Leaving room

Some people don’t plan enough, and end up paying for it. Others plan too much, which can have its own costs. I tend to fall into the latter group.

Case in point, in preparing for my upcoming road trip, I had planned each day’s ride months in advance, booking hotels (and thus predetermining the route) for pretty much the whole thing. That felt pretty extreme, even for me, and the more I thought about it, the more my ‘planning’ began to feel like handcuffs.

So, I cancelled the majority of the hotels, keeping just a few bookings in place, mostly at the beginning and end of my journey. It may end up costing me a little more this way (although, that’s far from certain), and may lead to one or two dodgy moments when I feel like stopping but there aren’t any rooms available. But that’s part and parcel with an adventure. And that’s what I’m hoping to have.

I’ve been on road trips before where the place we’d planned to stop didn’t have any rooms – or only rooms at exorbitant rates – and we had to come up with a Plan B. It’s always worked out, and I have no reason to believe it won’t this time, too, even though this time it’s just ‘me’ in place of ‘we’.

The first time was on the first long motorcycle ride I did, a twelve day jaunt through seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces with my friend Scott. We were both in our late 30s, and riding bikes not that much younger than ourselves. In the middle of our trip we had a string of three nights where accommodations were an issue.

The first night was in Phoenix, when the house we’d lined up – with air conditioning and a pool, two things we were sorely looking forward to in mid-August – turned out not to be available. After some scrambling, we ended up in a hotel that I’m betting frequently served guys fresh out of jail. It was conveniently located next to a strip mall containing a tattoo parlour and a liquor store. Sadly, not only was the A/C simultaneously loud and ineffective, the shower in my room didn’t work.

The next night, we rode for several hours to reach the small town of Kanab, UT, around supper time. After eating in a local diner, we decided that it was too early to quit for the day, and we pushed on to the town of Panguitch. When we arrived we encountered one ‘No Vacancy’ sign after another. Finally, we found one motel that had one room remaining – a room that could have slept eight or more – and we took it, as it was beginning to get dark. We asked the proprietor what was going on, and he said there was a high school rodeo in town. Who knew such things even existed?

The following day we set out in the hope of reaching Great Falls, MT. A trucker we met at a gas station in Idaho – who was hoping, back then in 2007, to vote for Hilary – said he thought we could make it. No such luck, though, as we rolled into Bute around 10 p.m., only to find that every hotel room in town was booked. Surely, in a city the size of Bute, this couldn’t be due to a high school rodeo! I asked at the Best Western, and no, it wasn’t that. They were having an “Irish Festival”, I was told. I tried vainly to convince them that Scott and I were the keynote drinkers, but they were having none of it. They suggested we try Helena, a mere 70 miles away. There was nothing else to do, so we set off again, into the night, which became foggy – not a good mixture for motorbikes. Every time I rounded a curve in the highway, I said ‘there are no deer here’, which happily turned out to be true.

About two-thirds of the way to Helena, we pulled into a gas station, mainly to let the adrenaline fade, and I asked the gas jockey if there were any places to stay nearby. Down the hill from the highway, he said, in Boulder, we could ‘try the O-Z’, and if that didn’t work out, there was a ‘resort’ another 20 miles from there. We rode down the hill, got a room at the O-Z, and a very late (but extremely entertaining) dinner at P.K.’s Pub. (It was nearly midnight when our pizza arrived. It had to be ordered in from the resort, as the pub’s kitchen had closed, and the kitchen staff were down at the end of the long bar playing dice with the bartender, Cricket, a former stripper who also worked part time at the women’s prison, she told us. She was particularly fond of Scott.)

I wouldn’t have any of these stories to tell if we’d booked all our hotels in advance and ridden from one to the next each day. And I want stories to tell at the end of my trip. It’s part of why we travel. To meet people, to do things unscheduled and unscripted, to deal with things as they come.

So while I will still plan, I will try not to over plan. I’ll leave room for improvisation, for discovery, and for adventure.

What it is

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot

It is often easier to say what a thing isn’t than it is to say what it is. Case in point, my upcoming trip.

