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Travels on the Healing Road
by Neil Peart
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Within a ten-month period, Neil Peart suffered family losses so devastating that they left him a ghost-physically a man but with nothing.
No hope, meaning, faith, or desire to keep living. One year after the first tragedy, Neil was choosing between life and his own death. Finally, all he could decide upon was motion. He got on his BMW R1100GS motorcycle, and over the next fourteen months, rode 55,000 miles, in search of a reason to live. On a journey of escape, exile, and exploration, he traveled from Quebec to Alaska, down the Canadian and American coasts and western regions, to Mexico and Belize, and finally back to Quebec. While riding "the Healing Road," Neil recorded in his journals his progress and setbacks in the grieving/healing process, and the pain of constantly reliving his losses.
He also recorded with dazzling, colourful, entertaining, and moving artistry, the enormous range of his travel adventures, from the mountains to the sea, from the deserts to Arctic ice, and the dozens of memorable people, characters, friends, and relatives he met along the way, and who increasingly contributed to his healing and sense of meaning and purpose. He begins the journey with nothing, "the Ghost Rider." What he finally attains is joy, love, and indelible memories of the most extraordinary journey of his life. Ghost Rider is a bold, brilliantly written, intense, exciting, and ultimately triumphant narrative memoir from a gifted writer and musician, who started out as a man reduced to trying to stay alive by staying on the move.
Some of life's journeys must be undertaken alone, but no open highway can soothe a battered soul like the open hearts of caring people. I wish to take this opportunity to formally thank the family member and friends who cared for me when I could not: my parents, Glen and Betty, sisters Judy and Nancy, brother Danny and his wife Janette, Deb and Mark, Steven and Shelly, Keith, Brutus and Georgia, Brad and Rita, David and Karen, Paul and Judy, Ray and Susan, Sheila, Pegi, Geddy and Nancy, Alex and Charlene, and Liam and Sharyn.
On the road, I was given hospitality and welcome diversion by some of the above, as well as by Dan and Laurie, Gump, Trevor, Nathalie, the Williams Family, Freddie, Rob and Paul, Andrew (Our Benefactor), the Hollywood ex-pats, the Rich family, the Nuttall family, and those who more directly helped to shape these pages: Lesley Choyce, Mark Riebling, and my brother Danny, who gave me astute and valuable advice. Paul McCarthy's editorial genius was unstintingly sympathetic, encouraging, insightful, and incisive, and drove me to keep trying to make my story deeper and richer.
My motorcycle and I would like to extend our special appreciation to BMW of Salt Lake, Iron Horse in Tucson, Shail's and John Valk in Vancouver, and McBride Cycle in Toronto.
Sometimes I can almost sustain the high-minded sentiment that it was worth the pain of losing Jackie and Selena for the joy of having known them. I don't know if I will ever be able to embrace that notion, but the important thing is that I embrace today - the joy of knowing Carrie, and the inspiration of being loved by her. Without her, Vapor Trails would not have been made, and this book would not have been written.
"Dedicated to the future, with honor to the past."
We're only immortal for a limited time
Table of Contents
Riding the Healing Road
Chapter 1 - Into Exile
Chapter 2 - Westering
Chapter 3 - North to Inuvik
Chapter 4 - West to Alaska
Chapter 5 - First Class Saddletramp
Chapter 6 - The Loneliest Road in America
Chapter 7 - Desert Solitaire
Chapter 8 - Letters to Brutus
Homeward Angel, On the Fly
Chapter 6 - Epiphany at Vespers
Chapter 9 - Winterlude
Chapter 10 - Seasonal Affective Disorder
Chapter 11 - Back in the Saddle
Chapter 12 - Spring Fever
Chapter 13 - Summerlude
Chapter 14 - Eastering
Chapter 15 - Riding the Jetstream
Chapter 16 - Coast Rider
Chapter 17 - Telescope Peak
Chapter 18 - Epilogue: Ever After
You were gone
From all the lives
You left your mark upon
Chapter 1 - Into Exile
You can go out, you can take a ride
And when you get out on your own
You get all smoothed out inside
And it's good to be alone
FACE UP, 1991
Outside the house by the lake the heavy rain seemed to hold down the darkness, grudging the slow fade from black, to blue, to gray. As I prepared that last breakfast at home, squeezing the oranges, boiling the eggs, smelling the toast and coffee, I looked out the kitchen window at the dim Quebec woods gradually coming into focus. Near the end of a wet summer, the spruce, birch, poplars, and cedars were densely green, glossy and dripping.
For this momentous departure I had hoped for a better omen than this cold, dark, rainy morning, but it did have a certain pathetic fallacy, a sympathy with my interior weather. In any case, the weather didn't matter; I was going. I still didn't know where (Alaska? Mexico? Patagonia?), or for how long (two months? four months? a year?), but I knew I had to go. My life depended on it.
Sipping the last cup of coffee, I wrestled into my leathers, pulled on my boots, then rinsed the cup in the sink and picked up the red helmet. I pushed it down over the thin balaclava, tightened the plastic rainsuit around my neck, and pulled on my thick waterproof gloves. I knew this was going to be a cold, wet ride, and if my brain wasn't ready for it, at least my body would be prepared. That much I could manage.
The house on the lake had been my sanctuary, the only place I still loved, the only thing I had left, and I was tearing myself away from it unwillingly, but desperately. I didn't expect to be back for a while, and one dark corner of my mind feared that I might never get back home again. This would be a perilous journey, and it might end badly. By this point in my life I knew that bad things could happen, even to me.
I had no definite plans, just a vague notion to head north along the Ottawa River, then turn west, maybe across Canada to Vancouver to visit my brother Danny and his family. Or, I might head northwest through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Alaska, where I had never travelled, then catch the ferry down the coast of British Columbia toward Vancouver. Knowing that ferry would be booked up long in advance, it was the one reservation I had dared to make, and as I prepared to set out on that dark, rainy morning of August 20, 1998, I had two and a half weeks to get to Haines, Alaska - all the while knowing that it didn't really matter, to me or anyone else, if I kept that reservation.
Out in the driveway, the red motorcycle sat on its centerstand, beaded with raindrops and gleaming from my careful preparation. The motor was warming on fast idle, a plume of white vapor jetting out behind, its steady hum muffled by my earplugs and helmet.
I locked the door without looking back. Standing by the bike, I checked the load one more time, adjusting the rain covers and shock cords. The
proverbial deep breath gave me the illusion of commitment, to the day and to the journey, and I put my left boot onto the footpeg, swung my right leg high over the heavily laden bike, and settled into the familiar saddle.
My well-travelled BMW R1100GS (the "adventure-touring" model) was packed with everything I might need for a trip of unknown duration, to unknown destinations. Two hard-shell luggage cases flanked the rear wheel, while behind the saddle I had stacked a duffel bag, tent, sleeping bag, inflatable foam pad, groundsheet, tool kit, and a small red plastic gas can. I wanted to be prepared for anything, anywhere.
Because I sometimes liked to travel faster than the posted speed limits, especially on the wide open roads of the west - where it was safe in terms of visible risks, but dangerous in terms of hidden enforcement - I had decided to try using a small radar detector, which I tucked into my jacket pocket, with its earpiece inside the helmet.
A few other necessities, additional tools, and my little beltpack filled the tankbag in front of me, and a roadmap faced up from a clear plastic cover on top. The rest of the baggage I would carry away with me that morning had less bulk, but more weight - the invisible burdens that had driven me to depart into what already seemed like a kind of exile.
But at that moment, before I'd turned a wheel or even pushed off the centerstand, I reaped the first reward of this journey, when my thoughts and energies contracted and narrowed their focus to riding the machine. My right hand gently rolled on the throttle a little more, left hand wiped away the raindrops already collecting on my clear face shield, then pulled in the clutch lever. My left foot toed the shifter down into first gear, and I moved slowly up the lane between the wet trees. At the top I paused to lock the gate behind me, wiped off my faceshield again, and rode out onto the muddy gravel road, away from all that.
Just over a year before that morning, on the night of August 10, 1997, a police car had driven down that same driveway to bring us news of the
first tragedy. That morning my wife Jackie and I had kissed and hugged our nineteen-year-old daughter, Selena, as she set out to drive back to Toronto, ready to start university that September. As night came on, the hour passed when we should have heard from her, and Jackie became increasingly worried. An incorrigible optimist (back then, at least), I still didn't believe in the possibility of anything bad happening to Selena, or to any of us, and I was sure it was just teenage thoughtlessness. She would call; there'd be some excuse.
When I saw headlights coming down the driveway to where the house lights showed the markings of a police car, I remembered the previous summer when the provincial police came to ask about a robbery down the road, and I thought it must be something like that. A mother has a certain built-in radar detector, however, and the moment I announced that it was the police, I saw Jackie's eyes go wide and her face turn white; she knew.
Instinctively, I took her hand as we went out to the driveway to face the local police chief, Ernie Woods. He led us inside and showed us the fax he had received from the Ontario Provincial Police, and we tried to take in his words: "bad news," "maybe you'd better sit down." Then we tried to read the black lines on the paper, tried to make sense of the incomprehensible, to believe the unacceptable. My mind was reeling in a hopeless struggle to absorb those words. "Single car accident," "apparently lost control," "dead at the scene."
"No," Jackie breathed, then louder, "NO," again and again, as she collapsed to the floor in the front hall. At first I just stood there, paralyzed with horror and shock, and it was only when I saw Jackie start to get up that I felt afraid of what she might do, and I fell down beside her and held her. She struggled against me and told me to let her go, but I wouldn't. Our big white Samoyed, Nicky, was frightened and confused by all this, and he barked frantically and tried to push between us. Chief Ernie was afraid to touch the dog, I wouldn't let go of Jackie, and Nicky was trying to protect somebody, to make us stop this, so it was pandemonium as the two of us kicked and yelled at him while his shrill barks echoed through the house.
I held onto Jackie until she was overcome by the numbing protection of shock, and asked Chief Ernie to call our local doctor. Time was all meaningless now, but at some point Nicky crept away to hide somewhere and Dr. Spunt came and tried to say comforting things, but we were unreceptive. Sometime later, Chief Ernie left, then Dr. Spunt too, and for the rest of the night I walked endlessly around the living-room carpet (what I learned later is called the "search mode," in which I was unconsciously "trying to find the lost one," just as some animals and birds do), while Jackie sat and stared into space, neither of us saying anything. In the gray twilight of morning we put the downcast Nicky in the car and headed for Toronto, driving through the rain to face the end of the world.
Just before those headlights came down the driveway to turn our relatively pleasant and tranquil lives into a waking nightmare, Jackie had been fretting on the porch while I blithely watched a TV documentary about the Mormon trek west in 1847. It quoted a woman who had survived the ordeal about the terrible hardships they had endured, and the last words I remember were, "The only reason I am alive is because I could not die." That terrible phrase would come back to haunt me in the months that followed. It soon became apparent that Jackie's world was completely shattered forever; she had fallen to pieces, and she never came back together again.
And neither did the two of us, really, though I tried to do everything I could for her. As my life suddenly forced me to learn more than anyone ever wanted to know about grief and bereavement, I learned the sad fact that most couples do not stay together after losing a child. Outrageous! So wrong, so unfair, so cruel, to heap more pain and injustice on those who had suffered so much already. In my blissful ignorance, I would have imagined the opposite - that those who most shared the loss would cling to each other. But no.
Maybe it's because the mutually bereaved represent a constant reminder to each other, almost a reproach, or it might run as deep as the "selfish genes" rejecting an unsuccessful effort at reproduction. Whatever it was, it was harsh to think that Jackie and I had survived 22 years of common-law marriage; had managed to stay together through bad times and good (with only a couple of "temporary estrangements"); through poverty and wealth, failure and success, crises of youth and midlife and middle age (she was 42; I was 45); through all the stages of Selena's childhood and adolescence; and even my frequent absences, both as a touring musician and an inveterate traveler. We had made it through all that, and now the loss of what we each treasured most would drive us apart.
During those first awful weeks in Toronto our friends and family filled the House of Mourning day and night, trying to distract us and help us
deal with this unbearable reality as best they could, but Jackie remained inconsolable, pining and withering visibly into a fragile, suffering wraith. One time she shook her head and looked up at me, "Don't be hurt, but I always knew this was the one thing I just couldn't handle."
She wouldn't let me comfort her, and didn't want anything to do with me really. It was as though she knew she needed me, but her tortured heart had no place in it for me, or anybody. If she couldn't have Selena, she no longer wanted anything - she just wanted to die. She had to be coaxed into eating anything at all, and talked of suicide constantly. I had to keep a close watch on her sedatives and sleeping pills, and make sure she was never left alone. When she did surrender to a drugged sleep, she held a framed picture of Selena in her arms.
After a couple of weeks I took Jackie away to London, England, accompanied by our friends Brad and Rita. I had known Brad since childhood, and in the early '70s he and I had shared a flat in London, where he had met Rita, a refugee from the Shah's Iran, and brought her back to Canada. Brad and Rita had known great tragedy in their own lives, so they were a good choice to help Jackie and me begin our exile. After they went home, other friends came to stay with us for a week or two at a time, and eventually we moved into a small flat near Hyde Park, where we stayed for six months. We started seeing a grief counsellor, "Dr. Deborah," several times a week at the Traumatic Stress Clinic, which seemed to help a little, and at least got us outside occasionally. It was hard for me to try to force Jackie even to take a walk, for she was tortured by everything she saw - by advertisements for back-to-school clothes (Selena!), children playing in the park (Selena!), young girls on horseback taking riding lessons (Selena!), pretty young women in the full pride of youth (Selena!). These same triggers stabbed me too, of course, and I also felt bleak and morose and often tearful, but it seemed I was already building a wall against things which were too painful for me to deal with, wearing mental blinkers when I was outside in the busy streets of London. I would just flinch and turn away from such associations, but Jackie remained raw and vulnerable, unable to protect herself from the horror of memory.
