The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Posts Tagged ‘motorcycles’

The following is a ride report for August of 2012, from Departure Bay, Nanaimo BC, to Lillooet, BC:

The ferry from Departure Bay in Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay on the mainland is an exercise in transition. From the quiet, intimate inlets, channels of the Island and rocky coastlines to majestic fjords the change in attitude is also one of scale. Vancouver Island does have its mountain peaks. But these colossal mountains that jut skyward from the water’s edge into the unknown gets the blood pumping, knowing I’m going to be lost somewhere in those crags soon. Every time I pull into Horseshoe Bay, there is a point where I always have the same thought. The bay is tucked into a little cove, you don’t see it until just shortly before arrival. I always think to myself, “what a great place to tuck a little pirate cove!”. And then I laugh a little because I remember I said the same thing last time.

When I pulled off the ferry, I could see a long line of cars stretching eastward. And it reminded me of the last time I was in a city, a few days ago. It was with some relief that I realized that I was taking a left, not a right, and would be going first west, then north.

The ride from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler is on a highway called the “Sea to Sky highway”. It’s name is well-earned. It also has borne other names, including the “Killer highway”. The route runs along steep cliffs overlooking Howe Sound, and only recently has had outside barriers added, along with other improvements. Adding to the drama of the ride are several signs warning motorists not to stop in a certain area, as it is an avalanche area. But the view is unbeatable.

Pemberton, BC is something of a gateway. Most people think of Whistler, but few realize that Pemberton, a few miles beyond, is older, and was the place that the Hudson’s Bay men used as a base for establishing themselves in the area. It’s a small, rustic town and the end of the wider highway.

Shortly beyond Pemberton, after a slow, winding cruise through the mountain valley, and past a good-sized lake, things get serious. The road curls around the northern edge of the lake and immediately jumps into a series of switchbacks. In five minutes I felt like I was on top of the world, in six minutes I realized, as I looked at the road ahead of me, I was nowhere near the top. The rain started in on me, like an old friend verbally abusing me by way of welcoming me after a long absense. We laughed together, the rain and I, and I rode through it, over the peak at Joffre lakes, and out from under it by Duffey lakes.

The area around Duffey lake and I go way back. They are gone now, but there used to be a series of small, almost roadside camp sites. So light was the traffic that you could camp there and see only a few cars in an entire day. I feel fortunate to have been there, and carry that memory with me. The sites are gone now, and the traffic is heavier as many folk have heard about this scenic route. But the highway still feels both grandiose and intimate. Grandiose because of the dramatic, sweeping landscape scarred at the top with jagged peaks, filled in between with enormously expansive mountain slopes, and the sense of the dropping chasm through which the river and highway drop out of this mountain pass to the civilization on the other side. Intimate because the highway is a narrow, winding ribbon that carries me close to the streams, crosses them with wooden decked bridges, and hugs the canyon walls. The river that flows from Duffey Lake does not travel back to the sea from where I came, it flows the circuitous route northward down from the pass towards Frasier River Canyon. And when I say it flows, I mean it rages.

The stream, or so its called, runs for at least five miles out of Duffey lake so fast that it is a continuous rapids without a break. By the time the first slower pool is reached, I can already smell the mist rising up from around the next bend, where it begins another frantic drop. The road follows suit, bouncing and winding, the winter’s weather taking a toll on the asphalt as harshly as the terrain rules the grade. It is for several miles a busy time, avoiding the cracks and other hazards. At one point both wheels left the ground when I rounded a corner and sat up just in time to catch air off of an upheaval in the road surface. It was shortly after this that I saw the sign: “Winding Road”, use caution”. Umm…thanks.

The last stretch of descent let me see my destination, the valley in which the town of Lillooet lay. The two sides of the chasm through which I had to pass came together in a “V” at their bottom, like the front sights on a gun. I thought about that idea of the sight, but really, there was nothing in the sight. I rode on, through it, and after a short bit stopped and turned around. There, I realized, was the answer. The sight wasn’t pointed down, it was pointed up, at the mountain crags above. Shoot for the sky, indeed.

I’d like to take a moment to thank the highway department of British Columbia. after climbing mountain peaks, twisting through switchbacks, gazing over the side at gorges hundreds of feet below, listening to the raging streams along which the highway twisted, through mountain passes…yes, 42.7 miles through all of this, they provided the following words of warning, on a sign on the roadside:

Winding Road. Use Caution.

Thanks, BC highway crew, for that timely Public Service Announcement.

Ride report: Horseshoe Bay to Hope, BC

The early summer breeze blew crisp across my face this morning as I stood at the bow of a ferry. Two days had passed camping on the island, and now, with the landing at Horseshoe Bay wheeling into sight, I anticipated a day of riding across the southern-most highway of British Columbia. But to get to that highway, I had to cross through Vancouver, and the wide Frazier valley. The ferry landing at Horseshoe Bay, on the west side of Vancouver, was my starting point.

 

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The deep fjord in which this small harbor hides pushes the earth out from its depths into spectacular mountains.  Snow caps could be seen in the background. The languid leisure of the ferry crossing shook itself into the excitement of navigating the offloading ramps, which swept

neatly onto the highway that hugs the edge of the fjord, curving around the mountain’s foot, and bringing the city into view. There is a sense of being welcomed to the city, and indeed, that is another ride, down from Lillooet, and Pemberton, and Whistler.  I join the parade as it enters the city, blending with the late commuters, and soon a bridge carries me over from the forested hillsides into the vast expanse of industry and humanity.

 

I immediately want out.

 

It’s not that Vancouver is a bad city, but it is – well – a city, and a big one. A constant whirl of lights and sounds, people, and things constantly in motion, threatening to sweep you away if you don’t keep moving. By prior planning, I chose to take the less traveled highway 7, but it requires a few miles of city street driving. The road where it leaves the city is well-worth it. I take the plunge, and begin working on survival.

 

There begins, after quite some time, to be a sense of change in the pace, and the density if traffic and industry. A short break, another town, a few technical curves, and suddenly, I realized I’d drifted out into a wide flat valley, with no city in sight. It didn’t fade, didn’t stretch and thin and gradually disappear. There was just Town, Curves to distract me, and poof! it was gone. And in the sudden drifting spin of my head freshly ejected at the bottom of a rapids, I hear myself saying, “yeah, and a good riddance too!”.

