the alps, version motorcycle

I continued to be reluctant about the full-time address, and I never fully unpacked. I was transient. Nothing felt like it was truly mine. I liked it that way though. Owning things seemed like signing up for a burden. 

I found a flight from Seattle to Zurich and back for $450CAD. I booked it (asking forgiveness worked this time). I booked this trip with no intentions, no plans and no idea what I was going to do with it. I’ve been to Zurich many times to see family, so it’s not exactly new territory… I do love Zurich though. Some of my earliest childhood memories are in Switzerland. I remember a bee flying into my sleeping bag through a window – that was fun. I also remember being two months late to kindergarten because I was in Switzerland. By the time I arrived at school, everyone already had chosen their friends. I was the strange one from the beginning. No chance.

A month before the trip, Dad gave me a book, “Magnificent Motorcycle Trips of the World”. I scanned through it, and that’s really all it took. It dawned on me. It was only a 10 day trip. I’d cycled most places you can get to out of Zurich in 10 days and didn’t really want to do a repeat, or ship a bicycle over for such a short period. I find trains and buses tiring and too passive and I was burnt out and didn’t want to deal with the logistics of how to get from A to B. Renting cars in Europe is silly, plus driving a car puts me to sleep. I wanted freedom and ease without staying in one place. The answer was a motorcycle. Two days later I’d found one downtown to pick up.

We drove to Seattle (and by that I mean my mom and Randy drove me).  I flew to Newark, and hung out for a 12 hour layover. I slept for 6 hours of it, camped out on the airport floor, sleeping bag and sleeping pad fully engaged, with black shorts on top of my head to block the light. Airports are about the only place you can do this in public without getting strange looks. I mean, in the airport you still get strange looks but I can tell they are ones of jealousy. Why didn’t I think of that? I’m stuck on these hard chairs divided by armrests. Rookies. On the flights, I sat fully cocooned in my sleeping bag. Again, strange looks, but this time I got comments, even from the flight attendants: “That is genius. That looks so cozy”. Yup. Goodnight, see you in 7 hours. Another flight to Zurich, a train to the main bahnhof, then a tram to a little street corner that had a BMW G650GS perched on it. I went to work loading it up with the tank bag and iPhone mount. I took my helmet and gear out of my roll-top bag and transferred everything in my backpack into the roll-top. My head felt feverish. I squished the bag down and cinched it (Rok straps are amazing) and strapped it to the back of the bike. It was over 30C already and it wasn’t even noon. I yanked my hair out of the matted bun it had sadly settled into and roughly braided it. It was not cooperative. Sticky. I handed over a cash deposit and rental fees and then nervously drove over the cobblestones to the main road. This was highest bike I’d ever ridden and I wasn’t comfortable on it. Only my toes touched when I put my feet down. For anyone who has never ridden a motorcycle before… I shall describe how this feels. You are riding a bicycle, but the bicycle weighs 500lbs (not including you). When you stop at a light, you put your feet down and you can only touch the pavement with your toes. There is no “getting off the seat” and straddling the frame. If the bike tilts by more than 5 degrees in either direction while not moving, it’s too heavy to stop from going down and you have to drop it. If you don’t drop it you just end up hurting yourself (and the bike still winds up on the pavement). If you drop it things get bent and scratched, and you are usually physically fine… it’s your pride and ego that usually gets the most damage. Once a 500lb motorcycle is lying on the pavement it looks quite pathetic. That, and you need to wait for a whole parade of people to come over to help you lift it back up again which is even more embarrassing. And let’s not forget that motorcycles do not have a reverse gear. To back up on a motorcycle you need to push it backwards with your feet while sitting on it, and this is really hard to do if the only purchase you have are your toes. It’s not a lot of leverage. The other option is to get off the motorcycle, put it in neutral, push your bodyweight into it, keep the kickstand down and pull with all your might backwards. I had to do that a few times. You either do that, or a loving boyfriend pulls you backwards. Not an option this time, New Mexico had him reserved for August. Silly New Mexico. As a result, I couldn’t park even on the slightest incline if I ever hoped to get out of there again. Stopping required foresight and a strategy.

