Category Archives: North America

Nightmare Off-roading and Old-timers

By Sean:

  

    If lumber still commands a reasonably lucrative position in the world economy twenty years from now the town of Sparwood in southern B.C. might be revitalized by the harvesting of the tree farms planted by the lumber companies of yesterday. As it is today, the self proclaimed ‘Gateway to B.C.’ relies heavily on the assumption that small populations of other nearby towns feel the urge to escape their habitats on the weekends and since gasoline costs nearly five dollars a gallon, the nearer attractions prove more magnetic. Several old buildings in Sparwood display colorful murals depicting the history and contemporary life of the town, but what really sets Sparwood apart from any other small town, is its possession of the ‘worlds largest truck’. The dump truck is a virtual juggernaut painted bright green to impress an eco-friendly facade; it could pulverize several acres of thick forest under its massive six ton wheels into Turkish coffee sized grounds while adroitly maneuvering around a depression era film actress in a three minute Foxtrot. In the shadow of this retired beast the bike trio ate a heavy meal of chicken, sausage, eggs, and dozens of tiny salt packages swiped from the unsuspecting family food stand. Strong gusts of wind ripped through the valley between the dump truck and the visitor center, and sure enough, it being a Sunday, loads of Canadian tourists were timidly disembarking from cozy air-conditioned caravans and snapping photos of the main attraction with their digi-cams. Casually strutting over to inspect our bikes the Sunday drivers would exclaim, “Beautiful day for a bike ride” while the wind ravaged the patience of the cook, who sat with his body poised to deflect the breezy onslaught from extinguishing the stove flame. Still the pot lid would occasionally be blown ten feet away, and at one point the wind turned a dramatic 180 degrees and hurled into the air the tin-foil stove shield. The tin foil wrapped around the face of an unsuspecting cyclist lounging in what had been considered up-wind -it was like witnessing a drunk staggering toward a rest room  with his hand outstretched for the handle and abruptly twisting his head and projectile vomiting into a the solemn face of a kid who’s dog just died. His serene mood of literary meditation was completely shattered by the unexpected metallic mask imposing itself between him and his Zen in violent censorship.
            Having devoured lunch, we briefed ourselves on the logistics of the days trail, but much to our dismay the map -of off road trails- called for the use of the major highway for a good twenty miles. This did not go over well with the group, yet hope came in the form of a small path named Coal Creek which appeared to parallel the highway the entire way to our next destination of Fernie. It was not clear why the map would dare taunt bicyclists with this alternative to the congested route of smog and noise. It injured our proud dirt craving egos to be denied information on this intriguing route, without question we would pursue this unstated challenge. Just as we were preparing to leave town Goat noticed that his rear tire was flat. While repairing the tire he found that a piece of his xtracycle tubing had snapped. Playing it safe, Goat opted to ride on the highway to avoid compounding more damage to his rig; it was up to Jacob and me to explore this intriguing Coal Creek trail.
               At Shadow Mountain camp, where the map had shown the trail to start, a man stepped out of a small building and directed us to the ‘Coal Discovery’ trail. Similar enough in name, and bearing a sign of warning ‘use at your own risk’ before its steep ascent up a dusty road, Coal Discovery promised be a real technical challenge for those fixated on avoiding the smooth paved land of motorists. Coal Discovery provided the full intensity of autumn color; Aspen tree tops bearing crisp turmeric gold leaves, small shrubbery of cured tobacco and tall wheat kernels speckled with rose hip vines dancing together in the breeze, nonetheless the trail welcomed us to its own special kind of hell. Composed of narrow single track, the trail had no flat areas just a dramatic roller coaster ride over sharp rocks, knotted stumps, tangled roots, and soft mud. On over half of the uphill climbs there was almost no chance of maintaining tire traction on the sandy ground, forcing the cyclist to dismount, slip backwards, or awkwardly fall sideways and then push his hundred and twenty pound rig the rest of the way. This bike hauling presented an irritating problem for me; as my pedals are fixed with rubber cages, it is necessary to angle my toes a specific way to reattach the pedal properly to my foot -otherwise the rubber cages will dig into the ground and prevent me from achieving any momentum at all. Ideally one desires just a few feet of smooth surface to muster the coordination to slip both feet into their cages; I never encountered such conditions on the trail, it was like trying to paddle on a surfboard when the frequency of breakers allowed calm water every other ten seconds.
