Shunpike Canada: Anxious & Eager Excitement

Of the five fundamental interrogatives, Why is the most important—and the most vexing. Who and What and When and Where are, for the most part, objectively straightforward. But Why, Why is subjective, one person’s perspective on the reasons or rationalizations that led to the activity in question. “Because” and “I don’t know” are not acceptable answers; ask any parent.

The response to Why plots a course to a decision and the consequences—good or bad—that attend it. Its granular thoroughness conveys importance to the respondent and its potential for pleasure and/or disappointment. When planning a journey, it is a critical question, and the answer can provide unexpected revelations and insights.

Image result for trans canada highway

On June 26, 2017, I depart on Shunpike Canada, a west-to-east transect of the world’s second largest national landmass. With my friend and two-wheeling comrade Ed, we’ll follow the TransCanada Highway from Abbottsford to Ottawa, through Glacier and Banff National Parks (As part of Canada 150, the sesquicentennial of its confederation, park admission is free) and across the north shore of Lake Superior.

Inspired over the decades by stories in a variety of periodicals, and to feed my relentless hunger for new nouns, I want to see them for myself. But this is only the foundation on which my journey is built. It is paved by the TransCanada Highway itself. Like the US Highways system, which was organized in the 1920s, the TCH, proposed in the 1950s and completed in the 1960s, is an amalgamation of existing roads, not new construction.

Unlike the limited access web of the American Interstate system, which started bypassing small towns during the TCH’s gestation, my research reveals that two-lane roads that pass through towns and villages still predominate on the TCH. Most of the “twinning,” doubling their width to four lanes, is ongoing around the route’s larger cities.

Passing through Canada’s towns and villages is important because serendiculous sights and encounters demand further examination. Each of them is potentially rich with opportunities to overcome our virtual social media isolation with literal face-to-face interactions. It is an excellent way to meet and get to know our long-time neighbor, another reason for this journey. (Do you know the names of your next door neighbors? How about their last name? And when was the last time you talked with them?)

Having visited this northern nation several times over the past 30 years, traveling there is not completely unknown. But anticipating two totally immersive weeks in a countryside and culture burns with an ember of anxiety that is both frightening and exciting. One must never forget that this is a separate nation.

Preparation is the antidote for anxiety. Conversations with my insurance agent, bank, and credit card and cell phone providers have illuminated the dark corners and revealed nothing scary. Passport in hand, crossing the border on my way north should not pose a problem. I know how many cigars I can bring with me and I’ve never had or been charged with a DUI, an offense that will deny admission.

During my journey I plan to enjoy my first Cuban cigar, because are legally sold in Canada. I’m curious to know if they are really that good or their reputation is built on America’s prohibition of them. Perhaps not without reason, given America’s political climate, I’m more concerned about turning south for home. Regardless of which way a traveler is headed, crossing the border is at the discretion of the personnel at each checkpoint.

Uniting the reasons why I’m eagerly anticipating this journey is a 2008 Canadian film, One Week. Its protagonist, Ben Tyler, is a high school teacher of English whose first novel was rejected. In the film’s opening sequence a doctor delivers a diagnosis of some quickly growing nth-stage cancer with a 10-percent chance of survival. At several points he asks, “If you had one week to live, how would you spend it?”

Instead of immediately pursuing treatment he postpones his impending wedding, buys a motorcycle, a Norton Commando, and sets out on a journey from Toronto to Tofino, an island that is the western terminus of the TransCanada Highway. His goal? To make memories that give what’s left of his life value beyond its prosaic routine.

The immense and diverse landscape is an important, albeit tacit, character in the film, and I can’t wait to meet it. Except for Tofino; reaching it entails a 2-hour ferry ride, and the wedding of Ed’s daughter in Massachusetts is behind our unmissable arrival deadline. But that, too, is an opportunity for Shunpike Tofino to explore that part of North America.

Standing at the doorstep of my dotage, the roster of my friends and acquaintances enduring medical maladies that require bypasses and replacements grows almost daily. Surely, one day, my name will make that list. Until then, continuing my quest for new nouns—persons, places, and things—is the best investment of the time that remains before my expiration date. In that regard, maybe I am like Ben Tyler.

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A Shunpiker’s Guide for Serendiculous Enjoyment

Sometimes a single word is all it takes to focus a fuzzy philosophy and make its underlying principles logically clear. Finding that word is the challenge. Some search for it their entire lives. I found mine on my way to confirming the spelling and meaning of another word I cannot now remember. May I introduce you to: Shun*pike n. a secondary road used to avoid turnpikes and expressways – shun’pik’er n. shun’pik’ing n.

