There’s a certain feeling that accompanies a planned Thanksgiving long weekend away to a Northern cottage when the weatherman says words like sunny, unseasonably warm, Indian summer. The dawning realization that you can take the motorcycle rather than the car brings with it an anticipation of joy that is exactly like what you felt the night before Christmas or your birthday.
I can ride up on Thursday, you think. And smile.
You grab the sidebags and start playing packing Tetris, trying to get as much in the two hard cases as possible, paring it down to that which is absolutely necessary. One sweatshirt, one long-sleeve shirt, one book, etc. You roll jeans and shirts around two growlers of beer and pull out the extra pair of shoes; beer is more important than shoes.
You open up old maps of your Dad’s, folded and unfolded so many times that the folds are close to dissolving, leaving you with so many loose rectangular puzzle pieces. You compare the layout of the old highways to the new ones on Google Maps to see if there are any places where the old roads remain to be explored. You plan a route by finding the roads with the most curvy squiggly lines and connecting them, and so are able to make a trip that would take 4 hours by car on 4-lane highway turn into something that will be closer to 7 hours from door to door.
“It’s a biker thing,” you say to your friends when they ask why on earth you’d want the trip to take twice as long. There is a uniqueness to the land that one misses when one speeds past it on flat, wide highways.
Your route is ready. The sidebags are packed, and the coffee kit is refilled with water and coffee.
You try and contain your glee. It would be unseemly, as your beloved has to work and can’t join you. But he can tell. He laughs your efforts to contain yourself, your urge to be gone; he knows how you feel about solo trips because he feels the same way.
You wake up the morning of departure and go. It’s always a bit anticlimactic, the “go” part. Planning and packing and preparation comes down to the moment of just turning the key and getting on. You always feel like there should some sort of fanfare when you head off on an adventure, so you sing one to yourself as you ride out of your parking spot. It sounds a bit like Ride of the Valkyries, but a little less pompous and a lot more cheerful.
Your least favourite part of the adventure comes first – getting out of the city. There is no easy way to do it. You can take the DVP/404 and get out quickly with nerves jangled from the sheer quantity of cars, speed and stupidity, or you can take surface routes and take twice as long. You opt for a mix of the two, and go up Don Mills until Steeles, avoiding the mess over the 401 with exits and merge lanes and the ensuing anxiety, and then take the highway right up to Green Lane to wind your way up and around the eastern edge of Lake Simcoe.
You feel the temperature drop as you get close to the lake, and come around a turn to find yourself enveloped in a chill fog. Riding in fog is a funny thing…sounds are both louder and muted, time goes by faster and yet seems to stand still.
You’re soon out of it though; it dissipates as you head north, and you decide to stop a small community beach where you and your beloved have been before. You take a picture of the quiet and still lake, and send it to him with a text that wishes he were there, that you miss him. You kind of don’t, really, because you love your alone time as much as (and sometimes more than) time with him and you’re pretty sure he knows it, but it will make him feel good to receive it.
You follow the road along the lake, past cottages and farms until the turn off to Brechin. From there it’s just flat and straight roads through farmland to get to Washago. Even though the roads are boring, the sun is shining and the countryside is pretty. You are happy, and sing remembered fragments of songs to yourself inside your helmet.
You pull into the Log Cabin Restaurant in Washago for lunch. You say hello as you walk past the man with the shiny new motorcycle and the shiny expensive gear who’s talking to the locals next to the dusty and dented red pick up. None of them even look up. They have a map in front of them and you can hear the man with the new everything ask about County Road 13, the road you yourself are heading to. The locals aren’t really sure where that is (they know it as Southdown Road) and you can see they are directing him elsewhere, and you say, nice day for a ride, a little louder, meant as an introduction and an opening to help. They still don’t respond, so you say a quiet mental fuck you, and walk past them into the restaurant. Being ignored by men while motorcycling is not new and is something that you’ve gotten used to even though the why of it escapes you. There’s just something about being a woman on her own on a bike that just does not compute for some guys. You can only assume that they just can’t handle your level of awesome.
The Log Cabin has been around since the forties, and even though it has been renovated and painted, nothing can shake that busy-diner patina accrued over decades. You place your order with a tired, washed-out looking woman whose smile is genuine and reaches her eyes, asking for a grilled cheese, fries and a Coke. You’re tempted to fiddle around with your phone while you wait but instead steal a newspaper section from the table across from you after the noisy family has left. It’s a small town paper, and you have just finished reading a half-page article about the grade 9’s award-winning recycling drive when your food comes.
