Monday, October 28, 2013

Sneaky South Dakotan Snowstorms and the Majesty of Mount Rushmore

We lingered over our coffee as we watched the bison graze near our campsite in Badlands National Park. With such a lovely beginning to our day, we were quite chipper as we enjoyed the nice curves between Badlands and Rapid City, South Dakota, until we encountered evidence of the catastrophic snowstorm South Dakota had weathered just a week prior: a pile of dead cattle. Along with the rest of the country, we had heard about the terrible loss of cattle the South Dakotan ranchers had experienced with the first freak snowfall of the season, which had dropped 4 feet of snow on the region, freezing, and in some cases, drowning poor cattle who had not yet developed their winter coats. But the stories we heard along the way in Illinois, Iowa and western South Dakota, gave further indication of how bleak the situation in South Dakota really was… With the government shutdown, there was little to be done to give aid to these farmers so that they could lessen the impact of the damage that nature had done. The devastation was particularly horrible for many farmers because it is not “cost effective” to ensure your herd of cattle because you may lose one or two every so often, but “never” enough to make a claim worthy of the high premiums. Until this storm. Additionally, herds that were covered, were covered under “Act of God” clauses… but in most cases, autopsies on these cattle will show death by drowning, which does not fall under the “Act of God” clause. An awful report spread throughout South Dakota of a rancher who had followed his trail of dead cattle to the very last one, and upon realizing he had lost his entire herd, had taken his own life, in the prairie, next to his frozen cattle. These were somber stories to hear, and driving past pile after pile of dead cattle brought a sadness to our hearts that was thoroughly incongruent with the sunny blue skies and wide open roads we had enjoyed just moments before.

Our first stop in Rapid City was Rice Honda where we picked up the elusive sprocket for the Africa Twin that we’d had to order from Amazon. We restocked our supplies at Target, picked up some maps from Tourist Information, and headed off.

Mount Rushmore by night
We rode out of town as the sun was setting and made it to Mount Rushmore just as they were turning on the spotlights to illuminate the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. What an impressive sight! As the museum was closed, we decided to find a spot to camp nearby and return the following morning to re-visit the monument and its grounds.

As it was dark and getting to be extremely chilly, I was dreading the search for a campsite that I anticipated would take at least an hour. To my great surprise, there was a nice National Forest campground within 10 miles of Mount Rushmore, and so, within minutes of leaving the national landmark, we were setting up camp and preparing to enjoy a hot meal.

The next morning, we awoke to snow flurries, so we quickly packed up before the weather turned any worse and returned to Mt. Rushmore. The museum was well-worth the return visit and made me even more appreciative of what a feat this impressive monument really is. Did you know that each President’s head is as tall as a 6-story building?!

Snowy clouds approach Mount Rushmore
 Although the weather forecast for that day had been clear with highs in the 50s, it was in fact in the low 40s and ominous clouds seemed to be developing in every direction we looked in the sky. We rode through the picturesque Custer State Park and continued on to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although only partially complete, it was breathtaking. 
Crazy Horse
There seemed not to be many coffee shops in this area, so when a wine tasting room was advertised along the roadside shortly after Crazy Horse, we decided to take the opportunity to warm up and see what South Dakota wine had to offer. The chardonnay was actually pretty good. Some of the local hybrids were interesting, reasonably complex and would certainly be appealing to some palates. But grateful to have the feeling back in our toes, we rode on, hoping to make it to Wyoming by dark.

30 minutes later, as the bikes climbed the mountainous terrain, the snow flurries I had been decisively ignoring turned into a full-blown snowstorm. Roel, who I’m not sure has ever driven through a snowstorm, much less ridden through one, was LOVING the snow and was like a kid cheering and giggling as the thick flakes began to stick to his windscreen. I, on the other hand, was not so amused. With such crazy weather changes, the pre-existing snow banks had melted and run across the road. I was terrified that these dark patches would actually be black ice now that it was cold enough to be snowing again. When I was 16 years old, I hit a patch of black ice a mile from my house and wound up in a 2-meter deep ditch. This was not an experience I was interested in repeating, especially with only two wheels!

