the grace, the space, the pace

I just spent a month on the road, driving from Ontario, Canada to Tofino on the western coast of British Columbia before driving back through The States.  It was a great family road trip, but after having spent days and days (and days) on some of the best riding roads on the continent (we crossed the Rockies twice and spent time in Yellowstone and the Black Hills) while stuck on four wheels, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes riding a motorcycle such a wonderful thing by comparison.

The trip was made in a Buick Encore, a small SUV which allowed us to cover 500 kilometre average days in relative comfort (my sweaty back on leather seats notwithstanding).  Even when we weren’t swallowing miles across the continent we were touring around Yellowstone, or hitting the beaches and trails south of Tofino, so we ended up doing well over twelve thousand kilometres in less than a month.  The Buick managed it all with no problems and mid-thirties mpg efficiency.  Other than getting shot in the windscreen by kids with a pellet gun in Montana, the car is in good shape (you haven’t lived until you’ve been shot at in Montana).

I don’t usually spend much time on four wheels in the summer these days, though I used to be car mad, chasing high performance vehicles and taking advanced driving schools when I was younger.  I was well aware of apexes and how to efficiently corner long before I started riding, but this trip emphasized just how limited your options are in a car.  While you’ve got a whole lane width to find apexes and explore a road on a bike, you’re trapped in train tracks in a car with only a couple of inches to move side to side.  I constantly bumped up against this limitation and found the lack of space tiresome.  On roads where I’d be dancing on a bike, in the car I’m forced to contain myself, constantly watching for oncoming four wheelers that weren’t.

Cornering in a car on a road isn’t fun, it’s tedious.

Even with the magic of leaning into a corner (which lets you dance on a tire instead of dumping all your weight to the outside) out of the equation, driving on twisty roads was a pale imitation of riding on the same tarmac.  This was emphasized when crossing the Bighorn National Forest which had staggeringly twisty roads hanging from the sides of truly epic mountains (when they weren’t falling off them as they were in multiple places).  A car on this road was tedious and sometimes terrifying rather than electrifying; that space also means a safety margin.

The claustrophobia I felt in our small SUV was of two types:  the boxed in a cage type and the stuck on rails on the road type.  On my first ride the day after we got home, I revelled at the sky above and the space to stretch, as well as how wide and accommodating the roads felt.  Days on end in a car might be logistically necessary, but they aren’t fun.

On this trip we saw people travelling in all manner of vehicles from the bafflingly expensive recreational vehicle to the sports car. Corvettes were an obvious and particularly popular choice in the US. On most roads this massive sled’s six foot plus width completely fills a small lane, giving the driver no room to move at all and leaving oncoming traffic to dodge his wing mirrors if he’s looking for an apex. Coming around a corner on a small mountain pass and seeing an RV spilling over into my lane was a common occurrence. The sheer size of North American vehicles bring their own problems.

Decades ago Jaguar came out with one of the most famous automotive marketing slogans in history.  It captured the luxury grand touring ethos of Jaguar to such a degree that it has remained in the public consciousness since.  I’d like to repurpose that brilliant piece of marketing for the vehicle that best exemplifies it.  The motorcycle, for all its short comings, offers you the space to move gracefully down the road.  With that grace comes the pace that motorcycles enjoy, which would explain why we got overtaken by so many of them on this trip.

The opportunity to retrace my four wheeled journey, especially through Yellowstone and the Bighorn National Forest is on my mind now.  It’s a fifteen hour slog west over the plains to get to the edge of motorcycling’s magic kingdom.  From there it’s the South Dakota Badlands, Black Hills, over Bighorn and on to Yellowstone.  That would be a truly stunning motorcycling memory.

Some roads from the trip that might prompt you westward (if you’re in the east):

Bottom left:  sometimes the road can’t hang on to the side of the mountain…

Some suggested must sees as you head west across the northern US:

South Dakota Badlands Scenic Road:

The Black Hills are riddled with small twisty roads, just try and avoid early August unless you like riding slowly behind farm vehicles.  We stayed in Custer, but Rapid City has great restaurants and is a full on city with everything you could need, so I’d suggest that as a base camp for exploring the Hills:

Bighorn National Park was a brilliant surprise.  We did Shell to Dayton through Burgess Junction.  The roads ranged from some of the most dangly and exciting we’d seen to miles of gravel, ideal for an adventure bike.  The 2-up Harley riders didn’t look like they were enjoying the road based colonoscopy so much.  The national parks stop at Shell Falls was brilliant, with all sorts of information on hand about where we were:

Cody is worth a stop.  It’s a great town with everything you could need with a genuine western flair.  The two loops in Yellowstone each take a day, don’t think you can burn around them as quick as you can (you can’t).  Between small roads, animals that weigh thousands of pounds walking onto the road at random, your bike at seven thousand plus feet breathing hard, and the other tourists, you’ll find rushing Yellowstone stressful.  You’d also be missing the point.  Stop often and check out the geothermal features and stunning scenery.  A day for the north loop, a day for the south loop, and enjoy taking your time.

