Bound by luck, good and bad
It must be six o’clock in the morning. I hear rustling from outside but only in one ear. I shake my head and bat the sleep from my eyes before remembering the ear plugs. One has fallen out, and now I hear noise from across camp in one ear and the dull noise of my own thoughts in the other. If I didn’t know Matty’s plan to leave early this morning, I might be concerned about wildlife. Still, I pull myself from bed, dress, and welcome the day. As per the time stamp Ben thought so keenly to check in the campground outhouse, we now have three hours until the attendant arrives to jail us for skirting the fee and being overnight in a national park without a valid permit.
Once Matty is ready to leave, we pile around his bike and hand out hugs. Ben pushes Matty’s Sandy from her center stand, but something just doesn’t look right. And then we see it — or rather we don’t see it. Missing from the side of Matty’s bike is a pannier. I can’t stop laughing because I know this is the earliest any of us has tried riding in more weeks than we can remember. I haven’t woken at six in the morning since leaving my job in Alaska, much less have I started riding at such a terrible hour. We walk about camp in search of anything else Matty may have forgotten to attach, give him a big thumbs up when we’re sure he has everything, and wave him off as he starts the six hundred mile trek to Seattle.
Ben and I take our time to eat breakfast and strike camp. Like clockwork, just as Ben predicted, a ranger pulls into the lot at nine o’clock. We freeze in our tracks. Ben silently mouths something to me, but I can’t read it through his accent. Ever so slowly, we duck out of sight from the ranger and watch her movements. Last night I chose a camp deep in the woods that hides our bikes and tents from the lot, but we traded security for a quick exit. The ranger’s truck blocks any means of successful escape. Minutes pass, and we watch the ranger empty garbage and replenish the outhouse supplies. She walks past the sink basin, and I finally get what Ben tried to tell me. He couldn’t rinse away all of the soapy water from cleaning breakfast dishes! If she looks too closely at the sink, she may think to check the bushes for hidden campers! And then, we hear a truck engine start and the sound of tires turning against gravel. The ranger leaves and never looks back. Ben and I exhale huge breaths of relief.
Even with Ben’s foresight to check the outhouse cleaning log, we nearly got caught! At half past nine, we start our day and begin with a ride to the Natural Bridge and Emerald Lake. A walk around the rapids reveals a brilliant display of eroded rock. Placards illustrate the natural bridge in its infancy as a traditional waterfall. After years of water wearing away the softer layers of rock, a tunnel forms. The weaker layers beneath the hard rock erode, and with enough time, form the path of least resistance for the entire fury of water. A solid arch of rock remains as the natural bridge. The process doesn’t end. The bridge inevitably falls to form a chasm once weakened by the rushing water beneath. We climb over a barricade at the edge of the footpath to steal a grander view of the scene. I’m surprised by the traction I find on the wet rocks. Where I think the footing slippery, I instead find coarse rock and a solid perch despite being atop a very wet ledge and only a step away from standing in the rushing water. It’s not that I’ve put myself in danger of falling. Standing at eye level with the cascade fills me with the sights and sounds of this natural landscape that just didn’t feel genuine from behind the hand rail on the path.
Following the signs to Emerald Lake, we ride alone deeper into the forest. The road winds casually through the trees, and we neither see nor hear another vehicle. I lift the visor on my helmet and follow Ben. I take in a deep breath of the damp air, and scents of earth and plant life distinguish themselves. We round a corner and the tunnel of trees opens into a grand view of Emerald Lake — more beautiful than Moraine, more pristine than Louise. I walk with Ben to the water’s edge and stare into a perfect reflection of the world. The lake’s rich hues of blue and green clash with the world above and create a brilliantly vivid color scape of upside down trees, mountains, boats, and docks, shimmering just beneath the glass calm surface. Only a thin brown shoreline separates the dreamy world beneath from above.
Ben and I ditch our riding gear at the bikes and set off on a hike around the lake. A brisk walk through the trees on a surfaced trail ends at the lake’s far edge, and we leave the shore for a rugged path that climbs steeply alongside a stream. Gravel switchbacks turn into natural stairs of earth and rock. Ben sheds his jacket, and I open the pit zips on mine. We sweat a river of our own. The water beading against my forehead testifies to our brisk pace and likely also to the fact I haven’t exercised in weeks. I hold my own as the trail steepens again. I grab at roots and trees alike to pull myself along. Ben works just as hard, and when the trail levels against a thickly forested ridge, we find ourselves deep inside the towering trees and high above Emerald Lake. We’ve climbed into the lush canopy of life that we saw so beautifully reflected from the water’s edge. Rays of sun sneak through the thick cloud cover to highlight colorful moss and fallen trees. We leave the forest for thick alder brush and briefly encounter a rocky trail defined only by piles of stone. Once the trail markers vanish, we stop to look around at the natural amphitheater about us.