So, as one does when nervous, I began to breath heavily.

And what happens when you breathe heavily in a helmet? Your face shield fogs up.

How do you clear your fogged up face shield? Well, you open it.

But what happens when you open your face shield as you are riding through a snow storm? Oh, that’s right, these seemingly innocent and gentle little snowflakes attack your eyeballs, causing temporary blindness.

I pulled off the road and had a little tantrum with my face shield wide open. Since I wasn’t moving, the lovely little flakes fell peacefully around me and my motorcycle. And yes, my flowing tears helped to clear my eyes and enable me to see again. By the time we descended from the mountains and the snow had stopped, about a half-inch of white slush had accumulated on my windscreen and I think 5 years had been taken off of my life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Stunning South Dakota. No, really.

From Winner, SD, we headed West on Route 44 to get to Rapid City, planning to make a quick stop in Badlands National Park, on the way. (Never mind the 4 other stops we would have to make along the way to warm up in gas stations with watery, but hot, 50 cent coffees. For those of you wondering why on earth we didn't plan to ride through the Dakotas, pre-snow, we encountered a visa-related delay in Canada... fully detailed a few posts back...)

Roel had commented while packing up the bikes that it felt like snow was in the air. Sure enough, as we were about to ride into the Santee Reservation, bits of white came flying through the air at my helmet and quickly turned to water. Fortunately, that was the extent of the snowfall that day, but as we rode west, we began to see more and more unmelted remnants of the catastrophic snow storm that had dumped up to 4ft of snow in some areas of South Dakota only a week ago.

As we got closer to the Badlands, the riding began to get more interesting and the hilly winding highways gave way to beautiful rolling prairie vistas. But when we arrived at Badlands, it was unmistakable and breathtaking. The jagged, yet graceful multicolored peaks of Badlands National Park rose up out of the flat prairie before it and seemed to beckon to us. The age of these peaks is really stunning… the darker base layers date back 75 million years. The grey-ish layers date back to 37 million years ago. The red layers date to 34 million years ago. And the white-ish layers date back to 30 million years ago and were created when 30ft of volcanic ash fell over the area, killing everything it covered, hence leaving behind a wealth of fossils for today’s paleontologists.
 We stopped at the Visitors Center, to get warm, as much as anything else, but stayed for about an hour as it held such a wealth of information. After making a quick lunch of peanut butter and jam (yes, I have finally convinced Roel of this American delicacy) we headed up the Norbeck Pass. We stopped for a quick walk and then spent the next hour making movies and taking photographs. 
Around every turn in the road there seemed to be yet another feast for the eyes. There were dark storm clouds rolling overhead, but every once in a while the sun would peek out and light up the spears of rock, making for some incredible lighting. We got back on the road that would take us to Route 44 and then on to Rapid City, fully intending to make it there by dark.
But then there was a herd of big horn sheep making their way up one of the cones, appearing to dance on air as they mounted summit after summit of the peaks. 

Then the road wound through an area where the elements had eroded the peaks down to soft mounds with the reddish layer exposed at the top. On top of the plateau, we stopped for a while to watch the prairie dogs play amongst themselves, running from hole to hole.

When the option came to make it to Rapid City that night, or take the 22 mile gravel track that would give me the opportunity to practice my off-pavement riding skills, we made the right choice… as we were duly rewarded when we looked out over the plains below the track to see four buffalo grazing. Our first Tatonka sighting! 
(4) Tatonka! Tatonka!
And it really was good for me to “get comfortable” with allowing my front wheel to “find” it’s tracking when all of the sudden it would begin to wobble to and fro in the loose gravel. As if seeing buffalo wasn’t “exciting” enough.

The track led down into a valley where the National Park Service had designated a nice camping area, complete with toilets and picnic tables… AND a herd of 8 bull buffalo just over the hill in another small valley.

