Thursday, September 17, 2015

A sense of place

I lived the first four years of my life in Austin. I've not lived there since, but do my best to remain familiar with the streets and restaurants so I can claim it as my home, so I can drive places without a map. If I can't be cool, let me at least be cool by association. 

After Austin, my family lived two years in Dallas (well, Irving), then to Houston for six years. So, 12 years a Texan in total. Across that time the most connecting place was Lake Jackson, where my grandparents lived. And after we left Texas it was to Lake Jackson we'd always return. I guess that's why I tend to think of myself as a Gulf Coaster, despite my habit of telling people I'm "from" Austin.

My uncle recently suggested I'm actually just a "wannabe East Texas redneck" and I suppose that's the most accurate description. The "wannabe" part, most certainly. 

Because there are, too, the years spent in Minnesota: six in Bloomington, two in Moorhead and three in St. Paul. Eleven years a Minnesotan. But those years are stretched out across a space of almost two decades, with time in England, Nevada and California in between. I guess one of those years in Moorhead could also be conceded to the state of North Dakota.

Breaking that down into percentages of my life:
- 31 percent Texas
- 28 percent Minnesota
- 23 percent Wales
- 18 percent other

States are big, though; borders sometimes blur. So, when talking about the concept of place it's probably better to think in terms of region -- spaces of mindset. In my life, then, I've lived in nine different regions. Breaking that down:
- 25 percent Twin Cities
- 23 percent Cardiff
- 15 percent Southeast Texas
- 10 percent Austin
- 27 percent other

If who we are and where we're "from" are defined by the geographical positions we've inhabited, then I suppose it's appropriate that so much of me is "other." I realised this morning, though, that with Jenn and I committed to being here until at least 2019, I will soon find myself having spent the small majority of my life as a Cardiffian.

Which is depressing, because it's the region to which I feel the least connected. Whilst also being the one to which I have made the most effort to connect.

Of course, the idea of geographical location imposing identity is incorrect. Both for the individual and for those who interact with the individual. No one will ever accept me as being "from" Cardiff, no matter how much time I serve. Texas might want you, but Cardiff will passively remind you every day of your lack of belonging. If even 1 percent of you is "other" it might as well be 100 percent.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this except to say that I desperately want to go home. But I honestly don't know what the fuck I mean by that.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Road Trip! Europe On a Suzuki V-Strom 1000

Originally published on RideApart in three parts (Part 1 –– Part 2 –– Part 3)

As the crow flies, there are roughly 850 miles of land and water between Cardiff, Wales, and Volterra, Italy. I'm not a crow, however, and I'm travelling by motorcycle, a vehicle that abhors direct routes. So, getting there and back will see me clocking 3,325 miles across eight countries –– nine, if you're a Welsh separatist.

Covering that distance will take me places never before visited, and present me with riding challenges never before faced. I'll ride in the Alps, witness Dirt Quake, and experience the autobahn. I'll swim in a glacier-fed river, sleep under the stars, and consume huge quantities of bratwurst and beer.

It's not a life-changing event. I won't feel intrinsically altered at the end of it. We've fallen into a modern trap of thinking all long journeys have to reveal hidden truths of the universe, that every road trip has to be a film written by Nick Hornby. This won't be that. But it'll be worth it, nonetheless.

The trip starts, as all my motorcycle trips do, with my running behind schedule. I set off at 12:42 pm, just 3 hours and 42 minutes later than intended. That's OK. I always build in windows of snafu time. Almost all the 255 miles I need to cover today can be done on motorway. The ferry doesn't sail until 11 pm. Still, I'm annoyed. And tired.

The reason for my delay is that when I woke up this morning I decided to repack everything. All of it. Every single bit of kit out of the bags, then back in a different way. This after staying up packing until 2 am.

Seven hours later, I'm sitting in a line of cars and bikes at Harwich International Port, waiting to be let aboard the Stena Hollandica, an overnight ferry to Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands. I am tired and sore from having spent so much of the journey tensed up. The M25, which circles London, is always busy and always chaotic. If I hadn't gotten off to such a late start I could have avoided it.

Actually, I could have avoided it regardless. The ferry is running late. Labor strikes and an ever-worsening migrant crisis are affecting the far busier cross-Channel route of Dover to Calais, about 60 miles to the south. The British government has turned an entire section of motorway near Dover into a parking lot for semi-trucks. Drivers unwilling to wait it out pour into other ports –– Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, and so on –– and everything is moving slow.

Motorcycles are the first to be let aboard but the ferry doesn't actually leave until 2 am, by which time I am sound asleep in my cabin. I'm awakened by the shudder of the ship's engines as it pushes away from port, then fall back into dreams of perfect roads.

According to the ambient temperature guage on my 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000, it's 34ºC (93.2ºF) when I make my first stop the next day. It's 11 am. I'm in the Netherlands, but the terrain prompts memories of going to college in northwestern Minnesota.

