Monday 21 September 2015

OddBike USA Tour 2015: Part II - Clearing the Haze

Syringa Provincial Park

My journey begins as they often do, early on a cold, grey morning punctuated by the gut-twisting anxiety I often struggle with whenever I'm about to embark into the unknown. Or pretty much every time I get up before sunrise and try to force a meal down when my bowels are going haywire from being awoken at such an ungodly hour. My best laid plans of departing just as the sun cracks over the horizon are usually derailed by a few visits to the bathroom before I even get my gear on, and suddenly my eager 6 AM departure becomes a leisurely roll out sometime around 8. So it was this morning, as per my usual, that I hobbled down to the parking garage with an armload of 30 pounds of luggage well after my intended start time while I silently cursed my overactive gut.

Aprilia Tuono Anti-ADV Arrangement

My anxiety before a ride has eased in recent years. But there is still some primal fear tempered with anticipation that gets stirred up in the pit of my stomach before I saddle up on a big ride. Not so much when I'm commuting to work, but even after 12 years I still get nauseous on some days and need to take my time to let the jitters subside.

I still have a healthy amount of respect for my bikes and their ability to make me overreach my average abilities in a real hurry, and I nurture a healthy degree of unease before a journey like this one, or anytime I borrow an unfamiliar machine for a ride. I'm not one of those unhinged riders who can jump on anything and proceed to ride it like a gibbering maniac right out of the parking lot. I take my time to ease into the ride and learn the characteristics of a bike before I go and flog it - lest it surprise me in some unpleasant, expensive, or painful way.

Aprilia Tuono Highway 93

In spite of the initial anxiety, I'm never more relaxed or more aware than when I'm aboard a bike. I never have and never will get that sensation in a car, where I'm more often barely abiding by the basic principles required to motor from A to B without hitting anything along the way.

Once I'm underway I'm in my element, calm and focussed and smooth. That is why I ride, and why I continue to despise driving cars. If I didn't need one in this damned suburban sprawl they call a city I'd happily give it up and use my car payment to fund more fulfilling pursuits - but you can't reasonably commute on a motorcycle for the five or six months of the year when there is snow, ice and slush on the road. Though some still do. They are the same sort of folks who dive into frozen lakes without immediately dying of hypothermia, who always seems to be fat old white men with lots of white facial hair - the sort of men who perform dumb, careless pursuits of endurance that are viewed with perturbed curiosity rather than admiration.

Aprilia Tuono Moyie Lake

I strap down my gear, an Ogio soft bag setup I've grown fond of over the past year, and try to hang the saddlebags in such a way that they don't continue to melt above the classic twin howitzer exhausts, which have quickly demonstrated the complete uselessness of Ogio's so-called "heat shielding". If you are an Italophilic rider with no qualms about perceptions of Latin "character" (i.e. the looming spectre of imminent mechanical failure) the Aprilia Tuono might seem like a sensible choice for a sport touring mount. The high seat and wide bars make the ergonomics more akin to one of those curs'ed new Adventure Tourer™ barges than the RSV superbike it is based on. The gearing is tall and the motor is punchy and flexible pretty much everywhere above 4000 rpm. It seems somewhat natural to strap a ton of gear to the back before embarking on a long trek into the wild, if you can fit it onto there without cooking your luggage in the process.

There are some issues with that notion. For One, the Tuono is loonier than Idi Amin during a full moon. Any lapses in your judgement or motor control are going to be punished by a firm reminder that you are riding a full-fat sportbike that has most of the weight taken off the front, with hair-trigger steering and throttle response that demands your full attention at all times. Which brings us to strike Two, wherein it wheelies like a motherfucker even when you aren't trying and will paw the sky constantly in first if you were to, say, do something silly like strap a bunch of camping gear onto the passenger seat. Strike Three is the hard plank of a seat that will give you literal saddle sores if you dare ride it for more than a few hundred miles. I experimented with an Airhawk seat pad that was donated by some of my sympathetic coworkers but found it so aggravatingly squishy, obstructing the chassis feedback I usually glean through my butt cheeks, that I stuffed it into a side pocket of my saddlebag and vowed I'd only use it if it proved absolutely necessary.

