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.