It had been so cold all day that we had avoided taking off our helmets, even when we went for our short hike (no, we didn’t care how ridiculous we looked), so we made quick work of setting up the tent and having dinner. Just as we were getting into the tent, coyotes started up their chorus, calling to one another from the hills surrounding the campsite.

Our amazing luck continued through the next morning: we had a excellent nights sleep, woke up to sun streaming through the thin material of the tent, AND the herd of buffalo that had been grazing in the next valley over, had decided to check out the grass around our tent. Badlands National Park is truly one of the most captivating landscapes I have ever laid eyes upon and I am so grateful to have traveled through it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Following in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark (but really, I love McDonald's. There. I said it.)

For driving through a lot of corn fields and cattle pastures, it’s been an eventful few days since Chicago.
Our first night camping went well. Just as night was falling, we found a park with lovely cement pathways that led nicely around the closed gates. Closed for cars? Yes. Closed for walkers, bicyclists and motorcycles? It seems not : )
But just in case we would not be welcome there, we got up at the chilly crack of dawn and headed back to town to do a little blogging and photo uploading at McDonald's. It seems many people in the US do not know this, but McD’s, in addition to consistently selling delicious fries, consistently offers complimentary wi-fi… a travelers best friend.
Well, at this McDonalds in Island Lake, Illinois, I met Leroy and his friends who regularly get together for coffee. Upon hearing our story, Leroy very generously made a donation to our trip and “sponsored” my next few McDonald's coffee/wifi sessions. So, this blog entry is dedicated to Leroy.

We got back on the road and immediately it started raining. Brilliant. But on we rode, stopping to warm up occasionally. After some map studying, we found a recreation area near Manchester, IL. When I read recreation area, I think lake. And when I think lake, I think covered shelter. Bingo! Sure enough, we showed up and there was a perfect shelter, complete with picnic tables, enough room for the tent and bikes, AND an outlet, so I could blog while Roel boiled our rice and curry dinner. Now, this is not exactly “roughing it,” but we have to ease ourselves back into that after staying with friends and family for the last month.

The temperature took a tumble overnight and by the time we dragged ourselves out of the tent at 7am, it was apparent that it would not be a pleasant day of riding. We wanted to get a few miles out of the way, but almost as soon as we got back on the highway, we began looking for an exit with… you guessed it… a McDonald's. We passed one because it was too far off of the highway, assuming that surely there would be another one right away. Or, 100 miles later, as our luck would have it.

By the time we pulled into the lot at the Iowa Falls, Iowa McDonald's, it had just started to rain and I couldn’t really feel my toes anymore. We pulled ourselves off of the bikes, grunting as our stiff legs hit the pavement and turned to walk into McD’s, only to see windows full of faces gawking at us and the bikes. Sometimes we forget what a sight we must be.  I guess it’s a bit of mid-West culture to “coffee” at McD’s, as there were several groups occupying various sections of the joint.
Post Times Citizen Interview
A few asked questions about what we were doing, a few asked if we were cold (duh!!) and apparently one guy ran over to the local newspaper office and told them we would be a good story… because 2 hours later we were in front of The Times Citizen having our pictures snapped. Good times.

We continued on in a pretty dedicated manner, only stopping for a quick lunch and to get a bit warm, until we made it to Sioux City, Iowa. We took a quick ride around town, but it was getting late and we only had about an hour of light left to find a camp spot, so on we rode to Ponca State Park in Ponca, Nebraska. Well, this was a pretty swanky State Park, complete with a golf course and lovely condos. There was a gatehouse with an open gate and a sign stating that a park permit was necessary for entry, which could be purchased at the Visitors Center. Well. It was 7pm. The visitors center had long since closed, and there was a lovely stone hewn shelter with picnic tables, a hidden parking spot for the bikes and power outlets, that was too good to ride away from. So, we made dinner (pasta), set up the tent and got to sleep. I was a little uneasy sleeping in that shelter as there seemed to be a lot of traffic and work vehicles driving around the park, but given how cold it was, being in the shelter was MUCH better than freezing out in the open.

