11. 10-08-11 USA: The Ride – Part I

P1000368-1 (600x400)The Great North-West

I can’t think of a better way to leave Canada than on the ferry from Sydney, on Vancouver Island, to Anacortes, WA.  The heavily laden behemoth slowly tugs through the very heart of the San Juan Islands, passing countless changing currents of the Puget Sound, and finally revealing the great, snow-capped, peak of Mt. Baker.

It was nice to have the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties I had faced, the wonderful people I had met, and the breathtaking things I had seen over the last 5000 miles. What could be more conducive to reflection than the rhythmic rumble of the engines; the cool salty breeze on the deck; the jumping fish, porpoises and whales, in denim colored water; bright, white sailboats lazily rising and falling with the swells; countless islands – inhabited or deserted, thickly covered with evergreens; and of course the majesty of the lonely mountain in the distance.

Though sore and tired, I was never the less excited to mount my steed when we landed in Anacortes. Down highway 20, 536 and interstate 5, on the northern outskirts of Seattle, live Jay and Dionne – fellow bikers, artists and hikers whom I met in Jasper national park in Alberta. This would be the first of many reunions I would have as I slowly made my way around the states and down to Mexico. I was looking forward to some rest, good food, great company, and provocative, politically charged, art.

After a few restful days, and nibbling on the grape vines in Jay’s backyard, I returned the call of the road and headed south to the Olympic peninsula. Fortunately the disgusting traffic of Interstate 5 beheld me for only an hour, before I could cut across on HWY 16, over the Tacoma Narrows, and enter the peninsula. I followed the coast north, switched to HWY 3 and then HWY 104 over the Hood Canal Floating Bridge and finally connected to the famous Route 101 (El Camino Real). The road took me north around the peninsula, past towns with multiple churches on every block, Olympic National Park, and finally turned south along the Pacific coast.

Where 101 hugs the coast, it is difficult to ride: all progress becomes retarded by views of the endless sea, fog covered cliffs, and moss laden coastal high plain. Thankfully, El Camino Real veers often inland, which allowed me to coast, hugging the curvy road, for countless miles without ever feeling the boredom of a straightaway. I spent a couple of dreamy nights on the coast before taking a sharp turn east, toward Corvallis, OR, on the inspirationally curvy HWY 34 (out of Waldport).  Through mostly secondary and tertiary forest, 34 winds eastward with curves so tight you forget to breathe for what seems to be miles. Every once in a while a giant truck and trailer stacked with trees will ask to share this tiny road, and in those moments you simply pray there is no leaf to slip upon, no stray rock to make you tumble under any of the 18 wheels  flying a few feet past your face. The Magna sits pretty high for a cruiser, but with all my gear, and wont to take curves at 200% recommended speed limit, sparks were flying and adrenaline was pumping for most of the 65 miles from coast to town.

In Corvallis I found refuge with the family of a good friend from New York. Their home was like a dream: with gardens, fountains, blackberry bushes, bee hives, and an absolute feeling of isolation from the world. It’s hard leaving a place you wish was your own home, but, as usual, I could stay for only a few days before returning that ceaseless call of the blacktop. Now that my wheels were pointing east, that feeling of urgency intensified as I saw every day bringing me closer to my mother’s home, and the end of the first stage of my journey.

Out of Corvallis I took HWY 20, through the Cascades and onto Bend for a reunion with Sarah. Our Adventures in Glacier bonded us for life, so I was eager to share some brews, and some mountain views, with her again. Bend, OR is one of those magical places replete with local breweries made delicious by mountain springs, views of those mountains, and easy access to them, but without all the crazy weather of mountains. I again spent just a few days in a place I would like to have remained for a long time.

I took HWY 97 out of Bend, which took me through the heart of Oregon Trail country, where settlers came 200 years ago with the thought of finding new, and rich, soil, but which in fact turned about to be a dry pocket in an otherwise fertile area. Regardless of the frightening and desolate expanses of dry tall grasses, I managed to find the best raspberry pie I’ve ever had on one of the few Main streets I passed before hitting the Columbia River Gorge.

Interstate 84, where it runs along the Columbia River, is one of the few exceptions to the general ugliness of interstates. Here, it curves with the river and offers spectacular views of what was once, before the extensive damming, one of the mightiest rivers in the world. I rode along, tossed to and fro by the powerful gusts of the river, and equally powerful ones from passing semis, until HWY 730, which brought me back into Washington State and quickly connected me to HWY 12. This magical road begins from the Columbia River Gorge, skirts the Snake River, passes Walla Walla wine country, traverses the magical expanse of the Palouse in the Colombia Basin, and continues through Idaho with stretches of 100 miles without a straightaway! This road is by far one of my favorites in the country, and one of the best motorcycle roads I have ever been on.

DSC_0453 (600x399)Highway 12 dropped me off in Missoula after 2 days, with a stop in Walla Walla, of excellent riding. The constant changes of scenery, from rolling hills (formed by the breaking of an ice dam during the Ice Age), to river valleys where you can visit campsites left by Lewis and Clark, to magnificent waterfalls, mountains, and enormous stretches of forest, left me in absolute awe. Arriving in Missoula, which is situated in the Rocky Mountain foothills, was no reprieve from the magnificence which kept bringing America the Beautiful into my mind.