The rest area I'm at is a reminder, though, that I'm in Europe. Men's urinals are placed out in the open with only a waist-high metal curtain for privacy. Weary Polish truck drivers smoke cigarettes and nap in the shade of decorative trees.

I clean and lube the chain. The rear tire is so hot I get blisters on my fingers when I touch it. The Netherlands are proof that every argument you will ever hear against infrastructure projects is nothing more than selfish BS. Roads are not magic. Building good ones is not some exclusive art that only the Dutch have mastered. The reason roads here are in amazing condition is simply the people of the Netherlands have made the effort. They actually try.

Drivers are reasonably courteous. Filtering (i.e., lane splitting) is permitted. And alongside almost every single road in this country is a second road dedicated for bicycles and scooters. It is a transportation Valhalla.

The speed limit on Netherlandic motorways is 130 kph (80 mph) and the free-flowing nature of the roadways allows me to drift a little above that. A nifty feature of the V-Strom is that it switches easily between mph (which we use in Britain), and kph (which is used in the rest of Europe). I randomly pick 137 kph as my cruising speed. This puts revs around 5,000 rpm, well below the Strom's 10,000 rpm redline.

The bike eats distance without effort, but if you've ever read a review written by a tall person you'll know its stock screen is poo. I've not yet had the time or finances to replace the screen, so as I drop into Belgium I give my neck a rest from fighting the wind and head onto slower roads. Almost instantly I'm rewarded with a sign pointing me to Bastogne, home to one of the more inspiring battles of WWII.

Surrounded by Nazi forces, ill-equipped for winter and unable to receive supplies, US forces were trapped in Bastogne in December 1944. The Nazis demanded that surrender. The Americans' response was a message that said, simply: "To the German commander: NUTS!"

American forces (the famous 101st Airborne Division among them) battled tooth and nail, eventually gaining the upperhand, vanquishing the Nazis and liberating Bastogne. The whole story is told in the 1949 film Battleground (featuring soldiers who were actually there).

Without hesitation I head toward the town, hoping it has a plaque or something commemorating the siege. Yeah, they have something: an enormous 40-foot high stone monument in the shape of a five-pointed American star. The names of all 50 US states are written in steel letters. Plaques denote all the divisions that took part. Huge stone tablets tell the story in slightly vainglorious prose. Roughly 200 yards away, a museum offers more depth and context.

For an American, the quiet subtext of this whole place is that we can do great things when we try. We can be a force for good if only we decide we want to be. Today happens to be the 4th of July. I climb the stairs to the top of the monument, look out on the countryside my grandparents' generation helped liberate, and feel immensely proud.

On to Luxembourg, then Germany. I spend the next few days staying with a friend, Chris, in Saarbrücken, a small city on the Germany-France border. Gregarious and Welsh, he seems to know everyone in town, especially its bartenders.

One night he introduces me to a group of friends. I find myself sitting across from a stunningly gorgeous woman of –– I'm guessing –– Turkish descent. She reminds me of a girl from Istanbul I dated a long time ago. That girl had a scar running down the entire left side of her face from a bar fight. It took nothing from her looks. She was beautiful. Perfect skin, dangerously beguiling smile, incredible physique. And insane. All the best ones are.

This girl lacks any visible battle damage, but carries herself in the same alluringly mad way. As with my ex-girlfriend, half her head is shaven and her dark eyes are simultaneously unsettling and captivating. Walking to another bar, I tell Chris he should try his luck.

"Her?!" he yelps. "I sense that'd be a bit dangerous, mate."

"It'd be a glorious death," I say.

We trundle into the night, our laughter bouncing down the city's narrow alleyways.

On another day we end up at an illegal street party at an abandoned grain silo by the river. A barrell-chested German tank commander insists on buying me beer. A sunburnt girl asks that I teach her the words to "Star-Spangled Banner". And I get a chance to hear live German hip-hop. It's surprisingly not awful. I tell Chris he has made the right choice in moving here.

Back on the road, the weekend catches up with me in Baden-Baden. The Suzuki claims it is only 26ºC (79ºF) but I'm dehydrated and out of sorts. At a rest stop I lose my sunglasses, become convinced that a Danish couple have stolen them before driving off, go into a silent blue-flame rage and make all kinds of empty threats against Denmark, then find the sunglasses on the handlebars –– where I had set them.

This dumb anger persists as I'm leaving the town and I rev my engine at a man who has chosen the worst possible place to cross the street. I scare the living tar out of him and get a free lesson in German profanity. As I pass, I see that he is disabled. Karma's payback is swift and a few seconds later I see that the bike's "FI" light is on.

Ostensibly "FI" stands for "fuel injection" but Suzuki use this light to indicate all kinds of potential flaws. At a turn, I discover that any attempt to signal causes the hazard lights to come on. Great. I'm hot, angry, confused, really far away from anything I might call home, and my bike is banjaxed.