Avoiding the traffic, tolls, texting drivers that crowd turnpikes, expressways, and Interstates is one benefit of shunpiking. Another is that secondary roads, state and county roads (many of them former U.S. Highways superseded by four-lane replacements) are the two-lane connections that unite small towns like a string of pearls.

But following a shunpiker’s path doesn’t lead to rewarding serendiculous surprises without the proper mindset. Most important is being open to collaborative whimsy that leads to the creation of words such as “serendiculous.” It was born in a postprandial search for the words that succinctly summarized that day’s rewarding and unexpected Route 66 revelations and interactions.

Perhaps the Tullamore Dew my riding buddy Ed and I were sipping as we sat outside our motel room helped us fuse these two words into one:

Ser*en*dip*ity n. [coined c. 1754 by Horace Walpole after The three Princes o Serendip (i.e. Sri Lanka) a fairytale in which the princes make such discoveries] 1 a seeming gift for finding something good accidentally 2 luck, or good fortune in finding something good accidentally. And Ri*dicu*lous adj. deserving ridicule.

For our purposes, the definition of the root word, especially its archaic use, best serves the intent of our conjoined word: Ridi*cule n. [Fr ridiculum, a jest, laughable (thing), neut. Of ridiculus, laughable, comical] 1 a) the act of making someone or something the object of scornful laughter by joking, mocking, etc; derision b) words or actions intended to provide such laughter 2 (Archaic) a) an absurdity b) foolishness.

Contemplating our many serendiculous encounters on my solo trip east from the Pacific Northwest, what united their diversity is that we became more receptive to them by shunning quotidian decision making. During this thousand-mile think four catalysts for serendiculousity took shape, and exercising them returned immediate results.

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When in Doubt, Top the Tank

There are physical and emotional aspects to this one. Riding out of Bend, Oregon, a small blue sign that said “Next Gas 99 Miles” reinforced the former. Naturally, this sign was stuck alongside the road about 10 miles past Bend’s last fuel stop on this road. (This must be a requirement of the association of sadistic sign planters.) My mistake was not turning around and topping the tank. Instead of enjoying the scenery and looking for interesting turnoff to explore, I obsessed on the fuel gauge and was blind to the passing landscape.

Two days later, passing eastbound through Shoshoni, Wyoming, on US 26, I thought about getting gas and decided that I had more than a hundred miles left in the tank and more than a few fuel stops in that distance. But it had been a long, quiet morning on the road, and I needed to fill my emotional tank by talking to someone, even if it was the clerk at a gas station, so I U-turned for the gas station.

As I was cleaning the bugs off my visor, two Harleys rumbled up to the other side of the pump. We nodded a greeting to each other, as those related by two wheels often do, and then I started a conversation. As a card-carrying introvert, this is something I seldom do, but I’ve been taking lessons from extroverted Ed, because observers rarely participate in serendiculous adventures.

Aside from the tattoos and leather, we were peers beyond two wheels. Bear lived in Minnesota, and “I had long hair,” he said, showing its length with a hand held in the small of his back. Discharged from the Navy in 1977 (a year before I got out), “I promised myself that I’d be a hippy ‘til I’m 50,” and on that birthday he started shaving his head.

Mark was from Montana. He met Bear in the engineering department of a submarine tender. After getting out of the Navy in 1978, he and Bear reunited for a road trip to a friend’s wedding. They had so much fun they vowed to do it again every year, and 35 years later, they actually made it happen.

Our meeting in Shoshoni was their third trip, and unlike and I, who make solo rides east and west, Bear and Mark meet somewhere in the middle then decide where to wander. The more extroverted of the pair, Bear said, “I have nine days and a credit card that says I can go wherever the hell I want.”

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For the Big Picture, Look at a Paper Map

Zumo excels at GPS navigation and suggesting where to refuel and rest for the night, but when following a shunpiker’s path, it can ask more questions than it answers. There’s never been a question that Zumo will not lead me to my desired destination. But there are questions of the algorithmic routes that will get me there. To avoid this distraction, I rely on the cartographers who craft old school paper maps, which I collect from every state I visit.

Maybe one of these days digital maps will incorporate the dotted lines that indicate that the road they parallel is a scenic byway. It would make planning a route for Zumo on my laptop easier, but it still wouldn’t be as much fun as discovering all of the serendiculous opportunities scattered along the way.

