Coming Home (August 13, 1997)

Supérieur — The French named it: the highest, farthest, deepest, oldest of the Greats: we know the lore. The mind may help or hinder, sometimes better be bypassed. The afternoon sun reflects from the waves: that’s surface play. The great body beside me has its deeper resonance beneath. And I mine, if I find it, though I hope I’ll respond no matter what I think. The highway north is clear of other traffic, and I’m free to find my pace, play the music the Wing makes best. You can guess: riding a motorcycle in traffic is like trying to practice a musical instrument in a crowded neighborhood. I’m not talking speed, but agreeable sound and motion.

Moose-crossing warnings on yellow road signs: no joke, the big guys in black silhouette. Soon, in conversation with the courteous Mountie, she improves my appreciation. I’m convinced.

The remote gas station is out of gas, but the owner pours me a slug from a can, and I make it to the Rabbit Blanket Lake campground, where I clamber down to the Lake in twilight, watching for the moose to appear and step into the water, but he disdains the placemat picture.

Morning, an arrogant chipmunk, dandy in speckles and pinstripes, systematically searches my site, running through my feet, not even pretending timidity. Do not feed: you’re on your own, sport. And stay out of my tent, Cheeks, or I’ll wrap and toast you on a stick.

Drizzle falls, and while making a slow U-turn in town, to park, my boot slips, and I can’t keep the Wing from going slowly down on its Samsonite saddlebag, too heavy to lift. It’s Sunday; no one’s about, and I wait sometime for a hand. A bad augury, for I have to ride. Even on its side, the bike looks impressive, like an orca on a sofa watching sports on TV.

I’m in Gore-Tex, the day’s road is a long distance through forest. The drizzle continues, the sky is light and dark gray, same for the occasional lakes and the road surface. I’m very careful, the few passing cars are polite. The forest is gray on green. I conclude I don’t need prettiness, something real here speaks.

In Marathon, an industrial town of Superior’s north shore, I dry off in a motel, at a posh price, which I find I can’t beat. Why? What industry? Three gold mines. The burly guest at the desk is speaking a heavy accent which, let’s guess, is Afrikaans. There’s an airport on the other side of the road. The maid says the mines spread good-paying summer jobs among the kids, her own contract’s over.

Next day, weather fine, the Lake is there. On the motorcycle, in private of course, I have what I term Indian calls, sounds from the gut raised into pattern, intended to evoke, perhaps, alertness or courage, or express, perhaps, appreciation, empathy, union. The sun is out. The shore is wide, the sea is vast, and it comes out of me like this: Oh, yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo; Oh, wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa! (Repeat.! Just like that, a high and a low note, a glossolation of full joy, but without the hyphens. Oh, seven, oh seven. Oh, seven; oh, seven. Try it in the shower, softly , don’t burst the walls.

At Thunder Bay, kindly Mrs. McGuire sees me searching the residential shore for a spot from which to have a last look without bothering the neighbors, invites me to the waterfront of her lovely small house, tells me what I need to know: Yes, the boom of thunder echoes around in the maw of the Bay, that’s why the name, Thunder Bay. I’d hoped as much.

Lake Wabigoon (yes), Dryden, Ontario. — Great luck, I’m on a narrow spit of land with only four tent sites, extending north into this pure lake, so that after a glorious Canadian lakeland sunset, I simply roll over for a glorious Canadian lakeland sunrise.

Why should I even think of leaving? Because time will be tightening, and I want to push as far west as I can before cutting south and home. We should expand the sense of possibilities, eh?

Winnipeg, Manitoba. — The paint is quite dry, but the sign says, WET PAINT, so I’ve got the bench to myself in the English Garden of Assiniboine Park, where I’m settled for dalliance with words and flowers. But the sky’s getting heavy and what’s dry will shortly be wet. I have to move fast, westward, and hope to beat the storm.

I’ve previously mentioned the results on the Manitoba plain, where there’s zero to get under or hang on to: simultaneous darkness, lightning, wind, and rain leaving no choice but to stand in it, holding the bike from being heaved over, until the storm subsides enough so I can ride. Fortunately, I’ve got the rain gear, and the water isn’t too cold.

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. — Next time I ride with a bike on the prairie will be inside a boxcar of a railroad train, with a pile of hay and a VCR. I’ve been yawing for hours in a gauntlet of invisible boxing gloves and big fast spits of wind. Tranquillity, says a picture postcard. Wind, rain or snow, says the campground lady, cheerfully. Could be worse, without the line of telephone poles as a windbreak. If I were a landscape artist here, I’d sell by the yard, cutting line to suit.