In an effort to keep her eating nutritiously, I even learned to cook simple meals in our little kitchenette (thanks to the food hall in the Marks and Spencer store on Oxford Street, which offered cooking instructions with every item, even fresh fish and vegetables), calling myself "Chef Ellwood," after my unfortunate middle name. But none of it was enough. As I tried to look after Jackie in every way I could, only ever leaving her alone for a fast afternoon walk around the park or through the London streets (with the pills locked in the safe), or to buy the day's groceries, it was like witnessing a suicide brought on by total apathy. She just didn't care.
The following January, when we were finally thinking about returning from London to try to find some kind of life back in Canada, Jackie began to suffer from severe back pain and nocturnal coughing. She refused to let me get a doctor, saying, "They'll just say it's stress," but Dr. Deborah finally prevailed on me to make an executive decision and get a doctor anyway. On the eve of our departure, Jackie was diagnosed with terminal cancer (the doctors called it cancer, but of course it was a broken heart), and a second nightmare began.
Jackie's brother Steven met us in Toronto and soon took over the household, controlling the number of visitors (who called him "The Gatekeeper"), and supervising Jackie's care as I felt myself slipping into a kind of "protective insanity," a numb refuge of alcohol and drugs.
Jackie, however, received the news almost gratefully - as though this was the only acceptable fate for her, the only price she could pay. After months of misery, despair, and anger (often directed at me, as the handiest "object"), she never uttered a harsh word after that diagnosis, and rarely even cried. To her, the illness was a terrible kind of justice. To me, however, it was simply terrible. And unbearable.
After two months of dissipation in Toronto, I pulled myself together, and we fulfilled Jackie's wish to go to Barbados. Two years previously we had enjoyed a memorable family vacation in that pleasant island-nation, and it offered sufficient medical services to allow us to continue providing home care for Jackie, even when she began to decline sharply, needing oxygen most of the time, slipping away both mentally and physically, until a series of strokes brought a relatively merciful end.
Exhausted and desolated, I flew back to Toronto, staying there just long enough to organize the house and put it on the market, with more help from family and friends, then got away to the house on the lake, still not knowing what I was going to do. Before she died, Jackie had given me a clue, saying, "Oh, you'll just go travelling on your motorcycle," but at that time I couldn't even imagine doing that. But as the long, empty days and nights of that dark summer slowly passed, it began to seem like the only thing to do.
I didn't really have a reason to carry on; I had no interest in life, work, or the world beyond, but unlike Jackie, who had surely willed her death, I seemed to be armored with some kind of survival instinct, some inner reflex that held to the conviction that "something will come up." Because of some strength (or flaw) of character, I never seemed to question "why" I should survive, but only "how" - though that was certainly a big enough question to deal with at the time.
I remember thinking, "How does anyone survive something like this? And if they do, what kind of person comes out the other end?" I didn't know, but throughout that dark time of grief, sorrow, desolation, and complete despair, something in me seemed determined to carry on. Something would come up.
Or maybe it was more like the Mormon woman's statement, "The only reason I am alive is because I could not die."
In any case, I was now setting out on my motorcycle to try to figure out what kind of person I was going to be, and what kind of world I was going to live in. Throughout that first day on the road, as I traced the rain-slick highway north across the rocky face of Quebec, my shaky resolve would be tested a few times. Tense and shivering, peering through the turbulent wash of spray behind a lumber truck for a chance to pass, more than once I thought about packing it in. "Who needs this? I'm really not having fun, and I don't think I'm strong enough to deal with this right now. Why not turn around and go back to the house by the lake, hide there a little longer?"
But no. That too would be a perilous road.
When I allowed myself to consider turning back, the thought that kept me riding on was, "Then what?" For over a month I had tried living there alone, with occasional visits from friends to help take me out of myself, and I had still felt myself beginning to slip into a deep, dark hole. Various stimulants and depressants could help me get through the days and nights, but as I had recently written to a friend, "That's okay for a temporary escape hatch, but it's no kind of a life."
I had tried the Hermit mode, now it was time to try the Gypsy mode. I tried not to think of what I would do if that didn't work.
Travelling had always been a more or less normal condition for me, not only as the necessary environment of a touring musician for the past 23 years with Rush, but also as a kind of escape from all that. Between concert tours I had travelled the roads of China, Africa, Europe, and North America, at first by bicycle, and later by motorcycle, and that kind of self-contained journeying had fired my imagination with curiosity and challenge.
From the beginning, I kept daily journals during my travels, and when I returned home I used them to exercise my interest in prose writing, experimenting with different approaches to telling the story of a journey. My interest in writing had begun with composing lyrics for the band, and had grown from a taste for writing letters into a serious love of stringing words together on the page. As I continued to develop the craft through my travel stories, I would print up a few copies of them for friends and fellow travelers, until after learning my way through about five privately printed books, I finally felt ready to publish one in 1996: The Masked
Rider, about cycling in West Africa.
Lately, though I hadn't been doing much writing of any kind, except for a few letters to distant friends, but during our stay in London the grief counsellor, Dr. Deborah, had encouraged me to start a daily journal of "letters to Selena," and that had proved to be good therapy. On this tentative beginning to a new kind of travel (purposeful, yet aimless) I doubted I would feel the old urge to document what I saw and felt, or any ambition to make this sad journey into a book, but just in case I had brought one of my little black notebooks with me, and that first day I made an experimental entry:
[August 20, '98]
As I crossed into Ontario the rain let up at last, but the day remained chilly, and I finally sought refuge at the Northern Lites Motel, in Cochrane. 850 kilometres (531 miles) was plenty for that kind of day. Pouring a measure of The Macallan from my little flask into a plastic cup, I felt its warmth inside as I hung my wet riding gear around the room.
Ach. Cold and wet. Lunch in Cadillac, Que. Heavy rain last few hours, surprisingly heavy traffic. Trucks roaring in spray plume. Scenery? Dark, wet, gloomy - like me. Much-logged face of Canadian Shield, occasional lake flooded or drained, mines and factories up around here, Val d'Or and Noranda. Barely 10° [50 F] this a.m., not much more now.
In the shower I thought about Cochrane, isolated at the northern edge of Ontario's grid, and ghosts came out of the memory of a concert the band had played there back in the mid-'70s. After driving all night from Winnipeg, we'd played our set to a spattering of applause, and at the end we left the stage, figuring that was that. However, when we got to the dressing room, the promoter, a squat and hairy French Canadian, descriptively named "Hunk," came running in, distressed we hadn't played an encore. He said the agent had promised him we would.
We protested that an encore was usually a request for another song from the audience, and there had been no response that night to indicate any such desire. Hunk became more distraught, saying, in his thick accent, "I never t'ought Rush would do dis to me!" The three of us looked at each other, shrugged, and went back onstage. The audience was waiting quietly, we played another song, and everyone went home. No one seemed excited, but everyone seemed satisfied. We knew that everyone in town knew how much we were getting paid (probably a thousand dollars), and that the agent had promised Hunk an encore. After the gear was packed up and loaded into the truck, seven of us from the band and crew piled into a rented station wagon and drove all night back to Toronto.
Cochrane. Hunk. Ghosts.
All that seemed so far away and long ago, part of another life. Even after my first terrible loss I had felt no urge to work with the band anymore, and the day of Selena's funeral I had told my partners in Rush, Geddy and Alex (all of us in tears), that they should "consider me retired." I hadn't worried about whether or not I could afford not to work again; it was simply unthinkable. After 23 years together, Geddy and Alex were loyal and caring friends through my sequence of nightmares, and they were, of course, nothing but supportive and understanding of whatever I wanted to do. Now that I was trying to carry the weight of yet another unbearable tragedy, I had even less reason to care about the future - or even if I had a future.
Certainly I had no interest in playing the drums, or writing lyrics for rock songs. Before that night when my world crashed down around me I had been working on a book about my motorcycle adventures with my friend Brutus on the just-finished Rush tour, Test For Echo, and now I couldn't imagine taking up that project again.
That night in Cochrane, I took refuge in my journal notes once more, a I sat in the Northern Lites dining room after my fried pickerel (usually the tastiest of freshwater fish, but not this specimen). The only other diners were a pair of retired couples, and I heard them marveling to discover that they hailed from two Ontario towns, Brantford and Peterborough, that were all of a two-hour drive apart. One of the ladies was even moved to remark, "It's a small world."
One of the men also tried to be sociable to the solitary diner, and leaned toward me to say, "You're bein' awful quiet over there."
Startled, a dozen possible replies zipped through my answer index, all of them true, but some of them real conversation-enders. In the end I gave a shy chuckle, nodded toward my dinner, and said, "Oh...I'm okay."
Then I wrote in my journal: "Perils of solitude #1: People talk to you. I'd rather listen."
The next morning, I continued west across Ontario, on the road from dawn until late afternoon, pausing only for fuel, and an occasional pause at the roadside for a stretch and a cigarette. Just kept moving, afraid to stop for too long, afraid to give myself time to think. Riding a motorcycle with total concentration, devoting infinite attention to the ever-changing road and other traffic; that was sufficient to keep most of my little brain busy.
My mind was also lulled into tranquility by the motion, the trance-like effect of steady vibration, occasional bumps and curves, and the world coming at me mile after mile, hour after hour.
Earlier that summer, contemplating the wreckage of my life, I had determined that my mission now was to protect a certain essence inside me, a sputtering life force, a meager spirit, as though I held my cupped hands around a guttering candle. In letters I had begun calling that remnant spark "my little baby soul," and the task before me now, I decided, was to nurture that spirit as well as I could.
My little baby soul was not a happy infant, of course, with much to complain about, but as every parent learns, a restless baby often calms down if you take it for a ride. I had learned my squalling spirit could be soothed the same way, by motion, and so I had decided to set off on this journey into the unknown. Take my little baby soul for a ride.
When I had arrived in Quebec from Toronto, after everything else was gone, I didn't have much interest in the world around me. I didn't like anything, didn't care about anything, and didn't want to do anything. The first hint of a possible upturn came one afternoon when I was sitting on the dock with a glass of The Macallan in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Way down at the far end of the shining lake, near one of the islands, my eyes fastened on two wedge-shaped rocks sticking out of the water. Those two rocks had always reminded me of a pair of ducks facing each other, and somehow that day my little baby soul decided to imbue them with meaning. A voice spoke inside my head, "You know, I still like those two rocks."
My eyebrows lifted at the realization: I actually liked something; and thus from that pair of rocks I began to build a new world. It would have to be a world my little baby soul could stand to live in, and a world that included the possibility of all that had happened, so it was going to be very different from the world I had lived in before. However, I was starting with first principles, the Earth, and now that I was travelling westward I began to respond to the landscapes around me too, the rugged cliffs and forests around Lake Nipigon and the north shore of Lake Superior.
If I wasn't exactly finding joy in that scenic splendor the way I used to, I was at least "resonating" again, feeling the beauty around me, and curious about what that next line on the map might look like.
But as I rode toward that line on the map, my serenity, my thoughts, and my internal music were suddenly interrupted by the ugliest of sounds. Even through earplugs, helmet, and wind noise, there was no mistaking that loud electronic whooping and bleating, and my eyes darted to the rear-view mirror, which was filled with the insistent flash of red-and-blue lights behind the grille of a provincial police cruiser. Cursing, I pulled to the side of the road and straddled the bike. The officer walked up beside me, held out his hand and said, "May I have your radar detector please?"
Flustered, I protested, "But it's supposed to be undetectable!"
He shook his head, "They shouldn't be allowed to get away with saying that. Someone should go after them. I knew it was an 'undetectable' one because it gave off a weird signal."
Damn. Then worse. As he looked over my Ontario driver's license, I saw his head give a little jerk upward, then move in closer. He peered into my helmet, smiling now.
"You a musician?"
I mentally rifled through the answer index again, looking for a truthful evasion (not an easy task when you're answering a man with a uniform
and a gun).
Eventually I mumbled, "Um ... not any more."
He paused a moment, looking over my insurance and registration.
"You used to be a musician, though?"
"Um ... years ago."
He went on talking about some place in Toronto where he used to live that was apparently close by something that was supposed to be meaningful to the person he thought I was, but I was still thinking of alternatives from the answer index.
"I used to be a lot of things."
Lately I had written to one of my friends, "I don't know who I am, what I'm doing, or what I'm supposed to do." Time would tell, I could only hope, and if time was supposed to be the great healer, then the best thing I could do was try to "let it pass" as painlessly as possible, try to minimize the self-destructive urges, and stay away from the house on the lake for awhile.
Let time pass. Take my little baby soul for a ride.
The policeman finished writing out my ticket, and I went riding on.
The road unwinds toward me
What was there is gone
The road unwinds before me
And I go riding on
It's my turn to drive
Chapter 2 - Westering
What a fool I used to be
Before dawn had reached Thunder Bay and the northern shore of Lake Superior, I was carrying my bags and helmet out to the hotel parking lot. I paused beside the bike to watch a spectacular display of aurora borealis - shimmering veils of greenish light draped across the northern sky. Setting off through the forests of northwestern Ontario, the lonely road cast its hypnotic, soothing effect over my mood. The steady droning of the engine, the constant wind noise, the cool, forest -scented air, and my visual fixation on the road ahead occupied most of my senses, while my mind wandered above its monitoring function into the fields of memory.
The Ghost of Christmas Past carried me back to a snowy December afternoon in 1993, a few days before Christmas. Selena and Jackie and I lived most of the year in Toronto, but we usually spent our summers and holidays at the house by the lake in Quebec, and for our tight little family, Christmas was a special time there.
The snow had been heavy that winter, already laying two feet deep in the woods and over the frozen lake. The house was carefully decorated indoors and out, with lights strung in the snow-covered trees, and the living room dominated by a tall, glittering Christmas tree. Selena was 15 then, and covered a large table with her annual tableau of "Christmas Town," an array of porcelain houses on snowy cotton hills, miniature trees with tiny colored lights, a toy train puffing real smoke as it circled through the houses, and even little figures skating magnetically on a mirrored pond. Christmas Town was different every year, but even into Selena's late teens it was an expression of her love for the rituals of Christmas.
