3 borders and 3 hours in Honduras

I crossed one border 5 days ago and 2 borders yesterday. Yesterday morning I left San Salvador, El Salvador, rode through Honduras, and then arrived in Leon, Nicaragua just before dark. The 3 hours in Honduras was hellish. I have no desire to return to Honduras at any point in the foreseeable future.

Guatemala to El Salvador

El Salvador seemed like an expensive country. With some considerable effort, I was living very cheaply in Guatemala. I was trying to recover from a spending binge over xmas and new year. When I hit El Salvador the prices seemed a notch higher than I had been paying in Guatemala. However, I did get by on just about $20 USD a day. The currency in El Salvador is the US Dollar, which made it easier to get a handle on what I was spending.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are part of The Central American Four (CA4). I had heard they share some paperwork for visas, vehicle imports, and so on. I saw no evidence of that in my border crossings. Every crossing was just like entering a completely new country. I checked out of one and into the next. I believe it’s different for residents of one of the CA4 countries, but for me it seemed like 4 totally separate countries. In fairness, that might only apply to the bike, the process of importing myself did seem fairly easy between the 4 countries.

We crossed the border on CA2, the highway closest to the Pacific coast. I’m not sure what the towns are called on either side. This was 5 days and 3 border crossings back, so my memory is a little fuzzy. I’ll try to remember the details as accurately as I can.

The road split around a building. An armed uniformed fella stopped us and told us to park our bikes. A kid started telling us what we needed to take where. I ignored him and went about handling my own paperwork. We had to go around the building to two separate windows. One was related to the bike and the other to me. The first window was for the bike. I think I needed 1 copy each of my passport, driving license, and vehicle title. I also needed a copy of something else which I had to go and get on the spot. I handed all of that over and was given something back. I don’t think I spent any money at this point.

Next I went to the migracion window. I handed over my passport, I think it was stamped, and I got it back. Again, I didn’t pay anything here. However, Tomas had paid $2 and thought it might have been for both of us. Whether it was the disarming charm of my smile underneath the moustache or Tomas’s $2, we will never know!

I think this part must have been the exit from Guatemala. Next we crossed quite a long bridge, and came upon another building. At first we rode right past, ignoring the calls of the kid who had been helping Tomas with his paperwork. We stopped at a check point. By this time the kid had caught up with us and was shouting something. I’m guessing he told the guard we hadn’t imported our bikes. I strongly wanted him to leave us alone.

We went back to the building. The entrance was halfway down on the left hand side (as we approached the first time, it was on the right as we were turned back by the guard). We went into here and were served quickly by a pleasant woman. She came outside to the bikes and wrote down more information than I remember at any other border. She noted the colour, number of cyclinders, make and model, vin number, plate, and a few other things about the bike. Then she told us we needed that information to be typed into the computer. That meant waiting for the guy at the next window to finish the paperwork he was working on. The key word here is waiting.

We spent close to 3 hours in that office while the guy behind the desk processed one single set of paperwork. There were several vehicles all being imported together, on the back of a truck I think. It was the hottest part of the day and we were in full riding gear. I nearly melted in the waiting room. For some reason all the windows were closed, so the only ventilation was through the open door and one missing slat in one of the window. I could see an air conditioning machine inside the office where the officials were working. It was very hot and very sweaty. I slugged 3 cans of cold juice while we waited. After a couple of hours I went off and found some food, figuring we might be at the border all night.

Eventually, with some apology from the woman who first served us, we were given a typed version of what she had written. Then we needed to sign it and get it photocopied. (Short of travelling with a photocopier, there seems to be no way to avoid paying for photocopies at these borders.) She followed me to the copy shop and said they would pay for the 10c copy. I assumed it was to apologise for the agonising wait. As if to rub salt on the wound, it was another person who processed Tomas’s paperwork after we’d waited close to 3 hours. Presumably he could have processed our paperwork at any point during that 3 hour wait.

We smoked a victory cigarette, saddled up and rode like hell hoping to get somewhere with a hotel before dark. We made it to El Tunco pretty quickly from the border. Just over an hour if I remember correctly. We had made it into El Salvador in my longest ever border crossing.

The end of an era

After a couple of days on the beach (El Tunco and Playa San Diego) we rode the 35km to San Salvador. Tomas was having real trouble with his skin. It’s usually brought on by stress. He decided to stay in El Salvador and chill out for a while to get back into better health. The prospect of 2 border crossings in one day sounded like more stress than he needed. I’m ready to settle somewhere for a few weeks and I want to do that in Nicaragua, so I decided to press on. After about 6 weeks riding together, we were parting company.

It’s been really awesome riding with Tomas. After probably 7 or 8 months on the road alone, it’s been a real change to ride with somebody. A very positive change. Tomas is probably the only person I’ve travelled with for more than a month, and it was truly painless. I feel like I’ve made a very good friend for life.

After a quick breakfast and a final smoke, I said adios to Tomas and rode out of San Salvador heading for Nicaragua.

El Salvador to Honduras

As I approached the Honduras border people were frantically waving me down by the side of the road. I ignored them all. If anything, I sped up to pass them. I didn’t realise I was almost at the border and they looked dodgy as hell to me. In retrospect I’m guessing they were border “guides”. Locals who know the paperwork required to cross the border and who will “help” you for some kind of fee or tip.

Personally, I handle all my border paperwork myself. I don’t want anyone involved in my business, handling my passport, or otherwise interfering in my border crossing. I’m sure their help can be useful, and is probably cheap, but I’m innately sceptical of anyone who tries to pressure sell me into anything.

I arrived at the border sooner than I thought. I was expecting it to be another 20km or so. When I got there, checking out of El Salvador was easy. I went to 2 windows and got my passport stamped. I think I paid $3 for this. However, I had missed the point where I needed to check out my motorcycle. It was 3km back into El Salvador. I turned back, explained to the chemical spraying guys that I wasn’t entering, and got the bike checked out of El Salvador. For this I needed a copy of my entry paperwork into El Salvador. As usual, there was a conveniently placed copy shop ready to take a little money for a copy.

Then I returned to the border, again dodging the waving guides. I gave my newly stamped photocopy to the last border point on the El Salvadorian side and crossed the bridge.

In Honduras the process was a little more confusing. I arrived and was asked for my passport. That part was easy, I handed it over, they gave it back. Next I needed to import the bike. I asked a policeman where to do that and he told me to ride on, it wasn’t necessary. About 500m down the road a fella with a gun at a checkpoint told me it was necessary. So back I went. My biggest challenge was locating the office where I could actually do the paperwork. I’ll try to describe the scene for any would-be border crossers.

Coming over the bridge, there’s a large building in the centre of the road. The road splits around it. It has a large courtyard in the centre. On the right hand side, just slightly before the start of that building, there is a mostly unmarked building. There is a copy shop on the corner, parking spots in front. Inside there, with almost no signage of any kind, I was able to import my vehicle.

Firstly, I needed 3 copies each of my passport, title, driving license and exit paperwork from El Salvador. Then I handed over all 12 copies and $35 USD (they gave me change from $40) and waited. I was given back a form and they stamped my passport and wrote in my vehicle details. I then needed 5 copies of the form and 3 of my passport stamp, for a total of 20 copies. Finally, after returning with the copies, I was given back my documents and rolled onwards into Honduras.

I was given a form and a copy of the form. The copy was for the security guard just beyond the border. I gave it to him and was able to ride on.

The woman told me I did not need to do any exit paperwork in Honduras, I could just ride out.

This was probably the least painful part of my trip in Honduras. The whole process took just over an hour and would have been quicker if I’d stopped at the right place to begin with. For future note, the point to export the vehicle from El Salvador is right where you cross a speed bump. I flew over it passing a few trucks and ignoring the police standing by the side of the road. That was the spot!

3 hours in Honduras

Immediately after the security checkpoint was a police checkpoint. They waved me through and I carried on. In the next 200 km I went through either 9 or 10 police checkpoints. I started counting after the 3rd or 4th one. At the first checkpoint where I was asked to stop, they informed that I didn’t have reflective stickers on the side of my bike. It was a $100 ticket apparently.

