Opinion: Riding the U.S. without a gun

This week, Zac made another epic cold-weather ride back home to New Brunswick from Toronto. It was chilly for him last November when he rode on his new-to-him Suzuki RF900R, but it was challenging for him this time around too: the temperature was hovering just around freezing, and there’s still snow in the air.

He rode a BMW C650 GT scooter because, well, why not? It has heated grips and a heated seat and an electrically-adjustable windshield. It seemed like a very CMG thing to do and he volunteered, so he headed out there, hacking into the mountain wind and loving every minute of it. Maybe. We’ll read all about it soon.

Zac fuels up the BMW C650 GT scooter, ready for the loooong ride home to New Brunswick.

I live east of Toronto and we rode together for a couple of hours on Saturday, just for the fun of it. Normally, I’d be envious of such a road trip, but it was too cold for envy this time around. And there’s another thing: I’m no longer quite as comfortable as before of riding in the United States with Canadian licence plates.

I’ve ridden a lot in the U.S over the last 30 years. In fact, I’ve ridden a motorcycle to every one of the 50 states, as well as all 10 Canadian provinces and two of the three territories (still working on Nunavut). I’ve slept in desert picnic areas, run out of fuel in the middle of the prairie, and never hesitated to come back for more, but a couple of years ago, riding home from Chicago, an incident gave me pause.

There are dozens of layers underneath that Aerostitch suit – never easy when you suddenly remember to visit the washroom.

I was on my ‘08 Harley Low Rider and stopped at a quiet rest stop in Michigan to stretch my legs and find a place to pee. When I saw the roadside park, I was happy to pull in and stop for a break. It was a lovely place, too: peaceful, just off the quiet road, with a washroom over to one side of the paved U-shaped drive and tall mature trees everywhere. A couple of picnic tables in the front, beside a couple of parking spaces.

I parked and wandered over to the washroom for that pee.

It was clean inside but its white walls were covered in Sharpie graffiti, and the comments were very specific. “Meet me here at 2 pm on August 27 if you want a blowjob,” said one. “Like it rough? Under the tree behind this building at noon on August 23,” said another. There must have been 20 more.

When I was done, I sneaked a peek into the women’s empty side of the building. No graffiti there. Clean as a whistle.

As seen on Google Earth, the Burlington Roadside Park near Tekonsha, Michigan. Imagine it in summer, with leaves on the trees.

So I chuckled and walked back to the bike and cracked open a can of Monster Energy drink from the saddlbag. Just as I took a swig, a couple of pickup trucks pulled in and parked on the other side of the U-shaped drive, against the grass. Their drivers jumped out, gave me a wave, and came over to say hello. It was just a few minutes before the top of the hour.

“Nice bike!” said one, a regular-looking guy in a check shirt, probably 20s, probably a bit of a redneck. The other guy didn’t speak. He was also probably 20s, thin with lots of bad tattoos and shaved hair.

They were too friendly, and they caught me off-guard. I answered a couple of questions about the bike, and the talkative guy told me their names and said they were just on their lunch break, and mentioned how they liked the peace and solitude of this rest area. And then they asked me where I was coming from.

“Chicago,” I said. “It’s a good ride to Toronto.”

And from above, leafy and peaceful.

“Yeah? Just you?” said the guy. And before I thought to tell him about all my friends who’d be arriving any moment, I nodded. Dumb! I took another swig from the large can and realized what just happened. These guys knew I was alone, they knew I was Canadian and so not carrying a gun, and they knew that I knew the place was quiet.

Everything I had with me was on the clean, shiny bike, or in my pockets. We chatted some more while I swigged back the drink as nonchalantly as I could, while calculating all the odds. Inside my head, a Quentin Tarantino movie was playing and its soundtrack was cranked.

“It’s always good to meet new folks out here. The best part is when they give me their wallets. So how ’bout you give me your wallet now, boy?” That was the movie playing, but in real life, the check shirt had just cracked a joke about something and his friend with the tattoos laughed. A big laugh that opened his teeth wide, showing off his tongue stud.

