riding motorcycles across the states

When I left home last May, I didn’t think I’d be coming back to North America for anything. I’m wrong about everything – it’s becoming a trend. Flying all the way across the Atlantic for a month seemed stupid. And the cherry of stupidity on top: spending the most money you have ever dropped in a single purchase on a motorcycle you have never seen, let alone ridden. But sometimes you need to jump.

I was in a tiny coffee shop in Franz Josef, New Zealand when I figured I should shoot Rick a message before making an impulse buy on a one-way ticket to Iceland for June’s midnight sun. He’s been guiding motorcycle tours in South America for the last two years and I hadn’t seen him since he started. The west coast rain was hammering down and the early Autumn fog was thick and grey in the windows. Ideas went flying all over the place between us. Mexico. Iceland. Europe. Anywhere.

“Want to come ride a motorcycle with me in the States?”, he wrote.
“Yes”, even though the logical answer should have been no. 

3 hours after that conversation, I had plane tickets to Vegas booked on extremely questionable wifi. That’s the only way to book a flight to Vegas: impulsively and decisively without considering the consequences. Right?

I was terrified that I would get there and meet a motorcycle that I couldn’t handle. But the morning after I arrived, I ventured into the garage, swung my leg and my dress over the yellow BMW F650GS (which looked like a baby bike next the KTM and the dirt bike sitting next to it) and hauled it off its kickstand, just to see how screwed I was, and I decided I wasn’t. It was heavier than I was used to, but I was pretty sure I could figure it out. Rick arrived in from New York late at night, and the next morning he wheeled my motorcycle out and turned it around for me in the driveway while I did my helmet up. “Want me to follow you around the block?” he asked. Oh dear lord, no. If I stall this I don’t want you to see. If I drop this, I don’t want you to see.

So I cautiously, cautiously let the clutch out, rolled the throttle up and bumped down onto the asphalt. Did one tentative loop around the block in second gear, heart thumping like mad because second gear with a 650cc engine feels vastly different than the 250cc engines I’d briefly known. I came back after 5 minutes and 5 gears later, feet searching for the ground, as traffic ready as I would ever be. “Listo!” I called through my helmet.

When we finally got going out of Vegas on a Saturday, fully loaded, a little groggy from a night on the Strip (sans my ID, smart girl), I was nervous. The bike felt different because I had an extra bag on the back and it was the heaviest one I had. The heat didn’t help – it maxed out at 117F. As we left Vegas on the interstate going along at 70-75mph, furnace gusts of wind hit coming sideways and felt like they wanted to shove me off the bike. I just wasn’t used to it. The highway was just a gray strip into nothingness of dry desert. The heat was worse inside a helmet and under all the gear with your legs hugging a hot engine coated in metal. We stopped at gas stations and filled up water bottles and dumped entire litres of water down our riding gear, which was dry before we even got to the highway again. The water in the tube to my hydration pack got so hot I couldn’t drink it. My hands and feet started tingling from all the vibration and my nose was so dry that when we got to Zion it just started bleeding after I sneezed. My eyes itched from trying not to blink too often. We twisted and turned through the reddish streets in Zion National Park late in the afternoon with a burnt sun on the red rocks.

National Parks are no joke – as soon as you cross a park boundary it’s so obvious you’re in a special area that you wonder how something like that could exist in such a vast landscape of surrounding mediocrity. The cliffs and canyons of Zion with its red road carving through the mountains quickly melts down to “normal” scenery once you leave the park boundary. We camped outside the park for our first night out of Vegas. Rick’s tent has seen some shit, but that’s how you know your gear is awesome: it’s got battle scars and it still thrives on. The seam glue on the fly was all flaking off like dead skin and it has a gash in the side that is held together by lime green duct tape. He hacked it open with a shovel while he was digging himself and a friend out of a freak snowstorm on the side of Mount Baker. The zippers are questionable and sometimes just refuse to work for me (he never seems to have an issue).

After hiking up to Angel’s Landing in Zion, we rode onwards to Page, Arizona and I never had any idea what time it was. Our cell phones disagreed and so did the laptop. The clocks on the walls seemed to jump backwards and forwards – but it doesn’t matter what time it is in this wonderful life. It’s light out. We’ve got daylight. We had to wait out two nights in Page for Rick’s bike rack to come in from UPS – we beat the truck there. It wasn’t hard to wait out – we bought $5 tubes from Walmart and floated around in Lake Powell drinking warm PBRs (“the cockroach of beer”) and hung a hammock up between the only two tiny trees we could find. We seemed to sink lower with every beer that disappeared until our butts were skimming the sand.