That’s how I found the Old McKenzie Road, which took me past the Goodpasture Bridge (above), and the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, which snakes for 82 miles through the Cascade Mountains in Central, Oregon. It took me almost four hours to cover this distance, most of it in second and third gear. Yeah, it’s a biker’s twisty dream; there are sections where 30-footers are prohibited. If you’re heading east in late summer, don’t leave early because the rising sun makes it hard to see. Fortunately, there wasn’t much oncoming traffic on the excellent road.

Had I not followed the dotted lines on the paper map I would have missed a first-hand geography lesson at the Dee Wright Observatory (which I’ll share in a dedicated story) that introduced me to the Three Sisters.

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Plan Time for Exploration

With so many small towns to visit, and with so little time left in life, it became clear as Ed and I recollected out penultimate adventure that we’d spent too many days in the saddle. As we discussed our overnight stops with friends in his backyard redoubt overlooking the lake, we concluded that limiting our daily travel to 300 miles didn’t always leave us enough time to explore. Some places deserved a second night so we’d have a full day to poke around in search of serendiculous encounters. (A day of butt rest would be nice, too!)

Williams, Arizona, would have been an excellent candidate for an extra day. My stroll up and down the main drag after dinner inflamed my curiosity, and the late hour (and the need to visit the Laundromat) didn’t allow time to satisfy it. On October 13, 1984, it became the last Route 66 city bypassed by Interstate 40.

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Take a Hint, Act on Impulse

Another town worth a day of exploration is Gualala, California, and finding it was a defining moment of serendiculousness. We were riding up the coast from San Francisco, enjoying the ocean view. And with some regularity we passed signs that pointed to a “Scenic Overlook” that required a perpendicular turn to the left or right. After passing a dozen or so such signs, I finally took the hint and suggested that we turn off at the next opportunity. The photo above does not do the vista justice. If you look close, you’ll see kayakers on the Gualala River. If we spent the day, I could have joined them.

All of these are lessons learned that will forever influence my shunpike journeys. More than rules, they are guidelines that all say the same thing, to listen to that little voice between my ears when it whispers, “Hey, that looks interesting!”

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A Water Tower Oasis in Arid Ash Fork, Arizona

Day9-4Following Route 66 west across the barren, baked brown Arizona landscape in the early morning oven of August 8, 2016, Ed and I were looking forward to nearly a hundred miles of the original two-lane Mother Road just past Ash Fork. Slowing down at the city limit, a brightly painted sheet of sedimentary rock welcomed us to “The Flagstone Capital of the World.”

And then, oddly, the two-lane diverged into separate one-way streets. Normally, the two-lane pierces the heart of a small town’s business district. From Lewis Ave., Ash Fork didn’t seem to have a commercial district. And snatched glances to the south revealed only a couple of businesses on the opposite one-way, Park Ave.

What brought me to a stop was a water tower. On four steel-latticed legs, it stands outside Lewis’s left-reaching arc that reunites it with its eastbound sister. Unlike other water towers that name the small towns they serve, this one bore a blue tattoo on its silver skin, halfway down from its conical cap. Why does it wear the logo of the Santa Fe Railroad?

Hoping for an answer, I dismounted next to the Ash Fork Centennial Park. A chain link fence surrounded the triangular gravel bed with several large rocks, two concrete picnic tables, and a single green tree. Just past the fence was a small brown shed that stood between its roadside legs.

A standpipe extended above the shed. It anchored a long white, 4-inch thick corrugated plastic trunk. Beside it was an alcove that sheltered the pump’s controls and digital read out. A sign with a ghosted photo background of a water tank emblazoned with ASH FORK 1882 said nothing about Santa Fe, but the words emphasized its message with capitals and colors and creative punctuation.

ASH FORK WATER SERVICE Provides & Maintains this Standpipe for filling

“POTABLE WATER TANKS ONLY”

~NO EXCEPTIONS~

Anyone who uses this facility to fill a NON-Potable water tank Could face charges of “Contamination of Public Water Supply”

Account Holder of record are the ONLY Authorized users of this facility.

After giving the phone number for reporting violations of this policy, it said:

*This Water meets all Drinking Water Standards*

Finally, after warning against “flushing or addition of any ingredients into your tank,” it defined “Potable Water Tank – a tank that hauls drinking water, as it’s only intended use, and, the water is immediately ready for Human consumption.”

