Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rain, a Tuesday morning in July

Tuesday morning we arose to a thick gray sky dull with greasy foreboding. Before long, faint curtains of rain fell on the hills to the east. We were treated to a rare, but not unknown, morning thunderstorm—usually one or two a year—that rattled the walls and flogged the ground with vengeful rain.

The rain and humidity stayed with us. By evening, violent lightning and thunder began without prelude or warning, like no lightning and thunder I'd ever heard before. It was the sound of pure explosions without grumbling or introduction. I went outside to observe it firsthand, and it was like dry lightning—violent, sudden, unnatural in its abruptness.

The storm clung to us like a drunken guest with no means to get home. Throughout the night it ranted and roared, pounding the house with fists of rain, then drifting off to sleep again. I don't know how many times it cycled like this, but by morning we were worn out by the compulsive worrying of the dogs.

Wednesday broke with the lingering clouds still with us, sleeping it off. There were hints of blue sky, but soon enough it was raining again. The view from work was singularly English, reminding me of the view north over Soughy Rigg from the Great Whin Sill.

Later that evening, the ride home was spectacular, with eruptions lightning compensating the darkness of widespread power outages. At times, literally the whole sky lit up like a singular dome of light; other times, it was licked by filaments of light that raced across from horizon to horizon.

Thursday dawned cool, clear and breezy—a day even rarer than a morning thunderstorm. The Blue Ridge is visible for the first time in many days.

Vending machine

He slid to a stop by the vending machine. Panting, he realized this might be all the food they would have for miles, maybe days. He pounded frantically on the glass panel flat-palmed with the universal gesture of the short-changed and the gypped.

He grabbed the molded plastic chair from below the wallphone. He swung it against the blank face of the machine with an impotent fury unrealized before that instant. The windowed face of the machine magically transformed into a white wall of ice chunks, then collapsed inwards with a sigh of resignation and loss.

“C’Mere! Help me” he shouted. She came over, breathless. “Here—take as much as you can…we’ll want it all.” He shoved glass crumbs aside with exaggerated delicacy, liberating the motley packets from their pigtail prisons and tossed them to her waiting hands. Chips, pretzel, candy bars, gum, lifesavers—all of them. All his. And hers. Things he would usually never eat in a million years. This was just his lucky day.

They grabbed as much as they could make room for—what with everything else they were already hoarding—then crammed their pockets with what was left; she stuffed some kind of gooey bar in her mouth for good measure and threw the wadded-up wrapper into the machine's empty belly. She bolted for the stairs, smacking the panic bar on the door and bursting through it shoulder-wise in one sweet move like a linebacker, then disappeared up the stairwell.

Looking back over his shoulder, he started to run, then faltered and sighed. He stumbled to a stop and shuffled awkwardly back to the ruined machine. Pack sliding off his shoulder, he fumbled with his greasy wallet. He looked through it studiously, thumbing through the mess of tattered papers it had become—a delicate, dainty action all the more ludicrous under the circumstances. Grabbing all the bills between thumb and middle finger, he tossed the wad, all of it, onto the galaxy of glittering stars in the dark and hollow heart of the machine. Five dollars, five hundred—what difference did it make? He wouldn't be needing them.

“Sorry. For your trouble...” he said to the silence. Then he bolted to the stairs, slamming into the door just before it closed again. He could still hear her footsteps, racing up the stairs ahead of him.

TOTD: Science v. organized religion

Science embraces the unanswerable; organized religion simply makes answers up.

That is all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Point Of View

My literal worldview has recently taken an interesting turn.

I live a few miles east of a very distinctive mountain, an outlier of the Blue Ridge. Not quite a monadnock, more a malformation of the main ridgeline. It sits below and to the east of the Blue Ridge’s spine, and has a unique silhouette—our very own Gibraltar.

Decades ago, I hiked to the summit of this mountain with a friend, a hike certainly more significant in the journey than the destination; its summit is completely wooded and without a view to speak of. Most of what I remember from actually being on the mountain revolves around gathering acorns in a Euell Gibbons-esque fit of stalking the wild whatever. Later, I wrote about the relationship of the broad protective flanks of the mountain with the tiny village nestled beneath it—one of my first little essays.