I played dumb while they hassled other vehicles. Eventually I searched all my pockets and came out with a $5 bill. I had a $100 and a $20 bill in my passport wallet which I was hoping to keep, more on that later. Finally, the officer took my money and gave me back my driving license. This is where my international driving permit would have been really helpful. If I don’t get it back, I don’t care, I have another 2 with me. But foolishly I gave him my British license, a pain in the ass to replace, and much easier to enter the next country with.

I’d been in the country less than 20 minutes and I was a bit shaken up at the blatantly extortionist tactics of the police. At the next few police checkpoints I stayed behind other vehicles and passed them slowly as they were stopped. I figured by the time the police saw me I was already past. Then I came upon a checkpoint where there was no traffic waiting. Four officers were waving me down. I figured they were telling me to slow down, so I did, and I rode right through. I also figured, this is Central America, the police here have tiny little motorbikes and crappy old cars. They’ll never chase me, and if they do, no way in hell they’ll catch me. Wrong and wrong.

I chose to run from probably the only police checkpoint in Central America equipped with a Ford F350 super duty truck. For those not familiar with the absurdity of American trucks, the F350 has at least a 5.4 litre engine and, apparently, is damn fast. The police chased me from a standing start. I was doing about 60km/h as I passed them and quickly hit 130km/h. They caught me within 2 minutes. When I saw them coming, I pushed full throttle and the truck just kept coming. There was no way in hell I could outrun that monster.

When they did catch up with me, the police were a little irate. Apparently the issue was my speed. They made no mention of the fact I had not stopped, at least not that I understood in my very poor Spanish. They asked for my license, I handed over my disposable international drivers permit. They talked a lot about a ticket and about going back to the next city to pay it, etc. I played dumb saying mostly “no intiendo”, I don’t understand. At one point an officer pulled a US $10 bill out of his wallet and waved it at me talking about paying. I was in the shit now.

Eventually they told me to follow them back to town. I took my time putting on my helmet and gloves. A few cars passed me and they didn’t appear to be waiting for me. At this point they thought they had my driving license. They probably figured I couldn’t leave the country without it, so they had me by the balls. I considered making a second run for it at this point. If they had caught me more slowly in a less powerful vehicle the first time, I probably would have. I’d have happily left the international drivers permit behind and I was on my way to the border, as it turns out, probably never to return to Honduras.

I decided against trying to escape from the police twice in the same day. I followed them down the road. I came upon them stopped at a tienda (the equivalent of a corner store). They talked again about a fine. I asked if I could pay the fine here. They drove a bit further down the road and pulled over at a quiet point in the road. I pulled alongside and they said something about paying here. I asked how much. The game had begun. I only had a $20 bill and a $100 bill. I really did not want to pay $100.

They motioned for me to pull off the road. I stopped the bike and discreetly pulled out the $20 bill. I put it into my pocket. I went back to the window of the truck. They talked about a $200 fine at the police station. I explained that I didn’t have $200. I asked about a bank. Then I very slowly, very deliberately and very painfully searched all of my 7 pockets. I pulled out every scrap of paper, opened every bag and container, and inspected every item I was carrying. At one point I handed the policeman my $20 bill. I kept searching. Finally, he gave me back my driving license and they drove away. I had survived. I think their anger was giving way to boredom and frustration at that point.

I was now aware that the only cash I was carrying was a single $100 bill. If I had to bribe a third cop in Honduras, it would be expensive. The chances of getting change from a bent cop seemed pretty slim.

I made it through all but the last checkpoint in Honduras without stopping. This time the cop was standing beside the road with a couple of buddies. Dodgy looking characters in jeans and t-shirts. I only saw a small motorbike. I figured he’d never catch me, probably wouldn’t try. I passed him slowly. He blew his whistle and motioned for me to stop after I had passed him. I saw it in my mirror. After a split second deliberation, I stopped. Running hadn’t worked out well the first time.

His uninformed, unarmed, apparently unpolice buddies had no problem participating in my stop. I handed over a few documents. They looked the bike over touching a few things. I felt like a wounded animal being circled by a flock of vultures. I was very, very keen to get the hell out of Honduras at this point.

The cop gave me my documents back and another guy asked me, while smoking a cigarette, if I wanted to help. I played dumb again saying that I didn’t understand. As quickly as I could I threw my documents in my back pocket, pulled on my gloves, and took off.

Honduras to Nicaragua

I was very, very glad to see the Nicaraguan border. I had spent more than enough time in Honduras and at this point I was downright desperate to get out while I still had most of my money and all of my possessions. Total cost for my 3 hours in Honduras, $60: $35 in border fees, $25 in bribes. I think that officially makes Honduras the most expensive country per hour yet.

If I remember correctly, I didn’t do anything to leave Honduras. It’s a bit fuzzy now, the last three border crossings are starting to blur together. I think I just crossed into Nicaragua and started my paperwork there. I may have missed something in Honduras, but if I did, it wasn’t a problem in Nicaragua. As I have no desire to return to Honduras, I’m relaxed about it.

Getting into Nicaragua was fairly slow and somewhat painful. Initially I entered a long building next to the bank. There was a semi circular counter with a few cajas. I queued at the first one. It took about 20 or 30 minutes to get the counter. I paid $7, handed over my passport, and was stamped in. After very thoroughly examining my $100 bill, he gave me $93 change. Then I had to import the bike. I went down the hall to where a long, long queue of truck drivers were waiting. They pointed me at various cajas, but each one sent me back to the queue. Eventually, I took my place at the end of a line of probably 12 or 15 truck drivers. I was not optimistic about getting through in less than an hour. It looked like I’d be riding out from the border in the dark.

A Spanish couple in a mobile home arrived behind me. I had seen them at the first police checkpoint where I was “fined” for not having reflective stripes. They spoke very little English, but naturally, great Spanish. A woman appeared and told me I needed to pay $12 for insurance while in Nicaragua. I gave her a copy of my driving license, vehicle title and $12. She gave me a piece of paper that apparently I need to show to the police here. I have not yet had to show it to anyone, but it did all seem legitimate.

Somehow the insurance girl took the Spanish couple to another door where they were promptly served, ahead of me and the dozen truck drivers. I spotted them on the other side of the counter and I dashed over there. I asked if I might also import my bike there. Somewhat jovially, the same guy who had sent me back to the queue earlier agreed to sort out my paperwork. 20 to 30 minutes later I had all my documents sorted and I was on my way. He needed one copy each of my passport, driving license and vehicle title (all of which I had ready). He took that, some time, and no money and gave me some paperwork back.

I had crossed my second border in a day, third in a week, and most importantly, made it out of Honduras alive. I was grateful to be in Nicaragua, but I was also keen to find somewhere to sleep before dark. I was aiming for Esteli, but by some navigational misfortune I ended up in Leon. I think I crossed the wrong border for Esteli, that border is a bit further north. I wonder if there are any less police on that road.

I’m now at a fairly relaxed hostel called Big Foot in Leon. Seems like a nice little city. I’ve already run into 3 people I know from other places, so I’m feeling quite settled after my ordeal through Honduras. Now I’m hoping to spend some quality time in Nicaragua and get a feel for the country.

Ciudad Cuauhtemoc to La Mesilla

This morning we crossed the border from Mexico into Guatemala. It was painless. I read about a couple of guys who crossed in 20 minutes so I was confident it would be easy.

To start with we needed to leave Mexico. We missed the exit point which is about 3km from the border. It looked like a government building but didn’t look very border like. For future reference I think it’s here. After we back tracked we started at the Banjercito and checked out our motorbikes. The fella took photos of the VIN numbers then printed some papers and gave us a certificate showing we’d exported our bikes. No money required. Next we went to the next door building and exported ourselves from Mexico. Again, painless, and no money required.

Then we rode across the border and were flagged down by some fellas who wanted to spray the bikes. They asked for 13 quetzales for each bike. They didn’t take pesos. At this point we had some pesos left and no quetzales. Just our luck, there was a money changer on hand. He charged us 70 pesos for 30 quetzales, xe.com puts that at 45 pesos. An unnecessary expense of $2 USD, we’ll survive.

