9.10.2011

Turning Japanese

Brown Booby at the Rota Bird Sanctuary

   I spend the morning in the "office", i.e. our field station, i.e. the second story of a two-deck apartment building on the tiny island of Rota. The view is a somewhat surreal vista into the infinity of the Pacific and Philippine seas, framed by limestone cliffs and coconut palms. I cannot complain about this. But what we reap in scenery we pay for in ventilation. The building is a concrete shoebox, nestled in a windless eddy beneath two towering rock faces. None of the windows on the ocean side open, effectively stunting any remaining hope of air circulation. One quickly learns the art of moving from fan to fan (we have seven), like a napping cat chasing a patch of drifting sunlight across a living room floor.

   Juniper had gone out in the field this morning, volunteering to show Adrienne (a visiting grad student) some of the radio-tagged birds. She'd come with Renee and Jim, our Principle Investigators, to spend ten days conducting public opinion surveys around the island: an attempt to decode the perception of our work and the importance of endangered species. There were still hundreds of surveys to sort through, but a lurking sense of apathy among the Chamorro locals was becoming clear. Everyone I'd encountered in town and in the jungles had been positive, speaking with grandeur on the island's birds and animals, but perhaps this image was a narrow one.  On these islands truth often hides behind false images.

   But we were glad for the company, if nothing else, and their stay had been more than interesting. A string of dinner parties, bar nights, and birthday get-togethers had colored the week, making for a run of social events that is rare on such a small, sleepy island. Wednesday night was the capstone, culminating in a cross-cultural karaoke party at Barefoot, the bar across the street. I'd invited Yamamoto, our scuba guide, as well as Renee and company.

   Our party of seven was fortified by Yamamoto's all-Japanese crew of six. We were at first segregated by the language barrier: each group making polite outreaches into foreign territory, but mostly keeping to itself. A few drinks closed the gap and I wedged into the center, turning back and forth between conversations with Renee and Yamamoto to get everyone talking.

   My efforts were not in vain, but it was the arrival of the microphones and karaoke songbook that sealed the deal. By eight o'clock the whole place was howling along to our distorted versions of Hotel California, Pretty Woman, and Suspicious Minds. It's a sure stereotype, but Japanese people really do (really really) love their karaoke. Yamamoto had transformed from all-business scuba sensei into karaoke clown, singing duets with himself, complete with silly high-pitched voices for the female verses.



   He'd brought his guitar and  played some blues in between songs, with me accompanying him on the harmonica. The biggest surprise came half-way though the night when one of the girl's mothers, who had been sitting quietly the whole time, opened her purse to reveal a six-inch long harmonica and several pages of sheet music. She had a beautiful voice, and played the harmonica slowly in between verses. It was a sweet Japanese tune that she said she'd used to woo her husband during her college days.

   We went home with a warm feeling, our Japanese friends honking their horns at us as they drove back to their hotel. Except for the part where I'd accidentally summoned a Japanese ghost by whistling (I was previously unaware that I'd possessed this power), it had been one of the best nights on the island. Some mix of the heat, and the sweat, and the sea breeze lends these islands a magic quality, and the world is again as mysterious and wonderful as it was when we were children, looking out from our backyards into the untrod woods that lay beyond.

Senahom Point, or The Rota Grotto

9.04.2011

Saipan Dumplings, or Moped Birder Rides the Rain

They were worth it.

   The monsoon rains were here, emboldened by the gathering typhoon in the west. Layers of hard rain beat against the windows of the our hotel suite, drowning out our afternoon plans to ride north and look for Micronesian Megapodes (a rare sort of scrubfowl living on Saipan). I looked longingly out the window at the silver vespa scooter I'd rented a few hours before, and cursed the gray weather.

Micronesian Megapode

   By the end of the hour we were starving, having finally recovered from the heavy doses of Japanese sake and Korean soju the night before. Blue had called to invite us on a hike out to the Forbidden Island, but we got the message a few hours too late, so we spent the afternoon lounging on the porch, watching the rain over cigars and fried crickets (tastier than one might imagine).

   But now it was dark, and the hunger had come. Our Saipan itinerary revolved around a long hit list of restaurants, culinary excitements that we'd lacked during the last four months on Rota. It was going to be tricky to squeeze all of them into our short four-day stay, and unexpected rains weren't helping. Next on the list was a new Chinese cafe that served fresh dumplings, promised to us as the best we'd ever had. The rain seemed to intensify every time I looked out the window.

