I awake at dawn, the sunlight reduced to a dull grey glow filtered through the haze of smoke. It appears that the forest fire smoke has grown denser overnight, and a light coating of soot has formed on the tent and my bike by the time I emerge. I prepare a quick breakfast, my on-the-road staple of oatmeal and instant coffee, before I pack my things and prepare to hit the road - I have a lot of ground to cover today, as I'm aiming to be in the Seattle area by evening to meet with an OddBike follower who has offered me a place to stay.
I'm remarkably well rested considering I've spent the night sleeping on hard ground with just a one-inch Thermarest sleeping pad keeping the rocks out of my back. The little things are what make the difference when camping and the 100-ish bucks I spent on this pad turned out to be one of the best investments I've made in my camp gear. It had damned well better be, considering I paid about the same amount for the whole tent.
I've planned a route continuing along the Crowsnest Highway down to Osoyoos, where I'll head into Washington through one of the quieter border crossings. One thing I've learned in all my travels into the States is to find the smallest, most isolated community that straddles a border and aim to cross there; you can be guaranteed there won't be a lineup, and the agents are usually pretty relaxed. A painless crossing is always worth a detour.
The smoke is definitely heavier today, and word around the campground was that the closest fires are along the border near Grand Forks. Visibility is decreasing as I continue my way southwest, and my gear is now permeated with the smell of burnt wood, my eyes burning slightly from riding through the haze. I worry that my route might be closed, but somehow I am able to skirt the evacuated regions while still being in the thick of it.
Grim reality makes a surprise appearance on the side of the road high in the Bonanza Pass. A log is burning in the ditch, the beginning of what could be a serious blaze in this tinder-dry wilderness. How it could have started is a mystery. A hot ember floating in from afar? A careless asshole tossing a cigarette butt out of their window? Arson?
My surprise gives way to panic. This is a desolate stretch of road, far from any civilization. There is no cell phone service here. Traffic has been sparse all morning. I've got nothing with me that could snuff it out, and it's already gotten pretty intense, with a three-foot log engulfed in flames. The only thing I can do is keep riding and stop at the next town to notify the fire department that shit is about to go down.
A few more miles down the pass and a pair of fire trucks pass me with lights lit, heading for the blaze. I'm relieved. Someone must have reported it just ahead of me, and none too soon. Disaster averted, though it's a small consolation considering the conflagration going on all around.
My anti-ADV setup is fast getting on my nerves. Strapping a bunch of luggage to a bike is a quick way to ruin the delicate dynamics you've carefully honed over numerous rides and constant twiddling with the suspension adjusters. The handling goes to crap and the centre of gravity is altered enough to throw off your balance at low speeds. I don't think the ADV crowd realizes how much they are screwing up their bikes when they bolt a small child's weight of alloy and steel tchotchkes from Toura-Wunder-whatever onto their barges, leaving the boxes on while commuting to work in case the overwhelming urge to ride to Alaska strikes them during lunchtime. If your luggage and associated hardware weighs more than the stuff you are putting into it, and it spends more time on your bike completely empty than it does hauling essential gear, then you've got a problem. One shared with pickup truck owners who don't own a boat, a dirtbike, a quad, or a contracting business.
The smoke thickens and casts a brown filter over everything, reducing the sun to a dull moon-like orb of light in the sky. My visual perception adapts; I don't really notice the alteration of the colour palette until I take out my phone and see the blinding contrast of my screen standing out against the faded reality around me.
I ride through tiny historical towns lining the highway, rural communities clinging to life in a faltering resource economy. Garish, hokey signs and roadside attractions attempt to lure fleeting tourists like myself into stopping. Out here, among the mountains, there are no divided highways plowing through the landscape. These towns are in no danger of being bypassed by a freeway, not with this landscape surrounding them. Not until someone decides to blast a hole through a couple of mountain ranges.
