Wednesday 31 January 2018

OddBike USA Tour 2015 Travelogue

The collected installments of the second OddBike USA Tour travelogue, completed in 2015.

Aprilia Tuono Highway 93 British Columbia

Just a few more months. Everything you are doing is towards this goal. You need this trip. You need this escape.

Don't jeopardize it now.

I've been repeating this mantra in my head endlessly over the past several months, a process of self-medication to try and ease my tortured mind. It's a small but crucial balm to soothe my stress and bring my life back into focus.

Forget the drudgery of the day and the cruelty of working mindlessly, endlessly. The goal is on the horizon. Soon you can escape, however briefly.

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.

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 Grand Forks British Columbia

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.   

Mount Saint Helens

The following day I hit the road alongside Neal. I learn very quickly that at this altitude the Tuono is even more of a homicidal maniac than I'm used to. When a car tries to cut me off in the early morning traffic I give it a handful in first gear to scoot past and the front instantly rockets skyward with the sort of alacrity that is both terrifying and endlessly entertaining. I apologize to Neal for drawing any unwanted attention and gesture to the luggage; the extra weight on the ass end makes this thing ridiculously wheelie happy.

I head down the I-5 through Seattle, painlessly bypassing most of the morning's commuters via the HOV and express lanes. While I’d love to stick around and check out the sights (the Museum of Flight is on my bucket list, but time is too limited this time around) my goal for today is a bit further south.

As a child I was simultaneously terrified and awed by volcanoes, and Mount St. Helens was the prototypical event of the modern era for the overwhelming power of nature's geological wrath. The fact that one day in 1980 a mountain up and exploded, blasting so much ash and rock into the atmosphere that my parents recall the colour of the sky changing on the opposite side of the continent, captivated me. Actually it scared the shit out of me. Mount St. Helens and the story of Parícutin suddenly rising out of a farmer's field in Mexico were the two events that cemented the terrifying power of nature in my young mind. To me the sudden violence of volcanic activity remains the ultimate expression of the supremacy of nature, a force that can only be rivalled by the detonation of atomic weapons (perhaps not coincidentally another one of my terror/awe obsessions).

Aprilia Tuono Oregon Coast

As per my usual habit I awake at sunrise - or rather, I sleepily hobble out of my tent, because a sore, groggy motorcyclist extricating himself from a single-person tent at the ass crack of dawn of a cool morning is about as undignified an act as you can possibly witness - and go through my usual routine of fumbling with packing my gear into the impossibly tight confines of the stuff sacks from whence they will never again fit.

This uncivilized procedure is followed by the soothing effects of the day's first cigarette and an instant coffee prepared over a portable stove. If I'm feeling particularly thrifty I might make some instant oatmeal and skip the pleasure of a greasy breakfast, but today, on this damp morning, I'm feeling like I deserve something more substantial. Today's a day for my favourite practice of riding as long as I can stand on an empty stomach and stopping at whatever eatery happens into view when I can't suppress my hunger any longer.

I hit the road and find myself passing through a series of small harbour communities on the Pacific coast. I hadn't realized how close I was to the ocean when I stopped last night, but now I'm enjoying the pleasure of riding through idyllic seaside towns on a beautiful autumn morning.

Aprilia Tuono San Simeon Sunset

Matt proves to be an engaging host, an experienced racer filled with good stories, interesting contacts and a wealth of knowledge. I'd talked to him online briefly before but hadn't realized how passionate and knowledgeable he truly was, making my stop in Calistoga after a far-too-long ride all the more worthwhile. He is kind enough to prepare a late night meal for me after my day's adventure, a much welcomed gesture given my unfortunate habit of "forgetting" to stop for a meal due to my excitement and determination to complete the journey.

I have a tendency to zone into a task so completely that I neglect to even feed myself, pushing my basic needs aside in favour of seeing myself through to the end. It's a trait I share with my father, who is known for spending long days in the garage without taking a break. I know this practice well, zoning myself out for long hours as I tinker with my machines or work on my hobbies. I usually don't stop until I encounter a roadblock that stymies me, which generally results in something getting broken in a rare fit of blind rage. I am not known for having a temper, usually being quite calm in demeanour, but when something frustrates me beyond the limits of my patience I have a tendency to snap in spectacular fashion. Demons run when good men go to war, or when the quiet man strips a bolt at the wrong moment.

Mullin Museum Voisin C27

I rise early and stumble out into the motel courtyard, exhibiting my usual bleary-eyed pre-caffeinated lack of focus. I wander into a group of immaculate Harley-Davidson touring models tended by a troupe of middle-aged riders. I say hello and someone compliments my Aprilia in a thick European accent, mentioning how few they see over here in America.