She was always so excited to arrive from Toronto and start decorating, the fireplace blazing as we played the Christmas CDS by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Harlem Boys Choir, and a special favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. That year the house was filled with live music too. Our guests were Jackie's mother, her sister Deb, and her partner Mark, a musician and recording engineer, and we had made up a little orchestra of Selena on flute and acoustic guitar, Mark on acoustic guitar, and me attempting to play the marimba - a wooden-keyed percussion instrument on which I was only a "dabbler" - and the easier, more familiar time-keeping, with wire brushes on snare drum and high-hat.
That afternoon we were rehearsing our repertoire of five or six Christmas songs, preparing to give a private concert for Jackie, Deb, and Grandma on Christmas Eve. I was struggling over a difficult marimba part while Selena complained that I was "a loser" (her usual style of endearment for those she loved), when I heard the rumble of an engine in the driveway and a door slamming. Jackie called to me from the kitchen, "Neil, it's for you," but I was preoccupied with trying to get my mallets to hit the right keys on the marimba, and just grumbled, "How do you know?"
What a fool I used to be. (The truest words I ever wrote, and they get truer every day.)
With an impatient sigh, I walked over to the front door and looked out to see the pickup truck driven by Jackie's brother, Keith, who worked for us looking after the Quebec house, and perched in the back of it was a red BMW motorcycle. I immediately realized that it was a present to me from Jackie, for I had long claimed that I was going to try motorcycling when I "grew up," and that my choice of machine would be a BMW. Mouth agape, and still wearing my slippers, I ran into the snowy driveway and climbed into the truck bed, then up to the saddle of the beautiful red R1100-RS. I didn't know anything about motorcycles then, had never even ridden one, but I just sat on it and looked at the controls and instruments and closed my hands around the grips. A phrase came into my head, full blown, right out of a novel: "And nothing was ever the same again..."
During the rest of that winter of 1994 I was away working with Rush on our Counterparts tour, so all I could do was read the motorcycle magazines while I dreamed about riding that beautiful red beast. In April, I attended a riding class at a Toronto college with Rush guitarist Alex, who had been bitten by "the bug" himself that same winter, and had bought a Harley-Davidson.
A strange and ironic part of my physical-mental interface was that although I had made my living playing drums for 20 years, with hands and feet doing this and that and the other thing, more-or-less independently of one another, all my life I had trouble with physical coordination - sports, for example, at which I had always been very poor. I attempted to comfort this wounded self-image by theorizing that while playing the drums I had to divide my limbs in a kind of four-way independence, and thus it was more like "dis-coordination," but of course that didn't really wash, for they all had to work together eventually. In any case, even on the small motorcycles provided by the riding school I had difficulty coordinating the balance of clutch and throttle controls, and I struggled rather pathetically for the three days of the program.
Alex was already a licensed pilot by then, and something of a natural athlete, so he aced the final test easily, but I failed on that first attempt. I felt humiliated and dismayed, and even more so when I failed on my second try, during the next break in the tour. Before my third attempt I finally engaged an instructor for a private lesson, and he quickly helped me understand my difficulties and correct them. How proud and happy (and relieved) I was when I finally passed that riding test.
It was another quality of my physical-mental interface that any activity in which I developed an interest became a positive obsession. This had been true of playing the drums, reading every great book ever written, writing lyrics, writing prose, cross-country skiing, bicycling, and now, motorcycling. Selena, Jackie, and I spent that whole summer of 1994 at the house on the lake, and several mornings a week I got up before dawn and went riding for a couple of hours on the empty, winding roads of the Laurentians, slowly gaining skill and confidence.
That summer, we had friends renting a cottage on a nearby lake: Jackie's best friend Georgia, her husband, Brutus, and their son, Sam. At that time Brutus and I were friends in the "my-wife's-friend's-husband" sense, but when he saw me having so much fun with my new motorcycle he went out and bought one of his own, a BMW K-1100RS. That September, he joined me on my first motorcycle journey, through Quebec, Newfoundland, and the Maritime provinces, and we met up with Jackie and Georgia in Nova Scotia. They flew into Halifax and rented a car (neither of them seemed to enjoy riding behind us on the motorcycles - at least farther than to the store for a newspaper - they said they didn't like being cramped, overdressed, uncomfortable, and cold) to follow us for a few days around the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island and back to Halifax, whence they flew home while Brutus and I rode back to Quebec.
Brutus and I discovered two important things on that first trip together: we liked travelling by motorcycle, and we liked travelling together. He gave our two-man gang the name "Scooter Trash," and we began to spin more dreams and plans for adventures together. In the Spring of '95 we shipped our bikes to Mexico for a three-week tour (where Brutus crashed and broke a couple of ribs, then later set his luggage cases on fire), and in the early summer of that year we squeezed in another adventure. (We both had the time professionally, for I was between tours and Brutus was a self-employed entrepreneur, but there was some serious bargaining and bribery going on between us and our families.)
That June, we set off across Canada on a two-week blast up to Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories (where both of us fell over in the mud repeatedly, a story published as "Catching Some Midnight Rays" in Cycle Canada magazine), before rejoining our families for the summer in Quebec. My birthday present from Jackie that September was a card reading "Seven days of freedom," and we took advantage of that, and Georgia's tacit resignation, to ride east again, to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. After another winter of work and family time, in the spring of 1996 we shipped the bikes across the Atlantic to Munich, where we began another three-week tour through Bavaria and the Austrian Alps (where Brutus crashed), Italy, Sicily, and Tunisia (where Brutus broke down in the middle of the Sahara), then back through Sardinia, France, and Switzerland.
But all of that was just preparation for the Really Big Tour. During the summer of 1996 plans were coming together for Rush's Test For Echo concert tour, which would eventually span 67 shows in the United States and Canada. I began to think about how I was going to endure yet another rock tour, which I had always perceived as a combination of crushing tedium, constant exhaustion, and circus-like insanity, none of which suited my restless, independent, and private temperament.
Paradoxically, I enjoyed the preparation for a tour, for I liked rehearsing with the band with the shared intensity of working toward "the perfect show," and the first few shows certainly got the adrenaline pumping when we hit the stage in front of 10 or 12 thousand people in a big arena. However, by about the third show we would get it right, the band and crew and audience locked together in a transcendent performance, and as far as I was concerned, that was it. If my job was to play a good show then I had done it. Goal achieved, challenge met, case dismissed. Can I go home now?
Nothing is ever that simple, of course, but it felt to me that for the rest of the tour I would only be going up there night after night and trying to repeat that experience, at best. Not to say that was simple, either. When a particular show fell short of that standard I felt deflated and disgusted with myself, while if I played well enough to meet that benchmark, it was only what I expected of myself - nothing to get excited about. So for me, touring could be a long, relentless grind, exhausting and soul-destroying. And that only refers to the onstage time, a small fraction of the chaos of travelling, waiting, and shifting from hotel to bus to arena to hotel for months on end.
For several tours through the '80S and early '90S I had carried a bicycle with me on the tour bus, which had provided a great escape and diversion. During the days off between shows I might spend the whole day riding from city to city, if they were within 100 miles or so, and on the afternoons before a show I often pedaled through the various cities to the local art museum, to feed my growing interest in paintings, art history, and African carvings.
This time I was thinking about how the motorcycle would make it possible for me to cover some real distances, and I conceived a plan of using a tour bus with a trailer for the motorcycles, and convinced Brutus to join me on the tour as navigator, machine supervisor, and (most important) riding companion. From the tour's opening show in Albany, New York, we made our own journey around the band's itinerary, eventually riding about 40,000 miles, in nearly every state in the lower 48 (excepting only North Dakota, for some reason, which never seemed to cross our path) and several Canadian provinces.
The main logo of that Test For Echo tour was taken from the cover art of the album, which portrayed a humanoid icon of piled stones, a gigantic version of an Inuit inukshuk, which means "in the likeness of a man." My suggestion that we use this image had been inspired by that long ride up to Yellowknife the previous year, when I had seen one of those mystical-looking cairns of rock overlooking the remote northern town, at the very edge of true wilderness. Knowing that these stone figures traditionally marked travel and hunting routes across the barren Arctic, I had been struck by the power of this human symbol in a hostile land.
Now, just over a year after the final show of the Test For Echo tour, which we played in Ottawa on July 4, 1997, it was the dark summer of 1998, and everything was changed so very much, at least through my eyes. I was riding again, but I was riding alone, motivated partly by my desire to see if solitary travelling might help to soothe the torment of my little baby soul, and partly because Brutus couldn't get away, and was hoping to meet up with me somewhere later on.
On the first day of my journey westward from Quebec, I saw a small inukshuk placed at the roadside, high on a rocky cut, and then another the second day, and again on the third. Perhaps they had been assembled by another solitary traveler, a hitchhiker passing time until the next ride came along. A good omen, I liked to think, although it gave me a wry smile to think about that definition, "in the likeness of a man."
For that was surely how I felt, so hollow and dispirited that I could hardly imagine what it had been like to be "the fool I used to be." Sometimes I tried to steer my mind away from memories of the past, but in other moods they now seemed so remote, so unreal, that I could dare to think about the past without breaking down.
The Ghost of Summer Past took me back to the summer of 1996, probably the most productive time of my life. Test For Echo had just been released, and I considered it to be my masterpiece as a drummer, for I had worked hard on my playing during the two years prior to those sessions. That summer, I was settling the post-production details of an instructional video on drumming, A Work in Progress, and at the same time correcting the proofs for my first published book, The Masked Rider. (I had made an agreement with Jackie and Selena that I could work in my office until noon, then stop and spend the afternoons and evenings with them - fair enough.) Just two summers later, all that was ashes, and I felt little connection with any of those accomplishments.
My current struggles weren't about creating or producing, or planning adventures, only about surviving. When I reflected on that old life I tended to think of the protagonist as "that guy," for I shared only his memories. And some of those memories I was now trying to hide from,
escape from, ride away from.
I could ride - but I couldn't hide.
On the third morning, I crossed into Manitoba and pulled off the Trans-Canada Highway into a rest area in a grove of evergreens (fir trees, I decided when I rolled the needles in my hand - woodsman's lore: "fir's flat, spruce spins"). There, a diner had been converted from an old school bus, and I bought a hot dog, milkshake, and fries (feeding my inner child), and carried them to a picnic table in the shade. A hairy woodpecker probed for his own protein (no empty carbohydrates for him) in a nearby tree, while a flock of cedar waxwings, pearl-gray and crested with natty markings, darted among the branches of the grove.
Birds had attracted me since boyhood, when I used to trace the little illustrations from my grandmother's bird books, and try to name the species I saw flitting around the suburbs and woodlands of southern Ontario, and it was a youthful enthusiasm that had actually grown in my adulthood. Even on this wretched journey I travelled with a small pair of binoculars and a field guide, as I always had for whatever part of Africa, Europe, North America, or Mexico I was visiting. During our time in Barbados, while I was mostly confined to our rented villa and the lush gardens around it, I could sit with Jackie while she read, scanning the trees with my binoculars, and eventually identifying 22 of Barbados's 24 native species.
Back on the highway, the forests fell behind like a wall and the roadside fanned open into wide green prairie. The sun warmed the air, carrying the delicious scent of wet hay, and I watched the farmers at work with balers, combines, windrowers, and disc harrows. Part of me envied the straightforward nature of their task, guiding their machines along geometric lines between earth and sky, but part of me envied everybody.
Soon the empty skyline would be regularly punctuated by "prairie skyscrapers," the tall grain elevators that sprouted like exclamation marks beside the train tracks in every prairie town. Once, I saw an example of the massive scale of modern farming, automobile-sized bales of hay in stacks the size of apartment buildings, with wide lanes between them for flatbed semis. I had so many childhood memories of the farms of relatives and my parents' friends, for they had only left the farm when I was a year or two old, when my father started his career in the farm equipment business. That too had filled part of my life, working summers and holidays at my father's International Harvester dealership, and then as his parts manager in my early 20s, right up until the time I joined Rush.
That evening I called my Mom and Dad, and talked to my Dad about what I had been seeing and remembering. He told me that when his Dad and Uncle John were young they used to come west to Manitoba from southern Ontario on the "harvest trains," which gathered young men from as far east as the Maritimes to help bring in the wheat - especially during wartime, when farm labor was scarce. He also told me how after the war, when the first self-propelled combine harvesters appeared in the United States, the operators would work their way north from Texas to Manitoba, like crop-sprayer pilots or cattle drovers, following the harvest and hiring themselves out all the way.
After Winnipeg, I turned northwest on the Yellowhead Highway, just because I'd never gone west that way, and started to think about where to stop for the night. I'd left Thunder Bay that morning at 6:00, under the shimmering arc of the northern lights (as opposed to the "Northern Lites" in Cochrane), then gained an hour as I crossed my first time zone. So when the bike's digital clock showed 4:30, I'd been on the road almost twelve hours, and had covered 945 kilometres (590 miles), so it was time to start looking for a place to roost.
On the prairies, as in the desert, a clump of trees in the distance usually means a town, and I decided to stop at the next grove of trees on the horizon. Closer up, Neepawa looked welcoming, and my motel room was a memorable time warp. The screen door squeaked open to reveal three double beds with buttoned naugahyde headboards, "mahogany" paneled walls, with a feed-mill calendar and a religious sampler ("For God so loved the world"), sparkly-tile ceiling, and shag carpeting of an orangy-brown hue that used to be called "whisky" (though it didn't match my plastic cup of The Macallan).
I took my drink outside to the covered walkway and watched the dark clouds looming in from the northwest, trailing ghostly tendrils of rain. Dust swirled beside the highway, whipped along by the wind that heralded the coming storm, and soon the rain swept in, pounding on the roof and bouncing on the shiny pavement. Distant thunder rumbled, and lightning flashed off to the south. I stood and watched for awhile, delighted, then put on my rain jacket and walked up the road to "Mr. Ribs" restaurant.
