Leaning into the Learning Curve
by Nolan Davis
At the beginning of the summer, I purchased a 1997 850R BMW motorcycle with less than 8K miles on it. My knowledge of motorcycles is very limited and I am far from an expert rider. I rode my father's Harley occasionally when I was in high school and my North Carolina motorcycle license had expired years ago. And a friend kept a motorcycle at my house in Juneau, Alaska for a couple of years and I would ride it on some sunny days without a license. Juneau only has 44 sunny days a year on average including days with snow on the ground/road. That's less than Seattle at 58 days a year. After I bought the BMW, I thought it would be wise to take a Motorcycle Safety Course. In Alaska, you can obtain a motorcycle license by presenting a certification from this course. It was educational and worth it. Luckily, we had a beautiful, sunny summer. There are no roads going in or out of Juneau, but I was able to put about 750 miles on the bike to get a feel for it before the cross country trip I was planning. So, in short, some would question my decision to make a cross-country trip with my level of experience (or inexperience).
The trip: Juneau, Alaska to Granite Falls, North Carolina.
Since the only way to travel in or out of Juneau is by boat or plane, I loaded up the bike on the ferry and headed to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I had contemplated shipping the bike on a container down to Bellingham, Washington and flying down and starting the trip from there. Logistically, it was easier to ride it down using the ferry. My schedule was going to force me to split the trip up into two sections. One week to get the bike to Seattle and a month later I would ride from Seattle across the country. The fleet of Alaskan ferries are called The Alaska Marine Highway and it is celebrating it's 50th year serving Alaskan coastal communities that depend on it for travel. I was aboard MV Matanuska, named after the Alaskan glacier north of Anchorage which is the largest glacier accessible by car in the US. The MV Matanuska is also the vessel that crashed into the Petersburg dock last year. You can check that out on YouTube searching for Matanuska Ferry Crash. The trip down to Prince Rupert, British Columbia took three days making its first stop in Petersburg. At high tide the ferry made the tortuous journey through the legendary Wrangell Narrows and then stopped in Wrangell and Ketchikan.
I arrived in Prince Rupert in the early afternoon and noticed that my turn signals were acting rather sporadically. I had an appointment at the BMW dealership in Seattle for an annual so I knew it would be addressed then. The weather was gorgeous with no clouds in the sky. I rode 300 miles on the very well maintained and scenic highway 16 east towards Prince George. As the sun began to set, I found a spot to pull over and sleep. I am carrying a sleeping bag and pad with a simple bivy sack. The next day I drove to Prince George and then headed south on the less scenic but well maintained 97 and the turn signals were working. I pulled over around lunch time at this great little burger joint in Hixon, simply called Hixon Burger. Well at this point in time the Canadian dollar was equal to the American dollar so I paid with American cash. My change was given to me in Canadian. Two Loonies (the nickname for the Canadian dollar because it has a picture of a Loon) and a fifty cent piece. I only mention this because it becomes relevant later on.
A couple hours south of Hixon, I saw a biker on the shoulder with his caution lights on. I pulled over and he informed me that he had ran out of gas. I was carrying an extra liter, so I let him put it in his tank so he could make it to the next service station. My plan was to get on the more scenic 99 and ride through Marble Canyon Provincial Park to Lillooet, BC and sleep under the stars there. This leg was about 450 miles. Another 10 hour day. Marble Canyon and the road between it and Lillooet was gorgeous. The road was good, the curves were great and the scenery was spectacular. There was very little traffic.
