Hell is other people’s luggage
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The leaves are impressive with their fireworks of colour. The beautiful smell of smoke in the air and the cool sunny days.
My best memories are constantly derived from that fall season. I had just returned to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The city was good as far as cities went but it was the surrounding forestry, rivers and lakes that really made that area shine.
Students were bustling, trying to get some actual schoolwork done around their active social lives. This was in 1993, before the internet and social media had really caught on. In early October, people were still wearing shorts and riding bicycles around town.
I had met the ‘ideal’ girlfriend when I arrived that year at Lakehead. Her name was Julie and she was in the Outdoor Recreation program. That meant that she took courses on camping and being outside. The kids in that program were known as “reccers” with a hard C, pronounced like “wrekcers”. She was a Ski Patroller, I was a Ski Instructor, it seemed like a perfect match and to top it off, she had a motorbike. A Honda Ascot 500cc. That was the cherry on the cake for me. I was in love. It didn’t matter that the bike was a bit of an eyesore and it was slow but the fact that she rode is what hooked me. I also had my motorbike license. My last bike before coming up to University was a Yamaha Virago 500. Anyone that rides will tell you, once it gets into your system, you become a biker for life.
We both lived ‘down South’ of Thunder Bay near Toronto. A short drive of 1500 km’s (940 miles) give or take a few klicks. Naturally, Julie and I thought that it would be a great idea to ride down South together for Thanksgiving. A chance to see our friends and family. Maybe leave the bike there for the winter and fly back up to Thunder Bay. How hard would it be? We’d ride to Sioux Ste. Marie on the first day, grab a motel and then drive the rest of the way home the next day.
Let me tell you, we were very, very wrong. The plan was to leave after a class ended at 10 on October 6th. A Thursday. No problem so far, I had everything I needed packed and ready to go in a small backpack, including a K-Way jacket and leather ski gloves in case the weather got nasty (the weatherman said that we couldn’t have asked for a better weekend). Julie showed up at my place at 11am, a bit late, but not a deal breaker, we would just stay on the road a little later then we thought.
“You ready to go?” Julie asked.
“Sure, all packed.” I said, motioning to my small backpack.
“Hmmm.. I don’t know if all that will fit. I brought some extra clothes for dinner. Just in case we have to get dressy or anything like that.” She mumbled as she stared hesitantly at my small kit.
“No problem, I’ll just wear whatever, throw my good clothes in your bag and bring lots of underwear.” I replied.
That was a mistake. Julie had this backpack which could also be used as a tent in case of an emergency judging by the size of it. It was huge! When full, it weighed in at 60+ pounds. I was barely able to squeeze anything into it and had to struggle with Julie helping to get it onto my back. We decided to let her drive first while I sat on the back with the large bag since I could hold it more easily.
I was wearing long johns, jeans, a quick dry shirt under a turtleneck and my ski jacket. She was dressed pretty much the same. The little Honda started up and we were off. A little uncomfortable but we were leaving Thunder Bay.
Initially, the windchill factor at 100km/h didn’t seem that bad. I thought that I could handle it, but after the first hour of listening to nothing but wind noise and struggling with the backpack from hell, I was starting to get a little bored and a bit chilled. Normally, the scenery between Thunder Bay and The Soo is spectacular, and I think that the trip north of Lake Superior is a must for any Canadian motorcyclist. Unfortunately, though, all I could really see was my own reflection in the back of Julies helmet.
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask if she had filled up the bike before we left, but evidently, she had not. A sign flashed by reading “Nipigon 5 km,” and that was where we ran out of gas. I pushed for awhile and then Julie would push; not too much was said between us. It was approaching 2pm by the time we saw a gas station which left no time to eat after filling the tank. I took a turn behind the bars for awhile, which was a nice change of pace. Julie and I decided to swap positions every fill-up which was every 150km or so.
The towns flew by — Schreiber, Terrace Bay, Marathon — and then finally the sign that we were looking for, “A&W in White River only 20 minutes!” At last, real food! We pulled over to grab a burger and check out the sights. Half an hour later while preparing to hop back in the saddle, I reached into my pocket to pull out my Vaurnet sunglasses (they were all the rage in 1993). Half came out, half stayed in where it was warm and dry. No problem, they had only cost a weeks wages at the time. In my frustration, I began to swing my leg over the bike (I was the passenger again) when I heard a crack. My knee had knocked off the left rear signal light. Great. Nothing that our safety roll of duct tape couldn’t fix. By this time it was around 7pm, the temperature was dropping and the sky had turned a dark grey. It wasn’t a clear night anymore, the weatherman was wrong, snow clouds were moving in. Something that both Julie and I were familiar with after our years of living on ski hills.
