Editor’s Note: On May 1, 2006, Beliefnet user Neil Woodward, a 59-year-old painter from Vancouver, Canada set out on a bicycle ride across Canada. He hoped it would change his life, renew his faith in God, and reinvigorate his creative inspiration. From the start he encountered challenges that tested his already troubled spirit but he is determinedly pedaling around them and into his future. Beliefnet has asked Mr. Woodward to share the joys and tribulations of his sojourn. He's filing these reports in three parts. In Part 2, below, he talks about his struggles with with hopelessness and anger and his determination to persevere for the sake of his loved.



Location: Vancouver, British Columbia


It took me a couple of days to replace my stolen belongings. During this time I managed to clarify what I hoped to accomplish with this bike trip. I decided that my purpose was not necessarily to reach Halifax within any given time, nor to reach it at all necessarily.


The trip was to be more an exploration of possibilities.


Even without my laptop I would try to update my weblog at internet cafes and public libraries along the way. I would stop over for a day or two whenever I felt the need, and I would put my life in God’s hands and let Him show me the way. I wanted to learn to trust in God completely, and with this in mind, there was one item from my stolen things that I decided not to replace. In 1994, my doctor told me that I “almost certainly” suffered from clinical depression, caused by a serotonin imbalance in my brain. He had prescribed antidepressants which he said I should probably take for the rest of my life. But his diagnosis was based entirely on what I had told him about my personal history, and I had always questioned it. To me my recurring bouts of hopelessness, despair and fear of life meant only one thing -- that I didn’t have enough faith in God or myself or anything else.


This bike trip seemed a perfect opportunity to prove I didn’t need artificial medications. I would be getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, eating well and having an adventure every day. I would be learning to trust God completely. Why would I need anti-depressants?  


My preparations completed, I cycled out of Vancouver again heading east into the mountains of British Columbia, where I soon encountered the first of a series of long, steep mountain passes. I confronted my first just outside of Hope, B.C. and continued for 42 kilometers to its summit in Manning Provincial Park. It was so steep and unrelenting that I had to push my heavily laden bike and trailer all the way up. At several points I almost passed out from the strain and my anger at God flared up again before I pressed on.


I did make it, barely, by the end of the day, and over the next several weeks I climbed many more such passes, becoming stronger at a remarkable rate. For one five-day period I rode in the rain every day, arriving at my destination completely drenched. A couple of times I even had to set up my tent in the rain and then mop the inside dry with towels and clothes from my laundry bag, before unpacking my bedding. Then I had to wash and dry the towels and laundry at a laundromat before going to bed.




One day, as I sat in a coffee shop at day’s end, I met a fellow artist named Michael, who invited me to have dinner with him and his wife, and offered me his guest room for the night. I accepted, and later that evening, and after an excellent meal, we got into a conversation which eventually turned to spiritual matters.


Although raised as a Catholic, Michael had actually been an atheist since he was very young. To him it seemed that throughout history great suffering had been caused by people who believed they were obeying some imaginary deity. When I asked him what he thought about a God whose only directives were to love one another and be as positive and constructive as we could with whatever we were given in life, he became thoughtful.


Then he began telling a story that he had always loved. In the story, God shows a person who has recently died that person’s whole life, represented by two sets of footprints in the sand, and says “You see, I was with you every step of the way.” But the deceased person points to several places where there was only one set of footprints, suggesting that in some places he had walked alone, to which God replies, “Those were places where you were too weak to go on, so I had to carry you.”


Michael almost cried before he could finish the story. Then he apologised, saying that he always choked up when he told it, not because he believed it, but simply because it was such a beautiful story. The next day, after I said my goodbyes and went on my way, I thought about Michael’s reaction. How could a confirmed atheist be so moved by a simple story about the love of God?  I wondered if he really wanted to believe, but somehow couldn’t. I also wondered if God were “carrying” me right now, and who I would have been angry at, had I been an atheist such as Michael.


‘Pipe Dreams and Mirages’ <PIECE OF ART OR A PHOTO – LINK TO GALLERY>


Early in June I reached the province of Alberta and spent several days visiting friends and family in Calgary. They had all read my weblog and seemed a puzzled at my focus on spirituality.


“Why would anyone take such irrational things so seriously?” seemed to be their attitude. I began to think I was very different from the people I knew and loved, and I realized that was one of the reasons I felt angry at God. Why couldn’t He have made me more like them -- logical, practical and pragmatic? Why did he have to make me such a woolly-headed idealist, condemned to spend my life chasing pipe dreams and mirages?


