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For me, throttle therapy is a chance to contemplate life — from behind the handlebars

This First Person article is the experience of Grant Bawolin, a lifelong Edmontonian who grew up in the northeast and now lives with his family in the southwest. His story is part of The Henday Project, a CBC Edmonton initiative focused on the suburbs. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

for me throttle therapy is a chance to contemplate life from behind the handlebars

“Let’s ride,” he said. “There’ll be girls. Lot’s of ’em.”

In September 1984, Pope John Paul II conducted an outdoor mass for 125,000 people on a delta of farmland near the Namao air base. My buddy and I decided to cycle over the night before to engage and entertain some of the thousands of pilgrims camped out in anticipation. 

Specifically, our not-so-well-veiled teenage plan targeted visitors of the female variety.

The memory still brings a chuckle when I pass under 97th Street while riding along Anthony Henday Drive on my motorcycle. Throngs of people lined that road, cheering the pope like he was a rock star as he whisked safely past in his Popemobile.

The evening before was pretty cool, too. Dozens of bonfires lit the night; the atmosphere was electric. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that most of our mingling wasn’t alone with the young ladies but in the presence of their properly overprotective parents.

for me throttle therapy is a chance to contemplate life from behind the handlebars 1
Pope John Paul II in his vestments waves to the thousands gathered on Sept.17, 1984, for his open air mass at Namao air base just outside of Edmonton. (Vatican Pool/The Canadian Press)

My motorcycle trips around the Henday are part time machine, part throttle therapy. For an hour or so, my mind gets a break from the everyday as I ride past the sights, sounds and smells that bring back memories that have shaped me, my life and the city.

Edmonton’s north side, now populated to the Henday’s edge, was once a network of rural roads, industrial properties and hobbyist farmland. I learned to drive on those gravel roads from a gravel-voiced instructor who would yank the handbrake to teach me how to control an icy road skid.

Best. Lesson. Ever.

As the Henday crosses the North Saskatchewan River and bends south, it awakes the uneasy feelings associated with a dark day in 1987. But I don’t let them come yet. 

Moose Milk, first dates

First I offer a mental toast to a junior high pal whose current hustle — bottled Moose Milk — is just east of here. Google it. You can thank me later.

To the west is refinery row, the scene of a defining experience from my youth when this gap-year construction gopher finally got up the nerve to ask the grass-cutting girl out on a date. We golfed, ate pizza and had fun. Or so I thought. After dinner, possibly anticipating a second date request, she told me that she was leaving the country. Ouch.

By now, those uneasy feelings are now fully awake. If the air is particularly humid and the dark clouds have rolled in, I look to the sky. 

We mourned with those of the Evergreen Mobile Home Park, the neighbourhood that was hit hardest when the Black Friday tornado ripped through the city on July 31, 1987. In the trailer park alone, almost 200 homes were destroyed, an untold number of pets vanished and the lives of 15 citizens abruptly ended. Another 12 perished further along refinery row. We learned phrases like “Doppler radar” and “Fujita scale.” 

for me throttle therapy is a chance to contemplate life from behind the handlebars 2
A mobile home with only part of its kitchen left standing gives an idea of the destructive force of the tornado which ripped through parts of Edmonton in 1987. (Dave Buston/The Canadian Press)

A few hundred metres either way and the kilometre-wide tornado could have killed hundreds or thousands, caused a major ecological disaster and decimated an Edmonton industrial complex. 

Instead, I proudly recall the rescue and cleanup efforts of a caring community of strangers brought together by the devastation. We had no time to think, only act. So we did. 

Thirty-five years ago. Twenty-seven dead. I still can’t believe it happened.

Riding further south toward the Highway 14 exit, I revisit a fresher, more recent memory — my mom’s first and only motorcycle ride. 

Alaska was on her horizon but cancer took her first. The pandemic delayed her burial but after finally placing her cremains — and, as she’d requested, those of the dogs she’d loved during her lifetime — my parting words were: “It wasn’t Alaska. But I hope you enjoyed the ride.” 

for me throttle therapy is a chance to contemplate life from behind the handlebars 3
A ghost bike marks the scene of a fatal accident that occurred along Anthony Henday Drive near the 111th Avenue on-ramp in west Edmonton. (Therese Kehler/CBC)

Of the many memories along this 80-plus kilometre route, a particularly poignant one comes between 111th Avenue and the Edson-Jasper exit. On a grassy knoll to the east stands a painted white motorcycle. It’s a ghost bike commemorating the tragic loss of a young female rider.

Each time I pass, I pay my respects and she, in turn, reminds me to stay safe. To make it home to those who are waiting for me.

Driving lessons, life lessons

Once before a summer evening ride, my witty, Nintendo 3DS-gaming son looked up and said “3DSS,” which in his cryptic way meant “Dad, Don’t Do Stupid Sh**.”

Message received.

While teaching him to drive, I remind my son to heed his own advice while slipping in some life lessons with the driving ones. You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,  I tell him.

His eyes roll.

To some people, Anthony Henday Drive is an asphalt shortcut — a concrete means to an end. To me, it is our city’s circle of life: a living, breathing connection to where we are going. And where we’ve been.

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