It turns out that they are a group of Italians who rented their H-Ds in Oakland to tour around California and Arizona. It seems like a perfectly appropriate way to tour the US of A, and I'm reminded of my dream of riding across Italy aboard one of their uncompromising two-wheeled exports. Probably aboard a Ducati, but an MV, Moto-Guzzi, or Aprilia would be quite alright too.

In the case of our European guests, Harley is the only way to go. They have the right idea. It would be a bit weird (though probably much smarter) to use a Victory or an Indian, Polaris' new pretenders to the Moto-Americana crown. It would somehow not be quite as authentic. H-D hate mongers can go on all they like about how much better the alternatives might be but when it comes to the richness of an experience the flexing of your powers of dull rationality are irrelevant. And unwelcome.

Aprilia Tuono Pro Italia California

I get up early to head back to Pro Italia to make a pilgrimage to one of the dealers I've long been curious about. I've dealt with them in the past for parts orders for my 916, back in the fleeting days when the Loonie was worth a damn and it was cheaper for a Canadian to buy parts in the States. I also wanted an Aprilia mechanic to have a listen to the persistent top end tick in my Tuono, if only to quell my hyperactive imagination and remove the spectre of imminent mechanical catastrophe from my mind before I rode 2500 miles home.

It's another beautiful day in SoCal, perfect weather and bright sunshine warming the air quickly as I slice through the morning traffic on my way to Glendale. Pro Italia is split into two locations, one covering Triumph, KTM and Moto Guzzi, the site of Miguel Galuzzi's presentation last night, and a smaller shop down the street that houses the service department as well as the Ducati and MV showroom.

The shop is remarkably tiny, far smaller than I imagined it would be given their online presence. It's a single room packed with bikes and apparel, with an only slightly bigger service department out back. Dozens of bikes, showroom stock and customer rides here for service, are wheeled out onto the street to make room. It takes me back to my days working at a hole-in-the-wall Triumph dealer that had resisted updates for 30 years, though here the setting is far more polished and professional. And a lot cleaner.

Deus Ex Machina Los Angeles

It's a beautiful Sunday morning in LA and it's time to go riding.

My first stop is just down the street a few miles, the Deus Ex Machina shop. Actually it's less of a shop and more of a café with a clothing store attached. Regardless, Deus has become the model for the snobby hipster builder joint, the prototype for commercialization of the custom scene beyond recognition.

If you want to buy meticulously prepared espressos or overpriced t-shirts and surfboards in an environment littered with pretentious magazines, Deus is your place.

If you want to buy motorcycles or anything motorcycle related beyond a motif on a T-shirt, you'll want to go elsewhere.

Aprilia Tuono Malibu Coast

It's time for me to reluctantly begin the journey home. The first leg along the coast north of LA is probably the dullest of the journey, but still plenty scenic. I make San Luis Obispo my destination for the day, a familiar spot to stop and get a motel room where I can spend some time decompressing, catching up on my notes and emails.

After an uneventful day of riding through the still flawless SoCal weather I reach SLO and after checking in I walk downtown to Eureka!, a burger joint recommended to me by one of Abhi's friends.

It's the typical trendy, gentrified grill serving far too many fancy combinations of meat stuffed between two pieces of bread alongside a selection of craft beers I've never heard of. I look mighty out of place here, with my scruffy hair and my raccoon-eyes helmet tan. If you don't show up on your bike, helmet in hand, the grizzled biker appearance makes you end up looking like you just stepped off a construction site, or spent too long staring into an oven. I'm a bit self-conscious as I take a seat at the end of the bar and spend my evening listening to dull conversations and scribbling notes on my scratchpad.

Aprilia Tuono Avenue of the Giants

I head out towards the coast via the 128, the same route I took in the dark on my way south. The roads are lovely. Crossing the Mendocino county line reveals a series of perfect, fresh ribbons of asphalt flowing through avenues of craggy trees forming a canopy overhead. The surface is impeccably groomed and properly cambered, the sightlines good, and there are few decreasing radius bends to catch you off guard. It's motorcycling heaven, roads that are as beautiful as they are challenging, without ever feeling treacherous. You can ride fluidly from one corner to the next, punching up to triple digits along the short straights without fear of overreaching your abilities.

It's a flattering experience, one that renews my faith in my skills. Some of the routes I've taken are so erratic and unpredictable that they shook my confidence, forcing me to pick my way through the bends and occasionally overcook into a blind corner whenever I tried to pick up the pace. Not here. This is my kind of road, with a flow that encourages smooth and fast riding rather than pointing and squirting between hair-raising corners with little to no margin for error. It's also less taxing on the mediocre suspension and tires of the Tuono, which have been giving me grief and sapping my confidence on the tighter canyon roads.

Aprilia Tuono Washington Cascades

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.

Aprilia Tuono Bridal Lake British Columbia

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.

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