Moose Jaw, as one might wish, looks a rugged town, defiant old bricks. There’s a First Annual Writers’ Bash taking place. I’d hoped to look in, but a pitter-patter on the tent this morning sent me moving fast, into another long downpour, fortunately without much wind. And because this road requires only that I roll forward along a straight line, I’ll prefer this rain instead of getting smacked side to side. So let’s hoist one for the Moose Jaw Writers, from afar this year.

Calgary, Alberta. — Two lines converge at a point on the horizon, just beneath the tip of a speck: that’s Calgary. All you have to do is stay between the lines and keep the motor running for four hours, and be prepared to brake when the speck suddenly becomes huge.

The towers of Calgary are beautiful. And soon after, along the horizon, there they are: the Canadian Rockies. They are the horizon.

Banff, Alberta. — Seems a difference between the Colorado and Canadian Rockies is that the former are massed, and you are on them, while the latter have wide valleys, and you’re in them, and can see one jaw-gaping mountain after another.

At the Banff Park entrance I’m waved through without fee because (I’ve decided) I’m cruising on to Van, as we call it up here. I anticipate tourist congestion in Banff town, and among the shops on Main Street people are waiting in lines to get into lines. But the City Park has nothing to sell, and people are dispersed comfortably on the grass among the trees, in the bend of a lucent green river waterbrushed naively almost to grass level, under blue mountains.

I’m at a picnic table, assembling notes. Before me on the green are three spirited women, volleying French. I think I need to ask whether lac, as in lake, is la, or le, and I learn it’s neither; it’s lr. The merriest one has the voice of a cello, mezzo-French. An arrow to the heart! I resume writing in an awful hand with scratchouts on lined paper, she is writing on blank pages, bound, with gold stampings.

I must invite them to sample the grapes of California’s fabulous Nomanapacino, introducing them to the viticulture editors of the AVA, get them on Marco McLean’s world literature radio review. But when I conclude my piece with its final, perfectly formed period, they’re gone. An ouch to remember.

Lake Louise, British Columbia. — Having missed the road not taken, which should have been through the Bow Valley, I’m playing serious checkers for 40 miles with a green automobile carrier, can’t get out of heavy traffic on Hwy 1, with three slowdowns for road repairs, during which I am able to see some Rockies up there. Paradise a bit lost. I’d better pull off for a glance at this Lake Louise, whose name sounds familiar.

A road up through the trees, kids with backpacks hitchhiking up; a spectacular mountain, and in the pure scenery, a skyscraping hotel, of astonishing but gracious structure, the Chateau. Approaching my muddy motorcycle is a businesslike young woman in white blouse and black knickers. I’m realizing I’m at a world-caliber destination.

Is there, ah, a lake somewhere? She’s very helpful. Right behind the hotel, just leave your bike behind that white car near the entrance, feel free to look about.

Rounding the corner, a matchless sight: among the high mountains, a sapphire in the snow. Well, snow up there, tourists in shorts down here, walking the perimeter. A few canoes on the lake: I see that’s the way to do it, when I’ll have more time for the timeless. A musician with alpine horn plays “Amazing Grace.” He’s in costume, and it’s a show, but either it works or it doesn’t, and it does. The slow notes float in the hall of these mountains, and people close and distant watch and hear.

At the young woman’s suggest, I chat with the black-knickered Bell Captain, who advises me on routes to Vancouver, and recommends a nearby Provincial Tentground. He rode his motorcycle down the west coast, happily remembers stopping for coffee in Mendocino. He’s generous with his time, so — sorry, I didn’t ask where.

Bear Claw, No Coffee. — The recommended tentground near Lake Louise is full, but 14 km back is an unimproved Provincial Ground, where I note without question that the park personnel do not wear uniforms. I happily pitch my tent apart from others, and am handed printed advice on fighting bears. Black bears climb trees; grizzlies do not, know the difference, etc. Only later will I hear that at certain parks, rangers have stopped wearing uniforms because the appearance has acquired troublesome significance. And unfortunately, people do sometimes get eaten, or partially eaten, by bears.

I set my leather boots apart from the tent, realizing I might find them wholly, or partially, gone. I plan my response to any bear that manages to work the tent zippers without jamming: I’ll tickle its tummy until it giggles.