Capped by a low ceiling of cloud, this rocky bowl looks eerily secluded from the rest of the world. The remains of years beyond years of weathering and erosion surround us. Heaps of moraine pile against the cliff walls. Two waterfalls cut deep into the rock. Crystal clear mountain water quietly flows at our feet across the flat of the basin and invites a refreshing drink. And as I stoop to take in the cool water, a shiver of life comes over me. The serenity of this land and the remoteness of our escape from the mechanized world of civilization fill me with joy. Much of my journey must include the noise of humankind, but I will always find peace in nature. A soft breeze blows from the lake, and Ben points to the sky. Seconds pass, and for the first time we see the crown of glaciers promised by the marquee at the trail head. As if caught in the motionless frame of a movie, fields of ice hold tight to the earth above us. But I know these relics of time are no more stagnant than the rock they once crushed. The water flowing at my feet tells the story of slow decay. In time, the crown of ice will no longer adorn these cliff walls. Emerald Lake will no longer be fed its emerald life force. That Ben and I are lucky enough to enjoy this moment truly defines the essence of our journey and what it means to see the world.
We turn our backs to the end of the trail and begin the trek across the rocks, through the thicket of brush, and into the forest. Leaping from step to step and sliding through the shoots, we make triple time in the steep of the trail. A smile and thumbs up to hikers wearily climbing the other way hopefully reassure them that their effort is not in vain. Other hikers look spent merely walking the flat of the lake side trail. As we near the trail head, the mass of people doubles; I count more of them, too. When we break through the trees and catch view of the parking lot, I see why. A dozen tour buses have emptied their holds onto the shores of Emerald Lake.
Ben and I traded hours of riding for the hike, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We gear up and point the bikes south to Golden for lunch. Highway 1 passes through remarkable wilderness and follows the Kicking Horse River through vast canyons before emptying into Golden and the Columbia River. After picking up groceries, we gorge ourselves on peanut butter and jelly and tall cups of chocolate milk for lunch. Ben checks his travel guide for interesting sights in Golden and only turns up a pedestrian bridge worth seeing. Built on land and craned into place, the pedestrian bridge spans the Kicking Horse River near the center of old town Golden. As the town’s only tourist attraction, it also serves locals with an outrageously attractive and overbuilt foot and bike path across the river. Several people cross in the few minutes we spend gawking at the framework of wood and metal, but we see nary a tourist beside ourselves.
The treat of tasty food lingers as we turn our ride south from Golden to Radium Hot Springs. Ben and I decided to endure the three hour round trip detour. The promise of a relaxing bath in Radium’s natural hot springs is too good to pass. Almost two hours later, we ride into Radium and up a switchback to a campground in Kootenay National Park. The park overlooks Radium and the Columbia River basin — perfect for camp. But when we round the bend and come head to head with a gate proclaiming the park closed, we’re forced to think again of our overnight accommodations. I look to Ben and then to the narrow footpath next to the gate. It appears wide enough for a bike, and I think I can squeeze past the large boulder and between the pylons. We motor through the barricade, up the hill, and stop at yet another gate. To our right we catch sight of the ranger station. Everything looks dangerously illegal this close to town and the authority of a foreign country. Camping behind the gate of a closed park in the boonies of a national park garners less risk than doing so a few thousand feet from a very busy city. I ditch the plan at the second gate, turn back, and retreat through the first. Ben follows, and we stop to reconsider our options on the legal side.
Though on the surface, the second gate offers an additional level of unlikeliness that a ranger or officer will find us squatting, it also makes me uneasy. A second gate suggests that the first isn’t used to keep people from the campground and may be open while the second is closed. This suggests a level of daily activity in the park altogether. I ask Ben what he recommends, and neither of us knows a better alternative. I mention the gravel pit several miles north of town, and neither of us really takes to the idea. We quickly agree that this tough decision will be better decided in a pool of hot water. At the very least, we can return here, sneak past both gates as quietly as possible, and hope for the best.
And as we ready to leave, luck sticks its bony finger into the air, and stops us dead in our tracks. I look over when Ben’s bike doesn’t start only to see him dismounting and removing his helmet. The cable has snapped. Now, not only are we further from Seattle than when we left Matty, but Ben has broke a pretty dang critical piece of his bike. On top of that, we don’t know where to camp, and the only appeal of Radium Hot Springs just went down the drain. I dismount and look to Ben for answers. He tears into his boxes looking for spare parts. Remarkably, he finds two cables and swears that one of them will fit. Wound cables have a tendency of looking much shorter than needed, and I’m not as confident as Ben. After he reviews the repair manual on his Kindle, we begin the tedious task of removing almost every section of fairing from Ben’s bike. We disconnect the old cable, pull it through, and match it against the spare. Ben routes the new cable from the handlebars, around the engine, and to the transmission, but it doesn’t seem to fit. When connected to the clutch lever, the other end misses its mark. When connected to the transmission, the other end misses the clutch lever. Even after we loosen the lever, the cable fails to reach. Frustrated, Ben returns to the repair manual looking for answers. Somewhere in the bowels of the bike, he finds a bolt to loosen. The cable reaches! He adjusts the free-play, tightens the lever end, and screams success when the bike roars to life. The last piece of fairing goes on the bike, and we look to each other in exhaustion. It’s half past seven, we’ve lost another two hours of our day, and the hot springs closes at ten o’clock. We may not know where to sleep, but I’ll be darned if we miss a soak in the pool.
