Tuesday, July 9, 2013

150 Mile Wide Grin (one)

There's one problem with being impulsive by nature. Rash decisions are commonplace and once in a while lead to trouble when control of a situation is not in your hands. But some of these make for fascinating adventures as danger seems to imbed memory more than any other force.

It was mid-April 1990 and the country was going through an unusually warm spring. Old enough to know better but impetuous enough to give knowledge a back seat to fantasy, I decided to visit my father in Arizona, near 3000 miles from my home; on a motorcycle.

I had a month to blow before my next freelance gig and watching the weather forecasts led me to believe I could skirt winter's last hurrah if I timed and routed my rocket ship just right. Five days down, two weeks there and five days back would put me near May on my return; and while May in the mountains can be just as treacherous as January, I figured after 34 years of riding I could handle anything mother nature threw at me.

I'd planned on riding through Flaming Gorge on my way to the freeway that would give me a beeline home. It was one of the few areas in the US that I'd not seen firsthand and would be all the more beautiful with snowpack, so I thought. But as I ran the mountain ridges through Utah that led to my pass, the weather was increasingly colder and moderately threatening at times.

Still pointing due north, I blasted up the highway toward the state line until light snow began to fall and gave my second thoughts time to bash me about the head and shoulders. I had an alternate route and there was little reason to find myself stranded in what could be a blizzard at altitude, so I quickly decided to turn east and try to outrun the storm through the dinosaur lands of Northern Colorado.

Riding a motorcycle alone through the high plains and deserts of the west is an experience unimaginable to those who haven't done it. The low thumping drone of the engine, the mostly barren, endless horizon dotted with sage and scrub, pale earth occasionally split by deeply cut streams and gravel covered dry beds waiting for the next torrential rain to come alive.

The rare oncoming car notwithstanding, you feel as if the only human being on the planet; Just you and God, or mother nature or whoever you consider your ethereal partner in life, speeding past fenceposts dotted with old cowboy boots, ramshackle ranch houses and closed for the season roadside shanties, their signs still howling of the inexpensiveness and beauty of authentic Indian handmade jewelry.

Your destination has no consequence, only this mile is of importance...and then the next and the next as tiny snowflakes drift in slow motion, the constant winds sometimes whipping them into white, glistening dustdevils or shadowy figures too distant to identify but too curious to ignore; as if God himself had taken earthly shape and was clearing a path that you might get home safe and sound.

I did outrun the weather eventually and turned north again, aiming for Newcastle Wyoming where I might spend the night before attempting my last mountain cross; the Black Hills being the final twisty obstacle to flat land speed.

It was dark night when I pulled into the hamlet, in fact black for hours as I'd passed through national grasslands at 90 mph, dodging shivering deer and coyotes as they hovered at the edge of the road, leeching the last of the days stored warmth from the ribbon of tar.

Drawn to the first vacancy sign, I paid my freight and set my many bags and a few layers of clothing inside the dismal room. The owner had tipped me off to a pub nearby where I could still get a burger and beer at this hour, and I walked the few blocks to a fine, warm evening meal.

On my return to my new home, I switched on the weather channel and assessed my risks. Being a pilot likely made me a tad overconfident, my meteorological knowledge grade-school level at best, but my ego always ready to inflate my molehills of theory into mountains of fact.

Maybe it was not overconfidence but subconscious desperation that drove me to believe I could beat the onrushing winter storm described in great detail that night. In either case I set the alarm for dawn and slept my suspicions away in preparation for the ride of my life.
At daybreak the drizzle was annoying but the wind had stopped as I re-strapped my bags and donned the many layers of clothing that would protect me from a newly arrived and nasty chill. The attendant at the local self serve stared at me from his heated perch as I filled my tank, both of us only nodding in silence to acknowledge my insanity and the pleasure he must have felt knowing he had a story to tell once he'd gone home for the day.

I set out for Custer, some 30 miles off and my last, last chance to come to my senses. It's funny now that within the first 3 minutes the mist had turned to snow, but at the time I groaned aloud and cursed my luck to the whitetail and other furry creatures who'd stopped to watch me pass before instinctively looking for a place to hide from nature's oncoming wrath.
Within 20 minutes the snow was nearly blinding, the roads choked with two inches of slush as I reached Custer. My mind was racing, my guts tied in knots. I had three days before I was commisioned to work. If the storm was as powerful as advertised, I could be stuck for days in a mountain community with no hope of satisfying a contract written months before.