After our bikes were sprayed, we got in line at the Migracion office. A couple of buses had just arrived so there were a lot of people waiting in the midday heat. While Tomas stayed in line I went to the atm to get some quetzales at a slightly more reasonable rate. When I got back the queue had disappeared and Tomas had done his paperwork. I went into the office and after some confusion about my entry stamp into Guatemala exactly one year and one day ago, I was processed into Guatemala. Total cost, 20 Mexican pesos.

We went to the next building over to import our bikes. The process was painless. We needed our Mexican export certificate, title, license and passport. Four signatures later we went next door to the bank and paid the 40 quetzales fee. Then returned to the window to collect our paperwork and stickers for the bikes.

All paperwork completed, we were into Guatemala. The process took about 2 hours which was due in part to our confusion over the process, some waiting in line and then just the process. Althought it took longer than the entry into Mexico it felt decidedly more expedient. Personally, I spent much less time waiting than entering Mexico.

Roma to Ciudad Miguel AlemÑn

Yesterday I crossed the border from the United States into the Republic of Mexico. I was slightly apprehensive about the crossing. I’d read that the border region is dangerous due the ongoing drug war in Mexico. I also read that the paperwork process was confusing and might be time consuming.

My apprehension was unjustified. The border crossing was an outrageously slow process, but it was simple, I managed with minimal Spanish and I felt safe throughout the process. I’ll document how it went here, and hope to document all my future border crossings.

I’ll also summarise the facts in a few bullet points, scroll down for the quick summary if you’re in a hurry. πŸ™‚

I paid the $3 bridge toll on the American side. Then as I crossed into Mexico I kept moving. Nobody stopped me or even looked me over. I could have continued merrily on my way without doing any paperwork whatsoever. I believe Mexico has a free trade zone within 25km or 30km of the border. Within that zone visitors from the US have no need of a visa, paperwork, or otherwise. Just wander in. The crossing back into the states is a little more involved though!

I had read about the Banjercito, where I would get some sort of permit to take Bessy (the bike) into Mexico. I knew I had to stop there voluntarily otherwise I wouldn’t get the appropriate paperwork and would have to come back. There were a few people in dark blue uniforms lounging around a table smoking. I stopped to ask them where I could import my motorcycle. I attempted to say “I’m going to Monterrey” in Spanish, knowing that Monterrey is beyond the free trade zone. I was pointed to the Banjercito, across the way.

I turned immediately left and rode 10 metres up a one way street the wrong way to pull into the carpark in front of the Banjercito. I have read that at some borders the Banjercito can be quite far from the actual border. Here in Ciudad Miguel AlemÑn it is physically adjacent to the Migracion office, easy.

I walked into the Banjercito office and was served immediately through a glass counter. The girl spoke little or no English, about the same as my Spanish! A helpful fella translated and explained I needed to go to the migracion office first. After a little navigational difficulty, I found it. The migracion office is on the same side of the road, 3 doors closer to the USA side of the bridge.

The migracion official was interested my plentiful visits to Cambodia. I used to cross the Cambodian border every 3 months in Thailand, so I have 3 or 4 full page Cambodian visas in my passport. After a bit of pleasant chit chatter translated by the various people in the office, we established that I was retired, riding a motorcycle, and 90 days would be sufficient.

They asked how long I wanted to stay in Mexico. I believe I could have asked for up to 180 days but they mentioned 90 and I figured that would be fine. If I stay any longer in Mexico it might take me years to get to South America. The migracion officer filled in my form for me. All I had to do was point out the address on my driving license, sign, and smile.

I was handed the carbon copy to take to the Banjercito to pay the fee. It was about $20 USD for the Permiso Personal I believe. Although the simplest part of the process, I think this was the most time consuming. There were two or three people in front of me in the queue at the Banjercito and it took forever to get through them with only 1 caja open.

Eventually some vaguely manager looking fella came out and started shouting at the poor girl behind the counter. Then he called a young fella from the back office and a second caja was opened.

When it came time to actually pay the fee, I handed over my good old British Chip & Pin visa debit card. This caused some confusion. He tried swiping it several times, apparently struggling to understand the Spanish instructions on the machine telling him to insert the card into the chip reading slot. Finally his colleague assisted and put the card into the slot. Then the machine asked for my PIN number, in Spanish of course. Well this caused even more confusion. He didn’t have a PIN number, so he called the manager looking fella. Then he cancelled the transaction and the manager tried the same process again.

Watching all of this I knew what was going on but lacked the Spanish to intervene. I was also puzzled as to how I was going to enter my PIN number through a 1 inch gap in the glass window. The machine had no detachable keypad and was several times larger than the hole in the glass. Oh yay for Mexican engineering… πŸ™‚

Eventually, after the manager asked me, in English, to tell him my PIN, I suggested I try typing it through the window. In my head I was running over the risk of telling them my PIN number. I figured I’d have to call my bank nearly immediately and have a new PIN number issued. That would involve it being mailed to my mum, she’d need to read it, forward it on to me, etc. My card would be out of service for a week or two at least.

While they held the keypad up to the window, I was able to stick my finger through and punch in the numbers. Not exactly great PIN security, but it seemed preferable to reading my PIN number aloud for all and sundry to hear!

So, payment number one completed, I returned to the migracion office to have my, now paid, Permiso Personal, stamped. This part was painless. I walked in, handed over the paperwork, it was stamped and handed back to me. Muchas gracias.

Now I went to the copias booth which had been pointed out to me by the helpful translating fella earlier. The girl in the booth looked cute to me, but that might have been more to do with her flawless, effortless command of English than her physical appearance. I was grateful to be able to complete one part of the transaction without guessing what was being said to me. πŸ™‚

I required copies of my paid and stamped Permiso Personal, my driving license, my vehicle title and my passport. I already had copies of all my own documents, so I only required 1 copy of the Permiso Personal at a cost of 50 cents. Expensive for a photocopy perhaps., but a bargain to be confirm, in English, that I had all the copies I needed!

I returned to the Banjercito, this time to get my temporarily import my vehicle. The girl behind the counter was incredibly diligent. She checked every piece of paperwork slowly and carefully, then compared every document to every other document and the computer screen, to ensure my name and other details were identical in all cases.

The same confusion arose with the Chip and Pin payment once again. This time, not content with the Spanish equivalent of “transaction confirmed by PIN”, she asked me to sign the receipt. Then she fished out my first payment receipt and had me sign that one just to be sure. I know all of this was completely unnecessary but it seemed so much simpler to just sign than debate it. This permit cost about $30 US dollars.

Then some lengthy discussion broke out in Spanish. Various permits and pieces of paper were handed about, discussed, disapproving looks exchanged, tempers flared, one girl whose job seemed to be standing around, looked apologetically at me as if to say “sorry about these crazy people”. Finally, after maybe 20 minutes of standing at the counter handing my documents back and forth through the glass more times than I remember, I was handed my completed paperwork. I checked that I had all my own documents, and now a new vehicle import sticker. I was set. Muchas gracias, I bowed with my hands palm to palm as if praying, and left the office.

I decided a victory cigarette was in order. I checked the time and realised the process had taken a little over 90 minutes. Wow. Arriving early in the day was good advice I had read somewhere! I rolled a smoke, checked with the assault rifle armed military fella if I could smoke there, and lit up.

A few minutes later a girl from the Banjercito office came out and asked me for something. I wasn’t sure what, so I volunteered the import sticker. She said something along the lines of, could she take it back inside for a few minutes. I smiled, of course, no problema. A few minutes passed. I responsibly disposed of my cigarette butt in a nearby barrel. I sat and waited a few more minutes.

Finally the girl who had served me returned with my sticker and asked if she could borrow my debit card just one last time. At least, that’s what I assume she said. She took my card and ran a pencil over the name section to take an imprint on one of her many pieces of paper.

When I was first given the import sticker they asked me to verify the VIN number and if it was correct, I was good to go. Now the girl wanted to double check the VIN herself I think. I pointed it out on the bike and made some sort of “same same” remark.

I asked about sticking the permit on the bike. The instructions say stick the permit behind the rear view mirror on the inside of the windshield. No such location exists on my motorcycle and everywhere on the bike is exposed to the elements. She didn’t seem concerned and swiftly stuck the permit on the underside of my windscreen. I tried to ask about rain but my Spanish and hand signals weren’t up to it. By this point I decided to take what I could get and leave before I was asked for my card once more.