I pull to the side of the road, lay on the ground and mumble the first part of Psalm 46:10 to myself: "Be still, and know that I am God."

It's the scripture Rev. Foster quoted back in May when they were putting my grandmother in the ground. She had lost her short, brutal fight against cancer. Her death has crippled me mentally and I am still prone to uncontrollable bouts of crying.

The cost of a sudden flight to Texas to attend her funeral is the reason I am couch surfing and camping on this trip, rather than staying at hotels. The leukemia doctors discovered in late March is the reason I bought the V-Strom in the first place; it was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about the rock of my family, but I could buy a mid-range adventure motorcycle.

Which is now acting up on the edge of the Black Forest.

Be still. Some things are beyond your control.

I clean and lube the chain, drink a bottle of water, eat a breakfast bar and sit for a while listening to the birds. My mind calm, I turn on the bike so I can begin to try to assess what's wrong. The "FI" light does not come on. The signals function properly. The problem is gone.

The Black Forest is as pretty as everyone says, and the best way to see it is via the Schwarzwaldhochstraße ––  the Black Forest High Road. The well-maintained, wide-shouldered road offers smooth curves, looping bends and all kinds of breathtaking views that don't translate well to a photo because a camera can't capture the full of what you see.

I stop for lunch at a roadside cafe and get into conversation with two Dutch guys who, it would seem, are the world's biggest V-Strom fans. One of them uses the phrase "rock 'n' roll" in place of the adjective "good," as in, "This bratwurst is rock 'n' roll," or, "What I love about Suzukis is that they have such rock 'n' roll transmissions."

Quietly reflecting on my poor mood from earlier in the day I remind myself what a lucky so-and-so I am to be here, doing this. Moto-journalism icon John Burns talks often about the can't-believe-my-luck nature of being a motorcyclist. As he puts it: "Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from me?"

The world seems too unfair that it should allow us this much happiness and connection from two wheels and a bunch of tiny explosions. I am living the dream, man.

This is reinforced at the end of the day when I arrive at the home of a German couple I have never met. Sonja and Roland had gotten in touch through my personal blog and offered a place to stay on my way through the country. When I arrive, they hug me and help unload my bags off the bike. Noting the meticulous way in which I have attached everything to my bike Roland jokes: "You have quite a system. You have some German blood in you, I think."

They are incredibly kind and a testament to the weird camaraderie so many motorcyclists have. Why are we this way? Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from us?

There's no reason for it. Just because you and I choose the same mode of transportation, why should that make us pals? I take the train to work from time to time but that doesn't mean I show up and dispense cupcakes to my fellow commuters.

The Harley dudes will yammer about "brotherhood" or some such nonsense. But, then, it's not nonsense, is it? Owning a motorcycle is an open invitation to conversation, and everywhere I go lots of really cool people accept that invitation.

And from there all kinds of great things happen. Someone buys you beer. Someone gives you a place to sleep. If you're immensely lucky, you'll even get to write about it on popular websites. And the next day you'll wake up early in the morning and point your motorcycle toward Switzerland.

––– ~ –––

"Harley," says the grinning Russian, pointing first at his motorcycle, then himself. "HOG!"

His female companion offers a frenetic grin and thumb's up.

"HOG!" she shouts.

It's day five of my trip. I'm stopped at a gas station just north of the Germany-Switzerland border, trying to decide where to place the vignette on my bike. A vignette is a sticker required when using Swiss motorways. Get caught without one and you'll face fines upward of 200 Swiss francs (US $205).

The instructions are in German, Italian and French, so I don't have a clue where to put this thing. The Russian and I confer through gestures and grunts. Eventually we agree to disagree; I place the sticker on my windscreen, he chooses his fork.

With more gestures and broken sentences he communicates they are travelling from Moscow to Madrid for a Harley Owners Group meetup. Madrid! In this heat. On that bike. Good lord.

The continent is in the grip of a heatwave. Heat is always dangerous in Europe; almost no buildings have air conditioning and bafflingly few cultures use fans. There is no escape, especially on the road. The sun is a cutting torch. Oven-like heat bounces off the road surface. It is mind-bending. Unrelenting. I'm forced to stop every 45 minutes or so to gulp whole bottles of water or ice tea. It is hell.

The bike, however, is doing just fine. The LCD dashboard on my Suzuki V-Strom 1000 tells me the engine is running no hotter than it would on a British winter day. Unfortunately, it manages this by pouring all the heat of the engine and the road and the sun and every other hot thing onto me. The heat is liquid in its omnipresence, like riding through lava.

I tell myself things will improve when I reach Switzerland's higher ground. I'm wrong. The only respite comes in tunnels; within them, slightly cooler air and a break from the sun. The longest tunnel I encounter is 12 km (7.5 miles) long. It is bliss. I consider pulling over and setting up camp inside.