 

The Frazier valley is as much a fjord as the ferry landing at Horseshoe Bay, but without any of the deep water.  The bottom of it is wide and flat, the hills jutting up suddenly, sharply, and majestically into tall mountains that line its edges.  The road swoops and swings along the northern bank of the Frazier River.  As soon as the city is left behind, the dairy farms start, then the sawmills show up, and then, finally, the breeze that had blown crisply at my back on the ferry drifted into an afternoon languor. I settled into a relaxed pace, and picked my way through a half dozen small communities that embraced the spirit of this lazy summer afternoon. Nothing ahead seems important enough to rush to. Not even farm tractors turning onto the road with their loads of manure could disturb my peace.

 

And so it is with a good long ride, if one thing can’t tempt you out if your comfort zone, something else will. As I eased up this wide valley, skirting along its edge, I become aware of the southern edge of the valley, closing northward. Rounding a corner, I saw directly in my path, still miles away, a peak jutting up from the valley floor from the other edge. It stood up in one continuous, straight slope from the valley floor, covered in evergreens, until its altitude and slope could no longer hold sufficient air and soil, and it left living trees behind. Even further up, the rocky slag was covered with snow, and finally, that snow disappeared into a soft cap of clouds.  This whole scene was still far off, but even with the scale of distance, it commanded my attention, and I had to fight to remain aware of the road.

 

The road wound and twisted, but gradually its intent emerged. This peak constantly crossed my bow, and grew both in size, and my mind’s awareness. In twenty miles it transformed from a distant warning to an impenetrable wall. I could think of nothing else but enormity. But then, abruptly and at the last minute, the road turned north, and the valley’s northward rise shows itself.  This mountain instantly transformed from barrier to gatepost, behind which the other peaks began to impose their presence on either side. Instead of one single iconic peak, I was suddenly in the midst of a herd of mountains, and the movement up the valley began to seem as if they ran with me up this narrowing valley like wild horses. I felt their energy, the thirst to remain wild, and separate from the world of humanity below. I subconsciously rode a little faster, pulled up the subtle grade of the narrowing valley by the instinct to race, for the pure joy of the wind pushed across my face.

 

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Narrow inlets appeared between peaks, gateways to secret spots tucked into the wilderness above. It was always “above”. I hear a phrase from my childhood, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”.  I smiled at the irony of my instinct to rush faster tow

ards it. I gripped the throttle tighter, focused for a moment listening to the angry roar of the machine beneath me.

 

 

For a short space the highway flattened out, the road gathering itself for its impending leap upward. The hills to my north fell back, and I raced headlong across an expanse of the open land. A bulge of a hill lies alone in the middle of this flat section of valley, and the road was pushed up against this hill where the river’s tail snakes across the valley floor. I crossed the expanse to the hill, feeling the thundering hooves vibrating the earth. At the bottom of the small hill, I felt myself lifted, and my ride transformed from a wild horse to a Pegasus, freed from the earth, hooves weightlessly pawing the air.  For the space of a few hundred yards this sense of lifting off continued, until the hill’s far side let me back down to the earth. Like a yearling mythical colt who has just experimented with its first flight, the thunderous clamour of the horse’s gallop returned. I felt the weight return to my feet, to my saddle, my body settling back to its familiar position.  I ran earthbound once again with the wild mountains, horses in their own way. But that brief moment forever changed me. This moment is the one that I cling to, the memory that there is something more than mindless racing across the land. There will be a time, and a place, where I will soar again. When you learn to crawl, you move to walking. When you learn to walk, you reach forward to running. When you’ve learned to walk, running is the next step. And now, when I perfect running, I will soar. I can only imagine what comes next, but I can hardly wait to find out.

 

 

 

For the moment, though, I raced onward. The canyon narrowed yet further, and the sides of this valley felt like sweaty equine bodies stampeding forward, urging me to abandon my purposes, to let go and just run. We galloped together, but begin to watch for an escape, a way out of this dead-end run. We jostled, these mountain peaks and I, fighting instinctively for position, but the drive to run still first in our mind. Looking left, looking right, the river flooded out broadly across nearly the whole breadth of the valley. This stampede is all but over, and for the moment, no outlet yet appeared.  Mountains of a different sort appeared. As tall as these other mountains have been, the ones coming into view are taller, towering over everything – everything. These are the Lords of this place, the keepers of the secrets of the wilderness. They are steeper yet than those that I suddenly realize now lie behind me, stubbornly pawing the air but stopped in reverence to this new landscape. T

hese are steeper.  And wilder. And eagles fly in their midst.

 

 

I crossed over the bridge into Hope, my heart still pumping the excitement of the run through my being. I breathed the excitement down, slowly, as I eased reverently up the main street, and into the presence of these giants looming over me, nodding their solemn welcome.

 

I stop for a rest, and to collect my thoughts from this past couple hours, and feel a familiar nudge behind me. Turning back to look down at the valley, the languorous wind nuzzles me like a young colt, freshened and ready for the evening. While I was distracted by the peaks before me, it too joined in the race, kicking up its own heels, running up these slopes with the abandon of wild things. I smiled a sense of kinship, and rested. In a short time I will enter the temple of the Wilderness, and I should be at my best.

 

Getting Lost

I don’t always get to ride just to ride, without some end destination in mind. Today’s ride was about riding until I decided to turn around. I didn’t find that destination for about 30 miles. Along the way, I lost a lot. First I lost speed, because of the 25mph corners. Then I lost my knowledge of where the road I was on was going, when I turned onto a road I’d never been on, and didn’t really know where it went. Then I lost the oncoming lane – the road turned into one of those one-lane roads where people just figure out how to get past each other in the unlikely event that they meet someone. finally, the paint on the roads disappeared – just a flat piece of asphalt, no markings, no signs, nothing. And right about then I began to realize that losing stuff can be the greatest feeling in the world. And I began to give up things voluntarily. The sound of my exhaust is a low, loud rumble that is somewhat unique – a little different than the usual Harley sound. It’s tempting to hold back a little bit, but when you let go of that internal resistance to the sound, it fills you up, holds you up, and your whole being is powered by that vibration. I gave up my interest in going fast, 40mph was as fast as I felt like I needed to go. Last, but not least, I gave up my expectation of getting somewhere. each moment, each corner, every straight stretch, tree, river, hill – each one became just a moment unto itself. Its funny how when you get to where you need to be, you realize you didn’t need to go anywhere particular to get there.