This not a downtown-Toronto panini-pressed gourmet sandwich with three kinds of cheese on artisan bread accompanied by organic hand-cut french fries. This is the perfection of buttered Wonder Bread, grilled in a frying pan until the Kraft Singles liquefies onto the smooth orange goo that reminds you of being a kid. A tumble of deep-fried McCain Superfries sits beside it on the oval ironstone plate, almost burying the garnish of two thin homemade pickle slices presented on wilted lettuce. It is a bargain at $4.99. You sprinkle white vinegar and salt over the fries and try not to make the mistake of inhaling as you eat the first one.
You don’t push away the plate until the last fry is eaten and the last bit of ketchup has been mopped up by the last sandwich crust. You’d normally wait for the bill, but the sunshine outside beckons. You impulsively grab a butter tart from the glass-domed cake stand beside the cash register as you pay for your lunch – it will be a perfect treat to go with coffee later.
The gear is put back on and the key is back in the ignition when it hits you – you’re ignoring your “always go pee when you can” rule. It might be hours before you stop again, and bumpy country roads on a full bladder take a bit of the fun away from the experience. So, some gear comes back off, and back inside you go. The women’s bathroom is small and the brown paint doesn’t make it any better. You remember the first time you came, when the original owners were still alive, and the plain varnished wooden walls were filled with graffiti from Mabel + Joe in a heart, written in pen and dated 1946 to Tiffani (who dots her i’s with adorable little hearts) Loves Amir, 2006 in purple Sharpie.
The brown walls are boring now. You miss the graffiti.
Biological needs are now taken care of, you get back on the bike and head along the main street to Highway 11. Highways fall near the bottom of the list of fun road types to motorcycle, just above gravel and grooved pavement. Luckily, you’re not going far, only two exits until Southdown Road.
It’s not a long road, only about 40 kilometers, but it’s a quiet country road with enough curves to make it worth going out of the way for. You can feel the joy start to bubble up in you as you maneuver the motorcycle around the corners. This is what you were waiting for all week.
The trees up here are the colours you usually see on postcards; from yellow to gold to red with the contrast of dark green pine trees. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky that is currently a heart-breaking shade of blue. The leaves have started to fall, coating the road in places and you can see them in your rearview mirror swirling and skittering in your wake.
You wave at a couple sitting in their vintage red MG at a corner, waiting to turn. The top is down, and it looks like they are singing. They wave back.
The road takes you past some houses, and a small settler cemetery with lopsided white marble headstones. You think briefly about stopping and taking a look, but there’s a sharp curve ahead, and the thought is lost in the joy of bringing the bike low and fast into the turn and bringing it back up again.
You look in your rear view mirror and see that the couple in the red MG have caught up behind you now. There’s a short straight away up ahead and you signal and pull over so they can get past you because you know that there are few things as frustrating as being stuck behind someone going slightly slower than you. She waves again as they pass, and he shouts “Have fun!” and gives you a thumbs up.
They speed ahead, and you are alone for the next 20 kilometers, just the road and the motorcycle that feels so spritely under you. You smile and sing and laugh in your helmet, filled with delight at what the day has given you. You take in deep breaths of the air filled with that spicey smell of fallen leaves. The scent takes on other tones quickly as you ride through a cedar grove, past a swamp, along the edge of a small lake, beside a plowed field. Each brings its own aroma, tantalising you with memories before being replaced by the next and the next. One particular smell from a swamp makes your nose tickle and you work to suppress a sneeze. Sneezing in a full-face helmet is to be avoided.
You almost miss the driveway for the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, but manage to turn in just in time. It takes you a few minutes to find a place on the bedrock that would be good to park the bike on. There’s a group of women standing under a tree, and their laughter cuts through the still air. They ask about the bike as you take off your helmet, and you get one of the variations of the question most asked by women – aren’t you afraid?
“Usually,” you say with a smile.
The youngest one, a woman in her 20’s, asks, “so why do it then?”
“Because it’s also fun.”
The older woman, who looks to be about your age nods and smiles. She gets it. The other women just look a little perplexed and change the subject, turning to each other to wonder what happened to the other car with their friends in it.
You grab the coffee kit and the saran-wrapped butter tart, and prepare to explore the park you’ve always just ridden past. The Torrance Barrens are well named. It’s one of those places where the Canadian Shield bumps up close to the surface, and the trees grow small and stunted without a lot of topsoil. Dips in the rock hold ponds and swamps, connected by slow-moving streams.
You find a place on the rock under a tree, close enough to the big pond that you can see the ripples in the shallows and far enough away from the parking lot that the women’s laughter is barely audible. You pull out the camp stove, gas, espresso maker and coffee, and with practiced movements, get the coffee on. The hiss of the flames seems loud in this quiet place. Apparently it’s too loud, and a pair of red squirrels appear in the tree above you to tell you off.