Navigating Zurich straight out of the airport on a brand new bike in very warm weather and high humidity while dehydrated and hungry wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but the first 2 hours on a new bike in an unfamiliar city never are. I got on the autobahn as quickly as I could to get out of there. Everyone passed me. I wasn’t comfortable going over 100 kph yet, and this is grandmother-speed on the autobahn, as you probably know and at least can guess. Switzerland has radar instead of police for speed controls. I don’t know about Austria, Germany and Italy… but I’m still holding my breath that I don’t get any emails from the rental place saying I owe them money. It’s unlikely. Like I said, everyone passed me. I stopped near Liechtenstein for some water out of the fountain – this is one of my favourite things about this area, the fountains. Sometimes they are artsy and decorative, and sometimes they are simply pipes coming out of mossy retaining walls on the side of a mountain road, but they are all clean, cool water that is safe to drink. I read somewhere once that it’s one of Switzerland’s defense mechanisms… that if for any reason the public water supply system failed, these fountains wouldn’t. Don’t quote me on that and don’t correct me if I’m wrong either because I think this is clever and badass. These fountains are also found in the mountains in Austria, Germany, Italy and France as far as I’ve found. They were lifesavers on the bicycle.

Soon I was in Germany and had found the beginning of the Deutsche Alpenstrasse. My eyes were sore and dry but the two-lane road and rolling green hills were a welcome reprieve from the stress of the city and the autobahn. My hands and feet were tingly from the highway speeds. Mountains were visible in the distance, and the ever-present dark thunderstorm lurked somewhere over the horizon, but it never caught me. By the end of the day I was working my way around short mountain switchbacks on a rather empty road, gaining elevation and cooling down. The motorcycle felt a little better. I stopped for the night at a campsite in Oberjoch, ordered a ginormous 8 Euro thin crust pizza covered in prosciutto and funghi that I certainly did not physically earn, and called it a night. The thunderstorm caught me then. The temperature dropped to a pleasant 11C overnight, which is the perfect temperature in my sleeping bag. Cold face, warm body. Exhaustion came to me like a bear hug. Huge raindrops pelted the tent, lightning flashed and thunder rolled right after. It was no surprise to me, the whole experience reminiscent of the thunderstorms that battered me in the Alps while I was on my bicycle. One a day was always the rule, usually in the afternoon and as always, it didn’t last long. By morning the sky was clear, and there were only a couple of wispy clouds clinging stubbornly onto the nearby peaks.

I stopped in Füssen, which is home to the Neuschwanstein Castle. If you don’t know it by name, you know it by appearance. They say it’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It’s the white one on the mountain. That they managed to build something this amazing and detailed, in such a location so long ago is truly fascinating. More of a feat of human will (or cruelty?) than any type of engineering. The lines to get inside were miles long already, so after grabbing an overpriced fresh pretzel, still warm, I trotted back to the bike and off I went to get back on the Deutsche Alpenstrasse. I didn’t regret it either; I came across side roads that were devoid of people yet still had clear views of the castle. These are the roads I would have been on if I was on the bicycle. Quiet and empty with the odd piece of farming equipment. A secret in plain sight.

It was a comfortable temperature for most of the morning while on the go. I cruised around bends and through small towns while the mountain peaks grew around me. The valleys grew deeper, and houses scattered the slopes. The fields were vibrantly green, the air smelled of manure (but in a strangely fresh-good way). There was lots of traffic. All the motorcyclists waved or did the two-fingers-down gesture. I’m not positive what this means, but I think it means “keep two wheels down”. I never do it back. I don’t like taking my hand off the handlebars lest something happen in that instant and I need my clutch hand pronto. I raise two fingers as a hello back, and that’s it. I don’t really understand the whole idea anyway. Cars don’t wave to everyone, and at the end of the day I don’t have a lot in common with the majority of the motorcycling world: most of them are men, much older than me (read: retired) and are with at least one buddy or have their wives on the back. I don’t view motorcycling as a display of masculinity either, so the whole go-fast, rev-loud, Harley culture goes right over my head. To me, a motorcycle is a means to an end. Of course, it is certainly more fun and engaging than driving a car, but in exchange you have to pay a lot more attention than when you are driving a car. You have no bumpers. Your bumper is your leg, as my dad once wisely told me. I think he learned that the hard way though by trying to kick over a construction pilon for fun while going about 70 kph on the highway. We all make mistakes. 

