Aug 2009

Extreme Solitude

Henk loves rainbows
Moose outnumber humans in the Yukon 2 to 1.

You have no idea how vast the north is until you're in it. Yes, you can fly over it and see with your eyes that it does actually go forever, but until you've rounded a rock-walled curve in sunshine and come out the other side in a wall of rain, and done that twenty times in a day over miles of gravel through countless construction sites under an endless moody sky, until you've been at the top of a steep hill and poured yourself head first into an infinite sea of evergreen, until you've listened to the immeasurable silence and met the eyes of a solitary black bear, you can only imagine.

If you've ever been swallowed whole by the universe, if you've ever slipped through the veil, unnoticed, to a place between worlds, where time means nothing and no thing matters, lifetimes are condensed and expanded simultaneously, and everything is forgotten in an instant, even breath, you might have a sense of the allure of the north.

When you've stood alone at the edge of the cosmos and seen your reflection in the velvet gap, you've understood how vast you are. Not as an abstract concept, but as a concrete reality.

Eat Chocolate Truffles: Parts Will Break

"Travelling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things - air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky - all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it." Cesare Pavese

I'm trying to remember a moment in my riding story when everything was new, but I can't. When riding was new, I had a couple of second-hand bikes. When Henk was new, I had hand-me-down riding gear (still do). When the Alaska Highway was new, Henk was already aging.

I have a silver duct tape patch on my ass because a bungy cord from my luggage poked through the leather. People can't help but comment on it. "Thank god for duct tape!" Or "Nice patch, you know, they make it in camouflage now..." My jacket zipper keeps splitting open, then getting stuck half-way down, making me fear I'll have to cut myself out one of these days with my jack knife. My tent poles are split and flimsy, the elastic cord that snaps them together having long lost its elasticity, and the tent leaks in the rain. My thermarest is never as full in the morning as it was when I blew it up the night before. My helmet cam is acting up, so I lost some great stuff I thought I took of mountain sheep and caribou around Muncho Lake. And my favorite riding shirt is really just a faded blue waffle cotton rag held together at the shoulder seams, holier than Swiss cheese after a mouse has had a solid meal.

Inside my human machine, my knees and knuckles, the joints that take all the cold wind have started complaining - just a little, but enough to let me know a hot spring along the way is a good thing. My dorsal vertebrae are becoming more sensitive to the weight of my helmet and fighting the force of the wind with no fairing. And my face is advertising the miles it's seen from 4 feet above the dusty road.

No one should be surprised, then, when something breaks. Yes, Henk and I have become seasoned travellers and the weather and the road are starting to show. As sweet as it is to fantasize about a sparkly brand new bike and crisp new teflon riding gear, I'm proud of our adventures together, and would much rather be covered in dirt, slightly broken and lined by a story than clean and pristine without a scratch.

So today, Henk's clutch cable snapped. That thing's held on for 113,000kms and as always, it could have been worse.

I rode south today from Dawson City after six days of Dawson living off the grid, bathing prospector-style, visiting Dawson friends and playing Dawson poker. The forecast for both Dawson and Whitehorse was cool with sun, but of course, once I got out into the nothingness of the Klondike Highway, it rained.

I had an opportunity to be a KHA (Klondike Highway Angel) when I passed a camper with its door wide open. I pulled over in front of them and flagged them down to let them know. They were a mid-aged couple from Wisconsin, way up here on an adventure, and were very grateful I'd saved them from losing stuff out the back. They'd planned a drive up the Dempster for the fall colors, but seeing the weather, had changed their minds. The Dempster turns into slippery chocolate pudding when it rains, and bikes, RVs and trucks get stuck in the mud.

"You're very brave," the woman said as I pulled out my rain gear. Yes, I suppose I am, but bravery is measured on a sliding scale. I think I was much more brave the first time I did this ride. Now that I know what's up here (or more acurately, what's not), I could justifiably be considered crazy.

I saw a total of 2 dozen vehicles, if that, in both directions the entire 6 hours. One was a couple from Alaska I met at Pelly Crossing filling their tank all cushed out in their brand new Honda Goldwing. I say "in" rather than "on", because they both get lazyboy chairs behind a huge fairing that blocks the wind and rain, a headset system hooked up to their helmets so they can chat, and an ipod full of tunage.

"Honey, when you get to be our age, you need all the comforts you can get."

I hear ya, sista. I hear ya. I had the extreme luxury of newly installed heated grips through the rainy Pine Pass north of Prince George, but since my battery died north of Fort Nelson, I've been afraid to use them.

