Continental Drift

May 1 2011

We love to get on our bike, two up, and head out for months at a time, a tent and sleeping bags in our panniers, a swimsuit and warm polar fleece in a sack. Long rides take on a life of their own. Your body adjusts, seizes up, loosens up, and your mind expands with every horizon. Although you may be a long way from home, you are never alone – the fellowship of riders and travellers who dream of riding is with you all the way. Humming along every back road that catches our attention is addictive. Our ride from Vancouver, B.C., to Key West, Florida, in January through March 2009 was just an appetizer. In July 2010, we traded in our Yamaha FZ6 for a BMW R1200RT and began the second course, riding from Vancouver Island and heading east to weave our way along the Canada–U.S. border. Our goal was to see the northern states, Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime Provinces and some of the Atlantic states, and then be home before the high mountain passes got too icy in October.

We ran through forest fires and temperatures of 104°F in Wenatchee, Washington, and shivered in the chill of an Atlantic storm on the Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia. In the Maritimes, we tented on the edge of some of the most glorious scenery, where a $20 bill bought us ringside seats to an unrivalled panorama of water and sky. In the Midwest, we pitched our tent sandwiched between a substation and a rail yard. In a ride that crossed back and forth between Canada and the United States, we met with old friends and made new ones.

Like seasoning in the stew, it’s the people met on the roadside who provide the flavour of each journey. Although some travellers have no idea why you’d like to be out, day after day, in all weathers, we were also surrounded by those who understood. There are estimated to be over 7,000,000 motorcyclists in the United States alone. At every gas station stop and diner, the BMW drew comment, and the farther we got from home, the more people would come up to us and share their stories of the long ride that defined their dreams and their lives. You can’t guess a biker by appearance. In one roadside diner, we sat in a booth next to an older couple – the wife was a tiny woman recovering from a stroke and using a walker to manoeuvre the aisle. Her proud husband told us of their biking days, and how one day she’d stalled her bike on a hill and laid it down. “By the time I got there, she had it up and running. I’ll never know how she did it,” he said. “That bike weighed twice as much as she did.”

In North Bend, Nebraska, we met a man who told us the classic story of a cultural gap between Americans and Canadians. In the 1980s, he was riding to the Arctic Circle and he met a group of Canadians to ride with. They set a rendezvous point and a speed limit of 100. “I never even thought of kilometres,” he said ruefully. “I was killing myself trying to lead at 100 miles an hour, and I finally had to stop. I was shaking with exhaustion and had to admit defeat, and they all just thought I crazy to be going that fast.” Ride safe, the universal wish of all bikers, went with us at every departure.

We pitched our tent in the community park in Berthold, North Dakota, facing rows of oil workers’ RVs. The Bakken Formation is an oil-rich portion of the Williston Basin that covers 200,000 square miles in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. The area was hopping with industry. But oil was not the only power source in the area. At Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical centre of the continent, we turned north on U.S. 3 toward Canada.

At the intersection of U.S. 17, we came upon an immense wind farm where cattle grazed under the modern windmills and between huge rolls of hay. “North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of wind,” said U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan. All through our travels we came upon row after row of wind farms, gentle giants paddling the air on the plains, in the mountains and by the sea.

In August, we rode through corn tassels stretching out like copper blankets and through fields of sunflowers, each yellow face turning to the sun. At the Route 44 café in Drayton on the North Dakota–Minnesota border, a cook with soft Norwegian vowels told us that the harvest was going well, and that the beets were sugaring up. In this part of the country, a hamburger is a bun and a juicy beef patty with slices of dill pickle; adding lettuce, onions and tomatoes makes it a California burger.

In a day’s ride, the country changed into lake districts, with fishing and duck hunting the sports of choice. At Warroad, Minnesota, Kurt and Sharon followed the sound of our bike through the campground and arrived at our picnic table with a bottle of wine, laughter and stories. They were victims of the dot-com crash in Oregon and came back to work in the oil fields, although the work is, as Kurt said, “a lot harder in your forties than it was twenty years ago.” They loved the idea of our ride, but Kurt was drawn more to the rumble and roar of a Harley.