  Screw it. There were fried oriental dumplings to be had. I tossed J her helmet and strapped on mine. She put on her new black dress and I slid into a pair of shorts and sandals. It was laughable riding gear at best, especially for an after-dark ride through a tropical storm, but if we were going to be damned fools, we weren't about to half-ass it.

   I'd rented the moped from a seedy Chinese man with a parrot on his shoulder. The steering was loose and it wobbled a bit more than I'd have liked, but it ran. I cranked the starter and we took off The rain blasted us the whole way up the Middle Road, and I could barely see. J was silent, sure that survival was impossible. The spray of the rain reminded me of the Texas storm that had nearly ended me on my cross-country ride last Spring.


Good job, little moped

   The lights of the dumpling shop suddenly appeared ahead. We'd made it one way at least. We parked and went in to order, shivering as the heavy air-conditioning chilled our soaking wet skin. We went outside and stood in front of an exhaust duct to warm up, laughing like idiots. Our heaping order came quickly, and we strapped it to the bike. A fool's miracle got us safely back to the hotel for hot showers.

   We spread the food out on the bed and popped our chopsticks apart. The dumplings were still steaming; tender, delicious, and worth every rain-soaked mile.



8.30.2011

Seeing Saipan

Saipan

   Things are different in Saipan. This became immediately clear as we dropped into the airport after our 30 minute flight on Freedom Air direct from Rota. There were four lane streets choked with cars, billboards and flat topography; scores of restaurants, and high rise hotels. A line of cars sat motionless in the road, stopped for no apparent reason. It took me a minute to realize what was happening: there were traffic lights here.

   Rota suddenly seemed like a blissful paradise of simpler times, and I felt a pang of nostalgia for the jungle-strewn mountains we'd just left. But, we were here for a change of pace, and it seemed that we'd done right in finding one. After all, we hadn't come for beaches or jungles or quiet living. We'd come for the restaurants and movie theaters and late night discos. After a few months in paradise, one begins to crave the ugly, exciting parts of civilization.

   We dove in headlong. The hotel room was perfect: a two-part suite with a sprawling bed and cozy kitchenette seated in the center of Garapan, Saipan's gaudy commercial district. Juniper and I walked the length of town, stopping in every store to marvel at the array of purchasing choices. The grocery store had brightly-lit aisles loaded with brand upon brand of treats we hadn't seen in months. Not only were there chocolate bars, there were fourteen types of chocolate bars to choose from. It was magnificent and dizzying all at once.

Thai Food, a nice change from the usual
So many choices...
Cigars and Sapporo


   We stuffed ourselves with Thai food and went back to the place for a cup of sake. The room phone rang. It was Blue, one of the biologists on island we'd planned on meeting. Another field tech we'd met on Rota, had tipped us off that Blue was a party boy, and would be the ideal host for our Saturday night in Garapan.

   We met at Godfather's at 11:30, already hours later than our regular Rota bedtime. We scanned the crowd and found him with little effort. He was, as he'd promised, easy to find, being the only blonde in a four block radius. We swapped life histories over lagers, shouting over the loud cover band that was playing in the next room.

   A couple friends of Blue's showed up around one a.m. and joined our crew. Bernie, a 22-year-old Filipino with heavy black mascara rattled on about his dream of acting in LA and partying every night with famous celebrities. "I just want to, like, meet some guy, you know, who will take me on his boat and sail to Greece," he said, "We can party all night and drink champagne and wear wonderful clothes forever, you know?"

   We bottomed our drinks and made for GIG Discotheque an hour before last call. It was the only dance club left on the island, and inevitably packed. The building rose to a point, fashioned into a Vegas-esque pyramid, complete with hieroglyphic murals and faux-sandstone block walls. I paid my five bucks and slipped in past the pair of Sphinx statues guarding the front door. Bernie lost himself in the crowd, so Juniper and I took to the dance floor with Blue and his friend. We bounced around in a sweaty rhythmic frenzy until the lights went on and we were forced outside.

   Somewhere between the club and our ride home, we decided on a swim. Suddenly we were all racing through the Hyatt main lobby and out onto Micro Beach. We stripped off our shirts and shoes and dove into the cool dark water. Juniper was slow, shouting about the possibility of deadly stonefish and other threats of the dark. Blue was out to our side splashing around in the shallow surf. I dove out flat and pushed my hands into the sand, bringing my head above the water just enough to sing a few bars: "Tall and tan and young and lovely, that girl from Ipanema goes walking…"

   We swam and watched the shapes of the oil tankers on the horizon. I could see the flashing white lights from the resort district a few miles south, the reflection spreading across the water in waves. This was the same ocean that touched Rota, but in the novelty of the night our tiny island felt a world away. I stretched out and floated on my back, mingling like flotsam in the slosh of the sea.