I donned my gear, buttoned up, and rolled out from the border following the well marked route to Monterrey. Yee haa, I was once again in the Republic of Mexico, and it was warm. Viva Mexico!

Summary

  • Went to the Migracion office, got a Permiso Personal to import myself
  • Paid for the Permiso Personal at the Banjercito
  • Returned to Migracion to have the now paid for Permiso Personal stamped
  • Visited the Copias hut to make copies of the Permiso Personal, my driving license, my vehicle title and my passport (bring copies of everything)
  • Returned to Banjercito to purchase temporary vehicle import license
  • Attached the sticker to the front of the bike and rode off some 90 minutes later

Elkins to Birmingham

It’s been a while since my last update, about 2’000 miles and 24 days. I’ll try to catch up on the trip since leaving Elkins, West Virginia.

Elkins, WV – Lexintgon, KY – St Louis, MO

My next stop was Lexington, Kentucky which was a halfway stop towards St Louis, Missouri. I discovered ready made, ready rolled pizza bases in Lexintgon. We made pizza by opening a can, spreading the base on a tray, and adding toppings. It was pretty darn tasty. Leaving Lexington I passed through 4 states on my way to St Louis. I woke up in Kentucky, had lunch in Indiana, stopped for gas in Illinois and arrived in Missouri.

I was headed to St Louis to see Liz, a friend I met in Guadalajara, Mexico. Liz was back home in St Louis, the home of Budweiser beer I discovered. I had a great time staying with Liz and her parents, Brian and Lynn McKenna. Lynn’s cooking is the stuff of legend. Brian is a retired police officer and now trains policemen to prepare for violent encounters. Made for some really interesting conversations.

St Louis is the home of Anheuser Busch, the brewers of Budweiser. The brewery tour was really interesting. An hour long tour of the facility including 2 free drinks at the end of it. I was impressed by the little details. Anheuser Busch give wood chips used in the brewing process to local parks. They run a stable of Clydesdale horses and Budweiser wagons that tour the country for parades and so on. The tour itself employs close to 40 people in the down season, and a ton of technology. Without bragging about it, Anheuser Busch seemed like reasonably responsible corporate citizens. Of course, maybe that’s the whole point of the tour, to create that appearance!

St Louis, MO – Springfield, MO – Pettigrew, AR

My next destination was Caitlin’s farm in rural Arkansas. I broke the ride with a stop in Springfield, Missouri. I stayed with Braden and Micah who were excellent hosts. We ate some of the saltiest, most stomach pain inducing bar food I’ve ever consumed at the local Wing Shack. A truly mid-western experience! Then Micah took me to a Springfield college party. Good times. Thanks guys.

Rural north-west Arkansas is really something to behold. There’s a very special kind of freedom enjoyed by the people in this part of the world. Life is so remote out there that enforcement of the law is sporradic at best. With an Arkansas state ID one can walk into a gun shop, pass a NICS background check, and purchase a rifle or handgun immediately, without permit or registration. Sale of firearms between individuals is largely uncontrolled and unrecorded.

The culture I experienced in rural Arkansas reminded me of my travels through rural, upstate New York. There’s a real survivalist mentality in a lot of rural America. The landscape is often harsh, with cold, snow covered winters. The “state” doesn’t provide much to the really rural households. Keeping roads cleared of snow, fallen trees, and so on often falls to the locals themselves. It’s simply not practical to maintain such an extensive infrastructure in places so remote.

Often descended from Scots and Irish, these people are from hardy stock. The people who choose to remain in these parts of the world survive under conditions that most other people choose to leave. Winter life is physically hard, cold and dark. Electricity, telephone and roads are about the only national infrastructure that reaches all the way out into the deepest forest. There’s no water mains, sewage, gas or rubbish collection. Houses are responsible for their own water supply, hauling their own trash and any gas is from bottles.

If the apocalypse comes, the folks who live in the woods in north-west Arkansas are well prepared for it. People out here pride themselves on hunting, persevering and surviving.

For a long time I assumed that rural was synonymous with hillbilly and redneck. In truth, I met some very liberal, open minded, well travelled, globally aware, almost hippies in rural parts. I think many people are attracted to the practical, daily freedoms enjoyed in these parts. When you live 10 or 15 miles off the nearest tar road, government bureaucracy has a slightly different flavour to it. Building regulations, planning laws, production and posession of contraband, they’re considerably more theoretical out in the depth of the Arkansas woods.

Personally, I had a great time on the farm with Caitlin, Matt, Jeff and Megan. I fired a handgun for the first time, a silver 38 special revolver. I also fired Matt’s 1943 M1 rifle. The rifle saw action in World War 2, Korea and Vietnam. Matt has a bayonettte, weapons belt and harness to match, mostly original issue.

After 5 days on the farm, trying to find a break in the weather, I said my goodbyes and set sail for Memphis, Tennesse.

Memphis, TN

In Memphis I stayed with the folks who live at De Cleyre. The house itself has a really interesting history and the folks I met there were, without exception, fascinating human beings. The house is cooperatively owned by the people who lived there. It was purchased in 1998 with a mortgage from another cooperative. The current residents pay rent towards the mortgage and upkeep. I was amazed to learn that of the current residents, Allyson is the longest standing and has only lived there for less than 3 years. So everyone who lived in the house over the years has paid a contribution towards the mortgage, then moved on. Amazing.

Terance calls the house “the experiment”. In many ways, De Cleyre is a fascinating experiment. A fairly unstructured model of cooperative living. There are a couple of fundamental house rules, any resident can ask any guest to leave for example. Otherwise, things generally seemd to “just work”. I enjoyed most of my meals in Memphis at the house, they were prepared by various people and shared. Before leaving I left a huge bag of brown rice to contribute to communal supplies. Not all meals were communal, nor did all the residents eat all the meals. In a wonderful example of the magic of chaos, those who were hungry ate, it all came together naturally, without planning.

I drank a local beer, danced on Beale Street while listening to Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis, smoked a Marlboro red and didn’t go to Graceland. I had a great time in Memphis on all fronts. πŸ™‚

Nashville, TN

After 2 nights, I left Memphis on the final leg of my pilgrimage to the capital of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. My first night in Nashville I stayed with Yvonne aka The Travelling Vegetarian. We ate some amazing Ethiopian food. The centre piece of the meal for me was the bread, called Injera. Thin, bubbly like a pancake, soft and pliable, like a pancake only a little more stretchy. The meal was a collection of vegetable dishes served on a large piece of Injera with a side basket of Injera. The bread is the plate, the eating utensil and a large part of the meal.

The next couple of nights I stayed with Irina. On Saturday afternoon we took off into downtown Nashvile to tour the city. On the Shelby Street Bridge we happened upon what appeared to be the filming of a country music video. Music would blast while a fella walked down the bridge carrying his guitar case. The camera was on a little set of rails, it all looked very professional to me. Turns out it was Shane Yellowbird, a Canadian country singer, filming something for his break into the US.

Saturday night Irina and I took to the streets of downtown Nashville in search of country music and line dancing. Both were found at the Wild Horse Salloon. We paid the $5 cover just in time for the last line dancing lesson of the night at 8:45pm. Now I feel like I know how those poor Japanese tourists must have felt at their first ceilidh. I found line dancing to be a lot harder than it looked. We put in a valiant effort all the same!

Birmingham, AL

From Nashville I rode 200 miles straight south down I65 to Birmingham, Alabama. I’m staying with Richey, Julio and Pari in Birmingham, this update comes to you from their couch. πŸ™‚

Apparently 1 in 7 people in Alabama has a connection to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. There are almost 20’000 staff and another 20’000 students at UAB in Birmingham. I feel like Birmingham is a college town and perhaps not truly indicative of the state of Alabama as a whole.

I arrived in Birmingham just a few days before thanksgiving, a huge holiday in the US. Everyone on my list for Atlanta had said they would be away over thanksgiving. I was conscious that I might have trouble finding somewhere to stay. Richey said I was welcome to stay in Birmingham for thanksgiving. They were having a party and were expecting 10 to 15 people. Perfect.