I push on, trying to reach a restaurant I've heard about in time for lunch. I arrive shortly after 2 pm, starving, exhausted and delirious. I have reached peak discomfort. I'm dehydrated. My head hurts. I'm developing saddle sores. My feet, lower legs and knees burn from the bike's heat.

I sit outside in the shade, with a pint of Coke and pitcher of ice water. After a few minutes I start to feel human again. The beauty of my surroundings starts to process. The gasthaus is set next to a winding mountain road that cuts through thick pine forest. The air is intoxicatingly fresh and pleasantly cool when you stand out of direct sun. I take in deep, happy breaths.

The woman running the gasthaus places a whole trout and potatoes on an outdoor wood-fired griddle. Soon the smell of it has me clapping in anticipation. This is the kind of experience you live for, the kind of story you hold on to for the sake of telling it at a high school reunion.

After lunch, rejuvenated, I decide to tackle San Bernardino Pass. It will be my first experience riding an Alpine pass and afterward, in the journal I'm keeping for this trip, I will write, simply: "Jesus F***ing Jones. Beautiful up there, though."

I live in Wales where there are no direct routes, just narrow, tight-cornered roads that draw motorcyclists from all over Europe. The fact I've ridden thousands of miles there without dying had led me to believe I was prepared for the Alps. I wasn't. The Alps are a level beyond.

Narrow and excessively steep, the route through San Bernardino Pass is littered with psychotically tight switchbacks. It feels like high-stakes moto gymkhana. Almost instantly I allow myself to become unsettled. I goof every bend: running wide, operating the clutch with no finesse, sloppy throttle, consistently choosing the wrong gear, and too often looking where I don't want to go. Once, I almost ride straight into a boulder. Twice I am forced to rely on the skills of oncoming drivers to avoid collision.

Somehow I manage to make it to a roadside vista, halfway up the pass, without crashing. I stop, get off the bike, drink some water and pull myself together. Be still.

I dig deep in my brain to recall every riding tip I've ever read, seen, heard or experienced. I mentally work out what I need to improve upon and set off again. There isn't much traffic, which is lucky; I still run wide on some bends. But by the time I arrive at the top of the pass I'm feeling more confident. Things are easier above the treeline because I'm able to see more of what's ahead. Again, praise for the V-Strom is due, with its traction control and slipper clutch helping to keep me upright despite a number of idiot downshifts.

Heading down the other side of the mountain I manage something close to a rhythm and am feeling pretty good when I reach civilization. But I'm ready to call it a day; the pass has worn me out. I point my bike toward Zernez, a village near Switzerland's only national park. A campsite on the village's outskirt will be my home tonight.

But first I get stupidly lost. Well, not so much lost as confoundingly rerouted. Construction blocks one road and thereafter my GPS becomes desperate to turn things into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Which is how I end up on Albula Pass –– even more intense and ridiculous than San Bernardino Pass. In part because certain sections don't appear to have been repaved since Adam Sandler was funny.

The plus side, though, is coming across a farm stall where I'm able to buy provisions for the evening: eggs, an aromatic Gruyère-style cheese, bread, jam, and some stale croissants thrown in for free. I make it to my campsite just 5 minutes before the office closes.

I'm up at sunrise the next morning, watching the last gasps of a thunderstorm blow through. I brew a large pot of tea to wash down the croissants and jam. The fresh air, the morning cool, the roar of the nearby Inn river, and the mountain scenery collude to do that outdoors thing of leading me to believe my pauper's breakfast is culinary bliss: "Man, this is good. I mean: really, really good. Two stale croissants and a liter of tea is going to be my new thing. I'm going to have this for breakfast every day."

I'm on the road by 7:30 a.m. There's a long day ahead: just shy of 400 miles to cover. And the first part of that involves tackling the infamous Stelvio Pass. To some extent, I use the word "infamous" in the Three Amigos sense ("Dusty, infamous is when you're more than famous."). The pass was once named by "Top Gear" as the greatest driving road in the world. Its reputation is such that Moto Guzzi named their adventure motorcycle after it.

According to the unimpeachable Wikipedia, Stelvio Pass contains 75 hairpin turns. I can find no information about the number that aren't hairpin, but I can assure you there are a lot. Add to this the equally daunting turns and bends of Umbrail Pass, which I take en route, and the whole thing is pretty mentally taxing.

For my money, Umbrail is more terrifying. The road surface is poor, it is mostly single lane and much of it is sans guardrail. Putt-putting along in second gear beside a sheer cliff I feel like those L'equipee girls riding in the Himalayas. But, you know, not quite as sexy.

At the top of Stelvio I stop to take pictures and run into a group of Brit riders on an extended bachelor party (what the British call a "stag do"). There are about a dozen of them, wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts over their riding leathers. On the back of each shirt is the rider's nickname within the group ("Gazza" "Stiffy" "Rent Boy"). On the front is the epigram: "KEVIN IS A C*NT."