That morning I had written a hopeful title in the front of my journal, "The Healing Road," and after a salad and "triple combo" of ribs, souvlaki, and shrimp, I offered these reflections on that theme:
Thinking while I stuffed my face that I feel better tonight than I've felt in - more than a year. I've achieved "immersion" in The Journey, which used to be a necessarily limited state of mind: especially when interrupted by work. Or the end of the journey.
That closing line from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises had acquired a fresh resonance for me lately, in the conscious irony of entertaining a wish without believing in its possibility. I did not really believe in a destination called "healing," but at least I had begun to believe in the road, and that was enough to keep me riding westward. Through those days and nights I wasn't always feeling "better," as the process of grieving oscillated, even through each day, from a little better to a little worse, from total existential despair to those occasional rays of hope and interest, which was definitely a spark of healing.
Neither applies at this point.
590 miles of healing today, maybe. "Isn't it pretty to think so."
The next morning carried me into another positive response to worldly beauty, as I left Neepawa at sunrise on a fine prairie morning, cool and cloudy, the road still wet from the night's showers. The Yellowhead Highway meandered gently with the contours of the land, then ran straight and endless to the horizon, as I kept pace with a long train to the south. The sun peeked through the clouds behind me and flared in my mirrors, turning the shiny pavement to a gold ribbon between the rich green fields. My helmet filled with the fresh, nostalgic scent of damp hay.
And sometimes there was music playing in my helmet, too, as my "mental jukebox" transformed the white noise of the wind passing into a soundtrack in richly detailed high fidelity. Sometimes the same song seemed to repeat all day long; other times the playlist moved through different ones; the only distinction seemed to be that none of them were from the "family soundtrack," for of course I tried to steer the day's selections toward the pop hits from my youth or Sinatra standards. Otherwise the choice seemed random, though sometimes triggered by the scenery ("The wheatfields and the clotheslines and the junkyards and the highways come between us"), the weather ("Here's That Rainy Day"), a road sign ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix"), or my mood ("Everything Happens to Me"). When the riding became demanding, the music receded into the background, but when it was just me and the motorcycle on a pretty stretch of road, my brain would turn up the radio.
So early on a Sunday morning there was almost no traffic, and I cruised with my legs stretched in front of me, resting on the cylinder heads. Occasional ponds and marshes were dotted with waterbirds, and near Yorkton I saw my first magpie, a sure sign of the West.
Breakfast at Russell Inn: nice-looking motel and "family restaurant." Wasn't thinking of stopping yet, but couldn't resist. Just after 8:00, done over 100 miles very pleasantly. Rheostatics' "prairie music" in head, occasional sad thoughts, a few tears, but otherwise, couldn't be better (?).
Obviously I hadn't lost my sense of irony or humor, and that was a good thing, for after covering a personal record 1,176 kilometres (735 miles) to make it to Edmonton that day, I would be sorely tested the following day. After having a leaky boot repaired, getting an oil change at the BMW dealer, and replenishing my stock of The Macallan, I made a late start out of Edmonton. Riding north now, making my way toward the Alaska Highway, I stopped at a rural gas station and pulled the bike back onto its centerstand in front of the pump. While I fiddled with getting my tankbag out of the way, the young attendant handed me the nozzle, and I started filling the tank. I noticed that the fuel seemed kind of foamy, but didn't think too much about it until the boy came out again and said, "Your bike runs on diesel?"
I looked down at the nozzle's handle and noticed it was green, which often (though not always) means diesel, and at the oily fuel foaming up from the filler neck. I shook my head in disbelief and said, "No."
Then through gritted teeth, "Do you have a siphon?"
We drained the poisonous diesel from the tank and refilled it with gasoline, but when I started the bike and tried to ride away, it died at the edge of the parking lot. On the good side of the balance sheet for this particular obstacle, the owner of the station, a stocky man whose features suggested a Native heritage, was quietly efficient, and his country garage was well equipped with the tools we would employ to try to get the dead machine running again. I started by unloading all the luggage from the bike and pulling out my toolkit, then we went to work.
Other customers stopped by in their high-wheeled, mud-spattered pickups, many of them with the same backwoods dress and Native features, and offered useful theories and suggestions. Siphon the tank out again. Remove the spark plugs and clean them, twice. Remove the injectors and spray them clean, twice. Tie a rope around the forks and tow the bike behind a car, like a water-skier, while the terrified rider tries to jumpstart it. (Sounded like a good idea ... ) Still the starter cranked impotently.
As for the teenage boy who had caused all this, he stayed out of sight for awhile, and I hoped his boss hadn't been too harsh with him. After all, it was his first day on the job, and something inside me could relate to his gangly, scrawny, pimply self-consciousness.
Call it memory.
I knew how I would have felt at that age: embarrassed, afraid, and ignorant. I felt the ghost of the fool I used to be.
But if I didn't get mad at the boy, I sure got angry at the situation, especially as the hours passed. By 4:30 I decided to call the BMW dealer back in Edmonton, while they were still open, to see about getting a truck sent out to pick up the dead bike. I described the problem to the mechanic, and he agreed that we had tried all the right things, then suggested one last desperate remedy, though he warned me to "be careful."
At my request, the taciturn owner produced a can of ether starting fluid, and he sprayed it into the air intake while I cranked the tired starter one more time. A couple of loud explosions had us ready to dive for cover, but suddenly the motor caught in clouds of thick white smoke, and I turned the throttle wide to keep it going.
While I was frantically reloading the bike and putting on my riding gear, eager to get back on the road and get moving again, one of the more talkative Natives remarked on the height of the bike, and said with a quiet laugh, "Too tall for orientals."
With a start I realized that those bush-wise young men who had helped me so willingly and knowledgeably were not "natives" in either sense, but were actually Chinese, probably only a generation or two away from an ancestor who raised millet and spoke Mandarin, or grew rice and spoke Cantonese. Their grandfathers might have worn the long braid of the Mongol emperor; their grandmothers might have woven conical hats to keep off the sun in the paddies. Now these young men had become so "native" that I had actually mistaken them for the "first immigrants," those who had been there the longest (in this area, probably Cree).
These rough-and-ready individuals looked and acted so wonderfully unstereotypical in their work boots and bush clothes, their muddy pickups with ATVS in the back, their talk of hunting season and snow machines, and I realized that these Canadians absolutely were "natives" now, in every sense, fully adapted to their environment. For the first time it was clear to me that when we try to classify others by stereotypes of race, what we really mean is culture. The modes of behavior, dress, and habits of "The Other" that we find strange and exotic, or sometimes contemptible, are cultural patterns developed over hundreds of generations in a specific locale, under local influences of weather, livelihood, diet, and daily customs.
Something I had long felt instinctively, without being able to articulate it, could finally be put into words. I saw that it was plain wrong to evaluate people according to race, for it was clear that culture was the real divider among peoples. Given enough time, a generation or two, we could all become "The Other," no more different in behavior from our neighbors and peers than they were from each other. Even the cosmetic differences would disappear in the course of a few more generations of "assimilation," adopting the local diet, mores, and chromosomes, and eventually dissolving into the gene pool.
The word race comes from the same Latin root as the French word rascin - root. Hence the English word deracinated, "to be uprooted." Exiled, perhaps. Well, exile is better than imprisonment, after all, and it seems to me that roots are highly overrated anyway. But racemus is Latin for "bunch of grapes," and perhaps those are sour ones. I no longer had any roots; I only had the road.
And on the current stretch of that road, I had hoped to make it to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, but that was out of the question now. Still, after such a frustrating setback I was determined to make some distance before dark, and I rode like a demon, passing trucks, RVS, pickups, and cars.
Behind one long line of traffic I waited tensely for an opportunity to zip into the oncoming lane, when I noticed the driver in front of me stick his hand up through his open sunroof and rotate his index finger. Recognizing the warning of a police car ahead, I backed off, but it was too late. Once again my mirrors were filled with flashing red-and-blue lights, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police car this time, and my adrenaline deflated with a sad little curse as I signaled my turn onto the shoulder of the road.
I hit the kill switch and stood slumped over the bike, helmeted head hanging down. The Mountie obviously read my body language as he walked up beside me, and with a good-humored note of mock hesitation, he said, "Well, I was going to ask for your license and registration..."
I slowly lifted my helmet off, removed my sunglasses, and turned to look him in the eyes. "Just this once, you have got to hear my story." I recounted my three-hour ordeal back at the Cottonwood gas station, and explained that I was trying to make up some time and get to Grande Prairie before dark.
The mustachioed Mountie was friendly and sympathetic, and this time my Ontario driver's license only elicited a story about how he had once lived in Toronto, and had owned a motorcycle, but had given it up as "too dangerous." His radar unit had clocked me at 140 kilometres-per-hour in a 100-kph zone, which would have been a $174 fine and some serious demerit points, but he gave me a break.
"I've got to give you a ticket, but I'll cut it down considerably."
He wrote it up as a generic "disobeying a sign" infraction, for an even $100. Fair enough, and he was nice about it too, advising me that if I took it slow, steady, and safe, I would get to Grande Prairie just as quickly. I followed his advice, though more out of dispirited resignation - and a heightened fear of further encounters with authority - than any wish to be slow, steady, and safe.
By 6:30 I'd had enough, and felt a strong desire for a large whisky and a hot shower, so I pulled into the Horizon Motel, in Valleyview. Like many of the motels I'd passed on this journey, the parking lot was full of construction pickups, carrying laborers for road-repair projects. (Given the attrition of brutal weather, Canada is said to have two seasons: Winter and Construction.) Dirty work clothes were sprawled over the railings on the upper walkway, boots and beer cases stood outside the doors, and above my ground-floor room there was much stomping around near the designated "party room."
If such rowdy groups of "men on the loose" were common in these backroad motels, solitary women of any age were certainly rare, and as I took a table in the neighboring Chinese restaurant I noticed a middle-aged woman sitting alone, hunched over a wine glass. Her face was puffy and crusted with lurid make-up, hair a too-young shade of red unknown to nature, and I wondered idly if she might be an aging hooker, winding down her career as a camp follower for the construction crews.
No doubt there was a story there, but I soon realized it wouldn't be a happy one, for she was grumbling at length to a red-faced young waiter who had apparently forgotten her order. She seemed to take it as a personal insult, and summoned the manager and complained to him indignantly, with boozy repetition. He brought her another glass of wine to mollify her, and explained that it was the boy's first day on the job. Another rookie having a bad day.
The boy's cheeks were burning when he came to my table, and his voice shook when he asked if I'd like something to drink. The woman's thoughtless cruelty angered me (how had her first day on the job gone?), and I tried to be extra nice to the poor boy. I told him what had happened to me that day, and said "Don't be upset about her." He breathed a sincere "thanks," and I felt better, and hoped he did too.
Back in my room, I flicked through the TV channels looking for the weather and stopped at an old Sinatra special from the late '60s. Frank was in splendid voice, and his tour-de-force on "Old Man River" played on my overwrought emotions and left me feeling weepy. Because he was so great, and, I suppose, because he was dead. Another ghost.
I was away before 6:00 on a cold morning, riding past hay farms, scrub forest, and some bald-looking areas of clearcut. (A roadside sign informed me that some of these had been cut to fight against a parasite on the spruce trees, and to eliminate the stands of deadwood left behind.)
Magpies, crows, a coyote, and a fox kept me company as I covered 250 kilometres (156 miles) before stopping for gas and breakfast in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. The poor violated GS backfired a few times when I downshifted, but seemed to be running smoothly again. I noticed my thumb was sore from working the starter button so much trying to get it started the previous day, and that made me worry about the starter itself; I hoped its brushes and windings hadn't been worn too badly by all that abuse. We were now officially getting "out there," for a sign in Dawson Creek announced "Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway," and there was no BMW dealer until the other end of it, in Fairbanks, over 1,000 miles away.
The morning remained cold, and a light overcast let through just enough glare to require sunglasses. A steady 120 kph (75 mph) was fast enough to cover the miles, though still moderately legal, but I was soon feeling bone-chilled, even with my heated vest (wired like an electric blanket and plugged into the bike's electrics), the heated grips under my heavy gloves, and my plastic rainsuit over the leathers.
In Fort Nelson, I stopped at The Pantry for a bowl of soup and a chance to warm myself, and wrote in my journal,
The best two-lane highway you can imagine so far - wide, well-paved, lightly travelled.
Back beside my motorcycle in the parking lot, I dug out my emergency cell phone and called Sheila, the band's bookkeeper, back at our office in Toronto. Sheila had been part of our family life in past times, for she used to come to our house to update our books every two weeks, on Tuesday evenings, the same night as Selena's flute lesson, when the house would be filled with the rich chords of the teacher's piano accompaniment and Selena's sometimes-halting performances (like her father, she loved to play, but with an impatience more like her mother's, she hated to practise).
Some nice bits of scenery, but I know the spectacular stuff will just be starting, as I head west into the mountains.
RV bumper sticker: WHERE ARE WE GOING? AND WHY ARE WE IN THIS HAND BASKET?
Sheila had been a dear and supportive friend through all my troubles, and I had taken advantage of her kindness by gradually shifting all my business to her desk, and making her my "central liaison" for messages from friends and family. I might have been a solitary traveler, feeling completely detached from everything around me, but I was never really alone -- always there were people thinking of me, worrying about me, and looking after the necessary business of my abandoned life.
When my whole world was pulled out from under me so completely I was left feeling so flat at an weak and helpless that I was unable to cope with the details of everyday life at all, and had to accept the help that was offered so willingly by family and friends. Once I was able to accept the idea, I was amazed how much they would and could do to help me survive those dark days. John Steinbeck once wrote that sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is to allow them to do something for you, and I learned the truth of that insight too. For perhaps the first time in my life I surrendered my independence and my proud self-sufficiency, and once I had opened that window to the warm breeze of compassion, my world-view was utterly transformed. I fell into their open arms.
