Photos: Zac Kurylyk
Title Photo: Ron Kierstead
On the weekend before last, I got back to basics. I bought a motorcycle for $1,000, strapped on a duffel bag, and hit the road.
Over the years, you’ve read a lot of motorcycle touring stories in CMG. They usually start the same way: “We picked up such-and-such a touring bike, rode the wheels off it, and it was great.”
But last weekend, I wanted to ride over to the Canadian Superbike races in Shubenacadie, NS. I live in Saint John, NB, the rear end of the east coast. There are no manufacturers’ press fleets here, full of bikes to borrow. Instead, I went and bought my father-in-law’s 1996 Suzuki Savage. Hours later, I was on my way down the twisties.
I didn’t buy the Savage out of any particular love for the bike; it’s an air-cooled single-cylinder cruiser, without even a tach or a tripmeter. Its main redeeming qualities were that it was cheap, it was light, and it hadn’t seen hard use: my father-in-law, who’d bought it to learn how to ride, put barely any miles on it the last couple of years. It was running, it had new rubber, and that was good enough for me.
The Old Ways Are Best
There are a lot of ways to get out of Saint John: the coastal route through Fundy National Park, the cruiser-friendly Rt. 102 up the river, the soul-crushing Rt. 1 four-laner. I chose to start down Rt. 845, which winds up the St. John River until you hit Hampton, where it sends you through gentle, rolling farmland with mild curves on Rt. 121. These are the old farm roads, the ones originally cut by settlers, forgotten today by tourists and DOT paving crews.
Taking a route like this has consequences, both good and bad. It’s a longer trip than the highway route and you’re going to find it harder to find gas, since rural decay long ago forced most mom-and-pop stations out of business. But the scenery grabs your attention when the road doesn’t, and most cagers aren’t in a hurry — get caught behind a slow-moving farm truck and there’s a 50/50 chance the driver (middle-aged or older, in these parts) will pull over and let you by. If not, well, you can always blow past them on the straights. Just wait for a chance to pass, if you want to keep it on the boil.
I took a break from the back road ramblings in Petitcodiac, where I hit the highway, and stayed there until Amherst. One of the crappiest things about riding in New Brunswick is that there’s no good backroad route around Moncton. The best thing is to hit the superslab once you get close to town, and put Atlantic Canada’s wannabe Sin City into your rearview as soon as possible.
New Scotland’s Finest Roads
Leaving Amherst, I headed down towards Advocate Harbour on Rt. 209. Now, my choice of a motorcycle started to catch up to me. The 21-year-old bike isn’t built for handling bad pavement at speed, so I dialed the throttle back to reduce the wear and tear on my bike, and on my body.
There were advantages to the slower speed: a hawk burst from the trees as I rode by, and I got to watch it fly off towards the horizon. As I drew nearer to Advocate, I could enjoy the smell of salt water and the cool sea breeze cutting inland, instead of only focusing on the next curve. The Savage didn’t quite live up to its name, but it did offer its own pace, a pace I’m familiar with from my early days of bombing around Prince Edward Island on UJMs with questionable reliability.
But on this trip, the bike was getting the job done. In the few hours I had between purchasing it and hitting the road, I’d done a quick appraisal of the most likely trouble spots, and addressed them. That meant adjusting the drive belt tension, changing the oil, putting hose clamps on the air boot and airing up the tires. I hadn’t done much else, yet the bike seemed to be holding up, despite its constant vibration. It was a bit down at the heels, but it got the job done.
In a way, it was a good representation of the area I was riding through. At the Irving station in Advocate Harbour, the Jeep owner in front of me at the pumps was missing the cap to his jerry can, so he stuffed a rag in the spout to make do. Inside, the gas jockey asked me to go back into the parking lot to tell him how much gas I’d rung up — they didn’t have a remote pump reader inside the building. In the backwater communities of Atlantic Canada, you make do, or do without. This bike belonged here.
Leaving Advocate Harbour, the road turned into the best string of twisties I know of in Atlantic Canada. I focused on the road, avoiding as much broken pavement as possible, keeping the chassis settled to carry a few extra klicks through the corners.
It was fun, but tiring; by the time I got to Parrsboro, the sun was low and I’d been on the road about six hours.
That’s a long time aboard a thumper, and it was my first real trip of the year. I wasn’t in shape for touring. I could feel fatigue starting to catch up to me. Riding was now a series of decisions, an ongoing balance of risk vs. reward. Did I want to show up at Shubenacadie before dark, taking the gamble of riding quickly when I wasn’t as sharp as I should be? I settled on a compromise between speed and safety, vowing to return to this route someday when I was less tired, to enjoy it properly.
The road had straightened out a bit by the time I reach Economy anyway, and the trees pushing up to the pavement were replaced by farmland and coastal views, so it was a little easier to relax as the sun touched the horizon.
After the races ended Sunday, I squeezed in a quick ride down Rt. 357, through Musquodoboit Harbour, then stayed at my brother’s place in Halifax overnight. I headed home Monday morning, taking the four-lane all the way back, except for a minor detour through the Wentworth Valley to avoid the tolls and tedium of the Cobequid Pass. The long, boring grades of the Pass are no fun on a modern bike; on an old beater, they’re even worse, and there’s no scenery to make it worthwhile. I’ll take the slightly slower pace on Rt. 4 any day, and besides, it gave me a chance to stop for ice cream and beat the heat.
After a weekend off the bike, my cramped body folded into its riding position much more easily. It was all about making distance now, not enjoying the ride.
You could argue a scaled-down single-cylinder cruiser is an even worse choice for highway riding than it is for backroad rambling, but this is how I started out. My first forays off-Island as a kid were on underpowered Japanese low-riders, with the trips frequently ending in mechanical disaster, due to a lack of knowledge and money.
It seemed I might have left those days behind me; I kept an eye on the oil level and added a dram as needed, but the one-lunger continued to power on trouble-free.
I was talking to one of my long-time riding buddies just before I left about the difference on trips like this from when I was a kid. Back then, pretty much every journey was a trip into uncertainty, of unfamiliar roads and unfamiliar bike problems. Just surviving a trip was a feat in itself.
When I bought the Savage, I was hoping to bring back just a bit of that excitement, the thrill of taking on the world with limited resources when I started riding. But in the years since, I’ve built up a lot of knowledge and experience, which are the two greatest resources any motorcyclist can acquire. And when I rolled into my driveway and my little girl came out for a hug, I realized the new thrill is not of discovery, but of passing on that knowledge.