Canada on a Motorcycle, Day 5: The Road to Banff
Photo by Adrian Collins Photography
We woke up at 7 a.m. on the fifth day of our trip. By now, I had such little concept of what day of the week it was that I messaged a friend, whose birthday it was, and said, "Hope work is as good as it can be and that you get spoiled tonight!" She wrote back saying, "It's Saturday, silly!" It seemed impossible that we'd left home on Tuesday and it was already the weekend.
We ate breakfast at a place called Trapper's Mountain Grill in Waterton Lakes, strong coffee and hearty plates of eggs brought to us within 10 minutes of ordering. We had a five-hour ride ahead of us to Banff National Park, more than 2,500 square miles nestled in the Canadian Rockies and one of the destinations Adrian and I were most excited about. We'd been tagging each other on photos of Lake Louise on Instagram, the glacial water glowing a bright, opaque, otherworldly shade of green, and couldn't wait to see it with our own eyes. But before we left Waterton, we had our first hiccup with the bikes: Adrian's battery was dead.
The group had just ridden off, and we stood there in the parking lot as Adrian tried the bike again to no avail. He called Mark's cell phone and told him what had happened, and Mark reached Jeff on the intercom. Soon the group was pulling back up beside us. Mark tried to jumpstart the battery using his own bike, but that didn't work. (Neither, strangely, did the following little maneuver.)
Fortunately, we were right across the street from a small gas station/automotive shop. I couldn't believe how fortuitous this was--if the bike had died at nearly any other point that day, we would have been on isolated roads with few passing cars and no phone signal. Without a doubt, we were in best-case-scenario territory.
Sure enough, an employee from the automotive store was able to restart the battery with a portable battery charger. When Mark asked how much it cost, the guy chuckled. "We only have this one, and it's not for sale," he said.
Mark grinned. "Everything has a price."
The employee shook his head. "Sorry. This is worth its weight in gold."
Rebuffed but relieved that the problem had been so quickly solved, we set out on our way. For the next few hours, we stopped only for gas and at another auto shop we passed to see if they carried the battery chargers. Everyone knew we'd gotten lucky. We couldn't take the chance of our battery, or anyone else's, dying hours away from the closest town, so we spent $150 on a portable security blanket.
The ride to Banff was incredible, and it struck me, as it often does on the bike, how heightened my senses were. I wasn't slumped in a front seat with my feet on the dash, scrolling through my Instagram feed, or dozing with a straw hat over my head. I was looking, really looking, at everything around us. At the fir trees bent toward the mountains like hair brushed away from a forehead, and the lodgepole pines on the valley floor, with such tall, spindly trunks that they looked like a battalion of flamingos keeping knob-kneed watch over the road. The mountains were close enough to touch but far enough to never reach, painted in rough brushstrokes of rust and ash, charcoal and jade, with wave-like indentations that looked as if they'd been scraped into the rock by a giant rake. The one small town we passed through, Longview, was a cowboy town, all flat-roofed saloons and mural-painted gas station walls. Silly, but I always find myself surprised in "other" country towns, as if Texas owns the copyright. We passed one farm with a mile-long fence line decorated with a hat on each wooden post. Baseball caps, cowboy hats, children's bike helmets, fedoras . . . hundreds of them, an inexplicable trail of human headwear that seemed at once ghostly and humorous, a wink and nod at every passerby. Adrian and I gestured to each other and at the fence, making puzzled faces in the sideview mirror, shrugging our shoulders.
The compressed sound of wind in my helmet reminded me of the blush pink conch shell we used to have in the hall bathroom of my childhood home. I used to hold it against my ear, its surface cool and smooth, and listen to waves breaking inside the curve of my hands. The wind was like that, but louder, as if the ocean in the shell were being rocked by a storm. Over the wind, I could hear my music, a mix of Counting Crows, Matt Nathanson, Ben Harper, Amy Winehouse, Adele--songs that returned me to different times in my life, first times and last times, yearning and heartbreak.
I could feel the weight of the wind pressing against my body, flooding the space between Adrian and me like a jealous lover or needy child--mine, mine, mine. It pushed and pulled me--I was nothing to it, protected only because on the bike, I am a part of a much larger animal, more resistant to bullying. I could feel my right knee aching, a sharp pain in the kneecap eased by straightening my leg, a flag in the wind. I could feel my seat tingling, stinging, and finally receding to numbness. My gloved fingertips were alternately warm and cool, depending on that wind, mostly resting on the grips behind me, sometimes clutching, other times relaxed on my thighs or barely grazing Adrian's hips. I could feel the muscles in my inner thighs working to hold the bike and Adrian's body and imagined myself back in the Pilates studio, beats on the tower or horseback on the box.
