Dispatches

Road King

Stephen Osborne

Wide open spaces.

This story begins with a young woman named Anne Marie, who turned nineteen the day her New York uncle rolled into Kamloops on the Harley-Davidson and pulled up at the espresso joint where Anne Marie and her boyfriend were drinking iced cappuccinos on the patio. Anne Marie watched the man on the motorcycle switch off and kick out the kickstand and she didn’t realize that he was her New York uncle until he took off his helmet and gloves and shook out his long white hair, and when he took off his reflector sunglasses she could see that his eyes were pink and his skin was alabaster white. That’s my Uncle Theodore, right here in Kamloops, she said to the boyfriend, who was beginning already to fade out of her life. Uncle Theodore stayed in the spare room at the back of the house on Battle Street and rode out into the country on the Harley-Davidson every day. He invited Anne Marie to climb aboard and they went up to the meadow behind Mount Paul and then down to Scadam flats and along the Trans-Canada to Shuswap Lake and back the other way to Deadman Valley, where on a quiet stretch along the river he showed Anne Marie how to operate the Harley by herself. When she throttled up alone for the first time and let out the clutch, she thought of a woman named Elena in the city of Kiev in Ukraine whose motorcycle diary she had been reading on the Internet. Elena owns a second hand Kawasaki Ninja ZZR-11, which she drives along abandoned highways in the dead zone around Chernobyl.

It had been Uncle Theodore’s intention to continue motorcycling all the way to the Pacific coast until one afternoon when he stopped to wait for the freight train to clear the crossing at the bottom of Second Avenue, and he felt something lift him up and put him down and then he discovered that his helmet strap had come unsnapped and his leathers unzipped. He began to suspect that he had been abducted by aliens operating in a time warp. His interest in the motorcycling life began to fade after the incident at the crossing, and one day at the beginning of forest-fire season he handed the keys to the Harley over to Anne Marie and climbed onto the seat behind her, and she switched on and kicked into gear and they rolled slowly down Victoria Street from one end to the other and onto the highway, and then she opened up and they swept in a rush over the big bridge to the airport.

The woman named Elena who keeps a motorcycle diary on the Internet is very fond of her Kawasaki Ninja, which has enough horsepower, she writes, to provide some serious bark. She was drawn to the empty highways in the dead zone around Chernobyl, where there hasn't been any traffic since the reactor melted down in 1986, and you can really open up on the straightaways, which haven't carried any traffic for forty years. She carries a geiger counter and keeps a watch on the micro-roentgens as she rolls along past immense poisoned fields filled with the hulks of trucks and helicopters and fire engines and buses and ambulances that were used to remove 3, people forever from their homes in a territory of some 3, square kilometres; the hulks were left to rust when they became too hot for further human use. She stops to photograph collapsed farmhouses and whole villages fallen to ruin, and then an entire city of derelict storefronts and dusty parks and apartment buildings that contain only abandoned furniture, and schools filled with children’s art and notebooks scattered in heaps in the classrooms: an entire civilization abandoned and discarded at the end of the road, which itself has been erased from official maps. She stays on the asphalt, which does not retain radiation. Entering these deserted sites makes her feel deaf, she writes: nothing looks or sounds like it belongs to this world. When the radiation level rises, she gets back onto Big Zed, which is her name for the Ninja, and accelerates away in order to limit the dosage, which she says should not exceed 5 micro-roentgens per hour.

These days, as Anne Marie powers over the highways through the cactus country on the Harley Davidson Road King given to her by her Uncle Theodore, she can feel the future pulling her away from the bone-dry hills of Kamloops, not out to the coast, where her uncle had been headed, but up, to the North, along the dwindling highways stretching 3, kilometres to the Arctic shore. The air around Kamloops is heavy with smoke from the forest fires that have begun to eat away at the suburbs. Occasionally Anne Marie stops to take photographs; among her subjects are the petroglyphs at Soda Creek and sections of the crumbling wooden flume built along the hillsides between Princeton and Peachland by remittance men from England a hundred years ago. She sends cards to her New York uncle postmarked Spuzzum, Boston Bar, Horsefly, Cache Creek, 1 Mile House, and she hasn’t yet mentioned Elena in the city of Kiev, a woman she has never met, whose presence she keeps to herself, a solitary rider in an empty land, accelerating into zones of the dead.

Big Zed “sleeps, disembowelled," Elena writes, "in the section of garage where I keep broken motorcycles that I rode in my lifetime." Her website is elenafilatova.com.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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