GIG

8.26.2011

Lost in the Pacific

The crew out for J's birthday

   While I wait for my beer and yakisoba noodles, I think about diving. Three dives today, as is becoming the usual fare when we visit Yamamoto, our  Japanese Scuba sensei here in the Marianas Islands. I felt a wide sense of peace and euphoria when we hit 90ft below. I like to think that I'm slowly becoming a part of this ocean, but more than likely it's just a case of mild nitrogen narcosis.

   It tends to set in around 100ft and fills the diver with an uncanny feeling of intoxication, not unlike opium. Divers have been known to take regulators out of their mouths and try to "breath" the water. This doesn't usually end well. I visualize the scene and am reminded of hypothermia accounts where dead victims are found naked in the snow, having felt so "wonderful and warm" that they didn't need clothes anymore.

   TJ brings our drinks and puts a movie on the big screen. The tavern has become a second home, due to it's cheap menu and minimal distance from the field house. If we shout loudly enough, we can call in orders from our porch. Salem is here, waiting on us. He'd been expecting Renee and Jim, our University of Washington leads on the project, who'd just flown in from the mainland. But they'd cancelled the dinner meetup last minute, so Juniper and I strolled over to keep Salem company instead. 

   Most nights the lack of tourism turned the bar into our private club and we could lounge and watch movies and stare into the surf as we ate. It had a ceiling but no walls, and you could watch the open sea from every table.

   There was, of course, karaoke, but we'd burned ourselves out on that business a month ago, when we drank all night with some visiting Airmen from Guam. I'd never seen anyone keep a round of karaoke going for so long. Four hours later (and about ten songs to my name) I'd thrown in the towel.

Air Force Guys + Karaoke = "You've Lost That Loving Feeling

   The yakisoba was terrific after a long day of diving, biking, and sun exposure. We chatted on a while, until gentle fatigue gave way to heavy eyelids, and we made our way home (i.e across the street). Renee's grad student had brought us some good beers from the mainland, so I popped one open, excited for anything other than Budweiser or cheap Filipino suds. I lay back, my feet on the kitchen table, listening to the waves, and wondered how tomorrow's tides would be.

J with a friendly (and endangered) fruit bat
Ready to Dive

Underwater Archway

7.05.2011

180 Gallons of Gas

Home

   Philadelphia was getting close. Oneshirt dropped off the Columbus St. exit and we followed him down, into the city and along Tasker until reaching his duplex. The bike rattled over the broken pavement and potholes, as though finally relenting to the aches of the road. There seemed to be more traffic, and more lights here than I'd ever seen. Even in the relative quiet of night I could feel one thousand pounds of pressure bearing down. I was unused to the city, and everything was strange and disorienting.

   We pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of Oneshirt's place and shut off the bikes for goodbyes. The Honda looked odd in the city, with my heap of tattered bags strapped along her spine. I had a glass of water and said hello to GibsonGirl, who'd woken up when we arrived. She was glad to see Oneshirt returned alive and without missing pieces.

   Porkroll and I rolled off towards the highway. Fifteen miles till the Delaware line. The air smelled like home and humidity. A late summer storm had built on the road ahead of us, and soon the red-pink lightning was crashing soundlessly on the horizon. A massive semi-truck swerved into my lane, forcing me to ride the white line between cars until I was free. After everything else, it didn't faze me much. One last obstacle before the end, I figured.

   The storm was still boiling on the horizon, just far enough away not to be heard. The omen impressed itself on me, and I wondered what my homecoming had brought with it. We made one last stop for fuel a few miles from home and I topped off Porkroll's tank as a small thanks for the good company. It was a blessing to have the two of them with me for those last lonely miles. I filled my own bike and we kicked our engines back to life. We promised to meet at the diner in a few days, once I'd settled in, and rode off in our own directions.

   In a few moments I was back on all my old roads. Past the high school and the liquor stores, past the baseball diamond and the town flower shop. Then up the long hill and by the old swimming pool, nearing the street where I'd grown up. Past houses where friends used to live and into the amber glow of the street lamps that lined my drive. I have left and returned so many times, and always the feeling was the same. A surreal quiet haunts these familiar places, best felt in the still of night. The constancy of the old places pushing at the mercury.

