Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Circling Sugarloaf Mountain

We felt compelled to go see Lac Mégantic. The drive was intensely boring. Straight roads lined with ugly houses through towns with ridiculous names like Milan and Nantes — diagonal siding, stucco and Maybec — so European (not!). We wanted to go and spend some money, show some support and have a look at the devastation.

The view as you descend the hill into town is sensational — the backdrop of lush, green, rolling mountains and the lake shimmering in the sun — knowing all the while that this hill was the reason for the crash. The centre of town is all cordoned off and so completely devastated that there is virtually nothing to see by rubberneckers like us but police cadets and dump trucks. The former downtown has been razed, looking a lot like a rail yard with piles of gravel scattered everywhere. There is a no-man’s land between the two halves of the town that you need to circumnavigate via an incredibly long detour. The proximity of intact houses to the destroyed zone is almost ghoulish. I couldn’t help but think about the evacuees coming back to find their home in cinders but their next-door-neighbour’s house intact, or the terrible conflict of guilt and relief were the roles reversed.

We headed south into Maine. Almost the instant we crossed the border the roads improved, the landscape radically changed. The wiggles on the map lined with pond after pond made for some spectacular riding. The woods are dark and deep and everywhere. Often, the only sign of life is a mailbox at the edge of a “driveway” snaking off into the woods. I get the sense that Mainers/Mainiacs are a reclusive bunch. Their cottages (camps) are painted chocolate brown and minimally decorated save the requisite rack. We were aiming to get off pavement and try to find our way from Eustis to the 201, on what looked to be about 40 km of logging roads.

Ha! Let me be clear that google maps is more like google guess when it comes to dirt roads. Our first foray led us down a ten-foot-wide track with knee-deep puddles and ruts big enough to hide a large dog. It was (sooprize, sooprize!) a dead end, but one I’d happily take again because it led us to a beautiful beach on a deserted section of what I think must have been Flagstaff Lake. About face. The next stab led us down an ATV track (it seems everyone and their grandmother owns an ATV in Maine). There is no sitting down on your bike on such a track. You’re up on your pegs scanning for sections of the track that are still intact, brushing up against the scrub to find a dry path, trying to temper your speed so you don’t go flying or get soaked. We were riding without a clue where we were going — a feeling I realized is totally unfamiliar and all the more unwelcome as the sun starts to wane. We finally crossed a man in a pickup who told us to just follow the dirt road we were on. “Stay straight and you’ll get out of the woods.” We did as we were told but got side-tracked again. Riding rough, dirt roads is a real balancing act. It’s less the usual counter-steering and more about pushing your weight off the side of the bike to keep as much of the wheel in contact with the road. It’s also a balance between speed, control, reaction time, exhilaration and fear. A deeply-shaded dirt road is all the more challenging as obstacles like boulders sitting eight inches proud of the road are nearly invisible until you’re flying over them.

An hour later Wil discovered a GPS doohickey on his phone, one that did not require a signal. We were going down another dead end. We turned back but as we did I noticed my front brake was totally gone, which, on a dirt road is mostly fine. Stopping going up a hill on the other hand… Yikes. We had a moment of feeling like total idiots as the headlines flashed through my mind “Motorcycle ride gone awry. Unprepared couple with no water or matches starve in the Maine woods.” We vow to be better prepared next time around. The track is in awful shape, the scrubby firs and birches that line the road are so dense the woods are almost sinister, like they are ready to close ranks behind you the moment you pass by. We would occasionally hit open patches where everything had been flattened by a skidder pulling trees out of the woods. The views were beautiful. Deep green mountains against a beautiful blue sky.
At one such opening we found a very content looking woman parked in her pickup, smoking a cigarette. “Are we going the right way?”, we asked. “Yup, just keep on this road and you’ll get theya. It’s anothah 40 miles.” Oy. A couple of minutes later we crossed a very happy guy in a pickup. The smile, the cigarette, hmmm, illicit rendez-vous on the logging road?

The objective was to find a garage, mechanic or even a Walmart before closing time. It was 3:30 and at a pace of between 20 and 30 miles an hour it wasn’t looking great. Man, when pavement came it was very welcome. A few minutes down the road Wil pulled up in front of someone’s garage and begged for brake oil. Josh and Marc were having a private happy hour with their Heinekens. They very graciously let Wil use the tools he needed to bleed the brakes and handed over the brake fluid to top up the reservoir. We chatted as they drained their bottles in what Josh’s wife referred to as “a drinking garage with a tinkering problem.” We asked for advice about where to stay and they steered us to nearby Kingfield where “we could eat and get shitfaced at Longfellows and stumble across the road to the Herbert Hotel”. Sounded about right.