 

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It was an early summer Tuesday, and I needed to cover 500+ miles, two mountain ranges, 15 large rivers, two major rivers, 1 large metropolis, and a world of memories.  And all of it needed doing on a motorbike.
It was going to be a fine day.  Here’s the report:

I decided yesterday early on that a beaten path is an abused path, and that I wanted no part of such violence. So I set out to stay off the interstates as much as possible.

I left Coquille, Oregon heading north, swinging through Coos Bay and on from there, through towns familiar to me from years of traveling this coastline. The town signs are old friends of mine, and I greeted each one: Reedsport, Florence, Yachats, Waldport. Depoe Bay. Newport, Lincoln City – and the half-dozen or so small villages in-between them. The route is among the best scenic drives in the country, passing the dunes of Florence, the rocky cliffs of Cape Perpetua, sand bluffs dotted with cottages, the fishing harbors of Depoe Bay and Newport, and the wide beaches where vacationers fly their kites in Lincoln City. I rode through 200 miles of coastline, these communities each serving travelers from all over the world. I know of nowhere else where so much can be experienced in so short a space, and yet be held together with one common theme.

When Lewis & Clark drew near to the end of their westbound quest, the smell of salt air was a portent that lifted their spirits, and pushed them through the final leg of their journey. At the mouth of the Columbia, they saw nothing but mist, sitting in their boats in the midst of this brew of seaweed, salt, fish, and the vibrant life brought together by this confluence of the collective worlds by the river, held by land, and accepted by the sea. They saw nothing, but they could smell what they had been searching for for a year and a half.

Salt Air.

Once you’ve been to Sea, its smell becomes the badge by which you recognize your home, the connective tissue that binds you to those who served with you, before you, and around you. No man survives the sea alone. No man, once baptized in its brine, ever entirely leaves the sea behind.

It was through this place that I rode through the morning, my senses drinking in the sun, the ocean spray, the cool salty breeze, and the rush of wind through my helmet.  I soaked in these senses until I reached the marker that pointed me inland. There, by arrangement, I met my dad on his bike, and we traveled through the low-lying coastal range from Lincoln City, through the rain forest with its rich undergrowth, giant trees, and the smell of ancient presence, growing in deep silence. Each tree is home to dozens of species of plants and animals. Even the wide branches have soil on them, formed by the one driving force beneath everything that happens here – constant, steadfast growing and dying, over and over. Everything is connected by life and death.

My brother and I, once when we were young, cleared a patch of underbrush in the forest behind our house. By the next year, it was completely overgrown again, you couldn’t tell that two kids with machetes had ever been there. It is through forest like this that my dad and I rode today, over the hills, and starting on their eastern flanks began one of the country’s most fertile valleys.

The Willamette Valley not only is home to Oregon’s largest and most productive agriculture, but is also the center of its densest population. After miles of riding through farmland, the towns began to run together, and all too soon completely merged to form the Portland metropolis. The tone of the ride changed from curving, wandering roads with light traffic to city driving – stop and go, constant attention to the developments ahead, people shifting lanes – it becomes little more than survival. But…this is how I get to Busters Barbeque. The trip through the city is worth it when it involves a stop at Busters.  Happily, I had business to conduct on the far side of town, so through the metropolis I went.  My dad and I had our usual, and then parted ways, he returning home, and I carrying on eastward.

Leaving the city to the east, as the buildings are replaced with fields, and the traffic thins, there’s a game I play – guessing which of the immediate traffic is commuting, and which traffic will continue on into the Cascades with me. I seldom guess wrong, though I can’t tell you how I do it. There is, I suppose, a certain vibrancy in the attitude of the long-distance traveler, the anticipation of liberating oneself from the city life. How that vibrancy is communicated to me, I don’t know. Maybe it’s an empathy for freedom. One by one the commuters turned off, the sidewalks disappeared, and the buildings were replaced by trees. The road began to climb, and a sense of adventure settled in over me. In the distance the dormant volcano loomed above the tree line, its peak covered in snow. The city could be seen behind me in the mirror, framed by the gap in the road between the encroaching trees.  Late afternoon shadows cooled the air, and sometime shortly after the 2000 foot altitude sign the city smoke and dust was replaced by a crisp alpine scent. At a highway junction , the last of my fellow travelers turned to other destinations, and I was left alone with my machine, the road, and the mountain.

This particular road loops around Mt Hood, slipping over a gap between it and the next southern peak, and then dropping down an old Indian trail.  Before it was a road, it was a trail was used by pioneers to get to the Willamette valley as an alternative to rafting down the treacherous rapids that would, generations later, be converted to a dammed lake. The Barlow Trail, as it was called, was crossed by use of chains, snubs, teamed oxen and the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears of the men who dragged them over this pass. I pulled to the side of the road, and listened to the sounds of the birds, the stream in the canyon below, and the gentle whisper of the wind through the trees. In my mind, I added the clank of chains, the shouts and grunts of men laboring with their equipment and teams of oxen, the snort and puffing of struggling animals, and the disjointed creaks and groans of heavy-laden wagons being dragged unwilling through this alpine wilderness. The thought always leaves me amazed at the determination of those pioneers.

I mounted my bike, pressed the button, and with a twist of my wrist sped off down the winding, paved descent.

Returning again to civilization in Hood River is, from the mountain, another kind of awakening. From the wild backlands to orchards perched on plateaus overlooking the Columbia, working life was settling in against the long shadows of evening. The aquatic smells of fish, algae, and fresh water hung heavy in the air over the last plateau. At the bottom lay the river, not just a river of water, but of life – goods and people flowing back and forth, connecting different cultures together – the farm and range land of the east, and the city to the west. I turned eastward again, and chased my shadow upstream, up the interstate for a short stretch to The Dalles, with the sun sliding into the horizon behind me.

