Just posted the radio show I co-hosted with Andrew last December on the Sight & Sound
page. What a hoot! Lots of eclectic vinyl from the past.
Just posted the radio show I co-hosted with Andrew last December on the Sight & Sound
page. What a hoot! Lots of eclectic vinyl from the past.
December 12, 2015
It’s 7:30 a.m. on Saturday; and dawn is just breaking through a sky congested with low-hanging clouds. The weather reporters have been waffling between forecasts of light rain/drizzle and mere overcast skies since yesterday. They’re brave to be producing any kind of forecast; the weather tends to be particularly chaotic at this time of year, and any prediction is really nothing more than a crap shoot bolstered by pomp and circumstance.
As I do my walkaround / pre-ride check, Gunther’s ambient temperature indicator reads 1 degree. A bit chilly for a ride; but then, it is December after all; and dressing in layers makes all the difference–thin, Nylon / merino wool base layer under a heavy cotton sweater and padded, Cordura riding pants–and I’ve got the lining zipped into my riding jacket. Hands and feet are protected from the elements by insulated riding gloves and boots.
There’s a crisp silence in the air. Even the birds aren’t up yet. As I lean over the fuel tank to go through the start-up sequence, every rustle of clothing sounds like a wind storm. The fuel enrichment switch makes an ominous tock as it’s flipped into place; then, the soft grating of the key moving against tumblers in the ignition switch; and the subsequent click as it rotates to the “Run” position—everything echoes throughout the desolate neighborhood. With a press of the starter, Gunther’s engine roars to life, spark plugs igniting fuel/air concoctions that have been compacted down to highly-volatile, half-liter charges by those two, massive pistons. Helmet on; gloves on; up on the foot peg, and throw a leg over; side stand up; clutch in; drop into 1st; and we’re on our way.
Cracking the visor open a bit to keep it from fogging up, cold air fills my nose, making my eyes water. Waftings of cedar, oak and hickory smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves spice morning air not yet soiled by vehicle exhaust. Riding by some guys playing an early-morning game of pick-up hockey on a community ice rink, I’m struck by the surreality of being on a motorcycle while, just a few meters away, there’s an ice on the ground.
The ride down the parkway and through the empty business district is smooth and quick; and soon I’m backng Gunther’s rear wheel up to the curb on a deserted street. Kill the engine; side stand down; gloves and helmet off; dismount. The best part is, motorcycles don’t pay for parking in Toronto—which would be cost-prohibitive in this part of town given I’ll be parked here for most of the day.
My affairs in town have concluded. It’s been a productive day, but a long one; and I am looking forward to the ride back home.
The rain hasn’t made an appearance yet; but it’s been drizzling since noon. The temperature has risen to 4 Celsius—warmer than when I set out this morning; but still cool enough to harden rubber and asphalt. As I conjure the motorcycle gods to bring Gunther to life once again, I make a mental note that the wet roads will slippery.
The sun sets early at this time of year; within half an hour, night has arrived, and the dark grey skies have turned black. The road is shiny—never a good sign. Note to self: Double the usual stopping distance, and easy on the brakes.
Approaching the last set of traffic lights before home, cars in the on-coming lane are lined up to turn left; and I slow down a bit just in case one of them decides to turn in front of me unexpectedly. As I enter the intersection one does. Merde.
Despite having slowed Gunther down as a precaution, the car is right in front of me, leaving no stopping distance. Reflexes kick in; and I take evasive action, swerving to avoid a collision. I’ve been successful; but, in doing so, Gunther’s rear wheel has started sliding in the cold film of water and petroleum detritus that has coated the road. The back end swings left; I manage to bring it back; but, torque and momentum swing it around to the right, skidding me sideways across the intersection. The tires suddenly regain their grip; but it’s too late: The bike may have stopped, but it’s perpendicular to the direction I’m moving. Gunther flips to the vertical, launching me into the air, and then flops over onto his right side.
It’s funny how time slows to a crawl when one finds oneself unexpectedly airborne. It’s like one of those dreams in which you see everything from the third person. I see and hear Gunther’s right cylinder head hit the ground; I see the road rising to meet me; I am acutely aware of every sound being played back at half the normal speed, including the words, “Oooooohhhhhhh nooooooooo” coming from somewhere. Then, one final thought before I hit road: I’m going to feel this one tomorrow.
Regular time resumes and I hit the road with a thud, my hip and shoulder absorbing most of the impact before my head snaps down like the end of a whip (kids, always wear a helmet). I’m in a daze, and do a quick check before getting up: no serious pains; probably nothing’s broken. As I get up, I realize Gunther is in the middle of the intersection. Walking back to where he is unceremoniously lying on his side, I have the strange sensation of being on stage in front of an audience. That’s because I am. We’re in front of three lanes of rush-hour traffic; and headlights are lighting us up like stage lights on Broadway.
