Extended stay in Prince George
Tuesday morning, Ben and Matty leave for the Honda dealership while I stay behind to write and enjoy time with my own thoughts. Traveling alongside two other riders is very different from traveling alone. Where on one hand this arrangement offers companionship, security, and shared experiences, it also precludes me from relying completely on my own schedule and habits. We wake, ride, eat, and sleep in close company to each other. The overall goal of each day is to ride the miles. Though each day we live very private lives inside our helmets, we don’t ride independent of our mates, and this is the extra companionship I appreciate. We watch out for each other on the road. When Matty stops for a picture, we all stop. When one of us hungers for a snack or thirsts for a drink, a right blinker signals intent to the others. I’ve slowly adopted the silent communication techniques Ben and Matty have shared for thousands of miles. Together, we ratchet through the miles quite content to be three despite the extra effort and risk of group riding.
Today, I’m pleased to spend these hours alone. I sit with my back to a wall, feet propped against a rail, and my eyes outward through the RV park and onto the roadworks. I’ve found an electrical outlet nearby to keep me charged for the day. Laptop in hand, I begin to write and recollect the miles behind. Behind is an understatement — I’m days behind in writing and try hard to rewind through two very exciting weeks to Kennecott mine. A cool breeze wisps through the birch trees and draws my attention away from the screen. Against a crisp blue sky, brightly colored coin sized suns lose hold of limbs and sail through the air in a chaotic rain of fall. Twisting madly about in a group as if invisible hands work this show from above, but no hand knows the other, the leaves dance a thousand different dances and all come to rest at once in the grass across the lot.
Not far off, a street sweep crawls loudly across the first layer of new tarmac stretched in front of our camp. It sucks and spins the fallen leaves into its belly before turning and making another pass. The wind returns, and the birch trees release another torrent of leaves into the air. They come to rest where the others were just moments ago vacuumed away. I watch the street sweep make its retreat and advance a dozen times in an hour. Not before the wind or trees cease their onslaught, a roadworks crew arrives, backed by a tanker of oil. It spits and spews the gunky mess in a curtain of black, sealing the few leaves that escaped the sweep beneath a layer of smelly tar. As if admitting defeat, the wind slackens; no more leaves fall to the road. A new crew replaces the tanker and flattens a final layer of asphalt against the trapped leaves and layer of oil. Without the wind to bring me fresh air, I’m left sitting atop this deck with a nose full of sour tar and a sick feeling to my stomach. I close the lid on my laptop, pack my belongings, and retreat to my tent for a nap. Only the memory of the falling leaves fills my mind.
When Ben and Matty return claiming success, I learn that Ben’s new tire will arrive in two days, and he says for a reasonable price, too. Moreover, Matty’s bike no longer sounds of a Harley. The metal worker fashioned a new bracket, and the bike looks at the very least balanced and sounds much better. While we make dinner on the porch, they tell of the day at Honda. Matty ordered a new rear tire and expects it the same day as Ben’s. They bargained expedited shipping from Calgary and arranged to have Honda mount the new tires to their removed wheels. They pause and prep me for a surprise. This next bit promises to be the kicker of the day. They’re not allowed to remove their wheels in Honda’s parking lot. I laugh when Matty tells of Honda’s insistence that they work in the street to supposedly prevent the shop’s lot from looking like a wreckage yard. I don’t know if this is a testament to the untidy nature of all dismantled motorcycles or just to the overall wrecked look of Matty’s bike — ha! I keep my jokes to myself as he turns the remainder of last night’s pork into a delectable vegetable stir fry atop rice. It’s best not to insult a man’s motorbike, especially when he feeds you.
The next I know, Ben yells something between bites of food about a bear across the highway. There, backlit with light reflected from large white trailers, we espy the silhouette of a four legged animal languidly striding past the park and most assuredly drawn to us by the aromas of our fine meal! Moments later, it crosses the highway and disappears from sight. Ben finishes his mouthful and directs us not to safety but instead away from the porch and closer to the bear! Armed only with a headlamp, I follow. Twenty paces later, I shine my light ahead and into the dark. Two glowing green eyes stare back at me. We’ve each stopped quite abruptly with only fifty paces between us. Ben yells “BEAR IN THE CAMP” to anyone who might listen, but nothing comes of it. I half expect to see the neighbors burst from their trailers with shotguns at the ready; flood lights and sirens must announce the danger! Yet none of this happens. The bear makes the first move since our standoff by sticking its curious nose into the night air and slowly trodding off through the trailer park away from us. We follow, and though the night is too dark to record anything visible, I capture every bit of the adventurous audio on camera. Our chase next sends the bear east through the wooded noise buffer, out of sight, and presumably back across the highway. With hearts pumping and our senses exacerbated, we return to the porch and finish our meal.