They spot the GB plates on my bike and run toward me as if I'm a long-lost member of their group. Only one of them isn't wearing a T-shirt. I presume this is Kevin. I suffer a sympathy hangover just looking at him. He looks as if he has been dragged up Stelvio, thrown off the side and dragged back up.

"Bout time we had some proper weather," one of them says, nodding at the morning grey. It's lightly raining and about 15ºC (59ºF). For the first time in almost a week I'm not dying from heat. We commiserate that our gear is suited to the British climate, rather than continental Europe in a heatwave. Some time later, I will read in RiDE magazine that wearing too much gear on the continent is a notorious British rider mistake. I guess I've been assimilated.

Which might explain why, despite the rain, I don't bother to zip in my jacket's waterproof lining. I'm happy to let the wet seep through just for the sake of not being hot.

Six hours later, I'm far from the mountains, standing in the middle of the autostrada on the outskirts of Modena, Italy. My riding suit is damp once again, this time with sweat. A semi truck has jackknifed across the motorway. I've filtered (aka "split lanes") through about a mile of stopped traffic to arrive at the wreck and be told by a police officer I can go no further.

"Please?" I beg. "It's hot. I don't want to stand here. I need to keep moving."

"Where you go, eh?" he says, shrugging his shoulders in stereotypical Italian fashion.

He's right. The truck has turned so completely it is touching the guardrails on either side of the road. It is 39ºC (102ºF). Not a cloud in the sky. No shade.

"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" I ask.

"Few hours, maybe," he says. "Maybe not."

All the vents on my jacket are open but I don't take it off. Exposed skin causes rapid dehydration. I do my best to ration my remaining 500ml (16oz) bottle of water. I consume it within 5 minutes. Sweat is pouring out of me like I've sprung a leak. I can feel it running down my legs. The sun stings my face. Heat radiates from concrete, metal, and the idling engines of the cars and trucks.

"Well, this is what it would be like in Austin," I tell myself.

Ever since my grandmother died I've been daydreaming of moving back to Texas, fearful of losing touch with my roots. My wife, English born and bred, has vetoed the idea. Last time we visited my family, she ended up in hives because she refused to believe me that chiggers are a real thing.

I call her now and tell her I'm 125 miles away, with no idea when I'll be arriving.

She, her best friend and family have been at a villa a few miles from Volterra since last week, having flown rather than travel by land. The spacious seat on my V-Strom has improved her attitude toward being on a motorcycle but not enough that she was willing to travel such a distance as pillion. I explain my situation and suggest that in this case she probably made the right decision.

"Sounds terrible, babe," she says. "I'm by the pool. I may have had some wine. Ha ha!"

––– ~ –––

Take a second to recall every example of bad driving you've ever witnessed. Excessive speed, excessive slowness, no-look lane changes, drifting out of lanes in curves, drifting out of lanes in straights, tailgating, hard braking, passing on blind curves, slowing down after passing, reversing on the motorway, stopping on an entrance ramp, talking with hands whilst using a mobile phone and driving a manual-transmission car, etcetera.

Now imagine a land where all of this is commonplace, where it happens with such regularity that no one cares.

That land is called Italy.

I spend a week in the country's Tuscany region and I'm the only one using my horn. Everyone else seems to be OK with this. They thrive in it.

Making good progress through a particularly twisty bit of road one day, I get schooled by a dude on a Vespa. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. The strap on his 1/2 helmet is undone and a cigarette hangs from his lips. He waves cheerfully as he passes me in a corner.

In temperature and topography the area reminds me of Texas Hill Country. But, thankfully, no one here takes Toby Keith seriously.

There is no air conditioning, and after a week in 38ºC (100ºF) heat I'm ready to head north. I push hard toward Genoa, then up the quiet space between Milan and Turin. The eastern side of the Piedmont region has a charming flatness. By European standards it is sparsely populated, which allows for some of the quietest roads I've experienced this side of the Atlantic.

I spend the night by a river in northern Italy's Gran Paradiso National Park. It is one of the prettiest places you could ever hope to go, but I don't get much chance to enjoy it. I'm up early the next morning and pushing toward Switzerland's capital city, Bern.

Before this trip, I knew little about Switzerland beyond its being home to watches, fancy knives, and WWE superstar Cesaro. Now it's one of my favorite countries. I arrive via Great St. Bernard Pass. The corners here are swooping, allowing more speed with less stress. The quality of the road is good. The views are incredible.

I make Bern by noon. Tomorrow, when I ride out, I will wish I had arrived earlier and stayed later. The primary reason for this is the Aare, a glacier-fed river that serves as a tributary to the Rhine (which I will be following back to the Netherlands over the next few days). I first heard about swimming in the Aare five years ago. It's the nature of being an expat, however, that when I have money/time for travel it almost always gets spent on trips to Texas and Minnesota, where my family and friends are.