But sure enough, at 5:30am, the work trucks started arriving. And out of the whole damned park, they happened to be working right next to the shelter we were sleeping in. The way the shelter was constructed, it wouldn’t be easy for anyone from the road 10ft away to see us, and we didn’t think the workers would mind too much that we were there, but not wanting to take any chances, we took particular care with packing up quickly. In the dark. Noiselessly. Moving stealthily.

We waited until they started up one of the paving machines, and started our bikes at the same time. Well, we tried to. My bike was a little grumpy and needed a bit of choke/throttle coaxing in order to wake up.

I followed Roel up the nice cement pathway that led to the road where we had to ride by the 15+ workers with their shovels and paving machines. They obviously hadn’t detected us at all, and I would have loved to have picked up their jaws up off of the ground for them as they watched us ride by, but I was too busy chuckling. Roel was calling out “Morning” in his deep voice as he rode past, and being social, I giggled out a “Good morning” as well… but only one… with all of my gear on, I must look like a small boy, so the poor guys shock turned to full stupor when they realized I was in fact female.
Ponca, Nebraska

We chucked all the way to town, and only laughed more when we saw the bank clock flashing the temperature… 31 deg F.

Really brilliant.

We made coffee at a park in town and Roel whipped up really nice egg/cheese sandwiches. I ran around like a lunatic trying to get the blood to flow into my extremities, (it’s amazing what a 5 minute ride in 31deg weather can do to your body temperature) and we finally got on the bikes at 9am. The rest of the ride through Nebraska took us through beautiful farmlands. Lots of corn and lots of cattle.

South Dakota did not give us a warm or friendly welcome. I had met a woman a few months ago who described driving through Kansas and said it was so windy that she had to keep her bike at a 45 deg angle to the road. I couldn’t imagine this. Until South Dakota.

2 miles over the border, I got hit with a gust of wind seemingly out of nowhere. As soon as I would think that I got the (literal and figurative) hang of it, I would drive through a patch of trees, everything would go back to normal and then after the trees, another never-ending gust would hit, knocking my bike about on the road. Now, this wouldn’t be so terrifying if there weren’t tractor trailers coming down the highway in the opposite lane every couple of miles. Or, if the wind consistently blew in a manner that allowed me to anticipate the degree of my lean. But no. It whipped around, changed angles, disappeared all of the sudden causing me to feel like I was about to lean right down onto the pavement or swerve into oncoming traffic. Poor Roel got an earful about how much I despised South Dakota for the first 30 minutes. But still, I was only probably at a 65-70 degree angle to the road.

And then we hit a stretch of highway where I was convinced Mother Nature was a motorcycle hater and was trying to force me to meet my maker. At that point, the belligerent curses turned to sobs and  prayers. I was at a 45 degree angle to the pavement.

We slowed down and Roel, with the patience of a saint let me determine the speed. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to Rapid City, South Dakota today.

But, we made it to a McDonald's in Winner, South Dakota. And a lovely lady named Coleen, who owns the True Value here in town with her husband, Dan, asked us where we were staying tonight. When we responded that we were really hoping to happen upon a farmer so we could ask to pitch our tent in his barn, she very kindly invited us to return home with her.

So, I am typing this blog entry from within 4 walls. Outside the wind is howling and the temperature will likely drop to 35 degrees again, tonight. 

I love McDonald's (and the people who frequent them).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cold weather prep & Chicago