Thanksgiving was a great day. I was on turkey duty. It worked out well. I pumped it full of seasoning with a giant syringe then roasted it in a browning bag. Came out juciy and flavourful, result. I took inspiration from my mother’s masterful roasting of chickens over the years. πŸ™‚

Today I say goodbye to new friends in Birmingham. I’m heading for Jackson, Mississippi tonight and then New Orleans, Louisiana on Sunday.

I have taken some photos on this leg of the trip but I’ve yet to sort and upload them. I’ll try to put them on the map once they’re ready.

Philadelphia to Alexandria to Elkins

I arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. Phillip had kindly offered me a place to stay. I was in for a treat. Phillip’s Jamaican hospitality was quite spectacular. He cooked, cooked and cooked some more. I was treated to great food, an education on baseball, and hearty conversation.

Sunday afternoon I had assembled a motorcycle gang. I’d invited a few locals to ride. Vicky took my passenger spot and Vasily brought Danni on his bike. Our gang of two motorcycles and four people was born!

We drove around the art gallery that Rocky famously runs up the steps to reach. We parked our bikes at the top of the steps soaked up the view. All the while the words to Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia were running through my head. Glorious! πŸ™‚

From Philadelphia I cruised southwards to Alexandria to visit Margaret. Alexandria is a suburb of Washington DC. The District of Columbia itself is quite small, so the surrounding towns in Baltimore and Virginia are effectively suburbs of DC, albeit across state borders.

Margaret invited me to Alexandria about a year ago. I made a point to stop through on my trip south. I’m really glad I did. Margaret and Brett were wonderful hosts, I’m very grateful to them and their family, I had a wonderful time. Margaret is an incredible cook, I ate more homemade cookies and chocolate cake than I can remember. I perpetually stuffed myself with great food while I was visiting.

On Friday night I had my first Bhangra experience in Washington DC. Wow. I don’t think my words could possibly do justice to this traditional north Indian dance. Instead I’ll share this video I found on YouTube. Picture the upstairs room of a bar packed with maybe 100 people dancing something like this, with a little less somersaulting.

After 4 nights of creature comfort, family home cooking and general relaxation, I left Alexandria and began the 900 mile ride west to St Louis, Missouri. My friend Andrew Chant said I simply had to visit West Virginia. He’d looked at Google Earth and was blown away by extent of the forest. So off into West Virginia I went.

Just before I closed my laptop in Alexandria, I got an message from Kristina inviting me to stay in Elkins. I had sent a few messages asking for places to stay in Elkins and Charleston. Kristina was the first person to accept and she got back to me in perfect time. I set off with Elkins in mind.

Just before leaving New York, I had ordered a few things for the bike. My chain was making some seriously painful sounds, so one of the things I ordered was a new chain and sprockets. JD recommended I replace the chain as soon as possible. He didn’t think the chain would make it the 1’100 miles to St Louis. I was optimistic. He was right! πŸ™‚

The chain was delivered to Alexandria so I set off with a replacement chain and sprockets in my luggage. Some 120 miles into the day I turned off the main highway onto the old road. The old road had looked smaller, more winding and potentially more interesting on the map. A mile or two off the highway, there was a loud grinding noise. I dumped the clutch, braked hard and pulled over. I looked down to see the chain dragging on the ground.

The chain was intact, but no longer riding on the rear sprocket. Ok, I thought, I can fix this. I have all the tools to tighten the chain, no big deal. After a bit of wrestling to get the bike on the side stand, then the centre stand, I got the tools out and tightened the chain. It was super loose, so I figured that had caused the derailment. After 20 minutes or so, I was back on the road, we were off.

Not so fast. About 2 miles further, I heard a much louder, much gnarlier grinding noise. I dropped the clutch, but the noise kept up. I slammed the brakes hard and stopped on a gentle hill. This time the chain was caught between the sprocket and the wheel. Not good. After some wrestling I worked the chain free.

Then I got the chain back on and tightened it even more. I started off slowly. I’d heard some unhealthy noises from the chain in New York. Now with the chain so tight the same noise was back. I was about 80 miles from my target for the night, it was almost 3pm, and I had no more than 3 hours of daylight left. The bike sounded really bad above 30 mph, so I spent the best part of 3 hours enjoying the scenery at a very leisurely pace.

I was riding through pretty hilly country. I took it easy on the uphills so as not to stress the chain. On the downhills I put the bike into neutral, turned the engine off, and let gravity do the work. There were points where I reached nearly 50 mph on the downhills.

Just a little after dark, around 6pm, I rolled into Elkins. We had made it. The chain was intact, still attached, and the bike kept moving forwards, albeit slowly. Happy days.

My t-mobile cell phone has no service in Elkins. I’d asked Kristina for her phone number so I could call when I got into town. I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be stopping. Expecting my cell phone to work was a flaw in my plan. No worries, I found a payphone and the $1 for a 3 minute call wasn’t too extortionate. A few minutes later I arrived the house, just in time to meet the housemates, most of whom were in the kitchen cooking dinner. Score. πŸ™‚

West Virginia and Elkins have been interesting. Fairly typical of rural USA I think. I’m reminded of visits to Saranac Lake in upstate New York, or Cherryfield, Maine, the blueberry capital of the USA.

There seems to be a mix of people born here and people moved here. The incomers have chosen to come to this place for a reason. Usually people move to places like this for the natural setting, the rural country life and in some measure, I think, to change the world. It takes a special type of person to choose to live in a redneck rural town like this.

I haven’t delved very deeply into the culture here, but I expect I’d find the same uneducated ignorance I’ve seen in other rural north American settings. Those words sound harsher than I mean them to be. I mean uneducated and ignorant in the factual sense, limited access to education and lacking in knowledge.

As I write this, my fives hosts in Elkins are sitting in their living room playing traditional, local Appalachian music. I’m certainly not sure of this, but my guess is that this type of music is kept alive by a mixture of incomers and fairly small group of “intellectual” locals. It seems like a first-world-wide phenomenon. Local culture is given up by the majority of locals while a group of well meaning incomers struggles to keep it alive.

Personally, I feel grateful to be sitting in a house of five musicians listening to them play in their living room. There’s something I like about folk music. Particularly when it’s played live.

Tomorrow I’ll continue eastwards saying farewell to Elkins and passing from West Virginia into Kentucky. I’ve put a few requests out for places to stay in Lexington, I’m waiting to hear. Either way, I have camping gear. It’s pretty damn cold to be camping, but I’m confident I’ll survive. πŸ™‚

I’ll sign off with a few pictures from this leg of the trip.

Note: I’m working on the gallery. I’m hoping to launch some improvements soon and make it easier for me to upload images. In the meantime, apologies for any hassles browsing the photos.

Quebec to Prince Edward Island

James asked for more pictures, so more pictures I offer you.

To start with here’s a few scenic shots on the route from Quebec City to Baie Ste Catherine.

Quebec scenery 1

Quebec scenery 2

Quebec scenery 3

Quebec scenery 4

Quebec scenery 5

Quebec scenery 6

The fourth photo in the set was taken from the bike while in motion. πŸ™‚

At Baie Ste Catherine the road runs right onto the ferry dock. There is no bridge across the water to Tadoussac, so 3 boats operate in constant rotation ferrying vehicles back and forth. The crossing is free and takes about 10 minutes. Here’s a shot looking at the oncoming boat as we cross the water.

Crossing from Baie Ste Catherine to Tadoussac

From Tadoussac it was a short 45 minute ride to Les Escoumins to catch a boat across the river to Trois Pistoles on the other side. Pierre-Yves told me the west side of the river is a lot more beautiful, so I rode up that side to Les Escoumins before crossing over to continue on the east side of the river. It was a beautiful ride, thanks for the advice PY. Here’s a shot of Bessy tied down on the ferry across the river.

Bessy tied down crossing from Les Escoumins to Trois Pistoles

I landed in Trois Pistoles around 4:30pm. I had made an early start from Quebec after a short night’s sleep so I was pretty tired on the boat. I rode an hour or two further north looking for places to camp. The coastline north of Trois Pistoles is quite densely populated. There was a house, a town, a shop or some other building every few kilometres. In search of a quiet spot to camp, I turned off the main road into the forest on a dirt road. After another couple of turns on logging roads, I found a clearing where I set up camp for the night.