In the blinding lights, I try to get Gunther back on his wheels. Half-way up, there’s a searing pain in my lower abdomen. I’ve forgotten about my recent hernia surgery. Oh heck. I try again. Same result. My bike’s not going anywhere with me alone trying to lift it. Some of the cars honk their horns. Really? I feel compelled to launch into a soliloquy (after all, I am in the spotlight) that proclaims the merits of oh, I dunno, getting out of their fucking cars to help me to get the motorcycle off the road as opposed to remaining seated and simply pressing on their horn—which, given the circumstances, is as helpful as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
Suddenly, the drivers’-side door of one of the cars at the front of the pack opens, and an angelic silhouette walks toward me from out of the light. Someone’s actually come to help. She checks if I am OK, and helps me bring Gunther to vertical. My savior asks whether there is anything else she can do to help; and when I tell her I can take it from here, she returns to the sea of headlights. Perhaps there’s hope for humanity after all.
Once I’m off to the side of the road, I do a quick visual inspection of Gunther. There’s a gash across the the right cylinder head where it touched down; and the right rear indicator lens and innards look as though they’ve been through the wash (but the light still works, believe it or not)… and that’s about it. Really! Granted the impact was at a low-speed, and with the road as opposed to another vehicle; but, I am impressed. This bike is like a tank. With a little coaxing, the engine fires up; and I’m able to ride home. It’s almost as if the R1150GS were, um, designed to take such abuse.
The days and weeks since this latest adventure have given way to much reflection. It’s ironic, for example, that I rode 18,000 km to Alaska and back without incident; and this one occurred within a couple of kilometers of home. I hear statistics all the time about how most accidents occur close to home. Now that I’m one of them, I can’t help but wonder why this is. Is there something I can take away and pass on to others in hope of giving us that much more of an edge in traffic?
What really hit home was that, with the exception of the one person who checked if I was OK and helped with the bike, so many people just sat in their cars and watched as I struggled with the bike after my crash. Is this what we have come to? I wonder whether we are so accustomed to passively watching such events on Youtube and Netflix from our comfortable environments that it’s now a greater distance to the border of our comfort zone; and stepping beyond it to help someone who’s fallen in the road requires consideration. The Dalai Lama said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Then, there is the fact that, yet again, I have cheated the hangman so to speak. Sure, I’ve got some torn muscles/ligaments; and my ribs are still sore where, I think, they snagged on the end of the handlebar on my way over. But things could have been a lot worse had we made contact with another vehicle or a lamp post. I haven’t been dwelling on this too much, though. Fact is, I’m here to ride another day. And, aside from this setback, it was a great day of late (really late) autumn riding. Winter is now arriving; Gunther is tucked away; and I am dreaming about that first early-morning ride come spring.
September 19, 2015
I haven’t even started working in the fields, yet; and already I am drenched with sweat. Such is the weather inside my rain suit today. To be fair, this high-tech anorak is doing what it’s designed to do: keep the rain out. However, it’s also keeping the heat and humidity in, creating an internal weather system, with high- and low-pressures meeting at various points across my anatomy to produce isolated fog patches interspersed with occasional drizzle. Reminds me of that Woody Allen bit about how he was heating his Bronx apartment in winter by running the shower with just the hot water turned on and leaving the bathroom door open; and then opening up the living room window when it became too foggy only to have it start raining over the sofa where the two fronts met.
Of course, the mere fact that I have donned the rain suit has staved off the real rain—at least while we’ve been on the road. Sure, there have been a few blessings from the grey skies above; but nothing truly worthy of my foul weather gear. This is what I refer to as The Umbrella Effect—when you have one, you don’t need one; and, conversely, should you question the intent and/or abilities of the heavens when you don’t have one, buckets of water will relentlessly descend to teach you some respect.
Yes, my clothes are wet; and, now that I am standing by the side of the field, it is truly raining, making them wetter (I’ve taken off the rain suit y’see). Yet, I am grinning from ear-to-ear. And why not—Gunther and I have been having a great time riding through hill and dale in rural Ontario on this Saturday morning. It’s noon, and we’ve just arrived at our destination for today—Quayle’s of Cahiague, an up-and-coming hops farm near Coldwater. I say “up-and-coming” because the farmers, Bri-mate and Doon—good friends from way (way) back–having successfully launched Phase 1 of their hops farm earlier this year, are seizing an opportunity to launch Phase 2 ahead of schedule.