We swept up again to Ontario, where Canada geese were on the move and a beaver splashed in a low-lying pond. At Round Lake, we met up with friends who summer in an old family cabin. We canoed down a lazy river and took shelter from a torrential rainstorm under an overhanging tree. As two chocolate Labradors raced along the sandy beach backlit by the sunset, we enjoyed a barbecue by a warm fire. We rode on through Ottawa and branched out to explore Merrickville, where, in the 1930s and ’40s, WWII airmen once rode their BSAs, Indian Scouts and antediluvian Harleys.

We headed into Quebec in an intense heat wave. The colour red seemed brighter here, from the arrête signs at intersections to the barns, cars, tin roofs, clothes on the line and, finally, to a fireball of a setting sun: Quebec glowed. Our friend Richard grew up in eastern farm country in the 1930s, and he describes hearing the corn growing on hot nights when he was a child. It was that hot. In Old Quebec City, we scrambled around the Citadel, soaking in Canadian history while dripping with sweat.

The next day we couldn’t wait to get on the bike, leave the historic city behind, and get rolling. Along the Gaspé Peninsula, houses are weathered to the nub, with boards peering starkly through the last clinging remnants of paint; or else they are painted ladies, brightly coloured in purple, or bright green with red roofs. As we rode on, we heard that Hurricane Earl would make landfall in Nova Scotia and, as if in response to the news, the temperature dropped.

We left Quebec, passing through small fishing towns with immense cathedrals. As winds picked up, we appreciated the local folk art, carved wooden mariners face seaward, checking for rising waves. Campgrounds south of the Miramichi were closed, as was the bridge to P.E.I. Although Earl didn’t exert its full force on the land, it did signal a change in the weather. We wove through the dense forest of New Brunswick, with tamaracks, pine, firs, maples and oak trees. At Moncton, there were miles and miles of “chocolate river” where the Petitcodiac River causeway trapped tons of slippery brown silt, coating the banks of Canada’s most endangered waterway. We camped in a great spot near the Bay of Fundy, where the famous tidal surges rise and fall some 14 metres (46 feet) at the feet of the Hopewell Rocks.

Within a week, we went from sleeping on top of the covers in a heat wave to sleeping with the bags zipped to the neck. We’ve been tenting together since 1969; in those days, our tent was strapped to the back of a purple Triumph Tiger 500. Although we’ve looked at towing units, we are still charmed by the fact that in five minutes we can pop open our “trunk” and have our home up, cosy and furnished for a sound night’s sleep. On this trip, we did sleep well. As the days shortened, we’d go to bed earlier and sleep later.

We loved the Nova Scotia coastline with its balancing rocks and scenic beaches. The people we met were friendly and forthright. Lobster chowder and blueberry dumpling filled our bellies at the White Seagull in Lockeport, a town whose crescent beach graced the old $50 bill. We rode through a changing wood with the trees getting smaller, like an alpine forest. Lunenberg, Mahone Bay and Peggy’s Cove were all full of charm aimed at the tourist dollar, but behind it all they had the solidity of towns that harvest the sea for a living.

On the seacoast trail, fog was dense and cold, but hardy surfers still rode short white boards, ghostly figures riding in on the ocean swells. We crossed over onto Cape Breton Island and had the good fortune to pitch our tent at the Arm of Gold Campground where a ceilidh was happening, and musicians from the neighbourhood and the RV park entertained us.

We had been looking forward to riding the Cabot Trail, but the rain poured down and the wind blew with a stern Atlantic bite. We rode through the winding mountainous road with torrents of brown water gushing down the hillsides. Fog clung to the trees and occasionally broke to reveal stunning drops to the pounding surf. This day’s ride really brought home to us that we had missed our window for riding around Newfoundland. As we took the ferry to P.E.I., we were reminded that it doesn’t take much to have a good kitchen party. Bikers from Washington, B.C., Nova Scotia and P.E.I. swapped stories and notes on clothes layering, and expressed undying gratitude to the clever folks who developed electric gear and heated seats.

