My Missoula Trip: leaning the bike and forced zen.

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LAST SEPTEMBER I took a motorcycle trip to Montana.  The trip was set in motion by a couple of friends from work who ride bikes, and they’re particularly fond of one stretch of road just outside Missoula.  They left on the Wednesday, and I, still not committed to going at that point, said I’d try to make it out on the Thursday or Friday.  Between lots of races in June and July, and between spending most of the summer in Kelowna with my Mom, I hadn’t had a single weekend to myself.

Indeed, the bike trip sounded kind of exhausting.  While Jim and Andrew could put their bikes in the back of Jim’s truck and drive to Missoula, I would have to ride my bike down on my own, and back again.  So, I kind of wanted to stay in Calgary and just do nothing for a change.  But, with summer winding down, and the fact I really hadn’t spent much time on the new bike, and the fact I think part of me just needed to get away from everything, I decided late on the Thursday night that I would go.

I had some last-minute things to do for work on Friday morning, so I didn’t get on the road until just after 1 p.m.  Google Maps gave me three different options for getting to Missoula, all of which were stated to take just over 7 hours.  Rather than huff exhuast fumes on a straight, four-lane interstate, I decided to head down by Waterton and take the “Going to the Sun Road”, a toll highway through Glacier National Park which, based on the website photos, looked breathtaking.

The problem is, on a bike you don’t really have the luxury of looking at a map or a list of directions on the fly, and my route involved several different highways.  So I ended up stopping, frequently, to check my route on my iPhone.  As it was a beautiful day, I also ended up stopping simply to take in the glorious scenery.

Evernote Camera Roll 20130928 205203The Going to the Sun Road is beautiful, as you climb your way up and over a steep pass on a narrow two-lane carved into the side of the mountains.   However, by the time I was coming off that road, it was dusk.  I looked at the time — just before 8 p.m. — and thought to myself, “Man, I gotta be getting close to Missoula by now.”  Then I hit the bat.  I was going about 80 km/h, high trees on both sides, when in my headlights I saw the telltale erratic flight pattern of a bat.  Poor little guy zigged, then zagged, then bounced off my helmet with a decisive thud.

That should have been my cue to stop, but I reasoned that, because I was so close (so I figured), I’d just press on a bit longer and be super vigilant.  I got into Kalispell, Montana, around 9 p.m.  I had been on my bike for the greater part of 8 hours.  I was starting to get pretty cold, I was physically and mentally tired, and I could hardly see through my visor, which was now a canvass of guts and limbs and juice, an unfortunate ground zero for all sorts of crepuscular ambitions.

I checked Google Maps on my iPhone:  Kalispell to Missoula:  2 hours, 27 minutes.  “What the fuck?” I muttered.  Still?  I thought about finding a place to stay in Kalispell.  Instead, I stopped at a gas station, filled the tank, inhaled a bag of chips, and downed a Redbull.  I assumed — quite wrongly — that I was out of deer country, I assumed that the rest of the way would be a two-lane divided highway.

A short distance outside Kalispell, the largely straight highway comes to Flathead Lake, at which point it starts to wend its way up and down the hills that flank the lake’s shores.  Once again I was in the trees, and it wasn’t long before I passed a road sign that indicated “Deer X-ing”, underneath which was a smaller sign that indicated “30 Miles”.  Well that’s just awesome, I thought, and slowed down a bit.  There was no place to stop, so I kept the high beams on as much as I could, and again reminded myself to keep my eyes up.

About 15 minutes later, I found myself about 100 metres behind a car, the only vehicle I’d seen for miles.  I took my highbeams off and figured I would just follow the car at that distance for a while.  Well, about 20 seconds later a deer jumped onto the highway and into my lane right after the car passed, obscured in the dark space between the rear of the car and where my low beams trailed off.

And you know what?  Deer really do seem fuckin’ stupid.  As soon as I saw it, I squeezed the brakes, shed speed, and attempted to swerve.  The deer figured the safest place to stay would be within the light, so wherever my beam pointed, it jumped.  I swerved left, deer jumped left; I swerved right, deer jumped right.  I had no choice but to straighten the bike out after that — I was decelerating very rapidly — at which point the deer stood motionless in front of me.

All of this happened within seconds, yet at the end of it, as I closed in on the animal, I still went through this entire narrative in my mind:  ‘I am going to hit this deer, on my motorcycle, which I just bought, and I’m going to go down, and the bike’s gonna get damaged, and some form of EMS is going to be involved, and I’m going to have to call my friends in Missoula and tell them what happened, and my trip is over.’

Literally a foot away from my front tire, the deer jumped to the left and out of my path, the sound of hooves clacking on the concrete audible through my helmet.  “FUCK!” I yelled, as much to the deer as to myself for nearly having hit it.  The car ahead must have seen my headlight dancing in the rearview mirror, as its brake lights came on for a good ten seconds before pulling away.

