I know the weather report, but I don’t believe it until I see it, rearing up in front of me as I arc around the last Trans-Canada Highway curve that separates the mainland from the jewel-like province of Prince Edward Island. I am 945 miles from home, on Day 2 of a weeklong solo motorcycle trip. The white legs of the bridge are bolted against a black-hooded backdrop of storm. The wind starts to rip.
“Well this isn’t gonna go as planned,” I say inside my helmet, visions of a sun-dappled week cruising Nova Scotia and its flanking territories dissolving into gray.
In a flash of complete confidence, I pin the throttle anyway and fasten my body tighter to the tank of my motorcycle, veering headlong onto the 8-mile bridge crossing. That confidence lasts about five seconds - just long enough before the sky unzips in a thunderclap.
I’m here as a physical demarcation of one chapter of life to another. I am here in an attempt to not get lost in transit. A month ago, I accepted a position for a new job - leaving an organization I’d been with for over a decade. The change was significant, and to give it a proper nod, an adventure to a new place felt like the most appropriate way to signal this next bold move. I wasn’t looking to carve out a period of rest between jobs. I was looking for a mindfulness practice. A “here we go, Em, you’d better wake up” moment in time. Habits cruise at a default mode after we’ve been settled in a routine for so long, and I knew I was in a deep rut in this sense. The new job was a chance to pirouette. The new job was a chance to halt all of the inner modules and re-novelize - myself, my career. A rare moment in middle adulthood to pause and spend some time future authoring, exploring and getting comfortable with the unknown ahead. What I wanted out of this trip was to explore the power of the uncertainty mindset, to playfully joust with my perception and brute reality.
Which is why traveling 3000 miles alone to the tip of Nova Scotia on my motorcycle felt like the perfect sandbox.
Which is why I didn’t bat an eye when the forecast suddenly did its own pirouette to a week of solid rain.
“Will it make it, you think?” I ask the day before I leave, doing my due diligence to have my mechanic go over my motorcycle before pointing north.
Nick and I stand, hands on hips, surveying the rear tire of my motorcycle. The June sun is hot, and beats down on us in the parking lot of the Triumph service center. He rubs his stubble-flecked chin and wipes the sweat from his forehead. His eyes are kind but tired, his navy blue shirt a brushstroke of dark grease. He is my favorite mechanic, and I look at him now as if what he says next will unlock a new portal in the universe.
“Well, I think so,” he says, “but get in here as soon as you get back. I’ll put the tire on order for you now.”
Fog fills spaces, like water or darkness. So does fear. I am in Souris, a tiny fishing town of under 1000 on the northeastern province of Prince Edward Island. In my left hand is a paper cup of lukewarm coffee. In my right is a brown bag with a breakfast that I’ve suddenly lost an appetite for. The paper is stamped with the bright phrase, “bonne journée!” Have a good day!
I’m not having a good day. The tire Nick had cautioned me about is suddenly the least of my concerns.
My motorcycle won’t start.
I pace with with my coffee and breakfast to the corner of the street. I pace back. The weather hangs low in a gray gauze over the town. I look at my motorcycle sideways. I sit on it tenderly. I jump on it and land my ass square on the seat. I’m an animal at the mercy of another animal whose language I can’t speak. The rain is coming down in cold sheets, and with my three layers on underneath an oversized rain suit, I must look like one of those air dancers that promote store sales, waving and deflating as my spirit cycles through losing and regaining hope. “Look here at how I didn’t plan properly!” my desperate gestures seems to shout, though in truth I don’t know if the tool roll I forgot or the jump box I failed to purchase would do me any good now.
Defeated that my little dance does nothing to rouse the engine, I call a local garage. There isn’t a motorcycle shop within a hundred miles, but as long as I can get a jump, at least I can make some kind of forward progress. Keith arrives in the low-bellied grumble of his tow truck with a tool box and a gentle smile. His eyes are a quiet blue, like remnants of the ocean that surrounds us. I know his name is Keith because his shop shirt says so, just like Nick’s back home. There’s something comforting about the familiar attire, something about the smell of grease, signals to the nervous system that a problem is about to be met with the audacity of a mechanical knowledge far greater than mine.
