Monday, 12 September 2016
OddBike USA Tour 2015: Part XII - Purpose
I'm still a long way from home, but now we are on the final stretch. The excitement of exploring new locales and unknown destinations is subsiding as a return to normality looms; soon it's back to the grind, back to dull reality. It gives me pause as I roll along, inspiring my usual, recurring fantasy of abandoning my world and fucking off into the wild blue yonder.
Always a tantalizing thought for me, but one I rarely act upon. Debt, complacency, and general laziness always conspire against my ability to pull up roots and run for the hills. Plus I have a Ducati in my living room that I am desperately hoping to rebuild soon, a not insignificant task that will hoover up whatever extra funds I can beg and borrow and keep me anchored to a steady paycheque for a while yet.
I stop for a break and discover I'm minutes away from busting through to the cords on my rear tire. Now I'm boned. I had no plan to change it out before getting home, hoping that I could eke out enough mileage to replace it after the trip was over. I'd pay way, way less to get a tire back at work than I would down here, with the exchange rate being what it is.
That's a moot point now, as I stare at the ribbon of crinkled rubber running along the centreline of my Continental. I've got at least 1000 miles to go and this bun is well and truly toasted.
I call Sean Smith and ask him for advice. He recommends I double back and head for Pro Caliber in Longview, who should be able to help me out on short notice. I hate to be one of "those guys" who roll into a shop in a panic for a tire install on zero notice, but I haven't got much choice unless I plan on seeing how well an impromptu cross section of a radial will function on the roads to come.
Pro Caliber turns out to be in the classic style of big box dealership, a large warehouse loaded with inventory from a few brands and not much else. It's an example of the dealers that came in-between the old mom and pop shops (usually just pop, who was a disagreeable old git who wouldn't suffer fools for any amount of money) and the new mega-powersports dealerships (that spend as much capital on overhead and fancy furniture as they do on their stock).
For the record, I work at a place that has more in common with the latter.
It turns out that I'm in luck, as they have a Dunlop Q3 in stock and can spoon it on while I wait. I take a walk across the road to a truck stop diner for lunch, and am sorely disappointed that they don't have a lemon meringue pie available for dessert. They don't even have banana cream. Amateurs.
When it comes to epicurean delights, my taste gravitates towards the simple classics I enjoyed in my youth rather than complicated nouveau cuisine. I'm a sucker for a good burger or a perfectly prepared steak accompanied by a dark beer. And if I'm eating at a greasy spoon diner I always hope they have a fresh baked pie on the shelf loaded with tangy citrus sharpness to compliment the earthy nuance of the day-old burnt coffee. But not here, and not today.
An hour later and I'm back on the road and 300 bucks lighter. I'm grateful that the detour was minimal, given that the shop I work for is often so busy that scheduling in a traveller for a tire change is always a challenge during peak season.
I continue North along the I-5 and get stuck in hellish traffic around Seattle. It's truly, epically bad. A solid line of cars crawling along at a walking pace for 30 miles out of town from 4 pm onward. It's worse than anything I suffered in Montreal, which remains my benchmark for terrible congestion. My inability to legally lanesplit is really driving me nuts at this point.
Once traffic lets up, the rain begins. After getting good and soaked I pull into a strip mall in Marysville to dry off and have a burger at Five Guys before donning my proper rain gear and continuing on my way. I'm aiming to ride across the Cascades tomorrow so I stop at a fleabag motel at the entrance of the North Cascades Highway, Route 20. It's been one of those trying, tiring days of riding and I need a good night's rest, hopefully one long enough to let my gear dry out before tomorrow's run through the mountains. Nothing sucks quite as hard as riding through cold mountain passes while wearing damp clothes.
I'm looking forward to heading back into the Cascades. The ride down through the more southerly crossing was beautiful and I expect this route to be just as impressive.
It's a cool morning with a heavy blanket of mist hanging over the hills as I pass through a series of small, quiet communities. The landscape is lush and green beyond belief, much like the heavily-forested mountains of the Appalachians on the other side of the continent. I'm reminded of my ride through the Smokey Mountains and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the almost rainforest-like vistas in Tennessee and South Carolina I passed through on my first USA Tour in 2013.
I'm reminded that I'm heading North, with the temperature dropping and the cool, damp air chilling me through my gear. The layers of clothing are doing little to stop the icy fingers of cold from slipping through. My handguards and heated grips are welcome in this weather, though barely adequate against the humid cold. I really need to pick up a heated jacket when I get home.
The new Dunlop is unquestionably better than the wooden Continental it replaced. Feedback is much better and turn in feels sharper from the more pointed profile of the carcass. And grip feels plentiful, even on damp pavement. Where the Contis would be spooling up the rear into third gear on wet days, the Q3s just keep gripping. I'd nearly highsided a few times with the old rubber riding in the rain, nearly swapping ends on one ride home from work. Never, ever underestimate the value of good tires on a bike, particularly one with a significant torque spike in the powerband.
