The Journey Back: remembering the gas station experiences

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a frequent filler-upper.

 

Regular stops at gas stations, I’d say every 150 kilometres, are where it’s at for me.

 

Sure, my F650GS has a digital fuel gauge, and I could surely make it to 250 kilometres and beyond without stopping for fuel.

 

But I like to stretch my legs, use the washroom, maybe have a cereal bar and a sip or two of water, and make some human contact.

 

I’ve never been a big fan of the card-reading automaton when I pay at the pump. It just beeps and whines at you like a second-rate R2D2. And it’s always demanding things: your PIN, what octane fuel you want, whether you want a receipt printed. You can’t small talk about the weather or comment about the wonderful road you’re riding. If you did it would be a very one-sided conversation.

 

So in this blog I’m choosing to remember the gas station attendants I met when I went inside the station building to make a human connection. No matter how brief. I’m always saying how riding a motorcycle allows me to connect with people, not connect with machines.

 

East of Castlegar, 139 kilometres from my starting point at Nakusp, I pulled in to the quiet Glade Esso. It’s to be found on the west side of the Kootenay River, just before the hydroelectric Brilliant Dam. I dismounted to find the pump actually was not card-operated, nor did it indicate which octane it dispensed, forcing me to make human contact to make enquiries.

 

I found two young ladies wearing sunglasses, seated and chatting in the early morning sun at the deserted fuelling station. I could have very well been their first customer of the day.

 

“Morning. Is it 87 octane fuel it pumps?” I asked.

 

“Sure does,” a young lady with a nose ring and long sandy blonde said coolly as she stood up and opened the door for me to go inside and pre-pay.

 

“I just need an amount to authorize for,” she said as I handed her my credit card. I thought about that a minute. “It’ll only charge you for the amount you pump.”

 

“Ten dollars,” I said. “Could I also use the bathroom?”

 

“Mm hmm,” she handed me a key attached to part of a wooden handle.

 

I did my business, fuelled up then walked my bike away from the pump where I parked it and tucked into a cereal bar and a few sips of water, aware the two ladies were curiously watching me. Even though it was just a small interaction, it was the most I’d spoken to another person that morning, and it actually charged my brain up a little bit, the side not focused on riding the bike and taking the twists and turns of Highway 6 from Nakusp.

 

The next stop was Grand Forks at a Petro-Canada station. The day was warming up. I had just made it over the big climb at Bonanza Pass, ascending to just over 1500 metres’ elevation before descending into the old copper town. The August day was really starting to warm up and the landscape becoming more arid as I wound my BMW around curves past ranches and slowed down to enter the quaint town on a Sunday. I could see people entering churches for the morning services.

 

It was good to stretch my legs after fording the Monashees. And I needed another bathroom break (I had anticipated needing hydration on the expected hot day and drank much orange juice and water that morning). After paying for my fuel at the pump I proceeded inside.

 

The middle-aged, bespectacled woman at the till was helping another customer. I patiently waited in my riding gear, holding my helmet. Anticipating my needs, almost as though she could read it in my face, she handed me the washroom key with a smile.

 

“It’s just around the building to the left,” she said conspiratorially with a wink.

 

I was impressed. The gesture gave me something to think about for the exit out of town. How had she known? What a kind exchange.

 

The next stop would be in Osoyoos, at a Petro-Canada station at the foot of the steep switchbacks leading down into the Okanagan Valley. During the steep climb out of Rock Creek earlier, I had noticed with some alarm just how hot it was getting. I needed some refreshment, stat.

 

After once again fuelling up at the busy multi-pump station, I pulled the bike around to park next to some leather-clad Harley-Davidson riders. Proceeding inside I searched for fruit juice, choosing a bottle of orange juice and filtered water. I went up to the till to pay.

 

“Hi there. Just these two please,” I said in as friendly a way as my dehydrated self could.

 

“It’s a hot one out there, isn’t it?” My attendant was of First Nations ancestry. I was right next to Nk’Mip Resort and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, a place I’d stayed a few summers before with family that I knew demonstrated the culture and history of the Okanagan people.

“Keep cool out there,” she said with a look towards my riding jacket.

 

“I will thanks,” I said, making eye contact. It’s always nice when a stranger takes a genuine interest in your wellbeing.

 

“I’m looking forward to end of my shift and relaxing in the sun,” she extended to me.

 

“Enjoy it,” I said. “And thanks…”

 

 

As it would turn out, I managed to have my first bout of heat exhaustion I would discover as I stayed at my hotel for the night in Princeton. Silly me, I also took it upon myself to hike downhill into town then uphill afterward to see the museum and have dinner. I overdid it, even though the museum and meal were wonderful. I needed to take an extra day to recuperate.

 

Pulling out early the next morning, having had a quiet recuperation day with little human interaction, I rode across Highway 3 to a Husky station. In a hurry to fuel up at the pump and get my heat-exhausted self home before the sun was once again upon me, I ignored the young men fuelling up their mini-van behind me.

 

“Excuse me,” I heard a young man say. It was a German accent. I was still in my helmet and sunglasses.

