Riding to sleep

I took a long ride tonight. I’ve been wanting to take the bike out for a ride for a very long time. I never have any real reason for riding it and never have the money to indulge in any real travel. But today I hit a wall and I needed to get out.

I first rode to Chinook. Why? Because it gave me a single, simple goal and allowed me to use a couple of “fast” roads to take the bike up to speed. I parked at the very top of the parking cluster and stopped in at the food court. Treating myself to a cheap meal I relaxed and finished a book I’d been reading. “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a fascinating little book juxtaposing the life of an orphan in the 1930s with the life of an orphan in the aughts. Vivian was orphaned in New York in 1929 and bounced between a few homes of increasing misery before lucking out with a couple who owned a general goods store. Molly is orphaned in the 2000s and bounces from foster home to foster home before encountering Vivian.

It says something about me that, in the last few pages of the book, as the storyline becomes more and more positive, I kept waiting for the Bad News Hammer to fall. But everything ended up okay, families were reunited, and everything was a super duper happy ending.

I'm sorry everything worked out so well.

I’m sorry everything worked out so well.

Which kind of disappointed me, and cheapened the struggles. Everything up until that point had been painfully realistic, with loss and achievement fairly evenly matched. When things went truly horrid I had the sense that the characters would seize on a chance that would turn their fortunes around, and they did. And when things were going smooth and easy I expected the characters to hit some other terrible snag, someone might die or a home would be lost, and they would have to persevere. And they did.

But the super happy fun time ending kind of… fizzled the whole experience. It was just the kind of thing where I expect some producer was sitting off to one side and said “can we guarantee a happy ending?” lest the funding run out.

Other than the ending the book is very well written and thoroughly researched. I strongly recommend it, particularly if you’re looking for something with a Disney ending.

Having finished my book I returned to my bike and suited up for a full speed run. I quickly decided to make a long trip home. The sun was down and the twilight was just perfect. I took Glenmore to Deerfoot to Stoney to Crowchild. The whole ride home took me about 45 minutes and made me realize that, were I to suddenly be rich, I would need to ease myself back into long distance riding. My ass was decidedly sore by the end of it and my thigh muscles were shaky.

Still, if I were to be suddenly rich I could also afford some riding pegs and a better seat. Both problems solved.

The ride was good for my soul. The wind howling past my helmet and the thrum of the engine between my legs. The smell of the wild grass beside the road, and the firm grip of the tires through each turn. All of it was exactly what I needed.

Venus HumAnd now, having had very poor sleep for the past two or three days (I’m honestly not sure how long it’s been) I feel I might actually be able to sleep by midnight tonight. I’m tempted to go to bed now, but I fear that would turn into just an hour nap and I’d be wide awake at midnight.

I’m going to put a few minutes into playing Halo instead. The original game is so familiar it’s practically like playing solitaire. In the meantime I’ve found Venus Hum’s last album and have been absorbing it as I write. So pretty.

Why do I fear writing?

I was born to a single mother of a large extended family. For 80 to 90% of my time it was either the two of us or just me. A lot of just me. When we spent time with the extended family I didn’t identify with anyone. Nobody was even a little bit like me. I was soft and emotional and even the women in my family were tougher than me. I cried at the littlest things and nobody knew what the hell to do with me. Things that were common conflicts between my cousins, daily struggles and fights that blew over like flash paper, left me burnt, hurting, and withdrawn.

It quickly became my most common tactic to avoid the family as much as possible. I didn’t hate them, and I never have. I’ve never even been angry with them. They just don’t get me, and I don’t get them. The worst that I can say is that I was constantly aware of what a disappointing puzzle I was. My aunts tried to be sympathetic to a point, and my uncles, near as I can tell, were either disgusted with me or inclined to just write me off.

I never felt I had any chance to prove them wrong. I was disappointing. That part was always clear.

To the best of my recollection I was only ever passionate about two things that I could DO. In my younger years it was programming, and I was good at it. Then I grew disillusioned of programming, burned out on the stress and pace of it, and just confirmed my tendency to disappoint.

The second was learning to ride my motorbike. It was the first thing I ever attempted that was considered universally cool, even by those who felt it was needlessly reckless.

I was working a very physically demanding job at the time, one that frequently had me working ten and eleven hours a day. I would start work at 7:30 and leave at 6:30, regularly. When I signed up for my riding classes I was fortunate that my manager agreed to let me leave work at 5:30 to get to class by 6. It was an incredibly trying and stressful week, working hard all day lifting and delivering, then spending four hours every night learning a terrifying new skill that I invested my entire will into. I pretty much got through it by being angry all day. It was the only energy that would persevere. Anything else was too soft, too ready to give up.

