Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yeah, Absolutely The Worst Ride Ever...

I left Millersburg late in the afternoon of an early December day in 1995. That morning had dawned sunny, clear and mild, but an encroaching front gradually diminished the winter sun until it no longer provided any warmth. The forecast called for a change in the weather, and I expected to stay well ahead of it. But as I finished packing my gear and loading Campaigner, I noticed it was getting a little bit chilly. Not only was the sun graying out, but the air temperature was dropping as well. I hastily unpacked a few more layers of clothes from the tankbag, suited up, and headed down the hill towards the Susquehanna.

It’s difficult, in retrospect, to recall how different it was making a 150-mile journey on Campaigner in those days than it is doing anything on Beast now. Leaving aside the respective dynamics of the two motorcycles as motorcycles—apples and oranges, to be sure—to ride Campaigner meant no protection from the wind whatsoever, no heated grips, no power for heated accessories, no antilock brakes. I don’t recall what I wore for that trip, but safe to assume my lower half was clad (inadequately) in long underwear, jeans, and thin, unlined leather chaps.

U.S. 22 hugs the Susquehanna River at it passes through several low mountains, the corduroy remains of an ancient syncline. The presence of the river on one side and the steep hills on the other served to funnel the rising wind as Campaigner and I made our way southeastward towards home. By the time we reached the wide superhighway west of Harrisburg, the rough winds dragged a heavy blanket of clouds across the sky and the winter twilight has come in earnest. At some point along the way, I stopped and put on my raingear—a thin layer of cold-stiffened vinyl, my last line of defense against the deepening cold. I was already cold, and had several hours of riding ahead of me.

The raingear helped me recover some heat by blocking the wind; occasionally, I warmed my hands one at a time on the engine. It is an imperfect fix; the warmth only briefly reached my palm and fingers, and in short order, is lost to the wind again. It was difficult to both warm my hands and maintain control of the bike.

I navigated around Harrisburg to U.S. 15 south, and began counting the miles. It was fully dark as I headed down the divided highway, the steady clacking of the concrete seams (a hallmark of PennDot's construction preferences) marking my transit in a numbing rhythm. The front's crosswinds became fierce and unpredictable. I tried to anticipate them as best I could, taking cues from the environment, but they seemed to come from all sides at once. I reduced my speed to compensate, but had to at least keep up with my fellow travelers or risk being run over. I recalled uncomfortably how invisible Campaigner was from behind, with just one tiny dim bulb for a taillight and no reflectors.

I had been riding for over an hour, with a windchill factor somewhere in the low teens. I was reluctant to move, to turn my head, to do anything that might expose me to the chilling air. I felt locked in place on Campaigner’s harsh, unforgiving saddle like an oversized action figure. And despite the steady clack-clack, clack-clack, it seemed the miles refused to disappear.

Then it began snowing—at first, the occasional flake, then flurries, then more serious squalls. The lanes turned white. As I reached the crest of one hill, a blast of wind drifted blowing snow across the road—and blew me into the next lane, nearly into the median. This got my attention.

Peering through my foggy visor into the whirling flakes illuminated by Campaigner's headlamp, I struggled to stay in my lane and keep my speed up—one strange effect of hypothermia is failure to notice things that are ordinarily routine, like how fast or slow you are going. I got off the highway at the next welcoming place I could see, a sprawling truckstop just off the exit. Pulling into a sheltered spot, I tried to get off and found that I couldn't. Not on the first try; not on the second try. On the third try, I had to swing the spring-loaded sidestand into place from the saddle, tilt the bike over to rest on the sidestand, then stiffly dismount without falling over or knocking the bike over.

Successfully disentangled from Campaigner after only a few minutes, I stumbled inside through the blowing snow and headed for the Men's room, where I ran warm water over my hands until the feeling returned—just a few minutes more. I sat down in a booth shivering, and began unlayering so I could absorb some of the restaurant's ambient warmth unfettered. A cup of coffee helped matters, and then a warm, glutinous bowl of cheese-potato soup (somewhere between mashed potatoes and cheeze-whiz.) After a half an hour of recovery time, I realized three things:
  1. I wasn't going to get much warmer anytime soon on my own.
  2. The weather wasn't going to improve anytime soon.
  3. I wasn't getting any nearer to home sitting there.

Somewhat grudgingly, I layered up again, trying to remember all the courier tricks I had learned over the years. I think I bought a newspaper to stuff inside my jacket for extra warmth (thanks, Tim!) then gassed up Campaigner and headed back into the flurries and the semis onto U.S. 15 south again.

I was able to go all of twenty or so miles before I had to stop again, this time to nurse another coffee in some anonymous fast-food shack just below the Mason-Dixon Line. But somewhere above Frederick, the weather broke and the snow stopped. Mentally, Frederick is just another suburb of D.C. —albeit one that is fifty miles or so away—so as far as I was concerned, I was in the home stretch. I wasn't going to stop again, and once I realized that, I think the air temperature climbed about ten degrees. Conditions improved, visibility got better, traffic got saner, and all things considered, the worst was past.

I vaguely recall having a big glass of wine when I got home, a long, long hot shower, and heaving a huge sigh of relief. I also recall an involuntary shudder, and a silent oath to never—NEVER—go through that again.

Damn. Makes me cold just thinking about it. HuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuH.

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