“Hey boy – you sure got a purdy mouth…”

That was still the soundtrack playing, now from Deliverance, but the drink was finished now and I dropped the can in the garbage nearby. I’d been eyeing the garbage, picturing me throwing the bin at the attackers, or something. It wasn’t a very good plan, and however it ended, I’d be in a lot of pain and my bike would be on its side, at least.

“It’s good talking to you, but I’ve got to go,” I told them, and offered a handshake. Both took it and shook firmly with smiles all around. I swung a leg over the bike, thumbed the starter button and prayed she’d fire up. She did, and I gave a little wave as I wheeled the hell out of there.

The whole way home, I thought about the conversation. They probably were just nice guys, interested in the bike, maybe interested in something consensual, but if they hadn’t been, I was screwed. A quiet place, unnoticed from the road. A solitary rider far from home, with cash and cameras and almost certainly no gun because I’m Canadian. A clean and valuable motorcycle, coveted by many.

One last view into the Burlington Roadside Park, with the nicely painted washrooms handy.

There are no stickers on my bike, but I’m thinking of getting a “protected by Smith & Wesson” sticker for the back. A Canadian licence plate automatically states “No gun here!” to everyone with the smarts to realize it, and these days, that puts us at a huge disadvantage behind Americans. Whether they’re armed or not, you just don’t know, but Canadians, you always know.

It’s always been the case, but it seems more so now. I love the U.S., but not when I’m staring at it down the barrel of a gun.

So — What to do in a case like this?

I’ve had a couple of readers respond already since this anecdote was published in the Monday newsletter. I’ve been accused of scaremongering and homophobia. All I’m really concerned for is being seen at a disadvantage by the minority who want to take advantage. It speaks for the U.S. that I’ve never been robbed on my travels, and the only time I was injured I was stabbed, not shot. I still visit every chance I can get, but I’m just a little more wary now.

However, all travelers must have some street smarts when they’re away from home, even in the safest, nicest places. Motorcyclists are inherently more vulnerable than car drivers because they’re out in the open. This is part of the reason we choose to ride, not drive, but it has its issues.

So to just keep everything safe, I recommend never admitting to a stranger in a lonely place that you’re riding alone. Allow them to think that others will arrive soon. That should make all the difference. And maybe get that sticker, too.

21 thoughts on “Opinion: Riding the U.S. without a gun”

  1. I share the writer’s concerns about riding in the US where the per capita homicide rate by guns is 6 times greater than Canada’s. Knowing that most people you meet there own a gun and are probably carrying one is a bit unnerving. It’s also a good bet that most of them have never taken a firearms safety course, as evidenced by the high number of accidental shootings. Among developed nations, the US is far and away the most homicidal.

  2. Guns aren’t the most dangerous thing we face every time we ride, it’s cellphones. I’ve traveled all over the US and Canada, I’ve only seen one person brandish a gun while I was traveling, but thousands looking at their phones instead of the traffic. I always think about Ewan McGregor taking the long way round through Siberia, and then getting rear-ended by some young dude on his phone. Forget the Road of Bones, its the Trans-Canadian highway that you have to be careful of!

  3. You can get a CCW as a Canadian in the states that allow concealed carry. You can transport your pistol to the border all locked up like your supposed to in Canada and as soon as you are in a gun friendly state you can load it up and holster it like one of the locals. I have a bunch of pistols and rifles, including ARs and not a one has managed to sneak out of the safe and hurt anyone yet like a lot of folks that have not ever shot a gun would have you believe.

  4. Two things:

    1. Zac, you need a motorcycle makeover man… they do have safe gear that doesn’t look so goofy! Looking that dumb might get you shot!

    2. I consider myself pretty well traveled, both in safe and not so safe environments, and IMO nowhere in the world are people friendlier than Americans – Canadians included – particularly outside of the main cities. Never felt unsafe, not once.

    1. LOL

      Looking that dumb probably played a big part in me avoiding a ticket from the New Hampshire State Police last week.

  5. Just because you have a Canadian plate does not mean you don’t have a firearm. You can legally take your permitted handgun from Canada into the States for shooting at a range – even on a motorcycle.