I learned to ride in the dark. I had signed up for the first class of the year, which took place in the second week of March. The sun was down by the time class started and we learned by the minimal light of a stadium parking lot. The temperature was often below freezing, except for one night where it rained. The next evening the puddles froze and we learned to handle, or avoid, ice. My first bike drop was due to an invisible patch of ice in the dark. One evening we had snow. Another we had fog. Short of hail and hard wind I learned to ride in all the worst weather there was.

It paid off. I passed the class and, more importantly, passed my riding test.

Programming came easy to me. It was an enjoyable mental exercise and I rarely had to fight with it to make it work. (programming tools, on the other hand…) I always knew that, if I couldn’t solve a problem today, I could get some rest and get back to it tomorrow. In all likelihood a potential answer would occur to me before I even went to bed and I approached the problem with confidence. Programming, while it was difficult and convoluted, was never a RISK for me. It was a nice safe thing to do to make money. The risk came later with the environment of pressure and stress of deadlines and overtime and changes in mid stride and just shit that I’ve come to term “managing an artistic process with a manufacturing attitude.” While I definitely burned out of the programming environment the actual act of programming itself was just a comfortable mental exercise that entertained and challenged me.

You can always crash a car, but unless you’re moving especially fast, and so long as you’re wearing your seatbelt, you’re more than likely to come out of it just fine. Maybe a sprained neck, perhaps some bruising from your knees hitting the steering wheel, but fine. Even so, learning to drive a car is incredibly stressful.

Learning to ride a motorbike was dangerous. It was dangerous and uncomfortable and tiring and freaking HARD. Your past experience with riding a bicycle actually worked against you and you had to force yourself to unlearn it. I was perched on a piece of machinery that could literally kill me if I didn’t handle it well. We spent one of our earliest hours just memorizing where the clutch and brake are. Given that the two are identical levers under each hand, it’s very easy to get them mixed up in a panic. We learned how to change gears in the middle of a turn. We learned how to make sudden changes in direction and, even though the direction of the change was random, we knew the change was coming and many of us still panicked and made mistakes.

I learned and trained on a little 50 cc engine. The machine could barely bring me up to 80km an hour, given my weight, and I still felt terrified of the power of the engine sitting raw between my legs.

I now ride a massive 1500 cc cruiser. The engine on my motorbike is literally more powerful than the engine of my car. I’m constantly aware of the amount of power I’m guiding down the road, and I’m comfortable with it. I ride it daily, when I can find a reason to. My bike is my summer vehicle. I ride it to work and back, to the grocery store and back (if I don’t need more than a backpack and two saddle bags can carry) and pretty much any where I need to go. Rain or shine. Even through hail.

And my ideal vacation is spending days and days on my bike guiding it down the road.

My question now is why can’t I be that dedicated to my writing? Why I can’t write in the dark, through snow, rain, and fog? Why I can’t accept dropping the pen on the ice and just get back up and start a new page? Why I don’t write the way I ride? My writing has the potential to take me to worlds beyond where my bike can go. So why do I find it so easy to distract myself with something else to do?

The Road Less Traveled

If you want a traveling adventure then travel with an adventurer. Who, or what, defines an adventurer? Simple: an Adventurer is that one person either too unafraid, too stubborn, or just plain too… uncomplicated… to limit themselves to the common, sensible road.

Sometimes you just need to go with the dumb choice and see what happens.

Scott and I have often said we’d like to take a day ride together through Kananaskis Provincial Park, otherwise known as K-country, to visit my wife Ronya on one of her tours. Ronya works as a paramedic deep in the mountains on a two-on, four-off rotation that has her situated in some of the richest mountain scenery for 48 hours straight. The countryside is frequented by a lot of motorcycle enthusiasts and it’s always worth the trip.

This past Saturday Scott and I finally managed to coordinate our schedules enough to take that ride.

I’ve been out there a number of times to visit my wife while she’s working but I’ve only ever taken two routes: either straight out on the number 1 and then down the 40 or south out of the city through Turner Valley and Black Diamond to the south end of highway 40 and up to the station. Both routes circle around K-country to either the top or the bottom before moving inward on the well paved, well maintained, and well
traveled highway 40.