When people hear that you’re going to be travelling around Ireland and Scotland – or at least, when they hear I will be – they tend to assume: whisky tour. Now, while it is entirely probable that some whisky will be consumed, that is not the point of the journey. Indeed, if my plan were to try to hit as many distilleries as possible in the relatively short time available, I would a) not be making this trip on a motorbike, and b) would have planned more time in Scotland, and less everywhere else I’ll be. And that is even granting that the place I’ll be in most is Scotland.

If I were planning a whisky tour, I would be including many places I likely won’t get to: Islay, first and foremost, since several of my favourite malts come from there, as well as Jura, the Orkneys, and several other points on the map of Scotland. Now, I will be stopping in Oban, where it is a very good bet I’ll tour the distillery, and hope to visit The Glenmorangie, The Glenrothes, and possibly one or two others, as well. But they are roadside attractions, not destinations as such.

The trip is also not primarily about motorcycling, although I will be doing a lot of it. About 5,000 km of it, give or take. I like travelling by motorcycle. I prefer it to flying, driving, taking trains, or just about any other way you can think of to get places. But it simply my preferred mode of transportation, and not the journey itself.

So what is this trip, exactly? I’ve been asking myself that, since I can see it puzzles people when I say, “yeah, there will be whisky, but it’s not why I’m going,” or, “yeah, it’ll be cool to ride a Triumph around the Highlands, but the riding’s only a part of it.” And if I say both these things to someone, they tend to change the subject. (Which, admittedly, they may have wanted to do anyway. Oh, you’re going to Britain? Cool, I guess. Where do you want to have lunch?)

Now, unlike many Canadians, I am not really that wound up about where my ancestors are from. I’m interested enough in family history, but I don’t feel any visceral (or imagined) connection to my so-called heritage. I don’t think of myself as Irish, although a good number of my mother’s family came from places like Cork and Londonderry, if you go back far enough. Others came from Wales (god knows where) and Scotland (Edinburgh, I’m told). On my father’s side, the family mythology has them from Scotland, although our family name hails from Northumberland. Still, with relatively porous borders, anything is possibly. His mother’s maiden name was Berry, so I expect that family were English (although, I’d love to believe I was cousins with Chuck). But I also don’t think of myself as Welsh, Scots or English.

I’ll be riding through places that, quite likely, my forebears decided it was best to leave. That’s kind of interesting, I think, but I’m more interested in meeting people who have stayed, especially in small villages and towns. It’ll be interesting to talk to people I’ve yet to meet, and who I may never see again after I leave.

Even this, though, isn’t really a full explanation, if such a thing exists. My initial plan was to ride around the European continent for a few weeks with a friend of mine who is on a much longer adventure, take in a concert in Poland, and then come home. Somewhere along the way, my plan changed.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do this by myself. I’ve always travelled with someone else before. I’ve never made any kind of extended journey completely on my own. That’s exciting to me, if slightly frightening, too. At first, I thought of doing just part of the trip on my own, but the more I looked into it, the more I wanted my adventure to be just mine. Not something tacked on to someone else’s journey.

Eventually, I decided to travel in Ireland and the UK for two main reasons: first, there’s a good chance of encountering English, no matter how strange it may sound at first to my ear, wherever I go; and second, after this year, the journey may not be so easy to complete. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may harden. And that hardening may not simply be a matter of checkpoints.

Of course, the real purpose of this journey is something I won’t really be able to put into words for several months yet. The road hasn’t even begun yet, so how can I say where it will lead?

The plan so far…

Flights booked. Bike booked. Accommodations booked for 90 per cent of the trip. Routes (roughly) mapped out.

I’ll be starting my trip in Ireland, skirting the perimeter of the island for the most part, and spending most of my time in the south. After picking the bike up near Belfast, I’ll spend a couple of nights in Dublin, giving myself some time to get used to everything being on the wrong side of the road. I’ll ride to my first accommodations, just outside of Tralee, before swinging up along the coast to Galway, where I’ll spend another couple of nights. Then I’ll be off up the coast again before ireland route

swinging east through Sligo to Belfast.