But it was here, after 8000 miles of mechanically smooth riding, that I encountered my first trouble with the Magna. And it all started with a burger…


Adventures in Mechanics

After riding hundreds of miles without repose or nourishment, one is want to be quite ravenous when pulling into a Sonic Drive-Thru. I was in such a state, and was so busy contemplating whether I would order fries or tots, that I neglected to turn off my steed – which dutifully drained my battery.

This happens every so often, and the solution is simple: push the bike to a trot, jump on, kick her into second gear, cough, choke, jerk… and you’re off! However, as I had 200lbs of gear on the bike, I was in for quite a workout and test of balance. Usually once you get the bike going the alternator will recharge the battery, but for some reason my alternator decided to take a vacation, so a jump-start was how I had to start… every time.

A few days later I found myself alone, in the middle of a huge prairie – The National Bison Range in Montana. The cool of the mountains from my morning ride had turned to a blaring late summer heat in the vast golden expanse of the range. All was fun and sweat, until a fateful moment when I heard the clanking of a chain and felt the loss of forward velocity.

I quickly engage both brakes and sat breathless for a moment trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  I looked over my shoulder toward where my chain should have been snuggly resting on my sprockets, only to find it dangling like a wilted flower. Suddenly the grandeur of the mountains, and the breathtaking expanse of the range, were but shadows in the light of this small catastrophe. If I let go of the brakes the bike will likely roll down the hill and go tumbling into a herd of horned beasts; if I shut it off I will have to kick start it up a hill (not possible);  and yet I couldn’t sit there in the hopes of being discovered, as I was utterly alone.

I put out the kick stand and prayed that the friction would be enough to keep the bike from rolling back. As I laid down beneath the four pipes blasting their heat and exhaust in my face, I contemplated what would happen if the bike were to fall over onto my face. Within a minute I started to feel a little sick and light headed. I was trying to reach around the pipes in order to hook the chain onto a few sprockets, but those pipes stood guard against my efforts with a thousand degree heat that instantly and permanently brands skin upon contact. I tried desperately not to think about being in a place full of rattle snakes, spiders and bison, none of which I could hear because of the pipes.

But calm is always the order of the day when on a motorcycle or in the wilderness, so I very calmly, with only occasional exclamations, and prayers that the bike wont slip and burn my face off, wriggled the chain onto one sprocket tooth at a time. I could only attach 3 links as the rest of the sprocket was inaccessible.
I climbed back on the bike which had so graciously not gone rolling down the hill, said another quick prayer, and curse for the mechanic who did not adjust my chain, put her in gear and slowly, very very slowly, rolled back on the throttle. I started rolling back slowly, then a little forward, about half a foot, before the chain fell off again.

My racing heart, and neglected breathing made it very difficult to stay calm. Did I really have to do that all again? Will the steed stay upright again as I try to re-hook the chain? Will I have to walk God knows how many miles for help?
With all the to do, I completely forgot to remove the, what felt like a thousand, layers of clothing I was wearing, and was drenched with sweat. Still dizzy from the pipes, more dizzy from the heat and dehydration, I climbed off to do it all again.

10 years of venturing into mountains, wilderness, the open road, and  streets of New York, have engrained the necessary calm that allowed me to get under the bike again. You only truly fail when you stop trying.

As I remounted and rode over that hill, through the rest of the range, and to the nearest shop to replace my battery and alternator, the overwhelming beauty of the West re-emerged from the shadows of memory, and I was again overcome with gratitude for being able to do what I am doing and continue my journey.


Last Leg

DSC_0062sLeaving Missoula meant entering again the ungraspable vastness of the Great Plains, and prairies, of the central part of the continent. Those very winds which forced me to lean, as though making a giant turn, for 250 miles stretches of Canada, returned as I traversed eastern Montana, Wyoming and the Badlands of South Dakota.

I stuck to HWY 12 out of Missoula, made a quick connection onto 212 which brought me into Rapid City. The mind numbing ride was relieved by a visit to Mount Rushmore, which is worth every mile you drive to get there. It’s hard to explain the sensation of gazing upon a mountainside carved by human hands. Looking at a Michelangelo or Donatello is one thing – they are statues you can behold and contemplate within a graspable parameter of confined space. But an entire mountain is something different altogether. And that it displays the visages of our nation’s greatest presidents – true menDSC_0514s of honor, true statesmen - is enough for a grown, bearded, periodically bathed, man to choke up and need to walk away from his friends for a moment.

Mount Rushmore and the adjacent Badlands were the end of the first leg of my journey. For the rest of the ride to Minneapolis I decided to take I-90 so as to avoid the flooding up north, and to more quickly pass the monotonous landscape.

DSC_0519sThe bike, however, was not done with me. Just 100 miles from my mother’s house, my headlight blew out. As sure as Minnesotan’s love fishing, I was pulled over by a state trooper, who, along with the ticket, gave me directions to the nearest Wal-Mart. It was already dark and the store about to close, but as I was lucky enough to have a fellow rider stop to help me on the side of the highway, so I was to make it before closing time. That very same kind soul helped me install the light, and gave me good company for the ride to the Twin Cities.

I arrived in Eagan, MN late on the night of the 10th of October – 2 months and 9500 miles after leaving New York, and 2 days before my 29th birthday. I gave my mother a hug, ate a bowl of soup, and passed on my old bed, in my old room, and slept a long, long while – knowing this was only the beginning.

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