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What I learnt from a motorbike trip with my daughter

BY Peter Carter

31st May 2023 Life

What I learnt from a motorbike trip with my daughter

Peter Carter shares the adventures he's gone on with his daughters and the lessons he's learned, from partying at Burning Man to meditating on a motorbike

One sunny Saturday afternoon in 2014, I was southbound on Highway 427 in Toronto aboard my purple 1993 Harley-Davidson Sportster. This stretch of road, some 20 kilometres long, is one of the busiest in North America. At certain points, there are 14 lanes of traffic, much of it moving at 110-plus kilometres per hour. I was in one of the centre lanes—keeping a close eye on an 18-wheeler about 100 metres ahead.

I wasn’t worried for myself. I’d been biking for decades. My eyes were riveted on my 23-year-old daughter Ewa, a novice rider who was balanced on her recently purchased BMW F 650 GS. She was right beside that semi, in its dark shadow, looking as vulnerable as a snowflake. Thoughts swirled. One wrong move, and our world ends. I am powerless to help her. I let this happen. Am I the worst father ever?

"Both of my girls have taken me places I never imagined I’d go"

Ewa, a student at the time, made it home safely and hasn’t stopped riding since. She has put thousands of kilometres on that BMW, riding from our Toronto home east to Halifax, south to Tennessee and west to Vancouver in all types of weather and road conditions. The best part is that for exactly 8,208 of those kilometres, I’ve been riding with her.

I’ve had some stunning adventures with Ewa’s identical twin sister, Ria, too. In fact, both of my girls have taken me places I never imagined I’d go.

A trip to Burning Man

One afternoon in August 2016, Ria, at the time a funeral director and now a student psychotherapist, arrived at our house. She told my wife, Helena, and me that she was taking me to a festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada called Burning Man. Our daughters had attended a few years earlier, frolicking in the desert with 70,000 stoned hippies.

And they’d decided, without consulting me, that 2016 was my year to go. Not only had Ria obtained a pair of hard-to-get tickets, she’d also paid our plane fare. If I didn’t go, she’d be out $2,000.

So I said, “Okay.” It would be worth finding out what my kids knew about their dad that I didn’t.

Burning Man is for adventure-seeking west-coast types, computer whizzes from Silicon Valley, UCLA artists and other outside-the-lines colourers who have a taste for ecstasy (both the state of mind and the drug). Why did Ria think I should go?

The only drugs I take are for headaches and hay fever. I had been chair of the PTA at my kids’ school and a family columnist at a women’s magazine. A female friend once pegged me as a church-goin', 2.5-kids-with-a-minivan type of guy. She was absolutely right.

When we arrived in Nevada at Burning Man, it was dark; Ria and I soon got separated. As I searched for her the next morning, one of the first campers to greet me was a 30-something woman with long brown hair wearing absolutely nothing. (You may have guessed I was fully clothed.) She asked what I was looking for. I said, “My daughter.”

“What you need is a hug,” she said, and gave me one. “You’ll find your daughter,” she said. I did, a few hours later.

Peter Carter and his daughter Ria at Burning Man festival

Peter and Ria at Burnin Man

Burning Man takes place in a temporary city where attendees (called “burners”) shed normal life and throw a nine-day party that culminates in the burning of a giant wooden statue. Everybody travels around the site on sparklingly decorated bicycles, and the music only stops for a few hours around dawn, when most of the crowd is sleeping off the night before. Money rarely changes hands; the only things you can buy are ice and coffee. Otherwise, people share their food, booze—and, um, what have you—with complete strangers.

You never know what marvel you’ll find around the next corner. One mobile art installation was the fuselage of a full-sized, decommissioned 747. Imagine a Mad Max setting with pop-up concerts, Cirque du Soleil-calibre gymnastic displays, tantric sex workshops and a 10-metre-high wooden pirate ship—peopled by a few dozen Champagne-swigging “burners”—moving through the central plaza like a Trojan Horse.

But the most important part? Burning Man was a parenting milestone. Ria gave me the experience of a lifetime. To this day I can’t stop telling people about it.

On your bike

When it comes to high–proof fathering lessons, though, few adventures compare to the motorcycle trips I’ve shared with Ewa.

Our first journey, in August 2017, was a winding ride around the Catskills and Finger Lake districts of New York state. We avoided big highways and spent the week on twisty scenic back roads. At one point, I found myself riding alongside a Catskills meadow not far from Woodstock, keeping pace with a fawn and yelling, “Go Bambi, go!”

On our second day in, we stopped in a small town for ice cream. I asked the woman at the picnic table next to us: “What’s the name of this town?”

“Interlaken,” she answered. “Where are you trying to get to?”

Me: “We don’t know.”

It occurred to me then that I’d always wanted to do this no-schedule kind of trip, when you ride just for the sake of riding. Ask any middle-aged motorcyclist: We’ve all fantasized about doing the Easy Rider thing, tossing our wristwatches into the ditch and heading toward the horizon without a plan. Now, travelling with no destination became a trademark of my rides with Ewa.

"We’ve all fantasized about doing the Easy Rider thing, heading toward the horizon without a plan"

Since we almost never knew where we were going, we were almost never disappointed when we arrived. Pulling off the highway at the end of each day carried with it exhilaration. The reason to celebrate? We hadn’t crashed!