We spent a bit of time on Monday morning preparing to get into the cold. We were horrified to hear about the catastrophic snowfall in Wyoming that killed 70,000 head of cattle, and realized we needed to get serious about ensuring our comfort and safety as we headed West. I had stocked up on thermal gear at TJ Maxx (yes, I am a Maxxinista, or whatever they call it – I swear by that store), but knew that keeping my hands warm was going to be the key as we headed into the cold weather. My heated grips are great, but they don’t warm much beyond the palm of my hand. A friend we had made at Lynde Motorsports, had wrapped rubber roofing material around his handlebars in order to extend his riding into the late fall in Vermont. It would be an excellent, cheap way to shield my hands from the wind, and so we set about fashioning some sweet hand-guard guards for me! They don’t look too bad, and they have already made a serious difference, especially on the highway! Thanks Shawn!
Navy Pier, Chicago
With full bellies and full hearts after spending the weekend with my relatives in Holland, we set off for Chicago. We made it just before the evening rush hour traffic began, and headed straight for Navy Pier. I was dead set on riding the ferris wheel (figured it would make for some interesting GoPro footage of the beautiful Chicago skyline). However, they do not allow motorcycles to park in the garages there – Really? WTF, Navy Pier!! – but I guess it saved me from arguing with Roel about how much we would be willing to pay for parking ; ) Instead, we headed to Millennium Park and wandered around the lovely gardens and cool art installments there. Of course, like every other tourist who visits Chicago, we had a bit of a photo shoot around Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”).
Could Gate, a.k.a. "The Bean"
What a cool structure; I’ve never seen a piece of art compliment a city skyline to such an extent. We watched the reflection of the sun setting off of the mirrored Chicago high-rises, which in turn was mirrored in The Bean. 

From there, we completed our short “to-do” list in Chicago (hey, we have to leave some stuff for when we come back for St. Paddy’s Day… one day), and we met my former colleague, Amber, at Pizzaria Uno’s for the requisite Chicago deep-dish experience. It was AMAZING. I have eaten a LOT of pizza in my life, as has Roel, and this topped it all (literally and figuratively). It was really good to catch up with Amber, who recently moved to Chicago, and is a friend who has always impressed me with her resilience and drive to achieve her dreams.

So, with even fuller hearts and bellies, we rode out of Chicago, through the night, to find our first campsite in just about a month. Good thing we still remembered how to set up the tent ; )

Oh and it was about 42 degrees last night. Not quite freezing, yet.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Back in the USA!! (And Holland... Michigan : )

We finally got my bike back together and after another round of tests, decided we were good to go. Before leaving town, we had to check out Dual Sport Plus, an adventure riding shop that we had been hearing about since the Horizons Unlimited Meeting. Les and Cathy run a great shop, with everything you could need to prep and stock up for a ride around the world, or country, or what the heck, town! We got to spend some time getting to know them and hearing about the adventure they’re planning to set off on later this year… like us… destination unknown!

We set off for the border bright and early on Thursday morning, very excited to see how the day would unfold. And then 5 miles from where we woke up, we sat in traffic for 2 hours. UGH!

When we eventually made it to the ferry in St. Clair that would bring us across the river to Marine City, USA on the other side, we both had a sense of calm and peace. It was like the stress of the past few weeks of wondering whether or not Roel would be able to get into the United States, melted away. So we loaded the bikes on the ferry (YAY my bike’s first ferry ride!) and went on over. With only a dozen cars per ferry load, we were told that the border agents at these ferry crossings tend to be more positive and less likely to be put in a bad mood by thousands of (potentially nasty) tourists who have preceded you that day. 

Crossing from St. Clair, Ontario to Marine City, Michigan
This proved to be sage advice, as the four border agents manning the border at Marine city were professional, friendly and even encouraging of our journey. (Having noticed my site sticker on my pannier, one of them has even “liked” my Facebook page! How cool!) What I found to be especially impressive is that these guys were cheerful and professional even though they are not currently being paid due to the government shutdown. Can you imagine being friendly and cheerful at work if YOU were not getting paid? After filling out the necessary paperwork, and chatting for a few minutes about traveling, we were on our way.

We stopped shortly thereafter and proceeded to dance around the bikes in celebration and make-out like teenagers. Passers by must have been rather perplexed, but we were elated.

Welcome to Holland, MI!!
After filling up for under $35 for the first time in 40 days, we were on our way to Holland.

Holland, Michigan, that is!!

One of the many benefits of road-tripping around the States has been getting to catch up with friends and family I otherwise would have been unlikely to see.