All too soon I had to leave the river again, crossing a steel bridge over the tumbling water freshly spilled through the gates of the dam, climbing the steep river gorge walls to the north.  As I climbed, night fell, and within 20 miles of the river, night had emerged. I stopped, put my heavy jacket back on, masked my face against the evening cold and bugs, and slipped warmer gloves onto my hands.

The road continued to climb, even after reaching the top of the canyon walls that frame the Columbia. The air, already much-cooled from the midday heat, developed cold pockets which I burst through like spill water. At the pass’s peak, I paused for a few minutes to take in the descending gloom. The forest had thinned, and before me on the eastern slopes it disappeared completely, leaving an arid landscape. The twilight, spilling over the western horizon, was still fading, only the first stars had emerged as I mounted up again. I rode northward, with the rose- and orange-hued embers of sunset still simmering on the horizon. Before me lay another descent through a wide valley. Below and across the valley, silhouetted against the gathering night, was the razor edge of the naked, far rim of the plateau, over which one more descent dropped into the town that was my destination tonight. I twisted the lever for a little more speed, and my headlamp bulldozed a small wake of light across this vast expanse. To my left, above the simmering cauldron of the unseen Sea, the sky glowed turquoise, dotted with the brightest stars, and faded to a vibrant black above. To the east, the newborn midnight sky still lay in its cradle of evening eastern gloom, slowly shedding its swaddling of the day’s dust, and evening mists. But above me, glowing like a righteous prophet, was a band of clear, bright sky, ablaze with its stars, still vibrant after shedding its old skin. I felt so separated from the rest of my race, standing alone on a stage meant for a production of much, much larger scale, but relieved to be free of the intrigue and deceit we humans invent.

My bike and I dropped into the valley through a wending path that shadowed the caroming mountain river for a time, and then spread free across the widening expansive bowl that formed this wide basin, our small presence feeling lost in the palm of the earth, and I wondered to myself, with the stars above me, if anyone, anywhere up there could see my passing. I gazed upward, engine droning its persistent rumble and wind swirling past me, overwhelmed by the comparison of the universe. And out of that infinite blackness came a soft chuckle, a smile of good-hearted condescension, whispering in a tone that was deafening to the frailty of my own ability to translate the scale of its spectrum,

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” You are noticed, little brother”, it said, and smiled a smile that could only be heard.

 

And I smiled back, despite the condescension, despite the patronizing pat in the head. Like any child, I clung to the important part of the conversation. The universe had noticed me, and had called me brother.
 

And then, lifted over one last rise, as the city lights below came into view and I was drawn back to the world of reality, I took a deep breath, and plunged back into the turmoil of human life, thinking to myself,

“Maybe I stay up too late riding sometimes…”

 

 

Where the Rubber Goes

Usually what you see here is a story, and today is no exception.  Except today, there are no words , just photos and music, a look back at the life of one simple part of a machine, and its significance.

i do a bit of riding my motorbike, and this weekend, my rear tire came to its noble end.  Installed a year ago, it has gone above and beyond the call of duty.  So I put together a slideshow with music, to celebrate its passing.

 

Does it sound strange to eulogized a mere tire?  Perhaps, but our mourning and melancholy, our celebration of life, death, and re-birth, is not for the fallen, or the departed, but for ourselves, who remain to find new life, and new meaning as the world around us changes.  relax, let go, and embrace the next, yet unknown adventure

.http://youtu.be/KlGUWf6Qi54

 

 

 

 

Chasing Down the Moon

The morning light remains a dream

And yet, not my dream

My dreams don’t look for the dawn

They ride through the night’s dark mantle

Like a tailor’s shears

Cutting the dark before me with a beam of light

Gathering it behind amidst the growls of an angry exhaust

A dragon, warning those who would follow my path

That this moonlit road is my dream, and mine alone.

 

In that space between the light ahead and the growls behind

The fabric of night furls and unfurls, windswept sheets

With a patchwork quilt of a hundred stories

Of other travels, of other travelers that passed this way

Alone with their dreams, in another night’s ride.

 

Free from the smothering streetlights that drown my eyes

I breathe in the pure night darkness, the scent of the Great Bear above me,

Wheeling in the sky pointing the way home

To Polaris

I touch in my mind the celestial doorposts of heaven itself

And then gather the reins in my fists 

Joining with the Hunter, pursuing our prey

Shadow, or Light, it matters not which

The chase is what feeds me

To race through the shadows, to feel the whip-cords of light

Lashing my back as I ride through the trees

Thundering hooves pound in my ears

Beating heart pounds in my chest

Flailing wind pounds at my face

Riding this writhing dragon as it rises and drops in the darkness, twisting beneath me to unhorse me.

I fight alone in this night, until the dragon is spent, dropping to the earth with its head atop its gilded hoard

And through the trees I break, into the calm of a mountain plateau

The moon, an arms-length away, bathes my sweating spirit in peace

I drift into a languid pool of silver night-sea, the alpine meadow grass rippling in the breeze.

I lean back, letting my mind’s sails fill with mountain air

Pinpoints of a million distant suns guide my thoughts

The open sky cradles my head

This lonely road rests my body

The crest of another mountain pass frees my soul.

Spit-shake promises

 

When I was a young boy at summer camp, I had a friend who, upon our parting at the end of a week’s friendship, invoked the spit-on-your-hands oath on me to seal a promise between us. The oath required each of us to go home execute a feat of daring and adventure on a bicycle that we had dreamt up. We both thought it was just plain crazy, so crazy in fact that we must, absolutely must do it. Since we each lived in separate cities, we would have to be satisfied with individual achievement. But the hilarity, the glory if we succeeded, the pride of accomplishment – required that we return with proof of our deed. We swore a spit-shake oath that we would come back the next summer to share the epic story of adventure and triumph.