My brother Danny was one of those caregivers, and he sent me a quote from Thoreau, ''At death, our friends and relatives either draw nearer to us, and are found out, or depart farther from us, and are forgotten." Nearly everyone close to me had drawn nearer through that time, and one day in the House of Mourning I remember saying to my friend Brad, "You know, I used to think, 'Life is great, but people suck,' but now I've had to learn the opposite, 'Life sucks, but people are great.'"
In my former shallow, perhaps callous, world-view, I had enjoyed my life and appreciated my family and my friends, but I had often been annoyed by the feeling that everyone else just wanted something from me. But now life, which I had once idealized as a generous deity offering adventure and delight, had betrayed my faith viciously, and in the aftermath it was people who had held me up and held me together with unstinting care and unimagined affection.
With regard to "unimagined affection," I confess that I am one of those people who, in a deep and secret place, can never imagine why anyone would actually like them. Respect maybe, or even appreciate, but not really care for. This psychology (or psychosis, or neurosis) is not about self-esteem or pride, for most people seem to possess sufficient reserves of those qualities, or some facsimile thereof, but it is more a sense of one's ineptitude in the social graces, a perceived "disability" in what seemed to be the normal social routines of being charming, funny, entertaining, and forthcoming with another person.
This existential discomfort causes more social awkwardness than the contrary self-image (as evinced by one friend of mine who, in that same deep and secret place, can't imagine why anyone wouldn't like him). And for those of us who feel deficient in such socially valued qualities, it can also be that the effort of opening ourselves up to another is so difficult we're willing to at least attempt the operation in close relationships, but not for casual encounters.
That part of me remained the same, it seemed, but I had learned that it could be worthwhile to try to give yourself to others. They had certainly given themselves to me. Even some who had never been that close to me before were moved, and I remembered one former employee of the band's who I hadn't seen for years showing up at the House of Mourning and tearfully rambling through a speech that basically expressed what many others must have felt, "I don't know what to say, but here's my heart."
Also in the spirit of doing others the "favor" of letting them help me, I had taken advantage of Sheila's boss, and Rush's manager, Ray, by asking him to look after the selling of the family house in Toronto. During my first meeting with a realtor, barely two weeks after Jackie's death, I had faced the raw wound of having to tell her why I was selling the house - one of the first times I was forced to tell my sad story in brief, painful words - and after offering a formulaic expression of sympathy, she told me how that might affect a buyer's response to the house, then went on to argue repeatedly against my objection to holding "open house" showings, when anyone could wall< in and take a tour through that haunted house, from serious buyers to the merely curious and the outright ghouls.
So I was glad to avoid any more realtor-dealings, and the constant reawakening of happy family memories from that house. During our cell phone conversation that day Sheila said, "Ray wants to tall< to you; I think he has pretty much got the house sold." That set my mind reeling. It was what I wanted, of course, but now it seemed so ... final.
I tried to call Ray, but couldn't reach him, so I suited up and got back on the Alaska Highway, thinking about all those things as I rode west, the road narrowing as it twisted through the conifer forests and into the northern reaches of the Rockies. The day remained cold under looming clouds, and sometimes the road was shiny with rain, so the mountains were sensed more often than seen. When they did appear, they were bare of trees, for at this latitude the tree line was very near; at the 4,000-foot elevation of Summit Lake, the trees seemed to end right at the roadside.
After days of riding across the horizontal plane of the prairies, my journal described this three-dimensional scenery as "monumental" and "glorious," and after all those straight roads, I described the riding as "way more entertaining." This late in the season (August 25th) the traffic was light, and most of it gigantic RVS travelling in the other direction, away from Alaska. Rounding one thickly forested bend in the road, I was startled to see a small herd of caribou browsing at the roadside, and I slowed enough to look at them, but not scare them off.
I was still responding to the landscapes, highways, and wildlife, "creating" the world as I rode. I was even starting to respond to people, it seemed, even strangers. Apparently I could even care about them, like the kid at the gas station, the Oriental "natives," the hapless waiter, "the fool I used to be." This empathy had been a rare feeling for me lately, as all of my emotions were bound up in one paradigm (Loss!), and my attitude toward strangers tended more toward bitterness and envy, and could be summed up by the angry accusation, "Why are you alive?" (And not "them," of course.)
Now, it seemed, I was beginning to include strangers in my brave new world, and maybe as I travelled down the Healing Road I would start to like them again too. Anything was possible. However, despite these occasional precious moments of Truth and Beauty I was finding on the road, I often felt lost and alone, and each day I was attacked by spells of dark, weepy desolation.
So it was that cold, wet day on the Alaska Highway, and after 622 miles I was glad to arrive at the Northern Rockies Lodge, on the shore of Muncho Lake. Billed as "the largest log structure in British Columbia," with a 45-foot-high central dining room, it had been built only two years previously, in 1996, just before my friend Brutus and I happened to make a brief stop there on our motorcycling trip to Yellowknife. Back then I had thought it would be a great place to stay, an outpost of civilization on a pretty little lake cradled among tall trees and rugged gray peaks, and when I set out that morning I remembered it, and hoped to make it that far.
The gravel parking lot in front was lined with cars and sport-utility vehicles bearing license plates from South Dakota, New York, Washington, Colorado, Texas, Utah, Florida, and Alaska. Between the lodge and the lake a few tiny, weathered log cabins, maybe 12 feet square and 10 feet high, remained from a previous enterprise, and these were offered to pariah smokers like me. "Fabulous," I wrote in my journal, and began to think seriously of staying another day. I had been afraid to consider staying in one place longer than a night, not wanting to give myself time to think too much, but in the six days since leaving the house on the lake I had covered 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), and apart from giving myself a rest at another house on a lake, there were practicalities to consider - I carried only six changes of socks, underwear, and T-shirts. The Northern Rockies Lodge offered guest laundry facilities; there were small motorboats for rent, hiking possibilities, and my little log cabin made an inviting sanctuary to hide away with a measure of The Macallan and a book.
Still uncertain about the wisdom of this notion, I left the decision to the morning, which was cold (8°C [48°F)) and threatened rain. Not the kind of day that invited travel, so I made up my mind to try staying. Walking up to the lodge for breakfast, I stopped at the desk to book another night.
The Northern Rockies Lodge was owned by a Swiss pilot named Urs and his wife Marianne, both apparently in their late 40s, and photographs on display indicated that Urs had flown for the oil company AGIP in Libya. Perhaps he had earned enough money there to buy this remote property, build the new lodge, and purchase the two float planes of Liard Air that were tied up at the dock, available for charter to sightseers and sportsmen.
With my laundry washed and dried and rolled away again, I asked Mariananne about a place to hike, and she directed me across the highway to what she called "the wash." The morning was still cold and overcast, but I was soon warmed by the effort of climbing over the tumbled rocks, stones, and gravel at the bottom of a narrow canyon, like a glacial moraine or scree, where the snowmelt obviously came pouring down in spring. The lower part had been bulldozed into levees to channel the flow, and I scrambled over them and up into the larger boulders, following the banks of a small stream up into the ragged forest.
A little bird called a dipper, or water ouzel, retreated ahead of me upstream, easily identifiable by its habit of ducking under the water, or "dipping," to hunt its food of insects and small crustaceans. Seeing a new species like that was always a mild thrill for a longtime bird lover, and later that afternoon when I rented a small motorboat to tour the lake I saw a bald eagle soaring against the dark forest, and another first sighting, an Arctic loon, sleeker and lighter-colored than the common loons that lived on my lake at home. There were also slender mergansers fishing on the lake, and a large flock of small, puffin-like ducks which flew off before I was close enough to identify them.
A brief rainshower during my boat ride made me grateful for my waterproof jacket and hat, but the clouds finally passed off to the east, leaving a rainbow and bright washes of sunlight on the barren gray peaks above the forest. When I got back to the lodge I said to Marianne at the front desk, "A place like this is supposed to be relaxing, but I'm exhausted; so much to do!"
Exhausted I may have been, but I was also relaxed; my first day staying in one place had turned out pretty well. As always, the main thing was to keep moving; keep active, take that little baby soul for a ride. It just took will, and I knew I was always just barely hanging on to that necessary resolve. I was still overcome by tears and abject sorrow several times a day, but I tried to let those spells pass, and to avoid the hopeless tailspin of spiraling down into the abyss of memories.
Those memories were always with me, of course, and it seemed that part of what Freud called "grief work" involved calling up and processing every memory I had of the lost ones. Every shared laugh and every harsh word had to be recalled and assigned a new, final judgment, something I could eventually feel good about, maybe, or something I would have to keep replaying in my mind, like my mental video-loop of Selena's accident or the memory of Jackie's last breath, until I could lay it to rest in a peaceful garden of memory.
For some reason, as part of that grief work it also seemed necessary for me to replay every single incident of my own life, and once when I was awake in the middle of the night in a motel, stewing over these things, I tried to write it down.
Notice in these "watches of the night," or while riding (or anytime), pattern of torment (tormente, Spanish for storm). Not only have to relive and examine every episode of life with Jackie and Selena, but every single episode of my own life. Every embarrassment, act of foolishness, wrong-headedness, error, idiocy etc. going back to childhood and all the way forward to now.
Without knowing it, I had identified a subtle but important part of the healing process. There would be no peace for me, no life for me, until I learned to forgive life for what it had done to me, forgive others for still being alive, and eventually, forgive myself for being alive.
I physically flinch, say "ow" out loud, or "fuck," as the case may be, and can hardly bear it. Such stupid things sometimes, but it seems my confidence, or belief in myself, or something, is so shaken, so undermined, so tenuous, that I have no tolerance, no understanding, no forgiveness: for myself or anyone else.
No forgiveness ...
With such currents in the existential sea to swim through, a day spent in motion helped keep me afloat, forcing me to be moderately curious about my surroundings, and to concentrate on what I was doing, especially when I was riding the motorcycle and dealing with the balancing act, literally and figuratively, of its operation, the road, the weather, other traffic, the background of inspiring scenery, and the occasional glimpses of birds and animals.
Landscapes, highways, and wildlife - my new holy trinity. From those simple elements it did seem I was finding enough to get moderately excited about, and each of those moments of Truth and Beauty was an important baby step along the Healing Road, and other strands to weave into the day's fabric of grief and despair.
Just as when I was alone at the house on the lake, I never felt consciously lonely, for I had always enjoyed my own company, and reading had always served as a diversion, escape, and solace for me. I did notice that I was doing a lot of journal writing, which made for a kind of companion during solitary meals, and I had also been uncharacteristically active on the telephone, calling two or three friends or family members every day, and that was very unlike me.
Or at least, it was very unlike the fool I used to be.
"Mr. Gregarious," I laughed at myself in my journal.
Probably good for me, though. I do find I'm talking to myself fairly often, which makes me laugh (crazy old coot). But that's okay. Just watch it!
Fortune is random - fate shoots from the hip
I know you get crazy, but try not to lose your grip
Chapter 3 - North to Inuvik
The point of the journey
Is not to arrive -
Anything can happen
PRIME MOVER, 1987
Parking my motorcycle in front of a motel at the end of a long day on the road could certainly be sweet, like finally exhaling after holding my breath all day, but best of all was setting out in the morning. Whatever torments the night had brought; whatever weather the new day threw at me, when I loaded up the bike and swung my leg over the saddle, my whole perspective changed. Focus tightened into the mechanics and mentality of operating the machine, and awareness contracted to that demanding paradigm. As I let in the clutch and turned the throttle, my world-view expanded as I moved into a whole new paradigm of landscapes, highways, and wildlife. Infinite possibilities.
Travel writers often feel compelled to try to explain and justify the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. They cite the etymology of "travel" in the French word travail, labor, and point out that any independent journey outside the well-worn tourist routes requires extreme will and endurance simply to keep moving forward. One of the most indefatigable of serious travelers, Paul Theroux, explains that after one of his journeys, he hasn't had a vacation; he needs a vacation. But for most of his readers, the "armchair travelers," it's only the vicarious, pristine experience they want to share, not the unhygienic, exhausting reality.
The solitary traveler is frequently invested by others with an aura of romance, myth, and desire. So many people feel trapped in the workaday predictability of their lives, and their frustrations and dissatisfactions can be simultaneously stimulated and soothed by a non-specific fantasy of "getting away." But like all fantasies, this dream vision remained free of consequences, and that alone was the deep, cold distinction between fantasy and reality: No consequences.
Watching a movie or reading a novel might make you feel sad, or frightened, or inspired, but at the end of that experience, nothing has actually happened in your life. The experiences of real life were not like that, as I had certainly come to know. The fantasy image of a free spirit drifting without care or effort through some IMAX movie of breathtaking scenery not only ignored the darker possibilities (breakdown, accident, injury, death), it also omitted the simple joy-killers of bad weather, indigestion, toothache, or diesel in your fuel tank. Anything can happen, and scenery is never "neutral."
So if I always felt a quiet thrill as I set off into the mysteries of a new day, it was often tempered by such realities, both potential and immediate. Leaving Muncho Lake before 6:00 on a chilly, overcast morning, for example, the danger was potential, but the cold was immediate. I wore my full foul-weather outfit of long underwear under the armored leather suit heated vest and handgrips on full, thin balaclava under my full-face helmet, and the plastic rain suit over it all to help shield me from the cruel wind.
A different journey was beginning as I left behind the relatively secure environment of highways and cities and struck off into remote areas of rough roads and widely scattered little settlements. From that day on, I felt less like a traveler and more like an adventurer (or misadventurer), for I was very much aware that out here the consequences of "pilot error" or accident were increasingly severe. Fear was my co-pilot, and there was much to worry about now, in both imagination and reality.