   The garage door was already opening as I pulled up to the drive. It slid upward, revealing my parents. My mother was in her nightgown, having waited up in case I arrived. Six months had passed since I left this driveway, then covered in snow, the air a terrible 29 degrees. Many things were changed.

   I turned off the bike, and sat for a moment to marvel at the long circle we'd made. 12,000 miles across three seasons, two countries, and 28 states. All on about 180 gallons of gas. I'd been determined to make it West, sure, but had never dreamed that the bike would make it back. At least if it died now, it was home. I washed up and sat down with Dad. He poured me a beer, home-brewed.

   Home tasted great.


6 Months, 12,000 Miles, 28 States, 180 Gallons of Gas

Ok, so I had a water first, then I had the beer.

Gibson Girl's blog can be found here: Gibson Girl Blogspot

6.11.2011

Trifecta Idiota



   The good morning riding had left us exhilarated and jumping with energy. We eventually made our way further south along the river, finding even better roads than before. Many of the small side routes were used solely by local traffic, which was slim, offering us an crowd-free tour of the forests along the river. We kicked up leaves and dirt as we turned through the thin byways, criss-crossing the bridges that lay across the Delaware.

   By afternoon we were three adrenaline-stacked, over-confident maniacs. This sort of danger, which tends to stay under wraps when alone, multiplies exponentially when riding with friends. Add to it a long day of fast-paced riding, the illusory invincibility of three men in their twenties, and a sprinkling of the innate competitiveness between brothers. The day began to get very foolish, very quickly.

   We found ourselves alone on a double-laned highway. Little by little our speeds crept upwards until we were rolling around 70mph, each of us trying to take the lead from the other. I stood on my pegs and buzzed forward past Porkroll and Oneshirt, letting out a whooping yell as I went. Oneshirt opened throttle and took off, securing lead. P-roll met my speed and we flew along the road swapping lanes with one another.

   The road thinned and grew dark beneath the presence of a thick forest ceiling. I, ever the obnoxious younger brother, wanted to edge by Oneshirt and cut off his lead before it was too late. I was hanging at his rear fender, waiting for an opportunity, when the highway shrank again. We were now riding on a thin, cracked pavement, barely wide enough for two cars and littered with debris and gravel. Without question, these were terrible riding conditions.

   My intrusion on Oneshirt's lead seemed to incite the rivalry and suddenly he was off. P-roll and I hesitated for a moment, watching him plow forward at an unwise speed. I knew, really honestly knew, that this was exactly the kind of stupidity I'd told myself I'd avoid when they showed up. I'd half-expected it, and had already promised myself I'd see and avoid it when it came. But now, in the moment, all I could see was my older brother shooting off down the road ahead of me.

   I hesitated a moment longer, then opened up and tore after him.

   The forest edge blazed by, an out-of-focus smear beyond our motorbikes. My sight stayed true to the world ahead of me, the view just above the handlebars becoming the only thing in existence. The road arced and banked against the treeline, the light coming in speckles through the canopy. I had caught up to Oneshirt, my front wheel threatening the space between us. The speed and the road tied up most of my concentration, but I had just enough free to shout "why in the hell are you going so fast??" into the wind. The words disappeared immediately into the air behind me.


Oneshirt is a great rider, speed tendencies and all

   We were going fast, and riding well, but, inevitably, our stupidity caught up to us. The road spiked suddenly, veering into a jagged s-curve. The end of the curve met with a small bridge, lined with thick concrete "jersey" barriers. All of this was bad, but workable. The real trouble was that, in front of all of this, there lay a wide sea of loose dirt and gravel spread in heaps along the road. Outside of drunks and wild animals, loose road is about the worst thing one can run into while riding, and, at top speed, we had very little time to do anything about it.

   Oneshirt, five yards in front of me, saw it first. His brakelights went all red and I could see a cloud of dirt kicking up beneath his tires. I had fleeting visions of my broken nose pressed up against his exhaust pipes. He struggled out of the turn, somehow staying upright, but now it was my turn. All of this was happening in mere fractions of time, and neither of us had really had time to slow much beyond our initial speed.

   My Shadow was larger and less nimble than his CB450, and I knew that cutting the turn was going to be difficult. I held the brakes until the gravel was under me, then released, not wanting to skid. Like driving on ice, braking on loose gravel is almost worse than doing nothing at all. So, with my brakes gone, I could only hope to corner hard and fast enough to get out untouched.