I’ve spent so much time in “small” countries over the past year, primarily Europe, that the wide open space of the States took me off guard. I’m from Canada. I should know what empty space feels like, but I’d forgotten. In Europe you can’t drive for 15 minutes before you are in the next town. In the States we could ride for 2 hours on country roads with absolutely no scenery change, barely a curve in the road and no houses, maybe a gas station every so often. And I absolutely love that feeling –that feeling that you are in the middle of nowhere, like you’re lost at sea, that you are the only two people for miles and miles around and you’re perfectly happy with that.

We camped out in Monument Valley, Rick pouting because he couldn’t find any beer (“I feel like I’ve been sent to rehab”) since it was a reserve. We set the tent during sunset, slept in the sand and woke up just before the sun peeked over the horizon and turned the tent into a humid greenhouse… better than any alarm clock. Sun’s up in the desert, you better be moving at 60mph+ or spend the entire day soaked in your own sweat. Realistically, in the desert you spend the entire day soaked in your own sweat, regardless how fast you go. It’s inescapable. We rode out of Monument Valley towards Mile Marker 13 and that typical road-into-the-middle-of-nowhere American view. We gassed the bikes up and bought breakfast and coffees and plopped down on the curb beside the gas pump. No one else was there besides a massive beetle scuttling away from us. It was heavy enough that I could hear its feet hitting the pavement. That’s when I realized that most of our drink/food dates were destined to be in gas stations, sitting on curbs, in the middle of nowhere. I’m totally fine with that.

The most radical scenery change I’ve experienced in my life was riding from Monument Valley to Ouray, Colorado. We started in red desolate desert, passed the Valley of the Gods with barely a second glance (so much sadness) and continued into the middle of nowhere. But suddenly, bushes started growing. Trees started making a comeback, and soon enough, pines lined the highway and everything turned lush and green. We even got rained on a little bit. I followed him over the Million Dollar Highway into Ouray – it’s apparently called that for its million dollar views, or for the joke that it took a million dollars a mile to build since it’s blasted into the side of the mountains. I saw his feet start dancing on the pegs as soon as we could see the switchbacks coming, must have a good song going, and then that sound of a throttle rolling up, and he was gone. Whizzing around hairpins way faster than I’d take them until he was so far in front of me I couldn’t see him anymore. But I love that – if you love something so much, you don’t wait for people. You wait once it’s done. I’ll catch up at the bottom, like I always do.

We spent the night in Ouray and the next morning we headed for Denver to see Dan. We went over a couple cold mountain passes in some patchy chilly rain (my handlebar warmers could use some more warm). I look like a bright orange marshmallow under all the rain gear. It was our first night with a roof over our heads and I hadn’t seen Dan since I was an intern on a project up in Kitimat, where my daily battle was getting him to sign off on my crane lift plans. But one of the biggest things I began to notice in Denver that grew more obvious throughout the month was the domesticated life that was whirring along just parallel of the universe I’m currently floating along in. The universe where people have interviews and get jobs and get up early to go to work. The place where you don’t drink beers any night of the week because the day of the week actually matters. That place where people have long term boyfriends and they get engaged and have babies and cook dinners in their very own kitchen and have get-togethers with families. I don’t have any of that, and at the rate I’m going right now it seems very, very far away until I realize how fast I could make it all change. I could enter a little wormhole and come out of it in 3 weeks and all of a sudden, normal life. People are usually afraid to travel, but I’m afraid to stop.

We arrived in McCall, Idaho, with sore butts and stiff knees and rode along the side of the lake. I followed him as he bumped down gravel driveways and then pine-covered beaten down earth nearly right to the waterfront. They wasn’t anyone around when we arrived at the cabin and we got off the bikes, ran down to the end of the dock in most of our gear and ended up going swimming in all of it. We needed to do laundry anyway. The next four days were a blur of beers and July 4th festivities, swimming and dinner parties, wine, beachside campfires and boating shenanigans. That cabin is one of the best places on earth and the people I met there added to it. I acutely felt that tiny, but significant, distance between those parallel universes, and once again it was alarming how close that other universe flew along beside us with nearly everyone we know in it. It’s tempting to dip back in when everyone else is there.

We rode in the direction of the Tetons along a highway named something like “From Peaks to Craters” which accurately described it. We stopped by a river at an unofficial campsite, set up tent, set up the hammock, bought IPA, cheese curds and some crappy noodles at the gas station and started a fire. And then we crushed that camping stereotype of no-electronics by binging out on 3 episodes of Game of Thrones (go Cersei, you vengeful vengeful woman!).

