The Motorcycle Diaries / Part 2

Updated on January 11, 2018
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Born without a clue. A lifetime later, situation largely unchanged. Nevertheless, one perseveres.....

BSA Starfire 250

Red Deer, Alberta ‘68

In the spring of ‘68, my last year of teen age, I found myself working at the Alberta School Hospital (for kids with extreme learning difficulties) in Red Deer, Alberta. As the spring juices began to flow and take hold, I found my morbid self-destructive attraction to motorcycles re-surfacing. This may have been brought on by the occasional false spring peculiar to Alberta - the magnificent Chinook which brought unseasonably warm weather down from the foothills. In its gentle embrace one would suddenly find shirtsleeves were enough to walk across the snow to work. The ice and snow itself would relent and give up the locked in scents of earth and fresh water in a way a fully fledged spring might, only to lock it all up again as the Chinook winds changed directions and became something else. But I was also still stung with shame at having trashed that beautiful Triumph 500 and had a nagging compulsion not to accept defeat and to have another crack at getting it right. What kind of a man could I be if I couldn't ride a motorcycle?

There was a bike shop in Red Deer full of mouthwateringly menacing and shiny English motorcycles, heavy with gravitas and presence, and I kept being drawn to its show room like a dying moth. A true man would, of course, be drawn to the 650's, but, surprisingly sensibly, I felt constrained by my budget and my previous. No point in getting another big bike if I was only going to fall off and trash it again.

At this time BSA had brought out a line of blue and white 250 singles called Starfires. Previously, their smaller capacity bikes had looked just like that - smaller capacity bikes, mopeds even. These 250s however looked light and elegant yet substantial and convincing. They looked like proper motorcycles; like bigger bikes. And they had a healthy long stroke chortle which, despite a slight metallic note at idle which I was told was normal, sounded very authoritative for a bike that size. It pushed all the right buttons (looks and sound) and I resolved to put my money down and engage in the first and only hire purchase scheme of my career.

I rode that bike very tentatively, especially as whenever the Chinook departed I was dealing with ice and snow again, but my confidence grew and I began to feel as though I might be a bona fide motorcyclist after all. I spent many days off on my own, sometimes in warm, bright sunshine; sometimes in sub-zero weather, exploring the side roads and trails around Red Deer.

As I analysed my ineptitudes, it seemed that the biggest problem emerged from my use of the back brake. The pedal for the back brake, on British bikes in those days, was on the left. For people used to driving cars, in which the universal braking foot is the right, this is counter-intuitive. Add to this a sub-conscious reluctance to put too much emphasis on the hand operated front brake - because, whereas a back brake can be forgiving and simply fishtail if you lock it, a front brake with even a hint of lock will often have you on your arse in the blink of an eye. I flashed back to my glorious day as a 500 Triumph rider and realised that, in my moments of crisis, my right foot was grimly and foolishly stomping down on the gear lever. No wonder I could never stop the damn thing in time!

These tendencies were, as you'd expect, acutely exaggerated in ice and snow. This meant my ability to stop in a hurry was severely compromised, and I learned two valuable lessons. The first is that, whatever the crisis, first response should always be to shut the throttle down. Sounds obvious, but not to an instinctive nervous system tuned to compel its limbs to do something else altogether. The second is that, by and large, a motorcyclist cannot afford to get into a crisis at all. Instead, he or she must get into anticipating trouble in the way car drivers don't. This means you don't simply watch the tail lights of the car in front. You keep that sort of detail in your lower peripheral vision, but your primary mission is to keep watching as far down the road as humanly possible. This is to allow you to see the trouble developing, before it is actually trouble, for the simple reason that if you don't see it developing it will probably be too late to react at all.

With these few lessons burned in I managed not to trash my 250 and even gained some kudos among my fellow male nurses who began to wonder if they themselves should blow their life savings on a motorcycle. (Interestingly, I don’t think any of them did – probably because the real king of cool was a guy called Lester who drove a vibrantly yellow Corvette Sting Ray and poo poo'd my motorcycle at every opportunity. (Just to emphasise the point, he would occasionally depart the parking lot in front of the staff residence in a tortuous squeal of rubber, leaving smoke and skid marks in the way a dog might re-assert his territorial rights if he had the same technology.)