I’d hoped to get down to Jackson Hole in the Teutons in the south, but didn’t.  Maybe on two wheels in the future.  West Yellowstone offered better hotel rates than the North Gate which tends to be busier with better interstate access, but cheap hotel options are few and far between around the park.

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The Mobile Chicanery of RVs

I’m at the end of a month long drive across North America and back.  It’s time to have a go at the RV/motorhome crowd after being stuck behind these monkeys for hours on end.  The woman who got out of her truck/trailer combo near Creemore on the weekend, blocking half the pumps and causing a line just shrugged and said, “they’ll have to wait.”  It’s that kind of thinking that seems to typify the RV owner’s outlook.  The Germans renting them to drive across Vancouver Island to Tofino on the very twisty and rough Highway 4 also seemed particularly adept at getting in front of you and then stopping, but then they’re driving large, awkward, unfamiliar vehicles in a foreign country on difficult roads.

Since you end up spending a lot of time looking at the back of RVs while driving across the continent, a recurring annoyance are the names manufacturers give to the damned things.  Popular ideas revolve around freedom, power and exploration, all things that RVs don’t do.  What they actually do is create a huge amount of drag and cost to your trip while giving the impression of independence, as long as you like living like a refugee (Tom’s right, you don’t), and taking your housework with you.

We spent a few days at Pacific Playgrounds near Campbell River on Vancouver Island and I was astonished at the size and cost of the trailers and RVs on display.  In addition to the (I’m told) tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars dropped on a trailer or RV, they were pressed together inches apart in this trailer park.  The sound of poorly raised children screaming would begin at sunrise every day and continue throughout.  What little space you had was considered public and you could expect dozens of people to walk through it daily without batting an eyelash.  That people would spend upwards of fifty grand for a trailer or more than my first two houses for motorhome and then enjoy single digit mpg figures while having no space is living the dream, but it isn’t mine.

A big motorhome holds about 150 gallons of gas – at the three bucks US a gallon it was on this trip, that’s a $450+US ($585CAD) fill up each time, and that’s with cheap US gas.  In Canada you can expect to drop about eight hundred bucks (!!!) on each fill up.  If you’re enjoying 8mpg, as seems typical for these things, then you’re getting just over a thousand miles to a tank.  If you’re moving like we were on this trip, averaging over 500 miles a day, then you’re looking at $200+US a day in gas – we paid just over $100 a day for our hotel stays (all of which included breakfast) and we didn’t have to do the dishes, or drive like turds blocking the roads.  You might make a bit back by not eating in restaurants all the time, but unless you really enjoy housekeeping why would you take it on holiday with you?

After following around Nomad Explorers and Freedom Masters for
weeks on end, I’ve got some more realistic suggestions for RV names.
In case you can’t tell, I am not a fan of the RV/motorhome lifestyle.  You can find comfortable, long distance capable vehicles that get above 30mpg, cost a fraction as much and will commute you to work capably instead of sitting in your driveway costing you time, money and space even when not in use.  You’ll also get to sleep in real beds and skip the dishes with the money you aren’t pouring into an RV in gas costs (I’ll leave the transmission rebuilds, toilet maintenance and the fact that campsites cost you half what a motel room does nowadays out of the equation).  To top it all off you won’t have to live like a refugee in a trailer park.

Listen to Tom, he knows…
Mid-thirties MPG, quick in the
mountains, effortless on the plains,
our Buick Encore was a comfortable
and efficient way to see the
continent.  That’s a geothermal
vent in Yellowstone making the
steam, not the Buick.

Ignoring the hundreds of thousands of dollars I’d have had to pour into a motorhome or trailer and truck to pull it, the cost of us doing this same trip using a recreational (and I use the term lightly) vehicle would have been stratospheric.  Ferry fees for a motorhome/RV onto and off Vancouver Island are six times what we paid, costing you well north of six hundred bucks for each crossing.

Averaging mid-thirties miles per gallon in our little SUV, we spent well under a thousand bucks in gas carrying three adult sized people and their luggage comfortably.  An 8mpg (typical) RV would have cost us more than seven grand just in gasoline!!!  We paid about five grand in hotels over the month on the road, some of that included a house rental.  Our hotel and gas costs were less than gas alone in an RV.  Had the three ferry trips been with the take-all-your-shit-with-you RV variety we would have been looking at a two grand ferry bill instead of the less than three hundred we paid.  

I would have enjoyed a bit more space, and I’ve often wondered how big a vehicle I’d need to bring a motorbike along on a big family road trip, but with Honda Ridgelines and other efficient crew cab trucks getting high twenties in gas mileage, and modern, large utility vans getting up there too, there are agile, non-road blocking options that let me still get close to 30mpg while bringing a bike along, and I don’t have to live like a refugee while using them.

The idea of a reasonably sized vehicle to move people ends for me in the realm of a  minivan.  The thought of a hyper efficient human mover appeals though.  VW is looking a few years down the road at re-producing a futuristic version of its mini-bus.  That’s as far down the RV lifestyle path as I dare to tread.  What VW is doing looks a bit sci-fi and improbable, but an efficient hybrid people mover that could carry a bike?  I’m in.

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