Most of our friends and family reading this blog will, by now, understand the lack of updates. Speaking to my mother on Monday 13th, from Cranbrook, BC, it became evident that she was extremely unwell. Our group having begun to split up, John and I made an immediate decision to cut our trip short, possibly flying back from Detroit instead of Halifax. As it happened, I received a call on Wednesday morning, telling me that Mum was dangerously ill and had been readmitted to hospital in a critical condition. We flew home on Friday from Chicago to be with her.
Holiday memories are apt to fade all too quickly. Even more so, in circumstances such as these. Sitting on my 81-year old mother-in-law’s sofa in Coulsdon on Saturday evening, watching a Kevin Costner movie with a glass of wine, I began to mull over the last days of our trip. The film was set in Alaska. Our hero is having some communication issues
Me (having had a little too much to drink): The trip was tough. Alaska is not that easy to conquer.
Betty: I was not ever that much of a fan.
Betty: Michael Jackson. I never really liked his music.
Me: No. Alaska. It’s not that easy to conquer. A lot of us didn’t get there.
Betty: I mean, lots of people like him. But I never really saw the point.
Me: On a motorcycle, I mean.
Betty: Oh, yes. Of course . Oh, I’ve just remembered, I’ve got someone coming to service the gas boiler on Tuesday
Since leaving Kelowna, we had been assuming that George’s Alaskan crew were still on schedule, so it was a relief when I called the hotel in Watson Lake to find they were still booked in. With all the delay and disappointment, it would be good to ride with friends again for a few days, and we were glad to see a few familiar bikes in the Belvedere’s parking lot.
George and Annie greeted us like prodigal children returning to the fold, and tables were hastily pushed together in the dining room so that we could join them for dinner. “Them” being George and Annie, Jenny and Nelson, Jo and Cathy, and John Stoughton. The others had apparently been delayed on the road. However, it quickly became evident that there was a little more to their absence than George was letting on An incident the previous day had pushed the already tired and stressed group to breaking point, effectively bringing about a mutiny.
As if in confirmation, George approached me the following morning to ask which group we would be riding with. To have altered our plans in order to catch up, only to be forced to pick sides, seemed unfair. But there it was. The road from Watson Lake to Dease Lake is notorious: unmarked, uneven and partially unsurfaced. Received wisdom suggested that riding the Cassiar Highway as part of a large group might be hazardous. And, since George’s group was notably smaller than the breakaway faction, we chose to ride with them. In the event, the Cassiar was as about as savage as MGM’s toothless lion.
Dinner at Dease Lake was a protracted affair. The food was mediocre and overpriced, and the service, appalling. So, after a congenial evening of beer and bike washing, we left early the next day to seek breakfast elsewhere with the mutineers: Willie, Jim, Chris and Flo, Bill, Greg, Julie and Johnny Higgins.
With no deliberate decision on our part, the pattern was now set for the rest of the week. There being no published itinerary to adhere to, we got up late and ate breakfast when and where we chose to. We exceeded speed limits, stopped whenever someone saw a bear, or suggested a point of interest, for a Kodak moment or just for a fag break. And, when we arrived at our destination, we stayed up late, drank (too much), played pool, laughed (a lot), and generally had a good time. We were, after all, on holiday.
It was not that we didn’t regret what had happened. Our conversations revolved around little else: what might have been or how we would have done things differently. We tried to organise a group dinner at Prince George but, by that time, too much water had passed under the bridge. Our leader was reportedly heartbroken that we didn’t want to ride with him. Unfortunately, it never occurred to him to ask himself “why?” .
The fact was that, having been on the road for over three weeks since leaving Chicago, the whole group was exhausted. Leaving behind the heat of the desert in California, no one needed 6am starts or 5pm dinners. Perhaps the worst crime of all, was the rigid adherance to a daily timetable to which no one else had any input. There was simply no time for relaxation, sight-seeing or technical issues. Deviate from the schedule for any reason, and you were on your own.
Much as George wanted to keep the group together, that has never been the ethos of the Mother Road Rally, for which he acted as Rallymaster for the first time this year, and from whence the Alaska ride originated. In our experience, one of the nicest aspects of that 2,448-mile ride, was the tendancy for the main body of riders to disperse into smaller groups over the course of the week. The trip is never without problems. People regularly have flat tyres, oil leaks and flat batteries. They take detours, run out of fuel, drop their bikes and lose their wallets. Sometimes, this year in particular, they hurt themselves. Always, they can count on the support of the friends they make on the road and, despite the Rally’s disclaimer, no one is ever left behind.
Non-biking friends often fail to understand the appeal of a motorcycle road trip. To them it is all dirt, discomfort and black leather. An attempt to recapture one’s youth: a poor man’s answer to the mid-life crisis. But those people forget that a trip of this length is not lightly undertaken and is never cheap. Add together to cost of a full spec touring motorcycle, fuel, lodging, subsistence and, for us Europeans, travel, and you could probably buy yourself an off-peak timeshare on the Costa Brava. Hence, every one of our travelling companions on this trip comes from a professional background of one sort or another. And, since Americans are almost unique in having no statutory right to paid holiday, they either need to be retired or in a position to dictate their own leave.
None of us are children. When things go wrong, we manage. It’s what we do, or have done, every day of our working lives. It would be arrogance to assume otherwise.