Monday, May 25, 2009

Ferry Tales

Relaxing is hard work. This evening, belatedly realizing how low my energy tank had been drained by my Canadian sojourn, and unrefreshed by an hour-long nap midday, I succumbed to the inevitable and took to my bed at about 5 p.m. It’s now 9:30 p.m., and thanks to that peculiar filtering process that enables writers unconsciously to distill their thoughts into a semi-coherent whole before committing them to paper, I feel up to jotting down some notes about the trip for those who haven’t already turned up their noses because I drove my car instead of riding my bike.

A word about that first. “To travel is better than to arrive” is a sentiment I’ve never fully accepted. I guess that makes me some sort of philistine, but the truth is most journeys bore me. I travel in order to arrive, and the way I look at it, the less time the traveling takes, the more time I have to enjoy the place I’m traveling to. The only reason some people remember so much about how they got to where they were going is that it took so damn long to get there. Mark my words—if they ever develop a practical Star Trek-type transporter, I won’t be the only one using it.

All that said, there is one form of travel—necessarily slow, and a bit complicated, and fairly expensive on a dollar-per-mile basis—that I find absolutely charming, and that’s ferries. British Columbia has an excellent ferry system, imaginatively named B.C. Ferries, that is the primary carrier between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada, and across a couple of bays on the western shore of B.C., which is called the Sunshine Coast. There are also ferries that run farther up the west coast, and I plan to take them one day.

I rode two ferries on this trip. The first took me (and the car) from Port Angeles, Washington, over to Victoria on Vancouver Island, and reacquainted me with the reason why I’ll never make a good sailor. The rain had been bucketing down for most of the previous day; in the morning it was windy as we left the dock, and once truly under way, the waves got choppy, as well. To look at the ferry from afar you wouldn't guess something of that size could be tossed around that much, but I swear there were times when we were headed in three directions at once. I won’t say the sight of other passengers eating breakfast made mine want to come up, but I had a few moments there when the deck seemed a better place to be than inside the cabin.

Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island, and the capital of the province of British Columbia, has been called a city of “newlyweds, nearly deads, and flower beds,” which neatly encompasses its reputation as a holiday destination, its high percentage of resident retirees, and its beautiful gardens, including the famous Butchart Gardens. The British influence is evident everywhere, enhanced by a constant parade of people of all ethnic and national backgrounds. For reasons I can’t fathom, I felt instantly at home there.

I spent two days in Saanich, north of Victoria, at a Howard Johnson motel staffed by individuals hell-bent on living up to the rest of the world’s notion that Canadians are excessively polite people. Even the local buses were apologetic (“Sorry, I am not in service”). I walked around Victoria far more than was good for my weak ankle, and reflected on the idea that had I come here on a bike, I’d be chafing to get back on it and go looking for good roads. But the road wasn't why I was here; it was where the road took me that mattered.

On my third day in Canada I drove to Nanaimo, on the east coast of the island, home to the ferry that would take me to the mainland the next day. Nanaimo has a neat little downtown, full of cafes and pubs and artsy shops and—here I bare my geekiness to you, gentle readers—used-book stores, which I dearly love to browse through. Leafing through an obscure volume that hasn’t seen the light of day for years, or a forgotten copy of a book I love, with the musty smell of old paper and cracked binding glue wafting up from the pages, does for me what meditation does for other people.

The ferry from Nanaimo to Vancouver suffered none of the directional indecision of the first one. It was a huge and impressive and well-appointed vessel, and before it even left the dock, people were sprawled on deck in the sun, or unwrapping sandwiches in the covered solariums in the bow and stern, or napping inside on one of the padded benches. There was a video game room for the youngsters, and TVs showing Coronation Street, a long-running British serial drama, and several snack bars. Out the window the sea slid by, and the snow-capped mountains across the strait grew larger, and finally we sidled into Horseshoe Bay northwest of Vancouver and I was back on the continent.

That night I had dinner with my friend Michael and his wife, Sharon. I first met Michael in 1995 (I think) when we had both come to a checkpoint of the Iron Butt Rally to see the riders arrive, check in, plan the next leg, and grab a few winks before setting out again on that 11-day, 11,000-mile exercise in self-abuse. Michael would later ride the Rally himself, proving that even the nicest, most rational-seeming people can fall prey to strange and dark urges.

Michael and Sharon fed me lavishly, Michael and I talked into the night, and after our goodbyes I checked into a business hotel nearby and slept soundly.

On my final day in Canada I went to Trev Deeley’s Harley dealership in Vancouver, also home to the Deeley Motorcycle Exhibition. There, contrary to my expectations, I found no Harleys on display, but instead a collection of rare and classic British bikes in an exhibition called End of Empire, about the decline of the British motorcycle industry (“A cautionary tale eerily reflective of today’s near collapse of the US automotive industry!”). If you’re headed that way soon, don’t miss it.

I managed to tear myself away around noon and headed south. The GPS said I had a long drive ahead of me if I wanted to get home that night, but every time I thought about stopping a little voice said, “Go on, just a few more miles, then get a motel.” That, of course, turned into an all-nighter, and I got home just before 11 p.m., after an 11-hour drive that probably explains why I haven’t been fully awake for the last two days.

I have a vague sense of dread that the credit-card bill for all this will beggar me for the next year. But it was worth it. And in a year I’ll be ready to go back. Hell, I’m ready now.

But first, I'm going back to bed.

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