Because the truth is, life on a motorbike is one close call after another. En route, riders must stay focused 100 per cent of the time. A tiny patch of loose gravel can be fatal. I used to say I found it nerve-rattling, but Ewa had a different take: “To me, motorcycling is like meditation.”

And I came to realize she was right. At the end of a day’s riding, after checking into whatever roadside, family-run inn we’d picked, I’d be exhausted—but mentally clearer than ever. After a roadhouse meal and a Budweiser or two, sleep was never elusive.

One summer, we toured northern Michigan. That odyssey included a stop to ask directions at the Big Ugly Fish Tavern, whose claim to fame is being the dive-iest bar in Saginaw. It also involved the scary thrill of riding a couple of kilometres with no helmet, which is legal for adults in Michigan, albeit with insurance conditions. We also biked to a town called Bad Axe simply because it was a town called Bad Axe.

Peter Carter and Ewa on their motorbike trip

Peter and Ewa mid-road trip in British Columbia

There were a few exceptions to the no-destination rule. On our 2019 trip, after riding south from Toronto for two days, Ewa and I arrived in a town called Deal’s Gap, North Carolina. That was the starting point of the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a “must-ride” for any motorcyclist: It’s 17 kilometres on two narrow lanes and has more than 300 curves. Much of one side is a wall of mountain, the other a sheer drop—and there are no guardrails. A sign at the beginning of the route reads: “High Motorcycle Crash Area next 11 miles.”

As if to prove the sign right, about 15 minutes into the route my front wheel hit the dirt beside the pavement; I lost control and drove clumsily down into the shallow grassy ditch, juddering to a stop. Since 50 metres further there was no ditch—only a cliff—my “incident” could have been a lot worse. The only thing hurt was my ego.

Had I known how challenging the Tail of the Dragon was going to be, I would not have ridden it. I am a boringly cautious motorcyclist. The Dragon was Ewa’s suggestion, and I’m from-the-bottom-of-my-heart grateful that she led me down that path. The route was an absolute thrill ride and my minor wipeout only added to the excitement.

Going solo

In August 2020, Ewa moved from Toronto to Vancouver to work as an American Sign Language interpreter. She rode her bike west and I accompanied her for the first 1,300 kilometres across the north shore of Lake Superior. Ewa had been going through a rough time emotionally and wanted to cover the remaining 3,000 kilometres solo. So right there at the top of the world’s largest freshwater lake, we hugged, and she headed west while I turned east.

A few hours later I hit a tricky part of the highway, steep and coiling, and one section actually had me riding west once again, staring straight into the blinding sunset. I realized through teary eyes that the twists and turns on this stretch pretty much summed up my emotions as I saw my daughter ride off that day.

Ewa on her motorbike

Ewa, helemt free in Michigan

The next year, 2021, our week-long bike trip in southern British Columbia coincided with some of the worst forest fires the area has ever seen. I met Ewa in Vancouver, and we headed north on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, past Whistler, past Pemberton, on to Cache Creek—where we found ourselves between mountains on fire. We’d had no idea what we had been riding into; the fires happened so fast. The valleys seemed consumed by flames. 

The next day, as we made our way northwest along Highway 16, we were handed striking reminders of whose backyard we were biking through: First, a huge brown bear crossed right in front of us, and then, a few kilometres later, a sleek tan-coloured cougar.

Three days later we reached Prince Rupert, almost to the top of the province’s coast, and boarded the posh Northern Adventure ferry for a scenic 16-hour cruise to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.

What made this trip so special was not just that it was the first for which we actually had a plan—it was that Ewa took it on herself to be the planner. We didn’t even have a conversation about it; she just took care of it all.

I’m the father; wasn’t I supposed to plan the family holidays? But Ewa had not only arranged to borrow the bike I was riding from a friend, she organized the itinerary and even purchased the ferry tickets. She wouldn’t let me pay.

A baton had been passed from one generation to the next. Wordlessly. I did not see that coming.

"I’m the father; wasn’t I supposed to plan the family holidays?"

My old Harley has no gas gauge. When the main gas tank is empty, the bike slows. You reach down with your left hand and switch to the much smaller auxiliary tank. At that point you have only a few kilometres’ worth of gas left.

You’d think that after all these years I would know better than to run out. But there I was, on the first day of one of my annual trips with Ewa, on a lonely stretch of highway leading towards the US border at Sarnia, Ont., and my bike sputtered to a stop. There were no homes or businesses in sight.

Ewa was getting smaller as she headed into the distance, not realizing she was riding alone. When she finally noticed I was no longer in her rear-view mirror, she turned back. As a father, it’s humbling to be in that position.

Throughout my adult life, in raising my kids I’ve followed my own parents’ lead: I stood aside and offered support while Ewa, Ria and their younger brother, Michel, found their own way in life. I seldom said, “No.”

But when Ewa said she wanted to wait with the out-of-fuel bike on the side of the country road while I went for gas, I said no way. I would not leave her vulnerable out here for goodness knows how long. She insisted, but I was firm, and Ewa finally gave in and went off in search of gas.

Because no matter how old your kids get, you never stop being a dad

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