“Well, perhaps you humans do have short lives, but you do so much with them. Always jumping around, always so hasty, and you have the whole world to do it in.” –Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World.
Bzzzt, Bzzzt, Bzzzt!
For centuries, the average person has dreaded that abrupt and intruding noise that must have been unleashed from the underworld. As one is ripped from deep sleep and attempts to determine the location of the sound, glasses go flying, water spills and lamps fall and shatter on the floor. Changes in technology have made the alarm clock sound more bearable with soothing sounds of chimes and bells; however, as I rolled out of the bed at 3 a.m. to the sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand, I still felt like I had been torn from a beautiful flower garden to live my life amongst the ruins of a recent brush fire. All this, just to get on a plane.
Our first flight to Birmingham, Alabama, from Vancouver, British Columbia, left at 6 a.m., and we were caught in the grasp of anticipation like a couple of six-year-olds on Christmas Eve, bouncing and excited that the day had finally arrived. Later that day, my wife Janel would finally have her BMW G 650 GS.
Finding a G 650 GS north of 49th parallel for her had been an issue. Anything we could find was listed at an absurd price, on the other side of the country and/or just had too many miles to be starting on a cross-Americas journey. Our exhaustive online search for a G 650 GS brought us to the BMW MOA Marketplace, which is mostly American dominated. We found a member selling her 2016 G 650 GS with a lot of extras and only 11,000 miles (18,000 km)—the perfect motorcycle, only it was in Alabama.
We realized being MOA members has benefits. After a short discussion with some MOA members, we had the bike picked up and taken to a member’s home to wait for us to retrieve it. Without this help, we could not have had such a successful and to this point, pain-free motorcycle purchase.
As we finally boarded our flight, I had no idea of the adventures we would be in for. In my mind, I saw Alabama as a hot, swampy area like Louisiana, which I had visited 20 years ago. Leaving the airport, beautifully forested areas welcomed us, with birds chirping, insects buzzing and the evening heat dissipating, shattering my assumptions.
When we finally saw her bike, I could see in Janel’s face the excitement. “I don’t want to go for a ride after almost no sleep and 12 hours of flying,” she said. I agreed with her reasoning and got to work setting the bike up for our three-week trip home.
We switched out the tall shield for a short one and the original panniers for Touratech’s ZEGA PRO cases. This was a relatively quick exchange of old to new with little to no swearing. By 10 p.m., the bike was ready to go and we were crawling into bed with a mix of excitement and anxiety about the following day. We were about to ride two-up, with a ridiculous amount of clothing and camera equipment, 300 miles to Fontana, North Carolina, on a motorcycle neither of us had ridden before.
Packing for a trip can be difficult: Deciding what to bring, what to leave and what you really need. These questions can be hard and are even worse for those that are inexperienced. For me, it was the inability to pack my own bike, to have to share the two panniers and the top bag. What I am trying to say is—we brought too much stuff! Panniers full, a giant 110 L SealLine paddling bag strapped across the back, a Pelican case strapped on top and a small backpack just in case. With Janel crushed in behind me, all we needed were two children on the bike and we would fit in with most families in southeast Asia. I could feel the bike pulling one way and the other with all that weight, but little “Alabama” as she is now called, moved forward with each twist of the throttle and headed to the interstate.
Beyond the interstates there are beautiful roads to test the merit of any rider. Sadly, the back roads of Alabama were not meant for us, as Day 1 was a highway day. We left around noon due to some packing issues and needed to make up two hours. We wanted to enjoy those off-the-beaten-path roads, but the direct route just made more sense.
About an hour into the ride, I noticed the Pelican case moving around. Through our Cardos I asked Janel if it seemed secure; she thought it was but suggested we take a break. Pulling into a small gas station in the middle of nowhere, we hopped off the bike and realized one of the bungee cords had shifted in front of the exhaust and burned through. This was mishap one, but we were still early into this trip and enjoying the warm sun. I laughed and said, “The universe is going to have to throw more than a burnt cord at us to get us to quit.” I told Janel I loved her, put a new bungee cord on the bike in a different position, and we continued toward Chattanooga.
Chattanooga: What a great name for a city! You want to know what is not fun about Chattanooga? Traffic! It was around 3 p.m. on a Friday when we got close to Chattanooga and met a thick wall of vehicles. In Canada, we can’t lane split and riding on the shoulder is illegal, but if you go slow enough police will often look the other way. I wasn’t sure about the regulations—or even which state we were in—and thought we should just go for it and let the cards fall where they may. I pulled off and onto the shoulder a few times to get back into moving traffic and to avoid shards of glass scattered about the road. This cut an hour off our trip.
