The Outsider

By Steve ThorntonPosted on

Lately, I’ve been thinking about motorcycle rides and the timing of them. There are fall rides, of course, including that last, often painfully cold, ride of the year—which seems to have become a less certain quantity these days as motorcycles can be seen travelling the streets of Toronto on just about any day of the winter that’s not completely snowed under.

And if there’s a last ride of the year, there must be a first ride of the year; at the moment of writing, just before Christmas, here in the Big Smoke we’re on the cusp of both, and I’ll bet that each will take place for some motorcyclists within a week of New Year’s Day.

There used to be a wide gap—at least four months—between the last and first rides of the year, but now that we’ve altered the climate it seems that those bookend rides are losing significance. The time of year that you choose for riding is more variable and less constrained than it used to be, but the time of day is still a matter of importance.

When I was about 30 years younger, I inhabited a small city in the Interior of British Columbia. I had bought a Yamaha FJ1100 in the spring of 1985 and took to spending just about all of the time when I wasn’t either working as a newspaper reporter or sleeping on or near that bike. I’ve always been an early riser and I loved early morning rides more than just about anything else. At six o’clock on a June day in the B.C. Interior the sun is only up in places where a mountain isn’t in the way, and even then it’s only just up; the sky on a clear day is intensely blue, and the air feels like it’s just been delivered. The FJ fires up with the stab of a button and settles into a smooth idle, then rolls down a small town street that has no traffic and might be wet in places from the night’s dew. With nothing more than a mug of coffee and a cigarette in me, I’m eager to get rolling out of town, and it’s not far to the edge of the city. The highway is lightly inhabited, and there’s a bit of mist on the Kootenay River beside me. Half an hour later I’m in Castlegar and the highway starts to climb. By seven I’m heading up Highway 3 toward Nancy Green Park in the Monashees, and the road is really climbing. My gear consists of a red leather jacket, a pair of cheap gloves, jeans, work boots, and a Shoei full-face helmet, and I’m cold. The air temp is probably around thirteen or fourteen degrees, and while this high up the sun is burning brilliantly in the sky behind me, it’s providing little in the way of comfort. I’m cold enough that my fingers are burning, and I love it. Most of the time I can’t see another vehicle for a mile or more, it’s just me and the road and the bike and the mountain, and while at noon I would be toasty warm, there would be trucks and RVs and the feeling of having been let loose in a British Columbia wilderness would be suffocated by a queasy middle of the day need to get the damn ride over with. Now, at seven-thirty, before the air is polluted and my sightlines are ruined, it’s harshly beautiful, uncomfortably wonderful. Of course, I was in my mid-thirties. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything so stupid now.

Much later in my life, I rode a Triumph Trophy 1200 up a long, lightly winding highway on Vancouver Island at about eleven o’clock on a midsummer night. The air was cooling but still warm from the day. My bladder was full but not quite painfully so, and the woman behind me was an obliging and willing passenger. There wasn’t much traffic at all, I didn’t know the highway, the north end of the Island was still a long distance off, and the Triumph seat was a comfortable perch behind a nice fairing and above a powerful and smooth engine. It was just my hands on the grips, the spot of my headlight beam on the road near the yellow line, and the feeling of steady, unrelenting and undemanding movement. There was a velvety feeling to it all, and at times I felt as if, despite my bladder, I could go on doing this forever. It wouldn’t have been like that at seven-thirty in the morning or at four in the afternoon, but at eleven p.m. there was isolation and narrowness and a kind of otherworldlyness to it. I think of that ride when I think of flow, even though the psychological conditions might not have been exactly right for it, because the physical conditions were. I can’t remember ever feeling that a ride was as smoothly penetrating the night as on that night, and to be honest, I don’t remember getting off the bike and peeing into a ditch, which I surely did.

In the summer of 2008, I spent some time with two other riders in California. I remember stepping out of a motel room one morning around nine o’clock and feeling the air as I looked at the red Honda VFR in the driveway that I would soon be boarding. I felt ten years old. It seemed that everything was freshly made there in California, the air and the trees and the birds that I could hear singing nearby. That was a moment of beauty that I won’t forget. It didn’t last long, but it was brilliant and penetrating. But that’s the thing about time. You don’t know how fast it’s going to change things, but it does, and every once in a while, if you get it right, it spills over you in a wave of perfection that will never leave your memory. 


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