Rain falls from the sky as we ride through town. At the park entrance, we ignore another sign warning us to secure a valid permit. Two miles later, we at last turn into the hot springs parking lot. A gentleman behind the counter takes our money and offers to watch our helmets. We wander downstairs into the locker room, change, and walk to the pool deck. Outside, cold water falls from the sky and steam rises from the pool. I climb into the warm water, close my eyes, and wash an entire day of stress away. Cool rain massages my face, and the heat soothes my tired body. The quiet noises of night, the light rain, the warm water — they all feel too good for truth. Luck must be mad that we successfully changed Ben’s clutch cable because within fifteen minutes, a volley of wind rips across the pool deck, and cracks of lightening send thunder rumbling through the mountains. A loud speaker orders us to quickly exit the pool and wait for the storm to pass in the locker room. It seems our day of drama just won’t end.
The hot pool at Radium Hot Springs is really just a large hot tub. Rather, it’s just a hot pool. Tubes siphon hot water from a natural spring through a heat exchanger. Lightly chlorinated water from the pool passes through vents, across the heating elements, and back into the pool. This is the second hot spring of my trip. Outside Fairbanks, I visited Chena Hot Springs. Their spring continuously feeds the pool with raw, mineral rich water. Chena lines its pool with natural rock. Chena offers its bathers an exquisite hot springs experience. Radium merely offers a warm water bath in a concrete basin. We wait thirty minutes for the electrical storm to pass. The lifeguard invites us back into the pool, and I try again to push the nasty thoughts of a stressful day deep into the sterile pool around me. I only hope we find a decent place to camp.
Ben and I leave before the pool closes. The rain has waned for the moment, and we decide to take our chances camping behind the second gate on the hill over town. Maybe darkness will offer us a cloak secrecy. Ben leads the way through town and back up the hill. I ditch my high beams as we ride around the first gate and motor as quietly as possible past the dark windows of the ranger station. Ben stops to lift the wire of the second gate, and I only barely clear it with an inch to spare. Ben stays behind as I ride on to scope the closed campground. Keeping a high gear and low RPMs, I pass into the trees and out of sight. The road squiggles around campsites and trees without a bit of consistency. Signs point to lettered sites, and my GPS seems to think I’m off road. The campground is truly deserted, and I expect we will camp undisturbed. I return to Ben, lift the wire, and we retrace my route to a site in the far corner. We park the bikes behind a bush, pause to listen for sirens, and proclaim the first success in hours. This camp will do.
The next morning, the sun rises over a very damp earth. Thick clouds shield its warmth, and I consign myself to pack a wet tent. At nine o’clock, we hear a service van zoom past. Ben and I stare in fright at each other as it stops very quickly, reverses, and zooms toward our site. As luck would have it, I chose the one site in this circle visible from the main thoroughfare. Two men exit the van and approach. They don’t look like rangers and at first seem quite curious. After all, the campground is closed behind two gates! Ben rattles off an excuse for our trespass that he must have practiced all night. The men listen to his story of mechanical failure, electrical storm, unyielding rain, and dangerous wind. Though Ben fails to mention our two hour soak in the hot springs, he quite accurately describes yesterday in unadulterated truth. Tension eases as the men tell us they don’t care. The park ranger, on the other hand, will care, and they recommend we get out of camp as quickly as possible. And with that said, they leave us to finish packing.
Ben and I strike camp with a haste never seen before. I barely stuff everything into its place before we ride off. My heart pounds heavily in my chest at the first gate. I hold the wire for Ben and cast a trepidatious look at the ranger truck parked outside the station. We’re just seconds away from getting caught and ticketed if not jailed. I already told Ben that it’s senseless for two of us to be ticketed. If a ranger catches us riding, one of us is to stop while the other rides off. But Ben motors through like a boss, holds the wire for me, and we sneak away without alert. Even still, I don’t feel calm until we pass around the second gate and find refuge at a service station in town. We roll into the parking lot all smiles. It seems our luck has returned.
