Interviewer: Debbie A. McClure
Don Martel is a Canadian photographer who has an eye for detail, and whose work is, by any standards, outstanding. He has a way of looking at the world around him, and at life, that most of us simply don’t have. He’s also not afraid to leap outside his comfort zone, as evidenced by his recent adventure of cycling solo across Canada in a bid to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s Disease. Even more surprising is the fact that until undertaking this monumental task, he hadn’t cycled since he was a child! Now, he’s written a book, Loaves and Fishes, about his incredible experience. Welcome, Don Martel.
Q: Can you tell us how this whole incredible journey started?
A: Actually, I wasn’t intending on doing a story book at all. Initially I planned to do a Canada Coast to Coast photography book, since photography is what I know and do. The truth is, this book has been a journey. Since returning home, I often tell people that although I cycled solo, I was never alone. Loaves and Fishes is a collection of short stories about some of the miraculous events that happened to me during this epic adventure, and the wonderful people I met along the way.
Although I thought I was prepared, in fact, I knew little about cycling, especially long distance cycling, which is a whole other challenge. A chance meeting and one question started it all. I was in Temagami, Ontario for a photography workshop when I met a man, Marcel Cisv, and a woman, April Pennington, at a grocery story. They had all these bags on their bikes, so I asked them what they were doing. They explained they were cycling across the country to make memories for lost memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Intrigued, I invited them to the cottage I was staying at. Marcel customized his bike, and it looked awesome, so that aspect intrigued me as well. We shared a meal, talked long into the night, and in the morning we said goodbye and they headed east. That incident really sparked my imagination, so I started following their blog. They finished their journey in October 2014, and I saw on Facebook that they became engaged. I sent Marcel a note of congratulations and half-jokingly asked if they were looking for photographer. Marcel replied they were, and would love to have me out to be their photographer, but couldn’t afford to pay me my going rate. Instead, they sent me two tickets to Kelowna, B.C, and arranged for three nights in a local hotel for me. Marcel remembered how much I admired his bike, so he custom built one for me! In the meantime, a good friend’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That became the catalyst for my entire journey. To me, it was a no-brainer that whatever I did, it had to be for Alzheimer’s. I got the bike in September, then trained from September to April in New Brunswick’s many hills and valleys. I cycled 66 km (approx. 41 miles), even in winter, just about every day, with few exceptions. I honestly thought that would get me ready for the Rockies, but I’ve since learned that nothing prepares you for the Rockies. *laughs* It’s a much bigger hill!
On June 4th, 2015 I started out from Vancouver (mainland), British Columbia, and finished on August 15th, 2015 in Halifax, N.S. It took a whopping 76 days to complete and 8200 kilometers (approx. 5095 miles), and irrevocably changed my life.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your book, Loaves and Fishes? (www.donmartel.com)
A: It’s essentially a book about the people I met along the way, and the many crazy, sometimes miraculous adventures I had during that 76 days on the road.
I have a favourite saying that I think applies to this journey. Goethe said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitating. A chance to draw back. Always ineffectiveness. The moment one definitely commits oneself. Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one, that would have otherwise not occurred, and a whole stream of events issue from the decision. Raising one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidences and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.”
After reading the book people often ask if these events actually took place, or did I make them up.
These things did happen! The stories in the book needed to be told. Odd as it sounds, coincidences and timing became part of a recognizable pattern. Karma? God? Angels? Synchronicity? I’ve learned that amazing things happen when you go off the path. The trip changed me. I never for a moment dreamed I’d do something like this! But then again, writing a book is another thing I never thought I’d do, yet I have.
Q: Where did the title come from?
A: The title came from actual, literal stories about loaves and fishes. Let me explain a little. Christians understand the biblical stories about loaves and fishes, and how God was able to provide both when they were most needed. You see, when you cycle long distance, you eat flat bread (it doesn’t squish). However, I’d been cycling for hours and needed to eat, but ran out of bread, and there was no flat bread available in the stores of the town I was in at the time. Of course, I could get some the next day, so I resigned myself to a meager meal of peanut butter and a few bits and pieces I had on hand, but I was hungry, so this didn’t exactly thrill me. Still, I had little choice. I was cycling down the road that night, and saw a car coming toward me at a high rate of speed. Suddenly the car pulled over. I thought the driver needed directions, so I approached the car. The driver was French, and without preamble, he begins to tell me that he’s the best baker in Quebec. He tells me, “I’m a retired baker”. I’m waiting for punch line, and wonder why he’s telling me this. Then the driver got out of his car and went to the back of his car. He reaches in, and I think, “Oh, oh!”. The driver retrieves a huge baguette (of bread), then proceeds to break it in half. He hands half of it to me. Still confused, I thanked him. The driver then abruptly gets back into his car, and drives away, leaving me standing at the side of the road with my baguette. I’m completely astounded. Is this a coincidence, that I should be hungry and was needing to buy bread earlier in the day?
The next morning I arrived at the next town, and stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast. There, I met a man from London, Ontario, who was hitch-hiking. As we’re talking, another man approached. It’s the same man from previous night who gave me the bread! Excited, I took photo of the two men, then turned to put my camera away. When I turned back, the bread man was gone. I had no chance to ask why he stopped the night before, who he was, or where he went. When I asked, the hitch-hiker simply shrugged and said the other man said he had to get going, and walked away. Now that’s weird, and that’s part of how I got the title for the book. There are so many similar stories that it just seemed to fit.
