CROSS-CONTINENT MOTORCYCLING By John Lang (Article)
As my 70th birthday loomed I knew the decision whether to buy a motorcycle could not be further postponed; I had to take the plunge or forget about one of the main items on my bucket list. For decades I had put it off, deferring to the opinion of friends and loved ones that getting on a motorcycle at any age, but especially in one’s dotage, was foolhardy to the point of idiotic. However, after ruminating on this, viewing the question from several angles, I felt such biased advice could be discounted: none of the motorcycle gainsayers had the slightest desire to get on one. I opened Kijiji and searched on ‘motorcycle’.
In short order I was proud owner of a 1987 BMW K75, a model known for its smooth, trouble-free operation. The bike has three cylinders, 750 cc, two suitcases and foot pegs that allow the rider to lift his butt off the seat periodically, an underrated feature missing in some feet-forward cruisers and perhaps a reason so many Harley owners trailer their bikes to distant destinations.
I submitted to the bureaucratic licensing procedures and rapacious insurance requirements. I bought protective gear and a handlebar-mounted GPS. I hoped to limit expenses by not bothering with rain pants but relented when I found a set of yellow rubberized overalls at Canadian Tire for only $13.00.
I took beginner’s training and a course on high speed handling at Calabogie Racetrack. I planned my excursion from Ottawa to the West Coast.
As a free spirit at one with nature I would of course be camping rather than depending on commercial accommodation. I had bought a tent and camping gear that fit into a weatherproof bag lashed to the rear rack.
I had hoped to make the trip with a friend from Vancouver who agreed to fly to Ottawa and buy a motorcycle I had lined up for him. However, kafkaesque regulations governing the registration and insuring of vehicles purchased by people from out of province made this impractical so I was on my own. Travelling alone has its advantages. You get to make all the decisions; it is sometimes nice to be alone with your thoughts insulated from the world by a full-visor helmet. At speeds less than 100 km/hr I use earbuds to listen to podcasts while I ride. Faster means more motor/wind noise -- and possible ear damage if the earbud volume is cranked up to overcome it.
Before setting out, I spent a Saturday morning in the empty parking lot behind NRC on Sussex Dr. practicing emergency stops at ever greater speed. The trick to getting a motorcycle to stop in the shortest possible distance is to brake gently to shift the weight of rider, bike and luggage over the front wheel to increase grip and only then to fully apply the front brake. With practice, you can stand a motorcycle on its nose and bring it to a stop in a remarkably short distance while remaining upright. I got fairly good at this, a skill especially useful whenever wildlife jumps out at you. We motorcyclists hate hitting deer.
As I said farewell to my wife in the driveway she looked at the bag lashed across the rear of the bike and said “why not leave that camping stuff here? You’ll never use it.” “Nonsense”, I retorted.
It was July and I had imagined heat would be my major concern but by the time I got to Arnprior, less than an hour from Ottawa, I was chilled to the bone and it had begun to rain. I stopped, layered up and donned my new yellow raingear. Shortly thereafter, near Renfrew, I stopped at a trash bin and pitched the shredded overalls. Note to self: cheap gear = false economy.
I had a notion that towards end of day I would look for a camping site -- not an official one but just some clearing accessible from the highway where I could set up my tent. Near Petawawa I passed such a clearing, and was dismayed to see a rather large black bear sitting on its haunches watching me drive by. Hmmm...perhaps a re-think of my camping plan was indicated.
While checking into a motel in Sault Ste. Marie I reflected on the absence of bears, availability of draft beer, pub food, hot shower, WIFI, TV and breakfast. Not to mention time not spent erecting and dismantling a tent. Nevertheless, I used the WIFI to check out a U.S. National Parks campground for the next night. I learned that you need a reservation but cannot make one less than three days in advance of your arrival. And they charge $17. So much for the spontaneity of open road camping.
I crossed the bridge into Michigan and turned west onto State Highway 28. Not much going on in the Upper Peninsula, it’s huntin’ and fishin’ country. I reflected on the fact that Michigan issues over 60,000 hunting licenses every year and if all of those hunters showed up in camo they would constitute a force larger than the Canadian Army -- and better equipped? The road across the UP is pretty good. I have driven a car north of Superior and can tell you there’s not much going on up there, either. At least Michigan has frequent gas stations and places to eat.
Near the Wisconsin border I joined US-2, one of the first US national highways, originally stretching over 4,000 km from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. Wikipedia unhelpfully informs that US-2 “is the lowest primary-numbered east–west U.S. Route, whose numbers otherwise end in zero, and was so numbered to avoid a US 0”. I chose it because it is not an Interstate.