From Belfast I’ll catch a ferry over to Scotland, and ride to Dumbarton, where I’ll spend the night before heading to Oban. This will likely be the first of several stops involving a distillery tour, although I’m not planning to hit every distillery that I encounter, and haven’t included stops where many of my favoHighland route pt 1urite distillers are located (e.g., Islay). From Oban, I’ll make my way to Skye, and then up the west coast of the Highlands. I’ll decide when I reach it whether or not to ride the Bealach na Ba, or the alternate, slightly less dodgy route to Shieldaig on my way to Ullapool. From there, I’ll skirt along the coast first northward then eastward to John o’ Groats, the most northerly part of Scottish mainland.

I’ll spend the night in Wick, then head down the east coast of the Highlands to Craigellachie, conveniently located near four (at least) distilleries. From there, it’s down to Stirling on my way to Edinburgh, where I’ll meet up with a friend and former colleague.

From Edinburgh, I’ll head south along the coast into England, through Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Scarborough, and stopping in York. I am told some of the best motorcycling roads in England are to be found in Yorkshire, so I’m looking forward to those. From there, Highland route pt 2I’ll angle southwest towards Bath, where I’ll stop for the night before heading to Wales.

In Wales, I’ll ride through Cardiff to Swansea, on the south coast, former home of Dylan Thomas, where I’ll stop for the night. The next day I’ll ride up the coast to Snowdonia National Park, and spend the night in Colwyn Bay, on the north coast of Wales.

From Wales, I’ll head through the lake district back to Scotland, stopping in Moffat. I’m told it’s a beautiful town, by a good friend of mine who just happens to be named Moffat. I’m sure there’s no bias in her appraisal of the town. The next morning I’ll ride back to the ferry, and return the bike to the dealership in Belfast. A shEngland & Wales routeort bus ride will have me back in Dublin for another two nights before I board the flight for home.

If anyone has any advice – things that must be seen, things to avoid, to watch out for, and so forth, please leave comments. Over the next couple of months, as I get closer to June, I’ll talk more about the bike I’ll be riding, what I plan to pack, that kind of thing. If you’re really curious about any aspect of the planning, let me know.

If you made similar trips and want to point me to your blog, your YouTube video, or whatever, feel free to leave that in comments, too.

 

Calculated risk aversion

While waiting for Air Canada to publish their 2018 rates for shipping motorbikes around the globe (well, to Europe, anyway), I decided to do some additional checking about just how much it would cost to rent a nice new bike, rather than shipping mine. It turns out, as I expected, it costs more. But – there’s always a but – not so much more as I had thought.

This is mainly due to what’s included in the price of the rental (pretty much everything I could want), and what I’d have to pay for in addition to shipping costs to send my bike over with me (things like import fees and insurance, as well as servicing my bike, and most likely putting new tires on it).

For a mere £2,355, I can have a nice, new Triumph Tiger 800, with cases, helmet, jacket, jeans, gloves and boots, pre-programmed GPS, comprehensive insurance, roadside assistance and unlimited mileage. That’s about $1,000 more than shipping my sixteen-year-old bike, including the dangerous goods insurance required for the shipping. But that $1,000 would have a hard time covering new tires, servicing and insurance. And I still wouldn’t have roadside assistance, or as they call it in the UK, ‘breakdown cover’.

It might sound strange coming from someone who rides a motorcycle, but I’m fairly risk averse. At least, when the calculations associated with that risk make me so. I don’t expect I would break down on my bike, but I could. It’s old, things fail. I know this all too well. And when things fail on an aging BMW, the cost can be depressing.

Now, I also don’t expect to break down riding a nice (relatively) new Triumph Tiger, but if I do, it’s nice to know that someone else will be picking up the cost.

This also takes a lot of the complication out of my trip preparations. I don’t have to fill out a lot of paperwork, clear a motorcycle through customs, arrange to be at the airport the day before the bike flies (which would be the day before I do). I just get myself to the airport, fly to Dublin, catch a bus to the rental shop and start the fun. At the end I just do that in reverse.

Renting the bike also removes a lot of uncertainty and risk associated with cost. My budget can be more defined, and this makes planning a lot easier. And easy is good.

Of course, if I were going to be riding for longer than I am, bringing my bike would be a no-brainer. Just as a shorter trip would have removed that option from consideration. As it is, this looks like the Goldilocks solution to my question.