We pull off the seat of my motorcycle, clip the jumper cables to the battery and she fires right up. I do a tiny jig and throw my arms around Keith in an overly enthusiastic hug. Keith runs a few more diagnostics to determine that the battery is, in fact, fine, but somewhere in the electrical system there’s something draining it. With my new job’s start date looming, I don’t have time to devote to a few days laid up with my bike at a garage. “Thank you!” I chirp. “But…what should I do?” I explain my original plan to catch a ferry into Nova Scotia and head to the legendary Cabot Trail on the province’s northern reaches.
Keith gives me a sideways smile and chuckles as he coils up the jumper cables. “You’ve got long hair and a motorcycle,” he laughs, “you’ll have no trouble finding help if you need it. And you can always bump start if you have to. Go!”
Keith’s encouragement untangles the knot of fear in my belly. Never mind that I don't know how and have never had to bump start - a method of popping the clutch to start an engine. The notion that help or a solution is within reach no matter where I go is a liberating reframe and fills me with comfort, like light between trees.
I run the edge of the PEI coastline towards the Northumberland Strait, wiping the rain from my visor, the clouds moving across the landscape with me until all of its details go missing. The weather and I take on the terrain is if there are no obstacles. There is a strong relationship between the lens you put on and what you’re going to see. This adventure didn’t come prepackaged as good or bad. I can’t fall down, with this mindset. I can only fall up.
“This is how you swear like a good Quebecer,” Jean exclaims with thick French Canadian flair as he sits his can of beer on the pavement. He takes a deep breath and flexes his arm. “Tabarnak!” he howls. I laugh and give it a try, but clearly don’t get it right. Jean and his friend Philippe get a lot of amusement out of this, and continue to coax me towards the right tone and emphasis.
We lean against our motorcycles and banter on in this way as we wait for the ferry that will take us to Nova Scotia. In a brief hiccup in the weather, the sun comes out from behind a moving boulder of black clouds, and its warmth is regenerative. Motorcycles are given priority in ferry lines, and so the three of us have been bundled together at the helm of a long line of cars at the Wood Island terminal. When its time to board the boat, I lead - but hold my breath when I go to start my bike. The green “neutral” light flickers, but the engine turns over, albeit with a strain. I can see Jean give Philippe a sideways glance, aware of my mechanical issue. “We’ll give you a push if you need,” they confer with a nod of their helmets.
Entering the giant belly of the ferry is like entering a whale. Every sound becomes a haunting bellow. It’s as embracing as the sea itself, and it’s a thing that strikes me dumb. I park my bike and gawk, stupefied, at the innards of the ship.
“Tie it down, tie it down,” I hear Philipe suddenly say, and then realize it’s directed at me when a rope hits my elbow. “Like this,” he says, gesturing to his process as he straps his motorcycle to the boat deck, looping the rope to D-rings bolted at my feet. I hurry to mirror his movements, and the three of us give my motorcycle a good shove to make sure it’s secure.
There’s something peculiar about traveling solo in this way - the chance encounters, the help from strangers, the fellow wayward travelers that connect a journey like pinpricks of light in a constellation. It’s like holding a messenger owl or tropical bird - you can’t take them home with you, but they live in memory like exhalations, like apparitions which are. Maybe that’s what I find so much comfort in as well - knowing that I’m also one of the apparitions, someone else simply moving through this illimitable, quiet, never-resting thing that is time. There’s an objectivity to this that’s at once embracing and at once something of which I have no place to speak about.
This is the objectivity I feel when the ferry touches Caribou’s shore, Nova Scotia unfurling from underneath the fog now that our faces are pressed right against it. The landscape is without geography, hidden by so much weather. It lives like a map without territory beyond my limited sightline.