There is a tendency on long trips to drive faster than one should, especially on long, lonely roads. I resolved not to do this and not to pass up any reasonable opportunity to read an historic plaque, enjoy a view, or watch a local softball game. But I traversed Wisconsin without stopping, entered Minnesota at Duluth and continued to Grand Rapids on the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Pub dinner, $45 motel, friendly locals.
Crossing the Red River at Grand Forks I entered North Dakota: missile silos and B-52 bases. Something about the smell of grain fields, the quality of the light and even the shape of the clouds evoked childhood years on a Saskatchewan farm. Rigby, ND claims to be the geographic centre of the continent. The monument they erected on the “exact location” had to be relocated to make way for a widening of US-2.
A fair number of US bikers ride helmetless and I wonder how they can do that. I often had to pull into a gas station just to clean the yellow bug mess off my visor. At highway speed the larger bugs smack you like a golf ball.
I had decided to overnight in Williston, North Dakota, fracking center of the world, to experience the boom town first hand. Evidence of rapid growth are the instant accommodations -- pre-fab motels stacked like Lego to house the thousands who had streamed in for the high-paying jobs. The bar in my motel was packed with roughnecks, mostly large guys with beards and tattoos. Not a female in sight.
Every bar and store in town had a help-wanted poster. The bartender at the steakhouse next to my motel told me that until the previous year people were still camped in the parks, boulevards and vacant lots. The restaurant was busy and his boss was attempting to get his attention, presumably so he would stop chatting with me and move on to other customers. When I pointed this out, he laughed and said the boss could take a hike. He moved cheerfully on only after finding out all he wanted to know about my motorcycle. Supply and demand.
There is not a lot to slow down for in rural Montana anymore. Towns along the main arteries of pre-Interstate America, such as US-2, lived off the “attractions” that lured motorists to their restaurants and hotels. If you remember the mid-50s you’ll recall Dinah Shore singing “See the USA in your Chevrolet” -- the Route 66 era. But the mermaid shows, rattlesnake pits, giant balls of string and mini-putts were put out of business, along with most of the restaurants and hotels, by Eisenhower’s Interstate System -- the largest civil works project since the pyramids. In the words of travel writer, Charles Kuralt, “By 1960, when Ike’s Interstate System was largely complete, it had become possible to travel from anywhere to anywhere in the US without seeing a goddamned thing.”
Montana is a wide state. You can see the Rockies approaching for long time. My plan was to find accommodation near the eastern entrance of Glacier Park -- camping was no longer a consideration -- and cross the divide early next morning. I overlooked a major rule of summer travel -- do not seek accommodation near major family attractions. There were no vacancies anywhere near the eastern slope so I decided to cross the Rockies and find a place to stay on the western side, near Kalispell.
After she took my money at the Eastern Gate, the Parks Service lady casually mentioned that there was some construction underway but she thought it would not be a problem. Well, not if you are in an enclosed car. I soon found myself in long lineups waiting for a pilot vehicle to take us in convoy over dusty gravel roads. Motorcycle guy found it difficult to even see the car in front of him through the dust. And the trip through the park took at least twice as long as I had calculated. On to Kalispell where, around 9 PM, all the inns were full.
It was nearly dark and I did not want to travel at night because of the deer. Advised that I would find a campground near Libby, about ninety minutes north of Kalispell -- but I might need a reservation -- I grimaced and rode into the deepening darkness, keeping an eye peeled for the first spot to set up my tent. As I was still in the mountains there was no such spot, just cascading creeks and steep, tree-covered embankments. I was despairing of hunger and thirst -- I had forgotten to have dinner -- when I spied a Budweiser sign ahead on the right. I entered the place, ordered dinner and asked the waitress whether there was a motel nearby. “Only this one”, she replied. She brought me a key for my room; I ordered another draft beer. Camping equipment really is a waste of luggage space.
Next morning, a pleasant ride along the Kootenay River to the BC border and on to Nelson. This was a bit of an excursion but I had never visited the Kootenay Lake area. Nelson is a delight. It was a centre for silver mining and a transportation hub. The draft-dodging Americans who arrived in droves during the Vietnam era brought a welcome addition of educated people and artistic talent (and agricultural skills: marijuana is said to be a major export). Nelsonites retained and refurbished their heritage buildings rather than replace them with mid-century ugliness.
Next morning (Day 6, if you are counting) I rode along the lake to the small town of Kaslo (where my mother was born in 1909) and then west over the Selkirk Mountains on beautiful Highway 31a, a twisty delight on a motorcycle. Five kilometers before the end of this road at New Denver traffic was blocked by a police car with flashing lights. A crashed motorcycle and a body covered by a tarp explained the situation. The cop said the motorcycle had clipped an oncoming pick-up truck in the road’s only straight stretch. Until the coroner arrived and signed off, the road would be closed to all traffic -- for the next four hours or so. I told him that New Denver was five km straight ahead and two-hundred km if I was forced to return via Nelson. Could I not simply push my motorcycle past the scene and continue on my way? I thought the officious bastard was going to arrest me. But, 31a was just as nice in the reverse direction and after I passed Nelson again I got to see country I would not otherwise have seen, like the Slocan Valley.