Case in point…
The Ruffner Family + 2
My grandmother’s brother raised his family in Holland, MI. I’ve met a few members of the Ruffner side of the family before, but there are over a dozen of them, so I was quite excited to meet the rest. We stayed with my cousin Eric, his wife Jayne, daughter Erica, 1 dog, 4 cats, two horses, 1 goat and 8 chickens. We had a wonderful time with them…

Giving the Hondas a rest

Given that we were in Holland, MI, we of course had to see some of the “Dutchness” the city has to offer. Eric and Jayne took us on a tandem bike tour of Holland and I have to say it was the most fun I’ve had (off of my Honda) in a while : ) 

It was a stunning fall day, the downtown scene was vibrant with a large farmers market, complete with pumpkin-carving contest, and we got to check out the little Dutch Village, where you can actually pretend you’re in Holland, if you try.
Nelis' Dutch Village
In addition to spending time with Eric, Jayne and Erica, I got to got to meet several other Ruffners I had never before met and got to catch up with some I haven’t seen in 15+ years. My father’s Aunt Mary, the matriarch of the Ruffner family, is an amazing woman. The family she has raised is so full of love, and kindness and loyalty, it was like witnessing another modern miracle. While we were there, everyone got together every day… for either dinner, dessert or Aunt Mary’s famous Strada brunch. Roel and I felt so welcome we immediately felt like part of the family and it was very difficult to leave.

But, with snow already having fallen throughout much of the Midwest, it is now or never… and so, West we go!

Monday, October 14, 2013

A reminder to "KISS"

(Warning: if you are not a "gear head" or remotely interested in mechanics, I would recommend skipping this post :) I promise more non-mechanical posts will be coming soon...)

As Chris put it “the way opened” for us to return to his shop in Hamilton and begin the process of figuring out what was wrong with my bike.

We started by taking everything off of my bike that we needed to in order to have a good look at the cylinders… for those of you unfamiliar with bikes… that would be: right and left pannier, right and left side faring, right and left front faring, the seat, the gas tank, the air box, the rear wheel, the air filter box and the carburetor. Whew.

After discussing the problems my bike was having with a few others, we had begun to hear a chorus of people saying it was probably the valve seals that needed to be replaced. OK. So we ordered 6 of them, in case this turned out to be the issue. Not terribly expensive, but 6 altogether totaled $30, and necessitated a trip over the border to pick them up, whereupon my return, a lady at Canadian Customs and Border Protection thoroughly questioned me like a criminal before turning me over to one of her colleagues to inspect the contents of my panniers, saddle bags and top box. Contrary to her wishes, he just said “cool bike” and sent me on my way.

Grease Monkey Extraordinaire

Well, when we opened the cylinders the valve seals were perfect. PERFECT! I’m talking, 24yo pieces of rubber looking BRAND NEW! So, back to the drawing board….

Working on the lathe to create a part for the compression test
The valve clearances were all OK, although we decided that while we were in the cylinders, we might as well make the slight adjustments to make them “perfect.” And all four spark plugs appeared to be in good condition. We were stuck and contemplating starting all over again.
Chris running the compression test on my bike
We ran a compression test first and got a good rating and then ran a leak down test. This yielded a strange result… there was air coming from the rear pressurized cylinder out the front manifold intake.

1-of-a-kind valve adjuster tool              by Procter Precision
Paul creating a special wrench to adjust my valves
Totally perplexed, we left the bike in that disassembled state and went home to log some hours on motorcycle forums to see if anyone online had the answers we were looking for.

We got a lot of helpful suggestions and moral support, but no absolute answers (it’s pretty hard to diagnose problems without having the bike in question in front of you).

So back we went the next day and had another look with fresh eyes.

Although we had laid out the parts in a pretty organized manner, one of us managed to kick the airbox over. When Roel later went to put it back on the bike, he noticed that there was a good amount of oil that had splattered all over the interior, thanks to it being kicked. This was very alarming but might be the answer to where all of my oil has been disappearing to… After several minutes of examining the tubes leading to and from the air box, and pouring over our two repair manuals for the umpteenth time, we discovered that a small cap, which seals the drain hose of the air filter air box, was missing. Well, without this cap, air was being sucked into the air filter air box freely, and creating a sort of vacuum effect, causing oil to be sucked into the air box, as well.