 

But by the next year, my family had moved to a different state, and I remember that moment when I realized that our move meant I couldn’t go back to that same summer camp again. I was bitterly disappointed, because I had already kept my side of the bargain, and was eager to get back to summer camp and exult in my triumph. Half of the deal was the doing, the other half was the telling. The story itself was a story of hilarity, pride, and drama, because of the consternation I had caused adults, and for the pluck, physical pain, and daring it took to achieve that feat. The dream was big, the achievement even bigger. And never once for a moment did I ever doubt that my friend had also triumphed, or that it had cost him any less than it cost me to achieve it. It has been a long time since I have thought of that story, but for many years through childhood and young adulthood I imagined what his version of the story must be, wished I could hear it, and wished I could tell mine.

 

The challenge of that experience got something started in me. I began to add like-minded accomplishments that would fit with the eventual story-telling should we meet again. I once fought a fierce headwind riding to Garibaldi northbound, pumping as hard as my long, skinny adolescent legs could pump just to keep moving forward, feeling the thrill of speed when I turned around and headed home at 45 miles per hour with tailwind. I rode an 85 mile ride through the wheat fields of Walla Walla on the spur of the moment one Sunday afternoon, wearing out a friend who hitched a ride, but still had the decency to have the guy pick me up too when he caught up to me a few miles up ( I hadn’t realized the route I chose was over 100 miles). I got a speeding ticket on the bicycle in my small college town, something even the judge who fined me thought I should hang on the wall with pride. I learned to ride a tandem, and to ride a friend’s Honda CBX, a motorcycle with a monstrous 6-cylinder engine, and rode that thing all over the county whenever I could borrow it. All these small stories were added to the list of epic tales we would have to tell if I ever ran across my friend again, hoping that the extra escapades might make up for having missed our first rendezvous.

 

At some point in my childhood, bicycles and motorcycles had already begun to merge in my dreams of freedom. My dad and I would ride through the back roads together on his motorcycle on weekends, I sitting on the back, learning to feel the movement and balance of the motorized bike’s faster speed, learning to be aware of the passing world that was finally in sync with my short attention span. Weekend rides weren’t for me to catch up with the world, it was for the world to catch up with me. I developed a strong attachment for the out of the way places, spots I could only imagine might exist until we got there. And I imagined! I dreamt of wild places, wide open places, and places I could get lost in for as long as I wanted.

 

It wasn’t as if this penchant for adventure came to me out of the blue. In addition to my dad, my grandpa was a motorcyclist, two of my uncles rode, and even my great-grandpa had had his day in the saddle in his youth. But the person that fueled my thirst for the open highway the most was someone I never knew. It was in the same autumn that followed my summer camp experience. As my dad and I were out riding, we saw a biker at an out-of-the-way gas station as we rode past. He was loaded with pack and bedroll, and was heading into the high desert. The roar of his open exhaust as he pulled onto the road overwhelmed all the other sensations I had of that moment. The sound of those pipes, roaring past and then fading into the distance, pulled at my imagination so hard I have never recovered. And the only moment’s contact I had with him was a quick nod and wave he cast my way as he saw father and young son together. I wanted to wave. I tried to wave. But the moment was too fast, and I was too busy savoring it to raise my hand until it was too late. I waved at his shrinking figure behind us disappearing into the horizon’s heat mirage a quarter mile back. And I have never stopped.

 

Today, with the sun well into the morning sky, I pulled onto the roadway rested and ready for the short two-hour ride to my meeting. Behind lay nearly a thousand miles of mountain, sea, and forest highway between me and home. The mid-morning sun shone through and around an armada of billowing clouds that drifted across the sky like silent glider-bombers, navigating their way to a secret target beyond the horizon. The road turned and twisted gracefully, a welcome relief from the dramatic and challenging mountain pass yesterday. The bike beneath me rumbled comfortably through rolling hills, sometimes covered with boreal woodland, and other times open to farmland carved out of the midst of this vast forest that stretched as far as I could see.

 

Clusters of houses emerged occasionally on plots that left room for men to build shops with tin siding. Nearly every one of these clusters had at least one sign hanging next to the road: “Welder for Hire”, “Hay, Delivered”, or “Walt’s Welding and Repair”. Ranches proudly announced that they raised draft horses, cattle, farms that sold hay, and that they had been doing so since 1959. And so the communities announced to the passing travelers not just that goods or services were to be had, but that they were done by real people, doing what they loved, and what they excelled at. Workman’s pride were written on these highway signs. I wanted to know these folk, to hear about their stories.

 

But I knew that to experience these stories, I also had to learn about how Aunt Marabel had got the shingles last winter, and was still in an awful way, and that Roy up on Winter Hill Road had driven his pickup into the ditch last week, drunk off his gourd, and it served him right that the tow truck had pulled off a fender and possibly twisted the frame getting him out. Heck, it was his sixth accident in the last two years. This is how those stories come. They never sound proud of themselves or their work. But the signs don’t lie.

 

And so through this country I rode towards a business meeting. You might think that having a business that allows me to ride a motorcycle to the ends of the earth, to ride through country like this, sounds like a dream job. Well – it is, and more than you know. I’ve never been especially good at sitting in one place. Having a place to be every day – even the thought is excruciating. But being able to spend time on lonely highways, sorting out the millions of thoughts that constantly flood through my head – yes, it’s the kind of dream someone who lives in mortal fear of being stuck inside on any given day lives for.

 

I like to think I’ve paid my dues. I’ve knelt on the aft deck of a submarine in January, covered in salt-spray and rain, chipping paint. I’ve sat in a noisy, stifling sonar room in the tropics trying to resurrect equipment that had succumbed to the humidity. I’ve worked through the night pursuing the answers to defiant technical problems that absolutely, positively had to be fixed, overnight. I’ve had more than my share of dreams come to nothing. Many times I’ve failed myself and others. And tomorrow? Tomorrow I’m liable to make a mistake due to laziness, loss of focus, or inexperience. But not today. Today I’m following my dream. Today I ride the open highway, adding another story to a spit-shake promise from my childhood.