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While reading this, a middle-aged woman wearing a long florescent pink t-shirt parked in a gravel lot behind the tower and started unloading a station wagon load of gallon jugs, their milky translucent skins spotted with dark blemishes earned by long use. Around the corner from the standpipe and sign, I discovered a vending machine that dispensed “Drinking Water 25¢.”

Clearly aware of each other, our silent gazes never connected. Her undistractible and efficient feeding of quarters and jugs into the machine, and loading the full container into her car while the next one filled suggested that this was not an unusual errand, or the only one on this day’s to-do list. Or maybe she didn’t want to acknowledge the presence of a hulk in boots and a heavy jacket, working a camera and notebook.

Pulling on my Midwestern roots, you filled water jugs in times of emergency, when a main artery broke or something contaminated its supply. Having to fetch water to meet your daily needs, to cook, to drink when thirsty, to brush your teeth, never really dawned on me. But the tower’s sign and vending machine, and the woman’s clearly practiced effort, suggested that this was part of daily life in arid Arizona.

Day9-5Regardless of its history, Ash Fork was clearly an oasis in a baked land. Later I learned that it had no source of water until the town sunk its first well in 1975, drilling nearly 1,000 feet before they hit water. (It drilled a second well later.) Before that, a daily train delivered drinking water from Del Rio Springs, 33 miles to the south, in Chino Valley.

Built as a siding for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (predecessor of the Santa Fe), this community of 396 people (as counted in 2010) has burned three times since its founding in 1882. After the first fire in 1893, its citizens rebuilt the town on the other side of the tracks, where it stands today. The next conflagration, known as the Big Fire, destroyed what remained of the businesses district November 1977.

The Mother Road herself decimated the community in the 1950s when the road commission bifurcated Route 66 as it crossed the city limit. Construction of the divided single-tracks destroyed downtown storefronts, sidewalks, and residential streets. Then Interstate 40 bypassed the community when it replaced Route 66, diverting the businesses’s life-giving customers.

In 1960, the Santa Fe moved its east-west tracks north. As most residents worked for the railroad, Ash Fork’s population fell by half. The flagstone quarries are now the primary employers, followed by the school district. The last major fire claimed a few of the survivors in the two-block business district in October 1987.

Ash Fork must have been something before that. With a north-south rail line crossing the Santa Fe’s east-west line, it was a busy railroad junction. Harvey House built the Hotel Escalante there in 1907. Uniting concrete and steel in the Mission Style, its 420-by-200-foot footprint encompassed the hotel, a dining room, a lunch counter, and gift shop. It closed in 1948, and they razed it in the 1970s.

But as an oasis, a source of water for the hardy residents in and around the town, Ash Fork will continue. A 2005 article in the Arizona Republic said, “Hauling Water is a Way of Rural Life,” emphasizing its importance beyond the woman with her jugs and pocket full of quarters. “The water-filling station in Ash Fork, a tiny town west of Williams in northern Yavapai County, draws lines of trucks all day long on weekends. The town is served by a small water system, but most residents beyond a square mile or so must haul water or have it hauled in.”

Day9-7Better than those who reside in greener parts of the ration, those who live in and around Ash Fork know that their future well-being depends on the aquifers that sustain them. According to a 2014 report, Ash Fork Water Manager Lewis Hume wrote that the community depends solely on ground water wells, and it is not abusing its aquifer contained by Tapeats Sandstone and Martin Limestone.

“Static water level [measured in feet below the surface] is a good indicator of aquifer condition,” wrote Hume. “All measurements from 1996 to present have shown static water levels in the 998’ to 999’ level. Our most recent measurement on 5/2013 showed a level of 999.2’ Aquifer recharge is equal to or greater than its demand or use. In comparison, water level declines in the Flagstaff region are as much as 200 feet in areas affected by ground water pumping.”

The report said the water service dispensed 45 million gallons (MG) in 2007 and 2008. It pumped 35 MG in 2013 and anticipated 37 MG in 2014. That’s a lot a one-gallon jugs. As Ed and I continued west, the woman in the florescent pink t-shirt was filling the last of hers.

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Shadows & Reflections of Reality

Shadow-1If you seek the fountain of youth, check out Fort Dodge, Iowa. When I asked about a single room for the night of August 22, 2016, the Comfort Inn clerk immediately offered me the senior-citizen rate. “It’s our best!” she said.

