"I just left a funeral. That's two of those and three wakes this week. My friends' parents and my parents' friends."
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.
I'll cross-post here the relevant stuff that I post elsewhere.
Like my latest Vital Speeches entry, about the speechwriter who pats himself on the back. (It makes a sickening sound.)
"Bill Stoller is now following you on Twitter!"
What's with the exclamation point? I mean, I could see if it was, "Tiger Woods is now following you on Twitter!" But Bill Stoller? Never heard of the guy.
Coaches tell football players not to celebrate like goofs every time they get into the end zone. "Act like you've been there before," is the point they make.
Now that Twitter is a part of our lives—however banal and degrading a part of our lives it may be—what would be wrong with:
"You've got a new Twitter follower: Bill Stoller."
(Stole 'er? I never even met 'er!)
Drinking last night with a veteran journo who now works for the Associated Press in London.
On the usual subject, he expressed the usual hope, to the effect that he I thought public will realize what it's missing and journalism will would mount a return.
"I agree one hundred percent," I replied. "It's just that I don't know if it will take the public two years to realize the consequences of no journalism, or forty."
Six or eight hours a day, all on bouncy back roads, on a motorcycle not at all designed for long-distance cruising. That was the plan.
“You know, it might be brutal,” a friend told me before I left.
I agreed. But then, brutality was one of the goals of the trip, and agony and boredom seemed prices worth paying for the sights we were going to see.
Much to our surprise though, after a day or two of getting our haunches used to it—we slouched in different positions and periodically stood on the foot pegs to alleviate the literal pain in the ass—we found that our chests got used to being pushed around by the wind and our heads got used to screaming through it. So used to it, that it was the stopping that became uncomfortable.
Montreal surely deserves more than lunch and a visit to the local Triumph dealer. And the ancient, walled Quebec City definitely rates a stay-over. But within an hour or two of taking in the physical wonders of those cities, we found ourselves itching to fight our way out of the sprawl and get back on the road.
I’ll explain this rejection of an easy chance for cultural exploration by quoting a line scrawled in my journal during one of these brief stops: “If somebody gave you the chance to leap up into the air and fly every day for three weeks, you’d probably fly around the world. Paris, Rome, Beijing, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires. But when you landed in these places, would you really want to spend a lot of time tramping around looking at architecture and people-watching and window-shopping? No, you’d have a quick gander, and jump up in the air again—and fly!”
My dad would have understood that. He might have feared motorcycles, but he knew about flying. His father crushed his youthful fantasy of signing up for the Royal Air Force in the early days of World War II; the idea, pitched at the family table with all the reason and enthusiasm a 17-year-old could muster, was dismissed with four words from his father: “Eat your dinner, Bud.”
But aviation had him, and after the war, upon his return from an unglamorous army assignment, he learned to fly.
It was that flyer—and boater and car nut and writer of essays with titles like, “Engines In the Morning”—who I talked to almost constantly, in the privacy of the wind and the motor.
“Come on, Dad, admit it,” I’d say, cruising up the bigwide St. Lawrence River. “This is pretty cool.”
“Okay, okay. Yes, shooting video while riding is pushing my luck.”
Going down a country road on the north coast of Nova Scotia, Tommy tells it like it is.
“I know you understand this trip. So why, at 40, do I need your approval, too? (Tell me it’s okay!)”
One of the reasons Dad didn’t like motorcycles was that Tommy introduced them to me and Dad didn’t like Tommy. And one of the reasons he didn’t like Tommy was that Tommy—also a pilot and an all-around engines-in-the-morning kind of guy—showed a spirit of adventure bordering on recklessness that Dad thought of as going too far.
In fact, it was my willingness to take a chance that I think made Dad, easing as gracefully as he could into his seventies and then his eighties, a little jealous. Driving my decrepit Scout through country fields and urban ghettos and breaking down and allowing myself to be cradled for shelter, food and repair by whatever locals came upon my sorry ass: God, you’ve got a lot of nerve, he said upon hearing stories like that. But I had no more nerve than it must have taken him to willfully trap himself aloft and alone in a Piper Tri-Pacer for the first time with nothing but an empty seat as a co-pilot.