 

Today’s ride took me through a small city, and then worked the grade upward and northward out of town. When I reached the top and the road leveled off and resumed its meandering turns, I saw to my left a cluster of homes. A pair of boys played, with their dog cavorting beside them, in the summer sun. The dog was jumping and spinning while one of the boys whirled a stick over his head. Both boys, and presumably the dog, were laughing and leaping through the grass in a crazy dance of hilarity. The boys stopped when they heard my bike rumble from down the hill and around the bend, leaving the dog dizzy and still spinning, chasing a stick that was no longer there. They both looked up at me, cresting the hill and beginning down towards them through a long, sloping corner that curled around their field, and one boy started to wave. It was a self-conscious half-wave from the hip, as if hoping I didn’t see him staring at me, but wanting to look ready if I did. The other, smaller boy, dropped the stick and stared in with reckless abandon, leaping up and down in a frantic exaggerated over-the-head wave that destroyed the first boy’s hope of not being seen. They continued to wave, turning with my passing, following my progress through the sweeping turn that encircled them. There was something about the first boy’s gaze that I recognized. This boy was in awe. It was not for me personally that he was transfixed – he saw a dream. He thought of possibilities, the idea that two wheels could take him somewhere so far no one else knew about it. It was the same dream I had, staring after an unknown biker, wondering what road he would take, what compelled him to ride it, wondering what it was like to be free, dreaming of the unknown down that highway I had never been, waiting for my chance to find out what was over the horizon. I knew the power of that dream to shape an entire life.

 

Curiously, just a little while earlier I had come across the phrase, “Seize the Day” lying there in my head as one of my random thoughts. I had rolled it around in my mind like a fine wine, and had enjoyed the small afterthoughts that come along with such mindless internal banter that bikers that have ridden a long highway know. But now, it suddenly seemed serious, and more than an accident that I should have had thought it just now. In the space of a couple short seconds I remembered, as if was yesterday, my friend’s spit shake, and the solemnity to which we bound ourselves to take action to accomplish a daredevil feat of such epic magnitude that it would require a retelling a year later. I remembered how it was the beginning of a dream of the open road. I remembered how another biker’s wave of acceptance had stuck with me for so long. I realized how far that oath had driven me. In a sudden gesture to compensate for that long-lost moment and the importance of its promise, I mentally took hold of the dream I was seizing this day, and squeezed it hard, until its juices spilled into my gloved hand, and through my fingers. I raised my hand, dripping with the joy and freedom I held now, and waved to those two boys a spit-shake, a promise that through all the heartache of failure that might come to them, a boy’s dream can still come true. Dare big. Do the things you must. Find the furthest horizon you can find and chase after it. Get on a bike and ride into the darkest storm you can find. What you seek will show up when you least expect it.

Not free yet

Departing the I-5 corridor in Olympia to the west in favor of Highway 101 to Port Angeles is much more than just an exit from the freeway when traveling on the bike. A gradual but gratifying process begins to empty me of the chaff of life. From the very first sweeping right turn at exit 104 that slings me under the interstate and onto the side highway, I feel something leaving me, some palpable entity whose inertia has prodded me like an unwilling goat for the last hundred miles, leaving me with an illogical sense of haste I cannot understand. I can sense it, still moving northward on the freeway I just left, every moment an ever-widening gap between that thing and I as it searches first for me, and then for some other easy victim. I have shaken it from my path. But I’m not free yet.

 

Three exits on this short burst of new freeway, and then the busy intersections and traffic of the city fade, extra lanes disappear, and after a few short miles are nearly completely gone.  Rural scenery replaces strip malls, and as the buildings disappear, so does an entire level of stress. My mind begins to slow. But I’m not free yet.

 

For the next half hour a greenway rolls past. In the open air of the saddle of the motorbike, a full azimuth of the arching foliage welcomes me through a kind of gateway. In autumn, this stretch of road is brilliant orange, red, and yellow, interspersed with the deep green of spruce, fir, and cedar. It has been nine months since I last traveled this path. If you’ve experienced it, if you know that autumn display, it stays with you forever, even here in the height of summer, and it colors your view with anticipation of another season. The road continues like this, passing through a couple towns, skirting one using a bypass, and then leading into the wilder country. But I’m not free yet.

 

After passing Shelton, the road shrinks to two lanes, and I feel like I’m stepping out of one world into a different one, that seems at once smaller, and larger, than the confined domineering existence of the city. Every mile I travel, another pound of tension drops off of me, like loosened shackles. The narrow road weaves beneath my wheels like a tightrope walker’s line, I push the bike along it, balancing and dancing its path as if a rebirth awaits me at the other end. The Olympic mountain range drives upward powerfully to my left, into snow capped jagged peaks which from this close range I only glimpse occasionally through the dense forest, but I can feel their presence. The smooth, soothing waters of Puget Sound rest gently just to my right, the road wending along its shores squeezing in between water and mountains. Vacation homes line the shores in some places, in others old bridges span across marshes, where the rivers caroming from the heights of the mountains finally spread out into individual streams so numerous and dense in places that the land becomes a marshland network of creeks. Fishermen work this shallow delta, and I smile to myself to see them again, as if they were cousins I’ve known all my life, and am returning to. But I’ve never met them. The bike reminds me to ride on. I’m not free yet.

 

Soon, all that’s left is the occasional house, with long-forgotten equipment in and around rotting barns, shoulder-high grasses hiding clumps of iron that used to be a crane, or a water truck, or an old sawmill bandsaw, waiting for someone to stop long enough to listen to the tales of long ago. So many tales to be told. I want to stop, someday, and listen to their stories, because I feel that I’m among friends again, but I am fleeing today, and cannot stop to ask for cover in their undisturbed appearance. Not yet.

 

The road leaves the shore, and winds its way up through a pass. The road peaks, drops through a series of blind curves through a wide ravine that suddenly opens into a new valley, yet another distance from the city. This place feels so removed from the city that it cannot be felt at all. Small farms here grow their hay and crops with the wild abandon that the rain forest climate provides. Soon, just like the replanted clear-cuts that cover over completely in two seasons on the vast mountainsides above, the last traces of my having been in the city have been cleared from my mind, and overgrown with fond memories of these places. But I’m not free yet. Not quite.