We spent the next night camping in Grand Teton National Park beside Jenny Lake Lodge (got hooked up by a friend I met in New Zealand) and rode out as the night’s clouds were breaking and the sun was coming up all the way to the queue for Yellowstone National Park. Rick and I are on the same level when it comes to crowds: we can’t handle people. As soon as I saw that line I looked over at him doubtfully and he said without me even asking about it: “Just so you know, I’m not going to be able to handle this.” And rightly so… it was the Disneyland of National Parks. People everywhere. We were not comfortable. It took at least 3 hours just to drive through it because it was so massive. We missed Old Faithful blowing because we were gassing up (I mean, I saw the top of it and it’s not that exciting). We passed families on vacation with custom family-vacation-t-shirts. That goes on the list of “Things I’ve seen in America That Are Way Too American”. There are a few sweet roads on the way out (worthy of Rick racing ahead), some burnt forest and bison.

We headed through Sturgis, which is some kind of biker haven, but I don’t really get it. Rick’s bike picked up too many men. Nearly every time we stopped we had a new visitor. I got a little jealous. We’d be having our usual curb date, and quietly observe a guy giving Rick’s bike the once over, then the twice over, and more often than not, a full walk up and walk down, before meandering over and, “That bike yours?” I’d just sip whatever chilled beverage I had picked up for 99 cents while they talked motorcycles. We hopped on for another few hundred miles to get to Badlands National Park and we rushed through it. It looks like a pale candyland of different coloured layers and the whole landscape drops out of green grassland with no warning. We were shortly in the middle of nowhere (again), somewhere in South Dakota with 700 miles to go till Chicago. We somehow managed to do that in one day to get “home”. It was a long shift and both of us were kicking our legs out on the freeway because they were cramping up. We only stopped for gas and snacks.

You’ve got to be in a strange state of mind to ride a motorcycle and if you think about the wrong things, it doesn’t put you in a good place. When I first started riding, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my toes were 6 inches off pavement that was hurtling past at 130km/hour. I couldn’t stop thinking that one big gust of wind at exactly the wrong time would be the end. Lights out. I couldn’t stop thinking that if some truck driver fell asleep for a split second and swerved into the wrong side of the road, I was done. I couldn’t help wondering where all the deer were. Were they ready to leap in front of me? You can’t think about that. Those are all things you can’t really control. You just sit ready and accept that to have this much fun, there’re a few things you’ll have to accept. Like, you might die today.

Motorcycle touring is a lot like bicycle touring, except easier. Motorcycle touring is more expensive, but bicycle touring is far, far slower. Both have their merits. But bicycle tourists are tougher, hands down. If you’ve cycled 150km in a day with a loaded bike, added some mountains in the mix in some high heat and then camped out, no shower and ate crap food, you can take on motorcycle touring. You know what Type 2 fun is, and you’re clearly an addict. It takes more resolve to cycle 1,000 miles than it does to rev an engine for that duration. But all in all, the mentality is the same: ride, set up camp, eat some food, relax and sleep. Repeat. It’s the simplest of pleasures. You see new things every day and it can’t possibly get boring. I love life on two wheels, engine or not. The transition from cycling to motorcycling was an easy one.

Chicago is a big city. Bigger than any city I’d been to in a very long time. We bought overpriced drinks in the Hancock building, went to a food fest and were overfed daily by loving parents. Sleeping in actual beds is fantastic. Warm showers are fantastic. They never get old.

It was funny traveling with someone with nearly the exactly the same predicaments that you have. When we were packing up, a bunch of spare passport photos spilled onto his covers and he grinned and said, “You never know when you’re going to need them.” What he didn’t know is that I have at least 20 extra passport photos in different standard sizes floating around in my “important documents” package. Zip-locked of course, like his. You never know when border control is going to demand one from you. When someone asks me where I live, I stutter and struggle for an adequate explanation, and so does he. It depends who’s asking. Are you the taxman? A friend?  A potential new employer? Usually we both end up simplifying things: we’re coming from Vegas. I’m not even American. I just go with it. It’s easier. “Where are you traveling to? Chicago. Simple. When people really delve into what we do we usually don’t explain it elegantly. We trip up and slip and look at each other for help and awkwardly say, “Engineering… kind of… I guess?.” A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

I didn’t want to leave Chicago. I didn’t want to pack my bags. I didn’t want to get in the car and be driven down a freeway to O’Hare. I didn’t want to leave my motorcycle in the garage and I certainly did not want to go to London. I left because I had committed myself to too many visas and too many plane tickets to throw them away. I’d gotten pretty used to leaving people and places with barely a second thought, the plane wing dipping away with me already thinking about what next. But I didn’t look forward to leaving this time. These are the first sliding glass doors of an airport where I actually looked back and had a faltering moment of self doubt. This was the first plane I got on where I thought, I just might regret this one.

Cheers from O’Hare, Chicago.

Using Format