Now awash in both synthetic and natural stimulants, I was lit up like a Vegas casino:  DING DING DING, you’re not tired now, Ari!  About a mile further down the road, I came upon a large red stain in the middle of the lane, and a fresh trail of blood leading off the highway, evidence of an earlier impact in which some other animal either dragged itself off the road, or was hauled off for safety or dinner reasons.  So, between the “Deer X-ing” sign, the deer I almost plowed, and now this, I figured it was only a matter of time until I saw more.  As I rolled on, I had a strange image of deer and other wildlife waltzing on the highway to classical music, like a scene from Fantasia.

I trundled along at parade speed for a minute or so, and contemplated stopping, but there was nowhere to stop.  The only light came from the moon and my headlight, and I figured the greater danger lay in I cooling my heels on the narrow shoulder.  And what was I going to do?  Wait until dawn?  So I pressed on, and eventually got to the town of Polson, at the south end of the Lake, beyond which the highway widened and the trees gave way to farmland.  I exhaled, kept riding.  A little over an hour later I arrived in Missoula, no further encounters with deer.  It was 11:30 p.m.

I checked in at the hotel, and texted my friends.  They were still up, and told me to come to their room for a beer.  I dropped my stuff off at my room, and headed over.  Andrew handed me a beer, and I told them what happened.  I’m guessing I looked kind of like Jesse Pinkman in Season 5, ’cause in the middle of my story, Andrew got up, went to his room, came back out, and threw a jacket on me.  I realized I was shivering.

Once I settled down, they told me about the road they’d been riding for the past two days, the same road I would ride with them the next day — Highway 12, from the town of Lolo just south of Missoula, southwest across the border into Idaho.  Jim was positively giddy while explaining it:  “Ari, you’re going to get like a year’s worth of experience tomorrow.  More curves under your belt in one day than you’d get in an entire season in Calgary.  It’s so awesome!”

I had a hard time appreciating what Jim was saying.  I thought, ‘Jeez, riding is riding.  How good can it be?

One word:  Glorious.

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Curve.  After curve.  After curve.  Some of the curves were so long you felt like you were about to ride back into the road you just came from.  And so very few vehicles.  In that environment you really can begin putting what you’ve read on paper onto pavement; you can start ingraining the right muscle memory so you become a better, safer rider; and you can learn how to unlock the extensive R&D that went into your bike.

You see, back in January, right after I looked at the Speed Triple in the dealership, I met up with Jim and Andrew for a couple of beer and to talk about bikes.  We covered a lot of ground — from the way riding a bike is one of the closest feelings you’ll get to flying a fighter jet, to how calming and zen-like it is when all your focus is, by necessity, directed to the task at hand.  This was far different from the Peaceful Easy Feeling style of riding to which I was accustomed.

For instance, one thing that stood out for me, and one thing we’ve discussed many times since, is how “survival reactions” can mean the difference between making a turn, versus winding up stuck on an oncoming semi’s bumper like Wile E. Coyote.

I’d say about 80% of my job is spent trying to minimize risk for my clients.  Kind of makes sense to apply it to my own life as well, especially when you do the kinds of things I like to do.  So I took the basic motorcycle course this year, even though I’ve had my class 6 license for longer than some of my friends have been alive; I read through a number of manuals on basic and advanced riding; I spent $2000 on protective gear; and, from the very first time I took that extremely torquey, 1050cc Triumph on the street, I have ridden within my limits.

And when you encounter a road like Highway 12, you realize that everything you’ve learned (and all the gear you’ve bought) has a specific reason and purpose.

And that’s the thing — the bike can do WAY more than you think it can do, which brings me back to survival reactions.

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(from A Twist of the Wrist, by Keith Code)

By way of experience and training, the goal is twofold:  (i) reduce the number of situations where you find yourself having a survival reaction (and it’s almost always caused by you, the rider), and (ii) know how to handle those reactions when they occur.

Highway 12 is the perfect venue to work on this.  Andrew and I decided to hit the road first, as Jim was waiting for one of his friends riding down from Fernie that morning.  A little way past the turnoff at Lolo, we approached the first set of “twisties”.  I had no intention of keeping pace with Andrew — nor could I — and he was gone and out of sight before I entered the first corner.  Nevertheless, even at my speed, I felt a twinge of fear when I leaned into the turn.

It’s nothing the bike couldn’t handle — the bike could go in at three times that speed, or more.  The limiter was I.  Although I picked a good line, kept my eyes up, and set my speed before entering the curve, the sensation of leaning just a bit more than I’m used to caused me to want to tense up and roll off the gas.  In most situations, it’s critical you don’t do that.

Evernote Camera Roll 20130929 131411After a few more turns, that feeling of unease started to subside.  And after half an hour, it felt like I had levelled up.  That’s the beauty of a road like Highway 12.  If you have a panic reaction, however slight, on a curve somewhere on the roads outside Calgary — well, if it’s the only curve for miles, you’re basically conditioning yourself to have the same reaction every time you encounter one.  On Highway 12 I was able to apply my skills over and over and over.