My increasingly-tatty but well-proven triple-bag arrangement (which I've dubbed the Anti-ADV setup) is supplemented by a Kriega R30 backpack that was kindly donated to the cause by Michael Walshaw from Kriega USA. Given that the tailpack sits on the passenger seat and blocks me from wearing the backpack in the expected manner, I figured out a way to secure it around the tail bag with the aid of some bungee netting. I've become so fond of the R30 in daily use that I wasn't about to leave it behind, even if it made for some awkward luggage placement, particularly after Michael had explicitly supplied it to me for use on the trip.

Moyie Lake British Columbia

The only reason I needed so much damned storage space was because I was carrying a full camping setup: tent, sleeping bag, bed roll, stove and fuel, and food, on top of a week's worth of clothes and all the usual ancillaries you'd lug along on a long trip. I had quite a few places lined up along the way where I'd be staying with OddBike followers but in between I'd be roughing it whenever I didn't feel the need for a comfortable bed, climate control, or a shower. If I hadn't felt the need to skimp on accommodations I'd have been quite happy to just load the tail bag or the Kriega with clothes and be done with it.

As it is on most days in Alberta, this morning was a cold one. Not the damp, gear-piercing chill you get in more humid areas; it's more of a crisp, dry cold that sneaks up on you. Your first few miles are in relative comfort, with the heat retained by your layers keeping your core comfortable as your extremities slowly freeze as per usual. Then, quite suddenly, the warmth is gone and the chill is everywhere, and you scrunch your shoulders up towards your helmet to try and keep the draft from slipping past your neck sock - incidentally, I've never understood why someone would design an otherwise rugged and warm touring jacket while leaving the collar a low, open void that forces you to wear a vest or a separate neck warmer. Pretty soon your back is aching from the tension you are unconsciously applying while your body temperature drops, and an hour into your ride you are ready to stop for a hot cup of something and a cigarette.

We Canadians know that cold comes in many forms and produces distinct effects on our bodies. -30C in one place is not the same as -30C in another - humidity and wind makes a tremendous difference - and we can tell the difference. After the mercury clears +30C we are lost though, a sweaty, sticky mess that can barely conceive of how anyone would dare have the hubris to thumb their noses toward a vengeful God that clearly didn't intend for hot-blooded creatures to live in that particular region.

I suppose that's what it would feel like for a southerner to visit the Great White North (or the American Midwest) anytime there is snow on the ground.

The good news is that my heated grips are keeping my digits flexible and it's always warmer on the British Columbia side of the border. My intended target for the day is well into Canada's California so a few hours of miserable cold aren't going to phase me. Better things and nicer places are somewhere out on the other side of the horizon.

A damned good thing too, because the drudgery of work was really starting to get to me, as you might have gathered from my introductory post. It's not that my job is particularly awful, or my bosses particularly cruel. I eke out a decent living, enough to make ends meet in an expensive city, and I work with a group of passionate and friendly coworkers who have kept me going in spite of all my desire to say "fuck this" and face the unknowns of the job market once again. I just continue to struggle with my position in the world and want something more meaningful to result from my labour. Being treated like I'm just another teenaged parts counter dolt who wouldn't know their asshole from a drain plug doesn't help.

It's not something I enjoy. Not only because facing my insignificance and a lifetime of menial labour makes me feel incredibly worthless, but also because nobody wants to hear it. You don't dare bring up your sense of ennui without inciting accusations of being a whiny millennial brat who thinks he/she is a special snowflake deserving of recognition without merit. Just like the several billion other special snowflakes in the world.

Syringa Provincial Park British Columbia

OddBike is where I fulfill myself and, if the servers don't implode, it is my legacy. My thinking and my writing are the only meaningful contributions I can make to a complex society. I'm not out saving lives or climbing mountains, nor do I have any desire to do so. I'm too ambitious to scrub toilets, but too lazy to seek something better. Wait, I meant "too cynical to think I can change the world". Yeah, that's it - I'm too jaded to think I could make a difference. It's not because I'd rather be sleeping until noon and spending my days hunting good corners on secondary routes before retiring to write hyperbolic prose late into the night, fuelled by the ride's lingering adrenaline and my caffeine addiction. Nope.