As hoped I make a painless crossing into Washington and head south along Highway 97. Mountains quickly give way to flat range, desert-like scrub land dotted with ranches, casinos, and uninteresting towns.
My goal is to cross the Cascade Mountains along Route 2 to head to Lynnwood, my destination for the night. My choice of route is beginning to worry me. Aside from a few pleasant spots along the Columbia River and some fruit orchards lining the road, the ride is mostly straight lines and dull scenery. Arriving at the crossroads at Wenatchee has me particularly miffed. It's an industrial town with swirling, heavy traffic and poorly laid out freeways; I fear that I've made a mistake if this is my route west.
I am particularly irate after I come within a gnat's ass of running out of gas, pushing my reserve to the limit trying to find a fuel stop along the freeway - after some not-so-scenic detours off exits trying to find some small-town gas stop, I eventually give up and double back into Wenatchee, where I promptly get stuck in mid-afternoon traffic and have to drive several miles off the highway before I finally find a gas station. Sore, sweaty and frustrated by slow traffic and the complete idiocy of not having a goddamned gas station immediately off the highway in a major city centre, I have a moment of mild panic when I realize I came within a half-quart of running out of gas on a machine that gets around 20 miles to the gallon in city traffic. Too close. Let's not do that again.
Once free of the Wenatchee's ugly sprawl, the road narrows into a winding secondary route passing through several small towns before climbing high into the mountains. I needn't have worried. Civilization disappears and the road follows beautiful rocky riverbeds through dense forest. The smoke I've been enduring for two days clears and I find myself riding up a high mountain pass with a brilliant blue sky above, sparkling sunlight filtering through the tall trees. It's just as beautiful as the routes through the Rockies, albeit with the nicer pavement that many Americans take for granted - with few exceptions the roads south of the border are much cleaner and smoother than anything we suffer in the Great White North. The stress of my fuel hunt melts away and I revel in the stunning scenery that surrounds me. Once again I am at ease.
The ennui that continues to gnaw at my gut disturbs me. How do I address it? No one wants to deal with the sentiments of nihilism and depression that accompany my dread of my future. The world isn't what it once was. The economy has been steadily declining since I left university, and my arts degree has proved to be an expensive boondoggle. A bachelor's degree is a prerequisite for getting any position nowadays, something that is incredibly stupid considering that most of us won't work in anything related to what we studied - unless you have the determination, skills, and funding to complete a law, medicine, or engineering degree. And even then opportunities aren't as common as they once were. When everyone has a degree, and everyone is expected to have a degree, its value on the job market plummets. It's just a rubber stamp, a piece of paper that says I have the minimum required skills to work for you. It has become what a high school diploma once was.
Wages are low, and are only getting (relatively) lower as inflation outpaces my generation's earning power. Jobs are disappearing and resource prices are dropping. I have no hope in hell of owning a property when a detached house starts at 300,000$ and I'm just making enough to pay my bills and my debts without putting anything aside for savings. Nevermind overpriced condos and their associated fees - my ex owned a condo in Montreal and her taxes and condo fees were in the five digit range some years. If my bank repeatedly refuses to consolidate my debts and keeps telling me I have too much debt and not enough income, then I have no hope of being able to stay on top of a mortgage on a property that costs tens times my annual salary (plus taxes, plus school fees, plus maintenance, plus utilities). People like me buying houses was part of what got us into the economic quagmire that was 2008.
Capitalism is broken, a knocking crank wobbling out of control as the years go on. Pretty soon the whole works is going to throw a rod and blast a hole in society. I have to chuckle when manufacturers wonder aloud why youth aren't buying vehicles like they used to, when we are lucky to clear 30,000$ a year in salary and a dull Honda Civic costs 2/3rds of that (plus registration, plus insurance, plus taxes, plus interest on loans).
