North Judique, Nova Scotia

Right now is a great time to travel between the U.S. and Canada because the exchange rate is about the same as the ratios of miles to kilometers, so I can calculate how much I’m spending with my speedometer dial. Very handy.

We spent two nights and at least parts of three days in Dartmouth getting Sean’s bike repaired. Dartmouth and Halifax are twin cities separated by a harbor and linked by a couple bridges; they were also the site of the Great Explosion, which I’d never even heard of before. In 1917 two ships collided in the harbor and one of them was carrying 180,000 kg of TNT; I read that the result was the largest human-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. The blast destroyed half of Halifax and set fire to the rest, and it was capped off by a blizzard the next day.

We left Dartmouth this afternoon and rode up the southern shore, in and out of fog. We stopped for a snack and bought some roast chicken flavored potato chips; they tasted like stuffing, and were almost as good as the ketchup flavored chips.

In the evening we crossed over onto Cape Breton Island and rode up the northwest shore to North Judique for lodgings.

Behind the house is a a sweet old hayfield. It’s beautiful, it’s more garden than field: purple thistles, vetch and clover, white Queen Anne’s lace, little yellow flowers on tall thin stems, and several kinds of tall grasses, one with a head covered in delicate purple fuzz. A rabbit jumps and runs. All I can hear are the birds, the wind, and the ocean beyond the trees. I’m still buzzing from the motorcycle, still humming. It’s an aftereffect, like being on the ocean all day and then still being able to feel the waves at night; a sensory ghost. Not just the vibration, but the smells, the pound of the air, and the roar echo under my skin as traces of electricity. It’s like gently sanding the fingertips to make them more sensitive, but for the whole nervous system.

Through the trees on the far side of the field there’s a wide grassy path to the beach, lined by bushes with floppy pink flowers. There’s a shade of rose in the clay, too, and in the beach rocks which are as big and round as ostrich eggs, but maybe smoother. The sun drops and goes pink, the sky goes pink, the clouds behind me go pink.

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Death may come for Sean more often than for other people, but it evens out because he’s so damn hard to kill. I only have this one shot at the world — when Death comes for me, I’ll crumple like a lily in his black-gloved hand.

Riding out of a torrential rain along the coast this morning and making a sharp right-hand curve, Sean slipped into the other lane right in front of an oncoming car. I saw him put his foot out and then try to go around the other side of the car on the shoulder, but then he shot off the road into a ditch and disappeared; I saw his body get tossed up for a second and then tumble out of sight. I thought, this could be it.

But he was fine when I got there and we spent the next 20 minutes wrestling his bike back onto the road, possibly burning out some of the clutch in the process. He’d been thrown free of the bike but couldn’t remember exactly how; the bike wasn’t even in too bad a shape, just a bent rollbar, broken mirror and turn signal, some scratches, but we had to have it towed to Dartmouth for the clutch. The impact had been cushioned by a lot of little evergreen trees. If he’d been going another five mph he probably would have gone right into the saltwater pond just a couple feet away.

It was about a half hour later that it occurred to us that we’d been able to push the bike back out of the ditch along the same path that it went in because the bike had been lying in the ditch facing the wrong direction. Since I hadn’t seen it spin sideways, then it must’ve flipped end over end. Sean had mentioned he’d felt something fly over his shoulder — that was it.

Having a sandwich down the road, waiting for the towtruck, we met the woman who’d been driving the car. She was very nice, and we talked for quite a while. She said she’d be haunted by Sean’s face as he came around that corner, the look on it, for weeks. I told her that lots of people are haunted by Sean’s face, even without an accident.

The sky gets closer the farther we go. Maybe if you go far enough, north of the Arctic Circle, it’s just all sky and you can walk right through it. Or maybe it’s not a function of latitude, but just of how long you ride.

Liverpool, Nova Scotia

Caught the ferry from St. John to Digby this morning, a long, boring, uncomfortable 2 1/2 hours. The ferry was like an airport without the release of actually getting on a plane, both being large sprawling habitrails for containing impatient waiting people. Even though the ferry was an airport that moved, it moved imperceptively slowly, and it cost almost as much as taking a plane anyway. The ferry also had the added bonus of beginning and ending with a traffic jam.

