Wednesday, July 10, 2013

150 Mile Wide Grin (Final)

It was Sunday morning and with apologies to God, I snatched the remote and tuned to CNN that I might wake up slowly, unassaulted by the fists of "Temple Television's" pharisees.

It had taken at least an hour to calm down enough to undress, my clothes stuck to me by icy sweat that even the 15 minutes in the Super Eight Motel rental office under a high wattage heat lamp didn't fix. Once inside my room I'd sat on the edge of the bed in full regalia for a complete showing of Starsky and Hutch, too exhausted to move, too hypothermic to change the channel, too hypnotized to laugh at the fact that I'd watched the episode in prime time in its original form 20 years before

Then, the peel began. Choppers, half-gloves, cotton gloves, rainsuit, canvas jacket, flannel shirt, sweatshirt, t-shirt, bibs, jeans, polypants, galoshes, cowboy boots, skating socks, polysox....I left my silver eagle feather necklace on as it'd brought me luck to that point, and I thought falling over in the shower after successfully riding through a blizzard would be an ultimate embarrassment.

I'm not sure how long I actually showered, but I'm betting there was a song written about the day Wall South Dakota had nary a drop of hot water left to its name. And still I was cold. I'd spent the night shivering, fetal positioned in the center of a king sized bed, the cheap, paper thin comforter pulled under me so tight I'm sure it appeared as if I'd been robbed and the thieves had duck taped me into a blanket to effect a safe getaway.
The next morning the storm had passed, the sun was bright and the atmosphere cheery, at least for those inclined to be bright and cheery in 20 degree temperatures. Once I'd done the daily necessaries, including another 110 degree, 40 minute shower that peeled a few layers of skin from my back, I took a hike to a local cafe to infuse my blood with black coffee for the ride home.

As I putzed through breakfast I began the mental ritual of toughening up, a sort of mano y mano game played between the conscious and subconscious that hopefully results in believing the lie that one is immune to pain and discomfort. Then I paid the bill and slowly walked back to the motel, pulling on as many cigarettes as I could get down in the time I had left as there would be no smoking for at least a hundred forty miles.

All the warm and dry clothes I had left found their way onto my frame. I just wanted to get this over with as quickly as I could so layers had to make up for rest stops soon to be ignored. At the point, just before a good push might drop me onto my back where I’d lay suspended like a turtle, unable to roll over and stand up again, I quit layering and pulled on the rain suit that would need to stop below zero wind chill in its tracks; then started the bike to let it warm as I packed up.

The few blocks to the one open gas station gave me insight into what the day would be like. The number twenty six rolled across the face of the local bank as I cruised town, a black polyester man with a black full face helm on a black motorcycle set against the crisp whiteness of six to eight foot drifts of newfallen yet already hardened snow. I’d have been frightening to children had any been outdoors. But as it was just me and the gas station attendant, I filled up and hung around for one last smoke after all, inside, where the heat was. As I toked the last few puffs I again fought the good fight within, telling myself that I was about to cruise the beaches of Costa del Sol in my dune buggy for a few hours, warning myself to drink plenty of liquids or risk heat stroke.

Actually the last part kind of ruined the vision as plenty of liquids would only make me need to urinate, and with 5 pairs of pants on, that was the last thing I needed.

I walked as if Clint Eastwood to a gunfight, straddled my mule without so much as using my hands and with two flicks of fingers well encased in thinsulate and wool, set the engine to churning, taking just a moment to wriggle my now extraordinarily huge ass into the frosted leather seat. I kicked into first gear and set my right foot onto the highway bar for maximum visual effect, and then waved to the clerk inside, pretending that there was actually one human being on the entire skin of the earth that gave a rat’s ass what position I was in, and would take the time to wish me well. I thought I saw him make the sign of the cross, but it was likely just my visor frosting up.

It’s interesting how cold works in real life, as opposed to science. In Minnesota we’d frequently debate the effects of wind-chill on inanimate objects, partly to give pompous east and west coasters something with which to make fun of us, as if the fact that we talk about the weather at all means we don’t have anything else to say. But really the discussion had to due with the difficulty of starting a car that’s been outdoors all night in a below zero storm, and meteorologists' denial that the wind has anything to do with it.

We poor people know that it’s because television guys can afford two year leases and three stall garages, and haven’t seen a piece of crap car since their anecdotal science is biased in favor of the rich, as everything is in America. If you have a junker and live in town, meaning your garage is full of the crap your wife wouldn’t let you store in the basement so there’s no room for your vehicle, the chance your car will start in time for you to go to work on any winter morning is directly proportional to the temperature combined with the wind; well, and your bosses level of anger over you being late.

The debate was never about whether the wind had an effect, but in what way. One theory was that an engine block would cool more rapidly and so, more thoroughly if a 30 knot wind was whipping across the hood. The other was more logical and more likely the truth. It said if it was so cold that having to use jumper cables would be an incredibly painful exercise, then Murphy’s Law would demand the car turn one crank and then die, leaving the driver to his shouted vulgarity of choice, only to be drowned out by the happy howling wind in any case.

