Lee’s KLR. And Serge’s Slug.

Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle

I don’t have 972 friends — not even on Facebook.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Touratech Adventure Rally West — just me, my bike, and 972 friends.

Touratech Adventure Motorcycle Rally West
Touratech Adventure Motorcycle Rally West

Actually, this annual event’s exploding popularity attracted the 972 attendees – they weren’t really friends drawn to my expansive, uninhibited personality. Mostly because my expansive, uninhibited personality doesn’t exist. I mean, I’m a writer for cripe’s sake: I talk to my keyboard more than to any living human.

(Now, dogs; I talk to dogs a lot. I’m rambling again.)

The point I’m failing to reach here is that even a thousand unacquainted motorcyclists, introverted or not, still share an easy opening gambit:

“So…what’cha riding?”

I met a married couple from San Diego that way, a friendly gang of Argentinian ex-pats, and two friends from Idaho, Lee and Curt, who had ridden together through the Bitterroot Ranges to Plain, Washington to attend the rally.

And they handed me a beer and said: “So…what’cha riding, Kevin?”

Since Husqvarna motorcycles have never achieved any kind of mainstream prominence in North America, my bike is kind of a curiosity to other riders.

So I say, “Husqvarna TE610,” and the guys are vaguely curious. And, because I know this game, I say, “What’cha riding?”

Now, I’m sorry Curt, but I don’t recall your precise answer. I know it was a big BMW GS – but the models just seem to breed like fruit flies, and all those numbers – 1150, 1200, 800 – look: I’m just not good with numbers. But it was big and Bavarian and really sweet.

Lee’s KLR

2016 Kawasaki KLR650
Source: Kawasaki.

Then I turn to Lee. This is like a religious ritual. “What’cha riding?”

And I do remember Lee’s answer. Precisely.

He responded, “Just a KLR.”


And, honestly, I felt gut-punched.

I’m no zealous devotee of the slightly pot-bellied Kawasaki KLR, mostly because I’m not a zealous devotee of any bike. I once owned a KLR, and it reliably transported me on more than 40,000 kilometres of adventures. Many of those kilometres traversed places I was informed the KiLLeR could never manage. And we managed swimmingly, thank you very much.

Kawasaki KLR650
My old KLR650. Not “Just” anything.

I’d own a KLR again: it’s a great bike, because, well…because it’s a bike. Motorcycles open a world of adventure, and the best motorcycle is the one that’s hauling your city-weary ass out into the forest or desert right now.

Also, KLRs are comparatively cheap. Like borscht. Like dirt. (I like dirt.) And I like spending money – so long as the quantities of money I’m spending are somewhere in the general neighbourhood of zero.

But here’s the thing, the gut-punch thing. Lee said, “Just a KLR,” because someone else said something like, “KLR? Pfftt!”

(Pfftt, in this case, being my attempt to capture with the written word a particular verbal expression of disdain. Was that obvious?)

Probably many someones said that.

Anyway, someone – probably many someones – said something like that to Lee. Or wrote something like that in some motorcycle blog or magazine.

And now Lee, who has found the courage to embark on a new adventure, who has rediscovered a child-like spark of joy and freedom that I know will enrich his busy, responsible life as a working-class family man, feels like he’s outranked, a junior member of the boy’s club.

Because he made a sensible decision, spent less, and saved more for his family.

Because he realized the goal of riding is to have an adventure – not to buy one.

He gets it, you know? And, all too often, his reward is a “Pfftt!” from somebody with a fatter wallet and a fancier bike.


Marketing’s rotten stepchild

Maybe this unjust “Just,” like so many other unsettling experiences, is the wretched stepchild of manipulative marketing.

You see, any crowd of adventure motorcyclists, even a crowd of 972 of them, tips unmistakably toward a specific demographic: me.

Bill Murray
Source: Touchstone Pictures / Empirical Pictures

Okay, that’s not actually me.

What I mean is: middle aged, middle class, white male.

And that’s a demographic with dollars. Marketers love us: prime earning years, empty-nesters trying to recapture a piece of our youth. So they sell us the narrative that, yes indeed, we can reclaim that feeling – for a price.