Less than 90 minutes later, after a short walk to dinner and another short stroll to the grocery store for a libation to accompany my postprandial cigar, another young clerk carded me. Perhaps motivated by my confused countenance, she said, “You look young!” And then she scanned that funky black-and-white checkerboard matrix on the back of my driver’s license.

It’s possible that this was store policy for everyone purchasing alcohol. I didn’t wait around for the next suitable customer to confirm this. A bit unnerved at having lost more than 40 years in little more than an hour, and worried about my brown paper bagged Heineken getting warm, with long, determined strides I walked directly to the mirror in my room. There, as I have for about a decade now, I saw the face of my father, when he was in his late 50s, before prostate cancer started to age him.

“So much for the fountain of youth,” I said to my reflection.

Ultimately, this was a relief. The idea of resetting my life to an age worthy of being carded and having to live it over again is more unsettling to me than the reality that, if all goes well, my ultimate expiration date is but a decade or three away. But the experience in Fort Dodge planted a bean of reflection in my brain that has been growing slowly since then, sprouting questions about self-image, how others see me, and how I see myself.

The images coalesced not long ago on a sunny morning when I was walking to the bank and post office. My shadow preceded me, stride for stride. It was an accurate outline, but what filled it was the surface over which it traveled, sidewalk, street, dirt, and grass. It is surely how others see me, in the context of their environment, be it a motel or grocery store.

My outline is the same when I gaze into the mirror to scrape the little hairs off my face, and so is are the details that fill it. Regardless of the effects of time and gravity, I’ve never assigned this reflection a specific age. (Am I the only one who feels ageless, because I’m unsure how I should be, feel, and act as my chronological countdown increases?)

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Paddling around this pool of solipsism I quickly realized that how one perceives an outline’s filling applies equally to small towns. Williams, Arizona (population 3,023), immediately came to mind. It was one of my favorite towns on Route 66. What made it special was not the Canyon Club, where Jackie, the boisterous, blonde, and bawdy barkeep in her tank top and jeans, gave Ed and me some sights to see. Nor was it the superb dinner we had at the Station 66 Italian Bistro, with its craft beer and courtyard guitarist singing, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.” It was the Laundromat.

Main Street is the William’s face to the world; from end to end, it is primped and painted and pointed at those seeking a nostalgic glimpse at Route 66. Like us, many people visit after peering into the nearby Grand Canyon.

Washing clothes at 8:17 on Sunday night was sitting on the backside of a two-way mirror that reflected the character of the good people of Williams. Life doesn’t any more real than carting your dirty clothes to the Laundromat. Rather than voyeurs, like everyone else there, Ed and I wanted nothing more than clean clothes.

The overseer, a bearded 40-something guy wearing Army-issued camouflaged pants, said with undertone of congratulations that we’d just made it. A sign explained. Because the facility closed at 10 p.m. on Sunday, its patrons could not fill and fire up a washer after 8:30 p.m.

The place opened at 6 a.m. I know this because at 9 p.m. a young man with a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard, Iberian features, and a Spanish accent popped in to count the available washers. The overseer, who stopped his nonstop cleaning, pointed to the sign, answered the man’s question about opening, and then went back to work. Clearly, the visitor had been celebrating on Main Street. “I’ll be back, if I’m awake.”

Day8-101

The place was busy. Ed and I were not the endpoints on the spectrum of age or race, and we weren’t the only ones working on laptops while our clothes went round and round. People nodded friendly hellos as we passed and then went back to what they were doing. At the folding tables, they worked side-by-side with elevator politeness, offering a quick apology when elbows inadvertently met. Two women were folding sheets in the aisle; they may have been friends, or maybe just helpful neighbors. Everyone ignored the boisterous kids who raced around the room, carefully avoiding wire wheelie bins full of clothes awaiting a dryer or folding.

When I think of my time in Williams now, what stands out is the Laundromat. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in the shadows of Main Street, but the truest reflection of the town and its people were most clearly seen—and appreciated—as we waited for a washer to rinse away the week just ended.

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Lessons Learned in the Search for New Nouns

Day9-69Crossing the burnt-brown desert leg of Route 66, I asked myself, Why am I doing this? At 70 mph, opening my helmet visor was like sticking my face in a convection oven set somewhere between 110°F and 115°F. The answer was the same as it has been when riding in the cold and wet and on perfect days: to discover and learn about new nouns—people, places, and things.