For this ride, however, Scott wanted something different. He decided we would take a
route straight through the middle of K-country, a route that would take us across to highway 40 directly. I had often tried to find such a route on my ordinary provincial map but never could. I assumed Scott had a solid idea of the route we would take. At least he seemed to.

We started the trip heading straight south out of Calgary to highway 22x. Instead of continuing further south to Turner Valley, however, we continued straight west where we got to see how the rich country folk live. One rise lead to a view of a farm straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with a large red barn nestled in massive

We eventually came to the turnoff for highway 22 and a short jaunt north took us in to Bragg Creek.

Stopping in Bragg Creek was more for me than Scott. I’d slept in that morning and our rushed departure meant I hadn’t had time to get in my morning coffee. Lucky for both of us Bragg Creek is rich with cafes and wineries, including one location that was a pleasant combination of both. The cinnamon cafe has excellent brownies, I’m told.

With a short stop for some coffee and idle chat we returned to our bikes. The sky was a perfect blue with only the faintest wisp of cloud. We couldn’t have asked for a better day for a ride.

We took highway 758 out of Bragg Creek because it took us along the very waterway for which the town is named. There were a lot of locals out enjoying the gorgeous day as well, with entire families camped out by the river. I was amused by the one teen girl who was just getting out of the river with her four foot inflatable shark.

The 758 eventually lead us back to highway 22, just as it changed to highway 66. We continued west on 66 and soon found ourselves passing the Kananaskis Country sign. A few more kilometers down the road and we were passing the iron bar gate that locks the road off during the winter months. The road intersects with a major migration route for deer, elk, and mountain goats during fall and spring months, and is just plain impassible in winter, so it gets locked down between December 1 and June 15 every year.

It’s worth the wait. The area is far less traveled and therefore far less worn than the usual camping areas. And there are plenty of camps along the highway, every one of them marked with a “no vacancy” sign that weekend. The whole park was filled to capacity with people, although we hardly saw any of them. The scenery was lush and thick.

We saw a few mountain goats and deer along the way. The important distinction between the two is that while deer will quickly bolt away from the sound of your engine and your horn, goats will simply stare at you and chew their cud as they straddle the middle of the road.

There was also the occasional herd of cattle. Their movement is generally slow but predictable.

Highway 66 eventually came to an end at little campground next to Forget Me Not
pond. The highway actually transformed into a gravel road, while the pavement continued to the left into the campground parking. When we found the pavement ended at the park we pulled over and Scott asked if I had a map. It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder why he didn’t have a map himself, I just assumed he had a good idea of where he was going already and hadn’t bothered to bring one.

My map didn’t turn out to be much help anyway as it didn’t have highway 66 or Powderface Trail printed on it. Scott tossed it back to me, lit another cigarette, and said “fuckit, we’ll go back and take Powderface Trail.”

I hadn’t actually noted the name of the gravel road we’d passed so I thought he was talking about some other paved road further back. It wasn’t until he signaled for the left turn that I realized where he was going.

A little stunned at this turn of events I beeped my horn to try and get his attention, most especially to point out the three by twelve foot sign he’d just passed, the one that said:


But he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. He just churned his way around the first bend, gravel rolling out beneath his rear tire.

I was sure he had seen it. It was large and white with clearly printed black letters, all capitalized. You couldn’t miss it. So, in my trusting naivete, I decided he must have known something I didn’t, and churned my own way around the first corner.

Truth was, Scott didn’t know any more than I did. He honestly had no way of knowing where the road would lead, or if it was even passable. He just figured we’d give it a try.

It wasn’t until we were past the first turn that we found out that Powderface Trail did indeed lead across the park, to highway 68, and would do so in 34 kilometers. From there we’d be able to take the 68 to highway 40 and onward to the fire station.

Which would have been no problem except this was my first time ever riding on a gravel road. It’s something I’ve deliberately avoided in fact. I’ve heard horror stories of people laying down on gravel during turns. Scott even had a joke about it: “What’s the difference between gravel and ball bearings? Ball bearings don’t hurt as much when you fall on them.”

Needless to say I was a little scared, and a little tense.

But I did it. I made it through the whole trek, and what’s more I enjoyed just about every second of it. I won’t lie, there were a few sketchy moments where I felt the front tire skidding out a bit t
hat spiked my adrenaline, but for the most part I enjoyed the ride.

More than enjoyed it, in fact. I was concerned that my bike would not be suited to rough travel, but in truth it felt like my little Suzuki 550 GS was made for rough gravel roads.