I mostly ate at gas stations and Coops; they always have good stuff and I’m familiar with eating while sitting on the curb or right outside grocery stores. I also hate eating by myself in restaurants, but love people watching, so curbs are really the place to be. You can’t call it a “curb date” if you’re alone though, so that was a bit more depressing than usual. I’d been flirting with the Austrian-German border for at least 100km before I dipped into Austria to make a visit to Hallstat, a popular picturesque tourist destination on a lake surrounded by mountains. 

It was around 4pm when I arrived, and it was a zoo. It was jam packed with tour busses and Chinese tourists carrying expensive camera gear. Crowds of people aren’t my cup of tea. There’s almost nothing that makes me leave faster, it doesn’t matter how famous or awe-inspiring the crowd-drawing thing is (this is why I know I will never see the Mona Lisa, and I’m quite on the fence about Machu Picchu), so I left to a campsite I’d stayed at before. 20 minutes along a winding narrow road up, up, up and I was there. I swam in a thunderstorm in the alpine lake a few hundred metres away, before jumping back on the motorcycle to pick up some bread, cheese, peaches and chocolate and watching the peaks go dim in the twilight. I dug my toes into freshly rained-on grass. I love that feeling. I hung my bikini up to dry on my handlebars. It sprinkled rain all evening. Someone asked me, “Is this weather normal?” Yes, isn’t it wonderful. 

The next morning I went back into Hallstat, snuck my motorcycle around the parking gate without paying (HAH!), promptly proceeded to take off all my gear, and switched into regular-person attire.  I wandered around the town. It was still asleep and no shops were open. There were no swans scavenging for tourist-thrown food and the parking lots were empty. I fed some ducks a couple pieces of stale bread, ate some cheese and dipped my feet in the water. It was getting too warm already – the Brie was gooey-, and I was already sweating. The sun bouncing off the lake was intense, and I knew I would burn within an hour. When people began to show up, I went back to the bike, stripped again, pulled on all the black sweaty gear, and snuck the motorcycle again out of the parking gate (HAHA!). I grinned through my helmet as another car driving in clearly noticed I had evaded the system. My cheeks squished against the padding. Off I went. I had a plan that day. The Grossglockner.

The Grossglockner is Austria’s highest paved alpine pass at just over 2500m. It was first opened in the 1930s, although it had been a trading route for thousands of years before that. The curves are bell-ended and wide(ish). These are curves you can trust, at least for the next 15 metres. Some of them are even painted with a correct “motorcycle line” – growing painted circles that you should stay just outside of to get a good line. At the top, the road clings to the cliff face, cantilevered off the rock before it swoops over the other side. 

It’s a motorcycling mainstay so naturally there are reminders every few kilometres to ensure that your joy ride doesn’t get so distracting that you forget your own mortality. For me this has never been an issue. I have always understood I am seconds from death or permanent disfigurement while riding a motorcycle. I have actually seriously considered writing letters to all the people I care about and keeping them inside of my tank bag, in case I die. That way at least I’d have the last say.  A friend once accurately referred to motorcycles as “death machines” and he’s not wrong. The billboards don’t help that anxiety. For the most haunting, they’d repainted the white stripes at centerline as white crosses, and stamped a motorcycle symbol beside it. There are also crosses and bouquets on the side of the road, a stark reminder that if you go off the edge here, there are no crash barriers to catch you. Even if there were, they would stop the motorcycle but they absolutely would not stop you. There’s no safety net, and yet there are still guys on sports bike “dropping the knee” and whizzing past on nearly blind corners. It’s unnerving. I don’t trust 19 year old boys on motorcycles with my life, and you shouldn’t either. I am more than a white cross at the shoulder of an alpine road.