Possibly the solution to all of our problems

This may not be the answer to all of our problems, but the main reason we pulled the bike apart was the alarmingly high oil consumption. In fact, the reason for this high oil consumption was likely sitting right in plain sight… 4” off the ground.

A little piece of wisdom that Russ, the guy who sold me my bike, appropriately reminded me about:

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

Carb cleaning/reassembly
One of the tiny splits in the vacuum piston


Upon taking apart the carburetor, we also found that there were two small tears in one of the piston vacuums – which is likely the cause of the hiccupping. One of the guys on the ADV Rider forum happened to have one for sale and it will be waiting for us in Michigan J

Friday, October 11, 2013

Tough Mud

Photo courtesy of Tough Mudder
While we were waiting for the way to open to work on my bike (and continuing to bide our time until we can try to cross the border back into the States), Roel discovered that there would be a Tough Mudder held just North of Toronto. Roel had volunteered at a Tough Mudder that I had worked at back in Vermont, and because he did such a great job, had been given a voucher to participate in a TM in the future for FREE. With our budget, free is pretty much necessary for any extra-motorcycle activities.

So, we headed back to Hans and Carol’s in Toronto, and joined them on Saturday for a nice ride to Tweed, Ontario where their BMW club was meeting at the home of club members we had also met at the Horizons Unlimited Meeting. It was a lively meet-up and we were really able to appreciate how this camaraderie has played a role in each members life (I think some of them have been in the club for 30+ years! Can you imagine being in any club for that long? Amazing.). But it quickly became apparent that they are like one big family. We were welcomed, right away, and made to feel “at home,” BMWs or no BMWs. 

Before sunrise the next morning, we headed for Mt. Saint Louis, on the lookout for deer until the sun rose enough to dry out the fog that completely concealed whatever was on either side of the yellow center line. I think I was on the verge of hallucinating fluffy white tails just before we finally pulled off at a coffee shop, where it took a good 5 minutes to get the feeling back into my fingers and toes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Tough Mudder, it is an endurance event designed by the British Special Forces, and runs a course over 17 kilometers of mountainous terrain, over, around, through and under obstacles, and, as the name suggests, through pit after puddle after pond of mud. Tough Mudder raises funds to support the Wounded Warrior Project,  an organization whose purpose is “to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history." It’s an extremely apropos event to support an organization that does a tremendous service for those who have given invaluable service. 
Roel landing after sliding through the smoke chute
 Most people train for months leading up to this event. Not Roel. But he did an amazing job and actually finished, keeping true to the values of the event that are based on teamwork and heart.
I spent the day volunteering and helping Tough Mudders, including Roel, to get over/through the Smoke Chute obstacle. Oh, and I got lots of love from the Mudders I was cheering on… in the form of muddy hugs… and a kiss from the Toughest Mudder of them all. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Making Lemonade out of Lemons… or more appropriately, Wine out of Grapes.

Moonrise over Niagara Falls
 I’m not going to lie… in the 12 hours after we found out that we were “stuck” here in Canada, we had ourselves a rager of a pity party. But, like any good traveler, we soon came to our senses and reminded ourselves: “if you get stuck somewhere, you are meant to be there.”

We’ve both experienced this phenomenon already in our travels:

One of the times when Roel’s bike broke down in what was supposed to be the most dangerous city in Turkey, he wound up meeting the most kind, generous and helpful people he’d met to date in his travels.

I only had a day to do a self-driven safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa and by the end of the afternoon was devastated that I had seen everything BUT elephants. (Spoiled, much? Perhaps, but I was obsessed with elephants.) I was slightly lost as dusk was falling and knew I needed to find an exit to the park, but could not for the life of me figure it out. I went this way, and that, and at a fork in the road, for some inexplicable reason went to the right when everything in me was telling me the exit was to the left… moments later, a herd of elephants crossed the road in front of me. And as the sun set, I sat watching these graceful giants, grateful for getting “lost.” (And sure enough, when I turned around and took that road to the left, it led me right out of the park.