I slowed, and sped up repeatedly; my decision changing hands every few seconds as visions of a stubborn man's corpse and his bike being buried at the bottom of a valley in wait for the spring thaw and the casual hikers that would follow, played havoc with my will to continue.

My duty won out, forcing me to aim for Rapid City and the freeway that would lead me to safety. I could beat this storm yet, I thought. Speed would be my salvation, though 70 mph on switchback roads in heavy slush would be a chore; exhilarating certainly, but deadly nevertheless.

I did make Rapid City; how, I've no clue. But I must admit that chipping ice off my helmet and legs was pretty funny at times and the total insanity of what I was apparently accomplishing, a rush in itself.

The freeway just a few miles ahead I pondered whether to cut my losses and take shelter now, or to risk death again and try to make tracks until dark. A McDonalds raised its arches before me and I thought to raise my body temp from 60 degrees to a more useable number before deciding my fate.

I pulled into the lot and dismounted, swaggering into the joint with legs too frozen to bend and an attitude too stiff to care. I ordered black coffee, hoping to spill and sue and become rich beyond my wildest dreams for just a moment, but then walked it to a table near the window where I might stare at my reluctant ride and force a quick go or stay conclusion, while burning my lips and fogging my sunglasses.

I didn't look toward anyone else in the building, averting my gaze so as to not see the fear in their eyes, or the knowing grins either. I wanted no inferred interference, no intimated opinion as to whether I should give it up, rest or run, whether I was nuts or nearly normal but obviously disillusioned.

Having wiggled my fingers and toes into once again feeling the pain of frostbite, and seeing a last few drops in the bottom of my cup, I stood and stretched; my 240 pound frame covered in six layers of heavy clothing raising a few eyebrows amongst the busload of sixth graders that had just entered, cheering their school closure due to the weather and the driver that had offered them each a hot chocolate.

I waddled to my steed, setting my choppers on the gas tank while I threw one extra heavy leg over the seat and straddled as comfortably as possible. Before I donned my helmet, I took one last wistful look at the Mac and Don's, giving myself one last chance to reconsider.

In the window were perhaps 25 kids, all pressed to the glass and staring at the fool who was about to vanish in a cloud of white. One stuck out over the others; a tallish boy standing a few inches behind his mates who was dramatically shaking his head left and right as if advising me of the folly of my plight.

I smiled for the first time in hours, and returned his acknowledgement with one of my own; nodding my head up and down like a seagull wandering a dead fish laden shoreline.

He pointed and then laughed aloud, moving a few others aside and barging his way to the front where he splayed his hands on the glass and pressed his nose into the clear wall, making a contorted face that would speak an opinion I might carry with me as I drove away.

That connection held me for the rest of the day, his smile warming my heart and keeping my focus intact while I leaned into the wind at 45 degrees and plowed through the three inches of slush that had covered the freeway.

Each time I haughtily honked and waved at a trucker who had pulled to the side of the road to wait out the storm, I thought of the munchkin who had given me a moment of his time, who'd offered me his own craziness, who'd made me laugh within a dismal and dangerous situation.

I didn't get much further, about 150 miles total before the bike finally conked out, too wet to carry spark down its ice coated plug wires. Luckily it happened at an exit, quite near a town where I was able to push the quitter to a motel for a night's rest.

I remember every moment of that trip, each one a fascinating glimpse into some emotion or another, some use of each sense in a brand new way.

And no doubt I've made far too big a thing of this, but very near the top of my list of mental photos is the kid who waved me off into oblivion; the miniature kindred soul who'd transferred to me just enough of his boundless energy to complete my task and inch ever closer to my home in time to meet my obligations.

His ten seconds, and thousands of other tiny blips like his are the spice of my life; that unanticipated jerk to attention when everything else on my plate seems bland and lifeless.

Thanks bud. I needed to know I wasn't alone and you were there just in the nick of time. I haven't forgotten.

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