 

I turn aside from the highway, and ride a short distance up a road I only know for its penchant for going nowhere particular. It is a secret road, and I’ve only traveled a mile up its length, ever. And that is precisely the distance I travel now, to a wide turnout that commands a view of the valley and the mountains beyond. I stop the bike on the roadside, kill the engine, and wait. I look up to the craggy peaks that I can just see, knowing what is there, waiting for it to come. The wind whispers in the trees. A bird busies itself in some discussion at the bottom of the ravine beside me. The gravel crunches as I turn my foot for balance, still sitting on the bike, waiting. And then it begins. A commanding, colossal silence that is more than an absence of sound washes down the mountain, crossing the narrow valley, roiling towards me as if it will tear me apart. And it will. I relax, and take the wave head on – it thunders over me like a collapsing wave. I drink it in, this deep quiet, letting it fill me up, push out every hint of the chaos and insignificant chatter that has been raging in my head, until the separation between the silence and me no longer exists. I am no longer just myself. I am free.

 

Somewhere in me a smile forms, and a joy without words flows out of me with a force greater than myself. Here, on this back road to nowhere with nothing but a motorcycle, I am at home again.

 

Night Rides.

The light of the day drains into the west as the sun passes the horizon, taking with it the din of the visual world, the noise of the city, the highway and its traffic, and of the emerging beauty of rugged landscape as the bike and rider climbed the grade leaving the business of the day behind. The bike’s powerful rumble shifts from harmony to strong, purposeful melody. As the world of light shrinks and the day’s energy fades, the single headlamp slowly rises to its purpose, marking the grey track before it, calling attention to the single most important bit of information the rider needs to continue on. City lights fade in the southern distance as fast as they flicker on, and on the northern horizon nothing can be seen but the vague silhouette of the next distant mountain range, illuminated by a thin sliver of moon through the broken clouds. Soon, even that outline disappears, and the world is reduced to three – the road, the motorbike, and me. A voluminous sense of peace settles into its nightly rhythm, the only thing that can be heard over the sound of the motorbike’s engine drone. We ride alone together, we three, and the whispers of stories catch my ear. The bike and I do our best to get the road to tell us its stories.

The stories that emerge are but tales I already know, thoughts that have been stashed in pockets of my mind for the chance to give them their due when the time is right. The thoughts that have been drowned by the brilliance of the day, now sparkle from the shadows like gems in the pavement ahead of me. They are of a different stock than the thoughts of day, they are connected more closely in this smaller realm rolling through blackness held back by one shaft of light. These stories – of other riders that have passed this way, of truckers hauling their freight from dock to dock, men crossing the country to rejoin their family, of families with their children migrating, scurrying over this untamed wilderness to a new life – these are also my stories. This rhythm that I’ve settled into, after cresting the dark mountain pass’s twisting climb, settles into a long stretch across these highlands with slow, sweeping corners. The people in the stories of this road are individuals, not the throbbing masses of humanity of the city, I can see their faces sometimes, they look back at me with the recognition of one human to another. While the bike’s headlight searches for meaning ahead of me, my mind’s headlight does the same.

And so, the tales are told, the highway’s wind whistling past, the bike’s engine thrumming like a piper’s drones, and sometimes, like tonight, even the night itself stops what it’s doing and listens in.

It was a cool spring morning in the spring of 1911. Well, to be honest, I don’t know what the weather was like. I don’t even know if it was spring. No one still living knows. But sometime in that year, my great-grandpa Keller made a decision that has echoed through 4 generations. He took a job. Not just any job, he was only thirteen, and the job he found was one of the only ones available to his circumstances. He became a messenger for Western Union in Indianapolis, Indiana.

 Delivering messages across that sprawling city required speed, and to give him that speed, they gave him one of the newest ways of getting around quickly in a crowded city. They put him on a Thor motorcycle. In doing so, the company set in motion a chain of events that would span 4 generations of riders. Just last week, I came face to face with the legendary bike that started it all.

The event was the Coos Art Museum Exhibit in Coos Bay, Oregon. For 45 days in June and July, they exhibited some of the rarest motorcycles in existence, including a 1909 Thor similar to my Great-Grandpa’s. And this last week, with my father riding down from Tillamook, we went together to take a step back into our own personal history, and the history of the world of motorized cycling itself.

Man, it was an awesome exhibit! The 1909 Thor, was, according to my dad, the same kind of bike that my great-grandpa rode as a western union messenger in the early 1900’s, but it was in rough shape. There was a lot of rust, and I doubt if it ran. I wanted to take that poor forgotten thing home and give it some decent treatment. It had curiously long, tall cylinders, very straight, with very simple heads. I thought that seemed kinda odd compared to the strangely shaped heads and the tapered cooling fins on all the other bikes on display. 



Across the museum floor from it, a 1914 Cyclone (featured in the promotional online video for the exhibit) had the coolest engine, with external valves, and levers, and tubes going to the strangest places. There were parts that looked more like saxaphone components than an engine. I felt like if I could just get that machine into my garage, I could watch those valves – that machine, clicking and clacking all day long, puttering along with its guts out on display. I’d probably sit there with an antique oil can, poinking away periodically just to feel helpful. The leaf springs were absolutely whacky, it almost looked like they had taken a model T’s springs, cut them into segments, and placed the sections strategically around the bike – a spot up front for the front forks, another spot vertically in back for the swing arm, and what seemed to be the center section wedged under the saddle. There were a few mechanical curiosities I couldn’t figure out, such as the apparent pump knob on one of the openings on top of the tank. I finally realized it was a pressurizing pump and cap, kind of like Coleman camp stoves, to pressurize the dry sump oil system. 



In addition to the Thor and Cyclone, there was a 1920 Indian of the same era as my Grandpa (Great-grandpa Keller’s son) first rode as a teenager and fell in love with the wind. I had a chance to sit with my Grandpa just two months ago, stopping by to visit while returning from a cross-country ride to Quebec. I asked him how he got started in motorcycling. It seems he had a friend whose dad had a car dealership, and they wound up with this Indian one day. His friend asked if he wanted to ride it, so they went out into the country, and the friend set him up, told him how to steer, and sent him off. What he didn’t tell him was how to use the clutch, so Grandpa was free to ride – but couldn’t stop completely. So he rode for miles until he found a wide place on that country lane where he could turn around without stopping. And he was hooked on the wind from that day on. Even at 90, my grandpa’s face still reflects that moment of joy like it was yesterday.