Highway construction, or rather deconstruction, was the day's first obstacle. When I saw the pavement ending at a long stretch of soft-looking dirt, I held myself tense and breathless as my wheels plowed into the deep, heavy morass of ruts that could so easily knock me down. For several miles my eyes were fixed on nothing but the brown dirt approaching my wheels, steering toward the more packed-down areas as smoothly as I could, easy on the brakes, easy on the gas, balance, balance, balance.
Then came the day's first reward. As I crossed a bridge high above the wide Liard River, I glanced down and saw something large and dark in the middle of the water. It seemed to be swimming across, trailing a vee-shaped wake of silver, so I slowed down for a better look. At first it resembled a cow, but that seemed unlikely, so I decided it was probably a moose, and I slowed even more, then put my feet down and stopped to watch. As the dark mass reached the far shore and climbed up on the bank, my eyes widened as I saw that it was a huge black bear, shaking itself and lumbering off into the forest.
The characteristic birds of the far north were the ravens flapping heavily across the gray sky, and occasionally a spruce grouse standing dumbly at the roadside. The morning seemed gradually to brighten a little, and I began to hope that some solar warmth might ease my shivering, but the day remained bitter.
I stopped at a roadside clearing for a break, and as I stood looking over the expansive view of the river and its banks of green and yellow forest, a big RV pulled in behind me. Its driver, a friendly older man, came over to look at my bike, and told me he had owned a BMW in 1960, and now rode a Honda Gold Wing back home in southern Illinois. As we discussed our travels, I learned that he and his wife were on their way home from Alaska, and when I told him I was thinking of heading off the highway that day to some gravel roads, he hooked a thumb back toward the RV and said with a rueful smile, "She won't let me leave the highway!"
The destination I had in mind was Telegraph Creek, because ... well, because I liked the name. I first heard of it in an article in Equinox ("The Magazine of Canadian Discovery," now defunct, unfortunately) in which the writer had pointed out that map-makers seemed to like Telegraph Creek because it gave them a name to put on an otherwise empty region, where northern British Columbia met the Alaska Panhandle.
The settlement had flourished briefly twice, first during the Klondike gold rush when it was the head of navigation for steamboats carrying hopeful prospectors up the Stikine River. From there, they could travel overland to the Yukon goldfields on what came to be known as "The Bughouse Trail," its history replete with Jack London-style tales of starvation, scurvy, frostbite, and madness. The town's second life, and the source of its name, came from an American scheme to run a telegraph cable overland through Alaska, under the Bering Strait, and across Russia to connect with Europe, but shortly after the surveying was completed the project was rendered pointless by the laying of the transatlantic cable. Telegraph Creek once again lapsed into a virtual ghost town, and the only present-day visitors seemed to be attracted by boat, raft, and kayaking expeditions on the Stikine River. Or by the name.
Another siren-call for me was the romantic lure of an isolated, storied destination which lay "at the end of the road." Telegraph Creek was a dot on the map at the end of a long unpaved road, far from anywhere, the kind of place Brutus and I used to dream about exploring (in fact, it was Brutus, in a recent telephone conversation, who had urged me to go there). The guidebooks disagreed on whether I would have to navigate 74 miles or 74 kilometres of that road, but they agreed that it was "rough" and "often treacherous." In fact it turned out to be 112 kilometres (near enough 74 miles) of dirt and gravel winding through deep forest and steep switch-backs up and down the walls of "The Grand Canyon of the Stikine." In some places, the sheer cliffs of eroded, multi-layered rock did resemble a modest version of that famed stretch of the Colorado River, and sometimes the road was a mere ledge perched on those vertical walls, dropping off into a frightening abyss.
My journal described it as a "scary, scary road," and I was fairly rattled when I pulled up in front of the Stikine Riversong cafe, general store, lodge, and boat-tour headquarters. All this was housed in one large white frame building facing the swift-moving river, and I learned later that it had been the original Hudson's Bay Company trading post, situated just downriver, and had been moved piece by piece to Telegraph Creek. A few other abandoned-looking houses and a small church clustered on the river bank, but only the Riversong showed any signs of life.
The guidebooks said that a few rooms were available there, but if they happened to be filled it would be a long way back to any other lodgings. The cold, gloomy weather made the idea of camping uninviting, but once again I was glad to be carrying my little tent and sleeping bag, especially when the owner told me he was closing for the weekend and taking the staff upriver in his tour boat to celebrate the end of their season. Then, after a moment's thought, he said that I was welcome to rent one of the rooms and stay there on my own. That was thoughtful, hospitable, and trusting of him, and I only asked what I might do for food. He told me there was a kitchen upstairs where I could prepare my own meals, so I bought a few provisions in the general store in the back of the building, including some fresh salmon from the river, and carried my bags to a mall bedroom upstairs.
I watched through the cafe window as the owner and his three employees loaded their camping gear into the motor boat, and my only regret was missing the opportunity for a tour of the river myself. I stood on the riverbank and watched the boat speed away upriver against the strong current, and felt a little excited, and a little fearful.
Apparently the only other enterprise, Trina Anne Excursions, was also abandoned for the weekend, so the only living souls in town were the Mountie and his wife at the RCMP post at the other end of town. (Because the Stikine River flowed down to the Alaskan town of Wrangell, Telegraph Creek was a kind of frontier outpost between the two countries.) I was virtually alone in my own private ghost town, watching the river flow.
Upstairs in the empty old building the silence seemed almost oppressive, and only accentuated by the amazingly creaky floors as I walked around between my small bedroom at the front, the shared bathroom, and the common area of kitchen and sitting room. On the payphone I called my friend and colleague, Alex, on his birthday, and he was pleased to hear from me, though a little bemused by my tale of where I was calling from. The delay on the line made me feel even more like a voice from the wilderness. Vox clamatis in deserto.
As I wrote in my journal, "Well, I've fetched up in some strange places in my travels, and some places that were a serious adventure to get to, but this ... this is one of them."
I slept soundly with my window open to the cool, fresh air and the murmuring of the river, and took a walk before breakfast on another chilly, overcast morning. Past ruined cabins and abandoned, moss-covered cars and pickups from the 1950s, a narrow path led up a high, lava-rock cliff above a steep scree to an old graveyard overlooking the town. As I walked among the stones reading the inscriptions, the bare facts of names and dates had a whole new resonance for me, for I felt them as part of a story like mine, a story of love and loss. I thought about "Honey Joe," who had died at the age of 105 and was buried beside "Mrs. Joe," who he had outlived by 40 years. Then there were all the babies, children, teenagers, and young men and women, and I found myself weeping for all the lost ones, theirs and mine. Ghost town indeed.
High on the other side of the main road was a Native settlement of prefab houses, and the map showed a road leading from there another 15 miles downriver to the ruins of a town called Glenora, where the Hudson's Bay Company post, now the Riversong, had originally been located. In the afternoon I suited up and took a ride out that way, to see if there was anything to see, but as I picked my way along the narrow dirt road, rain began to fall, turning the surface under my wheels to mud. Where the road ended I found only a couple of pickup trucks and boat trailers, and I straddled the bike and tried to turn it around. The tires slid in the mud and I lost my footing, then leapt aside as the motorcycle fell over, leaving us both laying in the mud. Even with all the bags removed the bike still weighed about 600 pounds, and it took all my strength, slipping around in my muddy boots, to haul it upright. One mirror was broken and hanging loose, but there didn't seem to be any other damage, and I slithered my way back to the Riversong through the steady rain.
I hunted up a piece of scrap wood to put under the centerstand, to prevent the bike from sinking into the liquefying surface and falling over again, tried unsuccessfully to fix the mirror, then had a closer look for other damage. Nothing was apparent, but I did notice the brake pads were looking a little thin, and it was possible that all the wet, gritty riding I'd been doing had worn them more quickly than usual. It was hard to tell with everything gummed up with mud, and there was nothing I could do about it anyway, but it was something else to worry about.
And still the rain kept falling, hour after hour, and I began to fear the ride out of there the following day. If that 70-mile dirt road had been treacherous and scary when it was dry, what would it be like as a slippery mire clinging to a precipice? I didn't like to think about it; but I did.
From the payphone at the Riversong I finally got a call through to Ray to find out what was going on with the sale of the Toronto house. Apparently the day before, while I had been hiding out there in the wilderness, unconcerned with any news from the outside world, the stock market had taken its own tumble into the mud, the Canadian dollar had plummeted again, and the formerly committed buyer had found an excuse to back out of the deal at the last minute. Just when I had grown used to the idea of saying goodbye to that "haunted house," with all its years of family memories, it was back on the market, and back on my mind.
Just what I needed. It's hard not to feel like Mr. All-Time Loser sometimes.
After a troubled night, I was up at 5:00, nervous and edgy, fixing a quick breakfast of orange juice, cereal, and strong coffee. It was still dark as I carried my bags out to the bike, and though the ground was sodden, I was glad to see the rain had stopped, and looked up to a clear patch of sky with stars and a planet.
Rain and despair, bad combination.
Have the feeling of being "driven to the edge of a deep, dark hole," so to speak. Very aware of backing away: "Don't go there."
As I walked back to the door after the first load, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of a fox, small and brown with a white-tipped tail, standing by the door and watching me calmly. At first I was thrilled to see this elusive wild animal up close, but I realized this was unnatural behavior, and it made me uneasy. The fox might have been rabid, or it might have been tamed by someone from the staff feeding it; I couldn't know. When I came out with the second load it was still sitting there, just looking at me. I worried about it sneaking inside in search of food, so I kicked the door closed behind me. Just as the latch clicked shut I felt a start of fear and cringed, remembering the door was self-locking, and that I had left the key on the kitchen table.
Oh man. It was 5:30 in the morning; no one from the Riversong was expected back until later that day, and short of breaking something, my only hope of getting the door unlocked was the Mountie, and I couldn't very well go knocking on his door at this hour.
I remembered seeing a ladder nailed to the front of the building, plank rungs leading up to the second floor - a primitive fire escape. My bedroom window was still cracked open, maybe I could raise it all the way from outside. Wearing all my riding gear except the helmet (at least I'd be armored if I fell!) , I climbed up the side of the building, squeezed through the window, and rescued myself.
In the gloomy twilight the bike's headlight glittered on the puddles and dripping vegetation as I threaded slowly and nervously through the soggy gravel and mud of the Stikine Valley. Higher up, the road seemed as dry as it had been on the way in, and I made my careful way out to the main road at Dease Lake. The morning was windy and cold, but I was glad to be back on pavement as I sped north once more, toward breakfast in Watson Lake, just over the border in the Yukon.
Back on the Alaska Highway, I stopped to marvel at the famed "Sign Forest," where more than 30,000 town signs from all over the world were displayed in a vast open area, a custom apparently inspired by a single sign posted by a homesick G.!. during the construction of what had originally been called the Alcan Highway, during World War II.
Continuing westward, bursts of yellow aspen dotted the dark green forest, and above the low treeline, the higher elevations of the rounded mountains were dusted with snow. Occasional lakes gleamed in the dull light, and once I saw a bald eagle swooping over the turquoise shallows. A few motorcycles passed me in the other direction, including three BMW GSes like mine, and we exchanged big waves of recognition.
My own GS, apart from being muddy and missing a mirror, needed a new indicator bulb and another oil change, which I tried to do every 3,000 kilometres, so I decided to go without lunch and get to Whitehorse early enough in the day for that operation. By early afternoon I had covered the 858 kilometres (536 miles) and circled the wide, neat streets of downtown Whitehorse in search of the necessary facilities. I carried tools and a spare filter to do the oil change myself, but I needed a place to buy some oil and drain the old stuff. At the Canadian Tire store I found the bulb I needed, but the mechanics were off on Saturday and no one else seemed to know where I could empty my oId oil. They sent me to the "Enviro-Lube" shop, who said they didn't "do" motorcycles (even if I "did" it myself), and they sent me to the Honda dealer, which was closed. I surrendered to fate, and went in search of lodging .
The Westmark Hotel made for a sharp contrast with my previous two nights in Telegraph Creek, for the busy high-rise was filled with people on bus tours, and my room had a view across an airshaft to the blank windows of other rooms. The restaurant was also put to shame by the previous night's meal (the fresh local salmon prepared by moi, Chef Ellwood), and my own service had been a lot better too, for this waitress was inattentive, forgetful, and unaware of her own ineptitude. In my journal-writing during dinner I toyed with the crazy idea of actually telling her the truth, "You know, you're a lousy waitress."
But, I noted, "Like so many other truths, pointless."
However, the music that was playing in the restaurant caught my ear. In previous years I had always kept abreast of new music, not so much professionally but as a music lover, but in the wake of my tragedies I had left all that behind too. After being outside the pop-culture loop for over a year, I was just starting to hear some of what I had missed.
Surprisingly decent music - unfamiliar, countryish, but kind of, um, "smart." Heartfelt too. Different artists and singers, male and female, intriguing lyrics, interesting arrangements. Most unusual and unexpected, here in Whitehorse. With everything else going on within and without, it has a surreal effect somehow.
Next morning the Weather Network showed -3° [28°P) and there was frost on my saddle, so I decided to stay around for awhile, have breakfast, and call my Mom on her birthday. No one answered the phone at my parents' house that morning, and after a couple of hours of sitting around, I was restless and anxious to get moving. As I set off on the Klondike Highway toward Dawson, passing many ravens and a couple of coyotes, the weather had not warmed up much, but at least it was bright and sunny.
Is all this the pop music I've missed in the past year? If so, I'm pleasantly surprised.
At the Braeburn Lodge, one of those "everything" places that dot the far north (cafe, gas station, general store, humble-looking motel rooms, road maintenance depot, and shortwave radio station), the owner sold me some oil and gave me a bucket to drain mine into. I spread my blue plastic ground sheet on the gravel lot to lay upon, peeled off some of my overclothes, and completed a successful oil and filter change in about 20 minutes.
