Thursday 28 November 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part XII - Reality Looms

Rural Virginia

Part XII of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IXPart X, Part XI.


I take the opportunity to sleep in today, one of the only instances where I didn't wake up at dawn and hit the road before the morning chill dissipated. Also odd considering the digs at the Super 8 were the least luxurious accommodations I have had so far, camping excepted. Clean though it seemed, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't checked the bed thoroughly for... things.

The clerk asks me if I'm the one with the motorcycle from Quebec. She is incredulous that I have ridden so far, even more so when I tell her that I had been to New Orleans. She is apprehensive about motorcycles, noting that she would be terrified of the heavy truck traffic. Really I would think I'd be intimidated by those lumbering, omnipresent brutes in any vehicle, not motorcycles exclusively. At least on a bike I can get out of my own way, quickly.

Ducati 916 Rural Virginia

It's a warm, sunny morning and I am looking forward to a pleasant day of riding after yesterday's bout with icy, cinema-worthy mountain fog. The landscape is flattening out as I approach the Mason Dixon line, but it retains that lush green beauty I so enjoyed in the heart of the Appalachians. On this sunny day with a clear blue sky overhead the colours of the scene are impossibly vibrant. It is distinct from the bright fall palette I had seen in New England, and far more interesting than the dull dead-leaf tones I left behind in Montreal. Once again the specter of returning to my dreary existence looms large, and I start to feel melancholic as the trip is winding down. This evening I will be in Pennsylvania, tomorrow I'll stop in New York, and then it's back to the daily grind in Montreal.

Rural Virginia

I snap out of my moment of Interstate introspection when I notice that my left hand is wet. I do a double take. I've been so accustomed to wet weather riding that I barely take notice of the soaked controls, until I realize that I'm riding along a dry highway on a bright sunny day. That's when I notice that my visor is getting spritzed with droplets. 

No. Not this. Not here. Not now.

Flashback to New Orleans on Tuesday morning. I'm taking the bike apart to change the coolant temperature sensor, and I need to top off the fluid level. JT notes the odd placement of the coolant filler cap in the steering head - you need to unbolt the fuel tank and slide it backwards to access the fill cap. I mention the coolant expansion tank failure problem that is a well known Ducati 916 issue, and how I've been lucky to not have it rupture in seven years of ownership. The tank is a moulded plastic item that is nestled in the headstock of the frame. It is pressurized and connected directly to the radiator, serving as a coolant reservoir, fill bottle, and overflow point.  Nobody is really sure why they burst so readily. Some unlucky owners will go through tanks every 1000 miles. It could be poorly manufactured castings. It might be the odd shape. It may be too rigidly mounted in a portion of the frame prone to flexing. Maybe it's just a really bad idea to use plastic for a reservoir that is filled with hot liquid under several pounds of pressure. Whatever the reason, it's a problem that is so ubiquitous that some people fabricate alloy tanks, or change out the radiator for a later item with an integrated fill cap to do away with the damned tank altogether.  

Ducati 916 coolant tank leak

Here on the Interstate, somewhere in rural Virginia, my coolant tank has just just split open and is spraying hot premix everywhere. This is something every 916 owner has either dealt with or will deal with. Replacement tanks are cheap but that's not much consolation when I'm 1000 miles from home. This could end my trip right here if I don't find a way to patch the leak, now.

I miss the first exit. I'm starting to get nervous now. I'm keeping a close eye on my temperature gauge. I take the following exit and pull into a service station. I have it in my mind that I'll hunt down some JB Weld to try and patch up the tank enough to get home. Now that I've stopped I can see the extent of the leak - the whole front of the bike is spattered with slippery coolant. I can't see any obvious cracks or loose fittings, which means I'll have to pull apart the bike and take off the airbox to access the tank. Staring at the coolant-soaked cockpit I'm wavering between a sense of dread and distant optimism. I am terrified that this stupid fault will strand me, but I'm sure I can deal with it if the crack is small and I can get my hands on a decent two-part epoxy.

