty days off alcohol and see how I felt. After thirty days, I knew I was just scratching the surface, so I decided to extend it to a year. After a year, I felt so good, I decided to keep it going, and I did, for four and a half years—until Covid hit.

Back & Forth

During my hiatus with alcohol, I started taking stock of how my relationship with coffee, cannabis and alcohol were impacting my life and my well-being. Hangovers had been holding me back, coffee was hijacking my nervous system and cannabis was sedating every aspect of my life. My sleep was suffering, my moods were unstable and my dependency made me feel like a slave.

The trifecta of coffee, cannabis and alcohol had become a part of me. I had brought them along on every adventure and they had helped me over hurdles and through hardships.

The trifecta of coffee, cannabis and alcohol had become a part of me. I had brought them along on every adventure and they had helped me over hurdles and through hardships. I was scared that if I let them all go, I might not enjoy the activities I thought I loved doing.

It was going to be hard enough to turn my back on these crutches, but then to risk the possibility of losing the only other aspects of my identity that I thought defined me? The very thought of it shook me to the core. Who would I be then, the naked ape, wandering around in the desert with nothing to cling to? I shuddered.

Simultaneously, I knew from experience that when things feel overwhelming, and scary and uncertain, they are better off to be faced head on than buried under the rug to grow. So then, there was only one way to find out if I still enjoyed traveling by bike when I wasn't using it as a vehicle for my addictions.

Out Of The Gates

It's the hottest day in July, and following a record rainfall in spring on the East Coast of Canada, I'm relishing this heat wave. As we navigate our way from the North Coast of New Brunwsick to our alternative starting point of the Eastern Divide Trail at Québec's Fin de Monde, I'm feeling grateful that we spent the last six months abstaining from alcohol, cannabis and coffee in preparation for this sober trip.

As we roll past the cute French Canadian cafes on the Gaspé Peninsula, the sweet smell of fresh ground coffee no longer lingers in my mind. The plumes of nearby cannabis smoke waft right past us, virtually unnoticed, and as we ride beside the packed patios of the microbrasseries we don't feel like we're missing out.

I feel invincible.

The Dark Side

But as the trip carries on and the fatigue starts to stack and the hills get bigger and the days feel harder, those old cravings start coming back. When I toss and turn in the night, I find myself thinking how 'just one puff' would knock me out. Then I wake in the morning telling myself how 'just one coffee' would offset the sleep deprivation. The temptation for craft beer climbs as we enter Vermont's Mad River Valley, where bright yellow, cold cans of Sip of Sunshine are calling out to us everywhere we look. Bumper stickers lament, "Ride Bikes, Drink Beer."

The day is young, and we’re tired, so when we see the sign for the Lawson's Finest Liquids craft microbrewery, we agree to pull in. The occasion? To 'celebrate' finishing the first US segment of the EDT with “just one” cold beer. Classic. It should have been a sign when we arrived at the brewery to find the lights off, the doors locked, and a place that is open 364 days of the year closed to mourn the passing of a recently deceased employee.

But the idea for a drink was already in motion, and its grip was strong. So against my nagging intuition, we roll to the nearby Mad Bush Falls, sit down at the bar and order the NE IPA that started it all - The Alchemist's HeadyTopper. The cool, crisp, foamy brew was as citrusy and delicious as I had hoped for, quenching so much more than just my thirst. I feel guilty at first, that we’re breaking our pact, but that quickly fades as my legs begin to tingle and my cheeks flush. We share another beer before calling it a night and climb into our tent with a warm, boozy glow.

My head is pounding, my mouth is dry and my back is aching as I roll over and inhale the stale smell of morning-after beer-breath. The sunshine I usually welcome with open arms feels like punishment and I can sense my old depression taking over. I know I'll have to pay back twice what I took, wallowing in this low vibration for at least three days, slowly clawing my way back with better decisions.

"And that's why we don't drink," Mat reminds me, as his eyes squint to lessen the light, "I guess we just needed to touch the experience to remember why we don't want it." With that, we agree to get back on the path.

Lessons In The Liquid

After that evening, whenever the temptation to have a beer popped up, we would remind each other of that feeling and why it just wasn't worth it. We carried forward, one sober mile at a time, determined to tackle this giant, dirt road odyssey using the power within. And as we did, I began to realize that all the years that I leaned on substance to get me through the tough times, it was actually just holding me back from getting stronger on my own. The more time I spent sober, the less I believed that I needed coffee to pep me up, or cannabis to quiet my inner chatter or alcohol to soothe the unknowns.

This trip was offering me the space to build the mental fortitude and emotional skill sets that I needed to tackle the hardships head on. It was giving me the opportunity to finally develop the aspects of myself that had been stunted by early adolescent substance use. There were still big challenges, hard days, and at times, low vibes, but there was something so empowering about knowing I could get through them with the support of my partner and the drive to persevere. So when we finished the trip at the Southernmost Point Buoy in Key West Florida, 135 days and what felt like a million meters of persistent elevation later, again, I felt like a whole new person. I'd become stronger, kinder, wiser, braver and infinitely more resilient than the me that existed four months before.

My definition of freedom had also changed from believing that things outside of me would bring me the courage, strength, energy and contentment that I longed for. I finally understood that what I need to create the gritty, adventurous, harmonious life I'd like to live as the peaceful warrior that I'm striving to be, already exists within me. As the saying goes, “The magic I was looking for, was in the work I was avoiding.” I just needed the freedom of bike travel combined with the clarity of sobriety to help me go through what I needed to, to get where I wanted to go.

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