The plan was simple. Find twisty roads. Clear the mind.
Okay, this is slightly embarrassing to admit, but I have a Lady Gaga song stuck in my mind as we ride west along Highway Three through southern British Columbia toward the Okanagan. In my defence, it’s my daughter’s doing. She brought home Born this Way a couple weeks ago and has been pounding it through the speakers ever since. Even my son George, a rough-and-ready bricklayer by trade, a hard-riding Suzuki V-strom biker the rest of the time, admits it’s “catchy shit.”
Some music does that. It gets into your head and you can’t get it out. It’s like that with so much of what we see and hear. Little snippets of conversation, images, and emotions that turn into the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others, running in circles with a life of their own.
I know I’m not nuts because many people complain of mental clutter. Different people deal with it in different ways, but riding a motorcycle is a good way to purge the clutter. Find a road that demands your undivided attention, twist the throttle, and the trees become a blur as you fly through alternating scents of damp forest and dry grass. There are no words when you push into the corners, just sensations and instincts—the simple world of an addict.
So the plan was simple for our second annual three-generations motorcycle vacation. The three of us, my son George, my dad, Roman, and I would ride west from our homes in Calgary, and find winding roads in the Kootenays and Okanagan to clear the mind. And then return through northern Washington, Idaho and Montana.
But there’s already a problem—two problems actually. One is that I’ve forgotten my passport. So I’ve spent part of my ride rehearsing lines for the US border patrol.
“Officer, the bad news is I forgot my passport. The good news is both my son and dad have theirs and I think I have my driver’s licence somewhere.”
“Sorry sir, you’ll have to turn around. We don’t allow absent-minded people in our country.”
“Okay, whatever. I don’t want to see your country anyway.”
But actually I do. I’ve been hearing about how amazing US roads are ever since George came back from his May 24 weekend in Montana. And Roman spent money buying medical insurance for the States. So getting across the border is actually what we all want.
The second problem is that we can’t find a place to sleep. Going to the Okanagan in the middle of summer without reservations is a mistake. Everything is full and squatting doesn’t seem to be an option as every trail road into the hills is fenced and posted either with an address or a “No Trespassing” sign. It’s dusk already.
At a dirt road intersection, Roman gets off his 1993 BMW R1000, a bike that has aged with the same grace as he has at 77 years of age. He waves down a woman in a Honda Civic to ask about a local backcountry campground we see on a map. When he returns, he says we should follow this woman, whose name is Chris, and pitch our tents in her back yard.
An hour later we’re roasting sausages at an acreage overlooking a rural community called Willowbrook, somewhere in the hills west of Okanagan Falls. We meet Chris’s husband Martel. They’re empty nesters now that the kids are off at university. But next week, they’re flying to the Philippines to adopt a six-year-old boy.
I wake up before dawn with the sinking feeling that life’s doors are closing for me as I approach 50. Chris and Martel have found a meaningful way to extend family life for another decade. I think about adopting. But maybe a highway—it would be less work.
“How can we repay your kindness?” I ask our hosts over a breakfast of bacon and eggs. “It’s nothing,” Martel says. “Return the favour to someone else when you get a chance.”
It feels like we’re leaving behind good friends as we ride south along surprisingly fun secondary roads west of Hwy. 97. Who would have suspected all these great paved roads were here?
The moment of reckoning has arrived at the Osoyoos US border crossing. An official in a beige campaign hat motions us to approach. He collects our passports and looks at me.
“Um, unfortunately officer, I forgot my passport in Calgary,” I say, handing him my driver’s licence.
“I’m going to try and work around that,” he says. And work around it he does after asking me about my recent visits to the US and verifying my response with his computer database. We celebrate our crossing into the land of the brave and the free.
The heat builds as we follow the Okanagan Valley south deeper into Washington. We pass by more rusting cars, trucks and farm equipment abandoned in fields than people. There’s a stark contrast between this rundown region of America and Canada’s densely populated, perfectly manicured Okanagan.
The road tracks straight into the distance, too tired or too hot to bother with curves. The landscape is awash in brilliant sunshine yet everything is a dull shade of tumbleweed and it all pulses in sync with the throbbing of my headache despite the four Anacin I swallowed at the last gas station/grocery store, a place that sells fruit, according to the clerk, if you consider apple chips a fruit.’
In late afternoon, we arrive at Grand Coulee Dam. Goddam this thing is big. It’s one of the largest concrete structures in the world. Its massive wall of falling water drives a cold, fishy blast of air far down the valley below. I take my helmet off to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who presided over the dam’s authorization, construction and completion between 1933 and 1942. We snap many pictures and decide to camp early tonight.
Here’s the best part of the trip for me. A few kilometres south of the dam in the shadow desert of the Cascade Mountains is a state park called Steamboat Rock on the shores of Banks Lake. This is a warm swimming lake, something I’ve always missed in Calgary. We’re given the last available camp spot, an unused handicap site without a fire pit, just a charcoal tray and grill.
As the sun sets, the temperature is still in the high 20s. We’re drinking beer, waiting for our steaks to cook. Buzzards glide in the sky above the jagged cliffs of Steamboat Rock, people talk quietly over fires, some children chase a red ball, a dog wags its tail pulling at its leash, a fat little kid rides by silently on an electric scooter, and the day’s heat in the ground warms my feet. This place is paradise before the fall.
We go for a swim and learn some new Czech words from Roman, the family patriarch of our family’s native tongue. The breaststroke in Czech is “prsa,” simply “breasts” in English. The crawl is taken directly from English, except badly mispronounced. Sidestroke is “na ucho,” “on the ear.” The butterfly is the same colourful insect, “motil” in Czech. And doggie paddle is “chubicku,” which translated literally as the “little bitch” stroke.
