Friday, December 12, 2008
For motorcyclists, winter is a time of reflection up here in the frozen north. Barring a mid-winter trip to Daytona or some such southern locale, we know we won’t be riding for at least 5 months so we spend our time reminiscing about trips past. This is one such recollection.
1976. Having been in the workforce for all of six years at that point, I had decided that I needed an extended vacation. Looking back on it now that was probably the one time in my working life I least needed a long break as being low man on the Ottawa civil service totem pole didn’t exactly warrant hazard pay, but being so low in the hierarchy also meant they wouldn’t miss me for 10 weeks. So I strapped a tent, sleeping bag, fishing pole and an extra pair of jeans on the Honda 550 and headed west to Vancouver, where I would meet up with my girlfriend (now wife) who was going to fly out and then accompany me on the return trip.
While in Vancouver we stayed for a couple of weeks with friends of friends who turned out to be terrific hosts, making us feel welcome and right at home from day one. So to show our appreciation, on our last night we presented them with a copy of the then-new photo book, Between Friends. As it was a going away party, the beer and the hippie lettuce were in abundance, and we were all well under the influence when we came across a picture in the book of two grizzled old cowboys standing in front of a grain silo in a place called Manyberries, Alberta. For whatever reason that photo struck us all at the time as being particularly hilarious.
So it was that a few days later when we came upon a road sign on Highway 1 pointing the way to Manyberries that we just had to detour to see the now-famous town. I'm not sure what we expected exactly, but I grew up in a small village in western Quebec so I'm no stranger to small towns. But this was small-town living on the edge. A few low buildings, a grain elevator or two, and that was it. Surrounded by endless prairie, Manyberries was the quintessential small prairie town – nice, but a bit worn out, like your favourite old sofa at the cottage. And there was no sign of the cowboys; just a very attractive young lady driving a bloody great tractor through town wearing cut-off jeans, a bikini top, and a straw cowboy hat. An injudicious remark that she should have been in the book instead of the two old guys earned me a quick jab in the ribs from the girlfriend and a reminder that it was going to be a long ride home if I didn't behave.
We took a look around and, being dry and dusty, we stopped at the local watering hole for a quick pint. I don’t remember the name of the establishment, but I do recall being the only two people in the place besides the bartender – and I don’t think he was too pleased to have a couple of long-haired “hippie bikers” in his bar. But our money was good, and he was keen to take it, so we quenched our thirsts, saddled up, and headed back out of town, north to Medicine Hat and Highway 1.
It was a beautiful day for riding - hawks circling in a clear blue sky and antelope in the fields. Not too hot and not too cold. One of those rare, perfect days that you just know can't last. And sure enough, it didn't.
There is only one hill between Manyberries and Medicine Hat, and it was just as we crested that hill that we came into intimate contact with the gumbo that’s used to surface roads in those parts. A mixture of water, oil, and dust, this goop is spread and graded until it packs down and dries into something of the consistency of concrete. But while it’s being worked, it’s more like molasses, very, very thick molasses. Which is what it was when we hit it. At about 70 mph. At the same instant we saw all the heavy equipment all over the road. We went down so fast I didn’t even have a chance to say, “What the f....?”
Some of the workers raced over to help us up out of the mud and their safety guy dragged out the First Aid Kit to patch the scrapes and minor cuts. Fortunately, aside from a bit of road rash, a broken turn signal, and a bent handlebar, we and the bike were fine. It was only when they told us how lucky we were because “The guy last week went right into that grader there. Killed him.” that I got a little irate and suggested, very politely under the circumstances I thought, that they should put up a FUCKING WARNING SIGN! With that, we prised the mud out from under the fenders, got on the bike, and continued on to Medicine Hat, me driving with the left handlebar pointing to the sky and both of us covered head to toe in oil and mud.
We managed to find the Honda dealer in Medicine Hat and as we entered the store, the parts guy took one look at us and said: “Coming up from Manyberries?” which, as one would imagine, elicited the appropriate amount of cussing and a few more Manyberries stories. But we got our parts and found a campsite just outside of town where we could pitch our tent and affect the necessary repairs. It turned out that the campsite was right between Highway 1 and the major east-west CP Rail line, both very busy, and a popular camping spot for the local Hell’s Angels chapter. But that’s another story.