We later talk to a local resident about the bear sighting. Not unlike the bear, the man caught our attention when we saw him walking alone in the dark. Peter Burns, as he introduces himself, reminds me of none other than Elmer Fudd. As if his posture, that resembling a clumsy type, were not enough, his monotone speech and Canadian accent send me into a Looney Tunes recital. He speaks of the nuisance bear like Fudd curses the rabbit. Ben and I listen as Peter Burns tells us of the wily bear. Earlier this year, one of his neighbors plucked all the apples from her tree and threw them into the compost heap. That compost heap — he points over behind our tents — attracts the bears. Great, I think to myself. Not only do we cook out of doors, we currently live within eating distance of a bear buffet and trust tent canvas as our protector. Peter walks away with Ben and I thinking to ourselves that we may sleep in the laundry room tonight.
Despite the excitement of last evening, I wake the next morning having slept very well. Two nights of not striking and pitching camp each day feel like a vacation. Over breakfast, Ben and I plan the day’s activities. Today is Wednesday, our third day in Prince George. We’re to buy supplies for an oil change in town and help Matty finish constructing a support structure for his exhaust. He draws the design with hand motions, looping around the exhaust with invisible perforated pipe strapping, threading imaginary nuts onto the ends of imaginary rod, and looking to Ben and I with an air of confidence that only an engineer can muster. Matty finishes the performance with thread lock, revisiting all the previous points and making squirt noises at each. We stand around the back of his bike in silence for an entire minute to take in this spectacular display of ingenuity. I’m confident Matty’s bike will look even more post-apocalyptic after this fortification than it already does.
Ben and I leave Matty behind while we shop. Prince George offers nearly everything we need in one district, but for some reason we ride to Princess Tire instead. My confidence quickly deflates as we walk the store aisle by aisle without finding a single item on our list. The store devotes five aisles to knock-off electronic accessories and housewares, a dozen more aisles advertise plenty of auto-related parts, but we find nothing for the bikes. Clearly disappointed with Princess Tire, we walk out empty handed and ride to Canadian Tire. I recall shopping at Canadian Tire nine years ago with my family but do not remember its size! Wow, this store packs everything from auto parts to camping gear, clothes to bath supply.
First on the list is the fuel canister Ben and Matty need to fire their stove. They cooked with the last of their fuel several days ago and have eaten by only my supreme generosity ever since. I direct Ben to the camping supplies area and laugh obnoxiously when he cringes at the price. Seven dollars buys one canister! And by my calculation, each canister lasts them no more than six meals over three days! Though a stinky and dirty alternative, I fuel an MSR jet stove with gasoline for one-twentieth the cost. Ben grabs two canisters, and we move on — it is what it is, after all. By the end of our shopping visit, we manage to buy stove fuel, laundry detergent, motor oil, lamp bulbs, and very odd fuses for Matty’s ancient bike — all in one store. The boys in the auto center even reminded me to bring my used oil in for free recycling. Take note, Princess Tire, take note of your superior!
Across the parking lot from Canadian Tire is Home Depot and the always inevitable Walmart. But before we even mount our bikes to leave, a German man of a man stops us in our tracks to talk all things BMW. Claus speaks of once living in Berlin nearby the BMW manufacturing plant and of once riding BMW bikes. I listen more intently through his thick accent after realizing the extent of this strange man’s knowledge. He asks about my tires, fuel, and oil, and then he goes on to say I must change them all! Burn only premium, high-octane fuel. It’s better, he says. Use only synthetic, high-grade oil. It’s better he says. Install a K&N air filter right away. The bike will perform better, he says. Run only the best rubber. Cheap tires don’t last, he says. I’ve read pages upon pages of tire, fuel, oil, and filter babble in the advrider forums to know enough that what he says is true. Bikes perform better when they are well lubed, can breathe, and run on the controlled burning of high-octane fuel. But at what cost is this performance increase? I’m merely a pauper riding his overpriced horse across the continent, pinching pennies at every opportunity. We thank the man for his time and finish the day’s shopping at the other stores, grabbing food for dinner and Matty his standard nuts. I think again about premium fuel and decide to give Claus’s recommendation a try sometime along my ride.