The next morning I decided to head out of the forest on a different road from the one I came in on. I figured I would find my way out eventually! After riding for a while I realised I’d better be careful of how much fuel I had. I stopped to ask directions at some houses in the middle of nowhere. Nobody was home.

Houses deep in the forest

Here’s a shot looking at the bike from between the houses. We were very much in the middle of the forest!

Bessy way out in the middle of nowhere

Following the road to the right in the picture above I came to a stop sign. Are those bullet holes? Why yes it appears they are!

Bullet holed stop sign

At this cross roads, I noticed signs marking quad bike trail 30 trans-Quebec. I figured that would be fun to follow, so I set off on the trail eastwards. As I turned left from the stop sign above, this was the view. I thought it was striking just how deep in the forest I seemed to be.

Rural Quebec

This is the trail I was following.

ATV trail 30 trans Quebec

Bessy on trail 30 in the bush

After following the trail eastwards for a while, I came upon a road. I decided to check my GPS and follow the roads again. Then I also realised that I had been heading eastwards, which was taking me away from the coast, not towards it. It had lead me back onto the road and so then I turned northwards and set off back on the tarmac heading for the coastal road again.

Further north I was amazed to see a whole field of stopped windmills. All of them were stationary. There seemed to be a wind blowing where I was standing, but not one blade turning. It was quite an enchanting sight.

Stationary windmills

A little further up the road I saw a couple of people trying to push a car onto the road. They had missed the corner coming out of a lay by and the rear right wheel had dropped into a ditch. I stopped to lend a hand. They’d built up a pile of rocks under the wheel. We piled a few more onto the pile and the car came out like a charm. Looked like there was no damage. They were from Ottawa heading up to Gaspe camping. Here’s the view from the spot where they got stuck with them in the foreground. I forget their names.

View after car rescue

Random lighthouse, I had James in mind when I stopped to take this picture.

Windmill

Here’s a couple of scenic shots somewhere on the west side from Gaspe down to PEI. I’m not sure if these are in Quebec or New Brunswick.

Scenic eastern Canada 1

Scenic eastern Canada 2

Here’s Confederation Bridge that links mainland Canada with Prince Edward Island. It’s an amazing structure, 13 km long. As I rode towards the bridge, it seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon. I took several photos from the bike as I crossed the bridge, but none of them captured the sensation of driving across. The bridge seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of me. At $17 for a motorcycle, I think the bridge is worth a drive. You only pay to leave PEI, either by ferry or bridge. The ferry is $39 to leave, the bridge $17. If I had arrived by ferry and left by bridge I’d have saved $22! I’ll catch the ferry off the island tomorrow morning for Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Confederation Bridge

On the island I took one of my hosts, Megan, out for her first ride on a motorcycle. She was nervous at first but having a blast by the end of the afternoon. We went to New Glasgow. I had seen New Glasgow on the map in Nova Scotia, apparently there is also a New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island. I was curious to compare it to the original.

Welcome to New Glasgow

We stopped for a bite to eat at the Prince Edward Island Preserve Company, New Glasgow. The tea room is in a wonderful spot. We got a great seat looking at this amazing river view.

River view from the PEI Preserve Company cafe

Megan ordered a cup of tea which I thought was quite spectacular.

Amazing cups of tea

From the window I had seem a man in a kilt driving people around in a golf cart. As we left, I spotted the cart again and stopped to take a picture. The driver is Bruce MacNaughton, owner and host. I mentioned (as the good brotherly salesman) that my brother sells kilts, and Bruce said customers regularly ask where they can buy a kilt. I smelled some business to be done. Bruce gave me a card and I made an email introduction to my bro at BuyAKilt.com.

Then Bruce emailed me back to ask if I’d spend some time with him talking about social networking. I’m heading back to New Glasgow as soon as I finish this post to meet with Bruce.

Bruce MacNaughton owner and host of the PEI Preserve Company

On the way back to Charlottetown from New Glasgow I snappd this picture of the PEI coastline. I’ve been taken by how similar in landscape this part of Canada is to Scotland. I’m looking forward to visiting Nova Scotia tomorrow.

Scenic Prince Edward Island

A day at Dual Sport Plus

I spent the day with the awesome folks at Dual Sport Plus in Stoney Creek, just outside Toronto. I was told that Les, who owns the shop, is a KLR master. He’s a fellow KLR rider and very knowledgeable. He’s ridden KLRs all over the Americas I understand.

In the afternoon I spotted what I suspected was a Google street view car. I was correct. I snapped a few pics.

Google streetview car

Turns out the driver was in the shop talking motorbikes. The car is about $16k he said, the cameras and computer equipment $80k! Quite the setup. There are 9 cameras on the vehicle. Four pointing forward / back / left / right, four diagonally and one upwards. Here’s a close up.

Streetview camera close-up

Rick is the mechanic at Dual Sport Plus. He’s also a fine fellow and was very helpful today. He talked me thorugh the doohickey upgrade. That’s the technical term! Here’s Rick reading the manual.

Rick reads the manual

In addition to the doohickey upgrade I also changed the oil, switched to a re-usable oil filter, replaced the brake and clutch levers, upgraded the gear shifter pedal and gave the bike a bit of a clean. Here’s a photo once we’ve got the side of the engine off.

Side of the bike off

The pieces that we’ve taken off are lying on rags on the floor.

Pieces on the floor

Once we got the engine side open, we discovered the piece we were replacing had split into two. The spring that is supposed to hold tension on the chain had completely vanished. It’s probably buried inside the engine somewhere. Now that I’ve got the upgrade installed, the bike sounds much healthier. It almost purrs now. Accelerating no longer sounds like the engine is destroying itself. Happy days.

Big thanks to Rick and Les. If you find yourself in Toronto needing motorbike assitance I highly recommend Dual Sport Plus.

The Bondslave Motorcycle Club

I had the privilege of riding with a few members of the Canadian Bondslave Motorcycle Club recently. I met Gerry “Shot Put” and Bill “William Tell” by the side of the road. I had just returned to my motorcycle to fix a puncture. Almost as soon as I arrived, Bill and Gerry pulled over. After the wheel was back on the bike, they offered to ride with me to Thunder Bay to make sure I made it in one piece. I was grateful for the escort and excited to try riding with others.

Riding with the Bondslave members was my first group riding experience. As a motorcycle club they have a protocol as to how they ride. They ride in formation, side by side in pairs, in tight rows. Road captain, officers, members, probates, guests. At first I was a little nervous of riding so close to other bikes, but after a while I got used to it settled into the formation. As a guest I was usually riding at the back. It’s a very different experience to ride so closely behind another bike.

Usually while riding I’m pushing my awareness of the road as far as I reasonably can. I’m looking to anticipate turns, vehicles, people, animals, road hazards, and so on. Anything that might require me to take action. Riding in tight formation my attention was more closely focused on the bike in front. I placed a great deal of trust in the rider in front of me, trusting him to see the road for me. I would still look ahead somewhat, but most of my attention was on the rider in front and the road between me and their bike.

The riders use hand and foot signals to communicate. For example, if the rider in front’s left leg floats outwards from his bike, he’s warning you of something on the road. A pat on the head means police. A single finger pointed upwards (singalling 1) and touching his helmet means fall into single file.

The formation and signals seem to be an integral part of the spirit of a motorcycle club. The club has a structure, a purpose, a way in which things are done. There are formal and informal rules about how men conduct themselves within the club. There is a protocol to govern riding with other club members. Protocols about colours (the badges that show club membership) and so on.

I was told that the Bondslave club was founded by a man in prison and that many of the members are recovering alcoholics, recovering drug addicts, ex outlaws, and so on. (I believe an outlaw, in this sense, is a person living a lifestyle outside of the law.) These men have found Jesus and have been saved. One of the men told me he had come face to face with death through a drug induced heart attack. He had lost his wife, his children, his family and his health to alcohol and drug addiction. His journey to find Jesus and the resulting faith had saved his life and returned him to his loved ones.

These words might sound light and airy. These men and their stories are not so. When these men tell me they had been saved, I truly believe them. They told me they had made radical changes in their lives that brought their familys, their health, and much more, back to them. I felt honoured and humbled to hear their stories and share in their journeys.