Three weeks later, while caressing the sensuous green curves of Nebraska’s Sandhills, I asked myself an equally important question. Unchallenged by traffic or wandering livestock, why was I not fully appreciating the undulating landscape that surrounded me? Why did I not see the cattle surrounding the windmill fed stock pond that would have been a good photo? And why did I not turn back to capture that image?

It became clear that I needed to include the personal pronoun in the quest for new knowledge.

Only a few days into this epic journey, I began an intracranial spanking for not posting the highlights of that day’s new nouns. Obsessed with my failings, my mind didn’t fully see the surrounding world and the unexpected experiences it displayed.

When you’re self-employed, the realization that you work for an uncompromising taskmaster really hurts. I started Small Town Traveler to further my professional development and to exhibit my abilities to potential clients. By demanding a daily post I was not only depriving myself of new noun knowledge, I was eviscerating my original goal.

Really, can any word merchant compose and revise a piece of writing, to reflect on word choice, syntax, and organization, in the time it takes to smoke a nice cigar? (For those who do not reward themselves for a productive day’s work in such a manner, a good cigar lasts me, on average, 90 minutes when I’m smoking and writing.)

There may be a few, but at this stage of my life and career, I’m not one of them. After riding 300 miles, I do not have the intellectual and physical stamina to download and caption the day’s photos, decipher and pound my handwritten notes (and their associated memories) into the computer, and then compose a clear, concise, coherent, and (I hope) interesting story about the day.

So, stretching my legs at the roadside, I asked the cattle trimming the grass on the other side of the barbwire fence what I should do. A few raised their heads when I posed the question, but not one offered as little as a snuff, a grunt, or a moo, before dropping their heads toward their grassy green brunch.

Day25-19

Looking down the road, I found the solution at its vanishing point, where the Sandhills met the clotted gray overcast. Professional development is Small Town Traveler’s primary reason for being. But when I’m on a journey, it tells family and friends (and readers who care) that I’m not someone’s hood ornament.

This became clear to me on this journey, when a friend posted a Facebook query about my wellbeing two days after my last STT post. I responded with a couple of the day’s most interesting photos and let everyone know that all was well.

At that moment, my solution was clear, so why did it take me three weeks to realize it? And how many new nouns had I missed while I obsessed about my self-inflicted distraction?

Instead of watering this seed of a new obsession, I congratulated myself on an unconsciously correct decision to continue my daily Facebook photo posts. Fulfilling my societal responsibilities freed me from the anal-retentive dominatrix that lives between my ears. By waiting until I returned home to convey my new noun discoveries, I would have the time and stamina—and desire—to give them the attention they deserved. This decision was an intoxicating high of creative freedom that has not yet worn off.

Still, from the back corner of my mind, a muted voice asks about the new nouns I’d passed and not fully appreciated. With more than 20,000 words of notes and 1,200 photos, I surely didn’t miss that many. And there will be more journeys in the future. But crossing any desert—in August—will not be one of them.

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Serendiculous Diversions & Nice People

Where we would sleep the night after the start of the great flat tire adventure depended on who had a Michelin 170/60 ZR17 Road Pilot 4 GT. After about a half hour of calling shops located in ever longer ridges from Fort Bragg, California, it seemed that we weren’t going anywhere because their answers to my question were all the same: Nope. We don’t have on of those.

Ozzie Ed t-shirtThen I called Ozzie’s BMW in Chico, California. Chris answered the phone and said, “How can we help you?” On my 15th phone call of the morning, I told him “I have a sad story to tell you. I’m a BMW rider from Wisconsin,” and while taking a breath to speak my next phrase, he interjected, “That is a sad story!”

His humor and our shared laugh burst the cyst of anxiety that had been growing in my mind all morning. After explaining what I needed, he asked me to hold on for a second. When he returned to the phone, he said, “Yup, we got one.” Worried about covering the distance between here than there, he said his tech made the run to Fort Bragg often, and that it took him 4 hours. It was 11 a.m., and they closed at 5 p.m. You’ll make it in plenty of time. This was reassuring, because like most motorcycle shops, Ozzie’s is closed in Sundays and Mondays.

My cyst of anxiety started building earlier that morning when I couldn’t get a hold of anyone at Street, Track & Trail, when I made a local call from our room at the Pine Beach Inn. That was all that was available in the Twilight Zone of no cell coverage. If you want to know where it is, look at Verizon’s coverage map, and the pinpoint of no-coverage white is were we spent the night.