Rural Virginia

I start walking towards the gas station when I spot an older Yamaha FZR600, resplendent in the classic blue and white paint scheme, a colour palette that has aged better than the faded neon pink that you often see on them. The owner is there, having a snack. He says hello and ask me how it's going. In one of the few times I didn't lie and use the usual "fine thanks and how are you" robotic response, I tell him things could definitely be better and that my coolant tank just blew up. He stops me - he works at an auto repair shop just up the road. He offers to help me fix the bike if I can get it over there, about a mile down the road. I'm taken aback. I wasn't expecting this sort of offer out of the blue from a stranger I just encountered in an off-ramp parking lot.

Rural Virginia

He gives me directions and I agree to meet him there. I head into the station to make a pit stop and check if they have any epoxy. I scan the racks of generic auto maintenance items and snake oils but nothing useful is present. I ask the cashier and she doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about. So fixing it here in this parking lot is not going to happen. I set out to locate the repair shop.

Baker's Garage Lacey Springs, Virginia

I follow a quiet road through rolling countryside into a tiny community called Lacey Springs. It is just as the fellow had described, and sure enough there is a small two-bay garage on the main road: Baker's Garage. It's a classic independent shop: a one-story building surrounded by a variety of imports and domestics, vintage and late model, in various states of disrepair. There is a Jaguar XJ sedan parked near the door, because of course there is - I think they are standard issue for these shops, as I can't recall seeing a garage like this that didn't have an immobile Series 1 through 3 out front sitting in a pool of its own fluids and slowly sinking into the ground. 

Broken down Jaaaaaag XJ6

The man I met at the gas station welcomes me in and introduces me to the owner. If I remember correctly the owner's name was Harlan, and Earl was the fellow with the FZR. The two of them work on a variety of vehicles, whatever comes through the door. They are trained by hands-on experience and applied knowledge. These are the best kinds of mechanics - a contrast to the by-the-book one-make dealer lackeys who only know how to fault-find according to a service manual flow chart or OBD port. These are the sorts of old-fashioned mechanics who are fast disappearing in this era of computer diagnostics and factory-trained "technicians" operating in glassy, sterile dealerships. These are people who can fix things, not just bolt on replacement bits taken from the parts department.

Mullet Mobile (TM)

They are friendly, simple folks - the best kind of small-town people. I haven't even gotten the bike apart before they are offering me lunch and soda. I thank them for their generosity but right now I want to zero in on the task at hand. I'm too nervous to eat. I want to get this sorted before I do anything else. I get the bike torn down and extract the reservoir, which we pressurize with a hand pump. Lo and behold, we find the culprit - a hairline crack on the backside of the tank, practically invisible but obvious once there is pressure behind it.

Ducati 916 in pieces

We patch the crack with a heavy duty two-part epoxy. I take a break for lunch while it cures. I sit outside and share a palette with an oil-stained V6, a well-worn organ pulled from a sick patient. A few locals come and go, characters who are apparently well acquainted with the boys at Baker's. Not a surprise, given their small-town location and their friendly demeanours. I'm reminded of what the man from Floyd had said when I met him at the gas station on the border of Virginia and North Carolina: Lacey Springs is "a one stoplight town".

Lacey Springs, Virginia

Once the epoxy is set we pressurize the tank again. It appears to be sealed. I'm unsure of how well this fix will hold, but I'm relieved that for the moment it is no longer pissing hot coolant into my face. I pull some cash out of my pocket. Harlan waves his hand and politely refuses, wishing me well on my journey home. I'm in shock. These complete strangers have treated me like an old friend, welcoming me in, offering me food, and helping me get back onto the road in my moment of crisis then refusing to take compensation for their time. This is the sort of genuine generosity I have lost sight of after working in an arrogant industry in a xenophobic province.