   The barrier seemed to be accelerating towards me at remarkable speed, growing larger and more menacing. The movement of time seemed to slow, and I could clearly visualize the exact spot where I'd collide. My brain began tracing the path my body would take as I rolled. I knew I wouldn't die, but god damn, it was going to hurt.

   Then, like a splash of cold water, I snapped out of it. When riding, the bike tends to go where you put your eyes, and I didn't want to go into that damn barrier. I turned my gaze sharply, and leaned as far as I could into the road. My left toes tapped the ground for support and as I turned I heard the loud, telltale scraping of the rear footpads. I'd only heard that sound one other time, when I'd over-extended my abilities on a treacherous mountain road in Arizona and tipped into the turn deep enough to scratch the side of the bike.

   The bike pivoted around the point where I'd touched down, throwing up a cloud of dust. Suddenly, we were out. The world was straight and stable once again. I was too breathless to celebrate. After six months on the road, in nearly every state in the country, I'd almost wiped out on the very last day, 150 miles from home.

   The event was sobering, and we all slowed as we went along. P-roll had wizened up just before the bridge and kept back at a more sane speed, making it through the turn with no problems. We all needed a breather, and I signaled to Oneshirt to stop at the next gas station. It was a small, four pump operation. Two of the pumps were busy when we pulled in, so P-roll took one of the free kiosks, and I let Oneshirt take the other. I pulled in behind him to wait my turn.

Porkroll dominates the bridge

   The place was full-serve only, as per New Jersey law, and the attendant shuffled out to help us. Given the more difficult nature of filling up a motorcycle, station attendants are usually understanding in deferring this task to the rider, regardless of law. In all my time on the road I'd never let anyone else fill the tank for me.

   I was used to this by now, but the other two hadn't encountered it yet, and the situation became awkward. The attendant was a chunky seventeen-year-old kid with shaggy hair and a blank stare. What words he said were mumbled unintelligibly. Oneshirt was still sitting on the bike when the kid ambled over, wedging himself in the tight space between the bike and the pump. This forced Oneshirt to dismount awkwardly on the right side of the bike (opposite of normal).

   Suddenly everything was in motion, Oneshirt's pantleg had stuck onto the footbrake and sent the bike toppling over. The whole thing crashed down to the ground, pinning Oneshirt below. P-roll came running over and we helped right the bike and free Oneshirt. The station attendant was still standing there stupidly next to the pump, not having moved a muscle the entire time.

   I took the fall as further evidence that we were losing our minds from too much time on the road, and decided it'd be better if someone other than Oneshirt took the lead. Not wanting to sound dictatorial, I figured I'd stay back and let P-roll take front. I yelled over to him, "Wanna take lead for awhile?"

   He glared back at me, shouted, "NOW YOU DO IT!" and continued to stand there, staring cryptically at me.

   'What the hell is going on?' I thought to myself, thoroughly confused.

   Before we resolve anything, Oneshirt had shot out of the station, again in the lead. I had no choice but to follow, P-roll trailing behind me. We finally stopped at a small Thai restaurant in Lambertville, and settled in. I knew we needed a serious break from the riding, and I was glad to let things settle down some. The others got a table while I went into the restroom to wash up. When I back to the table, they were both laughing hysterically.

   "You guys really didn't see me fall back there?" P-roll burst out between laughs.

   It turned out, as he explained, that after Oneshirt had tipped at the gas station, P-roll had walked back to his bike and immediately knocked IT over as well (again, accidentally). Oneshirt and I had been too busy setting his bike straight to even notice that P-roll had gone down too. The gawking attendant, on the other hand, witnessed this spill with equal slack-jawed disbelief.

   When P-roll had yelled back his strange "now you do it" to me, he'd thought we'd seen the whole thing, and was jokingly urging me to complete the trifecta. I could only imagine what that attendant had made of three idiots riding in on bikes, falling over, shouting at each other, and riding off into the night. It seemed likely that he was wondering how in the hell these three dopes could have managed to steal motorcycles and ride them all the way to New Jersey.

   We finished our meal with the relief of having survived our foolishness and come out with a few good stories. In a couple hours we'd be in Philadelphia, and I'd be almost home. Leave it to the last day on the road to nearly kill me. It really is amazing how often stupidity wins the day.