Meanwhile us ordinary folks are doomed to be wage slaves with no hope of advancement. Merit is not part of the equation, and as you realize that your determination wanes and your frustration grows. Part of the reason I had to leave my post in the jewellery industry in Montreal was that I had a front row seat to the nepotism and old-boy networks that rule the world. The most disgusting example I saw (repeatedly) was rich old fucks getting priority treatment for their illnesses because of who they knew and who they played golf with, while the rest of us would languish on waiting lists for months or years.
I realized I had nowhere to go, and never would have anywhere to go, because I wasn't the right person's son and I didn't hang out with the right crowd on weekends. There is a ruling class in this world making the decisions and supporting their own interests, and the middle class is fast shrinking into subservience as those old white men consolidate their wealth and power at the top. The elites rule and perpetrate their own power, just like they always have.
There is a degree of truth to the myth of the millennial brat, espoused by the trope of the whiny limp-wristed hipster, but not to the degree that the ruling class would like you to believe. There are a lot of us out there struggling to eke out an honest living and make something of ourselves, desperately trying to ignore our inevitable fate of dying saddled with debt and dissatisfaction without having enjoyed any of the privileges accorded to our Baby Boomer predecessors. I won't own a home, I won't live a day free of debt, and I don't even expect I'll be able to retire before I drop dead.
Meanwhile society continues to dangle promises of happiness, fame, and hollow materialism in front of us, all within our reach if only if we would work just a little harder. You didn't achieve your dreams? Well you must not have tried hard enough, you ungrateful little shit. You should be thankful you have a job at all in this economy.
I have no solution to this problem. No one does. I don't expect to achieve greatness, but I also don't see much hope for my future unless I score some unexpected windfall.
I arrive in Lynnwood in the evening and meet Neal, who has graciously offered me a place to stay for the night before I continue my journey south. I'm surprised to learn he is a fellow Tuono owner, possessing a Dream Blue second generation machine like my own. It makes for some interesting banter as we share experiences and discuss our respective modifications - though it means I can't regale him with tales of how utterly bonkers my bike is because he damn well knows already.
And bonkers it is, as this is the first time I've ridden the Tuono at sea level since I bought it. Even with weight of my luggage the performance is markedly improved, particularly at the top end. Riding at higher elevations gives your machine a breathless feel, where it runs out of steam when winding it on. Up to two-thirds or three-quarter throttle it feels normal, but roll it out to the stop and it bogs slightly without accelerating any more than at smaller openings, feeling particularly flat on the top end where the thinner air makes its presence known. There is no such problem here - twist the grip and the bike responds instantly with authoritative thrust, without feeling like you have a clogged air filter at WOT.
"Choosing" the Tuono - not that I had much of an option, given the 916 is in my living room with a buggered engine - for a long distance trip appears to have been a good move. Foibles aside it's a pretty capable machine and has worked flawlessly, and aside from a sore butt from the stiff seat I'm not suffering much. Even the wind blast is bearable; while ostensibly a naked bike, the headlight surround does a good enough job of deflecting the wind without causing buffeting, even into speeds that are best not discussed on the public record - at least if you are on the shorter side. I've heard tell that taller riders will suffer, and will benefit from one of the many ugly aftermarket windshields that are available.
Compared to what I've grown accustomed to over the past 9 years, the Tuono seems rather sensible. Turn key, go, arrive at destination several hours later. No drama, no hiccups, no painfully cramped muscles, no breakdowns, no heroic roadside fixes, no meeting sympathetic people coming to your aid. It's goddamned boring. I miss the 916 and the arm-flailing theatrics it provided on every ride. I miss the composed brutality of the thing. I quietly vow to get it fixed and back on the road as soon as I can, hopefully over the course of the long winter months that are fast approaching.
After introducing me to his wife and his two Newfoundlanders, the eldest of which is one of the largest dogs I've ever encountered, Neal treats me to a beer and a meal out before I head to bed. I'm aiming to get a good night's sleep before tomorrow's ride. Tomorrow I head for the Oregon Coast, but not before I visit one of the legends of my childhood.