Reloaded and resuited, I rode off feeling the small satisfaction of having looked after the motorcycle's needs. I crossed the Yukon River at Carmack, and now I was out of the mountains again, for the low forest stretched to the horizon in every direction, the deciduous trees in full autumn color already, at the end of August. Stopping at a roadside stand called "Penny's Place," I sat on a picnic bench and enjoyed an excellent burger, the best lunch of the journey so far. While discussing the weather with Penny, she told me that up there, spring and fall each lasted about a week.
Three other motorcyclists pulled in behind me on heavily-loaded Kawasaki dual-sport bikes (like my GS, designed with high clearance, long-travel suspension, and stout wheels to handle heavy baggage and bad roads). We shared some of our travel stories, and I learned that they were a father and his two sons from southern British Columbia on their way to Alaska, where they were planning to ride to the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway, the service road which followed the Alaska Pipeline up to Prudhoe Bay (not a "highway" at all, of course, but a gravel haul road for the oil company's vehicles). I told them I had my eye on the Dempster Highway, the equally misnamed dirt road on the Canadian side, which also crossed the Arctic Circle on its way to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. As I prepared to ride away, we wished each other good riding. "Keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down."
More snow-dusted mountains came into view as I approached Dawson, at the end of a relatively easy day's ride on a dry, paved highway under sunny skies. It was still early in the afternoon, and I'd only covered 565 kilometres (350 miles) that day, but Dawson was the starting point for the Dempster Highway, and I needed to make some decisions, and maybe some preparations. In any case, it was pleasant having an early end to a day that wasn't quite so "epic," and I was glad to check into another West mark Hotel (also filled with bus tours, probably the same group), do some laundry, and walk around the town.
Except for Front Street, the main road in, all the streets were unpaved and lined with boardwalks, otherwise the permafrost would heave the paving up every year like a wrinkled carpet. The boardwalk helped to give the place a real frontier town feel, along with a couple of genuine older buildings like the court house and the bank. Although the main part of town was a little tarted up for tourists, with "Klondike Days" saloons and such, behind the facades Dawson had the rugged, weather-beaten look of any small town in the far north. Several camper trucks were parked along the levees beside the Yukon River, among them a few VW microbuses with British Columbia and California plates, one with a "smiley-face" tire cover. Neo-hippies.
Another attraction in Dawson was the Jack London Centre, which commemorated the writer's time in the area as a young prospector during the Klondike gold rush, in 1897. The stories and novels inspired by that part of his life, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, had brought him his first success and fame. By chance I had recently come across a Jack London story in an anthology called The Very Richness of That Past, a collection of writing about Canada by "visitors." (The title came from a story by another American writer, Wallace Stegner, whose writing I would also come to love after that first taste of his work.) The opening of London's story, "In a Far Country," had relevance to my present journey both literally and metaphorically:
When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped. To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand. This chafing is bound to act and ;react, producing diverse evils and leading to various misfortunes. It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.
The lady curator was just getting ready to close the museum for the day, but she talked with me for a few minutes about London's life and writing, and dismissed the biography I'd read as "sensationalized." She recommended a couple of others, and when I named the few books of his that I had read so far, she said I was in for a treat when I got to his masterworks, like The Sea Wolf and Martin Eden.
Outside the museum was a replica of the small log cabin in which London was said to have waited out his long, dark winter in the bush farther up the Yukon River. The ruins had been identified by a carved inscription, "Jack London, Writer and Miner," he had allegedly left on a board inside it, and two copies of the cabin had been assembled from the original pieces, one in Dawson, and one in London's home town of Oakland, California.
Back in the hotel parking lot I talked to a man who had just come back from the Dempster Highway in his Jeep, and he shook his head as he told me it had been a rough journey, and he had barely made it even in his four-wheeler. Five hundred miles of dirt road each way, he said, with only one gas station in the middle, and there had been some muddy construction zones where he had seen a few other motorcyclists having a hard time, falling down and pushing each other through the muck.
That night, I finally reached my mother on the phone and wished her a happy birthday, and she sounded worried when I told her my plans. After Selena's death I had leaned on my Mom the most, not surprisingly, and my Dad had been there for me too, giving strength and help and comfort when he could. (I would never forget that first night back in Toronto, standing in the front hall in my father's arms and sobbing, "It's so bad!")
Even after Jackie and I went to London I had called my mother every day, just needing the refuge of her voice, and recently, when I had apologized for not calling so often, she had said, "That's okay - when I don't hear from you I know you're all right!" She and Dad had come to London to help us through that first awful Christmas, and later visited us in Barbados, not long before Jackie's passing. Earlier that August, when I hadn't felt up to facing the anniversary of Selena's death by myself, I had ridden my motorcycle across Ontario to Mom and Dad's house to spend the night with them.
On the telephone in Dawson, partly to calm her, and partly to calm myself, I made the decision out loud that I would go for the Arctic Circle at least (just over halfway), and turn around the first time I fell down. Neither of us was much comforted by that idea, but at least I had committed myself to a plan.
At 9:30 at night the sun was still hitting the hilltop behind the town, even that late in the summer (August 30th), and at 10:15, when I was still trying to catch up with my journal-writing, I noted that it was still fairly light outside.
Still hard to keep up with this trip, journalizing-wise, even when I think I'm taking it easy. Too much happens in a day, that's all, as Selena once observed.
In late June of 1997, toward the end of the Test For Echo tour, Selena joined Brutus and me in our "Scooter Trash" gang for a few days, sleeping on the bus, travelling by motorcycle to the shows, then getting herself all dolled up for "show time."
At the end of a show at Greatwoods Amphitheater, near Boston, I ran straight off the stage and into the "Scooter Trash" bus. Brutus and Selena were already aboard, and our driver, Dave, set off across New England while I dried off and changed, then sat in the front lounge talking and listening to music. Brutus and I raised a glass of The Macallan and Selena sipped a beer.
Soon we melted off to our bunks (Selena claimed her favorite place to sleep was in the bunk of a moving bus) and jostled through the night in the classic rest of the touring musician. Brutus had chosen a "staging area" for the next morning's ride in a corner of Maine, and Dave drove to a rest area nearby, where we could enjoy some motionless sleep for another few hours.
At daylight, I roused the sleepy Selena, and we. all crowded into the narrow lounge and struggled into our riding gear. Brutus and I backed the bikes off the trailer, Selena climbed on behind me, and we rode into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Brutus had arranged a
rendezvous with a helicopter pilot and a videographer.
For the next six hours Selena traded her uncomfortable seat behind me on the motorcycle for an uncomfortable seat beside the helicopter pilot, while he performed all kinds of aerobatics for the videographer and Andrew, the still photographer (who didn't much enjoy hanging out the side of the helicopter to shoot pictures of Brutus and me riding together).
After that ordeal, poor Selena climbed on the back of the motorcycle again, and we rode another six hours to the Wheatcroft Inn, in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was way, way too long of a day for her, and she was sore and tired and miserable; we all were. However, in one of her greatest moments, within three minutes my little girl had changed from her leather riding suit into a pretty green dress, given her hair a quick "up-do," and was transformed into her elegant-lady persona. "Selena the Warrior Princess," we called her.
At dinner that night the three of us were limply good-humored, and Selena kept teasing Brutus about his bad planning, and how tired and sore she was. Then, as we discussed the events of that day, Selena shook her head and said, "I can't believe how much can happen in one day!" She made me proud.
A few days later, before the second half of the show at an amphitheatre near Buffalo, New York, Selena was leaving to go back to Toronto, and I said goodbye to her outside the trailer dressing room. As I hugged and kissed her, I told her, "I love you, and I'm proud of you - in so many ways." And the last time I saw her, on the morning of August 10th, 1997, I had ridden ahead of her on my motorcycle to guide her through the back roads of Quebec to a gas station in Hawkesbury, Ontario, and once again I hugged and kissed her, and told her I loved and was proud of her. Now I was so glad those words had been spoken, and I was grateful for other good memories too.
Most of our family travels had tended to be at my convenience, at the end of one of my solo adventures, for example, when Jackie and Selena would meet me in Hong Kong, Nairobi, the Ivory Coast, or Paris, or join me for a break in a Rush tour in Boston, St. Louis, or San Francisco. But just the year before, in the spring of 1997, I had taken Jackie alone to Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea for a couple of weeks, and at the end of it she told me that the nicest thing about it was that for the whole time she had felt like she'd had all my attention. Typically, I hadn't thought of that as being an important factor, but in retrospect, I was sure glad I had done that. Sometimes - however unknowingly - I hadn't been such a fool.
Aug. 31 Dawson
At the start of the Dempster Highway a large sign announced that there were no emergency facilities available on this road, and that, basically, "You're on your own." Fuel was my main concern, and I kept the engine speed below 3,000 RPMS, went as light as I could on the throttle, and even pulled in the clutch on downhills. The surface varied from loose gravel, where I tried to follow the firmer ruts left by the trucks, to long stretches of hard-packed clay, which were almost like pavement. About once an hour I encountered another vehicle - big semis trailing long dust clouds, camper trucks, and the odd car or pickup - but; I noted, it was "a lonely old road."
Up at 5:30, chipping the ice off saddle. Now at Klondike River Lodge for breakfast, at turnoff for Dempster. Should I try it or not? 380 kms (238 miles) to first gas stop. Current fuel range makes that ... marginal. Then there's the mud story - deep, slippery clay up here on the permafrost, the worst possible hazard when wet.
Well, I'm here at "Mile 0" anyway, so something (stubbornness? optimism? stupidity?) is pushing me that way. There've been at least two dry days since the Jeep guy was up there, so ... maybe.
One guy at the Klondike River Lodge just asked a truck driver,
"How was the trip?"
He just shrugged, "Muddy."
Low spruce forest rolled for miles in every direction, gradually giving way to stretches of barren tundra, and I described the landscape as "spectacularly bleak and barren." Small ponds at the roadside had a skin of ice at the edges, and the air was so cold that the bike's oil temperature hardly registered on the gauge. I covered half the oil cooler with a piece of cardboard torn from a cigarette package, and that worked fine.
Apart from the usual ravens, I saw a few gray jays and many willow ptarmigans, a grouse-like bird, which at this season were halfway between their plumage of summer brown and winter white. I was riding slowly enough to identify the many birds of prey: peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks, and harriers hovering over the open areas. A fox crossed the road in front of me, brown with a white-tipped tail, like the friendly one back at Telegraph Creek, and I spotted a few hares and ground squirrels, and a couple of caribou melting into the bush in the distance. I was a few weeks early for the big caribou migration, and I saw none of the bison and bears Brutus and I had encountered on our way to Yellowknife.
Eagle Plains marked the halfway point on the Dempster, and I was relieved to see the long, low complex of buildings come into view. Another "everything" sort of oasis in the wilderness, it included a gas station, restaurant, motel, several big outbuildings for road-maintenance equipment, a tall radio tower, and a windsock for helicopter landings. I pulled up to the gas pumps at about 1:30, glad to see that my fuel-sparing measures had worked; I had covered the first 380 kilometres without even hitting my reserve tank, never mind having to use my spare gallon can. It looked as though I could make it to Inuvilc in another six hours or so, if everything went well, but I was aware that the rough stretches of mud and construction would still be ahead of me, so I was taking nothing for granted.
A sign at the restaurant door said "Please remove wet, muddy, or bloody footwear," the last of which gave me pause, but I presumed they meant hunters. Large areas of land at the roadside had been sign-posted as native reserves, with hunting "by written permit only."
The walls were covered with framed photos and documents telling the story of "The Lost Patrol," a group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police who had become disoriented and died of starvation just north of there, in the winter of 1910. The Dempster Highway was named after the Mountie who had found their remains the following spring.
In open areas I had noticed a long straight line of discolored vegetation cutting across the landscape, and from other old photographs on display at Eagle Plains I learned that this track had been left by a "cat train," a bulldozer-drawn caravan that had followed the seismic lines in search of oil. However, this cat-train had passed only once, 44 years ago, which demonstrated the fragility of the Arctic landscape.
Amazing sweeping views from here: hills, rolling tundra, distant low mountains. The open area after Eagle Plains in crimson and rust colors, among rounded, elephantine hills. Brutal wind, sweeping through the grasses and shrubs, and shoving me all over the road. When it was strong and steady, I was practically riding side-saddle, on the corner of the seat.
Just north of Eagle Plains, a sign announced the crossing of the Arctic Circle, and I stopped to mark my claim to this new territory in the primitive animal fashion. A van pulled into the bitterly cold, windswept parking area, and its solitary driver offered to take one of the few photographs from my travels which had me in it, standing in front of the sign and spreading my rainsuit-covered arms.
Up and down and around, the road like a gravel dike laid over the tundra.
The next sign I passed announced the border with the Northwest Territories, and the wind seemed to suddenly switch to the opposite direction, then it died altogether as I descended to the wide delta of the Mackenzie River. I followed the track of dirt and gravel through walls of shoulder-high spruce, with a few stunted tamaracks and shrubs in yellow and orange. The evenly spaced dwarf birch and scrub willow reminded me of the creosote bushes in the Mojave Desert in California, one of many reminders of a desert landscape in the lower Arctic.
The road worsened considerably as I rode on, particularly in the areas of road construction. Just after a small ferry carried me over the Mackenzie River to Fort McPherson, a long stretch of the road had been graded bare of gravel and soaked by water trucks, presumably to hold down the dust. An older "flag lady" with a walkie-talkie was controlling the traffic on the one open lane, and when she waved me forward, my wheels sank into the greasy clay ruts. I rode as slowly as I could, gently fighting for control, but with zero traction available, my rear wheel slipped sideways, and in an instant I was down and sliding in the mud, the bike bearing down on me from behind in a slow circle.
In those few seconds of slow-motion perception, I was sure that the bike was going to end up on top of me, but it slid to a stop just behind, both of us painted with reddish-brown slime. I was muddy but unbowed, seemingly unhurt, and grateful once again for my strong boots and the armored padding inside the leathers, which protected my elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips.