Phase 2 involves planting several thousand hops plants of varying varieties in rows that sprawl across a few acres. It doesn’t seem like a lot of work when you see the plants in the trays; but, when there are only three people (Bob, a farm hand, is also helping out), and all the planting is being done by hand (the farm is up-and-coming, remember—funds are scarce), Bri-mate and Doon can use all the help they can get.
Why hops? Simple: there’s a demand. See, beer micro-breweries have caught on like a wild fire in recent years; and they are purchasing the hops for their brews from South of the border. Quayle’s of Cahiague intends to give them a locally-grown, organic alternative.
Which is how Gunther and I find ourselves standing next to this field on this soggy Saturday morning. We’re here to help. Well, I am; Gunther is resting under the cover of a Birch tree.
Bri-mate explains the situation to me: They’ve got 4,500 plants that need to be planted this weekend or next. After that, all bets are off because frost becomes an issue; and when the frost gets to them, they return to the place from whence they came (unlike all the money that has been invested into purchasing them). Doon and Bob are measuring out the beds, placing straws in the ground to mark the spots where the plants are to be planted, and dropping plants beside each straw. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to help Bri-mate dig a small hole beside each straw, drop a plant in it, and cover the roots with soil.
“You feel like helping,” Bri-mate asks?
“Let’s get ‘er in,” I respond. I have always wanted to say that.
And so, we spend some hours in the precious daylight planting hops—first the Cashmeres, then the Triple Pearls. Well, I mean, it’s day; and, to be sure, it’s light; but, excepting for the occasional appearance of a fragment of blue sky, it’s mostly raining—at times torrentially. Not that this matters to me because I am already soaked to the skin as we have previously discussed.
As we plant, we talk; and I find the work to be quite relaxing. I think that, when people work together doing something menial like planting a field, they are afforded time they wouldn’t otherwise have to just… shoot the breeze—about hops and it’s role in the beer brewing process (it’s the stuff that gives beer its bitter taste); about Led Zeppelin (Cashmere, one of the hops varieties we’re planting –> “Cashmere”, the song by Led Zeppelin –> Jimmy Page, lead guitarist for Led Zeppelin –> what kind of a mind thinks up the complicated riffs you find in “Cashmere” –> what an amazing band Led Zeppelin was –> dude –> dude).
Time somehow collapses; and a couple of hours pass. Despite the damp weather, I am getting a bit parched since, having been focused on planting and yakking, I haven’t had anything to drink in a while. It’s time for a break. We wander over to the Ford F-150 to get some water only to find the last of the water bottles is nearly empty. Not to worry for, down a nearby embankment, there’s a natural spring. We fill our water bottles. I try not to guzzle; but the water is so cold and crisp, it’s hard not to. Bri-mate explains the tests that have been done on the water indicate it is a lot closer to pure H2O than most springs. That explains it.
Another few hours in the field, and then it’s time to begin heading back down to the city lest I find myself riding on unlit highways at night in the rain and fog. Between the two of us, we have made a sizable dent in the work at hand; but there are still many plants to be planted. While I would like to stay longer to help increase the size of that dent, the trade-off isn’t worth it; and I saunter over to the Birch tree under which Gunther has been waiting patiently to transform from farmer back to rider.
The boys take a break to see me off—they’ll continue farming as long as there is enough light to see—and there are hand shakes and congratulations all around. Then, with a press Gunther’s starter button, we’re off; and I am cautiously guiding my steed back up the muddy track through the fields leading to the road.
Half an hour later, we are on the highway, heading back down to civilization. Soon, I’ve picked up the rhythm of the traffic on this particular evening; and, as I switch over to autopilot my mind wanders. I think about Bri-mate and Doon and the chunk of life they have ambitiously bitten off. Like many before them, they are rolling the dice across an open field. Beyond a certain point, though, a lot depends on the mood of Mother Nature. Will they make it? I think they’ll pull it off. They’ve got tenacity.
Closer to home, I exit the highway and, as I wait for a red light to turn green, I think about the destiny of the hops we’ve planted today. Hmmm… Gears begin to turn; and cogs drop into place… Yes, I think a detour to one of my favorite watering holes for a beer and some chicken wings is in order.
Update: Two weeks have passed since my visit to Quayle’s of Cahiague. The boys were able to get the remainder of the plants into the ground by the Tuesday after I was up at the farm. Just as well—we’ve seen the first signs of frost this past week.
Here is a bit of the ride along Highway 3 in lower BC. It had been recommended by other bikers I had met on the road and did not disappoint!
Here is a sample of what one can expect on The Alaska Highway.