On my fourth call, the mechanic answered the phone at 9:30 a.m. and said that they didn’t open until 10 a.m. He also said that he patched my rear tire the night before, “when I was working on a motor; I sprayed it this morning, and it’s still bubbling.” I told him to tube it, and he said someone would come and get me shortly after they opened. My ride, Casey, showed up shortly after 10 and took me to the shop, where the mech was tightening the wheel bolts with  a pneumatic impact wrench.

The kind and helpful people at Street, Track & Trail,, who serve the backcountry bike community, mitigated what could have been an anguishing trial of patience and finances. For all their good work, picking up Blue, and then me, and patching and then tubing the tire, they charged me just $127. And it was the nice innkeeper on the desk at the Pine Beach Inn that made the initial phone call, calling the owner by her first name. It’s just another example of the nice people you find in small towns.

Speaking of which, on this journey so far we have met an endless succession of nice, friendly, pleasant, helpful people of all ages, races, and ethnic origins. It has been an alternate universe from the social media cesspool of narcissistic outrage and zero-sum ideology I wade through every morning for my online clients. My face-to-face meetings with diverse Americans has planted a seed of hope for our shared future.

But I digress. Ed rolled in just after I talked to Chris at Ozzie’s, and we hit the road for Chico without breakfast or coffee. All that mattered was getting there safely before the shop closed. All of the service people I talked to had experience with tubing tubeless tires to get riders to new rubber, and they all agreed that it was safe, “If I didn’t get crazy.” They didn’t define crazy. The thought of it sent my pucker factor into the yellow zone. 

Naturally, the shortest connection between the two cities was CA 20, a twisty turny road through the mountains. I did my best not to be crazy. I can’t say the same for the people we saw parked by the roadside to watch a baby brush fire mature. A few, most of them driving pickups, grabbed shovels from the beds and went to work. The fire department wasn’t on the scene yet, but a bit farther east a fire truck, decorated with flashing red lights dancing to the siren’s wail, roared past us on its way west. “I know where he’s going,” Ed said.

At a gas stop, Ed stayed to suck down some Gatorade and suck up some air conditioning. For me it was a NASCAR pit stop, and I continued my race through the 100-degree heat. I walked in the door of Ozzie’s BMW at 3:15, and it like coming home. After introduction, Chris asked if the key was in the bike, and said that they’d get to work on it. I hauled my saddle bags and trunk into the showroom and proceeded to drain their water cooler.

Ozzie’s BMW has been serving riders since 1977, and the crew there taught me an important lesson. Family businesses don’t have customers, they have friends, even those, like us, that they have just met for the first time. Ed arrived about 20 minutes after me, and he started talking to Mike, a burly guy with working man’s hands, about a buzzing vibration in his throttle that has been annoying him since we left Wisconsin two weeks ago.

Discussing the possible causes, Mike told Ed to pull his bike into the shop and they’d put it on the analyzer. Ed demurred, not wanting to take Mike away from his work. Mike wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s what we do here.” And in minutes Ed’s 1150R was wired up and running through the tests. Mike spent about a half hour diagnosing the possible causes. They didn’t find the source of the vibration, but the cut the number of possible causes in half. He didn’t ask for any money, and he didn’t try to sell him anything. Later, we found out that Mike was Ozzie’s son, and that Ozzie had passed a few years ago.

While Mike worked on Ed’s bike, I saw Blue up on the stand, and asked it I could watch the technician reinstall the rear wheel with its brand new Michelin Road Pilot 4 GT tire. I’d never seen this process before, because my home shop, another family business, doesn’t allow customers in the shop, for insurance reasons, their sign says. Not a problem, the said. And when it came time to tighten the wheel bolts, the tech reached not for an impact wrench, but a torque wrench, and set it to the BMW specs. And without asking, the tech gave Blue a quick physical, from tire pressures and fluid levels to the pertinent fasteners.

Day15-27Settling up with Chris, I snagged an Ozzie’s key fob from the BMW coffee mug on the counter. It replaced the Hondo National Bank fob I got in 2006, when my original fob broke on my first long trip with Blue. It was in the goodie bag given to media covering the Texas Fly-In. It was on that trip that I had my first ever flat tire, also the rear. I didn’t realize it until I got home to Wisconsin, however. I should have listened to Bruce Bohannon, who noticed that it was low when I stopped at his field outside Houston for an interview. Suffering from an intestinal bug I’d caught at the fly-in, I was distracted. Needless to say, it was an interesting ride home, but not as interesting as discovering the ruined rear tire the morning after I got home.