Back at camp and with the sun of the day shining warmly through the trees, Ben and I go to work on the bikes. I secured a discarded cardboard box from the recyclables earlier this morning and use it now to hold a large plastic garbage bag. I slide the makeshift oil pan beneath my bike. Everything goes well and as planned until the last turn of the wrench. The plug loses its grip on the last bit of thread and falls promptly into the bottom of the bag with socket and wrench attached. Warm oil gushes from the hole into the bag, and I swear a curse of defeat while watching four liters of oil cover my tools. The job just got messier, and I run off to the park’s laundry room to grab a nearly finished roll of paper towel while the last bit of used dino juice empties from the bike.
While passing through Tok two weeks ago, I saw a large sign mounted above the office of an RV park. The sign read in bold letters, “NO OIL CHANGING – $200 FINE.” I neither see a sign nor rules prohibiting oil changes in this park, but I act discretely nonetheless. With the oil and filter captured nicely in the bag and a wad of paper towels at the ready, I stick a hand into the mess and fish out my lost items. Plug, wrench, and socket emerge, and it takes me five minutes to wipe them and my hands clean. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll change my oil with gloves and an Allen key. While tying the bag shut and closing the cardboard box, I chuckle at the ridiculousness of my efforts. I’ve wasted a perfectly good trash bag and prevented the recycling of a cardboard box — all to avoid dripping any oil onto the precious ground. And just yesterday, I watched a roadworks truck dump hundreds of gallons of oil onto this very ground. Ben and I shake our heads and laugh. If Barb does not act kindly to our bike maintenance, I’ll pose these thoughts to her as my justification.
I wipe my hands clean, set the oil aside, and offer to help Ben. He’s wiring a 12-volt accessory outlet to the front of his bike via a path that he hopes will rule out the need to dismantle the fairing. The RT’s fairing attaches itself to the naked bike with a dozen or more Allen bolts on each side. He hooted earlier after capping the last connection but has since quit hooting. Something has gone wrong — maybe a loose wire or accidental ground has blown a fuse. Now, he’s tracing an unexpected power fluctuation in the line. While the multimeter read a constant 12 volts before, it now flashes a sporadic voltage nowhere near specification. And of course, this doesn’t charge his iPod! I trace the lead back to its source under Ben’s seat and find that he’s incorrectly tied into the BMW diagnostic port. I recall the tales of similarly stressful DIY electric projects in the advrider forums and urge Ben to use a different lead. He humphs and goes about prodding the connections for a loose wire. During this exchange, Matty sneaks into camp. I barely notice his bike now that it mumbles instead of shouts. He dismounts and promptly asks Ben about his project. I re-live the scenario through Ben’s account and then walk away chuckling as the only electrical engineer in our group persuades Ben to use a different lead.
While Ben takes Matty’s advice, I go about replacing a headlamp. Many a GS rider have complained about the stock lamps, and my H7 high beam has blown promptly at twelve thousand miles. The replacement looks easy. I quickly learn otherwise after trying a half dozen different positions to fit my large hands through the tight area of the bike’s front end. With the front tire turned toward the blown bulb, I finally squeeze through and wrap my fingers around the plastic disc that seals the bulb housing. It takes a fair bit of finger strength to push and turn the disc! All at once, my effort breaks the seal and the ridges turn slowly to the left. I pull the cap away, disconnect the power leads, and unlatch the burned bulb. It resembles the replacement well enough, I think to myself, and I reverse the steps to install the new lamp. A quick test and a hoot of my own sounds the end of my Prince George bike maintenance. I put the spare bulb in my top case knowing full well that the running lamp too will likely fail.
Matty’s brought with him a half-case of beer and offers me one while setting out to dismantle the final drive of his bike. Such a greasy tasks requires beer, he says. I stare blankly and murmur that I’ve not drank a beer before. Ben and Matty exalt beer in such high esteem that I immediately apologize for being so uncultured in the art of drink. It’s not that I don’t drink — oh have I drank. I explain that I just don’t drink beer and prefer a mixer of tequila or vodka instead. Matty sticks an IPA in my hand and insists I become cultured in the art of beer. And so I drink. It’s the first full beer of my life, and the taste is bearable I think. I regret not sharing it with my father as sons are so accustomed to pretend doing — most having secretly cultured themselves ahead of time. But, I realize the importance of this moment and am glad to share my first beer with these two likeminded traveling companions. Drinks in hand, we finish the day by mucking around camp. Ben solves his electrical issues, and Matty completely disassembles and reassembles the rear end of his bike only to learn that his efforts are in vain. The rear tire still rubs against the frame, and he’s no closer to a fix.