Patched Ducati coolant tank

Earl suggests there may have been some divine intervention that brought me here. Not being a religious man I'm not sure how to respond. I didn't mention that today was the only day I hit the road late, and I missed an exit before pulling off at the station where I encountered him, and I very nearly didn't tell him that I was having a problem. I'd be more inclined to thank fate than some deity, but I can't deny that today's adventure was a unique moment of circumstances coming together in my favour.

Lacey Springs, Virginia

This is the positive side of using a cantankerous old Italian machine as a touring mount - there is a certain masochistic tendency in what I do, but I wouldn't have it any other way. You won't have these sorts of interesting encounters or meet these kinds of genuine people if you are riding a dead-nuts reliable Honda that never breaks. It would also make for a rather boring travelogue: "Today I rode 400 miles between point A and point B without incident. I saw an armadillo." That being said I would still like to get a dead-nuts reliable Honda (or equivalent) to supplement my collection so that when the 916 is off the road for repairs I have a backup machine. Riding an unreliable motorcycle with the specter of imminent mechanical failure following you around like a dark cloud can be entertaining. Having that unreliable motorcycle in pieces in your garage during prime riding season is not.

Lacey Springs, Virginia

I thank the guys profusely for their help and hit the road again. Despite my repair delay and my late departure in the morning I'm still able to reach Carlisle, Pennsylvania before sundown. I grab a room and return to the same greasy pizzeria I had visited on my way down to satisfy my craving for something devastatingly unhealthy and obscenely cheap, which is fulfilled by a stuffed pizza served with tangy dipping sauce. I nibble at the ridiculous slice of cholesterol made metal while I compile the day's notes.


Saturday morning is sunny and cold, a crisp autumn day that is markedly more frigid than it had been in Virginia. I install the thermal liners in my pants and jacket. Despite my best attempts to insulate there is no escaping from those icy fingers sliding through the crevices of my gear and numbing my hands to the point of uselessness. I have two sets of gloves with me - a thin pair of mesh summer items, and some heavy BMW touring mitts. I despise the touring gloves because they aren't waterproof, the cold still slips past their thick thermal linings, and they are so bulky that I can't properly work the controls while wearing them. Their only redeeming feature is that they have a squeegy on the left index finger to clean your visor, which seems silly at first but soon proves its worth the first time you wear them in the rain - it works, dammit. I toss the BMW gloves into my bag in favour of the summer gloves. I'll tough out the cold and retain control rather than suffer those useless Motorrad mittens. Before you declare that I should install heated grips or gear, be aware that the 916 has a terrible single-phase alternator with substandard wiring. It can't even run both headlamps together without overwhelming the charging system, let alone supply enough juice for a heating system.    

Once again the bike is virtually impossible to start. Fuck. The coolant switch wasn't the problem. In fact now the fuel pump isn't priming at all, which is a Very Bad Sign. I spend several minute fiddling with the bike in the Super 8 parking lot, practicing my usual routine of begging, pleading and prodding. I can coax a few lazy pops out of the engine but it won't catch. The fuel pump refuses to kick in. I play with the wiring and swap relays until the moons align and the pump finally primes. The bike fires up readily, as if there was no issue at all. Clearly something is amiss, but I'm not sure what. These sorts of intermittent electrical problems are a part of my daily routine with an old Italian machine. I just hope it gets me back to Montreal, at which point I will tear it apart to sort out all the overdue maintenance and exorcise the gremlins I've picked up along the way. In the meantime I must resort to quiet prayers to the Gods of Speed. I may not be religious but I'm not above begging one deity or another to get me home.

I ride through Pennsylvania, changing my route and bypassing the atrocious roads I suffered on my way down. Unfortunately this way isn't much better and I confirm my suspicion that Pennsylvania has the worst roads of any of the states I passed through. They are still considerably better than what we endure in Quebec, but that really is not saying much.