 

“Yes,” I managed as I was going through the instructions the pay-at-the-pump droid was dishing out.

 

“Could you help us?”

 

I looked at him and held up my forefinger. “Just give me a sec,” I said hastily.

 

The young man retreated to his friend who was looking confusedly at the pump.

 

What was I doing? Of course, help him. What a selfish gesture on my part. I fuelled up and went over to the young men. They were confused with the octane options. 87? 89? 91? What did it all mean? The young german’s friend had the van’s manual in his hand and was flipping through it.

 

“It’s our first gas stop in Canada,” my new German friend was saying. “We are not sure if we should put in 87 octane.”

 

“What does your manual tell you?” I tried to sound helpful.

 

“It says minimum 85,” he sounded doubtful.

 

“Well then, I imagine 87 should be enough,” I managed. “I know, they provide many options don’t they?” I gave a smile.

 

The young German also smiled.

 

“All right, we will try that one,” he said brightly. “Thank you for your help.”

 

“Not a problem,” I said.

 

I took my receipt out of the droid, hopped on, started up, and proceeded hastily west through the haze of forest fire smoke.

 

As I proceeded along the switchbacks that make up the ride along Highway 3 west to Manning Park, I though in my helmet of the help received and human contact made in the last few days. Too often, I retreat back into my big city aloofness, my defense against an unforeseen foe who may provide me with a problem.

 

I realized as I rode into the lodgepole pine forest of Manning that the human contact made on a journey is a major part of it, not to shun it, but revel in it, in whatever form it may take.

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Nearly 40 on the 37: the video journals

 

Before I had a GoPro stuck on to my helmet, before I had a Sena 10c camera and communication system, I had a simple HD JVC video camera my wife Laura gave me as a present before I motorcycled off into the unknown on my Stewart-Cassiar Highway journey in August 2012.

That video camera became, next to my Kawasaki KLR650, my constant companion. In fact I remember, concerned with how the cold and damp might affect it, keeping it warm in my sleeping bag at night, like a chicken egg in a schoolboy’s project.

I would talk to it as well. I suppose it was marginally healthier than talking to myself.

Along the way I would record some interesting progressions in myself. Not only was my facial hair growing, so to was my understanding of my home province of British Columbia.  I’ve kept the recordings as separate video files for years, but decided recently to edit them together to see how the Nearly 40 on the 37 journey affected me.

Viewers expecting lofty shots of motorcycles winding their way through mountain passes will be disappointed. Although there are some shots of my companion Kawasaki KLR650, this video chronicles how the journey was changing me. The exhaustion. The longing for home.  The appreciation for the scope of British Columbia. The rugged territory and vastness of it overwhelmed me.

And you can see it in my face…entry by entry.

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An Oddity Among Motorcyclists

I’ve believed from time to time that I’m an oddity among motorcyclists. I mean, who uses the motorcycle to get to historic destinations around his own region? Most motorcyclists I know like to take short rides to camp or to a cafe somewhere, then ride back home. I think the motorcycle is the ideal form of transport to get to know my province’s past. And by getting to know its past, I feel I get to know its character. That past includes European settlement history, it includes First Nations history, it includes natural history. It is not restricted to British Columbia since it was included in Confederation in 1871.

So I rattle and snake my Kawasaki KLR650 along roads usually out of Vancouver, not only to enjoy the ride (although that is a big part of it) but also to stop from time to time, and check out the small towns that I never have stopped in. As a kid, my parents would take me on camping holidays around British Columbia, and as I would stare out from the back seat of the car, I would wonder what the story was about the town I was just passing through. Hmmm, I would think, this place looks interesting. I wonder why it’s here. I wonder who lives here. Where does that road lead? What to people do here? The motorcycle puts you in contact with these places when you step off the bike…and I’m certainly not the only one to have said that.

I’m not the first rider (and writer) to be influenced by RTW motorcyclist Ted Simon. I’ll put a link to a Geek Media Ltd “Under The Visor” segment at the end of this post in which he explains his view of motorcycling, and I have to say I’m very much in agreement with him. I may just be a “regional cheese” (as I heard Adam Cohen put it in a recent interview) and not a crosser of continents, but I do believe the motorcycle allows you to be in touch with it all in a way that a car or SUV inhibits.

I digress! The ride vid on my own YouTube Channel which I’ve posted a link to above, takes the viewer through a particularly historic part of British Columbia: The Silvery Slocan. Much of the province cropped up as a result of the discovery of gold or silver. Towns would be created seemingly overnight (such as is the case of Sandon, which I write about in Zero Avenue to Peace Park, my second book) as the result of some silver-rich ore being discovered in the Kootenay region…and the rush was on.  Much of the communities we see along the Silvery Slocan route were created in a real hurry. But the road to get to them, especially in the beautiful Kootenays, can make for scenic and fascinating riding. Enjoy the ride vid above…and I’ll post that Ted Simon segment below.

 

 

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Part 1 of Riding Across Historic British Columbia: my presentation at Horizons Unlimited CanWest 2016

Traveling to Horizons Unlimited CanWest 2016 was a nine-hundred kilometre adventure along some of British Columbia’s best motorcycling roads, including Highway 6 east of Vernon.