I met 6 Bondslave members Gerry “Shot Put”, Bill “William Tell”, Barry “2 Speed”, Alf “Petra”, Kerry “Salt” and Mike “Lucky”. Each of these men was kind, generous, friendly and only warm towards me. Gerry and Bill stopped to help me without any request. They went above and beyond offering to ride with me to Thunder Bay. They went to  Thunder Bay to visit their brothers there. Alf, local to Thunder Bay, arranged accommodation for us in their club house. He showed us the sights of Thunder Bay. He told fantastic stories of his family and his daughters adventures in Sweden and Finland. He offered the use of his garage where we changed my rear inner tube. Later the same day he noticed my tail light was out. Within a couple of hours he had given me a replacement bulb and a spare to carry.

The members said grace before eating each meal. I couldn’t seem to remember that, so mostly grace was said after I had started! A few years ago I would have felt resistance to the idea of saying grace. Now, it felt meaningful to give reverence before eating. The members also shared a number of prayers with me. Again, I would have strongly resisted this in the past. Today, I feel privileged to have shared in these men’s prayers.

I have a slightly different view of divinity and spirituality than the Bondslave members. However, we share a great deal of common belief. I perceive that Jesus is the vehicle Bondslave members use to embody their spirituality and divinity. My own perception is different in appearance, but remarkably similar in fundamentals.

I would like to thank the 6 Bondslave members I met and rode with for sharing with me. Sharing their company, their stories, their prayers. This is a brotherhood of men that I found to be only positive, only kind and generous beyond compare. Thank you.

Now I’ll share some pictures.

Here’s Gerry, me and Bill, bikes in the background, getting coffee at Tim Hortons as we arrive in Thunder Bay.

Gerry me and Bill

Bill posing by the shore!

Bill posing

Bessy parked between some of the Bondslave bikes at the Thunder Bay clubhouse. Barry “2 Speed” sitting on the far bike.

Bessy and Bondslave bikes

A view over Thunder Bay.

View over Thunder Bay

A few of the guys showing their colours.

Bondslave colours

Now their faces and badges. From left to right Kerry “Salt”, Alf “Petra” (our Thunder Bay host), Bill “William Tell”, Mike “Lucky”, Gerry “Shot Put”.

Bondslaves

Before Bill and Gerry left for Winnipeg we had breakfast at Kakabeka falls. It’s a beautiful spot.

Kakabeka Falls

Looking back upon this adventure, I’m glad to have had a puncture and not had the tools to fix it. The whole experience turned out to be overwhelmingly positive.

My first motorcycle puncture

I pulled off the road into a picnic site. It was a beautiful spot. Right on the lakeside, drenched in glorious sunshine.

Picnic site outside Kenora

I was feeling pretty sweet. I ate an apple, used the bathroom, basked in the warmth of the sun for a bit. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I set off. I blasted out of the car park, maybe a little too quickly.

I hit the highway and opened her up. I hit 100km/h in no time. As soon as I got up to speed, I felt the back end go squishy. It was gently mushy at first. I rolled off the throttle and the bike slowed down. Then it got really wobbly, the back end felt like it was swinging 6 inches to either side. I looked at the ground and felt sure I was going down. I remembered the advice from my training, brake on the good wheel. I slowed below 30km/h, then slow enough to get my feet near the ground. Finally the bike came to a rest and I was still upright, phew.

I felt relief to be rubber side down. The last few seconds were particularly hairy as the bike seemed to be completely out of control. I didn’t understand what was going on, I just knew something was very wrong. I felt pretty intense fear. Thankfully, it all ended peacefully. It was a puncture in the rear wheel.

With the back tyre completely flat, the bike was sitting much lower to the ground than usual. The side stand was too high to work. I tried to get the bike onto the centre stand, but it was too low and too heavy. While holding the bike upright, I unclipped my bag and dropped it off the bike. It was still too low and too heavy, I tried as hard as I could to get it up on the centre stand, but I couldn’t.

Now I’m standing by the side of the road, holding the bike with one hand, trying to flag down some help with the other. I’m thinking, my choices are either stand here until I get help or drop the bike. If nobody stops, I’ll have to drop the bike eventually. After a few minutes a couple of motorbikes come by and stop. They give me a hand and we get the bike on the stand. Thank you guys.

Ok, now the bike is upright, but I’ve got a nail in my tyre and no tools. It’s Sunday and a holiday weekend. It’ll be Tuesday before bike shops are open. I decide to hitch a ride into Kenora, about 40km back west, and try to buy tools. I have a spare inner tube with me, but no tools. I lock up the bike, grab some gear, and cross the road to hitch. Very quickly a couple of guys pick me up and drop me right at Canadian Tire in Kenora. Big thanks.

Here’s a picture of Bessy as I leave her road side to hitch back into Kenora.

Bessy left roadside

I spent a good hour in Canadian Tire. I went over and over the repair in my head. I made a list of everything I’d need. I double and triple checked the list. I wanted the repair to work first time. Getting back and forth to the bike wasn’t going to be easy.

I bought a beautiful $100 Leatherman multi-tool. It’s a really nice piece of kit. I got an adjustable spanner, an inner tube patch kit, and a bicycle pump. Canadian Tire don’t stock motorcycle tyre levers, so I bought a pry bar instead. It’s somewhat similar, but with sharp edges that threatened to trap the tube if I wasn’t careful. Ideally you want 3 levers, but I figured I could make do with one pry bar and the Leatherman.

In the height of the midday sunshine I walked to the outskirts of town to hitch back to the bike. I was wearing all my bike gear and sweating profusely. I watched dozens of cars go by without stopping. After a while I gave up on that spot and walked back to the gas station. Then I spotted the Greyhound bus station across the road. I went over and asked the driver if I could catch the bus to my bike. He said sure, no problem, he’d give me a ride. Score. Big thanks Jerry and Greyhound.

The puncture was around 10:30am. It’s now 2:30pm as I get back to the bike with the tools. No sooner have I gotten myself setup to start than two bikers pull over. A couple of minutes later, another 4 bikes pull over. Before long there’s a group of people all working on changing the tyre. I really would have struggled on my own, so huge thanks to all the guys who stopped.

The $20 pump fell apart. First the pressure gauge didn’t work at all. Then the handle came completely out of the body. It looked like the glue had melted. The tyre was only partially inflated at this point. Nobody else was carrying a pump. The tyre looked firm enough to ride slowly. After we got the wheel back on, most of the guys got back on the road. The first two to stop, Bill and Gerry, were heading to Thunder Bay. I had in mind to hit Thunder Bay myself. They said they’d ride with me and make sure I got there ok.

We took it really easy to the first gas station with an air hose. I inflated the tyre to the regular pressure, and the bike was good to go. The three of us set off for Thunder Bay in convoy. I’ll talk more about riding with Bill and Gerry in the next post. Right now, two days later, I’m about to leave Thunder Bay heading for Toronto. I expect to arrive in Toronto by Sunday, potentially sooner.

A big thank you to all the people who helped me. I was slow getting tools because I figured any type of break down would make the trip more colourful and introduce me to people. It really did. I’m now glad I have the tools, but I’m also glad I didn’t have them for this break down. The puncture was really a blessing that introduced me to a lot of wonderful people and reminded me of the motorcycling spirit.

Bessy

Today is my greant aunt Bess’s 98th birthday. Ninety eight years old and still going strong. Bess is the eldest of her siblings, and one of only two still living alone. She’s an inspiration to us all.

In honour of Bess’s birthday I’m naming my motorcycle Bessy. She might be a few years old (in motorbike years) but she’s in cracking shape and good for another decade at least. Bessy and I are all set to ride this continent north to south and back!

Here’s me in my new orange riding jacket looking suitably lop sided.

Callum in an orange jacket

Motorcycle maintenance issues strike 1

I spent the day shopping in Portland today. More on that later. After leaving REI and heading to a boot shop, I stopped to fill the bike with gas. I looked down to see oil dripping rapidly from the bike. Uh oh. Then on closer inspection I noticed that the counter shaft sprocket nut had completely come off the shaft. It was caught between the plastic casing and the shaft. Double uh oh.