The sun was getting low and I was enjoying this windy canyon road. The road has no shoulder and carved into the hillside. It seemed like out of nowhere, a white car was tailgating me pretty aggressively. The car was close enough to make me very nervous. I began to look for a place to pull off the road. At the same time, the pavement gave way to gravel due to some construction that had been going on. But the surface was washboarded and full of large potholes. I slowed. There was still no place to pull over and this car was just getting closer to my rear wheel. We took a right hand curve under a train trestle and I noticed a small pullout on the right large enough for me to stop the bike. I turned my blinker on and as we came around the curve under the trestle we were pointing southwesterly and directly into the blinding 8 o'clock sun. I lost sight of what the ground looked like, but I was going slow enough that I thought I could handle a pothole. Suddenly I felt the bike come out from underneath me into a low side fall. When my helmet hit the ground I noticed that it was inches away from this white car. On the ground, I saw the car stop. I also noticed that I was not under my bike. It was about 8 feet away. The car remain motionless and I got up to lift the bike up to inspect it for any damage. Then two teenage girls got out of the car and ran towards me freaking out. They were apologizing for hitting me and wanted to know if I was hurt and if they could do anything. They said they thought that they had run over me and I suspect that is why they didn't get out of the car until they saw me up off the ground. I didn't know immediately if I was injured, because there was so much adrenaline pumping through my veins. I rode off with only a bruised hip and some pain in a healing rib I had broken the month before. The bike had a broken head guard, and a few scratches on the head, the panniers, and the allen bolts that hold the windshield on. Being in a remote area of another country, I figured it would be a futile effort to get insurance information or report this incident. I imagine the girls drove away with a new respect for giving motorcyclists, or anyone for that matter, a little more room.
So the bike started up and ran fine. I made it to Lillooet and fell asleep under the Perseid meteor shower. The next morning I found a little independently owned coffee shop in the quaint town of Lillooet. I make an attempt to direct the money I place in the economy to local businesses. The next stops of Whistler and Squamish, I was looking forward to riding through and possibly spending time in. Two of my favorite hobbies are snow boarding and rock climbing. And Whistler is skiing heaven and Squamish is a climbing mecca. Upon arrival of Whistler, I filled up with gas and I rode about every paved surface there. At the ski resort I instantly was turned off by the amount of tourists walking slowly and shopping downtown. It reminded me of downtown Juneau when the cruise ships dump off loads of tourists. I realize that everyone including myself is a tourist, but I am not looking for a t-shirt. The next time I pass through Whistler, it will be in the winter to snowboard so I headed for Squamish. A mile or so out of Whistler I thought I felt something hit my right foot. I could only guess that it was a piece of mulch or debris in the road that I did not see. If I had only known. The trip to Squamish was gorgeous, like the whole of British Columbia. Coming into Squamish the towering cliffs that the town is famous for really impressed me and I decided to take a joy ride up the Squamish Valley road because I had time to kill. Besides joyriding and wanting to climb I was entertaining the idea of checking out this music festival that I kept seeing signs for. But first, it was time for lunch. I rode through downtown and asked a few people about local eateries and was given by directions by the ever-helping, friendly Canadians. I take off my riding suit and go to order lunch. The trouble is, I can not find my wallet. I searched my pants pockets and the pockets of my suit four times. Then I realize that the wallet never made it into my pants pocket. After I filled up in Whistler, I must have placed it between my pants and my riding suit through the access hole. It worked its way down my my leg, and that must have been what I felt hit my foot. I had lost a credit card, a debit card, and $400 plus other less important cards. I had no other money on me. I told my story to the girl at the counter so she would have pity on me and give me their wifi password. I spend the next hour on the internet and phone calling credit card companies and banks and trying to situate things. Thirty minutes ago this girl beside me had finished her beet salad and was looking rather bored. I asked her if she was here for the music festival and she perked up and told me the big name indie/folk bands that would be playing. They were bands that I enjoy and with my interest she asked if I were going. I told her the story and then I asked her for her half uneaten salad because I was starving. She asked me, "Why don't you just turn around and go find it?" I explained to her that as it is now, I think I have enough gas to get across the border where I know I can go to my bank and get money. I did not have enough gas to travel back to Whistler and then back to the border if I couldn't find it on the side of the road. She asked how much was a tank of gas. When I told her it was less than fifteen bucks, she offered to buy my gas so I could go find my wallet. I told her the half beet salad was enough charity and I appreciated it but she insisted. Digging through her purse, she realized she only had two loonies and gave them to me apologetically and then she left to pick up her friends for the music festival. So my options were becoming limited. I think I would have to search about three miles of roadside to look for that wallet. I don't remember exactly where I was. While I continued to do business on my phone another girl walked up and asked if my phone made free calls to the States. I told her that it did not, but she could use it if she didn't mind if I charged her for it. She declined and then I won her empathy with my story. After she used the phone, she asked how much I wanted and like a panhandler said, "Whatever you can spare." She opened her purse and dug around and could only come up with two loonies. Yep, two more loonies. Now I am up to a total of six and a half loonies. I was now confident that I had enough money to make it across the border.