The only apparent damage to the bike was a snapped-off turn signal, which a little duct tape would remedy, but the tipover in Telegraph Creek had shown that I could barely raise the bike even without its load. I removed the tankbag, the tent and sleeping bag, the gas can and the rightside luggage case, but the one on the left side was trapped under the fallen machine.
It occurred to me then that one of my legs might easily have been caught like that, wedged under the hot exhaust pipe even, and I felt lucky for a moment. But I still faced the problem of getting moving again. My boots flailed in the viscous goop as I took hold of the bars and leaned down to wedge my knee under the bike. I put my body into it and strained mightily, risking heart attack and hernia, but despite my grunting efforts the glutinous muck refused to let it go. Now I considered the reality that I should never have tried that journey alone, if I couldn't even lift the bike if it fell. Judging from my experiences with Brutus on our first journey into the land of permafrost mud and rainy construction zones, it was likely to happen again.
A tractor-trailer came looming down on me from the other direction, so I skated my way through the mud and off the road, out of its way. I took a moment to collect myself and consider my plight, hoping the big truck could squeeze past the fallen bike. The flag lady came running from her post a quarter-mile back to see that I was all right, and I was touched by this neighborly concern. I didn't like to ask her to help me lift the bike, and was trying to decide if I would swallow my pride and flag down the oncoming truck and ask for help.
I didn't have to. The semi came slithering to a stop beside me, and a short, dark man in coveralls hopped down from the cab, asked if I was okay, then bent to help me lift the bike. He had obviously recognized my situation, and on remote roads in the Arctic, travelers helped one another, knowing that one day they might be stranded themselves and need assistance from a stranger. The job was easy enough with two backs and four feet on the ground, and my Good Samaritan of the North helped me get the mud-covered mess back on its wheels and pushed to the roadside.
I put the bike back together and soldiered on, making it to the next little ferry at Arctic Red River. During the short ferry crossing I had a chance to look more carefully at the poor muddy motorcycle, and I saw there was more damage than just the broken signal light. The handlebars and shifter pedal were slightly bent, the plastic engine guard was broken, and the clear plastic headlight protector had been cracked by a flying stone, probably from a passing semi. The repair list for Fairbanks was growing.
The ferry attendant, a friendly man who was probably from the Dene (den-ay) people of the Gwi'chin Nation (unless he was Chinese), told me the other motorcyclists I had heard about from the Jeep driver were Belgians, and one of them had "hitched a ride out on an eighteen-wheeler." Injured, apparently. The ferryman seemed surprised that they could make it all this way and then crash on the Dempster, but I wasn't. I was worried.
The ferryman produced a rag and cleaned my lights and license plate, then fetched some clear tape to fix the headlight protector. Tactfully, I asked if I could "buy him a coffee," but he gracefully declined, speaking in the direct, almost monotonal cadences of the far north. When he asked how I was enjoying my journey, I told him it was tough going, but very beautiful. "Especially at this time of year," he agreed, then gestured up toward the rolling tundra above the delta, and said, "From up there, it's like a painting."
From then on the road was better (which is to say, not under construction), and I had a smooth, fast cruise (with only a few of what my journal called "yikes moments") on the narrow, hard-packed tracks between the gravel berms left by the big rigs.
Having lost a time zone at the territorial border, it was nearly 9:00 by the time I approached Inuvik, but when I hit the short stretch of paved road which connected Inuvik's airport with the town, I felt relieved and exhilarated. Fourteen hours it had taken, but I had made it, all 820 kilometres (512 miles), and but for those last ten kilometres of sweet black asphalt, it had all been gravel and dirt (and mud).
The first building I encountered was the Finto Motor Inn, and with no wish to explore any further that day, I stopped right there.
The Dempster is mine (one way, anyway) and the Arctic Circle is mine, forever.
The next morning, September 1st, was dark and gloomy, and I felt tired and worried. The weather forecast had changed from "rainy" to "cloudy," but the waitress told me she thought it was going to rain. I was truly fatigued and in need of a rest, sore all over from tension and exertion, and I had hoped to spend a day in Inuvik, way up there at the end of the northernmost road in Canada. Maybe I would find a way to visit Tuktoyaktuk, a nearby Inuit community on the Arctic Ocean.
Late dinner in Cabin Lounge, large whisky, decent Caesar salad, chicken on kaiser, red wine.
Good music playing once again, Nirvana Unplugged. Makes me think of Kurt Cobain: he shot himself, left wife and daughter behind. Hard for me to imagine, but I still feel for the guy.
Thoughts so often wandering to Jackie and Selena, especially their ends, and have to consciously try to steer away from that direction.
But if it rained heavily, I would be in trouble. There was only one way out again, the Dempster Highway, and if that road was no longer a mystery, it was still an obstacle. On a rainy day I would not be able to make it, and I could be stuck somewhere for days, unless I hitched a ride out on a truck, like the Belgian had. So I was afraid, but my fear was not about falling, or getting hurt, or breaking down, or having a flat tire (though those hazards were certainly on my mind). Much more dangerous to me was the idea of being stuck somewhere, with too much time to think and the feeling of being trapped. I decided I would take a chance on one more dry day, and make my escape.
Just as I started loading the bike, the raindrops began, and I leaned on the motel doorway, bags in hand, dressed to go. What to do? Stay and wait it out, or go and hope I wouldn't get stuck somewhere? No answer, really. You can't guess the weather. I made a brief circuit of the little town, through the main crossroads with a few stores, another big hotel, and the famed igloo-shaped church, then filled up with gas and headed south.
On the short paved stretch of road leading out of town, I remembered riding the other way the previous night, feeling proud and exhilarated. Now I was frightened, weak, and weepy, truly dispirited, and as the paving ended, I found myself swearing out loud at the road, the rain, my life, and whatever Power might be responsible for all my bad fortune.
But lacking the solace of faith, I also lacked anyone to blame.
You can drive those wheels to the end of the road
You will still find the past
Right behind you
CARVE AWAY THE STONE, 1996
Chapter 18 - Epilogue: Ever After
Love is born with solar flares
From two magnetic poles
It moves toward a higher plane
Where two halves make two wholes
THE SPEED OF LOVE, 1993
In less than a day I was in Los Angeles; in less than a week Andrew introduced me to Carrie, my real angel of redemption; in less than a month we were deeply in love, and in less than a year we were married in a fairy-tale wedding near Santa Barbara.
The answer to a prayer I hadn't dared to voice, or even dream. Carrie. A friend, a soulmate, a lover, a wife, a new journey to embark upon, the greatest adventure.
Beautiful, smart, cultivated, artistic, affectionate;
Deep green eyes, long dark hair, radiant smile;
Tall, slender, shapely, nicely put together;
Half English, half Swedish, all American, all mine.
Though even after we met I resisted this unlikely salvation for awhile, feeling myself by then to be still little more than a burned-out husk. That metaphor can also be stretched to embrace "once burned," and all that, and I guess this little baby soul had been burned more than once. But the East African people have a different saying about that, "Wood that has burned once is easier to set aflame." Or maybe it was more like the seeds of the ponderosa pine or sequoia, which must be touched by fire before they can produce new life.
After our first, awkward meeting at a Hollywood restaurant with Andrew and his date, Carrie and I were brought together again later that week by Andrew (a determined little matchmaker) for a hike in Topanga State Park with him and his dog, Bob, an amiable Jack Russell terrier. Carrie and I walked together the whole way (Andrew discreetly ahead with Bob: our chaperones) and talked about the world and our lives in it. But stubbornly, I still refused to consider this "dating," or that I was supposed to do anything, and the next day I continued blithely on my travels.
A week or two later, I somehow found myself circling back toward Los Angeles, and Carrie and I had our first date alone together at a restaurant in Laguna Beach, then drinks over at the Ritz Carlton. Again, we talked comfortably, growing friendly but not "flirty," until one moment when I chanced to see her from across the restaurant - that single, unforgettable glimpse of her unguarded face would stop time, and change everything. One telling moment melted my cool resolve and beckoned me back to the land of the loving.
But again, with a typical lack of self-awareness, I rode away (Carrie by now calling me her "conquistador," forever donning my black leather armor and riding off on my steed in search of adventures), and again I found myself wanting to circle back. This time I was less able to resist this woman's undeniable "rightness," and after a two-day visit to Santa Monica, where Carrie lived, it was allover for the Ghost Rider.
Still, the "conquistador" rode away again. Steven and I had arranged to meet in Tucson in mid-December to go Baja-bashing in his father-in-law's Hummer (a whole other story), but I couldn't stop thinking about Carrie. A few days into that trip I phoned her and asked her to meet me in Cabo San Lucas for a weekend. Then, once Steven and I had successfully "killed off" Christmas, I flew back to the house on the lake, and Carrie joined me there to ring in the new millennium with ardent love and hope aflame.
In January 2000, I moved to Santa Monica to be with Carrie, for she had a budding photographic career there, while I had only - her. I often had that "caught in a whirlwind" feeling once again, my emotions soaring toward a newfound joy one day, then diving into the old familiar misery the next, but the tendency was all upward, and I committed myself to building a new life with Carrie. I had found my little baby soul's true salvation, and once again I wanted to live forever. I joined the local YMCA, started yoga classes, stopped smoking, and even cut way down on my drinking. Anything can happen, and sometimes that's good.
On September 9, 2000, our families and closest friends gathered in the garden of a villa in Montecito, a day of sunshine, flowers, music, champagne, and dancing; a day of happiness, laughter, and triumph. For those who had helped me survive that long, lonely, road, like my parents, Geddy and Alex, Ray, Liam, Sheila, and Brad and Rita, there was so much joy.
As I stood under the arch of white flowers before the ceremony, the orchestra playing before Carrie's grand entrance, I looked out over the group of well-dressed, smiling guests, then behind to the trees and the blue expanse of the Pacific. For a moment, I thought about all that had brought me there, and my face began to crumble. But it was only a moment, a little turning point of realization, and then of peace, and I smiled with pride and happiness as I stepped down to the grass to take Carrie's hand.
And now, as I bring this tale to a close, it is January 2002. For a year I have been back working with Geddy and Alex in a small recording studio in Toronto, composing, arranging, and recording a new Rush album called Vapor Trails. The title grew out of a metaphor which first appeared in a letter to Hugh Syme, in the summer of 1999, as an off-handed reference to the ghosts of memory.
The song "Vapor Trail" was also one of the first lyrics I wrote for the project, for the first few songs I worked on necessarily had some philosophical and emotional "baggage" to sort through. Songs like "Sweet Miracle" and "Earthshine" reflected the joy of my new life, and then I moved on to less personal, more conceptual themes.
Carrie still had her life and work in Santa Monica, and we had made our home there, but we didn't want to be separated too much, so throughout the year she and I commuted between our townhouse in Santa Monica and a rented apartment in Toronto - her introduction to the dislocations of a musician's life (and a musician's wife).
With wonderful serendipity, Brutus was released on parole in January 2001, and started working at a photo studio in Toronto just as I arrived there. Once again we were best friends who could actually see each other, and the "letters to Brutus" written from lonely restaurant tables and distant motel rooms were replaced by evenings spent together, talking of where we had been, where we were, and where we hoped we might be going. Even dreaming of travelling together again one day.
Jackie's brother, Steven, remained a close friend (though distant, living in darkest Ohio); Keith continued to keep the house on the lake perfect for us (despite the rarity of our visits amid all that work and travel), and the only one who still seemed to have trouble letting me "move on" was Deb. We kept trying to heal the breach between us, but when I told her I was engaged to Carrie she seemed to feel abandoned, betrayed, and cut off from the memories we had shared, and reacted with an emotional letter that drove us farther apart. Even then, both of us tried to keep communicating as best we could, and Carrie even agreed to meet with Deb in hopes of helping her to accept the way things were now, but maybe it was one gap between past and future that could never be bridged. Still, we kept trying.
And I continued trying to build my own bridges, trying to put my experiences into words, as both continuing "therapy" and attempts at resolution. After a few weeks in the studio, I had a handful of lyrics finished, and wanted to let Alex and Geddy put some of them to music before I continued, so I started looking through my journal notes and letters from my travels. Before I knew it, I was working on the impossible task of translating all that material, and all I had survived, into this book. It was another long process, sometimes painful and always difficult, but it seemed to help me lay my ghosts to rest. The healing continues.
With that in mind, I look back to another turning point, a late afternoon soon after I moved to Santa Monica. I stood alone on the Santa Monica Pier looking out to sea, thinking of all that had happened, and how miraculously my life had turned completely around again. I thought about all those restless, often miserable miles (55,000 of them) I'd covered between the dock on Lac St. Brutus and that pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And the distance my little baby soul had travelled on that Healing Road too, from sitting on that dock with a cigarette and a Scotch and seeking meaning in a pair of duck-shaped rocks across the lake.
It occurred to me that all of my "characters" had found their separate redemption there too, and that I was gradually reuniting into one focused entity. The Hollywood party boy, Ellwood, was happy to have moved to California, like he always wanted to, and to be romancing a beautiful woman every single day (and night) of his life. John Ellwood Taylor, the wandering bluesman, was content to hang up his blues and sing a happier song for awhile, while little Gaia, our 14-year-old "inner girl," was all aglow with misty emotion and romantic poetry. Only one of us had no place in this sunny new world: the Ghost Rider.
As I stood on the Santa Monica Pier, the unofficial end of Route 66, the "Ghost Road," I saw that it was a fitting place to entertain the sudden realization that the Ghost Rider's road ended there too. A hermit no more, a gypsy no more, a splintered personality no more; I was growing into one man again (though no longer a man alone), with joy and meaning in my life, passing the days and nights in a place where I belonged - beside the woman who loved me so well. Carrie.
I had found my place of rest and redemption, and the Ghost Rider's work was done. He could keep on riding now, right off the end of that pier, into the sunset.
And if the music stops
There's only the sound of the rain
All the hope and glory
All the sacrifice in vain
If love remains
Though everything is lost
We will pay the price,
But we will not count the cost
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road at Amazon.Com