Riding a motorcycle on the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton on the northeast tip-top corner of Nova Scotia is psychedelic near-madness.
I’m climbing on a winding coastal road, and before I can lock the sights and other sensations into my memory, I’m tearing along through high pine trees on top of the mountain.
The bike is hanging on a wet switchback by its gears and brakes and I’m having to dare myself to get out of second. Just as I begin to trust the tires and myself, I’m flying through a lush valley and then down at the water, cruising around an ocean cove.
And on and on like that, moment-to-moment for a few hours.
Don't try this at home—and definitely don't try it on the Cabot Trail.
And actually, all of motorcycling is like that. From inside a car, you have time and detachment to see things and decide to remember them and imagine how you’ll describe them when you get back home.
Whipping through the air on a motorcycle, there’s altogether too much happening. All the senses are working at once. And working hard.
I see cows in the paddock but an argument ensues when my nose swears it’s a pig farm.
I feel the cool before I smell the fish before I see the lake.
It’s raining now, but the wind got heavier five minutes ago.
Buzz past a lawn, smell fresh grass clippings, ride through rode construction, smell fresh dirt, pass a logging truck, smell the wood, ride into town, smell for your lunch.
I couldn’t tell you what the Molson brewery in Montreal looks like but I remember how it smells.
Pine fumes are such a powerful intoxicant that I worried that if I was pulled over I would fail a sobriety test. (A Mountie spokesman reported that the American was riding at three times the legal limit of exultation.)
The instantaneous deep heartwarmth of an occasional sunburst on a cloudy day.
The quick whiff of wood smoke.
And the one you have to earn: the salty air of the Atlantic Ocean.
Riding down a tiny asphalt path of a road so close to the farms it seems we’re riding on them. The horse loam transforms the Triumph into Taffy, the leather-mouthed orange pony that I rode when I was eight. I’m riding her bareback, charging up hill and flying down dale and galloping, galloping, galloping, desperately, angrily, joyfully. She thinks she’s running away with me. No, I’m running away with her!
Because it is so overwhelming, riding a motorcycle is constantly frustrating. I’m aware I’m taking in too much too fast and I realize my billowing brain will leave me with few words, and only a useless emotion-memory, impossible express to anyone who doesn’t ride and unnecessary to explain to anyone who has.
"Couldn't you just slow down a little and savor it?" a friend asks. Umm ....
The only way to alleviate the anxiety and pain is to lump all this infinite experience together and tell myself that I’ve seen it, smelled it, heard it, felt it all before.
But if I do, I will dismiss the smell that I can’t assign.
“What is that?” I ask myself in those words inside my helmet and I inhale deeply, twice and three times and fill my chest with it and let it seep into me.
By process of elimination I finally recognize it as the summer fragrance, encountered more frequently but less gratefully in my youth, of happiness itself.