From New Denver to Naskup, on Upper Arrow Lake (Columbia River), down to Fauquier, a ferry ride to Needles and a scenic ride to a motel in Vernon in Okanagan country. Next morning to Vancouver via Kelowna, Merritt and Hope.
A few days later I teamed up with the friend who had intended to accompany me from Ottawa. We took an early ferry to Victoria and from there drove westwards around the southern tip of Vancouver Island through Sooke and China Beach to Port Renfrew, as far up the west coast of the island as you can drive. A series of logging roads joined up and slightly improved took us back across the island to Lake Cowichan and Duncan, where we overnighted. Over the next two days we drove north to Courtenay, took the ferry to Powell River on the mainland and continued southeast along the Sunshine Coast back to Vancouver. BC is absolutely beautiful.
I am always struck by the unrealized urban potential of the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver. The day cannot be far off when it becomes an extension of the city, which has nowhere else to expand and, partly as a consequence, sky-high property prices. As the Chamber of Commerce inspired name implies, Sunshine Coast is somewhat less rainy than Vancouver. Its main feature is a gentle southwest-facing slope rising to about 1000 feet overlooking the Pacific and running for 60 km from Gibsons in the south to Madeira Park. I look at that forested slope and see homes, shopping malls and condos for millions of people. All that is preventing realization of that vision (nightmare?) is access. Until the province builds a bridge across Howe Sound, the Sunshine Coast will rely on ferries from West Vancouver and thus remain undeveloped. As BC has been talking since the 1950s about twinning the (privately built) Lions Gate Bridge, I cannot see a Howe Sound crossing being built anytime soon.
My route back to Ottawa took me across northern Washington State along the Upper Cascades Highway. Fantastic views near Liberty Bell Mountain, the town of Winthrop where every building conforms to a ‘wild west’ code. I stayed with friends on Lake Chelan in desert-like eastern Washington before proceeding to Grand Coulee Dam, biggest concrete structure on earth. It was completed in 1942, just in time for Boeing to begin cranking out B-17s. Overnight in Missoula, Montana and southward through Idaho following the Sawtooth Range to Ketchum/Sun Valley -- more friends.
Now it was time to get home, meaning it was time to use Eisenhower’s roads. The I-80 crosses Wyoming near 8000’ altitude for much of the way. I nearly froze. Overnight in Cheyenne and into Nebraska. Not far off I-80 I went to see a landmark for the wagon train migrants, Chimney Rock. While returning to the highway, I caught up to a pickup truck going about half the speed limit. As there were no cross roads or driveways in sight I accelerated and pulled left to pass him. Of course he chose that moment to turn sharply left into a pasture -- no signal, no brake light, no glance at his mirror. I stood the bike on its front tire and came to a stop inches short of his rear bumper passing in front of me. He kept going across the field, oblivious. I was angry and wanted to let him know what I thought about his driving but, as I noticed his passenger looking back at me wide-eyed, I merely flipped them off continued on my way.
The I-80 across Nebraska follows the Platte River, one of the only east-west oriented waterways in the US, a fact that in the 1840s made it indispensable to wagon trains headed for Oregon and California. Merchants and the US Army established themselves along the migrant trail and in the 1860s the Pony Express used this route until the telegraph went through, also along the Platte River. Today, the Platte is accompanied by two transcontinental railways, a transcontinental pipeline, the main east-west fiber-optic cable and, of course, I-80. At Omaha the Platte empties into the Missouri and the I-80 enters Iowa where I found a place to stay.
Next day I spend a carefree hour or so in West Branch, Iowa inspecting the boyhood home and presidential library of Herbert Hoover. I have visited a few of these and find them quintessentially American, in a nice way. They are financed by an endowment raised through public subscription to commemorate a man (always, so far) who as often as not embodies the American Dream -- anyone can grow up to be prez, etc. I wonder whether a route linking all of the presidential libraries would give one a representative view of the US. Worth looking into for future trips.
I bypassed Chicago, overnighted in Kalamazoo, MI then rode via Lansing and Flint to Sarnia, London, Toronto and home. My wife was correct, as always: the camping gear was never used.
It was an enjoyable trip and I will do more like it. This year I have stayed closer to home -- Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, upstate New York -- but next year I will undertake a somewhat longer voyage, Blue Ridge Mountains, Gulf of Mexico, up the California coast to Vancouver and return across Canada. Anyone interested in joining me would be very welcome. Otherwise, I’ll gladly do it alone. I also have my eye on motorcycling in Australia in February. I’ll let you know.
Tags: John Lang