The desire to come to Bern has been a constant, but it's taken me this long to get here. I've been missing out. The jade-colored, mineral-rich Aare rushes through Bern at a pace of roughly 4.5 mph. That doesn't sound quick but it's faster than most people walk. It will pull you off your feet.

Stand near the river's bracingly cold water and you'll hear the sound of its rocky bottom churning –– thousands of stones and pebbles being ground smooth. Dip your head below, and the sound is intense: a whooshing, crinkling ring. An adventure film would use this sound to represent something immense and unstoppable, something with its own gravity. A gravity that pulls people to the river's banks and encourages them to jump in.

It is hyperbole to say EVERYONE in Bern swims the Aare, but it's not a huge exaggeration. At any given time on any given warm day, you'll see hundreds of people in and near the river. You'll hear their laughs and shouts in response to the cold. A surprising number even let out a distinctive yodel: "Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"

A popular jump-in point is Eichholz, the urban campsite where I've pitched my tent. From here, it's a roughly mile-long float/swim to the city center. There is a ritual of getting in, of building yourself up mentally. People stand knee-deep in the water like wildebeest amassing at a crocodile-infested river, waiting for some instinctive cue to jump.

I wade in, feel my feet ache from the cold, and my shins go numb. Inspired by the Swiss yodels, I offer up my best grito and leap into the current. I pop my head out of the water with a deep, "huhuh" –– cold pushing air from my lungs. The flow is so strong I'm already 20 feet downriver. And just as quickly, I am the most purely happy I've been in a year.

There is a reason we baptize in rivers. They don't just wash away sins, they also take away pretense. Jewellery and expensive clothes cannot be worn; makeup will be wiped off; fashionable hair styles will be undone. Jump into a river and all that's left is yourself.

Because the Aare is so central to Bern life, this clean and clearly wealthy city maintains a welcoming, come-as-you-are feel. Young and old, rich and poor, float down together.

Once in the city center, a walking path follows the river back to Eichholz. This path is crowded with hundreds of barefoot and shirtless souls, energized and chatty. I get into conversations with Swiss, Polish, Italians, Americans, and Germans over the course of my several runs down the river. I feel like a kid. I am so happy, so euphoric that I don't eat lunch. I don't notice the cumulative 8 miles I walk in bare feet.

Eventually, the shivering is uncontrollable. I begrudgingly put on dry clothes and head to an outdoor cafe that's part of my campsite. Bratwurst, fries, and beer. The healthy traveller's choice. As I eat, I hear occasional yodelling ring out. It becomes too much to ignore and I make four more runs down the river.

It is dark when I return to my tent, and I sleep heavily. Only once am I awoken: by a yodel moving down the river at 3 a.m.

If you walk 12 miles on hot pavement with bare feet you will feel it the next day. Especially if you are riding a motorcycle on the German autobahn. Europe is still in a heatwave and the temperature hits 37ºC (98ºF). The discomfort is exacerbated by the stinging heat that comes off the V-Strom's engine when cruising at 100 mph.

The Strom itself has no problems, of course. Even when I push the bike to 130 mph the engine never feels overworked. But it does produce heat and I am struggling. My feet are blistered from the day before; the heat from the exhaust comes up through my boots and causes intense pain. Whatever good time I'm making by travelling at such high speed is lost in the need to stop and rest often.

At a gas station near Offenburg I meet a couple from Scotland who are touring on a Honda Super Blackbird (aka CBR1100XX). The woman is lying on the ground with her jacket off and riding trousers pushed down to the ankles (she is wearing shorts). She uses a bottle of ice tea to cool her womanly bits.

It's their first time riding in Europe. The man is nonplussed to have discovered the Blackbird is the sort of machine that naturally runs hot.

"Hadn't ever noticed that back home," he says in thick Strathclyde drawl. "Burned me trousers, too."

Nodding at his wife he says: "This one's none too happy with it. Are ya, love?"

Her response is more a string of expletives than coherent sentence. She is sick of the heat, sick of hanging off the back of a sport bike, sick of her husband's attempts to maintain a 120-mph cruising speed. While he goes into the shop to buy her more ice tea ("We'll call it 'fanny tea' from now on," he says), I tell her they should detour to slower, cooler roads. In particular, I suggest the Schwarzwaldhochstraße.

I read to her from my travel guide, show her pictures on my camera, and tell her about the massive, kirsch-soaked Black Forest cake I had there. By the time her husband returns she is sold and shows him the route.

"That's the 500," he says. "That's the road I wanted to go on."

"You didn't tell me there was cake," she says.

Turning to me, he smiles: "I think you just saved my marriage."

