Once Upon a Midnight Dreary…
My thanks to Edgar Allen Poe
It comes to me as clear as a Tiffany’s diamond. The scene was my very good friend Dick Ward and I on the highway between Banff and Jasper Alberta, Canada. The sky was a see through blue with a few friendly puffy clouds. All in all, good omens for motorcycle riding.
It was not to be. We had been on the road for less than an hour when it began to rain and the temperature dropped to a low of 39. We rode in these conditions for more than six hours. It was, quite candidly, not a fun ride.
In motorcycling, just when you think you have experienced it all, you rediscover the obvious that the cosmos has an infinite number of scenarios for you as long as you are out there pressing the options.
In general, I have little fear, much respect, however, for riding a motorcycle in the rain. It can be done in reasonable safety as long as you abide by the tenets of good common sense.
During my trip from Aiken, SC to Pittsford, NY, I stopped for the night at an unscheduled place called Sutton, West Virginia. I stayed in a five room motel called the Wolf Valley Motel. I discovered after I departed the next morning that there was a Day’s Inn one mile down the road.
The motel owners and mangers lived in the same set of rooms that doubled as the motel office. They were pleasant. The price was right and I got to stay in room number 1. The room was located at the bottom of a minor incline that was unpaved and wet from three days of rain. I was pretty sure there would be no place that would accept a kick stand. I asked for and received permission to park the bike on the concrete breezeway just in front of my room door.
Let me admit from the outset that I am very comfortable with staying in motels that lack the amenities of other economical motels. Nonetheless, I was struck by this Spartan Army’s idea of sleeping cheap. In fact, I am sure that every stick of furniture in the room I had seen earlier in some unnamed BOQ during my career.
I unpacked and proceeded, via motel contributed directions, to an “Italian” restaurant. Worst meal I have ever paid for. Choked down as much as was doable, paid and went out side to return to the motel. It had started raining and it looked serious.
I was showered and in the rack by 8PM. I had an early get up!
2:30AM rolls around and I have had enough sleep. I am shaved, packed and inspected the room by 3AM. It is raining the zoo much less cats and dogs. I take pride in my riding gear for occasions just like this one. I will be warm and dry. I mount, put the steed in reverse and back out of the breezeway into total darkness. Several star filled galaxies could have passed me and I would not have been surprised. I mean black! I am now pointed up hill to exit the hotel as I gently ease out the clutch. Nothing happens. I have ear plugs in, so I look at my instruments to make sure the bike is still running. I make sure I am in first gear and try again. Still nothing. Well not quite nothing. I start to feel the back end of the bike moving from side to side. My rear wheel is spinning in the wet grass and mud and the bike is not making the slightest motion forward. I back up several feet and try again. Nothing! I repeat these steps a half a dozen times with the same results. Meets the definition of insanity. I know, I know. I pause and reflect. I am screwed. I can only go rearward into the black that I know contains demons and Murphies that go bump in the night. I can not go and get help because of the early hour and because I can not put the weight of the bike on the kick stand because it will most certainly fall on its side. I get another idea from my beginning days as a teenage driver provided by my dad. I shift up into third gear and dry again. Because there is less torque on the rear wheel now, the tire starts to bite and we begin a slow and fish tailing trek toward the paved road. Just as we arrive at the gravel entrance to the motel and I am letting out sigh of relief and I roll into a pot hole the size of a trash can and almost lose the bike in the hole. Since there was standing water everywhere, the hole was not visible to my headlight illumination.
I find a place with no standing water, put down the kick stand, shut down the bike and just sit in the quiet dark of the morning and feel and listen to the rain doing it’s asynchronous tap dance on my helmet and shoulders. It’s actual quite calming which is what I needed.
I would like to sound glib and say “Balls O’ Fire”, “Times A’ Wasting” or we are “Burning Daylight”. Regrettable, neither of these is true, but I want to get rolling.
It is so dark that I almost miss the turn to enter I-79 north from Sutton. It gets worse when I am actually on the Freeway because there are no town lights to illuminate the cloud layer from below. It’s raining hard but not like a thunderstorm. There is standing water in the depressions of the asphalt made by the weight of 18 wheelers. These depressions are almost invisible in dry and daylight conditions. So, I am trying to ride the ridges and see around me and I am doing 45mph max on a road that has a 70mph speed limit. So…every time a vehicle is approaching from the rear, I turn on my flashing caution lights so they will not run up my backside. I would like to keep the flashers on, but the added glare and distraction forces me to shut them down when there is no one behind me. This precaution seems to work pretty well. For me, personally, its instructive to consider all of the things that reduce visibility on an early morning like this. The obvious, its dark and the falling rain all reduce visibility. This would be true if you were in a house looking out of an open window. To this add water on both sides of windshield, the inside of the windshield fogged up if the temperature is right, water on the outside of the face shield, fog on the inside of face shield if you are breathing hard and finally fog on my glasses coming from my breath sneaking up the bandanna that have over my nose and mouth for warmth. Additionally, the is the glare from every light on the instrument panel, oncoming traffic, passing traffic and strangely a glare from the reflective signs along the side of the road that are vivid bright with the bounce of my headlights off of their surfaces. All of this can be set into a routine, but that routine is kicked in the butt when you are passed by an 18 wheeler and get hit with the water and mist generated by all of his 18 wheels plus the hard turbulence that his truck generates as it passes through the same block of air I am currently using. The kicker on this night is wind gusting to 35 knots from left to right.
After being on the road for over an hour, I have settled in to the routine and begin to get blood flow back into the white knuckles, restoring them to their natural rosey pink. While I am thinking such thoughts, oncoming traffic with the halogen glare illuminate a single drop on water on my Plexiglas. This drop moving up the windscreen joins another and then another and now it glows with its own internal rainbow. As the traffic passes, all is lost to the darkness of the Pennsylvania country side. More oncoming traffic and the original bender of light has stuttered its way to the lip of the Plexiglas where it hesitates before the laws of physics breaks its meniscus tension and launches it into the wet that is its ultimate home. A thing of beauty, but all of its siblings make for lost visibility caused by the light bending properties that unfocus and distort the view I need to guide the bike precisely. To make it all worse, if I change my view by just shifting my eyes and not my entire head, I will get a double or sometimes triple view as one eye looks through one lense of the trifocal and the other eye looks through another lense of my trifocal glasses. Many a time on this morning, I cut my eyes to look at a rear view mirror and see two trucks coming up behind me. It’s only when I turn my head that I see a true picture of what’s happening behind me.
Needless to say, all of this is very demanding and I take at least one extra break during each half of the day to rest from the demands of the road. I think I can honestly say this was not a fun ride.
I meet an entire group of really nice people in a King’s restaurant just outside of Pittsburg, PA on I-79. They include a waitress that has an army of customers that she addresses by their first names and ask if they want the usual for breakfast. Without exception they say they will have the usual and the waitress gets into an altercation with the cook because he will not put a toast order through the toaster twice so that her customer get his toast like he wants it. Burnt! All these people are grist for my mill and I start the conversation off by asking, to no one in particular, “Where can I buy some dry ice”?
At first, there is the customary silence followed by everyone talking at once trying to help me find dry ice. What a hoot! People are just terrific. I don’t find a place to buy dry ice, but waitress puts about five pounds in a double plastic bag and then the bag of ice goes into a box she has behind the counter.
I leave a tip for the waitress and smartly walk out of the restaurant without paying my bill. I did not remember that until just now while writing this. I will start a search now to get payment to these very nice folks.