Riding with my bro

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At the first pit stop on a day of riding near Ottawa in October, my big brother, Allen, asked me if I was afraid of bridges. I told him I was “fearless” and reminded him how he needed me to hold his hand to cross the street until he was about 16. His riding buddies, whom I’d only met about an hour earlier, chuckled at our brotherly banter. After a few more jabs, we were off again in a tight and noisy pack.

When we rounded a curve and the Ogdensburg–Prescott International Bridge came into view, my heart sank and my blood pressure soared to new heights. It’s also known as the Seaway Skyway, and it’s a suspension bridge connecting Johnstown, Ontario, to Ogdensburg, New York.

The massive bridge, completed in 1960, dominates the landscape as it winds its way for 2.4 kilometres across the Saint Lawrence River and Saint Lawrence Seaway. The mere sight of it had my mouth dry and every muscle in my body tense, and it was at that moment, like so many other times in my life, when I decided the best move was to focus on my brother’s back and follow him blindly into battle.

The bridge over the St. Lawrence. Don’t look down through that metal grid, and try not to worry about your tires squirming on the ridges.

For the first stretch of this insanely imposing structure, things were going great. Then a humming sound began to emit from the tires on the Road King I’d borrowed from Allen, and I made a rookie mistake and looked down. I’m pretty sure at that point I let out an audible scream, but no one heard my cries for help. If you ever find yourself crossing this bridge, take my word for it, don’t look down. The bridge has an open metal grate roadway, and when combined with speed (in my case, about 40 km/h), it creates the illusion you are floating about 75 metres in the air with nothing but murky black water and certain death rumbling below.

For a brief instant I contemplated stopping the bike, placing it on the kickstand and calling 911 to be rescued, but the minivan full of senior citizens that was riding my ass was getting larger in my mirrors. So I swallowed the massive ball of fear in my throat, rolled on the throttle, and caught up to Allen. I stayed within about 10 metres of him with my eyes focused on the Harley-Davidson patch on the back of his leather vest for the remainder of this short but memorable trek of terror.

Willy, on the right, with his brother Allen last fall beside the St. Lawrence River.

When we stopped on the other side of the bridge, I swallowed my pride and admitted that, thanks to a lifelong fear of heights, the bridge was surely among the most horrifying experiences of my life. The guys all had a good laugh at my expense. To help ease my embarrassment they told me about another riding buddy named Ed, who wasn’t with us that day. Ed will apparently ride about 90 minutes out of his way to avoid the bridge. On future trips, Ed and I will be leaving early.

My brother Allen

There really wasn’t any particular reason for my fall trip to Ottawa, other than needing to use up my last week of vacation days for 2019, and of course the desire to spend some quality time with my brother and his family.

I’ve often said in the biker world we call one another brother, but in my life I have only one true brother and his name is Allen Williamson.

Big Al is only two years older than me, and to put it mildly, he has always been an overachiever. He was an honour roll student and class president and valedictorian in high school, he was the first university graduate in our immediate family, and he was a member of the RCMP by age 21. Last year, Allen retired from the Mounties at the rank of Chief Superintendent and is now working again for the force as a civilian member.

Willy, left, and Allen, in 2018 on a ride somewhere near Milwaukee.

I gave up trying to compete with Allen at about age 12, and carved out my own jagged trail through the dense forest, shoeless and thirsty, while he cruised along the freeway of life with both speed and accuracy. Allen and his wife, Jenny, who is an RCMP Inspector, have two great sons: David, a music graduate from Carleton University and a guitar virtuoso, and Adam, who is also studying at Carleton and is the deep thinker in the family. He will likely forgo a life of Harley-Davidsons to carry on the type of work done by a famous doctor named Suzuki. Spending time with them makes me want to be a better man.

Okay, that’s enough bragging about my illustrious brother, for now anyway.

Let’s get on with this whole thing about how no one including Allen has ever taken the time to share with me how much better it is to ride a motorcycle in Ontario than it is in my home province of Manitoba.

The weather is brilliant, the other motorists actually see you, and the roads aren’t laden with potholes and road kill as far as the eye can see. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, because the road kill does get picked up fairly quickly in Manitoba, otherwise the roadside restaurants wouldn’t have a lunch special. But I digress.

Big Al has been riding a motorcycle since the same day as me, way back in 1975 when our dear old dad bought us a battered and bruised Honda 50 and let us cavort in the wilderness like baby wolves.

Nowadays, Allen rolls on a very spiffy Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide — but he kept his old Road King and let me ride it while visiting.

A break for the bros: left to right, Bill, Pete, Allen and Ron.

Cruising the countryside

On the first day of riding when the bridge almost gave me a nervous breakdown, we crossed into New York for lunch at the Texas Roadhouse in Watertown. Our crew consisted of Allen and his friends and fellow Mounties Ron and Bill, and his neighbour Pete the Swede.

It was one of those magical fall days of riding that apparently happens every year in Ontario. The weather was a lot like a nice August day in Manitoba, except without the snow. Even entering the USA seemed abundantly easier — maybe it was all those Mounties who crossed just before me.

These guys can really ride, and they map out their trips, which is quite a bit different from my riding buddies home in Manitoba, where we simply ride to the nearest watering hole and sing karaoke until the sun comes up.

A couple of days later, we made another great ride up into Quebec with Al’s buddy, Ed, another Mountie and the guy who also dislikes bridges. Pete the Swede came along too; as near as I could tell, he’s a retired colonel from the Swedish Army (I don’t ask enough questions).

Ed, left, suggests a circuitous route home that avoids all bridges, while Willy checks his phone to see if the route really exists.

We took a pretty cool ferry over the river instead of a horrifying bridge, and Allen even let me ride his Road Glide, which is even more of a rolling sofa than the Street Glide I have at home. The changing of the fall colours and the poutine and the chance to mutter my Manitoba Metis French all added to the magic of the experience.

It’s now been about 93 days since I rode a motorcycle, and on the day I returned from Ottawa, there was a massive blizzard raging, which is unusual for October, even for Manitoba. It was really fun riding my Arctic Cat snowmobile into town though — even if the beer did freeze on the way home.

Welcome home, Willy! Manitoba in October can be a winter wonderland.

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