Glacially eroded pebbles on the banks of Lake McDonald, by Adrian Collins Photography
In the women's cabin, no one slept well or for long--we were too concerned, ironically, with waking one another up. So for the five or so hours of darkness, the silence was marred only by the occasional hesitant shift of a sleeping bag. In the men's cabin, Mark and Jeff's snores were a robust chorus that kept Adrian awake all night, despite the foam ear plugs he'd brought for exactly this reason.
We were all moving slowly the next morning as we packed up the bikes. The air was cold, and I'd already learned it was best to layer leggings beneath my riding pants. I thought I'd packed the thin REI thermal layer I'd bought two years ago for Joshua Tree, but instead, I packed the thick $10 Costco leggings I wear to Pilates when all my other workout clothes are dirty. They would work, though.
As we rode away from the KOA campsite, Adrian's voice came on in my helmet: "I'm so sorry for my snoring," he said, full of genuine remorse. "It's really not fair to you."
I laughed. "Was your night that bad?"
"I think I slept about an hour," he said.
"Are you okay to ride?"
"I don't have a choice," he said. "But I booked a hotel for us tonight. I can't ride on two nights of no sleep. It's one thing to make a stupid decision for myself, but it's not right to make it for you, too."
"But what about the teepees?" I asked teasingly.
"Fuck the teepees," he said, and we both laughed.
For the next two nights in Waterton Lakes, Canada, the seven of us were supposed to camp together inside one (presumably large) teepee. I'd been half nervous about this and half excited. As Adrian said after his last trip with Mark, good stories don't come from staying in hotels. I agreed, and was more than willing to sacrifice comfort for experience. At the same time, if I was bleary-eyed and foggy-headed from an overly considerate night with quiet women, I could only imagine how Adrian felt from hours inside a living echo chamber. And he was right: riding a motorcycle is inherently risky. There's no need to amplify that risk if you don't need to.
"We can stay in the teepee tomorrow night," Adrian said, and that sounded good to me.
We stopped for breakfast half an hour away, unhelmeting and draping jackets and gloves on the bikes before walking inside a homey restaurant adjoining a gift store. A waitress sat us at a long table in the back, and we immediately pounced, desperate for coffee. Adrian, who doesn't drink coffee, asked for apple juice, and hung his head when the waitress returned from the kitchen with the inexplicable news that the restaurant didn't serve apple juice. They also didn't poach eggs, much to Adrian's dismay. We couldn't help laughing.
That day, we'd have a scenic ride to Glacier National Park, after which we'd eventually cross the border into Canada and ride another half hour or so to Waterton Lakes National Park, our first Canadian stop.
"If you see anything you want to take pictures of," Mark said as we re-geared in the parking lot, "just pull over, and the group will follow. Passengers, if you see anything you want a photo of, just tap your rider on the shoulder. We've allotted plenty of time to get to Waterton. We're not in a rush, okay? Stop when you want to stop."
Mark's words were well-timed. I wasn't sure about Megan or Valerie, but I knew that Adrian was itching to begin photographing. Like most artists, he's hard on himself when he feels he's wasted an opportunity, and I sensed that by now, on day three, he'd expected to capture much more than he had. So when we came upon a serene stretch of lake, Adrian didn't hesitate before pulling over. He grabbed his camera and backpack full of lenses, and Valerie and Megan did the same. I followed them onto a shore of smooth, dusty stones. The water was clear and still, and beneath it, those same stones were bright with color. I sat on the trunk of an uprooted tree and looked out at the water. To my left, Adrian was lying on his stomach, photographing the lake through a piece of knotted driftwood. I smiled. I love watching him take photos. A long time ago, before we were ever together, I saw a photo he posted on Facebook, a closeup of two fallen frangipanis in Bali. The road was golden with sunshine behind them, but the focus was on the flowers, on their delicate white petals, their hopeful marigold centers. I thought, This is a man to fall in love with--a man who notices the beauty in a fallen flower. I still feel that way when I watch him work, and when I see the photos he takes, it's like an invitation to see the world the way he does, or did, at least for that moment. That's the beauty of photography, I suppose. The generosity of a shared vision.
Adrian photographing the driftwood.
The result. Photo by Adrian Collins Photography
We stopped three or four more times, arriving at Glacier National Park close to lunchtime. Jeff, Valerie, Megan, Deb, and I wanted to hike, while Mark and Adrian opted to stay behind. We agreed to meet back at the bikes at 2:00.
The hike started out steep, and I was quickly winded. I hoped it was because of altitude and not poor cardiovascular shape, but who could say for sure? Jeff took the lead, with the four women trailing single-file behind him. Deb was also breathless and told me she's a severe asthmatic. "Just go ahead if I fall behind," she said. "Don't feel you need to stay."
We all found our pace, stopping every so often to make sure Deb was still with us.
"Just look for the bedazzled hat," Jeff said, and we laughed. He'd teased her about the rhinestone-decorated Harley cap at dinner the night before, and she'd enlisted the girls' support.
"It's cute, right?" she'd asked.
We all nodded dutifully. "You're rocking it," I told her.
