Us Two Strangers of the Tribe

Day 15-18 – Seattle, WA, USA to Kelowna, BC, Canada – 3,720 km

More than the motorcycle or anything else, I first noticed his tall, tanned boots like what you imagined a lumberjack wore. Then I noticed his Alaska plate as he pulled his Harley alongside the pump adjacent to ours and dismounted with more agility than you expected from someone so tall and hulking. He was probably a head taller than six feet and when he approached it hurt my neck to look upward at so steep an angle. He looked worn and grizzly and he wore leathers and thick canvas pants tucked into his lumberjack boots. He withdrew his skullcap helmet and sunglasses and rested them securely and just precisely on his bike the way all practiced motorcyclists do. He had the look of someone who lives on his motorcycle and felt comfortable on his bike like how you imagined the cowboys used be on their horse.

‘Cold day for a ride,’ he said. ‘Where are you coming from?’

We replied and this began a conversation that went on as we each filled our bikes with petrol and fidgeted with the luggage rigging. We told him where we had been and where we were going and he asked how it had gone so far and we said it had gone very well but for the weather.

‘It feels like an early winter this year,’ he said. ‘Most years I can wander all about but right now a lot of the passes are snowed out.’

‘We hit snow back at Mt Hood and we’re not eager for more, so we probably won’t make it much further north,’ I said.

‘It’s a good plan,’ he said as he added an octane booster into his fuel tank. ‘I find these big V-twins ride better with a bit of this.’

Then he asked about our bikes because he saw that they were BMW and that they looked like were enduro but that he thought BMW only made bikes with horizontal cylinder heads.

‘The big ones are like that but ours are smaller,’ I said. ‘Hers is 650 and mine is 800.’

‘That’s good for what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘I’m sure you get great fuel economy.’

I said that it was pretty good before you added the cases and duffle bag and then, as he replaced his gloves and skullcap, he named a few routes that he said were good riding and would take us south and east towards where we wanted to go. After we discussed the routes, he ignited his engine and said a farewell before he rode off.

‘Nice guy,’ I said, ‘though you wouldn’t think it to look at him.’

‘It’s like we have a tribe,’ Jess said.

It was something she had mentioned on a few occasions over the past few weeks after meeting other bikers. She had read about this camaraderie on the discussion forums and blogs while learning to ride in Liberia and I had tried to explain it, but she hadn’t experienced it until she came home and especially now that we were on our bikes so much of the time. In Liberia, motorcycling is mostly an inexpensive mode of transportation and most of those who ride are cabbies, not bikers. Now riding back home, she had seen how many riders salute you with a wave of the left hand as they pass you during a ride and how often another biker will strike up a conversation when they learn that you ride. Also, recently I had observed her return the salute.

‘Did you see them wave to me?’ she had said a few days back during a break for lunch. ‘I wanted to wave back but I couldn’t because my hand was on the clutch!’

I thought this was a very good sign because I remembered how long it took me to feel confident enough to remove my hand from the handlebar during a ride and especially at speed or through twisties as we had been doing during that particular morning’s ride.

Now we were at a filling station in Cache Creek along highway 97 in British Columbia, Canada. After leaving Seattle a few days before we had taken the secondary highways through northern Washington state to the Canadian border crossing at Abbotsford. There we bought a Canadian SIM card for Jessica’s iPhone because she had left hers back in Los Angeles.

‘I’m just not as neurotically organized as you,’ she shot back to my ribbing over the expense and particularly over the inconvenience because it was a cold, gray, drizzly day.

‘Fine, I’ll give you that,’ I said. ‘But maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad in this case.’

We were in McDonalds to use the free Wi-Fi so we could activate the SIM without paying the service provider 35 dollars to activate it for us. With our mobile data service activated, we quickly found a cheap motel and covered the 60 km to Vancouver to arrive just before dark that evening. We dropped our luggage at the motel but we hadn’t time to change into street clothes before riding downtown to meet Kristen at the Korean restaurant.

Kristen is a few years older than Jess and was a friend from down the street when they were growing up.

‘Jess was a terror when she was younger,’ Kristen said immediately before the conversation had really begun.

‘Nothing has changed,’ I assured her.

Jess shot us both a disapproving look and then she conceded, ‘Yeah, I was quite a shit disturber.’

Kristen told us about her plans to visit Iguazu Falls and a bunch of other places in Argentina and there was a flicker of hope that we might meet up but we determined that we would still be in Central America when she was there in November. She also satisfied my confusion for why Jess and her sister Lillian pronounce her name with a hard ‘e’ at the end as though it were spelled Christine.

