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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Hunt For Isabella

There is one reason that this trip stands out from the others that i've taken before- that reason has two wheels, 249 cubic centimetres, and a certain element of danger. I'm of course talking about the bike. As critical as the bike is, and as hard as I've been looking, no viable options appeared. until last week. This is the (long) story of how I found that bike, and how 3 friends made the trip to pick her up (For those of you wondering back at home - yes, I am writing these entries while under the influence of Canada's finest biére - Unibroue.

The KLR250 is one of the most versitile and reliable bikes out there (see previous posts for an explanation as to why). Hence their popularity - at any one time, several are for sale on Perth's Gumtree classifieds, and several more make the Quokka. However, the Northeast area of the US and Canada is a different matter. Not that they aren't popular - they are, however the weather dictates that even KLr Jnrs must be stored inside for the snowy season (until a reliable snowmobile attachment can be made - someone get on that). Therefore, most are still garaged at this time of the year, and owners are not trying to sell. So I kept my ear to the ground, and waited.

For some reason, the Quokka/Gumtree combo hasn't taken off here as a system of classfieds. So I consulted the convuluted mess that is Craigslist. Yes, I searched the classifieds that listed "KLR 250" next to "Kinky 50 yr old man seeks 2 tailed furry for fun, maybe more". To make things easier (and retain some naivety regarding other's private lives), I found Bikefinds, which searches craigslist, eBay and Kijiji for the US. I manually checked Ontario and the Border states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire & Maine. Why not Québec, I hear you ask? Although closer and convenient, bikes are expensive in Québec, and to register it here includes 3rd party insurance - an expensive ($400) prospect when I'll only have it here for a while.

There were a few bites. A 2000 model here, a 2004 model there. But by the time the owner got around to my email, the bike was already sold. I had to get proactive. Luckily, Sofie mentioned she had relatives in Massachusetts, where we could stay overnight if needed. My searchable area had expanded. Then, someone posted a bike for sale while I was online. I emailed, SMS'd and left a phone message within minutes. This bike would be mine. I was excited - it was a great bike (2004 with 2000 miles), and about 20km from sofie's relatives house! I quickly ascertained that this bike was free from serious fault, and committed to buy it, as is. It was locked in, the roadtrip organized, and everything was goinggreat. Until the owners decided they liked the bike too much, and weren't going to sell.

While I understand the appeal of the bike, if you advertise that you're going to sell a bike, you should be sure that you REALLY want to sell the bike. I'm biting my tongue now, but you can be sure I uttered every curse word in the english language (and in a rare moment of bilingualism, a fair few French and Qébecois ones too!).

The trip was still on, and the clock was ticking down. If you even had a KLR 250 in the NE, you probably got an email or call from me, and for that I apologise. A few days later, another bike was advertised, again not far from our organised sleepover spot. This one WOULD BE MINE, ALL MINE, AND DAMN THOSE WHO TRIED TO STOP ME. I practically stuffed my cash and paperwork down this poor guys throat, but he still said yes, and it was truly locked in.

For those of you who are thinking of riding a motorbike in the Northeast US or Canada, I have a few pieces of advice. Firstly, make friends with someone from Vermont. The Green Mountain State is one of the few that doesn't require you to be an actual resident of the state to register a vehicle there, as long as you have an address (not a PO box) for them to mail stuff to, they're happy. Once you have an address, Progressive insurance will insure you for the US and Canada. While it took me literally days on the internet to work this out, It took less than an hour to organise over the phone and in person, once I had worked out what to say to whom and when. The visit to the Vermont DMV in Montpelier had to be the fastest, most pleasant US government I've ever had - took 15 minutes to be seen, register and receive the plates for my bike - WA licensing, take note.

The added bonus is that you have to travel to one of the main offices - may not seem like a bonus, until you see the kind of roads and scenery Vermont has. Twists and turns (on the interstate!) over undulating hills, surrounded by lush wooded mountains and crossing wild, whitewater rivers. I'm excited just to go back to have the bike inspected (all new registrations must go over the pits within 15 days).

Anyway, back to the bike. So on saturday, Mat, Sofie and I piled into an Enderle company pickup, chucked our stuff in the back, and headed for the border. The US/Canada border is an unusual thing - the US is famously uptight about border security, and Canada is famously friendly. This lends itself to an uneven questioning/interrogation process. Leaving Canada? please wait for the automated boom gate to open, then go on through. Entering the US? Bend over. Although I'm sure the border guard was probably just being friendly, questions from a person in power always makes me nervous. However, I've found their kryptonite - an incredibly unusual, bearaucracy riddled situation. In short, tell them something they didn't expect (and not "I've got 2 grams of coke up my bum" - that won't end well), and it'll instantly throw them off their game, and put you in the "too hard to thoroughly question" basket. for example, when a US border guard asks "where are you headed?", he is not expecting an Australian to say "Eventually?.... Antarctica". It stops any line of questioning he may have lined up normally, that's for sure. It also works on the Canadian border, but more on that later.