Unfortunately, I'm not able to take my own advice. I stay on the autobahn, pushing hard to get as far north as I can. In the early evening I find a campsite by typing "camping" into my GPS. It guides me to an RV resort brimming with German and Dutch families.

I eat dinner at the restaurant on site and my waitress thrice brings beer I didn't ask for. When I get my bill, I discover she hasn't charged me for it. A week later it will occur to me she may have been flirting. She probably wasn't but I'll tell myself she was.

The next day, I have 12 hours to cover just 200 miles. I decide to avoid motorways entirely. I am rewarded in this decision by the roads of rural Rhineland. Beautiful, undulating, well-paved and dotted with farm fields, it reminds me of Southern Wisconsin.

Keeping with the Upper Midwestern theme, I soon cross into the Minnesota-esque Netherlands. Here I continue on slower roads. Very slow; the maximum speed on non-motorway routes is 50 mph. But it's enjoyable. How could it not be? I'm riding a motorcycle across Europe, for the love of Pete.

This is the sort of thing you hope will come back to you in your final moments –– when everything's flashing before your eyes: "There I am singing Christmas songs with my grandmother. There I am on my wedding day. There I am in the Aare. Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"

I arrive at the ferry port early. I clean and lube the bike's chain and chat to an English couple who have been touring Sweden on their BMW R1200GS. A Suzuki Bandit 1250 rolls up. Its rider kills the engine, dismounts and pulls off his helmet in a single action.

"Hello chaps," he says. "Sorry I'm late."

He's English as well –– a sergeant in the Royal Army who travels frequently to a base in Germany. Soon afterward, a 24-year-old from Newcastle, recently fully licensed. He's been flogging an old Honda Hornet 600 to Finland and back. I don't know these people but it feels like a reunion. Something wells up in me I wouldn't have expected: eagerness to get back to the UK.

The next morning I'm exploring East Anglia –– a part of Britain I've never before visited. The weather is perfect: sunny and 22ºC (72ºF). You'll get none of that continental heatwave stuff in ol' Blighty. The Strom seems happy back on the left side of the road. It pops through roundabouts with renewed energy. It dances around traffic. I spend the day constantly asking and answering the question: "What's over there?"

Sunset finds me cruising through Norfolk on an uncharacteristically serene A47. It is one of those sunsets that kicks you in the chest, that makes you ache with the joy of being alive. Warm yellow-orange becoming bright pink; glowing across farm fields, the road, and broad sky. The late-day cool. The steadfast thrum of the motorcycle's engine. It is perfect.

Add this to those moments I will recall in my final one. Not too soon, though, Lord. This bike and I have a lot of places to go.

Friday, August 21, 2015

That time I went on my first motorcycle road trip

There's something cathartic about digging through all my old photos and finally uploading them to Flickr. It's a slow process, because I've got a lot on my plate at the moment, but I'm enjoying it. For the same reason, I think, that I used to enjoy vlogging: I have a tendency to forget the positive moments of my life.

When I used to vlog each day, it inherently involved spending 45 minutes or so picking through a day's video and reflecting on the fact that, actually, life wasn't too awful. I miss vlogging, though I don't miss investing that much time and effort into an unpaid endeavour. It's easier to take a load of pictures, then look at them two years after the fact.

These pictures are from my first motorcycle road trip, which I took in early October 2013. I wrote about it at the time on my motorcycle blog, but the short version of the story is that it was 250 miles roundtrip, which is the sort of thing I can easily do in half a day now. But at the time it was daunting. I dropped the bike at one point, snapping the front brake lever, and later got all kinds of cold, wet and lost. It was a learning experience to say the least.

I no longer have this motorcycle, having bought a new one earlier this year, and it's interesting to now look back at pictures of the old Honda and feel pangs of reminiscence. It's kind of like looking at old pictures of your high school sweetheart, I suppose. But far less likely to get you in trouble with your wife. The Honda was a good bike and helped open up Britain for me. Get a motorcycle y'all; it'll change your life.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

That time I went to the Fleece Inn

Almost exactly two years ago, I set out on my first "big" motorcycle trip: to the Fleece Inn in the village of Bretforton, England. I wrote about the trip on my motorcycle blog shortly afterward, but didn't post all the pictures.

According to Google, the fastest route to the Fleece Inn sees you travelling 100 miles from Penarth, but the roundtrip route I took ended up putting 220 miles on the clock. It's a decent amount of space to cover on a motorcycle and up to that point it was the furthest I had ridden in one day.

The route I chose took me through Monmouth

I remember feeling it was so important, so huge, that I would be covering that distance in a day. I had only had my Honda for two months and was still very much in the state of not feeling terribly comfortable with it. Hindsight being all that it is, I sometimes think I should have sought out something less powerful and less heavy as my first motorcycle.

The flipside of that, of course, is that a less powerful bike might not have been able to take me to some of the exciting places I'd end going.

I got lost several times en route.