From Calgary I continued out across the 900 miles of prairies spanning the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I had grown up on the prairies, and to me they still held a strange kind of beauty, -one that’s hard to capture in a painting. The sky is often more striking than the land. There’s peace and a feeling of boundlessness. And then there are the non-visual things, like the smell of maturing grain, and the distant song of a meadow lark in the silence of early morning.


But as I rode across the prairies I became increasingly aware that I hadn’t updated my weblog since I had left British Columbia, because nothing seemed to be happening with the “spiritual part” of this “Spiritual Journey. I hadn’t come any closer to resolving the frustration and disappointment I felt about my relationship with God. I decided to try and write down concisely why I felt this way. I knew I couldn’t possibly be justified, but I thought that by writing it down, I would see clearly where I had gone wrong in my thinking, and the problem would be resolved.


PULLQUOTE: In a few years all of us will be gone, I thought, and in a few more years no one will know that any of us ever even existed.


By the time I reached Manitoba I had compiled a list of grievances. I was angry with God for making me an artist, an ill-advised, insecure, dangerous thing to be. I was angry about the abundance of hardship and the scarcity of joy in the world. I was angry about God’s seemingly endless demands for more faith despite an apparent paucity of results from the faith already exercised. And I was angry about God’s reclusiveness. Why did He require us to keep trusting and believing that he is really there without ever giving us any corroboration? And I was angry about my own insignificance, and that of the whole world I live in.


In a few years all of us will be gone, I thought, and in a few more years no one will know that any of us ever even existed. The world as we know it will be gone forever. What possible significance or meaning can our lives have, knowing that?




In the small town of Nipigon, Northern Ontario my trip took a turn for the worse. For several days I had felt tired. My throat felt “scratchy” and I was coughing up a lot of phlegm. I tried to ignore it and press on, because I wanted to reach the Atlantic Coast by the end of the summer and it was already doubtful whether I would make it. I had spent too much time thinking, writing and trying to update my blog, as well as stopping to visit people and explore places. But in Nipigon I came down with serious flu/cold-type virus and was forced to lie in my tent, incapacitated by fever, chills and nausea for six days.  


When I finally recovered and continued into southern Ontario, I still didn’t feel well mentally or spiritually. I had tried many times to continue my weblog but nothing I wrote seemed to make any sense. My list of grievances seemed pointless and the spiritual part of my journey seemed to have gone nowhere.


I visited a friend in Toronto and continued east along the north shore of Lake Ontario, through the beautiful farmlands of Durham and Northumberland counties, finally reaching a campground just east of Prescott, Ontario.


There my journey came to a halt again. I couldn’t go on without resolving my spiritual dilemma. I found an internet café and read everything I had posted on my weblog to date. It decided it was all a lot of rubbish, so I added a new post apologizing for everything I had written so far, and expressing my utter hopelessness and despair at having failed in my spiritual journey. I expressed my bitter disillusionment with God, who seemed to have led me around in circles and abandoned me without  the answers I had been seeking. I’m not sure why I wrote this, but I think I was hoping someone “out there” would have been where I was spiritually, and would be able to tell me where I had gone wrong, and how to resolve my dilemma.


PULLQUOTE: I expressed my bitter disillusionment with God, who seemed to have led me around in circles and abandoned me without any of the answers I had been seeking.


What actually happened was completely different. I received concerned e-mails from several members of my family reminding me that I had two wonderful children, three sisters and an extended family and friends who loved me very much. I was shocked. Surely they didn’t think I had forgotten that. They were by far the most wonderful thing in my life.


Suddenly I began to see how self-absorbed I had become. I was blessed with a loving family and friends and I was worrying them with my behaviour. I also realized that despite being physically strong and healthy, I had become depressed.


I knew then what I had to do. God had given me a condition to live with, and it was up to me to accept proper treatment for it.


Next day I rode north to Ottawa, found a walk-in clinic and renewed my prescription for anti-depressants. Then I e-mailed everyone in my family and told them what had happened.


The spiritual part of my journey may have been over and thieves may have stolen my belongings, I assured everyone, but the ridewould continue until I reached Halifax, on the Atlantic Coast.


Two days later I crossed a bridge into the French-speaking province of Quebec. I was getting closer.


(to be continued…)

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