I never shifted higher than second. Most of the time the bike simply rumbled it’s way around the curves, uphill and down. without a problem. The throttle gave me just enough control to make it up the hills without spinning my wheels and the clutch just enough friction to slow me on the downgrade without sliding.

I had a thought during my ride: My bike was made in 1978, the year in which I turned thirteen. The perfect year for a young boy to receive a newborn pup were his parent’s so inclined. In a few years later that pup would’ve grown into a solid, reliable watch dog, strong and true. A few decades later, though, and the loyal dog would be old, well past his prime, and possibly a little unsure of his usefulness.

But give that old dog a dire situation, a chance in which to prove himself and to show the young pups How It Was Done In The Day, and the rough and confident rumbling growl you’d hear from his chest would sound very much like my Suzuki.

It was not spry, it was adept. It was not nimble, it was steady. It did not prance, it
prowled. It did not force, but flowed. It was firm, sure, and direct. It knew what it was doing and it did not falter. Not once.

After the trip Scott asked if I’d ever ridden on gravel before. I admitted I hadn’t. He apologized and admitted he’d wished he’d asked sooner. He would have given me some advice on how to handle it. Primary among the gems would have been “don’t fight the bike, let it do it’s thing.”

I was fortunate enough to figure that out on my own. I quickly learned to let the bike right itself when the rear tire started to slide. The temptation to hit the brakes was strong, but I knew from my training that braking on gravel while sliding would only complete the tragedy, not avert it. I also kept to a steady, slow acceleration and
deceleration. Essentially, it simply becomes important to avoid any sudden movements.

As you might with any old and loyal watchdog.

The road was glorious. Alternating between being bracketed so tightly by trees that you felt as if you were winding your way through a tunnel to wide open plateaus that left you breathless. Switchbacks and tight turns abound, with little room to pass any oncoming traffic. Luckily, there is very little other traffic on that road.

There were a dozen or so parked cars, campers enjoying their weekend in the back woods, and about a handful of mountain bikers forever pumping their way uphill. I wanted to salute those cyclists for their herculean efforts, but I was mindful of keeping both hands on my grips. I did give them a quick wiggle of the fingers from my left hand, though, and they did the same back. I guess that’s the back-roads rider equivalent of a hearty wave.

We also passed one fellow with a dirt bike who was taking a bit of a rest. He gave us a big smile and a wave. I wondered if he thought we were nuts going down that road on street bikes.

Modern bikes, I theorized, would have problems with the road if they weren’t dirt bikes. Sport bikes would be too high strung… energetic pups too eager to be kept under control, their back ends wagging with unbridled enthusiasm. One twitch of the throttle and the bike would be skittering off down the road with the rider sliding behind it. And while the laid back cruisers would probably handle the measured pace required I
couldn’t help but imagine the riders whining “My chrome! My paint job!” as the gravel pelted their showy purebreds.

We arrived at highway 68 in under an hour or so and took a short break to both stretch our limbs, congratulate ourselves and, in my case, drain off some adrenaline. I took my jacket off to cool down a bit and noted how my normally black motorcycle jacket was now an uneven tan in color. I remarked to Scott on how that was the dirtiest my jacket had been to date and he offered me some congratulations of his own.

Highway 68 was, in some ways, a little scarier that Powderface Trail. At least Powderface espoused caution and frequently warned us of turns and steep grades, suggesting speeds more in keeping with playground zones than open roads. Highway 68 was just as much gravel as Powderface but broader and less serpentine. It’s suggested speed limit is 80 km, more in keeping with what you’d expect from an open road.

I don’t think we managed 80 km more than three or four times. We kept to a stately 60 km for most of it, still watching the curves for drifts of gravel and sticking to the well worn tire tracks as much as possible. It was with some relief that we finally reached the paved highway 40. The chance to open up the throttle and race to the relatively heady speed of 90 km was a relief.

We visited with my wife for an hour or so, Scott getting his first tour of the station and all it’s gear. We took a look at the mock burning house where they honed their fire fighting skills and got to learn about the ins and outs of dealing with fighting fires out in the back country. Even when there’s a hydrant available it’s pressure isn’t always
reliable. There were siphon hoses with computer controlled pumps and, as a last resort, a massive tanker truck filled with emergency backup water.

As we sat in the hall’s kitchen, it’s front window looking over mountains shrouded in cloud, Ronya entertained us with stories about what it’s like to work out there. Like the two grizzlies that had them pinned in the station until conservation officers could come and deal with them… or the time the snow came down so fast and hard that it took two of them over an hour to shovel enough snow just to get the hall’s bay doors open. There are times in the winter when emergency services just simply aren’t available because they’re quite literally snowed in.