It’s different on a human body of course, skin not having the tinsel strength of aluminum and fiberglass. Once covered, a human can take extreme cold and the wind is not a factor so they say. But it is, I’m here to argue. Because the wind is like sand, it finds every hole, every crease, every crooked tooth on every zipper and it seeps slowly toward its eventual target, the will to persevere in the face of death by hypothermia. Within a few dozen miles on Interstate 90 I’d reached the stage I like to call “who gives a shit” cold, in honor of the response given when asked the question, how cold do you think it really is? There’s cold, then real cold, then damn cold, and finally, who gives a shit cold; and yes, I’d found my way there in a hurry.

It occurred to me to get off the main drag as on a Sunday after a blizzard the only likely speed trappers in the state would be looking for travelers, so once I’d reached the turnoff for Pierre, I jumped on it and rode quickly through the capital. East of the city there was little more than a few scattered towns with less than a thousand people in them, and by the looks of it everyone had decided to stay home. I’d never seen less traveled roads. So I cranked it up a notch, grit my teeth, laid my chest on the gas tank and went for glory.

Most of South Dakota I passed through within a few mph of 100. I figured if I’d been stopped by a copper, they’d sit me in the back seat while they scolded me and wrote the ticket; and maybe a half hour spell of humid auto heat would be well worth the hundred bucks I’d have to pay for it. I never got to find out, no doubt Murphy had his eye on me checking his law book at every intersection I blew through.

I did however learn something about nature that I’d never before noticed. As I was trying to avoid radar and cut time both at once, I tended to take any cowpath road that kept me on a straight line toward home so long as said road was black with tar as in, already plowed. One such road found me close to the border, refueled and rested, so I was at maximum daring when I veered off state 14 onto this ribbon of darkness.

It was perfect for my purposes; houses spread miles apart, two lanes in reasonable repair with no shoulders and barely a white line to mark the edge of life as we know it. I hunkered down into the center of the strip and pushed the Shadow as hard as it’d go, the speedometer stopping at 110 where the company had put a metal fob in the path of the needle of death. I don’t know how fast I was actually going, probably 115, maybe 120... it’s a little like the who gives a shit cold I was mentioning, after a point had I fallen I’d only be a splat anyway and a few miles per hour difference wouldn’t modify the size of the splat so .....

It was fun for a bit, the adventure of speed, the majesty of snow lit horizon, the flicking a middle finger at the Grim Reaper because even he would be a welcome companion in lieu of the mind numbing cold I was enduring. And then I noticed the road’s edge was turning blacker up ahead for some reason; blacker and lumpy as if the rubber truck had just passed and dropped a trail of molten tires on each shoulder.

Slowing from 120 when a body is near frozen is a little like trying to turn the Exxon Valdez on a dime. I was into the blackness before the little electric signals had made their way from my brain to my throttle hand, and by then it was way too late to matter.

The road was lined with birds, all snuggling the last vestige of heat dumped by a slowly setting sun into exposed roadway. And as I approached the poor little things thought to get out of my way just in case I was a madman looking for trouble. Birds don’t think too fast I’m told, nor too cleverly I found out. I was going so fast that by the time they’d flapped a few inches off the ground I was in their faces, and then to escape they flew across the road, rather than away from it. I spose all that turning around just to fly the other direction would have been frightfully time consuming, so of course they just leapt straight ahead.

It was raining birds, I felt like Tippy Hedrin, my helmet was being pounded like a bohdran drum. I had bird in my lap and bird on my arms and bird caught in every nook and cranny of the bike. I was like the most powerful shotgun blast ever to hit middle South Dakota, I must have left enough birds on that highway to fill two dozen pies for Old King Cole, at 4 and 20 blackbirds each.

Sure I felt badly, I don't even hunt though I'll admit to cooking Cornish hen here and there. But it was suicide on the bird's part, not murder on mine; I was just the bullet that gave them all a ticket to their sweet chariot home.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, but I was quite jumpy every time I noticed black patches near the road. Once I'd crossed the border it was all moot anyway; Minnesota Highway Patrol have no sense of humor about being passed by a motorcycle in the snowy spring, and there are too many of them roaming free to guess which roads I'd be safe I slowed to within 20 mph of the limit.

They say the majority of accidents happen very near the home, so I guess in retrospect it's not surprising that the death I cheated was within 10 miles of my house after having lived through the near impossible. It was black ice at an intersection and near sunset; I didn't see it coming and it turned the bike 20 degrees left in the blink of an eye. As I felt the machine start to go over I instinctively slammed my right foot into the ground and pulled up as if it were a bicycle between my legs and not 400 pounds of steel. The forward motion almost threw my foot into the rear wheel but somehow the maneuver worked; I was upright and slowing to a stop, with only what turned out to be a torn ligament to whine about. It's a good thing in the end as I would have crossed lanes and there were two stacks of cars coming my way that surely would have made a rag doll of me before they'd finished.

I’m sure everyone has a journey that will never leave their frontal lobe because it was so exhilarating, the images will never fade. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few, of which this was likely the most fun....and one of the most fun to tell.

1 comment:

  1. Ah! A lucky escape indeed. There must be a (fickle) God of Motorcyclists