Winter Olympics Backgrounder

The first time I visited Vancouver was in the late ’60s. I was living in Fairbanks and decided to spend the winter outside, which is what we called any place not in Alaska.

Since it was August, the weather was still good, so I set upon a plan to buy a motorcycle and drive it to California. I’d never ridden a big bike before, but no matter: I bought the first one I looked at — a used, 650cc Triumph Bonneville.

Two days later, bike and long-haired self were headed south. No helmet, no gloves, and a day-pack for luggage. Mind you, my trip wasn’t entirely irrational — the route was paved from Fairbanks to the Alaska/Yukon Territory border, thence 310 carefree miles on a hard-packed dirt road, thence reenter Alaska at Dalton Cache, and 40 paved miles later I’m parked in front of the Alaska ferry terminal in Haines (then a city of 800, built near the head of the Inside Passage). Thence, board the ferry, sleep on the deck, party with backpacking students, enjoy the restaurant, double-enjoy the bar, promenade, read a book, watch trees go by, and generally lollygag for the entire 39-hour ride to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Thence disembark and drive on paved roads 1100 miles to Seattle.

Didn’t look like a big deal to me, particularly the last leg. That looked like the standard San Diego–to-Portland two-day grind. And the ferry ride would be fun.

It was fun. I arrived in Prince Rupert refreshed and enlivened. I should back up here and tell you the motorcycle broke down three times during the 650-mile Fairbanks-to-Haines run. Saying that, the breakdowns were super convenient: I was at or ridiculously near a gas station or truck stop every time. The fixes were free or cheap. I took leave of Prince Rupert on good terms with the world.

But, as Tiger Woods knows, the world can turn on you. From PR on, I never drove 75 miles without a mechanical collapse. The relentless breakdowns were made worse by my profound ignorance of internal engine world, a lifestyle choice that remains pure and unsullied to this day.

The first breakdown occurred 60 miles out from Prince Rupert. The motorcycle coughed twice and died. Now what?

Now nothing. No traffic…hadn’t seen a house or building in a good while. I climbed off the odious metal dunghill to curse, sigh, and pace. A banged-up Ford pickup pulled up. Middle-aged man wearing a black-and-yellow CAT baseball cap stuck his head out the driver’s window, asked, “Are you a hippie?”

I renounced hippies and all their works, then made a neat transition to the bike and its present situation. The man said, “Mind if I take a look?” Five minutes later, the cycle was restored.

Thanks, farewell, and on the road again. Thirty miles further on, the engine stopped. Thutt. Like that. Thutt. No drama. Engine just stopped. Very shortly, another man, this time driving a GMC, pulled up, asked, “Are you a hippie?”

And so it went. Every 30 to 70 miles, the engine quit. I’d dismount and wait for first, second, or third vehicle to pull over. I’d answer the hippie question and the bike would be restored.

It wasn’t always men. Women, too. They wanted to know if I was okay. Everyone had this pre-Columbian, New World, forest-dwelling, never-seen-a-Conquistador-before expression on their faces. My life was awash in sincerity.

It took nine days to reach Vancouver. I crashed at a frat house next to the University of British Columbia and refused to leave until the motorcycle was stolen or sold.

The second time I visited Vancouver was four or five years later. I drove up from Las Vegas with Peggy O’Brien. I’d been thinking about buying land on one of the islets that lay between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

When we got to the border crossing at Blaine, the Canadian agent ordered us inside for questioning. Two agents questioned us together and then separately, and then we were brought together again and escorted to the plastic-chair room to sit for awhile. Awhile passed and we were walked to the wooden-chair room and told we would not be allowed to enter Canada. I asked the agent with the black mustache, “Why?”

I felt the heat of Canadian hatred: “You are traveling with an unmarried woman.”

Unmarried woman and I returned to my truck, drove back to Seattle, over to Port Angeles, boarded the ferry to Victoria, thence to Lasquitae Island and thence to Vancouver. We stopped by the frat house for a beer.

Wishing Vancouver a glorious Winter Olympics…

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