                Coal Discovery had several markers pointing the not so obvious direction of its trail sections. Wrapped around the wood post of one such marker was a derelict bike frame crushed so compactly it may have once experienced the wrath of Sparwood’s Jolly green juggernaught. It was an ominous sign, and mixed as it were with the fresh memory of Goat’s busted xtracycle I felt a profound desire to surrender my sense of adventure to my escalating anxiety over my bike’s fragility. Still Jacob and I continued sluggishly down the scenic route. Of the most notable obstacles there was a sheer five foot vertical waterfall over slippery rocks where one had to virtually pick up the bicycle and hurl it with all available strength over the obstruction. We managed to travel five kilometers in almost an hour, at the end of which I felt completely drained of all energy and will power. Eventually we left the Coal Discovery Trail, though not through any conscious effort on our part; we could not find the remaining trail sections. The sun had already dipped behind towering hills, and we ventured onto the dreaded highway, coasting a good twenty miles an hour along the smooth asphalt.
              Jacob and I didn’t meet up with Goat until the next morning in Fernie. It was to be the first night that the bike trio would be split apart, and although it didn’t rain -we would have been miserable since each of us carried different parts of the tent-, we were all irritable and grumpy the next morning from not experiencing an evening meal.
         Early the next morning, we reconvened in a hip coffee joint in Downtown Fernie. From surround sound speakers busted hypnotic beats of Medeski Martin & Wood and Fela Kuti, Goat and I sucked down complementary packets of jam and honey while Jacob funneled a supersized brew down his throat. Some locals pulled up chairs to our table, and we elicited from them a recommendation for a good welder who would work on Goats bike. It was God’s day of leisure, the town save this brew shop wasn’t burning any oil, it could have been construed that we were searching for a pagan/atheist who snubbed his nose at both God and the spirit of town conformity. Yet one of the guys obliged us with relevant information, “There’s some real interesting hillbilly folk in town, an old man and his son with a small shop in a tin hut behind their house. They’d probably be willing to help you out if you didn’t push the matter, but just be yourselves”. I followed Goat on this promising lead to the man’s doorstep. Immediately upon knocking the sound of a dog disturbed from its napping erupted and set us on edge. The old man came out, took his time puzzling over Goat’s request while inspecting the unusual xtracycle design. This wrinkly faced man put his dog on a leash and took the xtracycle into his grand alchemists lair cluttered with all sorts of marvelous metal debris, large bolted chains hanging from the ceiling, where thousands of knick-knacks provoked my curiosity. We shielded our eyes from the brilliant blue glow, then the man lifted his welding mask and pronounced the wreck rehabilitated. He told us his name was John, that he had been a blacksmith since 1948 and had emigrated from Czechoslovakia. He had also spent the entirety of World War two traveling around the Mediterranean; he had been in Tunisia and the Ural Mountains but wouldn’t elaborate on what kind of operations he had been involved with. Fascinated by this walking time machine, I would have felt content to hear stories from him all day, yet sadly his dog had bitten hold of my head lamp and as I yanked it from his jaws I discovered the batteries missing. I made a big fuss combing the yard fearing that the dog had swallowed all three of those toxic cylinders. Luckily they were all recovered, and the pains of hunger -we still hadn’t eaten anything substantial- forced us to depart from our benevolent brother John.     
              On the side of highway three in a town called Elko, several buildings surround busy gas pumps displaying ‘For rent’ signs around the recently applied stucco exterior. Coffee bubbled delightfully in the help yourself cauldron in a small hall dividing the town grocery store from the shabby relic of the town diner. The diner itself was no longer operational, but one could still enjoy coffee at the tables or pick up a family sized package of fireworks displayed in cellophane wrapped cardboard. The grocery store stocked meager food rations, and had an overabundance of alcoholic beverages.
     Â Â Â  An old balding man sat as if in an easy chair in his own home, in the center of the diner, his back to the transistor squeal of a local radio station switching over programs, his eyes registering the combination of warming air temperature and white fluffy filament crowding out the blue in the sky. He must have peeked not disinterestedly at our oddly designed bicycles, for he welcomed us into his nook with an enthusiastic “A little Frost on your bikes this morning, boys?” He continued with a hint of disappointment in his tone, about how this was the coldest day yet since the beginning of summer. “Minus five! Minus five at my place right now. Today it’s raining in Calgary, and we’ll have a chance of rain here tomorrow, with a high temperature of six. Six! When its six degrees and its raining that translates to snow”.  It was damn exciting to hear the dismal predictions of a local who must have developed an instinctual sense of atmospheric conditions like a man in possession of multiple mercury filled lungs. Later on the same day in the rural setting of Grasmere, I would be offered a similar overview on the inevitable dramatic seasonal change. Behind the counter of a general store -selling bait, fishing licenses and Hollywood videos- the caretaker smoked his cigarette chatting with a customer. “It’s getting cold out, eh” he daringly accused as I slammed a giant container of ice cream on the check out counter that I intended to eat, with the aid of Goat, in one sitting. “Do you think it’ll rain soon?” gesturing to the fibrous clouds weaving a heavy coat around the sun. He took a brief glimpse out his window with a skeptical grimace, nodded his head, drew deeply on his cigarette; “No, it’s just going to get cold, so cold that when you go to sleep, you’ll freeze”. The attendant sort of paused before and let linger the words ‘you’ll freeze’ to ensure that the haunting revelation would not be lost on my youthful naïveté, then he pulled his lips wide up to his hair line in an amused grin and made me promise that there wouldn’t be any fighting outside over the ice cream. I tried to refrain from feeling demoralized by the grim forecasts proffered by the wise elder company, yet the more frozen-milk-fat-solids that I ingested, the more my teeth chattered, and this nervous reflex served to elate my anxieties of a mammoth powder keg ready to explode and bombard my bike with icy shrapnel.