You lean against the tree and take in the view, seeing a big mammal swim across the pond further up, maybe a beaver or muskrat. Your eyes follow its progress until the whoooosh coming from the espresso pot lets you know that it is time for coffee. You pour it into the red plastic cup that you’ve had forever, and stir in a bit of brown sugar. As you sip the hot caramel-coffee liquid, you hear voices growing closer – apparently the other car has arrived. The voices are shrill and invasive after the silence, but the group takes a different path as they look for a geocache. Quiet returns by the time you unwrap the butter tart and take the first bite. Well, not quite silence; you can hear the faint rumble of a jet passing high overhead, the chittering of chipmunks and squirrels, the caw of crows and blue jays, the buzz of huge blue dragonflies with transparent wings, the splash of a fish jumping in the lake.
You stay a while here even after the tart and the coffee are gone, building a sensory memory that you can recall later when the snow lies deep and the bike is covered in the garage. But the sun is getting further to the west and the day won’t last forever, so you pack up and head back to the road.
Southwood Road doesn’t last much longer past the Barrens, and soon you’re riding along wider roads with more gentle curves, engineered to get cottagers to and fro as smoothly as possible. Even though it’s not technically the long weekend yet, the lakes and roads through the Muskokas have more traffic than you’d thought. You slide through small towns where the Toronto money spends its free time, and past summer estates where the boathouses are bigger than the house you grew up in. You’ve been here in the summer and the crowds of pleasure craft make even these big open lakes feel congested. Your introverted soul wonders, and not for the first time, at how this could possibly be fun.
The next stop is Parry Sound, for gas and another bio break. You get a big bottle of water and rehydrate as you check in with your beloved. You feel a little guilty at enjoying this day without him, and say so.
“It’s ok,” he says, and reminds you of the trips he’s taken without you. You feel less guilty.
You are eager to get going but also reluctant to hang up. The road calls, but this is the last cell service you’ll have for five days. You make arrangements to call again, on Monday, at the train tracks on the way back to the highway, and hang up.
This is the last stretch, and it’s now a busy 2- and 4-lane highway. You’ve found a small deke off the highway that takes you through a few small communities and a lake before rejoining the highway 18 kilometers on, a deke that you’re kind of excited for as it’s always exciting to find a new road in places you’ve been hundreds of times before.
You know that there’s construction on the way to Sudbury, as they are extending the 400 all the way up. What you don’t know is that there are four separate sections of the highway between here and there where they are re-paving the road in swathes from 2 to 8 kilometers long.
You can feel joy in the day recede as anxiety surfaces when you see the first chunk of grooved pavement. It’s disconcerting how the grooves catch the front tire and make the handlebars shimmy in your hands, and you hate how people don’t understand that motorcycles need space even at slow speeds and crowd up behind you as you are trying not to panic as the rough pavement turns your smooth and nimble motorcycle into something that wiggles and lurches, and you tell yourself off for panicking (you’ll only go down if you fuck up so don’t fuck up) which doesn’t really help the panic, and christ on a cracker, that Loblaws transport trailer is so close all you can see is grill in your rearview mirrors so you stop looking in your rearviews and try and go a little faster, and oh thank all the gods and patron saints of motorcyclists that there’s the end of the repaving and
you’re back on smooth pavement again.
Relief floods you as you twist the throttle and accelerate away from the Loblaws transport trailer.
Until the next patch of repaving. And the next. And the next.
The sun is low in the sky when you finally reach the Killarney exit. You know you’re late, but not by how much. This last bit of road before your destination is the last bit of fun and you smile and lean into it as your throttle forward and go around that first curve ready to go.
What you’re not ready for is the blinding sun that blasts into your eyes as you crest the rise at the end of the curve. You can’t see anything and brake sharply, hoping that you remember where the road is. The rest of the 25 kilometers is spent cruising slowly from shaded area to shaded area, and spending the rest of it riding with one hand to the helmet like a sailor looking out to sea.
Finally, finally, you’re at the marina. It seems you are an hour late, but your brother and nephew have been sitting drinking beer with the owners, so are not terribly bothered. You’re excited to see them, and you all laugh and hug and catch up as they help carry your gear to the boat. You make the crossing just as the sun goes down, lighting up the fuzzy jet contrails in the west so they look like Asian calligraphy characters in shades of orange and pink against an indigo background. A bit later, you sit on the deck, sipping a beer and swatting at mosquitoes while the stars light up one by one, and telling them of your perfect day.