We decided to spend the night in Wawa, the town so nice, they named it twice. After hunting around for a cheap motel with an available room, (it was some kind of hunter appreciation week in Wawa and rooms were hard to come by) we finally found a single-bed unit with hot water and a TV for $38+ tax. Still, even with the water stained ceiling and the lovely oil painting of Elvis covering up the holes in the wall, it provided one of the best showers that I’ve ever had. We were both exhausted and fell quickly to sleep.
Six o’clock in the morning rolled around swiftly and quietly, like a snowball tumbling down a hill. And snow was exactly what we woke upto. Fifteen centimeters (6 inches) of wet slushy snow had dropped on Wawa the morning of October 7th. It was just waiting for two young riders to slide about in. Neither of us was prepared for snow. I had boots on, but they were the thin variety made for hiking and Julie wore the same. We filled up across the street. Hunters in their winter whites were laughing and pointing at us while the gas attendant offered the same comments as the previous pump jockey: “Going Far? Gosh golly, that’s one big backpack.” and my favorite gas-attendant saying: “You sure picked a shitty day for a ride.”
Oh, Really? I never noticed…
I started riding first, taking it easy in the slush. In town it was the worst, but by the time we reached the highway, most of the slushed had been pushed off to the side of the road leaving the blacktop clear. The air was a little frosty, but nothing that two avid skiers hadn’t been through before. Between Wawa and The Soo there is not much of a population base, and therefore not too many gas stations. As mentioned, the Ascot was getting about 150km to a tank. When 130 km came up on the tripometer I started to worry. There was no sign of civilization anywhere. We had passed very few vehicles and it was almost 8 o’clock in the morning. When 140 km rolled over slowly on the clock, I was taking it easy and trying to conserve gas. Just as we crested a hill and my heart was in my throat, we saw a clearing ahead of us with a gas station / restaurant combo. We pulled in and stopped just in front of one of the oldest gas pumps I had ever seen. At first, I thought that it might be an antique on display, but soon a young guy wearing a plaid jacket and an Elmer Fudd cap with ear-flaps came out. “Gosh golly, that’s one big backpack.” He said as he watched in disbelief at Julie staggering off the bike almost losing her balance as the weight of the pack threw her tiny frame around.
We filled up for $4.80 and gave him a $10 bill, then watched him as he tried to figure out our change on a calculator. I was waiting for the duelling banjos to start up, but he figured it out and gave us the correct change and smiled with perfect teeth. We couldn’t help but smile back.
Julie and I entered the restaurant where it was nice and clean, a little sparse but comfy, like your Grandma’s kitchen. We were served quickly by a young girl and learned that she and her boyfriend were working there to pay off a bill that they had acquired. Their VW hippie van had conked out and they hadn’t enough money to put towards for repairs. They be nice people running the place to do that for somebody I thought. I looked me as we pulled away and saw the guy with the perfect teeth waving. I waved back and we were on the road again.
By the time we pulled into Sault Ste. Marie, it was 10am Friday morning. The sky was blue, the temperature was warming up and I was happy to be riding again. Everything in the World was right, at least for a little while. Then we rode into Blind River. We pulled into the local coffee shop, talked to a few people and enjoyed the break. Julie and I walked out hand in hand, all smiles, but then looked up to see the ominous dark grey clouds again. Julie drove again while I sat on the back staring intently at the clouds, wishing them to go away. No such luck; the temperature dropped again and with it came a cold hard rain. After an hour, we were soaked and the spray from the cars coming towards us nearly blinded our side of the road.
The giant backpack behind me remained fairly dry, which was fortunate, because I hoped to be changing into something dry very soon. The rain dripped down my back and collected around my bottom before it drained slowly into my boots where it numbed my toes. We rode into Sudbury at roughly 5pm but by now I had given up looking at my watch. I didn’t care anymore. We grabbed dinner at a local place and took turns drying our clothes off in the bathroom under the hand dryer. We drank a lot of coffee and watched as the sky turned black; the rain was not going to give up. We sat in the diner for a couple of hours, debating whether or not we should risk the four hour ride into Toronto during a pitch black freezing rain storm.