The Honda Africa Twin, for example, has the traction control, ABS and 100 finely-tuned horsepower that any 56 year-old, life insurance broker running-to-paunch clearly must have. It’s only $16,000 – plus the usual taxes, surcharges, destination fees, first-born child….

That’s not much to pay to feel young again, is it? To have an adventure? To escape the job, the city, the mortgage? After all, that German uber-bike would cost almost $7,000 more….

Then again, the KLR650 would cost well under half as much.

But have you seen the uber-bike? It’s just so — SO. I mean, I want one. I really want one.

2017 BMW R1200GS Rallye. Source: motomag.com

And the embarrassing truth is, I want one because BMW not only does some nifty whiz-bang engineering; they do some phenomenal whiz-bang marketing.

If I spend more, I’ll upgrade my adventure, right?

I don’t think so.

To a point, it’s true: the cheapest hardware isn’t usually the most reliable. And I need a reliable, capable bike and some adequate gear to tackle a multi-day ride in the Great Basin Desert.

Reliable like a KLR. Capable like a Husqvarna that might be a little past its prime. Or, yes, like that uber-tactical BMW R1200 GS Adventure. Or the brand-spankin’ KTM 1090 Adventure R.

Source: SeeSeeKTM

But adventure doesn’t spring fully-formed from your wallet like Athena, freed from Zeus’ forehead by Hephaestus’ axe. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The ancient Greeks, eh? – progenitors of western society. Weird bunch.

It’s equally weird to think that he who buys the most expensive has the best experience. ‘Cause sometimes he’s just the best consumer.

And then there’s Serge’s slug.

By way of some oddly twisted progression of thoughts, all this cogitating reminded me of my friend Serge.

We were hiking together recently (probably because, for some inscrutable reason, he’s failed to come to his senses and buy an adventure motorcycle), when I learned of an odd ritual Serge acts out.

Each time he spotted a banana slug, he would bend down, gently lift the slimy wee beastie, and deposit him or her in the undergrowth at the trail’s margin, safe from the stomping treads of hikers.

banana slug
Source: Wikimedia Commons photo by Roisterer, CC BY-SA 3.0.

His little ritual – bend, lift, save – made me realize something: in a world of ubiquitous human meddling, slugs die because they’re slow and unassuming.

But being slow is what a slug is supposed to be; there’s nothing wrong with being unassuming. It shouldn’t be a death sentence to be who you are.

Lee’s KLR. And Serge’s Slug.

My point – insubstantial though you may perceive it to be – is that slugs and KLRs are just fine the way they are. They’re not the fastest; they’re not the prettiest. But that doesn’t make them junior members of the “fauna club” or the adventure rally. Their value is inherent, intrinsic. They fit in; they have a role.

And so does Lee. So do introverted writer-types plopped down in a carnival of 1,000 motorcyclists.

Am I reaching here? Yeah.

But it seems to me there’s a genuine connection.

Why should Lee feel compelled to add that “Just,” just because he spent less money than Curt, or me? Why should a slug suffer just because it’s slow?

We’re all on our own adventure, regardless of how much we spend or what qualities we embody.

Lee is trying something new and bold. The banana slug embraces his glacial pace.

I admire both.

And I say, “No more just.”

Oh, and, “What’cha riding?”

Read my report on the Touratech Adventure Rally West in the upcoming August issue of Canadian Biker Magazine.

It wasn’t my fault! Okay…maybe it was my fault.

Research findings stun motorcycle community

A press release today from the International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association (IMMA).

IMMA Secretariat International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association (IMMA)      Tel: + 41 22 920 21 23

20, Route de Pré-bois, CH-1215 Genève 15 Switzerland


A team of investigators today revealed that systematic methodologies and scrupulous examination of research results have, following multiple previously-inconclusive attempts, decisively identified the preeminent expression of the form first articulated in the 1894 Hildebrand and Wolfmuller.

To wit, the finest motorcycle ever produced is the 1970 Honda QA 50. In Sprout Green.

Image credit: Cycle Chaos

Decades – indeed, more than a century – of debate are finally put to rest with the release of this exciting finding. A contentious and oft-times surly group, motorcyclists of all persuasions and every continent unexpectedly united behind the investigative results.