The landscape is becoming barren and dead as I head further north. The leaves have fallen and the trees are skeletal, the landscape a sea of dull brown. This is the most depressing time of year, the interminable period between the end of fall's splendour and the start of winter's snow. It is cold, grey, and miserable. Each year I can't wait until the first snowfall erases the visual blight of the late fall from the scene. It's particularly depressing when you encounter it a day after you were riding through a vibrant, warm southern countryside.

Then I enter New Jersey.

New Jersey

The phenomenon of NJ being the butt of many jokes is a foreign concept (no pun intended) to those of us who aren't American. We all have our punchline regions, those locales within our borders that become the go-to victims of our derision. In Canada it's Newfoundland. We don't have any particular disrespect for Newfoundland, it has just become a running gag that has become embraced by the nation, and by Newfoundlanders themselves. I doubt that many Americans would get a Newfie joke, but somehow the rest of the world is supposed to get Jersey jabs.

Now that I've been there, I understand. New Jersey is a dismal, wretched expanse of dull scenery, concrete, and shitty roads populated by the most inconsiderate and dangerous drivers I've ever encountered outside of Montreal. Nobody uses turn signals, nobody lane checks before merging, everyone threads between lanes, and everyone is speeding to an insane degree. I have to drive 85 in a 55 to keep up with the flow of traffic, and I'm still getting passed. The most memorable things I recall from my time there were: the undulating pavement that was hammering the gas tank into my crotch, the surly asshole working the gas pump at a Shell station, and the dumptruck tire that blew up in front of me on the freeway.

Still life with pancakes and fake butter

I stop for a late breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. Once again I endure the fauxstalgic decor and chipper staff so I can funnel some carbs into my body. I order a pancake breakfast with eggs and bacon and a bottomless cup of black coffee, just what I need to warm up after a cold morning of riding. The food is passable, but I can't help but feel cheated when I'm presented with a bottle of "100% Pure Natural Syrup". Right below the logo the truth is revealed: "55% Pure Maple Syrup - 45% Cane Syrup". The Canadian in me says: fuck right off and don't insult my intelligence. I know watered down maple syrup when I taste it, and your "100% Pure Natural" tagline isn't fooling anyone. Once again I picture a group of suits in a boardroom somewhere conspiring to save a few pennies while retaining some semblance of a quote-unquote "wholesome" image. And that isn't mentioning the chalk-coloured dollop of lies masquerading as butter that they had the nerve to dump on top of the pancakes.

Fuck off, Cracker Barrel

I drop cash on the table and start packing up when my waiter comes up and tells me he can't accept the money. I need to go to the cash out front. Once again the attempt at a traditional atmosphere is shattered by petty bureaucratic bullshit. The kid looks slightly scared - as if some supervisor is eyeing the scene from a back room, maneuvering the camera in for a closer look at his sweaty brow, just itching for a excuse to administer a flogging. Annoyed and slightly put off I scoop up the money and head to the cash, handing the tip to the cashier and telling her quite clearly that this is for Jimmy over there. I leave satisfied that my initial impression of this place being a contrived corporate sham was correct.

Before I leave the parking lot I witness two separate cases of people driving on the wrong side of the road. The drivers here truly live up to their reputation.

New York  

I continue on to New York. I'm staying at Alan's property again and I hope that this time around I will have a chance to sit down and socialize with the man who has been generous enough to welcome a stranger like me into his home.

As I ride along the dull stretches of freeway I once again begin turning over my thoughts and formulating ideas. I'm struck by a strong sense of ennui, an existential crisis spurred on by this trip. Before this adventure I was bored and looking for a diversion from my routine. Now, nearing the end, I am looking for an escape. I can't bear to continue going through the motions, stuck in a dead end position doing the same dull routine day in and day out. This trip was the wake up call I needed to make me realize that there is a world open to me, but only if I am willing to reach out and seize the opportunities.

JT's question - Why don't you do something about it? - has been ricocheting around in my mind since I left New Orleans. Why don't I? What's stopping me? I feel like I've gotten lazy and shiftless these last few years. I've lost my drive.