They had a fine collection of Harleys across a long span of years, starting with the first motorcycle we saw as we paid for our admission, a grey 1911 with leather belt and a ratcheting lever for a clutch. My dad and I spent some time re-living the heady times when this idea of engaging a motor to push you along the ground with a lever – it was like being kids again. I decided at some point that my dad and I would have been awfully good friends if we’d been kids at the same time. A couple other guys were walking through and sort of got caught up in our time-warp conversation. Pretty soon there were 5 or 6 guys imagining themselves with elbow-long gauntleted gloves and leather overcoats gadding about the streets of a city without traffic lights. I know that if truth were told, at some point every one of us flinched our left arm pulling that imaginary lever. Just a lever – and yet so much behind it.



And then there was the ’42 Flathead that my dad said was one of the models Grandpa had when my dad was a kid (again, not great-grandpa, but grandpa). My dad recalled that his sister always got to sit on the outside of the sidecar because she was older, and his mom sat on the back, so he was stuck up against the engine unable to see anything. His only revenge was winter, when he was the only warm one of the bunch. I looked hard at the area by the motor there between the back tire and the seat, where he would have been up against as a little boy, and could feel the pain of being so close – and yet so far – from the summer wind whistling through the Indiana countryside. And I glared at my aunt in my mind, for being so lucky – and so oblivious to her fortune. 


The 1920-ish Harley with double headlights was one of my favorites. As we were looking at it, it struck me that the only gauge was an ammeter, which read, left to right, from -10 to 0 to +10 amps. I said to my dad, “Ah, gone are the days when the single most important piece of information needed to be given to the rider by the machine was not just whether or not amperage was being produced, but how much, and in which polarity”. Apparently there was no speed possible that warranted an indicator to tell the rider of his accomplishment. That would have to wait a few more years.

My dad nudged me a couple bikes down from there, at the 1930’s Harley track bike. My Great-Grandpa Sutton had gotten his start in racing on just such a bike. He went on to be a prominent Sprint car builder in Indianapolis, and even built an Indy-car once. But motorcycles was where he started.



There were a couple of very interesting Royal Enfields, including the “Flying Flea”. This bike was made for wartime, and came with its own steel tube crate, and parachute. We got a kick out of the name. The exhaust manifold pipe, where it left the exhaust port, bulged curiously, and we thought hard about the reason for that for a few minutes. As near as we could deduce, it bulged to give extra room for the quickly exhausting gases, sort of a buffer zone for extra capacity. Honestly, we didn’t really know, but the 5 minutes spent bantering about the possibilities was a lot of fun. Sometime, years from now, I’m going to find out just out of the blue somewhere, and I’m going to call my dad up at that very moment and let him know. I hope he’s still around to take my call.



In the very back there was a 1958 BMW with its sideways-rotating left-side kick start, and a lever that had to be a gear shift, down under the rider’s right leg. I imagined myself having to hang on and clutch with the left hand, while reaching around below my right leg to shift. It would have been a challenge. To be honest, the rear seat on that one looked as comfortable as anything we saw. I love the shape of the boxer engine, and there was nothing hiding its glory.



In addition to the truly antique, quite a few of the classics from across the years were present. One of my favorites was the ’79 Honda CBX. A friend of mine had one of those up at Walla Walla where I went to college. He’d let me go riding through the rural roads through the Wheat Country on weekends. Dang, those were good times. Six cylinders and rolling hills of farmland. Oh…MAN!! What a blast that bike was.

After we’d seen everything, we stood near the entrance, not really wanting to leave, but not having anything more to see either. So I turned to my dad, and said, “Ok, I’ve got a shoe box with all the keys to all these bikes in it. You get to pick out two. Which ones?”

It was clearly a struggle for him, but in the end, it came down to the ’48 Indian, with the wrap-around fringe treatment on everything, bright yellow paint, and full wheel fenders, and the 1911 Harley with its belt-clutch. Then he reversed the question on me.

I went with the Thor.

And the 1920 Harley with its twin headlights and ammeter.

And maybe…well, maybe the ’58 BMW…
But that 1914 Cyclone that would entertain me just sitting in the garage running…
and the ’42 Harley Flathead. I would always make sure every kid got to sit in the wind…
But that ’50-something Vincent, with its knobs and levers and the sheer mechanical-ness of it, oh yes! I live for something to adjust, and that thing would let me adjust EVERYTHING!



So which did I come away with?

All of them. All of them, wrapped up in my head. Every time I look in the mirror of my ’08 Road King, all those bikes are looking back at me, just above where the print says, “objects may be closer than they appear”. When I grasp the handles of my ’77 BMW R100/7, and push it off the center stand, out of the garage, and out around the 10-mile country loop I use to test adjustments, they will be there following me, making sure I remember that it’s ok to be broken down sometimes, that there’s something normal about the quiet side of a back road, with the breezes blowing through the grass and the faint whine of cars on the distant highway, and the clank of an unexpected drop of a wrench to punctuate the silence. That hand lever will stick in my mind in that place where “things I should grab to engage the engine” sits. The low, swept-back handlebars will always seem right somehow, regardless of how many times I reach for my own raised bars. If I sit very quiet on my stool in front of the workbench and look out at the empty space in my garage, a Cyclone will always be pumping its valves up and down. In his place in my heart, my 13-year old Great-Grandpa Keller, desperate to grow up and make a living, will be making these mechanical marvels become practical. Grandpa Keller, with his love of the wind, will always be whispering in my ear to get rid of the windscreen and throw it in the corner. Great-Grandpa Sutton will always be pushing my bike to be faster, and better, to tinker with it until I figure it out – and then tinker just a little more. And my dad, whom I learned to lean with in the corners when I was just a child riding with him on the back of a Honda 350 scrambler on the back roads of southern California – he and I will always hold a special scorn for those who don’t appreciate the outside seat in the summer.