The logistics of backwoods emergency services makes me doubly glad I work at a desk.

Before continuing down the road Scott and I stopped in at the Delta hotel in Kananaskis village for a quick lunch. Tourism runs year round at the hotel and we saw plenty of hikers and other nature lovers coming and going. We also had a couple of the best ham sandwiches I’d ever tasted from their Deli.

Well sated we continued on down the road towards Lougheed park. We stopped at the
only gas station available on highway 40 and were pleasantly surprised to note how their exclusivity hadn’t prompted them to jack their prices sky high. I’m sure they could have charged double if they’d wanted to.

While filling up our tanks we chatted with a number of other riders out enjoying the day. A few other riders were curious about our “antique” bikes and had numerous questions, many of which I simply couldn’t answer. “It rides well enough for me” was about the best I could ans
wer them. Scott’s old BMW R80 was of particular interest because of it’s unusual side mounted piston configuration. Scott commented that while
the jutting pistons did prevent him from taking turns at steep angles there was also little need for him to do so.

After a bit more banter and comeraderie Scott and I set off once again, fully intending on checking out Peter Lougheed park. Unfortunately we missed the initial turnoff and, while debating whether or not to turn back to it, storm clouds began to loom. We decided it would be more prudent to simply head back for the city.

The 40 lead us down to Longview, known locally for its phenomenal beef jerky, where we had another brief rest stop. We used the gas station’s squeejees to clean the road debris from our helmets. Scott took the moment to point out that it was very evident which of us had the wind screen. His jacket was covered with numerous bug hits. Between his bug guts and my mud layer it was a toss up which of us looked rougher.

The distinction was soon moot, however, as we encountered an intense thunder and hail storm shortly after gassing up in Turner Valley. We tried waiting it out at the intersection of the 22 and 22x, and gave it another go when the rain stopped. Unfortunately we very quickly caught up with it again and found ourselves pelted by hail at 110 kmh.

Resigned to our fate we decided to just tough it out and muscled our way home. Twenty minutes later we were pulling into my driveway, soaked through and through.

But at least our jackets were clean.

Learning to ride

So I signed up for motorcycle riding lessons yesterday. I didn’t end up going with Calgary Safety Council, but instead went with Too Cool Motorcycle School. Despite how the name sounds they come with an excellent recommendation from Dargie who used to teach riding himself. He says the school is run by a former partner of his and a former student of his, and the course material is based on what he once taught but with some improvements over the year. I’m going to go with that.

Much to my delight they’re actually starting classes in March and I was able to get in on one remaining spot for the classes starting March 19th. I can only hope conditions will be favorable, and given the way the weather has been lately I think my odds are pretty good. Plus, as Ronya said, if you learn in the worst conditions then you’ll be prepared for better.

Today I signed up for a motorcycle maintenance course at SAIT, which starts April 10th. I actually found out about it yesterday morning but didn’t sign up for it because the main prerequisite was that the student own and ride a motorcycle. I figure they’ll probably have you use your own bike to learn from, else why have the requirement? Anyway, I was initially a little disappointed about the timing since I didn’t think I’d actually get to take my riding class until mid-April as it was, but now I can take them both in order. Yay!

Now I just need to make sure I get my learner’s before March 2nd, which is the one day of in-class learning prior to the actual on-bike learning.

I tried my old leather jacket on this morning, just before leaving from work. It’s a little tight in the shoulders but otherwise serviceable. If I lose a little weight I’m sure it’ll be perfect. Or at least good enough for the class. I’ll also need some ankle high boots. I do still have an old pair of combat boots, I think, but their heels are so worn they’re a risk to my ankles when I wear them. I’ll have to take a look at some of my other boots. They expressly exclude cowboy boots so I don’t think they’ll accept my wedding boots. True, they do have a rubber sole, but they may have some other reasons for excluding cowboy, or “cowboy-like” boots and so I suspect it’d be best not to risk it.

They didn’t mention anything about a helmet so I believe I will have to provide my own. Not a big deal as I will eventually need one anyway. They also say they’ll provide gloves but past experience has me thinking I might want to try and get a pair of my own before hand. Most common gloves just don’t fit me.

I forgot to mention in my previous post just what kind of bike Ronya bought from her father. I believe it’s one of these, with what little I remember of the look of it making me think it’s the 550 E from either 1979 or 1980. Either way it’s in excellent shape from what I can tell.

I can’t believe how much I’m looking forward to this.