The trouble Dad and I had about adventuring was mostly that, I was doing it and he was done doing it. And in one of the large conversations we had toward the end, he as much as admitted it.
But he never stopped fingering my friend for leading me into danger. And so he never directly acknowledged my own courage, and its limitations.
“That bad, bad Tom,” he would say, joking but mostly not joking. And as we headed northeast, he found ways to keep on saying it.
For good karma, Tom and I both wore windup watches that we’d recovered from my dad’s dresser drawer after he died. My Movado Kingmatic worked throughout the trip, but Tom’s Timex stopped cold on the first day. There was also the record-setting low-pressure system that dad arranged to hover over the northeast to rain on us at least once on every one of the 12 days we rode until geography forced us to turn back west from the coast of Nova Scotia.
But if Dad was so acutely aware of our schedule and progress, how did he not know that Tom had rescued me from the grief-duty of tearing down the old model train layout by driving 10 hours round trip to pick it up and take it home to give to his son someday?
Surely he knew that Tom had been the friend who finally goaded me into feeling and expressing my deepest feelings about my dad—who caused me to understand awkwardly and noisily that it was not his stories or ideas but his smell and his sound and his hook nose that I was going to miss.
And you’d think someone would have Western Union-ed him that Dad's flight logs I’d given Tom to study, had been organized by Tom’s sister into a museum-quality shadowbox tribute—each book opened to just the right page, Dad’s pilot’s license, the lock of baby’s hair that went with all of it—and given to me the day before we left on the motorcycle trip.
I guess it didn’t rain the whole time we rode down through New Brunswick to Moncton, east through Nova Scotia to Hawskbury, northeast to the head of the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton.
So maybe I should take that as a sign of Dad’s grudging acquiescence. In fact, I think I’m going to take it that way, from here on out. From now on when I talk to Dad from the seat of a motorcycle or anywhere else, it won’t be with a bashful smile, but with a winking grin.
As part of my continuing frenemy fraternization with corporate reputation guru Leslie Gaines-Ross, I'd like to praise her latest blog post for IDing the new PR buzzword "reset," but question the intellectual integrity behind her main point:
OK, Doc: How, pray tell, does one "reset one's reputation"?
The only way I can think of to suddenly change a reputation is contained in the lament of the Greek villager:
You see all the boats in de harbor? I build all de boats. But do they call me Dmitri the boat-builder? No.
You see all the roads in de town? I build all de roads. But do they call me Dmitri the road-builder? No.
You see all the houses on de hill? I build all de houses. But do they call me Dmitri the house-builder? No.
But you fuck one goat .....
While we sifted through our clothes to determine just how waterproof our waterproof saddlebags were—about 70 percent, was the answer—we turned on the Weather Channel to get the next day’s forecast. The guy came on and prattled ruefully about a massive, stationary low-pressure system that hovered over the entire northeast of North America and promised rain across the region for the next week.
The attachable face shield I'd bought for the trip looked so absurd that I chose to use it only in the most extreme downpours. As I've always said, if you don't look cool on your motorcycle, you've failed to meet your primary objective.
My old college roommate Tom Gillespie gave me a look that said: Tomorrow morning, it won't be too late to turn around, or change our destination. Tomorrow evening when we’re in Montreal and at the epicenter of this circling rainbomber, it will be. Why should we knowingly subject ourselves to certain, daily misery? This was supposed to be a vacation, wasn’t it?
That’s why I didn’t have to reply: Of course it wasn’t supposed to be a vacation. Vacations are for married couples and candy asses. Like all of Tom’s and my trips together, starting with a mad car ramble around Ireland when we were kids not long out of college, this was supposed to be an odyssey. To turn back at the first sign of difficulty would be to turn back at the first sign of an odyssey.