Then we rode in the rain for awhile.

We stopped for a moment on the shore of Kejimkujik Lake as we crossed the peninsula, a beautiful lake with shallow, stoney shores, the stones small and flat like tiles.

Liverpool seems like a nice town with giant old shade trees and graceful old white houses beneath them, but at the elementary school I found the remains of some kid’s jacket which had been hung on the fencepost and set on fire. All that was left was a charred cuff and scorchmarks on the chainlink — if the kid was in the jacket at the time he must’ve burned clean.

There’s a fine cold blue-grey beach, long and wide and gently sloping, backed by spruces and meadows of beach grass. No houses, no restaurants. I found alot of small black shells, maybe baby mussels, from a couple millimeters to an inch long. Lots of them, stuck in the sand like tiny crow feathers, or miniscule pieces of coal-black crow platemail.

St. John, New Brunswick

This morning I found a miracle.

Standing around in the parking lot, I looked down and saw a two-and-a-half-inch long nail sticking through the sidewall of Sean’s rear tire like a hairpin. Without flattening the tire it had passed through the side and emerged again so that both the head and the point of the nail were exposed; it was a wonder and  a spectacle, like those x-rays of  people who’ve had railroad spikes through their brains and survived. All who saw it were amazed and moved to tell their own tales of fantastic objects penetrating motorcycle tires such as pieces of fence and six-inch screwdriver shanks, inspiring tales to dwell upon! Pilgrims who came and pressed their wounds upon the nail soon found them healed, and the proprietors of the Honda/Kawasaki dealership were so touched that they sold Sean a new tire for only a couple hundred dollars. Yet another reminder that Death is just a handshake away; I always half expect my old bike to fly apart underneath me, but Sean’s is like new, a 1996 Vulcan,  beautiful and carefully maintained.

This afternoon I surgically altered my seat with a knife. Much bad foam was removed to the sound of many vertebrae cheering. The butt had mixed feelings about the operation.

Saw a bald eagle flying over a marsh near Calais, just before we crossed into Canada.

Scarborough, Maine

We left just after the thunderstorm; the air was so humid and sweet I thought I was riding home to the swamp I grew up on. It’s great to finally be on the road.

This is not properly a part of the 751 since it’s a separate trip that Sean and I have been planning in one form or another for the last year. I’d never expect him to adhere to the  751’s rigorous standards of expenditure on his vacation, and I’d be a lousy traveling companion if I just moped around saying things like, “No, no, you go ahead and get a room, I’ll just eat my can of pork and beans, then I’ll curl up under this bench.” Even though this trip is drawn from a separate fund,  it’s a chance to test  my equipment and see if this is really going to work; for that reason, and because it’s just such a damn good place to start, let’s consider the whole Newfoundland trip a prologue. In two weeks we’ll return to Manchester, I’ll take a couple days to get my act together and then the 751 will begin in earnest.

We took four hours to do two hours’ worth of riding because of the 4th of July traffic, my back feels like I dragged it behind the bike on a rope, and all we’ve got to show for it is we’re in Scarborough — but it’s great to be in motion.

The 751

In the spring of 1998 I stopped at a gas-mart to get a cup of coffee. The rain was cold, it was early in the morning and I was on my way to work; when I stepped out of the car and saw a dollar bill on the ground I felt a disproportionate joy — this meant free coffee! But then I walked around to the other side of the car and saw a whole wad of bills in a puddle; hundred-dollar bills. A few feet away, more. I scooped them up and stuffed them in my pocket without counting them, then walked numbly into the store and left my name and phone number with the cashier.

I turned the money in to the police, who held it for several months according to the law. But no one claimed it, and no one called from the gas-mart, so late that summer I went down to the station and picked up an envelope containing the 751 dollars that I’d found in a puddle.