Once across the border we headed across the islands of lake Champlain, some of the most beautiful countryside in the US. Think historical waterside villages mixed with rolling hills and quaint countryside. It's the kind of imagery that defines New England, and why I love the area so much. 5 hours later, we reached Massachusetts, and Isabella (In case you haven't worked it out yet, I've named the bike Isabella - after the queen that backed Christopher Columbus. Similarly, this bike is helping me to explore America). I wasted no time in getting dressed and going on a test ride through the frankly posh neighbourhood of Hopkinton, MA. Thanks to the aftermarket exhaust pipe, I'm pretty sure most residents knew of my ride. Once the paperwork had been signed and money counted out ($2000 in $20 notes resembles a brick, and could hurt someone if thrown, by the way), the bike was loaded on the back of the truck and we headed over to see Sofie's Uncle.

Simon may have left Australia for the US over 20 years ago, but he sounds as though he is over for a holiday. I for one, was impressed. We bonded instantly over a few beers, talking about bikes (he's a sometime Triumph enthusiast, and has raced motorbikes previously). He was full of trivia, and I lapped it up. He definitely reminds me of one of my own uncles, and I appreciated his company. We all had dinner at a local brewpub with Sofie's cousin Hannah, and then headed out to sample the best nigthlife nearby Worcester had to offer.

When most people hear "best nightlife" they think classy lounges, massive raves or a pub so old no one could tell you when it really opened. Not me - I'm looking for experiences. that's not to say that a classy lounge can't be the best option, but only if you can talk about it later. If a night out isn't memorable, then why spend your money? I can't remember the name of the nice tapas bar we visited first, but I remember Ralph's - It may be a dive, but when was the last timle you drank in a cordoned off carpark, being served drinks from a disused railcar? Exactly. Long story short, we visited a few places, had several local brews and a few multinational conglomerates, and headed home at around 3am.

This was a long weekend in Canada (Victoria Day) so we had Sunday free to explore nearby Boston. We caught a lift and a long train into the city centre, where we had the day to explore the town. We ended up following most of the Freedom trail, but in much nicer weather than when I did it last time. Got my Clam Chowder fix, and managed to make it into Mike's pastry shop this time for a Canoli. I can see why they're popular, but to have more than one a week would put your insulin production in serious trouble.

Monday morning, it was time to get covered up. with insurance, that is. Armed with a legit address and VIN, I called and protected myself. Normally on a trip I have the basic "we'll send you home in a pine box, we swear" cover, but this time, I have top of the line (platinum, platinum everywhere) insurance to cover anybody near me. Seriously, if someone gets a cold within a 5km radius of me, I half expect a team of SEAL trained doctors to abseil from a chopper and burst through my door, stethescopes and cold tablets in hand.

Then it was time to register the bike in the not-so-bustling metropolis of Montepelier, VT. This is the state capital of Vermont, but rivals Busselton in size, and Pemberton in appearance. If it wasn't for the gold covered dome on the state bulding (on State st, with the DMv with all other government buildings), you wouldn't have known. I loved it, and not just because I was in and out of the DMv in less time than it takes me to get dressed in the morning. The defining points of Montpelier? The old jail is now a creche/hangout spot, the hardware store has its chekout in the middle of the store (they're not worried about theives), and when I noticed Mat had gone into a place called Rivendell books, I looked around and thought, "yeah this could pass for a US version of Rivendell". Beautiful town.

After that, it was time to test this insurance. Firstly, my health insurance - Vermont is the home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. A short trip later, we were standing outside the factory about to start a tour of the production facility. It's a nice place, and one of the few ice cream companies that values social equity and environmental preservation. So do your bit for the earth and the less fortunate, and tuck in! For the record, I grabbed a tiedye shirt, and a coupon for a free pint anywhere in North America. In the future, if I've had a particularly bad day, one of those will cheer me up.

Next up: auto insurance. We unloaded the bike, put the brand new plate on, and headed for the border, myself on Isabella following Mat and Sofie in the truck. I instantly knew this trip was a good idea - even on the US interstate, arguably the most boring of roads, I was enjoying myself. But I really enjoyed the back roads. what didn't I enjoy? - the 90 minute wait at the border.

It seemed we had hit peak hour on a long weekend, like being in Mandurah in a freeway traffic jam. Balls. A kick start bike is not designed for a stop-start-travel 10 metres, then stop again- type of traffic, and the novelty wore off. By the time we got to the front, I had contemplated walking the bike to the gate. But the staff were under pressure, and in no mood to fool around. As I've explained before, I won't do border crossings in another tongue if possible, as the consequences of being misunderstood are too great. So when he started talking in french, I responded in English. To be fair, I understood little of what he said, but started talking in english so he'd get the idea - no dice. He kept going in french, until I had to stop him, and give him my passport. Then a few customary questions, and my situation again blew his mind - why was an Australian, living down the road in Canada, in posession of a Vermont plated vehicle? When I started to explain, I could see he was thinking about the time the number of forms that would have to be filled out, the time I would take up and the growing crew of impatient Canadiens. Eventually, he repeated his questions, and guided my answers - no, I have nothing to declare. If he could have thrown his passport at me through the glass, he would have. I rode off on his exasperated sigh - little did he know Mat and Sofie were right behind. Poor guy.

 Anyway, we got through the border and home to Hemmingford after 3 days, 900km and a few stories. Isabella is now in my possession, and the trip is about to get interesting for the bike enthusiasts.....

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