And I could smell the coming rain like a cake in the oven--all promise, earthy minerality. Always, that smell reminds me of being a child gripping the sides of the swimming pool, tipping my nose to the sky and sniffing like an animal, delighted by the prospect of summer storms. I smelled Christmas in the pine trees, a fresh, clean scent impossible to replicate with anything artificial. I smelled fecund soil, the occasional waft of manure, the sweetness of growing things.
Every so often, a swell of endorphins rushed me, a sense of wellbeing and happiness and disbelief that elsewhere, in those very moments, right in my own country, even, there were gunshots and hate, a strange and terrible circus of politicians and cell phone videos and comment threads, judgment and scorn and indictment and fear. It had been days since I'd seen Trump talk, or scrolled past a new "trending" post about a celebrity famous for doing nothing, or heard about a woman getting raped and her assailant walking free. On this ride, all I knew of the world was in my five senses, and that world was pure. That world was hopeful.
An oblivious roadblock on our way to Banff.
When people ask me whether I was scared on the ride, my honest answer is, "Sometimes." Some of my best friends have shuddered and said things like, "You'll never find me on a motorcycle," as if motorcycle is a dirty word. I get it. I used to feel the same way. If you'd asked me five years ago whether I would ever take a trip like this, whether I'd ride a motorcycle at all, I would have laughed and said, "Hell, no." But when Adrian and I got together, motorcycle riding was a part of him. He'd been riding dirt bikes since he was a boy and owned motorcycles his entire adult life. He is as comfortable on a bike as he is on his own two feet, and he loves it with a passion I understood. I knew I would never try to take it away from him. But I didn't anticipate coming to love it, too.
The first time I rode with him was in Australia. I remember being in the parking garage of his apartment building, staring up at him like a child as he fastened my helmet. I was awkward and tentative climbing on the bike, as if it were a horse that could buck me off. And when we took off, going five miles per hour in the garage, I squealed involuntarily and gripped Adrian as tightly as I could. He laughed, telling me I didn't have to hold him so hard, and I said, "Too bad." We rode around Bondi going maybe 30 miles an hour, and even though I was terrified, I could smell the ocean and it made me smile.
So when people ask me if I was scared, or talk about the risk, I know what they mean. To ride is to enter into a contract with yourself, with the road, with your bike or with your rider, to say, Yes, I understand. I understand that there's a greater chance of not making it home than if I were on foot or in a car. I understand that risk and I accept it because by doing this, I am living. I accept it because if the worst were to happen, if we were to crash and I were to die, I would leave this earth in the midst of experiencing it deeply, in the midst of feeling gratitude and joy and love, and I'm okay with that, as okay as I can ever be with the concept of my own death. It's a solemn contract, not one to be entered into lightly, and that's why I ride with Adrian. I trust him implicitly on a bike, not just as a rider but as my husband, as someone who will guard my life with likely more care than he would guard his own. That was why when we got to Banff, we checked into a hotel while the rest of the group checked into a hostel. Adrian took sleep seriously on this trip because it wasn't only his life he was contracting on the bike; it was mine. So while a part of me wished we were with the group, experiencing the inevitable discomforts together, I respected and appreciated the reason why Adrian made the last-minute reservations.
I was exhausted when we arrived and immediately stripped down to my bottom layers of leggings and a t-shirt. Then I spread out across the bed and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was nearly 10 p.m. and Adrian was getting back to the room, bubbling over with excitement. He'd gone to take sunset photos at a lake and ended up coming face to face with a bear. It had disappeared behind a thicket of trees, and with a photographer's zeal, Adrian had given chase, hopping back on his bike and riding to a spot near where he thought it would emerge. The bear popped out just as Adrian pulled over, and they stared at each other in surprise, both frozen. Flustered, with his helmet still on, Adrian snapped what photos he could before the bear disappeared again. At its closest, he said, the bear was 10-15 feet away from him. He scrolled through photos on his camera, still exhilarated but wishing he'd had more time and better angles.
Photo by Adrian Collins Photography
Two Jake Lake at sunset in Banff. Photo by Adrian Collins Photography.
"We should go back tomorrow," he said, "and see if we can find it."
I laughed and said okay, but the idea of coming so close to a bear didn't excite me the way it did Adrian. I'd seen The Revenant.
The group was just leaving a pub where they'd had dinner, and they were returning to the hostel for bed, so we decided to stroll up and down the twilit street before sharing a pizza back at our hotel. The next day, we would see the famous lakes, as well as take a gondola ride up to the top of Sulphur Mountain for a full view of Banff. It would be a busy day. But thanks to my nap, I couldn't sleep until nearly 3 a.m., and morning came far too soon.
P.S. I found the story behind the hats on the fence posts!