What the hell we decided, you only live once. We would give it a try. Still wet, but with full stomachs, we faced the road again. Julie took the reins while I sat behind her, seeing nothing but the glare of headlights reflecting off of puddles on the highway. About 30km South of Sudbury, I felt the back wheel slide as we rounded a curve. Julie pulled over right away and we decided to look for a room. I rode to the first motel we could find which was called “Little Orphan Annie’s” A truck stop, motel and night club all rolled into one package. The price for the night was $28, and the room was cleaner, the bed more comfortable and there was a bathtub where the hot water seemed to last forever.
During the day, a bit of tension had grown between Julie and I — there is only so much you can handle being with one person under those circumstances. We didn’t say much to each other that night.
6am reared it’s ugly head to reveal snow on the ground and the temperature right on the freezing mark. We had left our wet clothes resting on the heater vent overnight so they were mostly dry in the morning. Julie pulled a hair dryer out of the backpack from hell and we were able to dry a few of the a bit better. We walked to the restaurant with our heads low. After breakfast, the outlook improved. The roads began to clear again and the air warmed up a couple of degrees. Time to hit the road we thought. All packed up and ready to go, I turned on the key, pulled out the choke and pressed the start button then heard the bike wheeze and backfire. Shit! What a way to start the day.
I cranked on the started and tried everything that I could muster to get the bloody bike going, but no matter what we tried, the Honda just refused to come to life. After a half hour of swearing and begging at the bike, the battery was reduced to clicks from the solenoid. I pushed it over to the gas station and dumped some gasline anti-freeze into the tank and then tried to bumpstart it. No luck with that method either. Another hour came and went while we asked strangers if they could give us a boost, but not too many people carried cables in early October. We had some more coffee and stared into our cups wondering what to do next.
“I hear that you need a boost.” The voice from behind me gave me a bit of a start. It was a man with an overgrown grey beard and an orange hunters jacket. Julie and I looked at each other and smiled, there was a God after all. Tom, our rescuer, pulled up beside Julies bike in his pickup, which was loaded with a Yamaha four wheeler. We wrestled his enormous jumper cables onto the tiny battery and with a bit of fiddling and a lot of luck, the bike finally rattled to life. We bought Tom a coffee and headed South down Hwy 69. Anxious to make up some time, we kept the speedo pegged at 130 km/h, as fast as the bike could carry us.
After two and a half days of snow and constant problems, we finally arrived at Julie’s home at five in the afternoon. I was expecting to see all of her family there eating Thanksgiving dinner, waiting for us to walk in. Instead, as soon as we pulled up, Julie’s mother ran out.
“It’s about time that you got here. Get changed, let’s go!” She gave Julie a quick hug then ran back inside. We were to drive to Kingston (another 3 hours) to have dinner at Julie’s brothers house. I wanted to scream.
The weekend with Julie’s family was too much. I couldn’t handle the smiling faces after suffering the worst trip of my life. I would have preferred the company of people who were pissed off everything, I certainly was. Later I helped Julie store the bike in her garage and saw my folks for a couple of hours before we waiting standby at the airport for a flight back to Thunder Bay. The plane ride lasted an hour and a half. This was the final insult to injury. I could not believe that our two and a half day trek which cost us both around $80 (the plane ticket home was $140) could have been avoided for only $60 more and bundled into an hour and a half flight.
Julie and I caught a cab back to the school, where we said good night and left each other with a quick peck on the lips. The next day we broke up. Looking back at the trip, I sometimes wonder about those two and a half days of hell. Even though I hated it at the time, I’m sure that when I’m old and grey, it’s going to be one of my fondest memories of University life. Whenever I hear the sound of a Honda 500 Ascot, I’ll always remember that trip and the girl that I shared it with. And that backpack..
I wrote this Cycle Canada Magazine back in 1994 — it was published in JAN 1995
Epilogue. I am an old man with greying hair now. And I still wouldn’t wish that trip on anyone. I still dream about doing long rides but in those dreams, I’m on a Goldwing and the people I ride with are on their own bikes and we are staying in 5 star hotels and it’s late August…