But the experience of presenting “Riding Across Historic British Columbia” to a crowd assembled at the travellers meeting from across the province and from Alberta and Washington State was a real privilege. Afterwards my audience and I chatted about ideal routes for historical motorcycle travel across B.C.

Here is Part 1 of the presentation where I talk about riding my KLR650 along the forest service roads of southwest Vancouver Island to the Carmanah Valley and up the Hurley River Road in the south Chilcotin to the old gold mining town of Bralorne.

 

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Does Adventure Allow Us to Take Back Control?

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I’ve been reading Tim Cahill’s book “Pass the Butterworms: remote journeys oddly rendered”. As a writer he is adventurous, traveling the world and getting into sometimes difficult situations. One of his stories fascinated me. “Search and Rescue” has him joining a group setting out to rescue a lost hunter in the backcountry of Montana. It’s the middle of the night. It’s November. There’s lots of snow. It’s -30C out. There’s not much hope.  So why did this guy set out on his own in the first place?

Cahill summarized it brilliantly. “Wilderness is a way of taking back control of our lives.”

Now, that made me think.

Living in a big city I get the sense that many point the finger of responsibility at others. Slip and get injured on the leaves that have fallen in front of a corporate office or house? Sue them, right? You become a victim of circumstances.

There has been an obvious surge in so-called adventure motorcycling in the past ten years. I’ve been part of that movement. Part of the appeal for me is getting out of the city, out into the backcountry. Taking back control of my life.

I listen to my urban motorcycling friends, those who rarely get out beyond the Lower Mainland, complain incessantly about what drivers around them are doing, pointing the finger at them, making them the problem. These stories revolve around playing the blame game.

But when I’m out on my own in the backcountry there’s no one else to point the finger at. If I make a mistake, it’s my problem.  I forgot my camp stove? I blame me! And, despite what anxiety that could potentially cause, I wouldn’t want it any other way. There is risk.

That lost hunter in Cahill’s story was testing himself. Call it the classic conflict of man versus nature if you will. And I think that is the draw for me: taking back a certain amount of control.

George Bernard Shaw said: “Liberty means responsibility. That’s why most men dread it.” There’s nothing but freedom when you get out into the wilderness. At the same time, it’s not safe. You can get hurt. Things can go wrong. But the payoff for such a venture is breathtaking scenery, soul-feeding solitude, connection with nature, the satisfaction of testing our wits and coming back home to tell the tale.

I find as the weather turns south and I start looking over maps and dreaming that it’s this pull to a place where I can take back control of my own life that inevitably draws me in. There’s a simplicity in knowing that I’m responsible for my own actions…in the act of being free.

If adventure travel is truly about freedom then maybe there’s a certain number of us who long to take back control of our lives. What brings you out in your search for adventure?

So what happened to the hunter in Cahill’s story? In the wee hours of the morning he himself found the remote cabin that was the HQ for the search party. It would seem he passed his own test. And lived to tell the tale. It would seem he found a freedom many would dread, but some would envy.

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The Elephant In The Room

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It wasn’t as though anyone came up to me and said they didn’t think it was relevant. But when I told people I was doing a presentation on the subject of anxiety and adventure and another on riding across historic British Columbia, they usually said they’d come to the latter.

Horizons Unlimited CanWest 2014 in beautiful Nakusp, British Columbia was truly an inspiring gathering of overland motorcyclists and average guys who like to ride from all over British Columbia, Washington State and Alberta. The presentations that I enjoyed featured life-changing journeys such as that experienced by fellow writer Liz Jansen, filmmaking extraordinare by the likes of Alex Chacon and challenging motorcycle adventures such as the month Alexander Conrad spent riding across Russia.

But the one I presented first thing on Day 1 was sparsely attended. Maybe 30 were in the audience. When I wrapped up at the end there were no questions. I thanked everybody politely. And then I was approached.

Several people would come up to me afterwards to speak about their experience with motorcycle travel and anxiety…about their fears of wildlife, travel in remote places, fear of really big bikes and having to pick them up again. It was then, I realized, I might have struck a nerve here.

I had made it clear during the presentation that I’m not a counselor or psychologist, but that I hoped to breach the subject, tell of a few strategies I’d developed and talk a little about what anxiety is (we all have it, some have more of a tendency towards being anxious than others). I also wanted to discuss the strategies of motorcyclists with much more experience than I, such as Dom Giles and Sam Manicom who helped me with their experience, before opening up the floor to how anxiety and adventure do connect in (surprisingly, perhaps) many ways.

The very nature of adventure is doing something that is unsafe, risky. Risk involves getting out of our comfort zones. Would there be any point in going on a motorcycle journey if we could find out, in some clairvoyant way, that we would get home unchanged and unscathed on the other side of it?

The bottom line is: we all need anxiety. Anxiety is a survival mechanism. Without it we’d be riding motorcycles over cliffs just to see what it was like. But a problem arises when anxiety keeps us from doing the things we want to do…

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