Ducati 916 Upstate New York

I graduated from McGill in November 2008 and entered the job market at the worst possible time. The economic crisis was in full swing and every nitwit with a BA from here to Vancouver was desperately trying to get work. I could not get a job serving coffee in downtown Montreal. Nobody was hiring. Those who were could cherry pick from a list of overqualified candidates who were willing to work for peanuts - anything just to make ends meet in the midst of that capitalist catastrophe that was 2008-2009. Meanwhile the media was parroting the statements of Canada being better off than anyone else, how we would not be affected by the US, how our economy was insulated from the problems that were collapsing markets all around us. It was a colossal crock of bullshit. While the housing market wasn't taking a dive like it was in the US of A, our economy was tanking just like everyone else's. If you were on the ground without a job during that period, rather than listening to out-of-touch economists shouting down at the riff raff from high up in their ivory towers, you knew this quite well.

I stayed in Montreal after I graduated, borrowing money to survive. I didn't qualify for unemployment insurance because I hadn't worked sufficient hours the previous year - I was a full-time student and had only worked part time. I starved and stressed, and applied at every coffee shop or shitty sales gig I could find. Nobody was interested in yet another newly disillusioned twenty-something with a bachelor's degree. After six months of misery, mounting debt, and increasing depression, I finally gave up and moved back to New Brunswick to live with my parents. I felt like I had failed. I promised myself I would return to Montreal once I was back on my feet.

My parents and I spent an obscene amount of money to get me a degree that was turning out to be a worthless piece of paper. I was just one of millions of people who were experiencing the same sort of realization: we had a sense of being cheated out of our hard work (and money) followed by an intense dread of what the real world had in store for us. We were promised the world, but in reality someone needs to flip burgers. This is the curse of my generation.

That was when I returned to retail and began selling jewellery and watches. It was a way to make ends meet, to pay my bills and get out of my parent's house. Once I was back on my feet and had paid down my debts to a reasonable degree, I returned to Montreal. Three years later here I am, still doing the same routine, just making ends meet and remaining unfulfilled. I've allowed my life to stagnate. I slog through my hours and go home at night having accomplished precisely the same thing I had on the previous day - nothing.

Some people can maintain parallel lives, working a dull 9 to 5 while fulfilling themselves in their spare time. But working in a luxury business is bad for the soul. Arrogant clients treat you like a child. Your moral compass degrades over time as you chase the almighty dollar - after a while you don't care who is buying, as long as the money is good. I'm ashamed to say I've dealt with some seriously bad dudes, the people you read about in national newspapers. Eventually you will lose sight of humanity. Everyone who walks in the door is defined solely by the contents of their wallet and the watch on their wrist. I'm not that kind of superficial person, but working in this business slowly transforms you into a bitter, snobby jerk whether you like it or not.

In the end "luxury" is just a meaningless construct, a product of marketing that presents a contrived facade to hide the realities of mass production lurking below. A company touting how luxurious its products are is like a person who goes around declaring how much smarter they are than everyone else - they are arrogant and false. In any case worshiping the trappings of wealth is a worthless exercise. It isn't important, it isn't genuine, and it isn't human.  

Enough complaining. It's time to do something. What exactly? I'm not sure. I know that sitting around feeling sorry for myself and bitching about how unfulfilling my job is won't change anything. I may be an underemployed twenty-something but I'm not a self-entitled brat - I'm well aware that I need to work hard if I want to succeed, and that I am owed nothing by nobody. I have to make my own opportunities. With that resolve in my mind I need to reset my life and take a leap into the unknown, otherwise I'm just going to continue sinking into complacency until I'm anchored to the spot by a mortgage, a nagging wife, and 2.5 kids. I'm not sure how I will go about it, but two things are certain: I want to return to the motorcycle industry, and I want out of Quebec.