I crossed the border into Italy, and was greeted by backed up traffic as far as I could see, and rain. Lots of both. So began my first experience with lane-splitting. Funny, after I’ve just given a lecture about not dying on a motorcycle, I’ll explain how hours later I was comfortable riding in the rain in 3rd, revving up to 5000 rpm and braking hard to get back into the correct lane because there was oncoming traffic. I still wasn’t anywhere near aggressive enough to keep up to the other motorcyclists, who simply didn’t get back into the correct lane for oncoming traffic. They expected traffic to move over for them. That’s a bit too ballsy for me. As a wise person once said regarding how to ride a motorcycle and live: you want to be confident… but not too confident. I’d planned on doing a route through the Dolomites, since my cycles through them had been daunted in clouds, thunderstorms and broken tent drama that I hadn’t seen a whole lot of the famous peaks. It was not to be; I pulled up into a campsite and asked the girl at the desk what the traffic was about. Maybe there was an accident or something. She explained (in embarrassingly perfect English) that all of Italy was on holidays for two weeks, so the traffic was like that every day. She flipped into German to talk to someone else and then replied to what I think was her mother behind her in Italian. I have always been envious of people who grew up with multiple languages. It’s a handicap North Americans don’t realize they have until they go somewhere else.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30am to beat traffic – I was done with it. I redirected my route back north into Austria towards Timmelsjoch Pass. The Italian valleys were filled with vineyards, the very same ones I had guiltily raided when I was low on food while cycling. In the pre-dawn everything looked blue and gray, with splashes of beige paint. On the hills there were little church towers that rang every 15 minutes and on the top of every hour… not that I could hear that inside of a helmet with an engine roaring into my ears. The weather wasn’t great and I was cold, especially at 2,500m. The magnitude of these passes is something special. There was more time to absorb the scale on the bicycle – there’s no argument about this. On a motorcycle the phases of a pass blur together: the base town (Phase 1), usually small, cute, possibly a ski resort, melts into lazy switchbacks and straight climbs through trees (Phase 2), and suddenly the trees are gone and the road is skirting a cliff face (Phase 3). Far below, you might be able to see that little town you started in, but usually not. On a motorcycle this process happens in 15-30 minutes. On a bicycle, it takes all day. At 2,500m, the top of Timmelsjoch pass was socked in with mist and clouds and I had to slow down and squint to see ahead.

I came down into Imst well ahead of schedule, wondering where exactly I was going to go next. I let the forecast at Stelvio decide for me. I looked it up at a McDonald’s. The next day looked nice, and the day after looked unreliable so I decided to get to the bottom that afternoon. There are very fancy campsites in Prato allo Stelvio, the town at the bottom of Stelvio. Whenever I see a campsite on a map with a pool, I avoid it. Past experience paid off: I knew there was a campsite at about switchback 40-something in Trafoi that was barely advertised on the road. As a result, it’s not busy, it’s cheaper and it’s sandwiched between high mountains wearing a mantle of glacier, and a green valley with a small church on the slope. The same guy who checked me in with the bicycle three years before, checked me in again. He didn’t remember me. There were a few other motorcyclists, but I’ve found most of them tend to stick to themselves. I woke up at 5:30am while the mountains were holding their overnight puffs of dewy fog. I was the first one out of the campsite but I hadn’t beaten every cyclist to the road. The engine cut through the early morning silence and I bumped up the gravel road onto the pavement. I was nervous about these 48 tight switchbacks because I (so so lucky to already) know them.

Stelvio Pass was built almost 200 years ago. Naturally it’s not built for the transport machines of today. It’s a narrow road, and the switchbacks are not rounded curves… they are 180 degree immediate turns. I joked the last time I cycled up it that the motorcyclists looked silly, because some of the sports bikes clearly didn’t have the turning radius on the inside curve to get around them with any kind of ease. It looked awkward. And, oh wow, yes it was awkward. On the inside of a curve, the grades are greater than 20%, and steeply slanted with crossfall. It’s a first-gear bend with clutch halfway in, steering only with the handlebars with feet ready to go down immediately. These are not lean-into curves. If there is a vehicle coming down the opposite direction it’s even more stressful. Luckily this didn’t really happen for me; no one was there yet, and if I got the line wrong it didn’t matter if I went into the oncoming lane to figure it out. I stopped near the very top to look out over the scooped out valley. The sun had come over the mountains and the ribbon of road faded into its glare. When I turned off the engine I could hear the cowbells, but I couldn’t see the cows… or the sheep if that’s what they were attached to. It’s one of the sweetest, most calming sounds: alpine cowbells tinkling, echoing across a canvas of thick mountain morning silence. It’s the only therapy I hope to ever need. I call motorcyclists cheaters for flying up these passes. We are. The road is beautiful, like someone dropped an overcooked linguine noodle from the sky and said, “Pave it”. But I know I hadn’t earned the view, and there was not a lot of joy in lingering there, the way you would at the top of a mountain you just hiked up. The last time I had relished topping this pass in the early afternoon, with the loaded bicycle slowly passing all the parked motorcycles. Look what I just did. I’d thought. This is one of the best feelings in the world. But this time the feeling was muted: it was just another pretty view, with not a lot of story behind it.