After about five hours of traveling, we came to a stoplight in Sweetwater, Tennessee. The sun was low in the sky, the town was sleepy, and my butt was really starting to hurt. A strange smell wafted into my helmet catching my attention. “This town kind of smells like burning plastic,” I said to Janel. She agreed, but we didn’t think much of it.
Tearing down the back roads of Tennessee was a pleasant change from the interstate. There was almost no traffic and lots for us to look at and enjoy. As we got closer to North Carolina, the road got more beautiful by the mile. I could tell Janel was tired, stiff and sore, so I didn’t suggest enjoying the views. The sun was low, and the shadows laid out across the road gave us a surreal experience as we entered the mountains. As I turned a sharp curve Janel pointed at a sign stating, “Motorcycle accidents frequent next 11 miles.” I had noticed the road had become curvier but didn’t know what to expect after that sign. That was when a motorcyclist on a supersport bike came flying around a corner with his knee down. We later learned this was the Tail of the Dragon, and we then understood why it is famous.
The BMW MOA Getaway in Fontana had already begun when we arrived during dinner. As the festivities were getting into full swing, I noticed Janel looked exhausted. “I will get us checked in and get the bike unloaded. You enjoy dinner and I’ll be back,” I said. Janel’s grateful look told me this was the correct decision. Walking towards the bike I caught that whiff of burnt plastic again.
Emotions are interesting. We often experience them one at a time. Anger comes when things aren’t going right or in a response to fear; sadness arrives due to something being removed from our lives; laughter in response to happiness usually shows up when things are going well. When I looked around the back of the bike, I was hit by fear of my wife murdering me, anger at the situation and sadness at what might be lost. I just started to laugh. When it seems things are a bit hopeless, all you can do is chuckle to yourself. Our SealLine bag had shifted above Alabama’s exhaust, and the hot air had melted a six-inch hole into the bag. The exhaust then continued to pump into the hole, melting a pair of Janel’s shoes and burning up most of my underwear and a couple shirts. Staring at the mess of melted plastic and burnt cloth, I couldn’t help but just laugh.
Once I had gone through the wreckage of the bag, I went back to get Janel and found her walking up to the reception office. With a beaming smile I said, “We are all checked in. I just have a bit of news. Let’s get up to the room, and I will show you.” Janel was confused, but I knew she was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. As we entered the room, we were hit with that burnt plastic smell again. Janel’s nose shrivelled; when she saw the bag, she shouted, “My dress!” Ripping through the bag to determine what was damaged, she found her melted shoes and my roasted clothes. The dress and the remainder of her clothes were still intact. Teeth brushed, gear off, wrapped in the sheets, we both passed out with the scent of burnt plastic hovering in the air.
As we sprang from bed in the morning with tight muscles howling at us, we enjoyed our morning ablutions and decided that first, Janel would finally have the opportunity to ride her bike. Later, she would determine how to repack all our junk, and I would try to find someone to go riding with. Two previous stories have now discussed the anxiety Janel goes through on a regular basis; riding a new bike was stress-inducing. In her mind, the hilliness of the Fontana Resort made her more nervous, when really it had little impact on her riding. Determined to ride her bike, Janel sat on Alabama, right foot locked on the back brake, left foot stabilizing herself, hands on the heated grips and eyes forward, and she took off down one of the parking lots. I could see the tension ease from her body with each lap she did around the resort. She calmed with time, got better at shifting and was becoming used to not being shown what gear she was in. She was riding Alabama with no issues, and I could tell how proud she was. We rode back up to the hotel room and I could see that nervous look she often has on her face, but hidden within, there was the subtle note of a smile.
Before Janel’s ride at breakfast, I ended up speaking with Reece Mullins, who many know is the president of the MOA. He invited me to go for a ride with him and his wife Rhonda. The curves started the moment we got off the Fontana Resort property. We barreled around the corners taking in the warm North Carolina weather. Other motorcycles tore past us in the opposite direction, showing the waving camaraderie I love to see. Coming out of the hills, we followed the bends of the river, all while kayakers took on the rapids below us. The corners started to ease off, and I noticed a bunch of BMW motorcycles (and one Ténéré 700) littering a parking lot at the Lake’s End Café and Grill.
I felt a bit of privilege, having the opportunity to dig into the mind of the MOA president during lunch. While Reece spoke, his face lit up about his time as a pilot and a rider. Hearing his stories was fascinating. As I listened to Reece, I compared the conversation to some of the other people I had met through the MOA. Each member has their own story about how they got into riding: some started young, some during their mid-life crisis and others not until retirement. Yet, they also have their own life story: hardships, happiness, relationships and more. Sharing these stories is what ties us together as a community rather than just a riding group. The MOA is a community I am proud to be part of, and I look forward to having more lunches and hearing more stories with other members around the world.