‘Everyone from home calls me that because of how they pronounced it with their Filipino accent,’ she said, ‘but it was always a problem in school like when a substitute would come so as soon as I moved away, I told people to pronounce it the way it’s spelled.’

The next day was a rest day so that I could perform an oil change on my bike. I had intended to do it in Seattle with Jess’s but I discovered that it required a specialized tool to remove the oil filter without which things could get messy.

‘It says here that you can jam a screwdriver into the filter and use it to twist it but that’s the redneck way,’ Jess said after researching it on the discussion forums.

I felt stupid for not checking on this when preparing for this trip but I soon let it go because by now I had accepted that my pre-trip mechanical preparations were far less than exhaustive. The BMW dealership in Seattle did not have the tool I needed but the one in Vancouver did, so I decided to do Jess’s bike then and there and haul the extra motor oil in my luggage and do my bike once I had the tool. Now in Vancouver I bought the tool and set up to do the oil change in the motel parking lot but, before I got too far along, I discovered that the oil pan drain plug requires a 10 mm Allen wrench and my set only went as large as 8 mm. In total there were three visits to the Canadian Tire automotive store before I was equipped with everything I needed. This time the oil change went more smoothly than Jess’s had a few days before but it was still my first time on my bike and I belabored each step before and while it was made.

When I finished, Jess helped me to pour the used oil from the pan into the new oil containers. It was late afternoon now and most of the day had been spent shopping for tools and performing this routine procedure.

‘I thought it would go quicker,’ I said, apologizing because we hadn’t done any site seeing during this day off in Vancouver.

‘It’s fine, love,’ Jess said. ‘I expected it would take all day.’

I frowned at this and she clarified, ‘It’s your first time. You’ll do it faster next time.’

Greg and Jess at Prospect Point

I washed up and, still smelling distinctively of used motor oil, we went two up on my bike to catch the sunset from Prospect Point where there is a beautiful view of Lions Gate Bridge over the harbor and of English Bay between the northern and southern portion of the city.

The next day we left and I felt bad for not having seen more of the city but Jess reminded me that we had actually seen quite a lot while running the errands for the oil change and also that the only thing we had to do was enjoy what we were doing. Leaving the city we followed Highway 99 north along the rocky, jagged coastline until the coast ended at Squamish and the Sea-to-Sky Highway continued inland rolling north through the mountains to Daisy Lake where it turned subtly eastward to Whistler. It was very cold but the sky was mostly clear and, as we ascended into the highlands, the air smelled alpine fresh so that you felt it was a great cleansing act to breathe in deeply.

Jess on Highway 99

At Whistler we took a hot lunch and we watched and commented on the young people with long, tangled hair and designer clothes made to look careless and torn.

‘But tell me this,’ I said when Jess pointed out a group that fit just this description, ‘how is that one wearing just a t-shirt when I’m sitting inside and shivering under three layers?’

From Whistler we continued north on the 99 but soon we discovered that the smooth, rolling tarmac that brought us here from Vancouver was now rougher and potholed.

‘They must not have repaved it here like I imagine they did below for the 2010 Olympics,’ I said when Jessica mentioned the difference during a rest break along the highway.

‘I was riding really fast through the twisties coming up to Whistler,’ Jess said, obviously very proud of herself. ‘Did you notice?’

‘Absolutely, I did,’ I said. ‘Partly it’s the good tarmac but also I think you’ve improved and now you’re noticing it.’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said, uncompromisingly dismissive of her growing ability as a rider in case allowing even a gleam of confidence should invite tragedy. ‘It’s that the road is very good here.’

Highway 97 between Lillooet and Kelowna

‘It has a population of 2,321 and is one of the southernmost cities in North America where indigenous people form the majority,’ Jess read from Wikipedia during dinner that night as had become our custom to inject some elementary facts into our otherwise purely sensory form of tourism.

Jess and the girls parked inside hotel in Lillooet

The next morning we continued northeast on the twisting, uneven Highway 99 until we reached Cache Creek, which is where we had pulled over at the town’s lone filling station and met the tall, hulking, grizzly Harley rider who was clearly a ‘high roller’ – for the mileage he had obviously covered on his bike – and where he had inadvertently brightened our day by reconfirming our status as members of the tribe.

From Cache Creek we took Highway 97 to Kamloops. This was one of the lesser scenic routes that the burly Harley rider had recommended but we eager to reach what we decided would be our northernmost highlight and begin the sweep south towards warmer weather. In Kamloops we got turned around looking for the downtown and, deciding that we were not particularly loving what we saw, we decided to buy food for lunch at the Safeway and then make a go for Kelowna, which is the heart of the British Columbia wine country.