We toured the gentle island with its red clay soil as a persistent icy swell battered the shore. The Confederation Bridge is an amazing piece of engineering, and certainly catching the ferry over and the bridge off is the economical alternative. You only pay a toll to leave the island, and it costs $58 for the ferry and $17 for the bridge.

The weather forecast was going steadily downhill in the Maritimes, so we looked for the nearest sunshine, and that was in Maine. We crossed the border to see more leaves becoming brilliant red every day. It was almost time to turn the corner and run for home, as we needed to cross some high western mountains before snow came, but we still had some outward-bound miles to travel.

We explored Bar Harbour and rode up Cadillac Mountain . . . as did about 10 tour buses and a steady stream of cars. We travelled south for a bit, but then with a reality check of heavy traffic and time constraints, we changed course and headed for New Hampshire and Vermont. In this part of the world, history comes at you visually, from the stones of the land to the bones of the fading buildings. Travelling the back roads, you really see how urban North America is becoming. Old eastern farms are being reclaimed by miles of hardwood forest.

New Hampshire was beautiful, and Vermont’s scenery was even more stunning. In New York, we lingered a bit in the Adirondacks before truly beginning the homeward ride.

We headed out in the windy vastness of Illinois and Indiana and Iowa. Strong side-winds hit hard all day. Riding through a gully, the wind would pull you ahead and then slam up against the bike as we came out through the cut. At times, the clouds were all in motion and the corn was blowing in a great sea of yellow. We skirted the Mississippi and saw flocks of pelicans on their migratory journey.

In Nebraska, flooding inspired us to put our tent and bike on a six-foot berm in anticipation of more thunderstorms. In South Dakota, we went through the stunning topography of the Badlands, and had the great experience of viewing the sun through a special telescope that allowed you to look right at the glowing red ball and see the sunspots or flares.

We continued on through Wounded Knee and bustling Rapid City. We got our first glimpse of Mt. Rushmore before we drove up to the mountaintop on a winding switchback road over curly “pigtail” bridges and through single-lane tunnels. In the vast Jewel Cave system, there was a moment when they turned out all of the lights and we were cast into total darkness deep inside the earth; it was intensely peaceful.

The Spearfish Canyon road is a lovely stretch in South Dakota that winds along beside Spearfish Creek, all dappled with trees turning brilliant shades of yellow and gold. We burst out of all that lush mountain scenery and headed into the outback of Wyoming, where we found immense ranches, huge coal mines, oil refineries and antelope. Wyoming is windy! We developed bright rosy spots on our cheeks from windburn when we rode with our visors up. One day, the temperature started at 5°C (41°F) and soared to 35°C (95°F).

As September faded and we drew closer to the west coast, our transcontinental ride began to feel more and more like a memory, and we soaked up the last sights of our ride as we rode through the big sky country of Montana. In Idaho, we followed the Lochsa River to where it combines with the Selway and creates the middle fork of the Clearwater. We hugged the canyon curves mile after mile, drifting away a long and sunny afternoon over some of the prettiest terrain in North America. At Orfino, the sun dipped behind the canyon hills, the light changed the yellow stubble grass into a golden fur, and the hills sat like great cats with paws curled down to the river. In October, almost all of the campgrounds had closed down, and on the final ferry ride to Vancouver Island, there were no other riders to swap stories with. It was time to go home, clean up the gear, service the bike and start wondering where the next road will lead.

When we think back on this trip, there were so many reasons to just keep riding on, and for us they can be distilled into one image. We’d been riding under heavy cloud, a long day of sore knees and tired bottoms. At dusk, we crested a hill just as the sky split open behind us and a huge spotlight of red lit up the birches in front of us in one breathtaking moment of glory. It is this strong connection with the land that kept us pushing forward for 19,000 kilometres. Out in the elements, you can feel the remnants of dreams worn thin with age: barns sagging into the prairie grass, log cabins listing to one side, and farms abandoned, with wind whistling through empty window frames. We talked and laughed with good people every day, and we felt truly healthy, with simple food, endless fresh air and no responsibilities but maintaining the bike and attending to the road ahead. We uncoiled the tightly wound springs of a busy life and let the years roll off, morphing for an idyllic period into the 18- and 21-year-olds who fell in love with each other, and with a bike.


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