As summer approached I resolved, for reasons of economy mostly, not to ride the bike out west but to hitch-hike. With this in mind I approached my quiet and sensible buddy Louis to see if he would take over the payments whilst I was away in exchange for use of the bike. A pretty good deal really, so he agreed.

Care and possession free, I headed off over the Rocky Mountains and spent the summer wandering the Pacific coast of Canada and the US (for more detail, see “A Squandered Life”).

When I got back to Red Deer I found that some of my erstwhile pals and colleagues had rented rooms in and around the town and I flitted between them as I set about girding myself for a return to the east. My beautiful little blue and white BSA 250 Starfire was in good shape having spent the summer with Louis. True to his word he had kept up payments on the finance in exchange for using it whilst I was away.

I got out my compromising wad of traveller's cheques – my worldly savings – and paid off the dealer. I recall seeing the 650 Thunderbolt in the shop and asking how much they were selling for. The dealer looked at me and said. “I don't understand you young guys. You buy a motorcycle and then a few months later you want a different one.” I wasn't aware of being part of a trend but I know what was going through my mind. I was still chagrined and embarrassed at having crashed that Triumph 500 and felt I couldn't hope to be a full grown adult until I had owned and rode without fear or crashing a “proper” motorcycle, ie a 650 or larger. The 250 was a lovely bike but it was a constant reminder of my failings as a rider.

Nevertheless, there was no way I could afford another bike at this stage, and the 250 was going to be my ride home to Montreal come hell or high water.

Winter was approaching as I eventually set off south for Calgary and then east. No Chinooks to alleviate those cold north winds as I sat frozen in my seat and held on grimly while the engine puttered bravely beneath me. The ram rod straight prairie roads from Calgary through places like Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, and Regina to Winnipeg was essentially a 1300 kilometre endurance trial. Very little sweeping and swaying through long curves. Mostly just sitting upright and clenching teeth against the cold. I stayed on as long as my body could take it, stopping for nature, snacks or sleep when I couldn’t take any more.

After Winnipeg I was faced with a geographical decision. I could either swerve north of Lake Superior and stay in Canada or swing south into the US around the southern shore of the huge lake. In the end I figured I didn’t have the stamina for what I was certain would be the colder option, and headed south through Warroad and Baudette towards Duluth, Minnesota.

Somewhere in northern Wisconsin my endurance gave up. I stopped outside a combined roadside diner and 2 story clapboard motel and tried to pry myself off the bike. Stiff as a starched boiler suit, I dragged myself up the stairs into the diner and sat staring at the menu. With blue fingers I counted out my money and considered my options. The man behind the counter came over to see what I would like.

“Have you got a room for the night?” I asked.

“Yessir we do,” he said.

There was slight a pause as I contemplated my options.

Finally I said, “Have you got any work around here that needs doing?”

“No son,” he said, “I’m sorry, we don’t.”.

“Okay,” I said, “Could I have a cup tea?”

“Sure,” he said and went off to get it.

There was a bit of delay in the service. I could hear him nattering to what I took to be his wife in the back. I was shivering uncontrollably as I wondered how long it takes to make a cup of tea. In due course he returned and gave me my tea, but kind of hovered, apparently slightly embarrassed. I looked up at him and he said:

“We’d like to give you a room and a meal if that’s okay with you.”

I gazed at him as it took a moment or two for his words to sink in, but I eventually managed to smile and mumble some clumsy words of thanks. He nodded and smiled and went off to get the day’s special. Later, full and warm, I was showed up to a bare room with a single bed and a wardrobe. I lay down and didn’t wake up till dawn.

I rose early and sort of quietly snuck out the front door to my bike. I’d left a note of copious thanks but still felt embarrassed to have been on the receiving end of such generosity.