As the sun sets and the night grows dark, we once again retire to the front porch of the shower building for dinner. Both porch lights illuminate our doings, and I only imagine the disheveled look of us. We all three wear dirty riding gear. Our hair is a mess despite the freely available showers. We’ve arranged a rather crude form of cooking by the standards of most travelers who eat comfortably within their covered campers and fanciful busses. Ben will fire one stove for vegetables or water. Matty thus cuts food and otherwise prepares the meal. I’ll fire a second stove to pan fry meat. Tonight, we eat tacos, and I charge my stove to brown a pound of beef. The MSR jet stove burns gasoline because white gas costs a pretty penny.
Unpolished as it may be, I must prime the stove by letting it burn a yellow flame until it reaches a temperature hot enough to burn blue. The heat gasifies the fuel, and this takes time. At this very moment, my stove burns a rather large yellow flame because I’ve opened the fuel valve prematurely. The stove isn’t ready! I quickly close the valve and wait a moment more, but the volley of orange firelight has caught the attention of a very concerned neighbor! He drives his noisy truck nearly into the porch, rolls down the window, and exclaims with fierceness — and such an unintelligible accent that we barely understand him — that we miscreants will be reported to the hosts for burning down this building! I hear something about fire and gasoline before he quickly backs out and leaves Ben, Matty, and me to stare at each other in utter confusion.
I suddenly realize his misconception! Before me on the steps sits a two gallon gas can — of water! But our neighbor can’t know this, and it sat alongside a bright fireball that from his distance must have illuminated the entire front porch of the building! Moments later, Barb and her husband roll up in a cart. We exchange a laugh, and our hosts assure us that we are quite all right to continue cooking on the porch. For heaven’s sake, Barb thinks we should cook and eat in the laundry room and is beside herself that we sleep in tents. Ben, Matty, and I sit about our mess of a kitchen, beers at the ready, and carry on about the crazy neighbor well into the evening before taking to the laundry room. The hours pass, and the beer runs dry. Soon, Ben and Matty trade a bottle of Vodka between them whilst watching a Formula 1 race. I sit cozily in my chair and take to blogging. The three of us occupy the warm and comfortable common area for many hours into the night without once seeing another soul.
The next day, Ben and Matty leave early for the Honda shop. An email announced the arrival of Ben’s tire. They’ll ride off to a spot nearby the shop, park their bikes, remove the rear wheel from each, and walk into the service department fully expecting to leave with two new tires. When they return to camp with only one new tire, I ask Matty if he hasn’t bought a used tire by accident. Ben’s new tire looks amazing! Its tread is deep and grippy, but Matty’s new tire looks as bald as the last. In fact, this tire looks no different from the one I saw earlier today! I suddenly fear the worst and learn that they had in fact removed both wheels without verifying that both tires had arrived. A miscommunication, Matty says, that means his tire won’t arrive until tomorrow.
In the meantime, Ben and Matty finally do as I’ve begged of them — they change their oil! They’ve ridden seven or more thousand miles on this oil, and Ben’s sight glass, though full, looks black as night. Matty’s bike offers no such insight, but he seems quite pleased with his bike’s indifference to oil. She runs with or without it, he says. Matty always adds his flippant remarks to a conversation. Where seriousness may be inclined to move us to action, he always says something to make me stop and laugh. Nevertheless, they change their oil — finally — and I take my place in the sunshine to journal and recharge.
Later, we take the delayed tire change in stride and leave camp for a tour of the city. Matty leads the way to downtown Prince George, and we park alongside a brain trauma recovery center. All kinds of frightful looking people enter and exit while we leave our bikes in search of food. Each of us is agnostic on what to eat, but the sight of a bakery ahead makes the decision for us. Inside, the new owners greet us warmly and describe the goodies laid out behind glass. Sugar glazed, jelly filled, round, and twisted, dozens of sweet treats taunt me to no end. Even without coffee, my heart palpitates with thought of a fresh, sugar cinnamon twist. And so I order a sandwich, chocolate milk, and that very cinnamon twist. Budget minded Ben goes for the day old donut package, a duo of one small and one unbelievably large, iced pastry. We chat with the owners about our crazy adventure from Alaska to Argentina. Having such a motley crew as ourselves eating in their shop, they go off and buy a guestbook for us to sign! And before we leave, Ben, Matty, and I take turns scrawling notes of thanks and inspiration onto the first lines of the book. I wish the new owners luck and speak highly of the cinnamon twist!