The ride north to Golden passes quickly. I tick away the landmarks that caught my eye before — a curious fence, the wayside, a farmhouse landscaped to the nines. Seventy miles later, Ben and I pass through Golden and ride on through Canada’s Glacier National Park. We pause for lunch at Rogers Pass and find that the jays like peanut butter and jelly, too. We revel at a series of dark tunnels in Revelstoke National Park where the road just dives in and out of the earth. Going from the bright of day to the dark of night, we ride by feel and limited sight, keeping the flashing hazards of the trailer ahead of us at a safe distance. I look hopelessly for the end of the tunnel which must be around the corner. The concrete corridor madly amplifies the road noise, and I do all I can to not answer the noise with a horn blast. We eventually exit the tunnels and descend a great canyon into the busy city of Revelstoke. Roadworks confuse us on the route to town, but we find our way after a quick stop and review of the map. Ben turns into the fuel station, and I follow.
The sun beams against the south side of the station and across the magnificent chrome of three Harley motorcycles. A giant of a man sits atop one, and the other two riders stand nearby. After fueling, I pull my overloaded mule of a motorbike alongside. If the roles of Cinderella were reversed, this BMW is a very ugly stepsister, parked meekly against three very beautiful princesses. Ben pulls in behind, and the riders commend our bikes far beyond their worth. Compared to their stark leather, polished helmets, and powerful looking iron, Ben and I look a mess. But this crew couldn’t be more friendly. Canadian Harley riders rejoice; you’ve broken the mold! They tell us of a ride through Revelstoke, around Arrow Lake, and through the most twisty of roads to be found in all of British Columbia. Ben and I thank them profusely, plot a course into the GPS, and leave the riders to bask in the sun. In the thirty hours since Matty left, we’ve quite literary moved a hundred and thirty miles closer to Seattle, and three days still separate us. It’s time to get a move on!
The road takes us due south along the Columbia River to Shelter Bay. A ferry greets us on the west shore of Upper Arrow Lake, and we float across the placid and beautiful teal water to Galena Bay. It’s a slow ride. The ferry captain takes his time pulling away from the platform. Once mid way through the two and a half mile boat ride, I feel a cool breeze come across me, and an entire childhood of ocean going excitement overcomes me. I miss the water, the ocean, and everything about being aboard a boat. And then almost as suddenly, a sign distracts me from happy thoughts and immerses me in the right danger of crossing this lake. Everything on my bike — videos, photos, journals, documents — will sink and be gone forever if this ferry finds a reason to take on water. I’m fairly confident the life raft behind the sign will float people to safety, but I’ve certainly managed to put a great deal at risk by crossing an open body of water. I step to my bike and unlock two panniers in case seconds count later.
I meet Ben at the bow to escape the racket from the engines. Water splashes against the hull as we glide gracefully to our connecting highway. Ben pulls out the map, and we look ahead to the rest of our day. The highway follows the Columbia River through Naksup and then it crosses by way of another ferry at Needles and Fauquier. From there, the road climbs north and west to Vernon. South of Vernon, we’ll ride through Kelowna and into wine country ahead of crossing the Canadian border into Washington. The route looks solid, and we pack up and mount our bikes ahead of the ferry landing at Galena Bay. The sun continues to shine through a cloudless sky, and we scoot past the train of slow vehicles and onto open road.
Riding into Nakusp rearranges all of my Canadian expectations. This quiet community sits nestled between a beautiful body of water and a lush green, mountainous forest. Ben and I follow the signs to the city beach. It promises to be divine! We walk across the road to the city park, and a view of far away mountains connects endless sky to the valley. Seemingly carved into the very basin of this valley, the Columbia River resembles a lake more than it does the fiercely flowing swath of water that separates Washington and Oregon. A carpet of green grass runs from our seat at the top of the hill down and into a glowing white ribbon of sandy beach. Sand looks out of place here. Amid hundreds of thousands of acres of raw land, here sits a public beach. However, a crowd of sun bathing leather skins, noisy kids, body surfers, and muscle men must be vacationing somewhere other than on the shore of Nakusp. This beach is dead.
Ben and I walk to the water. It looks terribly chilling. Even dressed in many layers of riding gear, I’m only just comfortable in the sun and breeze coming across the lake. I picture the beach at the height of summer full of sun bathing white skins, fevered children, triathlon swimmers, and loggers escaping the rigors and depressed nights of the long winter. This late in the season, when the air temperature feels telling of the coming winter, everyone in Nakusp ditches the summer all at once and prepares mentally for the next six months of a different kind of life. I did it myself for ten winters in Alaska. We know the extremes of summer and winter very well. I step across a pile of football sized river rocks. Someone’s built a castle of sort in the middle of the beach. Ten yards in every direction, another pile sits unattended. The kids here build rock castles — not sandcastles.
I retreat to the grassy carpet of green nearby our bikes with Ben to lay in the sun and have a short nap. He connects with Matty by email on his Kindle and reports that we’re running behind. Matty says he made it to Seattle the first day after six hundred plus miles and more than eighteen hours without even missing lunch or tasting a few wines. He paints a nice picture of the road ahead around Okanagan Lake, through the vineyards and fruit stands of southern British Columbia, and across the border into the northern Cascades of Washington. We’re to be in Seattle only three days behind Matty, and after tonight, that schedule leaves us with two fairly long days of riding — at least by our standards.