And Tommy and I know travel difficulty when we see it. We once drove to Las Vegas from Chicago without stopping: 27 hours and a whole carton of cigarettes. We smashed up his International Harvester Scout while four-wheeling in a strip mine in West Virginia, and as I went to start the crippled vehicle to drive to a hospital to get Tom’s face stitched up, the key broke off in the ignition.
This trip was inspired, at least for me, by a trip west 10 years ago, on which we bought that Scout, in Albuquerque. Actually, we bought two Scouts, one for each of us. And we took two motorcycles. And returned to Chicago in two days, a two-man caravan, one Scout leading the way (it had no brakes, so it was the natural pace car) and a pick-up truck following, with two motorcycles in the bed and another Scout on a trailer, behind.
There was a logistical improbability to that story that I wanted to recreate with this motorcycle trip. And the rain, discouraging as it was, contributed to the built-in insanity of flying thousands of miles holding for dear life onto motorized bicycles.
Were we still capable of doing the impossible?
After dinner at a roadhouse across the street and a fast six drinks with an entertaining and equally fast-drinking young local couple, we borrowed hair dryers from the front desk and went to sleep with them blowing into our boots.
Soaked to the bone in Lakeville, N.Y.
Unexpectedly, the next day was perfectly sunny and we were off at 9:00, roaring over hills and cheerfully buzzing through the green towns atop the Finger Lakes. The vistas grew vaster as we approached the Adirondacks, and I thought of the crass entrepreneurial bumper sticker, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes.”
Yes, it does, if you’ll only back off a little, and slide over.
Tom and I ride in a staggered formation, developed over a number of trips, that has Tom in the left third of our lane, and me in the right third, one man ahead by anywhere from a bike length to 50 yards, depending on the terrain. No matter who's leading, we hold the lane positions, so that the follower can briefly slide up beside to communicate.
Usually, Tom is ahead to the left and I'm behind to the right, in a comfortable slot that lets me see how fast he’s taking a turn or how hard his bike bounces on a railroad tracks. He’s the more experienced rider, so it makes sense he’d usually be in the lead. But sometimes I take the lead. And sometimes the lead switches back and forth in a way that, mesmerized by the road and the sound of our engines and the goings-on inside our minds, we hardly notice.
It doesn't matter who's leading, because it's not a race.
Riding side-by-side—that's as taxing in friendships as on motorcycles. There’s no room for error left or right, and you’re always having to adjust your speed to stay perfectly even.
No: If you know where you’re going, lead the way. If I know where I’m going, I’ll lead the way. We’ll pull side-by-side only in order to notify one another of urgent needs: we need fuel, we missed the turn, your bungee chord is dangling dangerously close to your rear spokes, how about let's stop for a beer at this lodge by this lake.
The new poster-child for corporate-culture utopia will very likely become the former one.
The New York Times quotes Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh as saying that despite yesterday's acquisition by Amazon, “We plan to continue to run Zappos the way we have always run Zappos—continuing to do what we believe is best for our brand, our culture and our business."
And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chimed in in praise of Zappos' culture, "I get all weak-kneed when I see a customer-obsessed company."
In a letter to employees, Hsieh elaborated that Amazon execs "are not looking to have their folks come in and run Zappos unless we ask them to. That being said, they have a lot of experience and expertise in a lot of areas, so we're very excited about the opportunities to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and resources, especially on the technology side."
As Scoob would say, ruh-roh.
Writing Boots has a shoe-industry source who has worked with both companies. She loves Zappos but says "Amazon is a nightmare! ... unbelievably disorganized and very hard to do business with."
She holds out hope that "Zappos could improve the way Amazon does business."
But bad cultures rub off on good ones more often than the other way around, and if I'm a Zappos shareholder, I'm selling today—and if I'm a Southwest Airlines employee communicator, I'm realizing we're back in the benchmarking bull's eye.