6.03.2011

Equipoise: Riding the Delaware Water Gap


  
   The curvature of route 97 along the Delaware River is at times sublime. The river itself, the only major eastern waterway that remains undammed, is wide and sweeping. The road is a thin hanging flake along the steep cut of the valley, seemingly held up by nothing more than the handful of trestle bridges that span the gap.

   August was now in its peak, lending a sweet humid taste to the air, and giving life to a buzzing chorus of insects. We reached the famed "Hawk's Nest" midday. This section of exceptionally beautiful, twisting road has been featured in dozens of car commercials and, with the rest of the river ride, is easily one of the more spectacular motorcycle routes in the east.

   The route centers around a set of switchback turns running alongside a gorgeous vista, from which kayakers and rafters appear as small blips along the river's surface. I'd met many challenging corners in my cross-country ride and flown down many high-speed straightaways, but it was always the rarest thrill to find a road that combined the perfect mix of both.

OneShirt pays tribute to Ray and Diane

   The twistiest of roads are often so curvaceous that they force one to slow down under 30mph. The hairpins around Mt. Rushmore had banked so sharply that could barely get out of second gear without toppling over (a fate encountered by several riders I met that day). These roads are challenging and exciting in their own right, but the absence of terrific speed can leave one lacking.

   Then there are those lonely, unmoving desert highways. Devoid of anything, and anyone, these paved speedways are made for fast riding. It was on these that I had tested the limits of my machine, and learned the taste of air at 100mph (don't worry, mom, it only happened twice). There is of course the idiot joy of top speed, but in reality there is very little difference between cruising at 60mph on a bike or burning out at 90.

   But, of course, there is the flawless mix of these two extremes: a utopian recipe of speed and slant that one finds on only the greatest of roads. Here, the corners are tight enough to drag a knee, but long and wide enough to touch 50 or 60 on the speedometer. Hawk's Nest was one of these roads, and after we burned through our first take I knew once was not enough. There was no need to even discuss it, and without even stopping we doubled back in wordless agreement.

   We rode it again and again, backwards and forwards a dozen times, timing our rides with the gaps in traffic. Riding and leaning and turning and bending, over and over, soaking in that rare and perfect clarity of space.

Completing another pass at the Hawk's Nest (in background)

Curvy

5.27.2011

Blood & Beer: The Cavalry Arrives


 
   The few days in Ontario were peaceful and warm. We frequented the coffee shops and cafes in downtown Kingston, and walked along the waterfront at Amherstview, where Juniper grew up. We went out for Indian on our last night, savoring delicious samosas and lamb korma over perfectly prepared Basmati rice.

   Early the next morning we crossed back into the States and rode together together until Watertown where we separated again. Juniper had taken a job banding the season's migrant songbirds in Kiptopeke Virginia and was due to start the following day. We shared a coffee and some gas station pastries before saying goodbye. I promised to come see her soon as I could, slipped on my gloves and rolled out onto highway twelve.

   I was only two days away from home myself, and the proximity was unsettling. After so long on the road, it was strange to know that I was at the end of my trip. As with every journey, I was fearful of the end, reluctant to let it go in case it should be the last.

   But for the moment my courage was mustered by the comfort of camaraderie. Porkroll and my brother, OneShirt, had decided to ride north together and meet me for the return trip home. I was excited for their company, and, after six months of riding solo, eager at the thought of having a motorbike posse by my side.

   They'd come from Philadelphia the day before, and had planned to meet me at the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY. I'd figured they'd beat me there, but I saw no other riders when I pulled up the long drive. The brewery was built on an old farming property, so there was plenty of space to stretch out. It had started to rain as soon as I'd left Juniper in Watertown, and I was cold and thoroughly soaked. I pulled under a large overhang and laid out to dry, feeling sleepy and content.

   An hour passed, then two. I tried calling but got nothing. I was beginning to get the notion that something was amiss, when OneShirt messaged me:

   "had a slight incident. everything ok now, see you soon."

   I was of course curious and concerned but I figured they had everything under control. I soon heard the sputtering of old Hondas up the drive, and two rain-soaked riders zipped by me. The cavalry had arrived, after all. They doubled back and parked under the overhang with me.

   "Hey," I smiled, "It's been awhile."

   Then I noticed Porkroll's blood-streaked pants. He'd hit a slick railroad track during the downpour and gone down. Luckily the bike wasn't too badly mangled, and the scratches on his knee looked worse than they were. Considering the severity of most motorcycle crashes, it was lucky break.

The Cavalry Arrives (Hallelujah!)