But halfway up the hike, she and her cap were nowhere to be seen, and we determined that she must have turned around. I felt a pang of guilt for not waiting for her, even though she'd told us not to. If she'd gone a little farther, the path would have evened out, the staircase-like trail giving way to intermittent fields of snow. We were sweating by then, and I tied my flannel shirt and fleece hoodie around my waist, now down to my sleeveless t-shirt, Costco leggings, and tennis shoes. It was strange to be trampling through snow even as the sun burned my shoulders. I tried to avoid slipping on ice by walking where the snow was thickest. It reminded me of being in Yosemite this past January and doing the same thing, only back then my footsteps were the only ones in the snow and I was lost with a dead cell phone as the sun began to set, telling myself out loud, "It's fine. You're going to be fine." I shook my head, remembering my stupidity. Behind me, a little boy declared, "Today was a bad day to wear socks!" I couldn't help but agree.
The views on this hike were some of the loveliest I'd seen. I kept looking back behind me: rolling green fields sprayed with wildflowers against dramatic snowcapped mountains. I've never been to Holland, but for some reason, that was where I kept feeling I was. We passed a mountain goat wearing a tracking collar, whom I would swear was smiling for photos. Someone overheard that there were 23 of these guys roaming around and that we were lucky to have spotted one.
At the top of the hike, the view suddenly opened up to reveal a deep azure lake bowled in by mountains. The surface rippled with a gentle breeze, and we stared around us in awe. It was one of those moments in nature when tears collect in the back of my throat as I'm filled with a quiet, rapturous swell of wellbeing, a rising of spirit, a sense of the divine. This is God, to me. I wished Adrian were there with his camera, with his eyes.
We returned to the bikes right on schedule, exhilarated and happy and (in my case) hungry. I scarfed down the Clif Bar I had stashed in the tank bag and also ate some of the frickle--peanut butter, honey, M&Ms, and something else I'm forgetting--that Mark's wife, Mel, had packed in Ziplock bags for us. The concoction has enough protein and sugar to keep you going between meals, and is a constant on any adventure trip Mark takes.
We re-layered and reloaded, climbing back onto the bikes for the ride to Waterton Lakes. The breeze we'd seen rippling the surface of the lake had built itself into a wind strong enough to make me close my helmet visor so my head wouldn't get tossed from side to side with its force. I leaned into Adrian, wrapping my arms around him. There was a mountain wall to our left and a drop-off to our right, and I realized I didn't like riding in wind. It made me feel unpleasantly vulnerable, as if one big gust could sweep us off the side of the mountain. My morbid writer's mind entertained terrible fantasies until we were back where the worst that could happen was getting knocked over on the side of a road. Suddenly, Jeff, who was just ahead and to our left, made a jerky motion on his bike and pulled over onto the shoulder. By the time we'd done the same, he was grabbing at his pants, grimacing, pulling them off halfway to his knees. A bee--of which there were many constantly buzzing around--had managed to sting his inner thigh mid-ride. A welt was already rising.
"Mate, I actually heard you yell when it happened," Adrian said, shaking his head. "That sucks. How'd it happen?"
Jeff worked to pull out what was left of the stinger. "Must've been sitting on my pants for awhile. There. Think I got it." He looked back at us, his cheeks flushed, and pulled his pants back up. "Alright. Let's go!"
The border crossing was smooth, much to Jeff and Valerie's relief, since they'd had passport issues before the trip. Just like that, we were in Canada, where every sign was now in English and French and distance and speed were measured in kilometers.
Valerie and Jeff, ahead of us.
A half hour later, the Prince of Wales Hotel marked our entrance into Waterton Lakes. Set high on a hill overlooking another deep blue lake, the hotel was all windows and peaked roof, diminutive against the mountains despite its actual enormity.
Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes, by Adrian Collins Photography
At some point during the day, the group had decided to check into the same hotel where we were staying. Everyone was tired, and when there were two rooms available besides ours, Mark and Jeff reserved them. While I rested a little in our room, Adrian rode another half hour out with Mark to reserve a teepee for the following night. It must have been a popular time for teepees, because they were all reserved. We'd need to make different arrangements--but we'd worry about that later.
We ate dinner at a restaurant called the Lakeside Chophouse, laughing at what a 180 we'd made from where we thought we'd be that night. Instead of a teepee, we had three hotel rooms, and we were now cutting into steak and salmon and drinking wine that came from a bottle, not a box, as the sun set on the lake beyond the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows. That night turned into a bit of a Jeff roast, as Mark told stories from their many travels together.
"So you all know Jeff's rules, right?" Mark asked. He looked around. "Don't be last on the bike," he intoned. "Don't take your helmet off. Hurry, hurry, hurry."
We laughed--this was already a bit of a thing. We all nodded.
"So we're on this trip, and of course Jeff's rushed everyone to get going, 'You're taking too long, don't be last.' He takes off," Mark said, already laughing, "and his panniers are open. I mean, shit's just flying off his bike. So there I am, I keep stopping to pick up all his shit, load it up on my bike, get going again, and oh! There's something else I have to stop and pick up. So finally he pulls over to wait for me. I get there, and he's all, 'Keep up!'"
We were roaring with laughter, tears in our eyes, Jeff laughing the hardest of all.
"Why can't you move on?" Jeff said, waving dismissively. "I mean, I'm over it!"
This made us laugh even harder. "I'm over it!" we kept repeating.
I looked around the table, smiling as I remembered the truck ride from Spokane to Sandpoint--the awkward, careful politeness, the long stretches of silence. How far we'd come already, and how far we still had left to go.