This nut is what keeps the front sprocket attached. The sprocket in turn connects to the chain, which drives the wheel. Losing that sprocket means no more driving of the motorcycle. Uh oh.

I checked my phone for nearby wifi signals. There was a coffee shop across the street with wifi. I parked the bike in the gas station, grabbed my laptop, and hit the internet. After a little searching I figured I’d ask the guy in the shop, get the local low down. A customer sitting near the counter jumped in and told me about a bike shop about a mile away. I tried calling but got an answering machine. So I took a risk and headed over there.

At the shop I met Chris VanderVoort of Cycletune. I explained my problems to Chris. He didn’t have the part to fix the oil leak, but he very kindly rescrewed my counter sprocket nut. More than anything, Chris put my mind at rest. If you’re ever in need of motorcycle maintenance in Portland I thoroughly recommend stopping by Chris’s place.

It looked like the shifter seal had gone. Chris didn’t have the part to fix it but he recommended another dealer about 20 minutes away. After lots of phone calls I found a dealer in Seattle, Renton Motorcycles, who agreed to order the part for me. The part itself was only $10, shipping was $16 then the labour was going to be $190.

However, after the sprocket was fixed, the oil leakage stopped. The bike hasn’t dripped any oil since, despite being driven quite hard. I called back Patrick at Renton Motorcycles and asked his advice. He said there’s a seal behind the sprocket that might have come loose while the sprocket was floating about. That may have caused the leak, and now it may be resolved.

Happy days. It looks like I don’t have to spend $200 having a $10 part installed. Instead I’ll get the guys at Renton to change my oil now that I have a mix of synthetic and regular oil. The oil change only costs $40. πŸ™‚

Dirt biking

I had my first dirt biking experience today, courtesy of Kevin Anderson at Dirtbike Camp in Orland, California, USA. Here’s a shot of me suited and booted.

Callum on a dirtbike

Getting into the gear is no mean feat. You start with the shin pads, which cover from the shin to just above the knee. They go on over your socks. Then come the riding pants which are designed to fit the sitting / standing position on a bike. Then over the pants and shin pads come the boots. Mammoth boots that look like something out of a science fiction movie. They have snazzy plastic clip over buckles and a velcro top section. They feel almost solid once your foot is locked inside.

Put on the jersey. Then the chest protector, slip it over your head and put your arms through the loops to keep the shoulder pieces in place. Now pull on the elbow protectors. Add the dirt bike style helmet with a sun visor and open face section. Over the helmet put on goggles to protect your eyes from all the crap that might collide with them. Finally, put on the gloves, and then you’re ready to ride.

I started on a small, 125cc bike called Lucy. She’s a spirited little beast. Certainly quick enough to get started, and she feels very light when you’re mounted. After flying over the handlebars and nose diving into the dirt, Lucy doesn’t seem so light any more. Trying to get her back upright was not as easy as it looked. But onwards we soldier, it’s not how often you fall down, it’s how quickly you get back up!

The day started with an introduction to dirt biking from Kevin. He talked me through the basics of how to sit and stand on the bike. Stand over bumps and jumps, sit back on the bike in the straights and forward in the corners. Keep your knees in and your elbows out. Stay close to the bars so you’re not pushed around if the wheel turns without your permission.

Then I mounted Lucy and started with circuits round the flat track. Nothing too dramatic, just riding in a circle to get the hang of cornering, accelerating, braking, and so on. After getting a feel for it, Kevin jumps on a bike and says “follow me”. And so it begins…

We start with some fairly gentle corners, lean over, keep your leg out and forwards. That leg really helps if the bike slips in the corners, as it invariably does. Then up and over one or two mounds and round some tighter bends.

As I learned on my basic riding course, the trick to turning a motorcycle is to turn your head. It really is that simple. Look where you want to go and the bike will follow. I’ve had a few panic moments on the highway where I look at the wall, exactly where I don’t want to go, and then harshly remind myself to look down the road. Every time, the bike pulls through. Turn your head. It’s the same on a dirt bike.

Alas, I missed that principle around one ferociously tight turn and somehow managed to leave the bike, face first, over the bars and into the dirt. Thanks to all the various gear it was a non event. I got up, struggled with Lucy until I got her back on her wheels, and fired her up again.

After my quick recovery we were back on the track, following Kevin once more. Now we started over some bigger mounds, and mounds in quick succession, one after another. Pretty soon I realised that Kevin’s bike is actually leaving the ground as he goes over these humps. As we repeat the circuit we’re getting faster and faster, and pretty soon I can feel my bike getting very light at the top of the hills. So feeling fairly confident in my riding thus far, I push the throttle harder and harder.

Yes, I start jumping. The bike is getting some air, as the saying goes. Harder on each of the successive jumps until, on the third jump, my feet fly completely off the pegs. I land half on the pegs, smash down onto the seat of the bike, my feet hit the dirt, and we carry on. That’s the fear Kevin was talking about!

The trick, I’m told, is to hold onto the bike, for dear life in my case. Grip the bike between your knees, toes and heels. Grab onto it and do not let go while aireborne.

After my first mid-air departure from the bike, I took it considerably easier on future circuits. I think my days of adrenaline chasing fearlessness are behind me. No, I lie, I was never even close to fearless. Besides, I decided it was highly unlikely that I would meet any situations on my travels where jumping my motorcycle would be required.

After about two and a half hours of riding, I was exhausted. That and it was 3:30pm, I had 3 hours road riding to get to my destination for the evening, and about 4 hours of daylight remaining. So I took one quick shot on the bigger 250cc bike, closer to my own bike in terms of weight and size, and that was me finished.

Overall, a great experience. I’m definitely a lot less intimidated by the thought of taking my bike off-road now. Lower the tyre pressure, take it slow, and a motorbike will go a lot of places that a car simply will not. Will I be returning to a dirt bike school any time soon? I doubt it. I might pursue some trail riding training, but flying through the air holding onto a motorcycle for dear life is not my vocation. I shall leave it to men better suited to the job than I.

First day on the bike

My luggage took up more space than I thought. Turns out most of my stuff is still in the bag. I picked up some bungee cords at the local bike shop. I lined the boxes with paper bags and filled them. The rest went into my backpack, wrapped in the bike cover, and strapped on. I gave the chain a hosing of WD40 in preparation for the trip.

Here’s me lubed and loaded for departure.

Lubed and loaded

I left San Francisco a little later than expected at noon. My first big day’s motorcycling. I took route 1 south, the coastal road. The road twists and turns following the California coastline. I’ve read that the views are better while driving northwards. They’re pretty spectacular on the way south also.

Highway 1 going south

Not long into the ride I looked down to see the right fairing flapping against my knee. This is what the left side looks like. Notice the green part with the KL on it.

Left fairing

Now the right side with the fairing removed.

Right missing fairing

So instead of being attached to the bike, the fairing was attached to my luggage!

Fairing luggage

It’s remarkably cold on a motorcycle at 60+ mph. Even through three layers plus a jacket, it’s remarkably cold. Somehow when I’m sitting on the bike my jeans ride up above my boots, so the wind just manages to chill my legs. Longer socks required I think.

Early in the day I passed another motorcycle going in the opposite direction. The rider slipped his hand from the handlebar and gave me a half wave, half salute. It seems to be a biker code of the road. Almost all the other bikers I passed today did the same. After the first one or two I started doing it myself.

On our motorcycle training course they told us that by learning to ride a motorcycle we were joining a club. I understood that today.

The trail continues tomorrow…

Gear colours

I’m buying some motorcycle gear. A triple layer jacket and riding pants from Rev’it. There are a few colour combinations.

I want to look as unintrusive as possible. I don’t want to look too alien to the places I’ll be visiting. I’m trying to look as friendly and approachable as possible.

Which colour scheme do you think works best for that?

Orange and green

Edit: Just to avoid any confusion, the jacket is not pink, it really is orange. You can see the product photo here, the same jacket I’m wearing.

Second edit: Here’s a product shot of the green trousers. I’m pretty much set on the green bottoms, the only real question is the colour of the jacket.

Green and green

Green and white

I’m thinking orange and green is my preference. The white trousers look a bit over the top in real life, the photo doesn’t necessarily do them justice. With a white jacket they make me look like a spaceman!

Share your thoughts below if you will…