After some sleep, I decide to step into the dark, and begin marking my site in the classic zoological manner, then from the silence hear a throaty sound, within a range of 40 yards. Something’s there that is not small, nor human.

But I’m expressing no threat in this vast space, and clearly am communicating a relaxed state, though this peaceful assurance continues longer than I wish. I return with careful calm into the tent and sleeping bag, the zippers making quick, humorous sounds, which I hope are not taken as insulting.

Next morning I find the campground has no shower, and if I can’t shower, I become a bear. You’d be mean and smelly too.

Biker Notes, Golden to Kamloops, BC — Cars, cars, trucks and campers, trucks and campers, cars and trucks, campers towing cars. Much single lane. I think this marathon I’m on is nuts. Truckers here are another breed, as even northerners concede. They fill the mirror fast.

After Lake Louise, the forest seems gone, the sun unshielded, nuclear. Coming up the Columbian mountain range, I’m tired, fried, almost don’t conquer the Rogers Pass. Here, entering Glacier Park, the TransCanada Highway has five black tunnels, funhouse nightmares, don’t wear dark sunglasses — or just close your eyes and thrill to the destabilization of suddenly unfinished road surfaces.

At the road stop near the top of the pass, I receive soothing therapy from empathetic Park Rangers, lie flat for an hour, take a shaded walk, get two scoops of cherry ice cream with big black cherries and chocolate chips in Coca-Cola, put my nose in the rosy brown fizz. Then, cool as Hannibal, I’m up and over.

Evening at Blind Bay on Lake Shuswap: It’s a softer sun, setting peacefully. Boats float in the small marina. Brown ducks are paddling back and forth, quack, quack, and a big turtle swoops along under the clear water. On the deck of the restaurant, for a moderate price, I’ve got very attentive service, fettuccine Alfredo, a bouquet of salad, plenty of hot and luscious garlic toasted bread. Morning, you bet I’m at the same table, with more of the same TLC, eggs exactly as I wish, tender herbed potatoes, good coffee, no rush. Who’s complaining?

Vancouver, British Columbia. — A week ago, this was only a maybe, so I’ll celebrate and give it two nights. The tent is at an RV park operated by the Squamish Indians, under the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge, connecting Van over the strait with the North Shore. Space is tight, ear to ear, and expensive, but seems well located as a place to start.

First priority, a comfortable spot to think, and write, closer to the action. I’m naive to expect I’ll find it across the bridge in the famous Stanley Park, I discover, because I won’t get up the knowledge fast enough to step away from the tour bus runs. So, further in the City, I’m on Davie Ave., looking at a map, and again, courteous assistance is immediate. I’ll never know who was behind the dark glasses under the bicycle helmet, but he rode right up, read my mind, suggested Nelson Park, a few blocks up, good choice, a quiet neighborhood facility.

But Vancouver, with residential density, requires parking permits in this neighborhood, and I’ve brought the big Wing. I’m at a loss, until I notice the firehouse, where I know I’ll get some good further advice. Dad was in the business and I know the good nature of firemen, especially if you can barge right into the kitchen, where fellowship is most generously shared.

Here something wonderful. They invite me to park in their lot — kindness to a visitor, before I even mentioned Dad — and they also call my attention to all the Vancouverians walking south, with backpacks and such, to the beach at English Bay. All Van is walking south, there’ll be thousands in the streets, police guiding them through intersections, for what must be the world’s greatest fireworks display, an international competition. Last year’s winner, Spain; tonight’s contender, guess who? China. Do they know fireworks. They do.

I spend hours well-seated on the coffeehouse deck at Davie and Thurlow, watching the population pass, then follow to the beach. We’re in the streets, not just the sidewalks, all of us. For a visitor, it’s nice to be able to say, We.

Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver, BC — In 7,000 miles, no serious mishaps — neither sun smote by day nor moon by night. At land’s end, I’ve a comfortable seat, available for my return — a smooth boulder for my back, another for my knees, up front in the orchestra with the ocean rhythm. Horizon left is open Pacific; right, the strait before Bowen Island.

Log a summer sunset, 9pm-ish. After the extended gift of light, there’s the last speck of a gleam in a clear sky, atop the far island.

The fir forest in this park has never been logged, to preserve a dark background for the lighthouse. Returning along a path in the twilight, I’m stopped by the sight of a perfect Maple leaf flying before me — very large, nearly a foot across, evenly yellowed — as if set with a smile.

I’ll carry it home. Thanks, thanks, and thanks.

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