Updated: 20 hours ago
I could tell the bike was loaded heavily as I prepared to kick it to life on the gravel driveway in front of the house. The engine popped and rumbled briefly on the first try, and then silence. Another kick and it almost tipped over with the unfamiliar, top-heavy weight of the added baggage. The familiar bop bop bop of the big single-cylinder engine, now running steadily, made me smile. This was the first time I'd ever taken a bike on an adventure such as this. I was both nervous and excited at the thought of the many hundreds of kilometers of open road that lay in front of me.
I've ridden bikes since I was young. In a time and place where parents thought more along the lines of survival of the fittest and, "we have two more if this one doesn't make it". A time and place when laws about driving on roads at a certain age and with appropriate legal vehicles were more guidelines to be acquainted with rather than steadfast lawful arrangements.
My first and second motorbikes, a Yamaha DT100, and then Dad's Honda XR200, made many miles along dusty gravel roads and neighbouring fields of stubble and dirt. Spring, Summer, Fall, and even Winter, it didn't matter. Ice and snow were simple challenges to staying upright, nothing more. This is where I learned to ride, those endless summer days around our farm. Drifting around corners of gravel and sand. Hang times that seemed to defy gravity on the big jumps. Hour after hour of exploring and launching and going way too fast. I am so grateful that I had this chance. I was so free back then. Bugs in my eyes, bruises, scrapes, and cuts from the days' jumps and wheelies and subsequent wipeouts. Those were grand days.
This day though, many decades later, as I motored wobbly down the loose gravel of our driveway, I was driving a similar vintage bike. A 1979 Suzuki GN400. Not a regular Suzuki street bike though, this bike, since I bought it as a project, has changed. A lot. It no longer resembles the street bike that came from the factory in any way whatsoever. The tires are off-road and knobby. The tank is an old '70s Honda fuel tank because the original was too rusted and dented to bother trying to save. The electrical is new, the suspension is raised and refurbished with BMW rear shocks that were the perfect height and resistance for this build. The seat and frame were chopped and re-welded into a configuration that made it better for hauling saddle bags and strapping fishing gear to a luggage rack. All of the original dash gauges and dials and fairings have been deleted. This bike is built for adventure, for getting into weird places, and it does just that, very well indeed. It has taken me several years to get the bike into this current condition. I ride it back and forth to town for errands and hauled it up to bear camp for an episode of From the Wild one year not long ago.
For this most current trip, the plan was to meet Kevin, Mel, and May near Bragg Creek on Saturday afternoon. I was leaving on a Friday to give myself plenty of time. We were to meet in the parking lot at the trailhead and then spend the next four days hiking fifty-five kilometers into Tombstone Lake and back. A fly fishing trip with a purpose to record both From the Wild and Food Afield Podcast episodes.
At this point, however, I had no idea how far I could even ride on the crowded bike. With all of the gear and packs strapped to the back, I was basically sitting on the gas tank! It wasn't completely comfortable, and I didn't know if I could drive for an hour, or all day, before it got painful and I had to stop for a break. The other unknown factor in this journey was fuel. Without a fuel gauge, I didn't know how far I could travel before the tank was dry. It turns out that this wasn't a problem at all. By the time I travelled every one hundred and twenty kilometers or so, I would need a break and a gas station was always close by. Because I know you are curious, the most I ever spent on fuel was $9, and those are the July 2022 gasoline prices!
There are things, good and bad, that come up while driving a bike long distances. Things I had never considered before. Weather is a thing. As I left the farm, I had 421 km to go before I got to our meeting place at the trailhead. A whole bunch of weather can occur in that distance. The skies were clear and it was a hot Summer afternoon as I left Sturgeon County. However, at about the two hundred and fifty-kilometer mark, a huge thunderstorm loomed in the distance, right in the path of the highway I was on. I could hear the thunder over the roar of the engine and through the wind in my helmet. I pulled off the highway and ducked through the ditch and tall grass to get under a nearby bridge that spanned the Clearwater River. Checking my phone, I could see that the storm would cross well ahead of me. I would just wait there for an hour or so and then continue on my journey.
The storm passed, and only a small spattering of rain fell anywhere near me. The highway ahead though was steaming and puddled. Mist from my tires wetted my boots and pant legs and felt cool. It was getting later in the afternoon now, so I decided to stop in at a little motel in the next town. I would grab some supper at the diner nearby and then watch a movie and get to bed early. Good plan. The movie was "Always", one of my favourites. I slept well.
The good things that come from motorcycle travel are interesting. For one thing, I wasn't expecting all of the smells. Different scents were everywhere and occurred nearly constantly as I sped across the prairies. Someone mowing grass, cutting hay, a canola field in bloom, or a campfire. Someone had just spread cedar wood chips in their yard. Lovely. Then, usually when I was comfortable and relaxed, a bee or other large insect would smack me in the cheek at one hundred kilometers per hour and all of the loveliness disappeared.
Actually, the odd insect didn't bother me too much. It was only when two or three hit me in quick succession that I would yell out some form of profanity. A large insect hitting your face at high speed hurts, man! Another interesting issue with bike travel is that the kilometers, and time that it takes to cover them, don't seem to follow the same relativity that occurs in a car. The wind and smells and bee smacks, along with dodging the ribbons of sloppy goo that fill the asphalt cracks seem to make time go by faster. Four hours in a car seem like six without all the action involved in biking. Those same hours go by faster on the bike. Again, lovely.