When Chris returned my credit card, I thanked him for their excellent service and for a delightful, memorable afternoon. He was gob smacked. “I’ve never had a customer spend $300 and then thank me for a delightful afternoon,” he said. As we were getting ready to leave, he came outside and asked our t-shirt sizes, popped back inside, and returned with an Ozzie’s BMW t-shirt for both of us. “There are on me,” he said. Rest assured that we’re wearing them with pride.

No one in their right mind plans to suffer a flat tire when 2,000 miles from home, but in the serendiculous series events of this trip, I appreciate it because it introduced us to some truly fine and nice people who treat people not with obsequious “customer service” but as friends and fellow riders. If I have one regret from our visit, it is that I didn’t think about getting a photo or two of Chris, Mike, and the tech who reshowed my mount. I grabbed a quick one of Ed with he t-shirt just before we hit the road, but the idea of capturing our new friends didn’t dawn on me until we were bedded down in the Best Western, which has a special rate for Ozzie’s customers who need a place to stay while the shop is working on their bikes. We walked by the shop on our way to dinner at the Pour House (an excellent recommendation, Chris!). I won’t forget the next time I’m traveling this way.

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Following the Scenic Dotted Line & Other Adventures

Day13-62In the 1970s, I made my inaugural exploration of California Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or, concisely, the PCH. On a series of trips I extended it through Oregon and Washington to Seattle, a route we are repeating, with diversions to sights we have not yet seen, such as Crater Lake. Other diversions, such as todays, were unplanned.

Paul Theroux wrote that “Nothing is more suitable to a significant departure than bad weather.” And nothing adds uncertain intrigue to a voyage on two wheels quicker than when one of those wheels goes flat. Our ride north from Santa Monica has been uneventful but rewarding. My riding partner, Ed, traveled this route in the 1980s, and as we search our respective memories for roads previously traveled, our common denominator is the notion that it was easier to find our way back in the day.

Day12-4Passing through the cities is to be tolerated, the gauntlet we must run to reach the dotted lines on the map that indicated the scenic routes. You remember maps, those magical broadsheets covered with lines that show the big picture of where you are and where you want to go, don’t you?

It used to be that they were available free at rest stops and visitor information centers. When I asked the attendant on one such center, asked in return, “Don’t you have GPS?” Yes, we do, but it is secondary to a map. He said maybe the visitor center on the Interstate, four hours east of our current location on the coast might have one. We found a bookstore that was closer. Barnes & Noble charges $6 for Rand McNally’s Easy to Read! California.

Day11-45As we rode I searched my memory for images seen four decades ago. Traversing the Lompoc lobe of the California coast I had found nothing of the agricultural factory this region has become. But I will forever more remember the laser-graded fields ready for planting, the plastic covered rows that are a sign of drip irrigation, and the smell of strawberries as we passed vast fields of them. The memories stared to creep from the shadows as we twisted and turned our way into the Big Sur region. It was scenes filmed here, long shots of a motorcycle traversing the area’s iconic bridges, for the 1960s TV show, Then Came Bronson, that ignited my desire to travel by two wheels.

Day13-34More vexing is the unanswered question of how I missed these unavoidable geographic details that surely existed on my first passage? The same goes for all the small costal towns north of the Golden Gate. (And how did I forget that there is no toll when leaving San Francisco; you have to pay to get in from the north.) And I don’t remember the well-signed “Costal Access” roads and “Vista Points.” This one is above Gualala, California.

It was a stop in one of these towns where my rear tire, a Michelin Pilot Road 4, brand new for this trip, with only 3,500 miles on it so far, picked up a small sliver of metal, probably in one of their graveled parking lots. After a good day of twists and turns, an on the recommendation of Queenie and Cassandra, of Queenie’s Roadhouse Café in Elk, California, we checked into the Pine Beach Motel, an independent hostel  just south of Fort Bragg. After checking in, Ed noticed that my rear tire seemed low. The tire gauge read 8 psi. Just to make the adventure interesting, there’s no cell service and the Wi-Fi works best in the motel’s office. The innkeeper was immediately helpful and connected me with a local motorcycle shop, which didn’t have a tire, but they could put a tube in the flat one, which will get me to the nearest BMW dealer, in Chico (5 hours away) for back in Santa Rosa (4 hours south), depending on who has the tire and can accommodate my needs. Tomorrow should be interesting.

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