Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Circling Sugarloaf Mountain

We felt compelled to go see Lac M├ęgantic. 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.