Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Night Ride

Sam and I left Ottawa at 5 on Friday. We had designs of coming into North Bay at 8:30 or 9, a little after sunset. We then spent an hour on the 417 crawling towards Kanata. So, by choice or not, we would be making a night ride across Highway 17. It’s a drive I’ve made countless times, heading home from Montreal for weekends and holidays, and most usually at night. But this was the first time on the bike.

The road winds alongside the Ottawa River, climbs out of the Ottawa Valley, and eventually takes a turn at Mattawa towards North Bay. Along the way you pass through towns with names rivaling Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. There is Pembroke, Petawawa, Deep River, Laurentian Hills, Rapides des Joachims, the Townships of Head, Clara, and Maria, then Mattawa and the race for home.

By the time we finished dinner at the Big Stop in Pembroke we knew we’d be riding in the dark. By the time we hit Deep River it was black and almost pitched. Soon we were the only two things on the road, high beams lighting up the trees and rock cuts, and alerting the drivers coming over the hills in the other direction. As we climbed higher the air got cooler. When we came down to Deux Rivieres, where you cross a strip of land with water on both sides, we pushed through a patch of fog and flies. Then we were back on the throttles, stopping only to make phone calls to worried parties, add layers, and clean our face screens.

As it gets darker the sky gets clearer and the stars brighter, but the road hides more. The moonlight cannot get through the canopy of rock cuts and pines. And when it is just pines on the sides you keep your eyes peeled for deer. We saw only a fox which ran in front of my bike. It startled me, though nothing like the time I was a passenger in a car driving through Algonquin on the way from Sackville to Huntsville and woke up to see the chest of a moose out the driver’s side window. His head so high we passed clear underneath it, and Janine Rogers so shocked she pulled the car over.

For the last half of the ride I can think of only three things. The time I made this drive at Christmas and saw a fire across a field and a group of people gathered around it. I wanted more than anything to stop and join them, but knew better things were waiting farther down the road. Then, the sense of relative isolation, alone but for my riding partner in the middle of nowhere, and thinking of what would happen if we were to meet a deer. And then, the Charity of Night:

The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night

By the time we arrive in North Bay the whole crew is there. We’ll repeat the ride back on Sunday, but not before being reminded of why it is worth the miles. And not before glassed raised to the charity of night.

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