The afternoon grows near, and we end lunch in smiles. Back on the bikes, Matty leads the way through town and to the riverfront. We pass a timber yard stacked nearly to the sky with piles of tree trunks! Soon after, the road turns north in time to place the setting sun directly behind the large piles of timber. Dust clouds the sky around the yard, and a pleasant smell of forest lingers in the air. I welcome the sweet aroma, taking deep breaths through my nose and savoring the wooded essence. Riding, I can’t close my eyes, but I do picture myself deep in the untouched timberland of British Columbia and free of noisy roads, acrid exhaust, and ignorant drivers. Around the corner, we stop alongside the riverfront. Our bikes catch the attention of onlookers, but we resist the attention and hide next to the water’s edge. Ben sits comfortably with back against a tree and book in hand, seemingly content with reading the afternoon away.
Matty and I take to watching the birds across the river and the people who stroll pass. The sun sets even lower in the sky now and delivers a glowing light to everything around us. The trees shimmer yellows and greens and reds. Blue reflections mix with the painted landscape against the surface of the river. Folks up stream launch a boat while others down stream motor away from sight. Occasionally, runners trot past along the park path. A family with matching bicycles and helmets peddle through. I find myself at peace alongside the river and realize just how much I miss the ocean. I miss swimming, diving, and fishing. I miss laying about the beach, naked to the sun and its regenerating warmth. Mostly, I miss the air in my face and the smell of freedom one finds on the open water. It’s obvious now that four days in Prince George are all I need to miss traveling the open road.
We leave the waterfront after a pitiful rock skipping competition. Ben and Matty need serious practice. The sun sets fast in the west, and the sky grows dark as we climb the hill overlooking Prince George. I marvel at the city’s size. Rows upon rows of lights shine brightly below us. They remind me of the LITE-BRITE I once played with as a child. Purples, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, and reds twinkle independently of each other and form outlines of the city’s features. Roads crisscross and surround the city center. I see the lumber yard’s bright lights along the riverfront. In the far distance, beyond the edge of town and in the dark, lies our camp. We crest the top of University Hill and pull into the parking lot of North British Columbia University.
The campus looks amazing! Adorned with fanciful stonework, timber frame trusses, and oh so many windows, these buildings do very well to reflect the rugged strength and vast beauty of the land — overbuilt and sturdy enough to weather the onslaught of winter or a torrential summer rain, well designed to make one feel close to nature even while indoors. At the far end of the parking lot, we stand beneath a behemoth of a structure marked by the Prince George Rotary club. Being an engineering marvel in and of itself, this useless structure stands twenty feet above us and as wide as a city bus is long. Posts as thick as a man lean acutely away from town so that the reverse-pitched roof set atop the posts — shaped like an obtuse V — sheds precipitation instead of collects it. I carefully trace the design in my mind as my eyes follow the architecture. Its surreal shape and design are softened by the rustic materials — log, iron, and concrete. A bench welcomes visitors to sit and look out upon the city below or behind to the university. A few people join us beneath the structure, and we leave to explore the rest of the campus.
Our evening ends with Ben and Matty racing about town; their naked bikes, devoid of the weight of travel, respond with agility and a desire to ride faster, turn sharper, and stop quicker than we ever can enjoy while traveling. Matty pulls next to Ben at a traffic light in town, revs the engine, and pounces on green with a wheelie! I swear he must have fouled his pants because the wheelie doesn’t last. He sets the front wheel down as fast as it rose and tries hiding the near catastrophe by revving through the gears until the next light makes us stop. He’s so out of his head and excited by the experience that he tries to do it again!
I watch from a safe distance as they run from each stop as fast as they can to the red light awaiting them at each next block. We make it home safely, and I find myself tired enough to end the day early. A hot shower relaxes my mind and body, and I leave the boys to themselves in the laundry room, skipping dinner altogether. I look forward to the extra hours of sleep, for tomorrow we say goodbye to Prince George. I’m happy to have stayed these extra nights in one place. My bike will run better for it; my mind certainly feels renewed. Yet, as I close my eyes, that feeling of the open road I experienced earlier alongside the river returns, and I suddenly feel an air of excitement overcome me at the thought of traveling once again!