   Still, the whole event had rattled both of them and, coupled with the cold rain, reason enough to take a break from the road.  We retreated into the brewery to warm up, take a tour, and (most importantly) have a beer tasting. The beer and accompanying snacks returned our good spirits and jolted our core temperatures. The sun had begun to poke out from the edges of the passing rain clouds and the road seemed a friendly place once again. We kicked our bikes to life and tore out of the lot, our caravan of bikes kicking up rocks and bits of earth as we went.

   It'd was late when we neared the border, so we circled some of the small towns near the river looking for a place to stay. The Susquehanna Motor Lodge was nowhere near Susquehanna, and farther still from luxurious. But at fifty bucks for the three of us, and no other motels in sight, it was a deal. There were only two beds so I volunteered to sleep on the floor.

   We indulged in some beers and a few smooth cigars (Porkroll's girl, L, had brought them from the Dominican), but even this buzz wasn't enough to distract me from the flea bombardment that kept me tossing half the night. I spent a few hours scratching and regretting my decision to take the floor, but finally fell into sleep.

   We'd be riding state highway 97 tomorrow, a famous route along the Delaware-Pennsylvania Water Gap. It'd been a long ride that had brought me here, east again, and I could feel the closeness of home on the horizon. Almost 12,000 miles we'd gone, the Honda and I, and the notion of staying put for once seemed a strange thing indeed.

5.22.2011

Canadian Vacancy


    The ride had started beautifully, and with the good diversion of company, as Juniper was following close behind in her black Oldsmobile. We went north along the lake from Manistee and across the world's longest (and perhaps windiest) suspension bridge. The bridge took us into Saul St. Marie, where the resistance began.

   At the Canadian border I was pulled aside and questioned repeatedly before eventually being forced inside to a small room for further interview. I was finally let through, grateful that my carefully loaded bags hadn't been unfastened from the bike and ransacked.

   We left the city and went east into the thickening woods. The roads began twisting nicely and I leaned in low to work the curves. Halfway through a long, fast righthand bend I noticed a police cruiser in the oncoming lane. Speed limits in Canada are unreasonably low, and I was well past the 65k(ilometers)ph posted suggestion. I'd always wondered if radar guns worked when both vehicles were in motion in opposing directions. They do.

   I saw the lights flash on and the car spin into an about-face to follow me. I pulled over, took off my helmet, and stood next to the bike. I saw Juniper drive by and park up the road, watching worriedly. I'd never been pulled over on a motorcycle before, and the feeling was very different. Most noticeably, one feels less intimidated standing face to face with an officer, rather than tucked low in the driver's seat and speaking shortly through the window. Something about the posture gives a touch of humanity and a casual air to the otherwise intimidating encounter.

   I was informed that I'd been riding somewhere around 125kph, just a bit more than double the posted speed. Not untruthfully, I told my Canadian emissary that I was finding it hard to stick to the "right speed", as the kph numbers on my speedometer were barely visible over the imposingly large MPH digits. It was a pretty lame excuse for burning through backcountry turns at double speed, but some combination of luck, motorbike magic, and a sympathetic officer put me back on the road with little more than a friendly warning.

   We'd planned to stay the night in Sudbury, but we quickly discovered this to be impossible. The clerk at the 3rd motel we tried told us that some youth sporting event had booked up every room in town. He was not exaggerating. We spent near two hours riding from hotel to hotel, but nothing was available. Every room from the most expensive to the most foul was booked solid. It was midnight now, and we were exhausted from over 500 miles on the road. I'd been looking forward to stopping since the sun went down, and the news was a blow to my road-weary body. I could see that Juniper was ready to stop as well, and with each "no vacancy" sign we encountered she deflated a bit more.

   We had no choice but to muster and head east to the next town. I had few qualms about sleeping out in the urban jungle myself, but some vestigial chivalry inside me couldn't allow Juniper to do the same. We agreed that if we couldn't find something in North Bay, another hour and a half down the road, we'd relent and sleep at one of the day-picnic areas along the highway.

   I was sure North Bay would have plenty of space, but we struck out on our first three attempts. It was looking grim, and the the hour was approaching 2am. We went further east to the edge of town and I pulled into the gravel lot of a motel with no name and got off the bike. The only room with lights on had it's door open, so I guessed it to be the office.

   I walked up to the door and realized instantly that it was nothing of the sort. The room looked very lived in, though there was almost nothing in it but trash, a stereo, and a single mattress. An old woman in a tank top was lying on the mattress, empty eyes held open. She moved her glare towards me, but I was already gone.

