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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.