I pulled in to Whitehorse in time to catch Red at Yukon Harley leaving for the day. We scheduled a first thing in the am checkup, rear tire change, front brake pad replace and primary chain tighten and off I went to set up my tent.

After getting settled at the
Robert Service Campground, I hopped back on Henk to ride into town for a burrito from Compadres Burritos truck, which I thought was open til 7:30. The clutch felt loose all of a sudden, making it rough switching gears, but I made it to the riverside park where the burrito truck was just closing for the night.

As soon as I grabbed the clutch to start Henk up again, (no burrito), the cable snapped. No clutch, no start. Yes, it could've been way worse. I could've been between Whitehorse and Dawson City, with nothing but spindly pines and gravel for a billion hectares.

The AHA (see previous post) sent me the new high school principal and his wife, newly arrived from Winnipeg and originally from St. John's, out for a power walk and wanting some weights to add to the workout. They saw me struggling with my saddlebags and helped me lug them and helmet all the way back to the campground.

So Henk's spending the night alone at Riverside Park. I'm sleeping on a sinking thermarest on frozen ground, dreaming of
hotsprings and Alpine Bakery Blueberry Earl Grey truffles. Hope to have both tomorrow. But to think I control my adventure would be utter folly...

Alaska Highway Angels and Wilderness Spa

I'm in one of my favorite places on the planet: in my sleeping bag, in my tent at Liard River Provincial Park, at 10:20pm after a 5-hour drive up the gravel-patched chip-sealed Alaska Highway and a 3 hour soak in the hotsprings. A good dose of self-massage, from foot to forehead, and a good yoga stretch in the water from throttle fingers to thoracic vertebrae and I'm cured of all riding kinks and cramps. A northern wilderness-style mani-pedi with a pummice stone fixed my very un-girlie fire-starting, battery-changing, broken-nailed hands and boot-laden feet. My road-dusted skin is soft again and I feel like I could stay up all night, though I know I'll sleep like a bear cub.

This would be the ultimate spa. Way up the Alaska Highway in the wilds of Northern BC, natural healing hotsprings, fresh air, beauty as far as the eye can see. You could offer massage and watsu, have yoga workshops, a healing kitchen and meditation huts...But it's also just perfect the way it is, run by Armond and his team of bear dogs (latest addition, Connie, in pic) - rustic, no amenities, not even a lodge across the highway anymore due to poor management. Glad I had a veggie burger at Toad River.

I'd have been here two days ago, but I've been living another classic Henk the Buell on the Alaska Highway adventure - one of those adventures that makes for good drama, but for those people who care about me, one of those adventures they'd probably rather not know about. As for myself, I'm feeling like an angel magnet. There's a whole entire army of Alaska Highway Angels (AHA) out here when you need them. And I needed them two days ago.

If you watch the videos, you'll see that the time between Henk laying down in the gravel ditch and rescue is about 20 seconds. I asked for someone strong, and as if to demonstrate their celestial sense of humor, AHA sent me an angel named "Arnie" - and his two buddies, Trevor and Jared, and a whole convoy of trucks, and a trailer and tie-downs, and even a little boy angel named Kale.

I also now feel like the appointed AHA ambassador. Somewhere on another plane, there exists a benevolent committee doling out experiences as part of a galactic master plan, and somewhere along the way, a motion was passed that I would be given the privilege and task of letting people know it's ok to leave their livingrooms. That shit will happen out here, yes - it wouldn't be an adventure without some foul weather or a foiled plan; but the AHA are everywhere, and if your drive belt comes off or your battery goes dead, they won't let the grizzlies have you for lunch.


Expect Sudden Weather Changes

The sign was right: "High mountain pass. Expect sudden weather changes."

Yesterday was one of those days that separates the adventurers from the girlie boys. There's no photo or video cause I was too busy concentrating on staying alive.

If you look at a map of northern BC, you'll see that between Prince George and Chetwynd, there ain't much. It's 300kms of badass remoteness. I say badass because I've now been caught out here
twice in heavy downpour with no shelter. The Weather Network has no clue. "30% chance of light rain." Ha! Maybe in Chetwynd, maybe in Prince George, but what about the 300km black hole in between? There's simply too much land and sky up here to give an accurate read. You never know until you are under it what the sky will throw at you. Expect sudden weather changes, then throw away your expectations.

At least yesterday's was drive-able, and for the first hour I got lucky, the road always seeming to curve just west by a hair of the storm cloud. The problem is, once you're an hour north of Prince George, there's no turning back, and here in the high passes, land of tall evergreens, giant moose, big bears and infinite sky, you can dodge a weather system only so long.