             The man sipping coffee in Elko called himself Tiny. Presumably an early riser, he had already unsuccessfully searched the local dumps for building materials, returned to his house to discover to his horror that his yard was frosty, and decided to spend the morning in a warm familiar social setting. The biggest decision of his day -a Monday- was whether to walk over to the coffee machine and fill his cup half way, or to return home. Eventually Tiny joined an even older man in conversation. He was in his early eighties and had emigrated from Europe in 1931. Skin hung from his hunched neck, and when he spoke, his lips betrayed that they were only mouthing syllables for a sinister inhabitant lodged deep within his throat. I thought there must have been a bull frog pulling on strings making this man’s puppet mouth move, while it contrived and uttered the stories of boyhood mischief that sounded unbefitting of this old man of reserved appearance. If he currently held a job it must have been as a sort of P.R. representative of the General store, or possibly the entire entity of Elko. I never found out his name, just the fact that he, like our altruistic welder, was born in Czechoslovakia.  Both Tiny and the P.R. man were well versed in Reality television programming; they expressed frustrations with pseudo-celebrity children milking fame through familial association like the daughter of the gangster John Gotti. Apparently in an episode of this Gotti’s life, her son expressed in a consecutive line of expletives that he would not be attending school that day.                                    
     Discussion of this episode sent the two old timers back to the days when they had cleverly devised school-ditching tactics -they reproached the Gotti son for being so idiotically straight forward in admitting his intent. The eighty year old P.R. man had not only ditched school several times a week, but succeeded in cleaning out an aloof general store manager of his stock of bubble gum and pocket knives. “They must have thought they were making a killing of a business on those devices, cause they never smarted up to fixing the cracks in the display-case” Laughed the P.R. man. Another favorite past-time had been shooting up beer bottles with a slingshot. “Sometimes I would smash hundreds of those expensive bottles with the glass stoppers the railroads would leave behind.” the P.R. man paused to be relieved by Tiny, “yeah, if only I had saved a hundred or so of them bottles, I’d be rich enough to not have to talk to you”. As morning threatened to transition to Mid-day, the gentle session of nostalgia declined, till the old timers began describing the combined horrors of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl farming conditions of southern Saskatchewan. “At that time, a woman had a tavern set up, and some miners would continually urinate on the back wall after each night of heavy drinking. The woman set up an electrified metal plate at the base of the wall, and when those delinquents went to relieve themselves they’d receive the unexpected shock, and run through the streets with pants hanging down to ankles screaming that they’d been bit by a critter.”
      Finally, the P.R. man filled in some gaps in the life of Goat’s savior, John the welder; “quite recently John sold some land that he had bought up near the coal mines for something like 1.2 million (Canadian) dollars; yeah the man’s been making out pretty well for himself these days”.  This detail really skimmed the cream from the murky surface, not only did this John live humbly, show a desire to help people in need, and live with a shack of magic tricks, but the old coot was rich beyond belief, in short, he was my new hero.
        At the end of the day, we finally managed to get the hell out of Canadia. As the border crossing came into sight I drew a sigh of relief, for here I was about to reenter the nation where beer, cheese and meat were cheap, where it was virtuous to plead ignorance, where national security held priority over everything, and where private property was passionately enforced through rusty wire fences and threatening signs. Judging the reactions of the two dazed border guards, we might have been works of fiction approaching the port Rooseville, which never sees much traffic. They asked us what weapons we were carrying and guffawed obscenely after learning that all we had were pocket knives. “How you boys manage to be alive’s beyond me,” yelled the officer of domestic security. They offered us a detailed description of a park in Eureka where we’d be able to camp illegally and probably not be hassled, also insisting that “we not inform whoever picked us up where we received the information”. They waved us through the gates, and for a split second I had the splendid sensation of being ‘back at home’, even though it was just Montana.