Q: You are known for your outstanding photography, Don. What did it mean to you to be able to take this journey and really see this beautiful country, coast to coast, from a photographer’s perspective?
A: This was the original intent of the book. I’ve travelled cross-country by car and by plane, but on a bike, it’s slow. Slow is good. As a cyclist, you become aware of every crack in the highway. By cycling, you can observe things you wouldn’t ever normally see. When you go slow, you get to appreciate the small details you’d otherwise miss any other way. I was able to observe so much more of what was around me, moment by moment. When you cycle, you get to see more than just the normal tourist attractions, or destinations. I was able to see, up close and personal, that beauty is everywhere. Make no mistake, it’s a long ride, but it gave me time to take it all in. Any time I saw a potential photograph, I could stop and make the shot. Every mile, every stop, everything, was entirely up to me.
Q: This book is dedicated to everyone affected by Alzheimer’s. How has the disease affected and impacted you personally?
A: Obviously, it impacted me hugely when a friend’s mother was diagnosed. The more I talked about the disease, the more I realized just how many people are affected by it, or know someone who is affected. I hadn’t realized before how prevalent it is. Marjorie was very special to me, and it was incredibly heartbreaking to watch her decline. I wanted to do something to help make a difference.
Oddly enough, the coincidences (or whatever you want to call it) were at play from beginning to end. My birthday is May 21st. May 21st I signed the copyright for the book, and on that same day, May 21st, Marjorie Symons, my friend’s mother, passed away.
Q: What surprised you to learn about yourself while making this journey?
A: The amount of determination I had to do this trip! I don’t mind saying that it’s a huge task! I hadn’t realized I had that kind of persistence. I’m truly surprised that I was capable of it. The entire time I was cycling, I kept repeating to myself, “Keep going. You’ll get there.” Eventually I did, and I learned I’m capable of anything I truly put my mind to.
Q: What surprised you to learn about others?
A: I’m blown away by the generosity of Canadians coast to coast. So many contributed to my success. I keep saying that although I cycled alone, I was never alone. People cared about what I was trying to do. People took time to help, talk, and share what they had with me – food, stories, a warm place to sleep, whatever I needed. I also learned that people love to tell their own stories. If you listen, they are so interesting. I also learned that laughter really is the common language, and so are tears. We are all the same. No matter who, what, or where you’re from. People actually just want to be friends and be helpful.
Q: What has been the ultimate take-away for you from this whole experience (the ride and creating the book)?
A: The greatest take-away for me is the realization that great things will happen when you get out of your comfort zone. Amazing things! It doesn’t have to be a huge coast to coast journey. It can be anything. It’s so important to be open to opportunity. Great things are possible when you get past being scared.
Q: How has your photography influenced how you see the world around you?
A: Photography forces you to change how you view the world. It forces you to go slow and really focus. You have to be willing to take the time to observe. You see, the camera sees differently from the human eye. Shadows are shown different from the naked eye. They are darker. You have to know what your camera is going to do before you make the shot. *laughs* I’ve been at this photography gig for 30 years now, but I’m still learning all the time.
Q: This is your first book. What have you learned about going through that process?
A: Oh! I’ve learned that writing a book is like having a baby! It’s a very painful process. Just when I thought it was done. It wasn’t done. I thought I knew, but I had to learn how to write. I had to learn how to write from passive voice to active voice. Writing is also very personal. It’s one thing to say you’re going to write a book, but it’s a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it. I guess you could say that the journey to write the book was similar to the cycling journey. Although I had to do write and compile it on my own, so many stepped up to help me make it the best it could be. Once it’s published, it’s fun. Now I get to talk to so many more interesting people. When people tell me they enjoy the stories, there’s absolutely nothing like it. I can honestly say that I never worried about what people would think of the book. Of course I want people to enjoy it, but I felt the material spoke for itself. They’re all amazing true stories, and people keep sharing their own remarkable, true stories with me, so I know I’m not alone.
Q: Would you publish another book? If so, what subject matter?
A: YES! I definitely do still want to do the photography book I thought I’d do when I started this whole adventure. I have literally thousands of photographs of that trip, and I want to share them with others. We live in such an incredibly diverse, beautiful country. I also want to write a book similar to this one. There are still so many more examples of amazing true life stories that have happened to me personally over the years. The truth is; the journey never ends. Maybe I’m open to it. I believe that if you aren’t out there, you can’t have the experiences.
Q: How has this experience changed your photography?
A: It’s made me slow down even more. Now, I look at things a little more carefully, and really seek the opportunities around me. They’re everywhere. Everything is more than it appears to be on the surface!
Q: When you teach photography workshops, what is the key take-away you hope people leave with?
A: You’ll never see the same again. I have three principle elements I want people to understand. 1) Understand how the camera sees things different from your eyes. 2) The principals of visual design. The organization of shapes speaks volumes, and the art of subtraction is key. You have the whole world in front of you, but as a photographer, you have to narrow and focus on the subject. 3) Line, rhythm, dominance, balance, light, shadow, and how they all affect a photograph. Everything else is just practice, and continuing to being open to opportunities.
Q: What’s next for you, Don?
A: Maybe another ride across the country. *laughs* I want to explore new countries too, and bring new groups of people with me. I’m 59 years old now, but when I’m 65 I’d like to enter the Via Italia seniors cycling group. I may even try my hand in bike racing. Now that I’ve done it, I can’t stop cycling. I bike everywhere now. It gets in your blood. Besides, the benefits to my physical health are great. I guess I’ll keep biking, until I can’t.
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