It was another 600 kilometres to Sault St Marie in Ontario and I was completely wiped again. As night fell I pulled over on the outskirts of town, sat still on the bike for some moments, and then took off my hat and gloves and tucked them inside my jacket to warm them up. Suddenly a beautiful young girl appeared magically beside the bike. She was peering at me.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

I assured her I was, and we chatted for a bit. I mentioned I was looking for a place to stay. She looked up and down the dark empty road as if she was thinking. She turned and looked straight at me, directly into my eyes, and immobilised me.

“I’d really like to take you home, but I can’t.” she said. “I live with my parents and they wouldn’t allow it.”

As I slowly registered what she was saying, I experienced a peculiar combination of sadness and disappointment coupled with suddenly feeling refreshed and invigorated. We chatted some more and she eventually pointed me in the direction of a cheap boarding house. We parted, regretfully, like an established couple of some years standing. She stood there on the side of the road, watching, as I looked back and motored off towards the lodgings.

My budget wouldn’t allow for a meal, but I couldn’t have slept outside. So I got into that room and prepared to pass out. As I was brushing my teeth I glanced into the mirror and, possibly for the first time in several weeks, noticed myself in the mirror. I was struck by how gaunt I looked, but also realised I hadn’t had my hair cut for several months. As I stared at my face it seemed I was seeing, for the first time, not a boy but a young man. I began to grin at myself like a complete fool as I clocked that some kind of change had taken place in the course of that summer.

On the last leg, still 1000 kilometres from Sault Ste Marie to Ottawa and then on to Montreal, the weather eased up. I started taking it easy. I could sleep outside again and my budget could give me more leeway in the matter of eating. No major events as I puttered interminably on, but at last the familiar skyline of Montreal hove into view.

Montreal '68

And at long last, I found myself pulling into the back driveway where, a year or so ago, I’d hesitantly kicked my ill fated Triumph 500 into life. There was more than one car there and as I entered the back door I realised there was a party taking place. I stepped into the living room and saw a whole gaggle of people sitting and standing around chattering enthusiastically. Then my lovely mum suddenly spotted me (I hadn’t written of course, and there was no internet in those days). She dropped her drink and stepped over some reclining legs and hurled herself at me. I was home after over a year.

It transpired that among the party-goers in attendance was Sarah, a girl I’d known in childhood who had grown up to be a strikingly beautiful young woman. Over the next few days, impaled by her beauty and charm, I hung out with her before she left for France.

Somehow or other, I guess through the Labour Exchange, I got a job measuring distances between telephone poles. There were six of us working in teams of two. We were issued with orange implements which looked like snow shovel handles attached to a small bicycle wheel. These had little clicking odometers attached and would simply clock up any mileage along which they were pushed. One guy would set the thing to zero at one pole, walk it along in a straight line to the next pole, and read out the number to the other guy who would enter it on to a clipboard. Zero the thing again, march to the next pole, read out the number, enter it on the clipboard, and repeat. Ad infinitum. Day in day out. If it looked like rain, we would sit at drawing boards in a down town office and draw each and every one of those poles on to street plans of the area we'd been surveying. This is probably why I got the job - on the strength of my course in Technical Drawing at High School. You had to place the poles, draw the connecting lines, and enter the precise distances as substantiated by our orange wheelie things. And no smudging....

As luck would have it, the area we were surveying was my old stomping grounds out on the Lakeshore. There were two younger guys I alternated with in the two man measuring teams. One was a slightly pudgey Italian Canadian called Neil. He lived not far from me in the city centre and I used to give him a lift out to the measuring grounds on the 250 Starfire. By this time I was getting cocky on motorcycles again and would throw it around into curves and between lines of traffic. I used to take sadistic delight in hitting about 80 mph and then ducking down suddenly so that the full force of the wind hit Neil square in the face, causing him to shriek and clutch wildly at anything to hold his place. He would curse and punch me hard and painfully in the kidneys but it seemed a small price to pay for the evil pleasure.

In the end, I couldn’t face going back to university again so I left the bike stored in the cellar and flew out to Europe.


Is it true that anything less than a 500 isn't a real bike?

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© 2018 Deacon Martin

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