And you always hear the stories of people who just missed being involved in some catastrophic event because they tripped on their way out the door and missed their bus. You get the idea.

So, with this notion, we went forward and our “stuckness” turned into a dozen different blessings, one unfolding right after another…

Hans, Carol & Roel
The first being that we had a lot more time to get to know Carol and Hans, who we had met at the Horizons Unlimited Meeting. They’re an inspirational BMW couple – both excellent riders and world travelers. Carol was a riding instructor for over 30 years and once hit a moose and didn’t even drop her bike! If she’s not a legend, they may have to re-write the definition. They helped us trouble shoot our visa issues, introduced us to some other really special BMW riders and gave us information about traveling in South America that will be priceless.

Next, we planned to visit our friend Kim in Niagara Falls, who we met diving in Indonesia last year, but made a quick stop to visit Chris, another new friend we’d made at the HU Meeting. Chris is probably one of the more humble guys I’ve ever met… his “workshop” turned out to be a state of the art Electrical Discharge Machining shop. He asked us how the bikes were going and when we mentioned the high oil consumption/bizarre noises my bike had been making, he offered to help us do a compression test, leak down test, and if necessary, help us do a fix on my bike that would cost hundreds of dollars if we brought my bike to a mechanic to have it done.

So already, here we are with an unexpected amount of “free” time on our hands and we happen to meet a guy who has the know-how, equipment and passion to help us get a job done on my bike that who knows when we would have gotten to, otherwise…? When one thing led to another and we were broken down on the side of the road, perhaps?

We agreed to order a few potentially necessary parts and return to Chris’s shop the following week to have a look at my bike.
Rainbow between American Falls and Canadian Falls
Catching up with Kim and getting to know her boyfriend, Paul, was a treat. They are extremely well traveled and were excited to show us around the Niagara area and really expose us to the best of Canadian culture… Of course we visited the amazing Falls and ate Poutine. (For those of you unfamiliar with this Canadian delicacy, there are MANY variations, but the basic “recipe” consists of French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds… yummm.)
Roel (in orange) going for the puck!
Paul even arranged for Roel to come out and play ice hockey with his Sunday pickup league. I can’t remember when I last laughed so hard and I don’t think Roel could remember when he was last so sore!

Kim, Roel & me @ Chateau des Charmes
 Kim and Paul know how much we love wine and enjoy “wine tourism” so we also spent a good amount of time tasting through the local wineries together. We knew that this region of Canada was famous for its ice wines, but we were pleasantly surprised over and
Mmmmm... ice wine :)
over by how excellent some of the table wines were… particularly the Cab Francs and Baco Noirs. Since we had some time on our hands, Roel and I offered to volunteer at one of the wineries whose vintage had just begin, so that we could get some experience on the sorting table. Sorting grapes is not common in Australia, so we’ve never had the opportunity to do this. Of course, we were
Volunteering on the sorting table
looking for nasty things we’d had experience with in the past: botrytis infected grapes and sour rot. But every few bins, we’d have to empty the juice trays beneath the sorting table and check for ladybugs. Yes, apparently these lovely little red and black bugs like grapes as much as we do, but just one of them can taint a thousand liters of wine, imparting to it a peanut-butter like aroma. Yuck. (And no, Dad, I'm not rolling in the dough now - we don't have working visas for Canada so we were only able to volunteer, but they did feed us well. : )

So anyway, while we’re “stuck” here in Canada, we’re finding different ways to make lemonade out of these lemons from US Immigration, or more appropriately, make wine out of grapes. It is still slightly distressing every time we see a weather report of chilly temperatures somewhere we’d like to visit in the States, or see friends excitedly post on Facebook about snowfall in Colorado. But for some reason, we aren’t meant to get into the States, just yet, and even if all of the reasons I just mentioned aren’t THE reason, we’re enjoying the delay and the immigration imposed rest.