We follow sunset out of Nakusp and south more along the Columbia. The yellow of fall tinges the mountainsides and low grasses of the valley. When the sun finally falls behind the mountain, everything turns from a warm golden orange to a cold monochrome blue. We must hurry finding camp. I pull into a field riddled with dual track trails and signs of horse traffic. Signs warn against unauthorized use, claiming ownership to this land. Yet a quick look around tells a different story; it looks used very publicly. A couple of kids walk along the path ahead of us, and a camper has taken relief of the day in perfect view of the amazing sunset. Ben looks apprehensive of camping in the open and in sight of the road. Moreover, I expect this valley gets an unfair share of wind. We turn around and take to the road. While waiting for the ferry at Needles, I spot a perfect place along the beach across the water. Defeated for the day, Ben agrees, and we exit into the woods after riding off the platform. A grassy path loops around and delivers us to a perfect flat overlooking the ferry, the river, and the logging operations nearby.
I’m curious as to who owns this beachfront property. A gate just up the hill from our camp suggests someone claims this beautiful place. We back our bikes from the driveway into the grass and prepare camp. My tent drips wet from the overnight rain in Radium, and I leave it open to dry while we cozy down to a wonderful beach fire and dinner. Ben insists we cook and eat in the sand. For seventeen years in Florida I learned sand finds its way into the most uncomfortable and least satisfying crevasses of one’s body — even while fully clothed — and I cringe at the thought of preparing food on the beach. For sure, I’ll be chewing into crunchy grains of earth, itching the beach out of my shorts, and draining the desert from my shoes by night’s end. If any of this mess ends up in my tent, I’ll be done with beach camping for the trip.
To make up for the sandy business, I promise Ben a raging beach fire. He grumbles. Dead wood abounds this close to the lumberyard. High on the beach it lays scattered all over the place, half burned from other beach campers. From this, I convince Ben that a fire won’t get us in trouble. We pile a stack of wood a few dozen meters from the water — well away from our tents. Ben built a fire in Banff, but the wood was rubbish and wet. I’m curious here to see how this fire progresses with an endless supply of dry fuel. He starts with a small tower of wood, lights it, and keeps the flames tempered. I sit back for a while but cannot wait any longer. We’re on a beach! This fire needs to roar! My cook stove puts this fire to shame. And when I sneak in a log, and then another, Ben starts to grumble even louder. He seems to frustrate easily but is tight lipped enough not to complain. And then, as if whatever worried him burned away, he grabs at the pile of wood and turns our meager fire into a raging inferno of sparks and light. He doesn’t stop, and I sit back proud to finally have a fire worth its salt in heat.
It’s not enough that I threaten to go for a swim. When Ben doesn’t believe me, I run back to the tent, change into a suit, and hand Ben the camera. He’s going to record me jumping into the wintery waters of Canada. We walk to the water with the beach fire only barely lighting the way. I switch on a headlamp at the last, worried I may step on rusted debris or sharp rocks. Ankle deep into the dark water, scenes from the movie Lake Placid flash into my mind. Shin deep, I feel as naked as Bear Grylls swimming across an icy river. Ben shouts that he can’t see me. I should have given him the headlamp. On the count of three, I swear at the cold and dunk my head. There’s no way I’m going to douse my whole body in this frigid river. I bounce out of the water and carefully high step my way over the rocks and across the sand to the fire. Warmth overcomes me, and I feel so refreshed! I try wheedling Ben into a swim by saying how great it feels to be clean and refreshed, but he sits tight and says if he does swim, it won’t be at night. Maybe he saw that movie Lake Placid too.
The next morning, a series of beeps, engines, and bangs wake me from sleep. I step out with camera in hand to film the early hours of logging commerce along the Columbia River. Full trucks queue up to dump their loads into a buoyed holding area of sorts. The driver stops perpendicular to the ramp, loosens the bunk assembly, and a loader pushes the entire lot of timber off the trailer from the opposite side. Wrapped in wire, all the logs crash together onto the ramp and slide in unison into the river with a ruckus of noise and a tidal wave splash. The driver returns the bunk assembly, detaches the trailer, and the loader lifts it onto the back of the truck! After only a few minutes for the entire process, the driver motors away, and a new load moves up in the queue.
A full truck replaces every empty truck returning across the ferry. Somewhere beyond view, these trees once stood tall and numerous. In short order, they’ll float down the Columbia and other machines will mill them into lumber. Trucks and boats will haul the lumber across the continent, and people will build homes. This process is not unlike commercial meat farms that breed, raise, feed, slaughter, package, and ship beautiful cuts of cow, chicken, and pork to supermarkets around the world. The industry far removes customers from the sources of their goods. Picturing the atrocities of mechanized factory farms makes us uncomfortable. Likewise, not a single two-by-four ships with a full-size color photograph of the beautiful British Columbia forest from which it comes.