Most of the "ambitious" people I've encountered are so thoroughly engrossed by their pursuits that it is detrimental to the rest of their lives, unless they are one of those impossibly talented people who somehow find the time to manage a high-stress career while maintaining a slew of complex hobbies, all while raising a family. Meanwhile wage-slave mortals like myself struggle to make the time to read a book. Sometimes I suspect those people are either secret amphetamine fiends or have had a part of their brain lobotomized so they no longer require sleep.

I don't desire success or wealth. I desire simplicity and freedom, which allows me the ability to think clearly without complicating my life. In my case that would mean eliminating my debts and having more time to travel and write, making enough money to pay my bills and have enough left over to keep the bike gassed up. Simple though that desire may seem, it seems to be persistently just beyond my reach, a dream that is tantalizingly close but always floating just beyond my fingertips.

Aprilia Tuono Syringa Provincial Park

Hoho, this ride is really clearing my mind. The fog brought on by months of tedious tasks, undue stress, and uppity customers begins to fade, a sudden clarity of thought coming to me as I head down the Highway 93 into southern BC. We are off to a good start; I'm finally able to think after months of conditioning against it. I've neglected my duty to write and update the site regularly since moving to Calgary mainly because I'm so damned brain dead after a shift that I can barely stay awake, let alone write something worth reading. As I roll along, wind and bugs blasting into my eyes through my perpetually opened visor, I'm feeling renewed. My mind shifts to its rapid pace, an endless flurry of disparate thoughts brought on by a manic upswing, a welcome contrast to the dull throb of hazy recollection I usually suffer during my low periods. I suddenly realize I've got two weeks to myself to explore unfamiliar routes and enjoy the ride, something I haven't done in two long years, and my mind is finally clear enough to appreciate the journey. I'm genuinely happy for the first time in a long while.

British Columbia never fails to impress me, a land where man and our machinations appear insignificant against a backdrop of pristine natural beauty. The roads here are better than anything on offer in Alberta, but still a far cry from what I would call amazing motorcycle roads. A sacrilegious statement to make if you believe the hype about BC's motorcycle routes, but truth is if you are aboard anything more aggressive than a bagger you won't be challenged much. The surroundings are spectacular, but few roads are technical enough to be challenging at anything less than stupid speeds - which are exponentially more stupid when the sheer dropoffs and dense tree lines bordering the road are factored in. There are odd stretches that impress, but most routes are pretty tame. The notoriously strict provincial traffic laws and overzealous police are another reason to just sit back and take it easy, enjoying the view at a relaxed pace.

Aprilia Tuono Kootenays

Dual sports and ADV machines are popular out here for those who wish to explore the endless gravel secondaries and logging roads that likely outnumber the paved highways, so if you are deluded enough to take your Adventure Tiger Strada GS into the wilderness you'll have a blast. Just watch for the wildlife, because out here you are no longer at the top of the food chain; I imagine middle-aged white men exhausted from trying to lift their 600 lb panzers out of a muddy rut would make easy pickings for a hungry grizzly. Maybe I'm just paranoid after being traumatized by Grizzly Man.

The Tuono is behaving well. I've done plenty of trial runs and have been commuting with it daily, so I've had time to iron out most of the bugs and dial everything in to my liking. Aside from one misadventure that involved a loose spark plug cap (and nursing it 100 miles home on one cylinder), some melted stator wires, and a ride that ended with a puking aftermarket fork seal, it has been perfectly reliable. Despite this it is curiously inconsistent in its running, never quite the same - never out enough to make you think something is wrong, just enough to feel slightly different from day to day. I haven't been able to determine why. I first suspected it was due to fuel quality but it can vary on the same tank of gas, sometimes running sharp as a razor in the morning then feeling a bit wooly in the afternoon, like a sock got sucked into the intake when you weren't paying attention. My best guess now is that it's just really sensitive to atmospheric conditions, or maybe one of the EFI loop sensors is feeding the computer vague info. Aside from that there has been an annoying top end clicking that has persisted since I bought it, with absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to explain what it could be, so I've learned to never ride it without my headphones lest my hyperactive imagination start amplifying the noise and concocting scenarios that involve the engine internals making a break for daylight.