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Let’s set the mood.
Earlier today, on my way through North Dakota, I stopped for a photo op at the geograph
ical centre of North America. No video this time, I’m afraid; it was windy/rainy/cold — not the best conditions for video. Gunther was in a good mood, though; and was more than ready for photo in front of the marker.
While there, I couldn’t help but notice I was feeling a little peckish; and decided to try out the Mexican restaurant across the parking lot from the marker: The Rancho Grande. I mean, come on; an authentic Mexican restaurant at a crossroads in the Mid-West? How could I not?
Homemade salsa and tortilla chips, a BIG burrito and a Mexican cola. That’s all I’m going to say. Well, that, and that it was a delicious change from diner burgers. I asked Aaron, who was slinging food and otherwise making patrons feel good, what on earth made them think they could turn a profit selling Mexican food o
ut in the middle of nowhere (yeah, yeah, it’s the middle of somewhere ’cause it’s the middle of North America): “Truckers,” he told me. The owners were already turning a healthy profit selling Mexican food to truckers with their locations in Kansas. One day, someone suggested there are a lot of hungry truckers looking for something other than typical diner food up this way. A lightbulb exploded; and eight months ago, they opened this place.
So, how’s business? Aaron says they weren’t planning to turn a profit for a couple years; but, they are doing well now. “The one challenge is finding good people [to work in the restaurant].” If anyone out there is looking for gig in a cool Mexican restaurant, reach out to Aaron at, well, at The Centre of North America, corner of Hwys 2 and 3. North Dakota.
Before North Dakota, I was in Montana as I
began making my way back East through the U.S. I have to say, the people I met here are among the friendliest people one could ever know.
On Thursday night, for example, I detoured off the highway around 6 p.m. looking for a place to get some dinner; and found myself in the village of Joplin (population 200, I heard). I say, village; but there’s really not much there except a few farms and houses and a shop or two that repairs farm machinery. There was, however, the local watering hole with neon “Bar and Grill” sign in the window. The “Grill” part caught my eye; and I pulled into the unpaved parking lot among the pick-ups.
You need to know I was wearing my bright, yellow rain suit as the weather had been cold and wet throughout the afternoon.
So, I ventured up to the heavy wooden door, and opened it. As I entered, the chatter I had heard from outside stopped. You could hear a pin drop as the locals looked at me. I could feel all the eyes on me as I walked over to the bar, my boots making a clunk-clunk-clunk sound on the floor. I’m not making this up — It was just like in one of those old westerns. The woman behind the bar even said “Whaddlya have.” She didn’t say “Paht-nah” though.
“Whiskey, straight up, bahkeep” I didn’t say. Rather, I knew the bright yellow rain suit was standing out just a bit; and grinned and said, “I’ll bet you don’t get people coming into your bar dressed like this every day!” After that, they started chattering away again. One of them said, “When you came through the door, we thought you were from Mars!”
And that’s how I got to know a few of the good people of Joplin. The woman behind the bar turned out to be tough on the outside (I wouldn’t want to misbehave in her place) but there was a kind heart that shone through. Plus, she made the best fried chicken I’ve eaten in a long time.
The guy sitting next to me at the bar was drinking his latest Kokanee; and introduced himself as Mike. Mike was a bear of a man; a farmer who spiced sentences with “Goddamn.” Mike told me about how he learned to ride motorcycles by learning on dirt bikes, one of which was a 3-cylinder Yamaha he had a bad fall with: “…that sonbitch taught me a lesson THAT day…”
Mike told me who the others were — his cousin who was building a wedding cake for his daughter’s up-coming wedding; and other friends and relatives. Another man, named Oslo, came in to the bar and joined in the banter; and began talking to me about my trip as if we’d known each other all of our lives.
Here’s the thing: I was there for less than an hour. And, in tha short span of time, these people took me in — a complete stranger from the highway — and made me feel as if I belonged with them; with their community.
So, a BIG thanks to the folks I met on Thursday. This one’s for you (it’s Janis Joplin; get it?)
to walk/climb for up to two hours to get to the coal vein the were mining; they didn’t get paid for this time — they got paid for the amount of coal they were able to mine (50 cents per ton); and to mine the coal, they had to hold 30-lb pneumatic picks (like small jack hammers) at a 37-degree angle, often over their heads for 8h per day in dimly-lit caverns (Note to self: Don’t piss off a miner).
150 km ago. That’s where the mile marker is. Of course, I had to go to the end, official or not, lest there be any doubt as to whether I have, in fact, ridden The Alaska Highway from one end to the other.
A little further North, now. This is what the “highway” is like just North or Kluane (kloo-ah-ney).