It’s never really a question if our annual motorcycle ride will take place, just a matter of where we’ll go, as long as it’s some place we haven’t been before. This year, after some dithering, we’ve decided to circumnavigate Lake Superior, with Thunder Bay, Ontario, as mission objective. It’ll be about 3,000 miles in 18 days, all told.
This will be our third consecutive ride in Canada; last year was Quebec and the Route Des Navigateurs and the year before was Halifax and the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. Both of those were great rides, and we really fell in love with Quebec.
We talked about Newfoundland but decided we didn’t have enough time to do it properly. Then we thought about Key West and taking a few days to explore the Keys before using the Amtrak Auto Train to come home, but the traffic and heat dissuaded us. So we looked north again.
Circumnavigating the Great Lakes was out, again because of time. But the northern sweep of the Trans-Canada Highway around Superior appealed to me – beautiful country, remote yet accessible. It looked perfect.
It’s a clockwise journey. We’ll see family on the outbound leg, take ferries across Lake Erie, challenge the Mackinac Bridge, ride some beautiful roads between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and see Toronto and Niagara Falls before heading home.
Linda will ride her 300cc Vespa scooter and I’ll be on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. Both bikes have been serviced – new tires on both! – and are ready. I’ll carry extra fuel for the Vespa just in case.
“Books. I don’t know of any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take a lot of space but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing.”
– Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Oh, I do.
I always take a book or two on motorcycle rides. It’s true, they take up space, and they’re heavy as heck.
Linda and I do a great deal of reading at work; among other things, she edits, researches, rewrites and clarifies news stories to make them infinitely better and I do research for graphics and other projects. Much of this is on deadline and under the gun.
Riding motorcycles is a getaway from work and deadlines. Reading for pleasure helps us attain escape velocity. With exceptions for the Weather Channel, we try to stay away from the TV.
I was jarred into this realization during an impromptu layover one night years ago at a lonely, run-down motel in Adelanto, Calif. I was on U.S. 395 going home to Reno from San Diego, got tired, and decided to call it a day with 200 miles down and 400 to go.
The room TV had absolutely nothing worthwhile and I plundered the saddlebags on Discovery, my ’94 Yamaha 750 Virago, to see what I had.
Besides a repair manual, I had one book and it was perfect: an old Signet paperback of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, given to me by my good friend Van just before I moved from Ohio to Nevada. I didn’t even remember stowing it aboard the bike. I read it again that night and started packing books on every long-distance ride.
I still do that to this day. I pick the titles carefully, tending toward lighter fare. There’s no pattern I can discern; the choices are as scattergun as an outhouse squirrel.
You won’t find The Brothers Karamazov orIn Search of Lost Time or Les Miserables in Terra Nova’s sidecases. I prefer substantial meals on the bike, not seven-course dinners.
But the authors who accompany me are pretty good, I think.
Some of them include Mark “Tiger” Edmonds, who writes about motorcycles and is a great storyteller; anything by Ted Simon, author of Jupiter’s Travels, the premier tale of motorcycling around the world; Edmund Morris, whose The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt I literally could not put down; and Michael Korda’sHero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia was fascinating and illuminating.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes along for a ride every once in while, too.
I used to carry tales of motorcycle adventure, an effort to bolster the documentation of my own travels. That’s faded away in favor of other books.
My écrivain du jour is Alain de Botton. I discovered The Art of Travel, which fit my own perceptions of life on the road, especially the pauses at gas stations and greasy restaurants.
But I found de Botton fascinating. How Proust Can Change Your Life was unexpectedly funny and illuminating about the life and work of venerated French writer Marcel Proust and how even a schmuck like me could benefit from knowing him.
His other books, on architecture, work, and philosophy, are equally good. So de Botton has earned his place in my sidecases.
Just a couple of books, on every ride, nestled among tools, a quart of oil, tire pump, battery charger, and other essentials for the road. While the latter items keep you going, the books stay in the confines of your helmet and offer something to think about while you’re getting there.
When I first started riding, I also devoured motorcycle magazines, which rapidly littered the house like November leaves on your lawn.
Motorcycle magazine content is hit-or-miss, but I remember reading a Peter Egan Cycle World column in which he marveled at the mountains of motorcycle gear he’d accumulated over the years.
“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Is he just bragging?”
Fast-forward 21 years and I realize he was telling the truth. I realized it when I bought my fifth motorcycle helmet.
Manufacturers tell us helmets have a lifespan of about five years before they start to lose their protective qualities. The Snell Foundation1, a nonprofit organization for high standards of helmet safety, says:
The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation.
Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation.
Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance.
Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards.
Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.
I buy full-face Arai helmets, which are admittedly expensive, but well-fitted. (We look for them on sale.) Comfort is important on long rides – you’ll be less fatigued after hours on the bike if your helmet sits right and shields you from wind and noise.
I get Arais for Linda, too; she can choose the color and style. But she has to have a safe helmet.
New riders quickly come to find how extremely personal helmets can be. You spend hours inside them, and the enclosure has to feel right. I’ve ended up eschewing graphics and colors and going with white helmets, which have better visibility to texting car drivers. Linda’s Arai matches the color of her Vespa scooter.
But what do you do with old helmets? Some people donate them to fire departments, for practice in motorcycle-accident responses; others make lamps or planters out of them.
Ours are lined up along the top of a bookcase in the guest bedroom, faceshields open, reminding me of the row of waiting spacesuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I take down the older ones every now and again and dust them off. Sometimes I’ll use one to take a bike for a quick ride after a wash.
But mostly they just sit there, self-contained with memories and stories of past rides. My father used my first Bieffe when I took him for a short ride aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, many years ago; the black Bieffe has a white paint scar from hitting the side of a gas pump while fueling up with my Uncle Robert in California.
I wore the red Arai for our motorcycle travels in Europe; the white Arai was the camera mount for my first GoPro video, through Glacier National Park in Montana.
Motorcycle helmets. The memories they protect are the most precious of all.
1 — The foundation was created in 1957, the year after William “Pete” Snell, a popular sports car racer, died of head injuries in a crash. The helmet he was wearing failed to protect him.
“Works of design and architecture tell us about the kind of life that would best unfold in and around them. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously invite us to be specific sorts of people.”
— Alain de Botton, “The Architecture of Happiness”
The best restroom I’ve ever seen is in Premont Harley-Davidson in Quebec. It’s like the Museum of Modern Art or the set of Star Trek.
When traveling by motorcycle, Harley dealers are good places to visit, even if you’re not on a Harley. They’re easy to find and are usually open on Sundays.
I’ve picked up Harley gloves – a little pricey, but well-made – and stuff for Endurance and Terra Nova every now and again. And sometimes I’ll get a long-sleeve shirt as a souvenir, like the ones from rides in Budapest and Halifax.
But I started laughing the moment I hit the Premont H-D restroom. It was so over-the-top with its purple Manhattan nightclub mirrors and Le Corbusier sinks that I almost forgot why I was there. Fortunately the place was empty.
I’ve seen a fair number of good and bad restrooms, with some of the bad ones resembling staging areas for food fights, but not with food. So I’m not complaining about Premont, but it’s the first time I’ve come out of a motorcycle place thinking about architecture and not motorcycles.
There’s a quiet collection of 9 4×6 photos in carefully mismatched frames in one of the bookcases in the living room. Each one is a picture taken of Linda and I during our annual travel event – the special one that usually involves motorcycles.
The photos became a ritual as I neared 50 and started (like everyone else) thinking about fleeting Time and how someday photos and memories will be the last things we’ll have. It seemed vital to document those travel days, the days that mattered. That’s why the 9 photos are in an unassuming corner of the house; they’re documentation, not braggadocio.
Each year, the days that matter require us to try and go somewhere we’ve never been before, with the exception of Slovakia and Hungary because they’re wonderful places and they never get old.
But since we had to rule out Europe as a destination this year (though we’ll fight for it next year) we had to decide where to go in the U.S., with Linda on her Vespa.
As our past motorcycle rides show, I’m a sucker for roads with names – the Blue Ridge Parkway, Natchez Trace, Lincoln Highway, Going to the Sun Road and the Cabot Trail are just a few we’ve traveled.
“Find me a road with a name,” I said to Linda.
We talked about taking Highway 1 down to Key West and the southernmost point in the continental U.S., or riding to Tennessee and North Carolina for the Dragon’s Tail and Cherohala Skyway.
And then she sent me an e-mail: “What about this Navigators’ Route near Quebec?”
I looked at the map, saw how the Route ran along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and looped around the Gaspie Peninsula and I thought: that’s perfect.
It’s ambitious, but we’ll ride north again this year, farther than the Cabot Trail, about 2,600 miles according to the mission profile. With luck, we’ll see Quebec and the St. Lawrence and take the ferry from Baie-Comeau to Matane and ride clockwise around the Gaspie.
The ride will take about 16 days and we’ll try to make them days that matter. And document with the 10th photo.