Sep 2009

There are no boundaries...

"Travel is never about the destination. It's about the journey into self, the adventure of the spirit, and the accidental discovery that there are no boundaries." Firehorserider

I'm sifting through a pile of names and numbers on gas receipts, business cards and napkins of people from Northern California to Dawson City and everywhere in between, and I'm struck by the realization that without one of these people, my journey could not have been made.

I sometimes forget, in all my efforts to assert my independence, in the all-consuming energy it takes to fly solo, that the focus and goodwill of others is an essential ingredient in any successful journey. (And the belief in the ultimate goodness in others is an essential ingredient in the adventurer.) I'll tell you all about those people/angels in the next post, but in the interest of chronology, back to the story...

My last day on the Alaska Highway with Henk was the most difficult I've ever endured. I knew shortly after leaving Whitehorse that the mechanic who replaced the back tire and clutch cable had neglected to tighten the primary chain as I'd requested. Yet I couldn't afford to waste another day.
I rode with a loose primary chain once before, over the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado into New Mexico and made it, limping, into Santa Fe. But that was a day. Out on the Alaska Highway, I was four days' ride from a proper fix.

The rain didn't help. Weather is the number one concern for a motorcyclist after the safety of her bike. When it's cold, your hands freeze, making shifting and braking difficult. Your knees and neck freeze, stiffening, causing your whole body to contract around the steel frame like a vice. In my old leathers and cheap rain gear, rain gets in, dripping down my spine, soaking my feet, spraying my face. And visibility disappears.

After the logging truck lost its tires and miraculously didn't lose its load, I continued riding south. I don't know the physiology of shock. I don't know what happens to people who've witnessed something traumatic or had a close call. In the movies, they sort of stumble around with blank stares for awhile or maybe scream or beat up on someone. Unable to stumble and unmoved to scream, I went somewhere else...

Henk the Buell is named after my beloved grandfather, who died just a few years before I purchased the bike in '98. I have a handkerchief of Granddad's that's been around my neck for a hundred thousand of the 114,000 kilometres Henk and I have ridden. It's too shredded by wind to wear anymore, so it's stuffed in the front pocket of my leathers. I never ride without it. I like to think there's still a part of Granddad in the torn fabric of the hanky, even after countless washes. "Old Smoky" we used to call him, because we never saw him without his pipe. It was his favorite thing in the same way that Henk the Buell is mine.

It was still a four-hour ride in nothingness to the hotsprings. I babied Henk for fear of a breakdown and for once in my life I hoped for more traffic. The gaps of time and distance between other vehicles seemed to lengthen, and when I did see one, it was not a potential rescue vehicle. I'd blasted way past any established "comfort zone" and pushed into a place beyond safety and sanity, way outside boundaries I'd ever crossed. I'd travelled this road before, but never this territory.

I was weirdly altered, physically and mentally, and I was scared. I began to question whether I had actually survived the tire incident, that perhaps I was gliding quietly through some in-between place of infinite tundra and unending highways. I squeezed Henk's steel frame to feel the solid matter attached to me.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, as though dispensed from inside my helmet and the wilderness at once, a strong aroma wafted over me, filling my lungs, causing me to squeeze Henk even harder while I scanned the surrounding tundra for the source and questioned my reality. The fragrance was so unique and so deeply familiar, lingering with me for several miles. Even now, two months later, it's impossible to explain, yet it was unmistakable: my grandfather's pipe.

There were no tobacco fields, no burning bush, there was no one driving in front of me (or anywhere within a hundred miles) smoking, no northern flowers I know of give off the sweet scent of burning pipe tobacco. But there it was, undeniable, filling my helmet, as real as if I were sitting on my granddad's lap while he puffed away on his freshly lit pipe stuffed with heirloom Dutch tobacco.

I didn't know whether to be reassured or even more afraid. I thought I had crossed over, that I'd slipped behind the veil hanging between worlds way out there on the edge, unexpectedly uncovered the truth that all the limits I had lined up like warriors in defence of living were a lie, that I'd accidentally discovered that there are no boundaries...

Rain, Cold and Projectile Tires

"No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow." Lin Yutang

Four nights ago, I was sipping red wine from the Niagara Peninsula out of a plastic apple juice bottle listening to loons under an almost-full moon on McLeese Lake in central BC. Tonight, I'm sipping Echinacea and vitamin C tea from my favourite local health food store out of my favourite giant mug listening to under a fully full moon in view of the CN Tower in Toronto, and I'm just now, now that I have my favourite pillow under my head, realizing how exhausted I am from the efforts of the adventure.