   Juniper looked at me questioningly from the car, but I just shook my head and got back on the bike. I saw another dim, half-empty motel a few hundred feet up the road. It looked disturbingly similar to the one we'd just tried, but we were getting desperate so I stopped to check it out. I told Juniper to stay in the car and keep an eye on my bike while I went in. The office was locked and dark, but I spotted some women on one of the patios of a nearby room. I waved hello and asked about rooms.

   They were nearly unintelligible, and further confused me by saying that their own room wasn't even part of the motel, but rather some sort of long-term rental. They disappeared inside without explanation. I was turning to leave, when one came out with a phone in her hand.

   "Naw'he'ain't'answering'his'phone" she spit out.

   "Who's not answering?" I asked, getting frustrated with the strangeness of the night.

   "Len, he the Man'ger" she replied. "But I give ya room, y'know I gots t' keys to all of 'em anyway."

   Before I could answer she was off, keys in hand, to the darkened office. I was baffled as to why this woman had keys to the office, or any of the rooms for that matter. I was already convinced that it was probably a bad idea to stay at this place. While we were in the office, a young man staggered in silently, beer in hand.

   "Oh jesus," she said to the swaying man, "I tol' you that I'd take care a' it LATER!"

   He vanished wordlessly and she turned back to me.

   "Look," she said, holding out a key she'd taken from the desk, "Yo'wanna stay 'n this room, that's cool."

   "How much you want?" I asked.

   "You jus' leave before 6am when Len gets here, an' you don't gotta pay nothing'" she answered.

   The thought of a free room was enticing, but weighing against it was every other red flag waving in my face. I looked at Juniper through the window and decided I didn't want to risk anything.

   "Thanks, but I think I gotta check some other places first," I lied. "Maybe I'll come back after that."

   She scoffed, and walked slowly back to the porch to resume the drinking I'd interrupted when I'd come.

   "I don' care," she said, "I don' work here an'way."




There were plenty on nice places in Canada, too.

5.20.2011

Still Riding, or, Blog Update

   Hello from the road. It's been an inexcusably long time since I've updated this website, due to many factors, not least of which includes a long excursion to Central America with no internet access. 

   But, just because I haven't been posting, doesn't mean I haven't been riding, and writing, and taking photos. And so, the flurry of postings that will follow should get us back on track, to present day (in Micronesia currently!).

   The next batch of posts will take me through to the end of the long ride through America, and continue with some stories from the Mid-Atlantic, Costa Rica, and then to present day, where I'm doing some endangered Crow research in the Mariana Islands. I'll likely be posting in rapid succession to get everything back up to speed, so check back frequently!

   Thanks so much for reading and sticking with the blog. Hope you enjoy the stories. 

   So, here we go again....

Portage


   So from the comforts of Wisconsin I went east, through the small waterfront towns until meeting the mass of Lake Michigan. In Manitowoc I loaded the bike into the belly of an old steam ship, the S.S. Badger. I rode up the long auto ramp and lashed the bike to the steel grate along the floor. The insides of the ship were dark and noisy, and the heat of the engine drew beads of sweat from my forehead as I worked to secure the Honda.

   Higher up on the main deck a swift breeze cooled things down and I searched for birds as we pulled out of harbor. Only a few loons bobbed in the water, but I earned a few moments of amusement spying on the odd assortment of passengers on board. I made three circuits around the ship, doing my best to avoid conversation with a verbose motorcyclist I'd met while tying in below.

   The ride across Michigan was four hours, and I was feel a bit stifled by the crowds, so I went looking for a quiet corner to repose. I discovered a small crewman's ladder to the uppermost deck. There was a small chain and some warning signs, but I feigned ignorance and climbed up quickly.

   The top was beautiful and completely empty. From the safety of a small alcove behind the bridge I was totally secluded, out of view from everyone, and with everyone out of view from me. It felt suddenly like I was the only one aboard. I took off my boots and sprawled out on my back, lazily reading the last few pages of The Merchant of Venice before falling into a warm sleep.

   Soon I was across, and back in the saddle. The day was fading but I didn't have far to go. Juniper was near, on her way from Canada, where her patience had burst and sent her driving southwest to meet me. I took the road north from Ludington, admiring the red setting sky. The smell of summer was all over the countryside, and I knew that I was on my way towards something good.

S.S. Badger

Those bicycles look scared, no?