The sun rising over the mountains to our east breaks my train of thought, and I catch noise of life from Ben’s tent. We slowly put the day together, eat breakfast, and wait for the sun to dry our tents. A look at the map suggests the road ahead is easy and fast. We should be across the border into Washington by afternoon and nearer to our deadline in Seattle. But when we set out west from Needles to Vernon, the road quickly turns into the worst and best ninety miles of my life. Ben rides point and sets the pace. Signs forewarn of narrow shoulders and tight turns ahead. At first we take the turns moderately. It’s still early in the day, and we must warm our own minds for the technical riding ahead. The curves get tighter, the lanes narrower, and oncoming traffic reminds me to stay on the outside of left turns and the inside of right turns. Ben cuts the corners like a pro with his sleek and narrow road touring bike. On my bike, I feel like a silly bus careening down the mountain, barely making the turns, and nearly avoiding obstacles.
I place myself into the video games I played as a teenager. My dad taught me to look ahead as far as I can see. The practice helps a little, but games offer nothing to train a rider for the feel of his bike, the sense of friction and gravity holding the bike to the road, or the absolute adrenaline rush of a near miss. When my confidence level exceeds safety and I take a turn with too much speed, I find myself leaning further to the inside corner than I ever imagined possible. My bike, loaded for bear at over eight hundred pounds, shoed in off-road knobby tires, clings hard and assured to the beautiful tarmac around the corner. I’m sitting nearly atop the left side of my bike as I push hard around the turn. And then, pictures of GS riders rubbing knees to the pavement around a race track flash into my head just as I reach the critical angle of lean for my bike. The peg scrapes, and the rear tire skips from its solid footing. I feel the bike slipping, and I don’t know what to do.
My heart leaps into my throat. I can nearly taste the adrenaline in my mouth. Computer games don’t train for the feel of the bike — the sense of unity between rider and machine. Even in the milliseconds that lapse, a rush of fear and uncertainty flood my thoughts. Images and stories of motorcycle crashes bombard my senses. Faster than time can count, I embody riders in the most horrific of crash reports on ADVRIDER. The adrenaline in my mouth tastes like blood. And when my rear tire finally finds its footing, I instinctively push hard and out of the turn. With not a soul in sight, I slow to a stop and breathe. A jack hammer of sorts pounds in my chest. I can actually feel a pulse in my fingers and groin. I feel it through three layers of shirts and jacket. I feel alive and oh so very lucky. Ben has ridden out of view, and it’s not until several deep breaths later that my heart slows and I curse myself for being so stupid. Keep two wheels down, I say, and think of today as a very vivid reminder about life. I look behind for oncoming traffic and pull away at a slower, more realistic pace through the curves between Needles and Vernon.
After ninety miles of the most technical street riding of my life, I pull off the road and meet Ben for a much needed break. My body feels drained, but Ben looks ready to turn around and ride the whole mess over again. I recant my experience and walk to the side of my bike to look for damage. What felt like the entire road leaping from the ground and grabbing me by the throat has left only a tiny scratch — not even big enough to look like a scratch at all. Yet when I look to my tires, I see the real proof of the corners. All but the last quarter inch shows signs of wear, and Ben’s tires look just as abused. What ever were we thinking?
In Vernon, we eat lunch at Subway, and then I miss our turn south onto the 97, and we end up riding the wrong direction to Okanagan Lake before realizing my error. Once heading south again, we put Washington in our sights and motor along at a decent pace. Matty wrote of sights to see along this stretch of highway, wines to taste in nearby vineyards, and beautiful views of the coming lakes. At a point above Kalamalka Lake — higher even than the rooftops of the gargantuan lakeside mansions — I stop with Ben to take pictures and wonder just briefly how it is to live here. Smashed together like sardines, these people and their homes look like books fighting for space on a shelf. There’s just room between for dust and air. While the lake view takes my breath away, so does the living situation. I grew up in fairly open areas, areas most likely considered suburbia to the country person and country to the city person. I think of my childhood as situated somewhere between “the sticks” of the country and the quiet coastal neighborhoods of West Florida. Growing up, I either played big and broad on Tampa Bay or tall in the mountain ranges of Alaska. To think of living along this lake, in these very fine homes, really makes me sick. And to exacerbate the feeling even more, the entire far shore sits baron of even a single dwelling. All the beautiful space and freedom to live and stretch comfortably onto the land sits unused and within a very tempting view of this sardine can.