I caught some arctic rain and wind in my throat between Dawson City and Whitehorse a week ago and it's stayed with me. Sleeping on near-freezing ground for three nights and hanging around in the rain for two days at the
Robert Service Campground waiting for my clutch cable to be shipped from Toronto didn't help, and the stress of riding those last few days on a battle-weary bike taxed my immune system.

The lovelies at
Alpine Bakery fed me incredible healing food and gave me enough vitamin C to flush a wood buffalo, and that held it all at bay until I got off the Alaska Highway and was able to relax. Now I'm nursing a throat infection while trying to make the most of my husky voice.

Yes, Whitehorse is remote enough that when a clutch cable goes, it can be an ordeal that involves airplanes and three-day delays. There are much worse places to be stranded, though. The locals are incredibly hospitable and the landscape is beautiful. It's the kind of place you could thrive if you love winter and the great outdoors and can handle long months of mostly darkness and long months of endless light...and bears.

I had coffee with Janet, who'd moved three weeks ago with her husband, the new high school principal, from Winnipeg. They were both looking forward to their first winter in the far north with curiosity and excitement. The
women's hairy leg contest should help alleviate any cabin fever that may have set in by February. I've been threatening to one day spend a winter up there, tucked in somewhere warm, maybe write Easy Riding with Henk: how to navigate life when it all goes to potholes ~ lessons from the road with Henk the Buell and His Lady Rider... So I'll be keeping tabs on Janet and Brendan to see how they fare...

Well, I got my Blueberry Earl Grey Truffle and my hotspring. The former the first day I was stranded, a delicious present from Suat at Alpine Bakery, and the latter three days later, after Red at Yukon Harley had replaced my clutch cable, set Henk up with a new rear tire, reinforced the broken carbon fibre fender...and failed to tighten the primary chain...

I was happy to be back on the road, even as the low-lying clouds started collecting and the rain started dropping as I filled my tank and headed south. Within an hour my primary chain started to squeak and rattle. I sighed aloud into my helmet. I'd specifically asked the guys to check the primary chain. I've ridden with a loose one before. It's not dangerous, until it is. And heading into nothingness until Prince George, or Grand Prairie, four days down the road, it is.

But I couldn't afford to turn around and delay for another day. My window for weather and mechanical problems had closed. This adventure had a time limit and a scheduled flight back to work.

It rained all the way to Watson Lake, where the sky to the south seemed to open and brighten, so I carried on through, patting Henk on the gas tank, "You can do it, Henk."

South of Watson Lake, in a drizzle, I was following tight behind an 8-wheeled logging truck piled high with freshly cut spruce. The spray from its four rear tires misted my visor, making it difficult to see, and the road was curved, so I was waiting for a straight stretch so I could pass safely. What happened next shook me to the core and confirmed yet again the presence of my AHA.

I was just about to edge left, pull out and pass him on a straight incline, when both of his rear left tires came flying off. One of them blew, throwing rubber scrap to my immediate right, and the other one flew over my left shoulder and bounced down the road and into the ditch behind us. I was way too close to have any time to react, so I simply instinctively applied my brakes. The truck fell over and squealed, swerving onto the right shoulder with sparks flying off its rear left axle. It pulled up the chip seal for about 5 seconds then stopped, half on, half off the road.

I pulled over to make sure the driver was ok (and to verify that I was still alive), then continued on my way, breathing deep and thanking my angels. Here's the thing: had I been anywhere else on the road other than tucked right in behind him sucking spray, I'd have been either hit by a flying tire or forced from the road trying to avoid it. Had I decided to pass one tenth of a second earlier, I'd have been in the direct path of the projectile tire.

The driver must've been in shock, because he got out and asked me where the tire was, rather than "are you ok, I could've killed you." We weren't far from the south edge of Watson Lake, so I knew he'd be fine. I will too, but the long ride ahead was the loneliest of my life. (See "Extreme Solitude" below.)

There was sun for awhile, not long enough to dry out completely and warm up to the bone, then more rain.

The remoteness of the land coupled with the uncertainty of the safety of my steed made it difficult to access my light heart and enjoy the ride. I found myself tracking the odometer for kilometres between vehicles that came along from the opposite direction. Twenty, forty, fifty, and not one of the few I did see capable of a rescue if it were required. My mood mirrored the dark sky. Or was it the dark sky that mirrored my mood?

I started questioning my sanity. What the hell was I doing? What was I thinking bringing a 12-year-old Buell S1, not a touring bike to begin with, out here on the gravel-patched, chip-sealed, pot-holed, eternally gnarly Alaska Highway - for the fourth time?! be continued. Next post, "Where the Hell is Henk?"