The next day, Saturday morning, I leisurely woke, made some lousy motel coffee, showered, and began loading up the bike. I was refreshed and happy and I only had two and a half hours to travel to get to the designated meeting spot in the mountains. May, Mel, and Kevin would be there in 4 or 5 hours.
As I was cinching the luggage onto the bike in front of my room, two men approached me, smiles on their faces. This was my first encounter with another great aspect of motorcycle travel, especially on a vintage bike. They wanted to see the bike. They wanted to hear about the bike and ask questions, and most of all they wanted to listen to it as I drove off. From that point on, at pretty much every place I stopped, folks would come over, introduce themselves, and ask if they could take a picture of me and the bike. It was joyful to meet so many people and share some fun with them. My record for photos at one stop was four, at the Bragg Creek Shell station on a Saturday afternoon. The next time I make this trip, I'll be loaded up with Food Afield stickers to hand out!
Shortly after leaving the motel, however, the adventure took a sudden turn. After I finished filling the gas tank in Sundre, perhaps forty-five minutes down the road from the motel, I kicked down on the Kickstarter. It gave way sharply and fell to the ground! It was a very hot day by now, and in full, protective bike apparel, all I could do was strip down and push the bike into the shade offered by a nearby building to assess the damage. The metal on the kick lever had broken. Almost half of the circle of steel that slid onto the engine shaft was gone. I fit it back on with the help of a parking lot rock. Enough of the fitting grabbed onto the shaft that I could manage to get it started. That was the second last time I ever used that kick starter.
After our 4 day hike into Tombstone Lake and back, the bike had to be push-started in the parking lot. A few folks there were entertained mildly as Kevin and I ran as fast as we could, the bike held in front of us. I gripped the clutch tightly with the old Suzuki in second gear, hopped on, and released the clutch as I "bumped" down onto the seat. Nothing but a skidding tire. After a couple of tries of this, the engine suddenly burst to life. Luckily, this was the predominant way that I started my bike as a kid. From the garage, I would roll down the farm driveway towards the county road. Any other nearby hill would work if I was somewhere other than the house. I was so small and light that it was really difficult to kick down hard enough to get the two hundred cc engine started back then. But bump-starting was easy, second gear, pop the clutch, hit the gas, and go! Old times.
The entire trip after that point was spent bump-starting the motor. Each time I had to stop for whatever reason, I was cognizant of any nearby elevations that could help me establish some momentum to get restarted. Luckily, at the camp of our second stop on the fly fishing adventure, there was a good hill that rolled down into the campsite. That start, after a few days of fishing, was relatively easy although it still took a couple of tries and a good push from Kevin.
At one point, approximately three-quarters of the way home, knowing that I would be getting low on oil (faulty breather tube) I stopped on the edge of a large hill. I had decided from the start to be sure to take all of the secondary highways for the entire trip. I wanted to avoid traffic and the constant pressure to be at the speed limit. The highway here had no shoulder to speak of, but nobody was coming in either direction, and I felt I had time to shut the engine off and get some oil into the gearbox. I finished adding oil and got myself re-dressed. Gloves, helmet, jacket, second gear...start pushing. The hill quickly took over and I felt confident that I could jump on and let gravity take control. As I vaulted over the packs of luggage to mount the bike, my leg caught on a waterproof bag. I lost my balance and fell. The bike fell one way, towards the ditch. I rolled the other, out into the lane of traffic. And yes, by now there was traffic. I wasn't really in danger. I'm making it sound worse than it was. But I began laughing. Laughing hard enough that it made it difficult to pick the bike up. Cars and trucks were now roaring past (thanks for the concern and even a moderate slow down...not). I was trying in vain to pick up my bike and gear and get things straightened out. I finally managed to get back into the seat, sweaty, oil-stained, and now covered in dust and road debris, the bike and I rolled down the hill, upright this time. The clutch let go and the engine roared back to life. I began to laugh again.
The last two hours of the trip home went according to plan. As I crunched back up the gravelly driveway of our farm Cindy met me and almost immediately began to laugh.
She had her phone out of course. My Son Garreth came out of the house too. The rumble of the bike alerted everyone to my arrival. Cindy snapped her photo and Garreth told me I looked like Davey Jones from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. All was right with the world and I was home. A very successful trip in every measurable way. It was only at this point in the trip that I relaxed. I didn't have to concern myself with breakdowns, or oil and gas. I wasn't worried about my driving ability, or other people's driving abilities. I made it!
Travelling on a vintage bike is fun, but in a more intense respect. This will not be my last adventure on this bike. It's struck a chord with me. It made me feel like I was a kid again, at least a little bit. But most of all, it forced me to live by my wits for a few days. I had no assets in my mode of travel except my experience, my knowledge of something that I built with my own two hands. My memories of activities earlier in my life. It isn't really a big deal I suppose, but the fact remains that my life is a little more fulfilled having made this journey on this bike.
I am already longing for another one hundred kilometer per hour grasshopper smack to the face.
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