The road climbs into the mountains, all evidence of civilization melting away as the landscape becomes more treacherous. It is more desolate and more remote than the South Cascade route, which has a more Alpine feel. This is more like the Rockies, high peaks and winding asphalt ribbons climbing up and down spectacular passes that reveal breathtaking views across untouched nature. Nothing but massive rocks and tall trees arranged into imposing panoramas that dwarf we feeble little humans passing through them. It has a beauty in its scale and harshness. It is not a warm, friendly land. It is one that makes you feel like the celestially insignificant bag of meat that you are. If you fell down one of these drop-offs to your doom, you'd likely never be found.
But still there are tourists, and even a few speed traps. I feel like the villain here, blowing past cars as they noodle along below the posted limit. I hate being "that guy", the lunatic rider carving through traffic and ripping through at high speed, but truth be told compared to most sport riders I'm extremely tame and cautious. I ride slow along the straights and put the hammer down through corners. Top speed runs don't interest me much; I usually do one flat-out blast on a bike to learn what it is capable of, and once that is out of my system I'm happy to roll along at a saner pace.
But I'm probably still a lunatic, if only compared to these dawdling schlubs creeping through the twisty passes in their minivans at ten under. I sympathize with their quiet outrage when a motorcyclist like myself goes flying past… But not enough to slow down and sit behind a Buick piloted by some grey-haired septuagenarian.
Once past the mountains I find myself in rolling farmland and flat range. It's quiet, scenic and relaxed. I stop in Winthorp for breakfast. The town is an old-west tourist trap, overrun with the same rubbernecking tourists I've been passing all morning. It's a "wholesome fun for the whole family!" type of place, so contrived and commercialized that you feel slightly guilty even enjoying the décor and architecture. You feel like you are being fleeced just walking into town.
I hate tourist towns, particularly ones that have no other redeeming qualities. Winthorp is an outpost surrounded by sparse rangeland filled with a bunch of cheesy souvenir shops and overpriced food vendors. There is nothing of the place or the time period being shilled, aside from beauty of the well-preserved buildings. At least coastal towns will serve seafood and Maritime tchotchkes, and places like Lake Louise in the Rockies has shops dedicated to geological items and aboriginal crafts. Things that are appropriate to the setting, even if they are just as overpriced and chintzy as the wares you'll find anywhere else.
I continue into the area that was being ravaged by fire on my way down, the smell of smoke and ash still permeating the air. Tributes to firefighters are everywhere. It's sobering to think about the lives and homes that have been lost here only weeks and days before. I pass through charred forests, roads lined with scorched earth. A remarkable number of homes have been saved, small patches of preserved areas surrounding the buildings protected by fire crews in an otherwise desolate landscape. The flames had come within tens of feet of some of the farms, 360 degrees of devastation encircling them.
I have a pensive moment sitting on the side of the road looking over the husks of trees on a flame-blighted hill. I don't have anything so selfless to contribute to society as these people who have risked life and limb to protect their neighbours in what must have been a terrifying hellscape.
I envy them. They have purpose. Their work is readily recognized and well respected, without question. My type of work could never hope to achieve that sort of notoriety - be it my day job or my freelancing. I'm insignificant and I know it.
This thought sends my ennui into overdrive. I still search for my purpose in this world. I doubt I will ever find it. And while we are being honest: motorcycles aren't exactly the most important thing in the world. Devoting my life, passion, and income towards what is little more than a recreational toy - easily dropped out of your life without consequence - would seem pretty useless in the grand scheme of things. I'm not exactly saving lives or advancing science here on OddBike.
I reach the British Columbia border and get randomly selected to have an extra fun time at customs. Fortunately the inspecting officer is friendly and affable, letting me go after a quick once over and a few off-the-record questions about my bike and my trip. I'm relieved and have some of my faith in humanity restored; I could have easily spent hours in detentions sifting through my luggage and enduring a barrage of questions if I had the misfortune of dealing with a more soulless government employee, of which there are apparently many.
Into BC the weather grows colder and wetter. Rain and steady drizzle conspires against my comfort beneath grey skies. I scuttle my plan to ride to Kootenay Lake to camp the night, the weather too miserable and distance too great for me to enjoy myself. I don't want to ride many hours through the rain in a rush to setup my tent in a mud hole so I can freeze my ass off all night.
I make my way to Castlegar where I book a motel room and walk across the street for a beer and a steak, taking some time to scribble out the day's thoughts while the deep chill of the ride subsides and I regain the feeling in my extremities. I'm looking forward to a hot shower and good night's sleep. Tomorrow, I head for home.