    1. True-but it’s a lot of paperwork, and only enthusiasts will bother (only enthusiasts will have handguns in Canada, to start with). Plus, you’ve got to deal with reciprocity issues when it comes to carrying in the US, which is only trickier when you’re Canadian.

      The answer, of course, is to do like Daryl Dixon and carry a crossbow on your motorcycle … DIXON

  6. This is a sad story. Nothing happened, yet the paranoia inspired a need to pack a fire arm? Or to pretend like you have one with you? And to inspire fear and paranoia among your fellow Canadian motorcycle travelers about the US? I’m not anti-gun, having grown up in a hunting family. But I NEVER feel the need to carry a weapon. Anywhere. Under any circumstances. I’ve lived in rough neighborhoods in the USA. I backpacked through Central America in the early ‘90s with my wife, and I have stared down very real – not imagined – machine guns in the middle of night in the jungle when our bus was stopped by military patrols in Guatemala. How does carrying a gun make you safer? How does pretending to carry a gun make you safer? Isn’t that precisely why Canadians don’t typically pack guns? Because it’s totally unnecessary? Talk to solo women international motorcycle travelers like Tiffany Coates sometime. She sleeps with a screwdriver – but hasn’t ever had to stab anyone with it to defend herself. Just ride away if you’re in an uncomfortable situation. Be aware of your surroundings, and the people around you. You’re far more likely to die hitting a deer on your motorcycle than being robbed, raped or shot in a roadside rest area in the US.

    1. Heh. I remember riding in Pennsylvania a few years back wishing everyone in Pennsylvania had a gun … to shoot deer with. After you see about a dozen pieces of roadkill venison in an evening, you start wondering how long until it’s your turn to hit one?

    2. Great comments and completely agree. An over-hyped, paranoid interpretation of meeting “normal” people. This is an example of “…never let the facts get in the way of a story…”

  7. Pulled into a deserted road side park off a quiet road…. maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do when traveling alone? A similar thing happened to me 40 years ago, except it was non threatening, just annoying. The local alternate life style community gather to meet discretely in places that everybody who lives there knows about, but not strangers, so assumptions can be made based on being there. Before stopping in a place where you don’t know your way around maybe look for mini vans and families with kids.

  8. You can’t browse a message board about motorcycles, hosted in the U.S., without finding a section for gun talk and one for politics. Hell, even my favourite non-corporate sites for music recording have both of those.
    There will be at least one “what do you pack when riding?” discussion. So far there’s at least one guy who tours with 3 (three) handguns in the bags or on his person. He had the photos to prove it.

    All that said, I’m thinking the majority of riders in the U.S. are not carrying but are just as wary/nervous as the writer. So ask them how they deal with the sinking feeling that sometimes they are standing out like the weak zebra at the watering hole.

    1. I wouldn’t carry in the US either, even given the opportunity. But I don’t like broadcasting to everyone that I’m not, and that’s the disadvantage of having a Canadian licence plate.

    2. Yup, toats.

      I’m not against concealed carry or anything like that, but I get a huge kick out of the endless navelgazing: “Do I need a 45, or will my 9 mm be enough? Where do I keep my backup to my backup pistol while I’m riding?” And it’s everywhere on the forums, and then the chorus starts up: “I lived in NYC when it was scummy and crime filled and I survived without a gun and was only mugged 14 times and actually really enjoyed it and blah blah blah vote Hillary.” No wonder they can’t get along down there.

      Having said that, if you need three handguns to make it down the street, either there’s a serious problem with you, or you really, really need to move.

    1. Got into an argument with a guy outside a bar in Texas. Years ago. Nothing to do with motorcycles, and could have happened anywhere.

  9. An American rider once said he hangs an empty gun holster from his handlebar when his Harley is parked. So far he has never had an issue. I suspect that simple act in Canada would result in every police force within a 100 mile radius converging on the parked bike.

    1. The cops in the states would probably like to talk them too if the bike is from another state without a reciprocal personal carry regulation in effect. I’ve read that holster on the handlebars statement myself on a touring website from someone claiming he does it. Sounds clever though. Keep them guessing.

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