Utilizing a triple-blind study design, researchers were able to isolate confounding variables by ensuring that neither subjects, researchers nor motorcycles were apprised of the ongoing research methodologies employed. Consequently, the results obtained are irrefutable. “Quite simply beyond reproach,” explained Herr Doktor Professor Ber Schmidt, head researcher.

Most frequently cited as definitive was the constant variable, “Primacy of Experience.”

Although complex in nature, Primacy of Experience can be reliably expressed on an X-Y axis (Figure 1).

Notable here is the finding that as the onset of motorcycle ownership approaches zero years (x relative), motorcycle quality reaches its zenith (y grins). The ineluctable conclusion is that the first motorcycle one owns is the best motorcycle one will ever own.

Noteworthy, nevertheless, is the subsidiary finding that motorcycles owned in the latter part of a subject’s life showed a tendency to foster elevated experience values as well. At no point were study participants reported to acknowledge that their own motorcycle was inferior in any respect to the motorcycles of other study participants.

There you have it…the Honda QA 50, in Sprout Green: the best motorcycle in the world.

Ain’t science great?

Disclaimer: individual results will vary — unless your first bike was also a QA50.

That overbite… How did I not need braces?


Selective courage

I have selective courage.

You know, like selective hearing:

“Honey, can you fix that loose cupboard door?”


“I don’t know if you can hear me over that death-metal, but I’ve got this bottle of single malt, and I was wondering if you — ”             

Yes! Yes, I would. Thank you. Yes.

Yeah, kind of like that.

Except I think my selective-courage calibration is out of whack. Picture this.

A guy – who might or might not be me – collects a few litres of tepid water from a gas station restroom and then rides a motorcycle 300 kilometres into the desert: no idea where the next water source is; no certainty that the trail continues through the sage and dust, and doesn’t simply fade out or dead-end at some insurmountable crag of rock. The temperature, just as Hollywood would specify, hovers around 45 degrees Celsius; that’s 113 Fahrenheit to my American neighbours.

Along the way to this doubtful destiny, he – who might be I – attempts to acquire adequate speed to launch 250 kilograms of motorcycle and monkey over a blind hilltop. There’s some solace, he later supposes, in the fact that the silty soil which impeded his speed, causing the crash, also provides a soft landing. Though that does nothing to cushion the impact of motorcycle on frail human flesh. Or on frail human ribs, the doctor later tells him.

So now I – willing at last to acknowledge my own stupidity – upend the motorcycle, conduct repairs to the machine and ignore those needed to my body, continue on my way for a few more days, find some water, discover dozens of scorpions encircling my tent (apparently the small ones are the most lethal – who knew?), get lost, backtrack up the steep shelving boulders of a canyon floor, lose control of the bike and puncture the gas tank on a rock, discover both my GPS units have failed, watch my right leg balloon into purple edema after tearing a ligament in my knee, disassemble the valve train on the motorcycle after it perishes mid-desert – yada yada yada….

But here’s the real drama in this story: it isn’t. Dramatic, I mean.

It, the whole thing, it’s not a drama; it’s not an epic, perilous grappling with mortality. It’s fun. I’d do it again – and I have, many times, as soon as possible.

But then friends allude to my bravery – or madness or naiveté or something – and I feel unease knotting my stomach.

Because, honestly, I’m fake news.

Don’t get me wrong: this story isn’t fake, although it is a compilation of a couple trips. And I know the risks in riding solo through thousands of kilometres of desert are real enough: last year, an adventure motorcyclist fell victim to incapacitating heat near Death Valley, around the same time I traversed the final road he would ever ride. He died; I was more fortunate.

But still. And yet. Even so.

I don’t feel the hammering of the heart, the deep breath before the dive, the churning dread in the bowels. Leaving roads and people and comfort behind for multi-day expeditions requires about the same resolve that I need to muster up when a pint of IPA urgently needs my attention. I feel engaged when I venture into the untracked, the unbuilt; I feel competent and keen: excited, a sharp edge. Grateful.

That doesn’t take courage.

And here’s the thing that really baffles me – more accurately, here’s the thing that frightens me. Parties. Employment. (Did I say, “thing,” singular?) Children under the age of 12. Loneliness. Extroverts. Invisibility. Snakes. Purposelessness. Money. Failure. Intimacy. Lack of money. Indecision…

Is my courage calibration out of whack? I fear loneliness, but seek solitude. I feel euphoric when I step into the fiery sweep of a desert fastness, and weak in the knees when faced with a room full of unfamiliar faces at a cocktail party. (Do people still say that, “cocktail parties”?)