The Herbert Grand Hotel is truly grand. An old dame of a place with turned oak everything, an old-school lobby, curved reception desk, wooden cubbyholes, transoms above all the doors and three telephone cabins at the foot of the wide staircase. The place is long past its heyday and the woman who greeted us looked like she hadn’t been outside in a very long time but we were so happy to be off the bikes and near wine.

Dinner at Longfellows was fun. A motley crew of ATV/dirt bike riders screamed around the parking lot as the room filled with very large hunters squeezed around tables intended for much smaller people, like Wil. The Zinfandel went down a treat. Sleep came very fast.

We hit the road before seven, stopping for breakfast in Bingham at Thompson’s restaurant. The country music blared and the walls sported more antlers than a herd of reindeer but the food was home-made and delicious. After Bingham we headed back onto dirt, this time on to some super challenging ATV trails. These ones were a bit better signposted and the comfort of knowing you’re not lost really does compensate for a lot of physical discomfort. There may actually have been more holes than trail — knees bent, arms loose, eyes scanning for safe passage through the mud, loose pebbles, wet rock and puddles, all the while perfecting shifting gears standing up. FUN!!

Strange how lovely, and easy, a real dirt road can be after a gnarly ATV trail. It’s all relative. We headed into Greenville where the International Seaplane Fly-In was in full swing. There is something so retro cottage about Maine — with the omnipresent, kitsch moose statues and fifties log cabins. Having flocks of water planes buzzing overhead only added to the nostalgic vibe. The town was heaving as hordes of very eager-looking families parked along the town’s roads to walk to the shores of massive Moosehead Lake. Another year. We still had a lot of miles to cover before getting off the road for the day. Beautiful miles on beautiful windy roads.

Motorcycling is very meditative but you can’t really get lost in thought without also getting into trouble on the pavement. Four, six, eight hours of driving without music, talk radio or conversation, thoughts weaving in and out of consciousness as the road requires more or less attention. On the ATV trails, my motorcycle instructor’s words kept coming back to me. “Don’t look at the obstacle, look at where you want to go. Focusing on the obstacle is the surest way to hit it.” As I repeated the instructor’s mantra over and over (and over), I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that I have spent the better part of my life focusing on the obstacles. My fear of failure, my fear of physical pain (think skiing), fear of being out of control has had me focused on obstacles for far too long. Before an idea or plan for almost anything has even had a chance to take shape in my mind I have thought of a dozen reasons why it won’t/can’t/will never work. Stupid, crippling waste of energy!

From now on I’m going to try very hard to look at where I want to go.

And wherever that is, I sure hope I get to go on my motorcycle.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Learning how to ride a motorcycle

...without a doubt the most humbling thing I have ever undertaken...

Spending three Tuesday nights sitting a cubicle in a Granby strip mall designed for ten with sixteen other eager students — eager, that is, to be done with the theory and on the road. Needless to say I am in no way a reflection of the demographic of the class. A portly farmer, a dozen young tattooed bucks in baseball caps and wifebeaters, a young blonde woman keeping her husband company and one other woman my age. The 60ish teacher has been at it for a very long time. Every colourful anecdote about a student failing to master some obvious skill invariably ends with him rolling his eyes and a sideways comment about the student being a woman. Loud guffaws usually ensue. I cruelly make myself feel better by telling myself that while I only have to spend three evenings of my life in this claustrophobic “classroom”, this poor guy is trapped here for eternity. (insert evil cackle).

The written test is laughable. When I sit down in front of the computer and realize I can do the exam in English and can ignore the subtleties of road vocab that no québécois would be caught using my nerves settle. I am done with the whole thing in 6 minutes. Back to the school to schedule the twenty-plus hours of practical lessons.