So it rained. Those big, heavy raindrops that when they hit you feel like pebbles. It rained for a few hours, so I sang. I always sing in my helmet when it's raining. It helps me concentrate and moves my mind away from fear. I know I'm on a good adventure when I'm doing a lot of singing. And when you hear me sing, you know I'm happy.

Some people live one day at a time. Others eat an elephant one bite at a time. When I'm riding through rain, I ride one kilometre at a time. I don't try to get anywhere fast, I don't put off pulling out the rain gear, I don't call for the back-up vehicle, much as I sometimes wish there were one. I simply reduce my speed, pull in my focus and ride. There's nothing like a good downpour to make you appreciate a break in the clouds. And a hot shower. And fleece pants.

So today, when I had the Alaska Highway all to myself and not a drop of rain, I was in bliss. I've been here before (bliss and this campground). I'm in Fort Nelson at the West End Campground, where they now have Wi-Fi and a saloon.

I pulled in here around 7pm, pleasantly exhausted from the ride today from Chetwynd. The light up north at 7pm is incredible. It has the quality of a late afternoon elsewhere, but the shadows here are long and deep and rich, the sky is a definite masculine blue and the grass and trees, true forest green.

I've been riding for 3 days from Vancouver, fuelled by my excitement for the far north, the solitude, the vastness, both inner and outer, and the timeless two days and nights spent in the company of the man to whom I was married. Seems we've each moved beyond hurting each other in this lifetime. Now for act II perhaps we'll be great friends. It's an awesome trick of nature that people do all their coupling and child-bearing before they know any better. Once we've got the perspective of time and the wisdom of years, we know too well.

As I rode north of Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, into the beautiful nothingness of the north, I was struck with a profound sense of power coupled simultaneously with utter powerlessness. mmm. The lessons of the road run deep.

The girl at the desk, "Auntie", said they're calling for frost tonight. It's been a wet and quiet summer she said, and the season's already winding down. Part of the campground is already closed for the winter season. Summer's just a blip up north. Enjoy it while you have it. And expect sudden weather changes.

Saturday Market on Salt Spring Island


Heartbreak vs HarleyDog

The ferry's just pushing back from the land of faeries and good witches and Salt Spring Coffee. I had two delicious sleeps on the cool ground of a cedar grove, this morning's brought to a quiet end by a fine 5am drizzle on my tent's fly.

I remember my old friend Huck rhapsodizing about Salt Spring Island as a magical place of healing. He spent a summer here after helping me with the monstrous task of extracting myself from my marriage and my cafe in Banff - help I didn't recall asking for, so of course it ended badly. Seemed he needed nature and solitude and some soft earth to unload some tears on.

I'm thinking about heartbreak. Not because mine is broken, but because all this water and all these lonely little islands evoke a sense of isolation and abandon. I'm thinking of the story Peter told me of the Friday and Sunday "divorce ferries" dropping off kids to one parent or the other and how the child being shunted to and fro had her first experience of heartbreak way too early the moment she realized her parents no longer loved each other. I'm thinking of Huck, wondering where he is now, hoping his heart has long ago healed. Thinking of another heart I blindly tore to shreds somewhere out here on this liquid land and was recently reminded of the deep scars it left, both in the man and on the island, and thinking of the man to whom I was married, because in about 3 hours, we'll be having dinner.

Yes, I'm thinking about heartbreak, but my heart no longer dwells in that place. I no longer understand it. Oh, there was a day, yes, when I could cry a torrent of tears, wail away in the world of woe is me, and oooh, it was fertile ground! Fresh, unstomped-in muck, all wet and soggy and shitty, fodder for poetry and pissing matches and drama and love letters never sent. But Lord! What a waste of good energy! Now, when I think about heartbreak, I find very close to the surface a surprising tenderness and - not so surprising - a hearty laugh.

My dear friend and wise yogini Helen told a story the other day of a man jogging up the hill in her neighbourhood, his face contorted way beyond determination. "Suffering!" she said in mock pain. And we laughed.

When I think of the breakdown I had in India almost ten years ago after my marriage dissolved and how I was curled up in the fetal position, wailing, unconsolable for an entire day, I'm still able to access that place in my heart that was shattered. I could still choose today to hurl an ocean of tears over the edge of the ferry. But the sun is out, I'm on my way to a new opportunity to heal old hurts, there's a dog who rides a Harley on this ship, and I'd much rather giggle.