Aprilia Tuono Kootenays

Passing Creston on the way through the Kootenay Pass reveals that that recent news reports haven't been exaggerating the threat of forest fires in the region. The horizon is blanketed with grey smoke, hanging over the trees like a dense fog, and the faint smell of burnt wood begins to intensify into a standing-next-to-a-campfire odour. And I'm riding straight into it.

It's a not-so-subtle reminder that the landscape dominates out here. Our feeble attempts at meddling with the course of nature hasn't helped matters; the whole push to prevent and control forest fires of all types for decades has led to an overgrowth of underbrush that becomes a tinderbox anytime there is a dry spell. Without humans around trying to control the process, the cycle was self-regulating; smaller fires cleansed the region, kept growth in check, and most importantly kept larger, more catastrophic fires from forming. Years of trying to prevent every little brush blaze and suddenly the whole damned province is at risk of becoming a hellscape.

Kootenay Pass Rest Stop

My destination for the day is Syringa Provincial Park, a small park located outside of Castelgar with camp sites along Upper Arrow Lake. I've never been here, nor was I able to find anyone who had visited the park, not an unusual situation given the sheer number of parks and campgrounds in the region. It was a destination chosen like most of my stopovers along the route - find a point approximately 400-500 miles from the previous one and see what's in the area for accommodations that doesn't look like a total shithole.

Kootenay Pass Creek

It turned out to be a pretty good choice, considering it was the result of a dart thrown at the map. A charming little road winds along the lakefront from Castlegar, ending at the entrance to the park. The park itself is modest but well kept, a series of campsites bordering a rocky beach offering beautiful vistas across the lake. If I had any criticisms, it's that it wasn't very tent-friendly - the camp is rather crowded with oversized RVs and the site surfaces are made of densely packed rock that is impossible to setup upon without bending several of my stakes. I appear to be the only person present using a traditional tent, if you don't count the multi-room setups adjoined to fifth wheels. I make do with the minimum, barely tacking into the ground, and pray the wind keeps down overnight lest the whole thing get blown into the bushes.

Syringa Provincial Park Campsite

After setting up camp and preparing a canned meal, cursing myself for not stopping to grab beer along the way, I take a walk along the beach to escape the din of children running through the park and further clear my mind. Smoke hangs heavy over the lake, obscuring the opposite bank and filtering the sunlight to the point that it appears to be an hour or two later than it actually is. The silence of the scene is occasionally interrupted by water bombers flying overhead on their way to and from the nearby blaze.

British Columbia Water Bomber

These beaches are peculiar to the Pacific Northwest, rocky and strewn with well-weathered driftwood, the water still and barely lapping the shore in the evening calm. I try and find some suitable stones to skip across the still water, but the beach is made up of sharp and oddly shaped rocks that haven't yet been honed flat and smooth by years of erosion.

Upper Arrow Lake British Columbia

The water appears to be a deep emerald green, the colour altered by the diminished sunlight. I sit and watch a cormorant dive deep into the lake in pursuit of a meal. I am alone. I have time to sort out the flurry of ideas gathered during the day's ride as the light fades and the landscape takes on a beautifully eerie quality through the smoky haze. I fill my notebook with reflections as darkness falls, thoughts I intend to study and re-evaluate during the course of this trip.

Upper Arrow Lake Forest Fire Smoke

I'm too lazy to be ambitious, but too ambitious to accept mediocrity. What can I do?

I can write.

Upper Arrow Lake Beach


  1. Ride on, and ride safe Jason.

  2. Keep riding and writing man! Good good good stuff!

  3. Keep it up and think of the Ducati at times! :)

  4. Keep it up and think of the Ducati at times! :)

  5. Been reading more of your observations lately. Good stuff.

  6. Love your lucid observations and the relatable way you tease out your thoughts. I can't help feeling "Oh my god, this guy IS me," at least once per post. The relationship with work, the question of ambition vs other-ness, pre-departure anxiety, on-road clarity, the dream to ride and write...all familiar and beautifully described. Please don't stop writing or riding; good things will come.