Vars, Ontario

I left two days late and late in the day, with one bag too many. I threw it on my back and went, and it pressed down on me like a giant’s hand slowly crushing my spine.

I ran out of time, and there’s a lot still undone. This will have to happen along the same operating model as old sailing ships, where the crew fixes and renews as they go, replacing planks, sewing sails and forging parts at sea.

Three hours of repacking the next morning got the bag off my back, but remarkably the bike was out of gas. I had switched to reserve when I coasted in to the cabin, and that should have left me another 15 or 20 miles of range; instead, I’m stalled out after 300 feet in the pouring rain. Apparently that slow leak in my petcock wasn’t so slow.

The nearest gas station was about 15 miles away, which isn’t that far until you don’t have gas. Soaking wet, I dully contemplated this potential day-breaker. Then I realized there was boat-gas in the pump house for the two-stroke outboard motor — how bad could that be? After sloshing it all over my newly painted gas tank, the bike roared back to life and I was off. Hopefully 15 miles of gas-and-oil mixture would’t be enough to foul the plugs.

On the plus side, the fairing is a revelation. It rains all day, the logical consequence of naming a bike “Stormbreaker,” but with the fairing on I barely care. I’ve never been able to beat rain, but now, as I barrel up the highway, I finally understand the trick. Get a goddamn fairing. The raindrops skitter across my visor with all the impact of an outdated screensaver. I’m not even wearing gloves.

In Essex Junction, Vermont I buy a new petcock, shiny and bright, for forty dollars. It works perfectly, silky smooth, flawless and beautiful.

On the morning of the third day,  my battery is dead. This is demoralizing; an afternoon on the highway should have left it well charged. The paperback-sized jumpstarting device works brilliantly, and I use it to limp 10 miles to the nearest expert. By the time I get there, the battery is again holding a bit of charge, so that’s encouraging — the bike is charging.

I ask about new batteries, and I ask for advice. He runs a test on the battery, and the device spits out a printout saying that the battery is good.  He explains to me that I probably left the headlight on overnight. This seems really unlikely, and it doesn’t fit the symptoms (the battery had enough power to at least try to turn over), but he patiently explains to me that he’s seen it happen 10,000 times; it is clear by “10,000 times” he really means “10,000 idiots,’ but is just polite enough to be careful with his phrasing. He also tells me that he knows the bike is charging, since the generator light goes off. He talks me out of buying a battery, or taking any action at all.

While it would be embarrassing to have left the headlight on, I want to believe it — that would mean problem solved. Unfortunately, the battery is almost dead again by the time I reach the Canadian border, and it just barely lurches to life in front of the border guard. Shortly after that the battery goes down for good, and I spend the rest of the day jump starting the bike with the device, and keeping the tachometer above 2000 so it doesn’t stall out. This becomes harrowing in the inevitable stop-and-go traffic around Montreal, and both the bike and I are tested on how hot we can run.

A couple times on the highway, the bike lurches and bucks violently. I realize dully that this is happening when I use the turn signal. That’s how thin the thread of electrons is that I’m hanging from, that even a tiny blinking light could be disastrous.

I stop at a gas station somewhere west of Montreal to consider my options, and I hook up the trickle charger since, why not — it takes days to charge a dead battery with this, but there’s no harm in hooking it up.  I am hot, tired and discouraged. Nigel comes around the corner to tell me that’s a fine old R bike I have there, and this is nothing, this is what makes it fun.  Figuring things out is what makes it an adventure. And this, a battery that won’t charge, this is nothing! He tells me a story about pulling bolts out of his transmission in order to keep his exhaust attached to his bike so he could get to Washington at 3 in the morning. He’d gladly ride to BC in my situation if he just had a good battery charger. “Get a faster charger, and you’ll be laughing!”

Nigel is reciting so closely from my own script that it’s unnerving. Am I imagining him? We talk through my problem for half an hour, unless this is just some sort of Mr. Robot scenario.

I want to be laughing, but the PTSD is kicking in. I rode all the way back from California with a dead starter once, but it only makes a good story with the benefit of time passed. On another bike, I rode up around New Brunswick with my girlfriend at the time and often had to jump start the bike — I thought I was scoring points for being self-reliant, but later realized she’d been deeply horrified by the whole experience. There is something in me that batteries hate, and I don’t want to do this again.

It’s a puzzle because the battery tested as good, and the bike seems to be charging — except, somehow that’s not working out. We agree, though, that a fast battery charger is a solid play. Nigel tells me there’s a Canadian Tire in Casselman, just two exits up, go right and you can’t miss it. Perfect.

The battery decides to get a room in Vars and have a charging party.

The charger claims to be intelligent, and has 2, 4 and 6 amp modes. Upon being hooked up, though, it goes straight into “charged/maintaining” mode, which is no good. It’s not charging because it thinks the battery is full.

I finally pull the battery out and see that the electrolyte is half gone.

Had I really not checked it before I left? That’s humbling — I thought I had, I’d been moving the battery back and forth between the two bikes, but who knows.

Cause, or symptom? I carefully top it up with bottled water that claims to contain no minerals.

I remind myself that since the plan was to work things out as I went, then everything is going perfectly.







I am a terrible mechanic.

Almost two years ago, this bike came home on a trailer and in a box. Out of the blue, a friend had sent me an email to a Craiglist post of a free parts bike with the message, “Hey, isn’t this like yours?”

It was exactly like my old 1982 BMW R65, even to the year. It was amazing — parts are worth their weight in gold. From the pictures, I could see a couple things I could use right off the bat.