I turn and nod a goodbye to Philippe and Jean. I hit my starter three times. On the fourth strike, the engine finally turns. I shrug and peel out of the ferry’s mouth. I’m living in the moment now, because there’s nowhere else to go.
As a painter, I notice colors. It’s been a lifelong journey of cultivating this noticing - an awareness that is particular to artists, but simply boils down to paying attention. When you start learning how to paint, at first you see a landscape and think it’s all green. Looking closer, the nuances emerge. The hue, the value, the saturation, the tinge. It’s a thousand greens - a thousand little conversations the landscape is having with the light.
In Nova Scotia, it’s not just a conversation with light - it’s a choir. I’ve never seen so many facets of green, reflecting back new shades like the faces of a jewel.
By some miraculous sweep of good fortune, the storms have corralled themselves to the far reaches of the horizon for another beat, a sun-swept kinship rolling out in front of me. I am throttling north, with an eye on landing in Cape Breton Highlands National Park to camp by nightfall. Initially I had planned to ride the route clockwise, emulating the path of the sun the way Buddhist pilgrims do. But a wrong turn put me on an interior road and a counterclockwise course. I study the map now at a gas station, refilling my small 2-gallon, 100-mile tank for the umpteenth time.
“Thank god you’ve got some proper clothes on, girl,” the clerk says, scanning my Snickers bar and black coffee as I study the map on my phone. “These ladies come in on the backs of these motorcycles with tank tops on, shivering! I just took the snow tires off my car last week. They’re nuts!”
I laugh and grab my odd choices in nourishment, catching sight of myself in the window’s reflection, looking androgynous and weathered in my rain suit. Whatever illusions I hold of motorcycles being sexy is eroded by the sandpaper of so many hundreds of miles on the road wearing against my small frame. I sip my coffee and realize I’ve been clenching my jaw so hard I risk grinding my teeth to powder. I pinch my fingers across the map in my Gaia app. I pull up the radar. Hours to go and another storm front on my heels, I throw back the last of the hot coffee, swallow the chocolate in a single bite, and hold my breath as I pull in the clutch.
She fires up with a labored gasp on the third try.
Even if I manage to move a little faster, and stretch my arms around the map a little tighter, and fuse my body to the tank a little closer, I can still feel what’s left of the engine slipping away from me. It takes so much effort to hold onto what we have, as if it all moves, and vanishes, under its own inertia. Life is short, and life is long, in this way - and not always in that order.
As I open up the throttle and merge back onto the highway, the sky unzips again. The kaleidoscope of green blurs into a purgatory of monochrome gray. The rain feels colder, harder. Dime-sized chunks of hail strike the mirror of the asphalt. I’m tired. I hydroplane for a millisecond that rattles my marrow. I’m not sure what I’m doing here. A bolt of lightning flays the horizon, and now I’m not just unsure that what I’m doing makes sense, I’m unsure it’s even safe. The entire landscape quivers. I have a brief conversation with God.
I hang on for another hour and finally pull off the road into a convenience store parking lot to shout over the deluge at someone filling their tank, “is there a motel around here?!” He can’t hear me - he cups a hand to his ear and signals me to ask again. “MOTEL!” I yell. I can’t shut the engine off for fear it won’t start again. He points a finger down the road and nods. I head in that direction like I’m reaching in the dark for a doorknob. If I could cross all of my fingers and toes, I would. Lightning flashes across the landscape again. Around the bend, a sign - the Fair Isle Motel. I exhale, and maybe cry a little. I ease up the steep entrance road to the motel office and park beside another motorcycle. I don’t even care if the bike doesn’t start again - all I can think about is a warm bed and a hot shower.
Please have a room, please have a room, please have a room, I chant.
Not the mantra I’d envisioned myself reciting on this trip, but here we are.
“Ha, another one!” I step through the door and am met with the hearty laugh of the motel office lady and the tired gaze of a fellow motorcyclist, equally as drenched as I am. We stand side by side and together gravity manages to drain enough water from our rain suits that a small lake balloons underneath us on the hardwood floor. A calico cat peers with a bored, judging expression from her warm perch on the desk.
