It’s quiet on the Old Hastings Road. There’s no traffic at all, just our two motorcycles heading north on the slippery dirt. I’m riding on Sunday morning with my neighbour Andrew to visit the site where Rob Harris was killed; the crash happened on this day a year before, almost to the minute. Andrew didn’t know Rob, but we’re talking on helmet intercoms and I’m telling him about my friend.
“Rob was at home on roads like this,” I’m saying. “He was into adventure bikes and I think he preferred unpaved back roads to the paved highways. He was very experienced, but you’ve got to admit, on an empty road like this, it’s easy to let your guard down.”
We ride over another whooping hill. The narrow road turns unexpectedly on the other side to the right and I brake as hard as I dare before the curve. We’re not going fast. My bike, CMG’s long-term BMW Scrambler, is comfortable here but the street tires are constantly slipping. Andrew’s riding his Honda Varadero. Rob, the founding editor of Canada Moto Guide, would have approved of it, just as he must have loved this road.
Every November, the Old Hastings Road is closed to traffic and becomes a stage of the Rally of the Tall Pines, with Subarus and Fords and Porsches and everything else leaping its snowy crests and slewing through its rocky twists. In the summertime, dirt riders chew up the mud and fly over the ruts and potholes. There aren’t many residents, but people who live along here or maintain hunting cabins in the woods drive slowly, never sure of what’s coming the other way on the blind turns and hills.
“He wasn’t travelling fast,” I tell Andrew. “He knew better than that. But when he crested the hill, he must have been in the centre of the road when he should have been over to the side, and the pickup truck was right there. It would all have been so quick. There was nothing anyone could do.”
In the truck
The driver of the pickup truck that Rob crashed into that day is an amiable man named Perry. He lives just a few kilometres south of the crash site, and the last time I rode this road, I stopped in to speak with him. No one had told him that Rob was killed instantly by the impact, when a broken rib pierced his heart like a dagger, but Perry’s relieved to know there was nothing else he could have done to save Rob’s life.
The whole family was in the truck, driving slowly home: husband, wife, daughter, daughter’s husband and granddaughter. The little girl in the truck was only 7, the same age as Rob’s youngest daughter, and she’s never been told the motorcyclist was killed. Her mother shielded her from the sight of the men performing CPR on Rob until the ambulance arrived.
It was traumatic for everyone, of course. “I think about it a lot,” said Perry. “Every time I drive the road, of course, and see the crosses, and sometimes just when I wake up in the night. You never forget something like that. We thought we’d have to move away, pack up and be rid of this road, but we’re still here.
“My daughter, just a few weeks later, was driving on a paved highway when she came to the top of a hill and a motorcycle came at her in her lane. He’d crossed the centre line overtaking somebody. He pulled back over just in time but it was really close. She was a wreck about it for weeks afterwards, probably months.
“My wife though, she has the hardest time of it. She’ll be thinking about it a lot on the anniversary. There’s another route we can take into town that’s a few kilometres longer on a different dirt road, and she usually goes out of her way now to take that route. She doesn’t want to see the crosses.”
We’re here to see the crosses, Andrew and I, and we ride north from Perry’s house, even more carefully now. There’s another cross to be seen first, though: a young woman named Yvonne who was driving with a friend on this road sometime around 2003 when her car flipped over into a pond; the friend escaped, but Yvonne was trapped and drowned. Her commemorative cross is in the water beside the road with a pair of rusted handcuffs locked to it. It’s an eerie sight.
I’ve never travelled north on this road before, but I know the hill when I see it, from standing there two days after Rob’s crash when there was still blood in the dirt. His wife Courtney had rushed to Ontario from their home in New Brunswick and identified his body that morning; in the afternoon, we came north with her family and with Rob’s friend Jim to see the scene for ourselves and answer our questions.
Jim was riding with Rob that Saturday. Rob took the lead on his Husqvarna 701 press bike and Jim held back a safe distance – he didn’t see the impact. He crested the hill to see his friend lying motionless in front of the blue Ford F-150 that was hidden in a hollow of the road on the other side. Coming over the hill myself, it’s easy to see how deceptive the road is: how it seems clear for a couple of hundred metres but there’s actually a dip on the other side, deep enough to obscure a pickup truck.
Perry said he hit the brakes as soon as Rob appeared over the rise but everything was just too close and there was nowhere safe for anyone to go. Rob threw the bike down and slid into the truck’s front bumper and was killed immediately.
Fixing the site
There’s a small piece of the truck’s plastic bumper guard next to the crosses beside the road. It doesn’t seem right. Somebody laid it there out of respect but it angers me and I pick it up and throw it into the trees. I don’t think it belongs here.
There are two wooden crosses on each side of a rock. The painted white cross on the right was planted by Courtney’s father several weeks later. It’s a simple, clean cross with Rob’s name and the date of his death inscribed on it.
On the rock itself is a clear plastic bag that’s protecting a copy of the printed handout from Rob’s memorial service. There are a couple of photos of him, together with a quote attributed to Mark Twain: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
The cross to the left is an even simpler memorial, carved from a log as one piece. It has a plastic bag taped around it with a photograph inside, but the image is almost totally faded and lost. It seems to be Rob with his daughters, Cate and Chloe. I don’t know who left this cross here. It was already in place when Courtney’s dad came to visit.
I have a picture of my own of Rob, taken by somebody else of him with his dirt bike outside his home in New Brunswick, and I tape it inside its own clear plastic bag to the log cross. I don’t want to remove the old photo, but I want the image there of Rob happy, at home, where he lived with the family he loved.
End of the road
Today is Mother’s Day. Rob never knew his mother, who died when he was very young. But Courtney is consoling their daughters today, and just a few kilometres south of the crosses, there’s a mother being consoled by her own daughter, both of them remembering the feel of the impact against their truck.
“I guess it was a good way to go – quick, with no time for pain,” said Perry. “But it leaves so much pain behind. So many people, hurt so much.
“And you know, the next weekend, there were dirtbikes racing along this road like nothing happened. They weren’t wearing helmets, they didn’t care. This can be a godawful road.”
The blackflies are bad today, swarming in the air above the crosses. Andrew and I put on our helmets and ride silently north to the end of the road.