We ride further south and pass too many fruit stands and wine tasting signs to count. At Kelowna, we cross Okanagan Lake and make our way ever closer to the United States. The freeway to Penticton hugs the shore of the lake and butts against steep cliffs to the west. Cars, trucks, tractors, and bikes motor along on this very beautiful day. The sun shines unencumbered by clouds, and a cool breeze blows across the roadway from the water. Ben and I pick up our pace when traffic allows, and we find ourselves riding alongside two beautiful and tricked out V-Stroms. Complete with custom paint and shiny black panniers, these bikes look hot! The riders wear an eclectic compilation of military fatigues, denim, and leather. I couldn’t expect to find two of the least matched but most awesome looking rider-bike combos in all of Canada. They tip their helmets to us as they pass, and we trade lead positions in traffic as other cars either give way or slow down ahead of us. When we stop at a light in Penticton, we’re side by side, and they yell out the most utterly unintelligible hello I’ve heard in all of Canada. But I respond and gather that they like our bikes. I tip my helmet and give a big thumbs up to theirs while yelling “Alaska to Argentina” over the noise of the road. What I hear next goes beyond all language barriers, either dialectal or otherwise. In unison, they shout a very clear obscenity of surprise, and all I can do is respond in kind. The light changes, they make their turn, and Ben and I ride away. It’s the most amazing conversation I’ve had yet since talking fish and rain with Tony in Stewart.
In the last fifty miles to Osoyoos and the border to the United States, the freeway tapers into two lanes and casually follows the contour of the land between homes and adjacent fields of grapes. The vineyards grow out of yellow earth that looks caked and dry of life. Yet the grape vines grow solid and green despite the earth below. Sweet smells of fruit and flowers remind me of Florida’s beautiful orange groves. Sprinklers send volleys of water into the sky of one field, and a shimmer of rainbow forms for an instant.
Ben and I make excellent time to the border. As we queue at the checkpoint to enter the United States, I’m fraught with two competing feelings. I’m melancholy about leaving the beauty and hospitable land of Canada and simultaneously elated to be “home” in the United States. Ben looks weary of the crossing, too. I gather from what he says, the United States isn’t at the top of his list of favorite counties. And after several weeks traveling across Canada, I empathize with Ben.
The border agent waves me forward, and I stop in the lined box beneath the overhead canopy. She asks for my passport and that I remove my helmet. I comply while also answering a barrage of other questions about my time in Canada, the contents of my bike, and the strange looking fellow behind me also riding a motorbike. If my voice wavers, I’m all too careful to steady it, and the roller coaster of sound coming forth as I answer all but pegs me as one very nervous person. She asks me to open my panniers for inspection, and when she grabs the triple-lined bag of laundry soap from my top case with all the curiosity of a hound dog, all my hope for a welcoming greeting home vanishes. She thinks I’m smuggling drugs.
More questions come about Ben. Who is he to me? How long have I known him? What is his business in the United States? I steady my shaking hands while searching for answers and compelling reasons to simply let us pass, but she doesn’t have anything of it. I’m told to pull ahead and wait for further instruction. She calls Ben forward into the same box and beneath the same dozen video cameras that were before aimed at my interrogation. From several feet away, I can only watch as Ben takes a similar questioning. To our left and right, other vehicles pull in and out. The steady flow in every other line sends my guts into an even tighter knot. When the border agent tells me to ride into the garage for a secondary screening, my stomach lurches, and I’m faced with a very uncertain feeling about ever making it to Seattle.
A corrugated metal door rolls open ahead of us as we ride into the area clearly marked for drug smugglers and people traffickers. When the door rolls shut and locks us in this purgatory between countries, I give Ben a big smile and welcome him to America! Now, Ben’s a pretty fair skinned guy with his ginger hair and all, but he looks dang near enough drained of blood. The border agent directs us off our bikes and to empty our pockets. He’s not armed, but I’m still careful to announce the two knives stowed in my riding gear. From behind dark sunglasses, he assures me all will be okay and then instructs us to leave behind all cell phones, keys, music players, headphones, knives, and wallets. He says to unlock the cases on the bikes and to set aside our helmets. Most importantly, he says, we’re absolutely to make certain we do not leave cash money behind on the bikes.
I pause at his last statement and look up.
He’s removed his sunglasses, and I can see his eyes now. They’re not intimidating or unwelcome. They’re not ruthless or vengeful. His eyes look calm and sure; he looks rather friendly without sunglasses. And maybe beyond better judgment, I act on this brief change of comfort, this crack in the rigidity of uniforms and cameras and sheer intimidation. With every ounce of courage and a poker-face apt to go all in, I ask quite seriously about the money.
Does money have a tendency to grow legs around here?
I feel silent death rays shooting from Ben’s eyes behind me. I feel an edge of my own superiority and intimidation redeeming me in this very enclosed and unwelcoming place. Around these uniformed guards and the network of closed circuit cameras, I feel for a few seconds stronger and empowered by even the slightest form of resistance. But the guard takes my jab in stride and babbles off something about liability and protection and assurances, and I quit listening. I’ve clearly lost whatever edge I had hoped to gain. Another guard joins us, and they whisk Ben and I away through automatic locking doors into a waiting area. We empty our pockets again, now full only with money, into a plastic bin. The cool-eyed guard stores our bins beneath the counter and then takes our riding gear aside to search the pockets. Another guard takes our passports and documents away to a computer terminal, and we’re left alone to our own thoughts.