“Here’s your key darlin', you go get yourself dry,” the lady says, a kindness sweeping around her face like the second hand of a clock.
Changed, warm, dry and feeling slightly more human in my motel room, I call my friend Matt, a talented motorcycle mechanic who I had joked I might need on speed dial for this trip, as if in foreshadowing. I pull back the window curtain slightly to stare at my motorcycle, still exposed to the rain that won’t let up. “It’s not gonna start at all in the morning, I know it. What the hell am I gonna do?” I say across the thousand miles between us.
“Well, time to YouTube the bump start, Em!” Matt replies, matter-of-factly.
I’m slightly annoyed at my feeling of helplessness, but he’s right. There’s no dependency here, and no one else who can get me home, save for my own resourcefulness.
I step out of Room 3 at 5:00 a.m. The horizon smolders with the diffused light of another storm-riddled day. I walk over to my motorcycle and strap on the tail bags. I turn the key. Pull the clutch. Hit the starter. Soundless. Lifeless. Thank god for Youtube, I think. I pop it into neutral. I pull the whole machine back towards me like loading a slingshot. “Do the fucking thing,” I mutter to myself. I run, the bike at my side, hands and arms balancing the weight. Gravity has us now, and at that moment I swing my leg over the saddle and pop out the clutch while simultaneously rolling the throttle. I don’t expect anything to happen but it does - the engine roars to life instantly. In disbelief, I nearly stall it. In disbelief, I turn left onto the main road and towards the entrance of the infamous Cabot Trail, that rugged coastline that drops away into the sea, that rugged coastline with its iconic views that, in this weather, on this day, I’ll never see.
What a thing, to travel so far and not see what you’d planned on seeing.
What a thing, to let go of the boulder in the center of the river you’re clinging to and just let the current take you, regardless.
In reality, it takes another three days to get home. In memory, it is one day strung together by a series of keyframes, moments that feel innocuous alone but together end up time-stamping the in-between of my careers in a way I hadn’t expected. It’s a day that begins when I step out of Room 3 in Nova Scotia and ends with me stretched out in my yard in Pennsylvania, motorcycle parked at last, woman and machine fully spent, texting my sister that I need a week-long nap to which she replies, “no, you need a hoagie,” and shows up a half hour later with dinner and a hug.
It’s a day that places into my palm three bald eagle feathers, gifted to me by a man named Dodd at a gas station just outside of Margaree Forks.
It’s a day of shouting “I can’t shut it off, it won’t start again” to customs as I cross the border back into the United States.
It’s a day of chancing into a visit with a distant friend in New Hampshire who offers me brief reprieve in a hot tub and a push down a gravel road to get going again, the White Mountains vanishing in and out of sideways rain.
A day of three random strangers in a hotel parking lot giving me the last push I need for the final 10-hour homestretch.
A day of realizing I can’t actually turn back and see the people or landscape that urges me onward, only reach out behind me with one hand to wave as I go, trusting they’re there to receive that small gesture of gratitude, the other hand steady on the throttle.
I know you shouldn’t reminisce on an adventure until it’s over, but I can’t help doing it as I ride on this homebound trajectory, this series of days lived as one. I can’t help but wonder what will be sorted as fact from fiction, wonder what will be distorted ruthlessly (did I really sing like that into that gorge off the Cabot Trail, my motorcycle still running, my voice dropping away like a coin into a well?) and what will always emerge clear from the quagmire of memory. The trip is easy. It’s not dangerous. I face no more peril than eating a handful of peanuts. But I am reminded of how powerful I am, and how elastic the mind can be when faced with a difficult endeavor. Even when I inevitably lapse into useless nostalgia months from now, I hope that that is the accountability I always arc towards - that nothing begins or ends, only changes form, and I’m here to make the best of the ride, regardless.