When we flew west a year or two ago, I could look out and watch the mountain slowly sliding past the left wingtip, squashed by altitude into a mere crumple in October's multicolored carpet.

Now I see this mountain in the morning to my right as I leave, the horizontal sun just beginning to light its flanks; I can gaze across the piedmont at it from where I work. My whole world is encompassed in that glance.

Coming home, I notice it oddly misplaced to my left along the main highway—a highway I always thought of as straight. How in the world did it get over there? Now I realize how extreme the cumulative effect of countless minor bends in the road are, and can instantly reconcile the map in my head with the map on the printed page.

When I turn down our lane, I look directly at the mountain, often with the mottled sunset splashed across the sky behind it. With this magnificent reference point in mind, I can now understand and organize, in three dimensions, the landscape in which I live. I can trace the roads, the rivers, the long low rolling hills, and piece it all together.

The map geek in me finds that very satisfying.

The smells I uniquely associate with our home in the woods:



Virginia pine needles warming in the sun.

Tansy, as it grows and when it is dried.

Mimosa blossoms.

Various types of incense:

Balsam fir.Irish peat.Jasmine.

Chainsaw, running and still.

House funk.

My spiced coffee.

Whatever that liquid hand soap is that we started using because regular soap is so hard to rinse off.

Fresh butter.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meat Rockets

Since we left Lithuguyistan some two-and-a-half years ago for the hinterlands, my balance of attention while riding has shifted dramatically.

In the urban and suburban mix, most of your attention is devoted to teasing out the human hazard threads from the fabric of the riding environment. Oncoming cars and sudden careless left turns across your path, cars exiting parking lots and driveways unexpectedly, road hazards left behind by slovenly workcrews, construction debris and common litter, oblivious pedestrians with iPods and lattes blithely appearing out of nowhere, red-light runners and overt hostility are all part of the game, tossing and tumbling in various proportions as the miles pass by.

But out here, there are so few intersections to speak of—those benchmarks of hazard for motorcyclists—the human hazard is drastically diminished. Certainly the same foolish and thoughtless behaviors exist here; but there are so many fewer people exhibiting those behaviors that the level of risk they represent is dialed down dramatically.

The slack is taken up by a different kind of risk, one that certainly existed in the suburbs, but has much greater import out here—the wildlife, otherwise known as Meat Rockets.

These silent, stealthy menaces wait along the roadside, suicide bombers on an anti-human jihad, ready to hurl themselves into traffic with eighty pounds of venison strapped to their ribcage in a valiant effort to take us out. The term "Meat Rocket" was coined of necessity; by the time a sharp-eyed spotted calls out to the driver "Hey! Look out for those deer on the roadside up ahead..." it's probably too late. But a crisp "MEAT ROCKET!" alerts the driver to all they need to know.

And it's an apt term, if you've ever seen the crazed and inscrutiable boltings of a buck, a doe, a fawn, or even a lowly squirrel. As fighter pilots described the spiral corkscrew of smoke from a SAM locking in on their doomed airplane, so could you try to describe the path of an incoming Meat Rocket, hell-bent on your destruction. Whether the Meat Rocket finds it's target, forces you into evasive manuvers or simply distracts you and leads to a crash, the final score is usually the same: Meat Rocket 1, Rider 0. Frequently, the final score is a tie, with both sides losing badly.

These furry roadside IEDs—Insane Executioner Deer—exist by the thousands. For each one that is killed, ten more are waiting to take its place. Needless to say, there is never a good outcome from an encounter, particularly if you are on two wheels when targeted. [I have heard apocryphal tales of late model BMWs rending deer in twain; the massive A-arm casting of the paralever front suspension both withstands the impact by transmitting it directly from the front fork assembly into the stressed-member engine/frame assembly, while at the same time neatly cleaving the incoming Meat Missile. Most other traditional fork tube suspensions are too flimsy to endure such a violent impact and fail with devastating consequences for rider, bike and meat missile.]