From there I retraced a lot of my route I had taken to get back into Switzerland on the bicycle, but I avoided the notorious and horrid experience of Simplon Pass. The weather was a lot more forgiving this time, thankfully. I descended into St. Maria, a quaint little village on the Swiss side of the pass. I remember the bakery I stopped at last time. I made it to Ofenpass. The last time I was here, there was a motorcyclist about 10m off the road with his motorcycle; he’d flown off the last curve. It wouldn’t be me.

St. Moritz hadn’t changed: surrounded by bright turquoise lakes and mountains, with parasailers circling above. I turned off to Julierpass. All of these passes had memories. Feelings. This one, I had climbed with a cramped abdomen in the rain and had stopped my bicycle against a retaining wall to lie stretched out in the wet gutter in an attempt to unclench my stomach muscles. Last time, this is where I discovered that the fences were charged. The hard way.

I spent a night with my uncle in Laax, a small ski town in the mountains. I got temporarily stuck in a locked parking garage which was fun, except I had to pee, so I used excellent problem solving skills to get out. I was fed too much food (that’s not a complaint), complete with Swiss sausage roasted over wood fired barbeque. I aired my tent out, and slept with a fluffy pillow. The joys of sleeping indoors are so amplified after camping for a bit. 

From Laax, I headed to Furkapass. Furka is one of the more famous passes in Switzerland. It is backed by a glacier that has, yes you guessed it, substantially retreated in the last 50 years. There is a small hotel tucked into one of the higher switchbacks, although I’m not sure if it’s still open these days of if it’s just a photo op. The pass was beautiful, and not quite as busy as I was expecting. I passed a few cyclists that I wanted to honk my encouragement to but didn’t because I didn’t want to startle them and be misinterpreted as an asshole riding a motorcycle. From Furka I took a left and joined my old cycling route up Grimselpass. I don’t remember where I started on the bike that day to get there, but I do remember I made it all the way into Interlaken in the same day… and I didn’t quite realize how long that felt until doing it with a motorcycle. Granted it’s one of the longest downhills, but it felt much longer than I remember it. 

Interlaken is again, a tourist hot spot, but if you wander off the beaten path for even a minute you can find some peace and quiet. Apparently I am getting old, because the hostel no longer felt quiet enough for me. I slept in the hammocks, and had to sass some girl on the phone at 1:00am in the morning talking to Hong Kong or something, who was also completely oblivious that there were 10 people beside her trying to sleep. Don’t worry though, I got my revenge the next morning by hopping on the motorcycle at 6:30am and revving it to warm it up. I was so not sorry.

One of the things that makes Switzerland special is how accessible things are. You don’t have to be an avid hiker to get to 3000m in elevation, just take a gondola. The last time I’d gone to Gimmelwald, and so this time around I went to Grindelwald. I took a gondola all the way to First (the top), and ran around Bachalpsee until the clouds began to obscure all the iconic peaks around it. When I returned to the motorcycle, someone had stuffed a bunch of wildflowers into my handlebars. Much nicer than coming back to a parking ticket, which is what I was half expecting because I wasn’t completely sure the little spot I had chosen was technically parking. I didn’t pay for it anyway. 

The weather on my last day wasn’t particularly great, but I didn’t mind because I’d done the same route before and knew in the same weather, so I knew what to expect. My main goal was just to get back with all limbs intact. Which I did! I’m not sure if this trip or renting the motorcycle in Vietnam took more pizazz to decide to do. Probably Vietnam I was more scared, but I found a buddy there to catch me if I screwed up, and this time I was on my own. I usually have Rick to follow, and this time I didn’t. Navigating on a motorcycle is much more difficult than on a bicycle or in a car. It’s infinitely more dangerous. But I did it! I’m alive! I live to ride another day. 

Cheers from back at work (again!).


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