It's a cold morning with a layer of slick dew coating the roads, a heavy mist hanging over the mountains around Castlegar. The weather seems to be appropriate for my pensive mood as I finish my journey home and return to reality of a dull 9 to 5 existence. The perfect weather, amazing roads, and stunning vistas of the West coast are far behind me now; only grim reality and the first frosts of a long Canadian winter lie ahead.
I skirt around Kootenay Lake via the Kootenay Pass, a treacherous route that winds high into the mountains and far away from any evidence of the civilization that surrounds it. The temperature plummets as I go up several thousand feet, from a frigid 10 degrees to something below the freezing mark. Fresh chip seal on the road is wet and slick; I gingerly make my way to the peak of the pass, cursing the cold and my lack of heated gear the whole way.
I stop at the summit to watch the mist clear off Bridal Lake while I hopelessly try to warm myself up. After a few moments taking in the beauty of the scene, the peace is interrupted by the raspy putter of a tiny single cresting the peak. A ragged looking old coot riding a motorized bicycle pulls up. I had passed him on the way up the pass but hadn't realized he was riding a homemade moped; I just thought he was some lunatic BC hippie out for an ill-advised morning ride, trundling along a sheer dropoff above a forested abyss in sub-zero temperatures.
Effectively he was a lunatic hippie, gasoline propulsion aside. He proceeds to corner me and babble on about his machine, which is cobbled together from junk. A milk crate slung onto the handlebars is filled with what appears to me to be random trash, but what are probably his only worldly possessions. He asks me strange questions that only make sense in his odd mind, like how much gas I burned riding up the pass.
He prattles on about typical crazy mountain man tropes (something about beating the system) while I take in the visual details of this surreal encounter. His hands are blackened and weather beaten, most of his teeth are missing. He is wild eyed and animated as he continues his rant against the man. The bike is a clapped out road hybrid bicycle with a stationary four-stroke secured to the rear rack on a wooden plank, the rear wheel directly driven with a V-belt and pulley arrangement. It's crude. Very crude. But clever for something he probably hacked together from garbage. And to his credit it got him and his collection of junk up this mountain.
He is one of many crazy mountain hippies who make their way into the quiet wilds of the BC interior. Men and women who wish to escape the rat race and "beat the system", attracted by BC's abundant nature, the simplicity of life, the region's social progressiveness, and the easy access to good weed. I suspect the relatively warm winters on this side of the Rockies doesn't kill them off as readily as it would in any other province. You'd have to be a mighty hard motherfucker to survive -40 degree weather in the wilderness with no electricity or running water. I don't think many of the bony potheads populating cabins in this region fit the bill. People watching from the patio of one of the many fair trade-gluten free-vegan-raw-food cafés in downtown Nelson, the Kootenay's hippie/hipster hub, is a great way to waste an afternoon. It's also a good place to get run out of town if you are a riding a noisy motorcycle; it's the only place I've ever witnessed the locals spewing heartfelt profanity at passing riders.
Mountain man gets back on his merry way, sputtering down the mountain. The mist is dissipating into the trees and I'm warm enough to continue to the next Tim Horton's in Creston. I return to the Canadian ritual, taking the time to let the chill pass and listen to the patrons sharing gossip and stories. Word is that it's been snowing in some areas. Great.
The weather is hit and miss. I pass through periods of sun, shifting to overcast, then to rain. The temperature drops steadily as I approach home. It's quite normal to pass through the stone "gateway" just outside Radium and have the temperature change 10 degrees on the other side. Today is no exception, the drop in temp on the Eastern side made worse by the rain. Pretty soon I'm soaked through and ice cold, my heated grips barely able to keep the bars more than lukewarm and doing nothing to keep my digits from freezing. I'd do anything for a heated jacket right about now.
The white peaks surrounding the highway confirm that it has been snowing recently. These mountains were still green when I passed through two weeks ago. The riding season won't last much longer and I'll have to knuckle under for another long Canadian winter.
Why must the last leg of the journey always be the hardest? Why do I need to feel like I've made a mistake returning here? I should be relieved that I'm going to be home shortly but instead I'm miserable, cold, and dreading the return to the daily grind.
I stop in Banff for a break. The area is completely overrun with tourists on this Labour Day weekend, creating a swirling vortex of overloaded vans, SUVs, and campers. Rest stops and gas stations are choked with people.
My mind is preoccupied with thoughts of what I'm returning to. Even though I've travelled 5000 miles and passed through some of the most incredible scenery I've ever experienced, I don't feel like I've ridden far enough or escaped from reality for long enough. It's been a tantalizing bit of freedom that has made me feel liberated for a time, but has done little to satisfy my ennui. The prospects of the road and the beauty of the unknown still beckon. These two weeks have offered temporary satiation of my wanderlust, but I'm still desperate to break free of the routine that has begun to consume me.
Unfortunately there is no apparent escape, no great revelation. No lesson to be learned here. I sit here and struggle to find some deeper meaning to my journey, something like the many little epiphanies I had experienced during the first USA Tour that lead to me abandoning my life in Montreal to start over in Calgary.
This time around I can't come up with a good conclusion. I'm not inspired to make any great leaps. I return to boring normality without fanfare, still unsure of what the hell I'm doing or where the hell I'm going.
As always my bikes remain my touchstone. A long ride does wonders to my psyche, restoring my sanity and my sense of calm and contentment for the price of a few gallons of gas and lunch in some unfamiliar town. It's a simple process that keeps me going in spite of an increasingly ominous sense of listless ennui as I look down the barrel of a rather dull day-to-day existence.
I don't look forward to growing old - my current prospect is to work until I die, given the current economic state of affairs and my mounting debts that preclude the possibility of any sort of retirement - but looking forward to a ride now and then is enough to keep me from giving up completely.
Hmm, grim stuff. The takeaway is that reality sucks and there really isn't much we can do about it unless we have luck or an indefatigable ambition to succeed.
I have neither.
A few more uneventful miles and I arrive home. I immediately jump into the shower to warm up and melt away the tension of riding through the cold.
Once I'm refreshed and feel like a functioning human once more, I head down the street to one of my favourite burger joints for a greasy meal and a straw-crushing shake laced with bourbon. A meal at Clive Burger in downtown Calgary has become my post-ride ritual, a satisfying way to round out a long day of riding. It too has become a touchstone, a decadent reward for surviving another day on two wheels.
It's particularly deserved after this ride. After two weeks on the road my odometer clicked just over 5000 miles - 8000 kms - as I returned to my parking garage. It is my new high-water mark for touring, and eclipses my previous record of 4000 miles aboard the 916. The Tuono has performed flawlessly, with nary a hiccup along the way.
It's been dreadfully boring, really. A little mechanical mayhem along the way does wonders for spicing up a long road trip, provided it's not a catastrophic failure that ends the trip prematurely. It might sound crazy to riders weaned on modern, infallibly reliable machines but dealing with some problems along the way makes for a far more memorable experience than when your machine performs without fault. And odds are good you will meet some interesting folks as a result of those breakdowns.
It will be treated to a well-deserved full service and a much needed oil change, but for now it sits in the darkness of the garage, grimy and faded but undefeated by the mileage. It has fared much better than I have. I am wracked with dull pain and I can barely sit down, my ass saddle sore from the poor excuse for a seat Aprilia saw fit to slap on this thing.
My burger arrives, dripping grease and liquefied cheese through its wax paper wrapping. It is my usual: a double burger with fried onions, cheese, bacon, and house sauce, all topped with a fried egg leaking yolk out the sides.
Welcome home - welcome back to reality.