It’s a strange amount of money. On the one hand, it’s large enough that it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck; on the other hand, in just a month it would sink without a ripple beneath the surface tension of rent and bills and be gone forever.

I set the money aside, hoping I would think of some way to spend it that would be worthy of this extraordinary benevolence of Fortune. Gradually I realized that for me there was only one thing this could be: a motorcycle trip. The big one.

This was the rule: gas, food, and lodging must come out of the 751. I would see how far that got me.

My thumbnail estimate? At $1.20 for a gallon of gas, and 50 miles to the gallon, that would be 30,000 miles, as long as I didn’t eat or sleep.

Season of the bike

There is cold, and there is cold on a motorcycle. Cold on a motorcycle is like being beaten with cold hammers while being kicked with cold boots, a bone bruising cold. The wind’s big hands squeeze the heat out of my body and whisk it away; caught in a cold October rain, the drops don’t even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone fallen from the skies of Hell to pock my face. I expect to arrive with my cheeks and forehead streaked with blood, but that’s just an illusion, just the misery of nerves not designed for highway speeds.

Despite this, it’s hard to give up my motorcycle in the fall and I rush to get it on the road again in the spring; lapses of sanity like this are common among motorcyclists. When you let a motorcycle into your life you’re changed forever. The letters “MC” are stamped on your driver’s license right next to your sex and height as if “motorcycle” was just another of your physical characteristics, or maybe a mental condition.

But when warm weather finally does come around all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle summer is worth any price. A motorcycle is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a motorcycle is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life. We spend all our time sealed in boxes and cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box to store-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated, and smelling of carpets.

On a motorcycle I know I’m alive. When I ride, even the familiar seems strange and glorious. The air has weight and substance as I push through it and its touch is as intimate as water to a swimmer. I feel the cool wells of air that pool under trees and the warm spokes of sunlight that fall through them. I can see everything in a sweeping 360 degrees, up, down and around, wider than PanaVision and higher than IMAX and unrestricted by ceiling or dashboard.

Sometimes I even hear music. It’s like hearing phantom telephones in the shower or false doorbells when vacuuming; the pattern-loving brain, seeking signals in the noise, raises acoustic ghosts out of the wind’s roar. But on a motorcycle I hear whole songs: rock ‘n roll, dark orchestras, women’s voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.

At 30 miles an hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells and grass-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it’s as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me, wanting only the most casual of rumbling time machines to unlock it. A ride on a summer afternoon can border on the rapturous. The sheer volume and variety of stimuli is like a bath for my nervous system, an electrical massage for my brain, a systems check for my soul. It tears smiles out of me: a minute ago I was dour, depressed, apathetic, numb, but now, on two wheels, big, ragged, windy smiles flap against the side of my face, billowing out of me like air from a decompressing plane. Transportation is only a secondary function. A motorcycle is a joy machine. It’s a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a motorized prosthetic. It’s light and dark and shiny and dirty and warm and cold lapping over each other; it’s a conduit of grace, it’s a catalyst for bonding the gritty and the holy.

I still think of myself as a motorcycle amateur, but by now I’ve had a handful of bikes over a half dozen years and slept under my share of bridges. I wouldn’t trade one second of either the good times or the misery. Learning to ride was one of the best things I’ve done.

Cars lie to us and tell us we’re safe, powerful, and in control. The air-conditioning fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, “Sleep, sleep.” Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth: we are small and exposed, and probably moving too fast for our own good, but that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.

— Dave Karlotski

Author’s note: This piece was originally aired on New Hampshire Public Radio in either 1997 or 1998 under the title “Motorcycle Summer.” A few years later it aired on the Minnesota Public Radio show “The Savvy Traveler” under the title “Season of the Bike,” and was subsequently published in the Aerostich Rider Wearhouse catalog under that title (for which I received one of their excellent jackets, which I still wear).

This piece grew legs of its own, though, and has popped up elsewhere on the web over the years, generally under the name “Why I ride.” Sometimes it has been attributed back to me, sometimes not. I am almost always glad to see that it’s got its own life out there, and that people enjoy it.