Approaching the bike for the first time reminded me of going home from the hospital with my firstborn. The theory classes were great and everything but I am SO not ready to actually control one of these beasts. Impostor alert! Impostor alert! I suck it up and get on. In the end, I was no better or worse than the other two women and guy in my class. The outdoor classroom is a parking lot on Granby’s main drag. I was so nervous I spent the first half-hour running back and forth to the Johnny on the Spot. The classes are actually very cleverly designed. Just when you start to feel comfortable with a skill they kick it up a notch and make you start the bike (just kidding). The little orange cones scattered about the parking lot represent torture of all varieties; the 90 right-hand turn, the figure 8, the shoelace, the slalom. There are also a series of starts and stops designed to make you stall the bike as often as possible. If you’re very talented you may also drop the bike. Yes, I am very talented. Fortunately the bikes are equipped with roll bars, big white plastic dildos that protrude from the sides of the bike to prevent them from being dented by the likes of me.

The culmination of all this stalling and dropping the bike in the parking lot is the closed circuit test. I was less nervous before childbirth. Seriously. Days and days of butterflies and anxiety and colonic irritation ended with me driving the 45 minutes to the SAAQ in Granby and then being turned around because it was raining too hard. The test was rescheduled three days of torture later. I got into the car to drive to the test and the engine didn’t turn over. Dead battery. In car number two, five minutes up the road I ran over a cute little field mouse bolting across the road. I am not normally a superstitious person but the stars were not feeling aligned.

A very smiley SAAQ employee with a cube strapped to his side walked nine other testers and me through the course, showing us the ten exercises we would have to perform without losing more than 17 points. 1 point for every second over the prescribed time, three points if you touch the line, five points if you go over the line and so on. If you don’t manage to perform at least one of the two emergency braking exercises, instant fail. If you accumulate more than 17 points before the end of the test, you are not allowed to finish. If you drop the bike, the exam is over. The butterflies were more than intense. I had the shakes and was surrounded by nine equally nervous adults. It made me realize just how much energy I have spent in my life avoiding situations like this, situations where there is a chance I could fail. I just kept thinking “I really, really want this”. In fact I want this more than anything, I thought, since I fell for my husband. And I might not happen. Did I mention I had butterflies? Of course, I got the last slot so everyone went before me — my nervousness growing exponentially with each passing test. In the end, I suppose it was a blessing as the guy who rented me the bike I was riding and the inspector were the only two to witness my not-so-graceful premature ejection. The first exercise— a ninety-degree turn with a quick acceleration in a curve followed by stopping with the front wheel in a four-foot square box went swimmingly. The tight turn to return to the box facing in the other direction, on the other hand, proved too much for me. Unfamiliar clutch, the classic beginner error of fixating on the object you are desperately trying to avoid, which in this case was a chain link fence keeping me from plunging into the Home Depot parking lot and I stalled the bike. Stalling with a thump with the front wheel turned equals one small woman dropping a four-hundred pound bike. I dropped it slowly but dropping is dropping. Exam over. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to cover it. I was so grateful to be mostly alone and also relieved that the lump in my throat didn’t turn into hot tears ‘til I was back in my car. The long walk of shame back into the SAAQ to reschedule another test was a real test in self-control.

Step in supportive husband.
Thank god for supportive husband. Bike shopping began in earnest. I was determined to do the test on a bike I knew. Riding his was never an option. Picture a two-year-old in a high chair with toes dangling far above the ground and you get the picture. We went to try a couple on for size and found just the ticket at Lester’s in Essex Centre. Wil cut a trail through the field and I spent a half hour every day going back and forth, zigzagging through the high grass, getting to know my clutch and brakes, also learning how to lift a four-hundred pound bike out of the dirt without getting a hernia. The track to the field is grass covered in loose pine needles so the lessons also involved getting used to the sensation of the back wheel fishtailing and, after a rainy night or two, the front end shimmying back and forth as well. It was very satisfying to improve and amazingly satisfying to get back on asphalt and realize how much easier pavement is on a bike (as long as it stays upright!)

I was NOT going to fail the exam again. Fortunately, supportive husband drove me back and forth to Granby so I could try out the test on my own time and figure out how I was going to navigate the transitions between exercises. More anxiety and butterflies and off we went one morning to the test. The drive was mostly pep talk. Breathe, relax, take your time, repeat. I drew the second slot this time. I was on my own bike so I was not going to be had by an unfamiliar clutch. Look left, look right, deep breath, go. I totally botched the counter-steering portion of the exam but kicked butt on the rest. When the inspector let me drive over to the final exercise of the test I knew it was going to be okay. I lost seven points in all but it sure sounded like a perfect score to me. I couldn’t keep myself from jumping up and down once I got off the bike. Woohoo!!!

Thanks Wally for helping me do this.