I chose the Fleece Inn as a destination because it's owned by the National Trust. And that somehow makes anything better in my eyes. I am a National Trust fanboy. 

For those of you playing along at home, the National Trust is sort of, kind of like the US National Park Service but for the fact that it isn't government funded and it doesn't look after any true wilderness. And there's a lot more tea and cake involved. But in a very broad and inaccurate way, the mission statement is the same. Sort of.

Outside the Fleece Inn

Certainly the National Trust does a better job of protecting and preserving British landscapes than the UK's government-funded national parks. But –– despite the fact some of the country's most popular "natural" spaces (e.g., Scaffel Pike in the Lake District, or Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons) are National Trust properties –– most people think of the National Trust as being an organization that looks after old buildings.

The Fleece Inn fits the description, having been built in the 1400s. That kind of thing always blows my mind: the idea that people would have been sitting around in this place drinking and singing and talking the same sort of nonsense they still do, and not one of them would have had any idea that North America even existed, let alone imagine the country that I call home.

The Fleece Inn's beer garden

I remember it took an exceedingly long time for me to get to the Fleece Inn. Partially this was because I kept getting lost, but also because I kept having to stop to rest. There is a physical aspect to riding a motorcycle; it wears you out. Especially when you are still relatively new to riding and nervous and uncomfortable on the bike.

These days, I could easily cover the distance in under two hours, but if memory serves me I took just shy of four hours on that day. Nerves forced me to stop for multiple toilet breaks; my neck and shoulder ached from tensing up.

Inside the pub. It was August but my memory of the day is that I was cold, so I instinctively sat next to the fireplace.

Studying my map

The pub was worth it, though. It is immensely charming and the food was good. The pub has accommodation. I'd like to return some day with Jenn on one of the weekends when there is an event taking place. The Fleece Inn often has little ale festivals or special weekends of some kind.

There's not much to do beyond the pub, though. Bretforton is charming but very small. The pub is the only thing but for houses and a church.

Thatched-roof home in Bretforton

I remember being incredibly tired on that day. The thought of having to make my way back made me nervous and uncomfortable.

I tried closing my eyes for a while in the village green. But I remember sitting there just shaking. Exhausted and shaking. I was nervous and I had, too, an incessant need to leave –– to get moving again. That's something I still struggle with. Too often some part of my brain gets locked into the idea of getting from point A to point B.

Street in Bretforton
But when you are on a motorcycle, or out for a nice drive in a car, the whole point is to avoid the point-A-to-point-B mentality. I've definitely gotten better, but it's still hard for me to simply stop and enjoy my surroundings.

On this first long ride I found it impossible to relax. And ultimately that bit me in the ass. The closest I have ever come to being in a genuine accident was an incident on my way back from Bretforton.

Pretending to relax in the village green.

I've had one or two bum-clenching moments where the real wheel slid on horse poop, or the front end started to tuck, but had those situations resulted in a crash I almost certainly would not have been injured. The bike would have been only superficially damaged. They were slow-speed incidents that involved no one else.

But on the way back from Bretforton my tiredness and nerves had made me completely inattentive as I sped toward a roundabout at roughly 70 mph. When my brain finally registered that the massive semi truck in front of me was not moving, I mentally froze. I simply slammed the brakes and clenched my teeth.

In the Forest of Dean, en route home

You're not supposed to do that on a two-wheel vehicle. It'll cause the wheels to lock up. And that will cause the bike to squirrel out from underneath you. And if you're travelling at 70 mph toward a stationary semi truck when the bike disappears from underneath you, the odds are you'll not enjoy the outcome.

Fortunately, that Honda was equipped with anti-lock brakes –– a feature that crusty old bikers will claim they don't need. Because they are stupid. The bike came to a safe and complete stop, then stalled out because it was still in 6th gear. I had to duck walk it to the side of the road to get it started again.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

That time Jenn and I went to the beach

At the beach

When I got my motorcycle license back in 2013, it started to change pretty dramatically my interaction with Britain and my attitude toward living here. I carry some entrenched (and possibly unresolvable) bitterness toward Wales, but owning a motorcycle has helped soften that. Because it means not being stuck in the same place, seeing the same things.

I particularly love when Jenn comes with me somewhere. This doesn't happen too often, because a) it's not terribly interesting to just sit on the back of the bike when I'm riding without any specific destination in mind; b) Jenn seems to get cold easily; c) Jenn is not the sort of person who enjoys sitting still –– even a 100-mile car journey will make her restless.

But when we do go places I always enjoy it.

On 3 August 2013, we were enjoying an unusually hot summer in Britain, so Jenn and I hopped on my Honda and rode to Southerndown, about 20 miles away. We spent the afternoon swimming in the sea, playing in the waves, and it was one of the best summer days I had to that point ever had in the UK.

A selfie from Jenn, showing a view of the road leading to Southerndown beach