After lunch in the parking lot outside the Safeway a motorcyclist pulled up and on a new-looking V-Strom, which is an adventure touring motorcycle made by Suzuki. He wore a very high end touring jacket in high viz neon accenting. It was, incidentally, the jacket that I had originally planned to get when reviewing riding gear for hours on the Internet in Liberia.

‘Where are you coming from then?’ he said after he had dismounted, removed his helmet, and scrutinized our bikes and the rigging through a squint.

I told him that we had started in Los Angeles and this made him quite excited.

‘I just got back from a ride down to LA,’ he said. ‘It was a fantastic trip. The riding was excellent,’ he said and then he recited each leg of the route, which was more than I had asked for, and anyway sounded a bit too practiced.

‘Sounds like you hit a lot of good roads,’ I said when he took a pause.

‘Yeah, we did twisty roads the whole way there and back,’ he said with much satisfaction. ‘We probably didn’t do more than 100 miles on the interstate.’

He looked our bikes over again and then he said, ‘So where are you headed then?’

‘We’re going as far north as we can manage, which is probably not much further than here,’ Jess said, ‘and then we are going south all the way to Argentina.’

She said it through her helmet because she already had it on when he had pulled up and she hated taking her helmet on and off in the cold weather because of all the tucking and adjusting it required of collars, headphones, pony tail, and balaclava. Even through her helmet, she said it very well, I thought. I had noticed before how well she always said it because I paid very close attention each time. She said it in a way that that made you feel that she was more surprised and amazed by what we were doing than you could be so that you couldn’t possibly find any conceit in it.

I thought I always said it very badly because I tried to say so that I wouldn’t sound full of myself but somehow I thought this produced a nonchalance that seemed to come out full of self-conceit. So, when I had first noticed how well she said it, I had waited until we were alone again and I told her that she would always be the one to say it from then on when people asked about the trip.

She had balked that she shouldn’t always be the one to say it but, when I explained it in context, she eventually agreed.

‘It’s important that we say it well when we meet people because it might influence what follows – like if they will be friendly to us or offer us help or accommodations or whatever,’ I explained with much seriousness. ‘I do the mechanics and pitching the tent and all that. You do this best so it’s a contribution you should make to our trip.’

‘Ok,’ she said, laughing at me. ‘You do say it very awkwardly so I will do it and make this contribution to our trip.’

‘Hey! Actually I did a trip down to Argentina last year!’ he said after Jess had recited our destination.

We were surprise at the coincidence and, as he began to recite the details of his trip, we expressed the requisite interest to be polite.

‘We brought the bikes down to Baja where we met up,’ he said. ‘There were three of us to start but we met a fourth who wanted to do it but only he had three months. I wanted to take a little more time for getting to know places but I don’t mind a motivated ride if that’s what the situation calls for. So we did it in three months and we really did a good hauled through it.’

Then he described the route they had taken and the several can’t miss highlights they had visited along the way: Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, and the like. When he finished describing the trip he looked very satisfied with himself and I noticed there was a sort of glimmer in his eye for the pleasure he must of felt to relive it here, momentarily, with us two strangers of the tribe in the parking lot of the Safeway.

‘He sounded very full of himself, didn’t he?’ Jess said after he had wished us well and disappeared into the supermarket.

I thought he did too, though I didn’t think he had intended to present himself as he had, and I said so.

‘Well I liked the Harley guy from this morning much more,’ Jess said.

Highway 97 between Lillooet and Kelowna

I said I did too and, as we rode off to reach Kelowna before sunset, I thought about the difference in the two riders we had met that day. Each acknowledged us as part of ‘the tribe’ but in very different ways and with very different results of what we thought of them. How do you talk about what you love and what you’ve accomplished without sounding full of conceit for it? I thought to myself because this was a question that had been nagging me long before today but had never been answered. How do you establish your credentials so that others who do and love what you love know who you are and that you belong but without them taking it the as conceit the way Jess had I had?

Surely there is an answer to this in the comparison of these two who we met today, I decided, and, as we merged back onto the highway and accelerated away from Kamloops, I was trying to recall the differences between the riders. I was certainly on the verge of an answer, I thought, but soon we were deep into the twisties and mountain scenery of Highway 97 and I lost my focus to the drum of the engine and the pitch and lean of the bike so that the answer slipped away and, at least for now, I left the unanswered question far, far behind.

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