Another friend rounded up a trailer from his brother, and we took a day to cross the state and collect it. What wasn’t on the bike was in a giant plastic tub, but it seemed mostly there. I asked the woman what had taken the bike off the road in the first place, but she had no idea. Her son had it in his dorm at college, and then he’d brought it home; now she was tired of having it taking up half her garage.

It had been a black bike, color code 419, but the tank was half repainted blue, rust and dirt caked in the paint. The big black fairing was in the tub, cracked on both sides; the right-hand crash bar was bent. It looked like it had fallen over in both directions, but that happens.

They could not find the keys, so when I got home I wired around it, put in the battery and tank from my other R65, and the bike started right up. When I cleaned the acorns out of the airbox, it sounded even better.

This was no longer a parts bike. It just wouldn’t be right. Instead of one old bike starved for attention, I now had two.

I bolted things back together, cleaning and checking as I went. I swapped out the master cylinder and gave it a new front tire. For a while, I rode it around town with a headlight assembly from an old Honda CB550 that I’d lashed on as a temporary measure, but eventually I put on a new instrument bracket, which first needed to be straightened and painted.

The original bracket had the headlight and turn signal stems sawed off.
This one is intact, but needs to be straightened and painted.

This let me put on a clear fairing that I’d been lugging around for ages. I’ve never really wanted a fairing, but in thinking about this trip I thought it might be time to try it. I’m getting older, and I want shelter.

New handgrips; patched the clips for the battery covers; new taillight. It even came with Krauser bags and mounts, in pretty good shape. I found a center stand on eBay that didn’t have the tab snapped off and put it on.

Fixing the battery covers.

The engine itself continued to sound great. The timing chain is worn, but that will have to wait.

As time grew short, many of my restoration plans got abridged. I’d wanted to re-upholster the seat, but instead just rubber taped over the holes to keep the pan dry and then stretched an old coat over it.

About a month before I was due to leave, I got an unexpected email. They’d found the keys, and wanted to send them to me. This felt like a sign.

I didn’t want to repaint the tank myself, since I’ve never done that before — but, the quote I got was $1000, so that wasn’t going to happen. I got it stripped for $50 then went at it with cans: primer, paint, clear coat. I scrubbed out the petcock and got it flowing again, put it back together and it all worked, no leaks.

Suddenly, the keys turn up.

Except the next day after I filled the tank all the way, a tiny perfect pinhole leak appeared at the bottom, spraying a delicate hairline-thin stream of gasoline down onto the engine; apparently the paint had briefly kept it plugged. There was no time for anything more elaborate than plugging it with epoxy, but it was a small hole and that worked fine. It’s on the bottom and barely visible.

I did not repaint the mirrors or battery covers, but that’s a matter of esthetics. That flaked paint is earned wear, and this is a war rig, a machine for the the end times.

I was about to swap out the worn cables for the better ones from the other bike, but since they still worked it occurred to me that it might be better to use them up and bring the spares as replacements. I strip out the cables from the other bike and bundle them into the saddlebags.

A week or so out, my friend Dwayne (owner of Bavarian Heritage Werks) balanced the carbs for me. Mostly, though, I was just really glad to get another set of eyes on it — what Dwayne doesn’t know about old BMWs probably isn’t worth knowing. I don’t know why he still talks to me, since all I do is bring him terrible problems, generally of my own creation, but he took the bike around the block and said that it sounds pretty good.

The night before I’m supposed to leave, some friends took me out for a drink. It was unexpected and really great; I sometimes hold my plans close, and I’ve never had a send off before. Chris gave me a charm to ward off trolls, of obvious use in Canada; Trevor gave me a first aid kit, which was fantastic but also a bit alarming, since I’m pretty sure he actually uses it to stay alive. It’s in a great little tactical bag, which got passed around the table, and people stuffed money it — also unexpected, and also pretty great.

It’s fitting because this bike wouldn’t even exist without my friends; it would still be trapped in its old afterlife, unsummoned and unmade.





40 days

There is a doom upon the land.

It is hard to think of anything that is working right. The world is cooking, and we are as responsive as frogs in a pot while life of all kinds sloughs off the globe in great, Thanos-worthy waves. My country has fallen under a darkness of hate and the worship of ignorance, and if the underlying system hasn’t outright failed, it is certainly at a failure point. Around the world, democracy doesn’t seem to be in vogue anymore, and the idea is starting to seem quaint and dated. Freedom means only free markets, or, at best, the freedom to hurt your neighbor.

The machines are rising. Not the old ones, not the gas engines and windmills, not the pulleys and tires and aqueducts. The new ones. They’re already in us, and we in them.

In my own life, things are not much better. I am rarely the person I want to be.

I want to be done with this. I want to cut a hole in the stomach of this thing and get out.

My cousin is getting married, though, and that’s a fine and hopeful thing. Even better, he lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and the whole family is flying out for the wedding. I’ve never been to Alaska, and that sounds great.

I don’t fly much, though, if I can avoid it.

Google says that it’s 4,500 miles from where I live on the Atlantic to Anchorage, diagonally right across Canada; a 9000 mile round trip. I do some math on how quickly I think I could ride that, then adjust downward toward the always-elusive and never achieved casual, enjoyable rate. Then I add a couple days as a margin for error, and arrive at 20 days to get there. Double that if I come back, and that’s 40.

I want to ride to the edge of the world. More than that; I want to ride until I find the outside, or at least until I reach the background radiation. I want to ride until time cracks.

I want to ride until I find where this went wrong. I suspect that it was a long time ago.

40 days is just enough time to wash the wickedness from the world and get a fresh start. I hope that it doesn’t actually rain the whole way.