Near the end of that road, I was in bliss — at ease with my bike, riding within my ability, and positively exhilarated.

Our turnaround point was “Ryan’s Wilderness Inn”, 90 or so miles past Lolo.  Andrew and I went in for a burger, and to chill for a while to see if Jim and his friend would show up.

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(as a matter of fact, he DOES speak jive)

The establishment was classic roadside diner, with a generous dose of rustic for good measure.  There were a dozen or so tables set against the windows and down the center of the room, and there was a long counter at the back with barstool seating, behind which a friendly old server held court.   On one wall there was a large map with thumbtacks in various concentrations across the continents, and on the other walls there were all sorts of sportsman paraphernalia, as well as a virtual wildlife reserve.

I found it all quite inviting and quaint, but what was most significant for me about Ryan’s Wilderness Inn’s decor was the old-style menu board on the wall advertising pie, and the solitary calendar directly beneath it.

Evernote Camera Roll 20131011 155403You see, a number of years ago I read a magnificent book, Blue Highways, by William Least-Heat Moon.  (By way of background, his father is Heat Moon, his elder brother is Little-Heat Moon, and so it follows that he should be Least-Heat Moon.)  Least-Heat Moon, an Osage Indian, wrote the book after separating from his wife, losing his teaching job, and taking his van on a 13,000 mile road trip across America’s secondary highways, which were marked in blue on old Rand McNally road atlases, hence the name.

There are many memorable passages in the book, but one anecdote I remember quite fondly because it addresses in detail something I hold dear — food:

“There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America:  count the wall calendars in a cafe.

No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can’t miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they’ll franchise.

One time I found a six calendar cafe in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts, that left me searching for another ever since.  I’ve never seen a seven-calendar place.  But old-time travelers — road men in a day when cars had running boards and lunchroom windows said AIR COOLED in blue letters with icicles dripping from the tops — those travelers have told me the golden legends of seven-calendar cafes.”

Over the years I’ve often fantisized about rolling into a 7-calendar cafe on some lost highway, but up until Ryan’s Wilderness Inn I hadn’t even encountered a one-calendar cafe.  Well, here was my chance to test Least-Heat Moon’s theory.  Andrew and I both ordered the coconut pie, as our server indicated it had been prepared just the day before.

Now, I’ve had a lot of pie in my time, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about the subject.  Well, after my first bite of the coconut cream, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

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It was as if the pastry chef had stepped up to the plate, looked out at a crowd of thousands, pointed toward the heavens, and said, “There.”  I looked at Andrew, my mouth still full, and mumbled, “This good fuckin’ pie!”  Maybe a one-calendar cafe, with a huge menagerie of taxidermied beasts on the wall, deserves its own category.

So, anyway, one half of our day trip in the books, and Least-Heat Moon’s theory having been challenged by a small diner 100 miles southwest of Missoula, Andrew, Jim, Cal and I geared up and then headed back toward Lolo.  They of course disappeared out of sight pretty early on, and I was on my own.

The rest of the way back I continued to work on my turns, take in my surroundings, and just be.  I’ve never been able to get into Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I’m guessing somewhere in that book Pirsig sermonizes about the purgative effect of motorcycle riding.  If you want to stay alive, you have to stay present, in the now, as the saying goes.  Sure, to a certain extent it’s unavoidable, and in some cases probably a good thing, to reflect on things in your life while you’re cruising down a long, straight, stretch of highway.  But, when you’re in the turns, going around corners at speed, you need to stay focused.  It’s kind of like a forced zen, not unlike how I’ve felt when I’ve gone skydiving, and all the issues that normally occupy your mental RAM are pushed out for as long as you’re on the bike.  You finish your ride and it’s as if you’ve just done a hard reset, and it takes a while for all that clutter to re-install.  And that’s what I needed.  That was what probably got me to finally commit to going in the first place–the promise of getting away and clearing house.

Evernote Camera Roll 20131016 122901I woke up early on the Sunday, geared up, and headed back to Calgary.  After two days of heavy riding, I felt much more relaxed on the bike and fluid on the road.  As well, there was very little traffic, and I made a couple of adjustments to my route.  So, whereas it took me 10.5 hours to get to Missoula, it only took me seven hours to get home, and I still had time to stop in Glacier National Park.

In exactly 50 hours I had put 1,700 kilometres on the new bike.  I was physically exhausted, but mentally tabula rasa.  2013 has been a heavyweight as far as emotional challenges go, and I was able to decouple from it all for a weekend.

Unfortunately, it looks like riding season is just about done for the year.  However, there’s a superbike school in Las Vegas every couple of months, where you spend two full days on the track riding their BMW S1000RRs.  I think that may be a good mid-winter trip to work on leaning the bike over and practicing some forced zen.

One thought on “My Missoula Trip: leaning the bike and forced zen.”

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