Is courage a product of perspective? I don’t believe bravery can be merely a trait, a currency that we carry – some people more, some less. That would mean we could reach into our pockets anytime we wanted and pull out the coin purse. Man purse? Whatever. In any case, not all of us can do that all of the time. Bravery seems to me to be elusive: I’m flush with it one moment, broke the next, uncertain and paralyzed.

I’m confounded by the seeming illogic of what little, selective courage I possess….

And that’s why I ride solo across dangerously inhospitable deserts.

Because, however illogical it may be, it’s there that I feel brave – precisely because I don’t feel I need to be.

Living in Denio

“Keep the rubber side down.”

If you’ve ridden a motorcycle, you’ve heard it: a well-meaning wish for your safety out there on the mean streets among the prowling menace of the “cagers.” (You’ve heard that one, too: cars = cages, and therefore drivers are cagers. Of course.)

Thing is, there was not a street, mean or otherwise, in sight.

I was alone on a rock-strewn track in the Pueblo Mountains of south west Oregon, pondering my heavily-loaded Kawasaki KLR650. And the rubber side was, in fact, currently the most upward elevation on the topography of the bike.

I’d never seen this kind of inversion before, and it was an oddly reflective moment – though the smell of leaking gas and sour foreboding speedily overtook my reverie. I was a long way from the pavement that now seemed inviting, rather than mean, and I was nearly certain that jaunty twist in the handlebars – rhapsodic though it may have rendered a hipster sculpting his moustache – was well outside the design tolerances intended by Kawasaki’s engineers.

At the time, I was pretty new to this adventure riding thing, and I clearly had not consulted those engineers’ plans when I loaded everything I owned on the KLR and pointed it up a rocky trail.

Grunting, I levered the bike upright, rubber side down, and the damage was clear: handlebars bent (awkward, not serious); mirror broken (okay, didn’t like it anyway); clutch lever snapped off at its mounting point (annoying, insignificant).

Insignificant, that is, unless said clutch lever is your spare, installed after the unintended sacrifice of the original lever a few days earlier, victim of a treacherous rock. In such a case, one simply purchases a new spare lever, and all is well.

Or one procrastinates, and all is seriously bungled.

Wait — is that my spare clutch lever? Oh oh…

Never fear: unlike the aforementioned cages, motorcycles are equipped with sequential transmissions, meaning the gears are actually quite easy to shift without using the clutch. Unless, naturally, you are attempting to launch from a standstill.

An overloaded KLR mired in a rocky stream bed pretty much defines standstill.

But that is not the point of this story.

This is the point: after a night spent trail side, the ruined lever’s fragments lashed together, beads of JB Weld metal epoxy fusing the seams, I met Deborah, Mike and Donald.

My improvised repair held up as, in the early morning heat of the desert, I retraced my path of yesterday. I reached Oregon Route 205 and turned south, hoping the town of Denio, Nevada, some 30 kilometres away, would possess a repair shop or even a motorcycle dealer.

I can tell you now that Denio, Nevada is a census-designated place – according to the federal government, it doesn’t deserve the appellation of “town” – with a population somewhat less than 50, and a built-up area of precisely 38 houses – although I may have included a few barns, outbuildings, shacks and sheds in the count. And precisely zero repair shops or motorcycle dealers.

In fact, the only sign of life I could see was a triangle of lawn chairs set in the shade of a tree whose branches arched over the roof of a double-wide mobile home. Occupying those chairs, a woman and two men were occupied in adding to the substantial pile of empty Bud Light beer cans amassing at their feet.

It was just after 9:00 am.

Image credit: Tad Hetu

I was reluctant to intrude. Or scared. Maybe kind of scared…

Denio lies at the junction of Oregon’s Harney county and Nevada’s Humboldt – the kind of places where guns and opinions are big and dangerous and worn on the hip. Ammon Bundy and his band of anti-government militants staged an armed takeover of a wildlife sanctuary 170 kilometres north of Denio in 2016; the borders of the American Redoubt are drawn nearby, an ad-hoc refuge for libertarian-leaning survivalists who revere the Second Amendment and are looking for a place to fortify when the economy and things in general go all to hell. Both Harney and Humboldt counties registered over 70% support for the Republican candidate in a recent presidential election you may have heard about.