Bad News, Good News & Island Microcosms

I'm hunkered in amongst the tall cedars of Rainbow Nurseries on Salt Spring Island. There are three Japanese women camped next to me, giggling, sitting around what would have been a campfire had they not been banned all over BC due to fires burning wild throughout the province. They flew ten hours to be here.

It's 9:30pm, dark and quiet. There's a slight chill in the air - just enough to cool my fingertips as I type. My sleepingbag is inviting. I got the last spot in this sweet little wooded campground by chance. It's funny, you never know whether news is good or bad until much later.

I arrived at the ferry just as it was loaded and ready to depart. Normally they'd have room for one little motorbike, but they claimed this time to be full full. The next ferry would be a 90 minute wait. Bummer!

I paid my fare and rolled out onto the spit to watch seagulls and gaze out at the gulf islands. The guy in the car behind me got out and offered me a sip of beer in a McDonald's cup.

"It's Salt Spring Happy Hour!" he said. What luck!

I offered him some black olive hummus that Helen and Daniel had kindly packed up for me, along with a little bag of corn chips, some West Coast bread and a garden zucchini. Together we had a little happy hour picnic on the pier.

Peter, as it turned out, is the owner of the local gym and knows everyone on the island. "I came for lunch 18 years ago and I'm still here," he said. "It happens to a lot of people, so watch out..."

When I inquired about camping, he got on his cell and called his friend Shirley, who runs this campground closest to the Saturday market. She had one spot left and reserved it for me. Apparently I can walk a lovely path through the woods to the famous Ganges market in the morning. What luck!

"This is also the divorce ferry," he said, as a truck drove up and a kid hopped out the passenger side. "People move here and relationships explode. You have to be able to live with yourself - and your partner - here. It's a small island. Friday and Sunday evenings the kids get shunted back and forth between parents."

We talked about island life and the Yukon and gym ownership and motorbike riding and before I knew it, happy hour was over and the next ferry had arrived.

Peter gave me a day pass to his gym so I can take a shower tomorrow (it's very rustic here, only cold showers, cold water and outhouses), and when we said goodbye, he gave me his number and invited me to a paella feast he's throwing tomorrow for some friends.

Good news the first ferry was full full. Goodnight.

Spontaneous & Pronto

When I woke up this morning in Osoyoos, I did not know that twelve hours later I'd be on the ferry to Nanaimo watching a pod of Orcas glide by. Nor did I know I'd be up past midnight drinking wine, discussing identity, sovereignty and scheming ways of transcending the rat race with my dear friends in Nanaimo.

One of the beauties of solo travel is that you can wake up in Osoyoos, do some yoga before the desert sun comes up over the sage hills, tear down the tent and pack up the bike without a plan. You can glide into town for coffee, stick your finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing and go. No one's gonna say "I wanna do this or that, or I need a hungry man breakfast before we do anything, or hurry up we have to make so and so before sunset."

It's always a bonus when friends along the way are spontaneous enough to welcome a ragged biker at a moment's notice. That's another beauty of solo travel - there's only one of you imposing for dinner.

I rode all day from 11 til 5:30, through the hot desert blow dryer of the Okanagan Valley, over the curvy Princeton to Hope pass through Manning Park, down through the Fraser Valley full of farms, then hit the ferry just as it was boarding, and arrived at Helen and Dan's just in time for a fabulous meal of fresh garden zucchini and beans with herbed basmati rice and a bottle of BC sauvignon blanc.

Yes. Henk the Buell and I are blissful. Goodnight til tomorrow.

Warm Wind Blowin'

lake osoyoos
There's a warm wind blowing over Lake Osoyoos bending the willows and tossing motorboats around in the little marina at the bistro where I just had a beer. When I came in early this evening, the lake was invisible under a shroud of smoke a mile thick from the 5-700 fires burning in BC every day. These winds are helping to clear the air here, but they're no doubt spreading flames over the ridge. A young deer crossed the road in front of me just before the descent into Osoyoos and I thought of all the wildlife being displaced. Of course I thought of all the humans too, but I thought of the wildlife first.

It feels great to be back on the road. Henk's running beautifully and seems happy too. I left today without knowing where I was going. What a feeling, leaving the decision to Henk and the weather!

I had intended to ride to Banff to spend a few days visiting friends and family, but told me that it was raining there for the next five days. I've ridden enough in the rain when I haven't had a choice, so when I do, I choose not to. Then my friend in Kelowna called and told me not to bother coming that way because people are on evacuation alert due to fires.

So I hopped on Henk, all loaded for the northern trail, and let the wind blow through me.

Christina Lake

My fave place: on Henk, comin' in to Christina Lake.