My trip to Cape Breton by way of motorcycle was quite the long haul. In total, I turned 5,739 miles, visiting fifteen states and two Canadian provinces. The majority of my time, however, was spent on Cape Breton Island, in Grand Narrows on the Barra Straight. I also stayed in Glace Bay, Sydney, Christmas Island, and North Sydney during my time in Cape Breton, and visited the Eskasoni Micmac reservation, Little Narrows, Iona, North Side East Bay, East Bay, Ben Eoin, Marble Mountain, The St. Andrew’s Channel, Big Pond, Middle Cape, Irish Cape, Irish Cove, and Johnstown, hearing all sorts of different musics (Particularly fascinating was the Sydney night life, but that is a story for a different time and place). During my travels in Cape Breton between Christmas Island and North Sydney, I caught a flat rear tire, which, after I successfully contacted a garage able to do the work, cost me a day of my time and $313.93 CAD (granted that’s only $306.04 USD, but with the “International Conversion Fee” my credit union charges, I closed the transaction at $338.97 USD). Other than that, I wasn’t delayed at all. The Yamaha V Star is a reliable bike.
Traveling long distances on a motorcycle really gives you time to think. I don’t mean the normal thinking one does when they’re planning what to eat for lunch that day, or what activity might best fill their weekend hours. I’m referring to deep contemplation, the kind that involves the wonderment of existence, analysis of memory and interaction, and the creation of new and alternative ideas. There’s no radio, plenty of numbing vibration and road noise, and there is no metal cocoon in which to fall asleep–just the seat, frame, and wheels between the rider and the road. I spent plenty of time unpacking the mysteries of what I had experienced in the field and thinking about the nature of genre and music–the topic of my dissertation. On a plane or a car (or both) I wouldn’t have had the same access to time and context to think things through on the same level.
There are many spiritual experiences on the back of a bike as well. One that stands out on my trip happened my first day’s ride. Traveling through Georgia, I was one of the few vehicles on the road in the early morning, save the freight trucks that were beginning their morning haul from Savannah to Tallahassee. One such truck–a blue-grey Peterbuilt towing a bed full of stone in a tarp-covered dumpster–was heading south on the far side of the divided highway where I rode north. I noticed the truck some half-mile away as I rounded a slight bend and began to climb a gradual slope in the road. A brown speck of a bird left its perch from the far side of the road as well and began to climb the crisp air, floating nearly forty feet above the asphalt. As it flapped and banked in a figure eight above the south-bound state highway, the truck drew close. I could see the bird dancing in the updraft of air caused by the Peterbuilt. The bird dove toward the truck in a decided move that at first had me convinced I was about to see a burst of feathers and blood on the tall, grey grill, but quickly it spread its wings to collect the compression of air caused by the forward motion of the vehicle. In an instant, the bird was thrust into the air high above the highway. I marveled at the scene, noting how in-the-moment it felt, which made me smirk a bit after which I smiled even wider at how silly it was to smirk by myself. That’s when I noticed the bird bank heavily to its right, which bent its trajectory over the median and toward the northbound roadway. It continued banking; I could see now that it was a turkey buzzard. It had an impressive wingspan of deep, brown feathers, upon which was nested the ugliest, red buzzard-face. It continued to appear even larger as its flight path seemed to be on a collision course with me. At the time I was doing around 70mph and despite the fact that all of these events happened in a matter of seconds, time seemed to slow down as I watched the buzzard head straight for me. I had enough time to mutter, “Oh, shit,” and duck, tucking my helmet-covered head behind the windshield nearly kissing the gas tank of the bike. Just as I ducked, I was convinced that the bird was about to collide with me, but nothing happened. I remained ducked for what seemed like five seconds after I passed my point of imminent collision, but nothing ever hit me. I looked around a bit but couldn’t see the buzzard. It was surreal and quite amazing.
Three things I wouldn’t want to do without on any future long-distance motorcycle rides:
1. A more comfortable seat. A waaaayyy more comfortable seat. My current setup has my pelvic bones in a state of duress after sixty miles of travel at highway speeds. Between sixty and one hundred miles of travel I began to enter a little ritual I like to call “Pants Dance.” This entailed constant readjustment of my position in the seat, brought about by shifting my weight from one side to another, stretching a leg out and placing a heel on the footplate, then switching sides. Doing so made it slightly more bearable to continue clocking miles by allowing blood to return to my tenderized gluteus muscles a few seconds at a time. I need a seat designed by someone who designs office chairs–something with a lot of padding and some lumbar support, perhaps with a bit of hydraulic shock absorption to counteract the vibration of the moving bike. Serioiusly, my gluteal muscles are so completely pulverized after an hour or two of riding that I can barely utilize them to stand.
2. Highway pegs. When your gluteul muscles are pounded into submission by hours-long vibration and centripetal force, it becomes painful to keep the knees in a bent position. Highway pegs allow a rider to stretch out his or her legs, decreasing the surface area that is punished by the seat and allowing less inhibited blood flow into the toes. My oral surgeon warned me to walk around a lot to avoid blood clots on the long trip, but he hardly needed to. After an hour or so of riding, followed by several painful minutes of the Pants Dance, I needed to find a place to pull over and walk around for ten minutes. This was absolutely essential. With highway pegs, I suspect that I’d still stop every hour or two along the road (I mean, I need to get gas ever 150 miles anyway), but at least when I stopped I’d be far less broken than I am with my current setup.
3. Cruise control. I should say right off that I’ve got this problem solved by this point, thanks to a friendly biker from Nova Scotia. I stopped at “Trade Winds Trading Post” in Maine on my second day back and bumped into a couple of bikers who just happened to be from Cape Breton. We started talking, and I relayed my wish for cruise control. After squeezing the throttle open for house and hours, the right hand becomes fatigued. The end result is an inability to pinch, cup my hand, push outward with my fingers, or just generally perform feats of dexterity. I have read that too much can result in a nasty case of the Carpal Tunnel. So when I described my situation to these bikers, one of them kindly gave me a Throttle Rocker. This clever little device grips the throttle for me, so all I really need to do is push down on it with my wrist while holding the handle.
It’s a fascinating thing to experience the eastern seaboard on the back of my motorcycle–all the sights, sounds, smells (oh yes, I should write an essay about the smells I encountered along my trip), elements (as in, precipitation), joy, and pain that came with it. The stories that I accumulated find their setting in the world as opposed to in the car, giving me a much larger phenomenological context. I met scores of other bikers (which was an amazing experience in itself given that car travelers seem to avoid one another, while I found that bikers–including myself–look forward to the social interaction that comes with approaching other bikers at a gas station or rest stop), each eager to tell their own stories and share some tips about the road. And I can’t deny that I’m tickled by the romantic aspect of calculating the distance between two locations in “how many days ride” it totals. Just me, on the back of an iron horse, making my way across the known world. And as it happens, the romantic idea of the journey itself (or to some people, “crazy trip”) was enough to get people talking to me more openly in the field. As a researcher engaging in fieldwork, it was great to have my own story to tell when I arrived.
Today my good friend Dave asked, “Would you do it again?” You bet your ass I would (only, I’d be getting a more comfortable seat…).