L

The calendar flipped and I hit a zero on my personal odometer. But it’s just a number. If I use Roman numerals, it looks smaller than the number that preceded it, at least in terms of characters used: L.

To mark the year, my wife suggested I do a long road trip in Europe, and I agreed that would be a great idea. (Yes, she is the best. Back off, she’s taken!)

After several weeks of planning, I’ve got the rough outlines of the trip in shape. I’ll fly my bike into and out of Dublin. I’ll ride down through Co. Cork, and up the west coast of Ireland – the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ – then across to Belfast. From there I’ll catch a ferry to Scotland, ride the ‘North Coast 500’ route around the northern Highlands, then down through England to Wales, where I’ll catch another ferry back to Ireland for the flight home. All told, it will be just under four weeks.

As noted, it’s a rough outline. For the most part I haven’t decided where I’ll stop or stay. My plan is to stick mostly to smaller places, outside of the larger cities (with a few exceptions), and to keep my riding time down to four or five hours a day (rather than the eight to twelve that have been my habit on past road trips), so that I can spend more time in places. It will all be new to me, as I won’t be stopping anyplace I’ve been before. It’ll be an adventure.

I plan to write about it all here. I’ll include photos, and (if I decide to acquire a GoPro, or something like it) maybe some videos, too.

If you have tips, recommendations, warnings, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Road trip Days 5 & 6 – best laid plans & all that (Calgary to Nelson – 612 km; Nelson to home – 643 km)

The only thing you should ever expect in life is the unexpected. For example, I expected to be in Duluth today. But I am unexpectedly home instead.

We couldn’t find a simple or straightforward answer to the speed wobble in Scott’s front wheel, short of “remove side bags”. But it’s pretty hard to do a two week road trip without luggage, so that was hardly a workable solution. There likely is a way of fixing this – there has to be; I’ve seen lots of KLRs with hard cases – and once discovered it may even be fairly straightforward, but for now it seemed best to cut our losses. I would ride home, while Scott tries to work through the problem. Maybe we’ll try again in a couple months’ time.

Once we reached that decision, the rest of Monday was devoted to resting, recreation (at the Hop & Brew), and getting myself sorted for the early return to the west coast. None of which is worth going into in great detail.

Tuesday morning, I woke early, dressed & finished packing my bags. I had coffee with Scott, then loaded up the bike and set forth. I got about 25 km when I realized I’d left behind the 2 gallon Rotopax gas can I’d borrowed from Colin for the trip. If it were my own gas can, I’d have picked it up next time I was there. Or Scott could bring it out with him. But as it was a loaner, the only option was to go back and fetch it. Luckily the traffic wasn’t too bad heading back into downtown, at least by Vancouver standards. I fetched the Rotopax, said so long to Scott a second time, and headed south again.

I lived in Calgary for nearly 20 years, but the southwest of the city still confuses me, especially the areas that have been added since I left, nearly 25 years ago. Needless to say, I somehow missed the turn I needed to take to get on the 22x, and found myself, after several twists and turns, on Macleod Trail, several miles south of Anderson Road. By this time I’d been on the road for close to an hour, between backing and frothing and wandering around subdivisions meant to defeat navigation with the endless similarity of their street names and housing styles. I was getting hungry, so I stopped and had breakfast at a regrettable corporate diner, which shall remain nameless, mainly to protect my dignity. The best I can say for it is it didn’t make me sick.

It was nearly 11 a.m. by the time I reached the city limits, and I did eventually reach my chosen route, Hwy 22. I stopped for gas in Longview, and hopped back on the bike. To say the route is windy is like saying Donal Trump has positive self esteem. I spent most of the time being buffeted by cross winds and head winds (but never a tail wind) that seemed intent on pushing me off the road. Good thing it wasn’t an exceptionally windy day.

Eventually I reached Hwy 3, and turned the bike west. Into the wind, of course. I stopped to stretch and drink some water in a little town just west of Frank, home of the Hillcrest Mine disaster, in which nearly 200 miners were killed by an explosion that ripped through the mine, as well as the site of deadly landslide, which killed 90 people. If you like mass graves, there are two in the Crowsnest Pass.