It’s truly the first chance Ben and I have to speak since we lined up at the border crossing thirty minutes ago. He’s clearly shaken and unsure. He says the female agent outside took unkindly to him riding someone else’s bike across the border. Now I get it! They don’t suspect us of smuggling drugs or trafficking small Canadians across the border in duffle bags! We’re instead caught in some kind of protocol that flagged us for a closer look. Ben and Matty have crossed between Canada and the United States three or four different times without the slightest of interest by customs — but they always did so together! Now, because Matty’s three days ahead of us, already in Seattle, and Ben’s crossing the border without holding title to the motorbike he rides, we’re stuck. That I’m stuck with Ben is merely some kind of backwards convenience. We crossed together, and we’re stuck together. I joke about how fun it will be to write about it! Ben still looks of a ghost.
We watch the female border agent who stopped us wish everyone a goodnight and leave. They must have some kind of running joke. Just before the end of a shift, they pull miscreants like Ben and I aside for questioning and leave the questioning to the next shift in some kind of schoolyard game of tag. I’m clearly lost in the justification of this mess. While Ben and I sit in waiting, travel trailer after travel trailer passes through the queue outside without twenty-seconds of questions. Each one can stow thousands of pounds of marijuana or small Canadians, and these border agents are none too keen to send a single one for secondary screening.
I watch a bug creep across the tiled floor. In the time it takes to ride a dozen miles, this crawler moves a dozen feet. And then it turns around and crawls back with the same speed as it arrived and without even a hint of disregard for the locked door that blocked its escape. The same door blocks my escape with Ben, but I don’t think we’ll respond like the bug if the United States Government keeps it shut. What are we to do? What if Canada won’t have us back?
Thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, an hour pass. The guards take turns asking us questions. Ben explains our story again. Usually we travel as three, but our third, Matty, left us in Banff to ride ahead to Seattle. Ben bought the bike with his own money several months ago, but Matty registered and titled it to his name. No, we do not have a note from Matty giving Ben permission to ride the bike. We explain in unison that Matty crossed this very same border three days ago. And with Matty’s name, birth date, nationality, and general physical description, the guard wanders off to a computer terminal and leaves us to wait. I watch the bug attempt another escape by climbing the wall. It’s half way to an impenetrable ceiling of concrete when an air of enlightenment fills me. This charade with all the questions is merely meant to detain us while they tear our bikes to pieces in the garage! I know beyond better sense that at this very moment, a team of agents are sifting through my panniers. Without regard for the careful packing and puzzle-piece placement of every piece of gear, they’re tossing tools and spare parts and clothes and hard drives all over the place. I’ll be left to spend hours making it all fit. We aren’t traveling with contraband! Ben declared his bear spray, and I declared my laundry soap! Just let us go!
A silver haired slender man in dark blue with black leather gloves greets us from behind the counter. He says he searched our bikes and was careful to leave things be. He had trouble closing one of the panniers and has left that to us to sort out. He explains our situation and that they verified Matty’s crossing three days earlier. It’s news to us, but the main reason for our detainment is Ben’s nationality and uncertainty with how long he’ll be in the United States. You see, he says, the last thing the government wants is for Ben to illegally stay and be a strain our social services. I balk.
You mean to tell me that the United States is concerned a British citizen with nationalized health care, social security, housing benefits, education benefits, and other personal social services is going to leech off of our abysmal system? You have to be kidding me.
When Ben asks what he can do to make these border crossings easier in the future, all the guards agree that he should provide financial proof of his ability to sustain himself and ability to leave the country. Also, he should offer a precise schedule for his visit. The kicker to this entire mess is that Ben does have those documents and can offer precise dates, but no one asked to see them until now — hours into our detainment.
Ben and I stare at the guards in disbelief. What a day this has become. We put on our jackets, stuff our things into the pockets, and ready ourselves to leave. I take one last look to the crawling bug. It’s nearly at the ceiling and no closer to finding an escape. Ben and I follow the guards through the door and to our bikes. I sigh relief when I see my bike in order. The guard signals the corrugated metal door to open, and I stop to look around the garage. He wears the sunglasses again. Eyes hidden from view, I know they exude a calming presence. He’s been here and done this many times before. And though I feel compelled to follow Ben’s lead and leave as quickly as possible, I sneer and take my time inspecting the bike.
I open every zipper. I all but count carrots in my food. In the top case, I check for gear that may have grown legs. I walk around my bike looking for damage. Ben’s clearly not having any of this and has already mounted and started his bike. The sunglassed guard just stands with arms crossed and an indifferent smirk about his face. My last attempt to return the inconvenience merely distresses Ben and gives the guard a break from work. After only a few minutes, I relent. I climb onto my bike, nod to Ben, and we leave the garage.
Welcome to the United States of America.