From there, I made the decision to abandon the hope of finding that wallet and it was my mission to make it to the US. I cancel the cards and then ask a local business owner about the rush hour in Vancouver, BC. Rush hour apparently should be called "rush hours." Avoiding it, which I was advised to by several people, would mean waiting two and half hours. I lasted thirty minutes before I was on the road. This section of road is named The Sea to Sky Highway and it was gorgeous. I went through the high peaks of the Coast Range and then bordered the ocean. There were not many signs and very few exits. I knew I needed gas soon and I knew there should be gas stations everywhere. My plan was to get gas before the big city and also pull out my phone to get advice from the GPS on how to navigate the city and which border crossing would be best. I never saw a single sign for gas and was surprised by the instant stop of traffic outside of Vancouver. Dead still. Then stop and go. Stop and go. At least an hour of stop and go, then my gas light came on. There were few exits on this freeway and none had any indications of gas stations. I knew that once I found a station the 6.5 Loonies would get me a little more than a gallon of gas but enough to cross the border. I just didn't want to have to push the bike to a gas station. Then just as quickly as the traffic stopped, it started humming. Five lanes of traffic going 70 mph. There was a lot of road construction so the infamous sign "Motorcycles Use Caution" grabbed my attention. Uneven pavement everywhere. I moved over to the carpool lane that allows motorcycles because it was less congested. Miles of 5 lane going 70+ mph and still no sign of gas and I had no clue where I was going. Since there were no obvious exits to take I was just holding on. Then I pass under a huge sign that covered all five lanes that said "Last Exit Before Toll Road." Nooooo! There is absolutely no way I can afford a toll AND gas! I whipped it across 5 lanes of uneven pavement and congested traffic going 70mph to barely make the exit. Once off the ramp I pulled into a very industrial area and NO gas stations! But I was relieved to have pulled off that stunt. A car pulled off into the parking lot I was in and a mother and daughter were trading driving duties. I walked up to them and took off my helmet because I didn't want to look intimidating. I probably looked desperate. I asked where the closest gas station was and they did not know. Then I asked where the closest border crossing was and they replied, "Oh, that's easy. Just get on the toll road and go to exit 30." Noooo! I probably should have asked for money. I asked if there was another way and they said, "Not really." Then I asked how much the toll was. They replied, "Oh, you are from the US. You won't have to pay. It's only for Canadians." Yayyyy! So I hopped on the toll road and went to the exit for the border crossing. At that exit, instead of an industrial area it was entirely farmland. I rode through dairy land and wondered if I was going to have to push this thing. Fortunately, there was a gas station just a few miles before the border. I proudly slapped my 6.5 Loonies on the counter in exchange for my gallon of gas and took a sigh of relief.
That evening I pulled into Bellingham, Washington and met my buddy Dave. He said he would have happily launched a "Rescue Mission," as he called it, if need be. He bought me dinner and a few beers and then took me to the bank the next morning. I'm thankful that I was in Canada and not some other place like Colombia. The next morning I dropped the bike off at BMW of Seattle for annual maintenance, a USB port install, phone holder install, and the head guard replaced. During the maintenance and repairs, my old friend Rob picked me up and we had lunch. When he dropped me off back at the shop, the mechanic mentioned that a taillight was out and that might have been the reason for the sporadic turn signals the first day off the ferry. They said the bike was in fine shape and that gave me peace of mind. I stored the bike with my friend, Emily in Seattle. We went out for dinner with her friend, Martina. The next morning I flew back to Alaska and worked for a month.