George wants to know how Czech kids feel about swimming the little bitch stroke. What I want to know is if trampoline, softball and curling are Olympic sports, why the little bitch stroke was left out.
We pull into Hunters, Washington, as we follow Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake—the other lake created by the Grande Coulee Dam along with Banks Lake. There’s a campground three kilometres west of town on the lake. This is where George will realize his dream of leaving behind his bike luggage the next day and riding unencumbered on some of Washington’s finest motorcycle roads.
In a candid moment around the fire that night, George talks about finding a girlfriend and settling down, even getting married one day. “What do you think of that?” he asks. “Both of you have been married for decades after all. What advice do you have for me?”
I’m not a fan of advice giving and decide to go visit the outhouse. Unseen in the dark, I pass campsites and hear snippets of conversations you typically hear only when camping. There’s talk of alien abductions around a fire so big it’s a beacon to the stars, calling out “We’re here, please abduct us.” A hushed voice that sounds just a little too reasonable tells the group of a friend who heard from a friend that one summer night in his cornfield …
Back in my tent, falling asleep, I listen to the only other motorcycle group in the park. They happen to be across from us. Someone in their ranks is telling a story about the most fun he’s ever had on two wheels. It was chasing jackrabbits on dirt bikes in the desert at night with his buddies.
“I flushed one out from a bush,” he says, “and I had him in my headlight. He was running straight ahead. He didn’t zig or zag and when I caught up to him, he just kind of turned his head and looked at me. So I lifted my foot off the footpeg and I kicked his ass.”
The campsite erupts in laughter.
“No kidding,” a high-pitched voice squeals.
“Yup, I just kicked his ay-ass,” he says, evidently residing in a part of the world where “ass” has two syllables.
IT’S ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL MORNING in America as George rides off into the sunrise. Roman and I stay behind, thankful for the time off. At noon I go to ask Roman if he wants to go for lunch in town, but he’s asleep. So I set off for Hunters on foot.
There’s no traffic and I walk barefoot in the middle of the road along the smooth painted white line. It’s been years since I’ve walked to get anywhere other than my garage. I’m reminded of when I was four or five years old at my grandparents’ cabin in the old country. My grandmother woke up my cousin and me up before sunrise and we started walking on an empty road toward a place called Nove Mesto. There was crescent moon fading on one horizon as sun rose from the other. Soon everyone was sweating. I don’t recall why we went to that town and I guess I never will know since neither my cousin nor my grandparents are alive anymore.
On the way to Hunters, I think about George’s question. And in the evening, after George returns from a 350-kilometre romp in the countryside, I have this pearl of advice to offer him:
“First you need to do an assessment,” I say. “Look at your parents and ask yourself, ‘Were they happy together?’ Then consider that when you fall in love with someone and want to marry them, that magic feeling is nature’s way of telling you, ‘Here is exactly the person you need in order to recreate the same relationship your parents had with all its happiness and/or dysfunction.’ Hope that helps.”
We ride through Idaho the next day in light rain. By late afternoon, it clears and we spend the last of our vacation in Montana below the Libby Dam, which forms Koocanusa Lake: “Koo” for Kootenays, “ca” for Canada, “usa” for USA.
There are only two large camp spots in this so-called campground and both are taken. A Harley rider, who’s in one of the spots with his girlfriend, shouts out to us and says we can stay with them.
While roasting corn over a fire, we learn our host is a medical marijuana grower. His path to legal marijuana dealing wasn’t easy. He says he spent seven years in a US jail.
“I was in a car with four other guys and we had a pound of weed when we got busted,” he says. “That got me four years. I did my time but tested positive for smoking weed, so I got three more years. When I got out, I decided I’d never do anything illegal again.”
He shows us his government certification as a marijuana grower. As he talks, he pulls out some of his product, rolls and smokes it.
“Obama cracked down on medical marijuana,” he says. “You can’t advertise anymore. That really cuts into my business.”
I ask what his clients typically suffer from.
“Usually stress,” he says. “Say you have a hard day at work. You come home and drink a beer to relax. That’s how you deal with stress. Or you can go see a doctor and get a prescription for medical marijuana.”
Apparently, it used to cost $75 for a doctor to run some tests to determine if you could benefit from smoking marijuana. Then some doctors decided they would just charge $150 and hand out prescriptions.
“Who knows what’s going to happen now,” he adds. “But it’s not good. My girlfriend had to close her storefront.”
Strangely enough, as I stretch my legs by the campground gate that evening, a Montana state trooper pulls up and slowly does a U-turn by the washrooms and then drives away. I suddenly imagine a police raid in the middle of the night, everyone getting handcuffed, including my 77-year-old father—guilty by association with a common weed dealer.
The west side of the Koocanusa Lake on the US side is everything George promised it would be. They’re the best roads of the entire trip—good pavement, tight turns, cliff edges, sweepers … I work the brakes and throttle and shift through the gears, now in sixth, going hard when a deer sprints out in front of me. I hit the brakes, feel the rear wheel is going into a skid. But it doesn’t matter. All I can do is clamp down on the front brake even harder as the animal bolts across my path a couple metres in front of me. Its hoof grazes the top of the metal guardrail as it disappears into the forest.
Adrenaline rushes through my body. I shift down, twist the throttle and regain my speed. In the next corner, there’s a patch of sand in my lane and I skirt around it in the oncoming lane, accelerate, always accelerate, and lean into the next turn, a long sweeping thing that unwinds into the next curve and the next and the next … I feel invincible.
“I was saying my Hail Marys when that deer ran out in front of me,” I tell George and Roman at the next stop.
“Were you close enough to kick its ass?”
No, actually I wasn’t. Maybe it would have made a better story if I was, but I wasn’t after a story.
– Paul Stastny (September 2012)