I hopped back on the Valkyrie, as I like to call her, and continued my westward journey. A fellow biker passing in the other direction tapped his helmet near the edge of town, and I managed to slow down just in time to see the speed trap I would surely have been caught in without the warning. That was about as eventful as the day would be from there. I rolled into Nelson a little before 6, having booked a room at the Best Western there.

I unpacked my bike, showered and changed, and walked up and down the main street of the sleepy mountain town. Not much happening on a Tuesday night. None of the local restaurants caught my eye, so I opted for the one attached to the hotel. It had had some good reviews, apparently all from staff. I had the worst steak sandwich it is possible to imagine for dinner. The service was very good, though, so there’s that. I walked around a little more after that, then went back to the hotel to watch mindless TV and fall asleep early.

In the morning, I went to a breakfast place that I like in Nelson, called the Vienna Cafe. It’s attached to a very good used bookstore called Packrat Annie’s. The food is simple, but well prepared, and the jam you get with your toast is homemade. It’s also much less expensive than most other breakfasts in town, so if you find yourself needing breakfast in Nelson, you know where to go.

I still had plenty of gas from the day before. After Longview, I’d filled up in Cranbrook, and I’d emptied the Rotopax into the tank when I got to Nelson. I got back on the highway, and rode to Grand Forks before stopping for gas again. There was none of the usual feeling of adventure about this ride. I was just trying to get home as quickly as possible. From Grand Forks, I rode until I got to Princeton, where I had a burger at the DQ, and gassed up again. Then there was a brief stop in Abbotsford, just to get out of traffic for a bit, before completing the journey home.

It wasn’t how I expected or wanted this trip to go. It wasn’t how Scott did, either. But shit happens. Plans change. On the plus side, Adele now has next week off, and we’ll head over to Vancouver Island for a few days to visit my cousin Jan and her husband Chris. And, as I said earlier, maybe we’ll try again in September, if the bike can get sorted, and I can get the time off.

Road trip days 2-4 (Calgary to launch aborted)

I spent the weekend resting in Calgary. Saturday, I hung out with Scott. Sunday, I got together with my sister-in-law Marianne for breakfast, then spent the rest of the day lazing about, until Scott & I went to his ex-wife Kathy’s and her partner Paul’s place to cook sausages over a fire pit. Well, we had sausages, Kathy, et al, had veggie dogs. Incredibly sad looking things – the veggie dogs, that is – but to each their own. Kathy is an excellent person, which you kind of have to be to teach junior high, and Paul is interesting and engaging in the unassuming way that many introverts are. Then we came back to Scott’s place and finished preparing for today’s start to the trip.

This morning we got up, loaded up our bikes, went for coffee and a muffin to break our fast at a local diner, then hit the road. We reached the city limits and accelerated to match the change in the speed limit – a very civilized 110 kmh. We were riding into an east wind. It wasn’t strong, but it was cool. Scott took the lead.

I noticed several times that Scott’s KLR began to wobble when he got it up to speed, and he had to roll off the throttle to correct the situation. We pulled into a rest area not far past Strathmore, and Scott confirmed the wobble, and confessed it was both annoying and worrisome. He assumed it had to do with the hard cases he had installed for the trip. The bike had never wobbled before, but he hadn’t had it out on the highway since installing the bags. He made some minor adjustments and we set off eastward again, but we didn’t get far before pulling over again. A few more adjustments and we gave it another shot. That, too, was short-lived. I googled ‘KLR speed wobble’, which demonstrated a) Scott’s is not the first KLR to encounter this kind of issue, and b) no one online has any useful advice on fixing the problem. We decided the best & safest thing was to head back to Calgary and try to figure things out there.

 A visit to Scott’s mechanic didn’t help a whole lot. They suggested removing the bags and riding on the highway again to make sure that was the problem. We did, and it was. So. Now what? In a little while, after frustration has subsided, Scott will attempt some configuration changes: removing the hard case rack, and using soft bags instead; changing the windshield; etc. If all goes well, we’ll start eastward tomorrow. If not, I’ll take a winding route home, spend the long weekend with Adele, and decide what to do with the rest of my holidays. 

But that’s getting too far ahead. First things first, then we’ll go from there.