And now you see what this story is really about….

Deborah, Mike and Donald – none of whom were actually named that, by the way – were tracking me with their eyes long before I hit the kill switch in their dusty driveway. I thought I could get the KLR rolling again (even though my temporary repair to the clutch lever had now failed) as long as I stopped somewhere with a loose surface and a clear runway.

I pulled off my helmet and warily began to relate my tale. Deborah looked at me dubiously; there was something she didn’t like about my story — specifically, it turns out, the fact that I was telling it without a beer in my hand and a chair in the shade. With those concerns rectified, she listened as intently as the men sitting to either side of her. Mike and Donald were heading out for a few days of fishing, and had detoured along the way to visit their old friend, Deb, whom they hadn’t seen in about a year.

As I finished explaining my situation, Donald said softly, “Closest bike shop’s in Winnemucca. Hundred miles south.” He registered the anxiety on my face and continued, “Here’s what ya gotta do…”

Don was a UPS driver, and knew every byway and track that would keep me – and my inoperable clutch – off the pavement and away from stop signs and street lights as I approached Winnemucca. He patiently repeated his directions twice as I committed them to memory.

“And if you get lost or broke down along the way, you just knock on anybody’s door.” Mike and Deb nodded while Don went on, saying, “And if’n nobody’s home, you just go right in.”

Now I was the dubious one, and he could see it.

“Out here, you break down, you run out o’ water, you could die. It’s gonna be over a hunderd-and-five this afternoon. Folks know it. Nobody ever locks their door. You just go right in and do what you need to – use the phone, get some water, food. You could leave a note or somethin’, I suppose.”

Deb handed me another beer before sharing her story. “I just got back from Hawaii. Had some friends there I was staying with. I was gone over a year. Left my door unlocked, and I think somebody musta used the place: when I got back, there was more cans in the pantry than when I left.”

We sat for a couple hours, a few beers, talked about America and politics and Canada and bullfrog fishing (yes, you use a regular fishing pole!). We laughed at Deb’s practiced joke that she was, “Living in Denio.” And my fear evolved into surprise and finally admiration – making a quick stop along the way for some shame about my stereotypes. Finally, I think we all settled on just feeling human.

And that’s the point of this story. Don and Mike and Deb are the point: they are the people – the millions of people – in the USA who care for their friends, trust their neighbours, and help strangers in need.

I know you’re still out there; I need you out there…

Because you give me hope.

Can I really do this?

Okay, you know what a rhetorical question is, right? Oh, actually, that’s one there: it’s me asking you a question when I already know the answer. So…the title of this post? That’s another rhetorical question. You see, I already know you can do this Adventure Riding thing.

I’ve been out there. A lot.

When I was a private wilderness guide and Outward Bound instructor, I guided adults and teenagers tackling challenging month-long canoe trips, dog-sledding treks in temperatures as low as -47o C, rock climbing, white water kayaking, hiking, camping, sea kayaking, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing….

Guiding a snowshoeing group

A real diversity of trips, with an even greater diversity of participants.

But virtually all the people I’ve guided in the wilderness – and there have been hundreds – had two things in common:

1. They didn’t think they could overcome the challenges they encountered.

2. They overcame the challenges they encountered.

It’s one of the reasons I loved my job: I got to see people overcome their fears and limitations. Every day.

I witnessed the transformation when my clients and students realized their limitations were mostly self-imposed. Given the motivation to challenge those limitations, they were able to accomplish more than they ever dreamed.

I take my hat off to all of them.

And I take my hat off to you.

Because, if you’re reading this, you have the motivation to get on your bike and leave the pavement far behind.

You just need someone with experience to get you started.

Join me for an introductory dirt ride or training session!

My profession and my passion have given me decades of experience in outdoor travel and survival and riding motorcycles off-road.

So, seriously, who better to lay out all the details of this adventure thing?

Whoa! Is that another rhetorical question? I didn’t even do that on purpose.

 Ride farther. Stay out longer.

Don't keep it to yourself. Share the adventure!