Corona on the lake

I arrive at Alan's property in the evening just as he is finishing up a session on the track in his latest toy, a Lotus 2-Eleven he just had rebuilt. I have the chance to meet his family and a few of his friends and enjoy some great home-cooked ribs while Alan reviews details from taped ALMS races. Again he is all over the place, doing five things at once while entertaining us and studying the strategies of the racers in the recordings. But this time I feel more at ease, a bit more welcome than my first visit. I'm starting to understand how things work around here. Alan is a blinding flurry of of energy and non-stop activity - you are welcome to participate but aren't expected to keep up.

At some point late in the evening Alan declares we are going for a drive. The four of us head outside and hop into one of his numerous Polaris ATVs. The two other guys are frantically adjusting their seat belts before Alan has a chance to drive off, apparently aware of what is about to happen. I hook up my belt and we head out on a flat-out blast through the wooded trails surrounding property. Gravel is flinging up into our faces as we barrel through narrow trails that would be nerve-wracking on a dirtbike, let alone a double-width four wheeler loaded with one deranged driver and three terrified passengers. I resign myself to my fate as the trees whistle by, as I figure this isn't the first time he's done this and he probably knows these trails quite well. At least I hope he does. In any case this roll cage looks pretty sturdy.

He drives up the top of the ridge overlooking the property and stops to take in the view. One of the guys pipes up "Alan, I remember the first time you took me up here and you went flying down the hill with the lights off."

"What, like this?"

The sound of three grown men screaming echoes across the countryside.

We return to the house, hair filled with gravel and our adrenaline primed. After our high speed tour of the property it's time to head to bed. Tonight is my last night in the USA and it's been a memorable one. Tomorrow I return to reality in Montreal.

Ducati 916 Upstate New York


  1. I'm really enjoying this, it's fun to read. Can totally get where you are coming from.

  2. Your talent with words is immense! I've been following your travelogue from the beginning, and have read the odd article here and there from, but this travelogue is truly original and fascinating material. Don't misunderstand me, I have a great appreciation for any of the articles I have read on your site, they are all wonderful, but this series has been by far my favorite. Being a bit of a masochist myself with my 1994 900SS that is currently a "rolling restoration," perhaps it is because I can relate to you in some way. Though I have to say, the 900ss probably is about as reliable a ducati as one can buy. Yet I long to have my own 916 some day, as i have coveted its blessed design since my childhood. Well done and keep coming. I'm certain that great things will come of your efforts to reset and find new opportunities!

  3. outstanding series !! I just can't imagine you won't find some level of success in the industry in the future . Seeing I haven't been a "20 something " for over 30 yrs I don't remember many friends have your insight into people and places . When I first read about your fund raising I was a little skeptical but I don't feel right enjoying all this for free . Where can I go to contribute in my small way to help defray your costs ? You should post somewhere on your site a easy way to help . I can't be the only one thinking this . Bob

    1. Don't give me any ideas! OddBike is free and I hope to keep it that way. You can contribute to the next OddBike USA Tour or whatever other adventure I come up with in the future.

      To be honest this whole travelogue wasn't planned at all. I thought I'd hammer out a few pages detailing the journey and be done. Then when I sat down and started writing I realized I needed to make it a multi-part story. I figured 3 or 4 installments. Then I started really running through my thoughts and my notes, and looking back on everything that happened, and I realized this was way bigger than I was anticipating. I really did not think the travelogue would be one of the most important things to come out of the trip.

      Now I just have to finish the damned conclusion!

  4. Great stuff. I can't imagine you won't find some work in the industry in the future . Seeing I haven't been a :20 something " for over 30 years I don't remember any friend with your insight into people and places plus being able to articulate them . when I read about your fund raising I was a little skeptical but I can't enjoy all this for free . Is there a place to contribute to help defray costs? You should have a spot on your site because I can't be the only one thinking this . Good-luck over the winter with all your Moto projects. Bob