Fast Bikes, Flowing Roads, and a Moment of Panic
Canada’s Selkirk Mountains reach peak brilliance as September’s cooling air descends from their high summits, filtering downslope through the majestic evergreens like a chilly, dry ice fog, relieving valley floor from lingering summer heat. Black spiky peaks jab skyward everywhere. Tall and sharp like angry stalagmites, they are nature’s skyscrapers, protruding above the tree line while icy blue lakes doze at their feet.
Paved glory runs through it. Heavenly smooth and fast it wraps over the land like supple leather hugging a clenched fist, twisting and weaving through the valley floor, following the Kaslo River like both were part of God’s creation from the beginning. Canada 31A is that highway, as famous in these parts as rock band Rush and not the place to take a 16-year old newbie on a sport bike. But I did, because I am a bad father.
Our riding group, the Wild Rose Squad, mounted bikes that September morning, ready to get on to the friction of the day. Kootenay Lake and those jagged peaks bordered our right as we rode north from Nelson, BC to Kaslo where, bikes parked in a line, I questioned the decisions that got me there.
Joining our squad of swift, veteran riders was my 16-year old son Matt, who earned his driver’s license and motorcycle endorsement simultaneously little more than a month before. A motorcycle I nicknamed the Zombie Ninja was his mount, a Kawasaki Ninja 500R that absorbed parts and money like a giant, sucking black hole of bottomless misery until it roared to life just days before departure. Before us lay the 30 miles of Canada’s 31A, technical tarmac where beauty reigns, crashes are frequent and speed is a punishable commodity.
Matt readies the Zombie Ninja next to my VFR800 before we ride Canada 31A. He was barely 16.
So we left for 31A, tanks full and wrists twitchy as I checked my pace because with Matt behind me, I could keep his speed down as long as I controlled mine. Cornering confidently he followed my lead, carrying some lean but not too much, butt slid off the seat, elbows loose, quiet through the corner and head twisted, looking for the exit. We both could have upped the pace but I didn’t allow it. I had to bring him home.
With the Kaslo River to our left, mountains to our right, evergreens all around as silent sentinels, witnesses to our art and smooth sweepers in front, the world was ours. Riding this road with my son was as good as motorcycling would ever get.
At the end of 31A we fist bumped, wide-eyed and giddy from it all. Motorcycling made sense to him now, all the money, all the long hours, all the frustration, all sacrifices to the god of speed paid back with priceless moments only the swift comprehend.
Yes Matt, this is special. And yes, it was worth every penny, every swear word and every busted knuckle. Motorcycling chooses a precious few with which to reveal its secrets of life and brotherhood and when that spirit says come, we are set free. Welcome to the club my friend. Welcome to the Wild Rose Squad.
We joined Highway 6 in New Denver and followed it south to the Fauquier Ferry where the crossing gave us time to admire a Kawasaki ZX-14 ridden two up. Not your usual sport-touring mount, Matt and I were impressed.
Matt enjoys a snack with his grandpa Don on the Fauquier Ferry while over Matt’s left shoulder lurks the Kawasaki ZX-14.
A ferry ride meant open road ahead if we could pass the departing ferry cars, easy for a VFR800, too easy for a ZX-14, not so easy for the Zombie Ninja. Matt kept up somehow as I dispatched cars, lunging for the open tarmac ahead.
Then the ZX-14 streaked by us both like a fighter jet buzzing the tower while the passenger, her long black braid blowing horizontal in the triple digit air like a wind sock, looked over her shoulder at me. In my head I pictured her smiling back at me, a taunting, playful, catch-us-if-you-can grin. My red mist descended.
Fine then. Game on.
I backshifted twice and gave chase, instantly forgetting about Matt.
We played the dangerous game of canyon racing for many miles, the ZX-14 and I. While no match for the Kawasaki’s power in the straights, I could reel in the heavier bike and its passenger when things got twisty. Then I noticed the scraping noise. It happened every time I turned left. What the…?
After careful listening I realized it wasn’t my bike, it was the bike behind me. It was Matt.
Eyes full of red mist, I forgot about Matt who had pulled the pin to join the race. One piece of the Zombie Ninja I had neglected to replace was the wimpy kickstand return spring. Every time Matt leaned hard left (and he was leaning hard) it scraped. This was partially because of the weak spring and partially because he was wringing the holy snot out of the Zombie Ninja to keep up. To this day, how he and the Zombie Ninja stayed with a VFR800 and ZX-14 on full boil still makes me wonder. Part of me doesn’t want to ever know the answer. At least the kickstand was now fully clearanced. I mentally promised to hide the whole event from his mom.
We rode home the next day where just 10 miles short of Okanogan, the Zombie Ninja ran out of gas. Deja vu kicked in. The last time Matt flipped the fuel petcock to reserve, a rush of rust laden gas to the carburetors blocked a float needle sending the remaining fuel to the ground, completely bypassing participation in the combustion process. Matt was looking at me quizzically from the side of the road where we sat, Zombie Ninja dead, his hand hovered over the fuel petcock. I could hear his thoughts. Should he do it? Should he flip the switch? We were in the middle of nowhere with dire consequences for failure.
Fate forced our hand. I nodded my head. He flipped the petcock to reserve. Neither of us waited for the outcome. As soon as the bike started we beelined the 10 miles to Okanogan for fresh gas and greasy food. This time, thankfully, the Zombie Ninja held its fluids.
While our group ate, we said our goodbyes. Matt asked why everyone was saying goodbye when we still had 100 miles to go. I explained the Wild Rose Squad’s 100 mile rule: in our group when we are 100 miles from home, we all agree to break formation and go home our own way at our own pace. It’s okay to split up. Matt nodded then got up and grabbed his helmet. When I got out to my bike, Matt was gone.
He took off alone, 100 miles from home, on rural highways that he had never ridden, in deer country, on a bike held together by hopes, dreams and a drippy globs of superglue. Parental fear flushed my veins.
I rode the next 100 miles in a panic, scanning frantically, staring down every skid mark, dust cloud and dead deer as I imagined my son crashed there in a curled up heap, wounded, wondering if anyone was going to find him. For 100 excruciating miles I searched in vain for my son whom I had introduced to a sport that claims as easily as it gives.
I arrived home alone. I still had no idea where Matt was. The Zombie Ninja was not in the driveway.
In my driveway, alone with my thoughts, guilt and panic exchanged punches at my emotions. My wife was inside completely unaware that her world was about to be rocked to its core and I would deliver the gruesome blow that would drop her to her knees.
So I walked up the stairs, a dead man walking, a dead man walking to greet his fate. Once through the door I sat on the couch next to my wife who asked how the ride went.
I didn’t have time to answer, I was listening to the shower.
“Oh, that’s Matt,” my wife quipped. “He’s been here for a while. He pulled his bike in the garage and jumped in the shower.”
I never thought of looking in the garage. He had done just what I had trained him to do since he was young- after a ride we take care of our toys. How in the hell did he beat me home? And do I hug him or choke him out slowly?
After he emerged from the shower I explained that while everyone else in the group can go their own way at 100 miles, he was to Stay. With. Me.
“Well,” his mom inquired, “did you boys have a good time?”
“It was the best three days of my life,” Matt replied.