Certainly squirrels, birds, rats and pigeons are common enough hazards in the urban or suburban motorcycling environment; they represent the small-arms fire of this interspecies battle. Deer are even common enough in our modern world that most riders will grow accustomed to looking for them, particularly at those seasons of the year when the jihadi blood runs hottest. What I still have a hard time getting used to is cows.

Cows are the ICBMs (Immensely Collossal Beef Missiles) of the human/animal intifada.

Several times this summer I have encountered a lone loose cow on the two-lane country road in the few miles between my house and the main road. There's absolutely nothing like first thing in the morning leaving for work, heading down the road with a song in my heart, leaning into the fourth ess-turn of nine, rolling on the throttle, coming around a perfectly-banked right-hand sweeper...and there, standing full-across both lanes, stands 1200 pounds of black-and-white bovine inertia without a care in the world.

Now, I understand that some of these ICBMs are designed to go off on contact; others are proximity-fused, and you'd best keep your distance. Do you cut the red wire or the green wire? You do neither; it's a tense little standoff. These ICBMs cannot be defused, reasoned with, cajoled or otherwise induced to do your bidding. I stare, and snort. Pawing the ground impatiently, I blip the throttle. No reaction. I honk once. No reaction. Eventually, I shut off the engine and wait patiently, and in the end, this seems to produce the best results. With quiet grace and dignity, and a modicum of mutual respect, we go our own ways unmolested and unharmed.

I stop at the end of the next driveway and walk up to the house in all my riding regalia, letting the neighbors know once again that Bossie got out, and hope everyone else heading out is paying attention this morning.

There is a certain cognitive dissonance when an ex-city dweller finds themselves delayed by a cow who is not particularly concerned with someone else's schedule. It's refreshing in a peculiar way, and in truth, it is comical (when the outcome is good) and a pleasant counterpoint to a commute built on sitting still in interstate highway traffic.


Kris Kristofferson was right

So I had 'the conversation' again today.

I was working alongside two folks with whom I have recently become acquainted, when one asked me if I rode "that motorcycle" everyday. I answered in the affirmative, bracing myself for the inevitable.

"SOOOO dangerous..." they began, and segued into a detailed, blow-by-blow recital of their personal experience with the bleeding edge. The tale included the road involved (check), the vehicle they were driving (car, check), the behavior of the moron motorcyclist (check), the inevitable result (check) and ended with the phrase "...into the guardrail" (check).

I found myself starting to make the usual arguments, in this case pointing out that most motorcyclists were morons and this particular individual most certainly fell into that category. But I also pointed out the behavior the story's hero was partaking in happened to be--in all honesty--the best part of riding. He was attacking a swoopy, sweeping road, one which I've written about before.(Oddly, in the context of a similar incident. Hmm.)

"It's the freedom" one of them sagely opined, the other soberly nodding in silent affirmation, as though that little phrase was the be-all and end-all of the matter, the alpha and the omega.

Well, I was dumbstruck by that comment. Of all the words, phrases, metaphors, similes, cliches and bad puns I've used to describe riding, I honestly don't think I've ever thought of riding in terms of freedom, per se. It's a lot of other things to me, but freedom—in this context, anyway—implies the absence of something, and riding has never been about absence. It's always been about the presence of something, the active embrace of an experience that involves me fully on a different level than other endeavors do.

The exchange made me realize there is a gulf between riders and non-riders that is uncrossable. There is so little common ground between the two camps, and we have been our own worst enemies by letting the least articulate of our brethren set the terms of the dialogue. Those of us who believe riding is something to be affirmatively embraced as an end in itself--as opposed to simply serving as an avenue of escape from some nebulous, oppressive reality--need to speak up more clearly, more forcefully, more articulately.

At this juncture, the discussion (if we can even call it that) is a narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-obsessed diatribe all about loud pipes and totalitarian edicts, about not wearing helmets, about

Otherwise, the non-riders of the world will never get past the poorly-crafted illusion that is presented on our behalf, and we will continue to exist only as another unpleasant and outdated hollister-sturgis-easy-rider misunderstanding.

Kris Kristofferson was right: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." Well folks, that sure as hell isn't why I ride.