I can’t remember a time when I’ve been in a darker, shittier mood.
I was supposed to be on an extended motorcycle trip last week — attending my employer’s annual sales kick off conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It would be great to see my colleagues that I very rarely see – all of whom work remotely – do a little socializing, and have a beer or two. Originally, the plan even included making the trip on a press pool bike — a brand spanking new 2018 Honda Gold Wing. About 1300 miles of Blue Ridge Mountain rambling in the middle of May’s gentle weather sounded like a breather my soul and body badly needed. To say I was looking forward to it was an understatement.
Things turning inexorably bad takes more than one or two inputs.
First, the availability of the Gold Wing test bike was delayed. No matter, I have my own GT bike and truthfully, in the 500th mile of a 600 mile day, the familiarity of my own motorcycle was probably preferable — 20 years of muscle memory can ride out of a lot of things that having to think about it can’t.
Then the weather turned bad.
That sounds innocuous. This wasn’t.
The night before I was supposed to leave, a massive stationary front moved into the area – at one point dumping nearly 8 inches of rainfall during a period of just over 90 minutes. The City of Frederick – about 6 miles east of Jefferson – quickly started showing up first on the regional, and then the national news. Frederick – which had made a multi million dollar investment in the Carroll Creek Flood Control Project – flooded out in a major way, with the city’s main streets going under, the main city park turning onto a brand new lake, and then the City’s water and sewer plants failing, prompting both the City and Country to declare formal Disasters.
Figuring the bike trip would have to wait, I transferred by packed bags to my pickup truck, and then checked Google maps to see what the route down I-81 into Tennessee looked like. The aforementioned stationary front was stationary over 80% of my entire route — with zero possibility of improvement until I got past Bristol, TN., with flash flood and areal flood warnings throughout. Jefferson is about 65 miles from the entry to I-81, and that morning Google Maps showed 17 secondary roads and/or bridges between here and there either closed or destroyed.
At that point, bike or truck, it was a stupid time to be on the road, and a slightly less stupid time to leave my family unattended.
I called my boss and told him I was going to withdraw from the conference. He concurred with my decision.
It continued to rain like that for the next six days. Then the sun came out for an afternoon, and then it rained like that for four more days.
Frederick County, Maryland is crisscrossed with small streams, and those streams proceeded to wreak havoc on everything they could reach. Rolling Physics Problem frequently inhabits those tiny tertiary roads and their antique iron bridges – as of this morning, many of them have been washed out or destroyed.
All that was bad, but because of the Homebuilt Teardrop Camper V2.0 project that had consumed my garage, all of my motorcycles were temporarily being parked outside in these conditions. Which was worse.
So my family and I hid inside. The roads were not safe for venturing out for anything optional in nature. So I worked days. Took and hour or two in the evening working on the camper. And worked weekends and even most of the Memorial Day holiday on the camper. We had cabin fever bad, doing work for work, and what was starting to seem like work for fun, too.
I needed a break, and I really needed a ride.
So last night, after a burger with the Fam, Sweet Doris from Baltimore took one look at me and suggested I go for a ride.
This isn’t the type of guidance with which I’m prone to argue.
I grabbed my Shoei and a jacket, and headed outside to see how the /5 had dealt with the weather.
I’ve already covered how the Toaster Tank doesn’t really appreciate these kinds of conditions. After that little misadventure I had gerry-rigged what we’ll call a ‘Bikini cover’ — using a small tarp to fabricate a sort of soft batwing fairing that at least kept the controls, handlebar switchgear and headlight housing covered and out of the weather. The tarp’s four corner eyelets could be connected with a short bunji under the steering head and it kept at least the most weather sensitive bits protected.
I yanked the mini-cover, powered the bike up, opened the petcocks, set the choke, and petitioned the Lord with Prayer.
The Lord, apparently, was taking a little PTO.
On the first compression stroke, I got a tiny pop, but the engine did not catch. For the next 50 strokes or so, I got nothing.
On this motorcycle, with its V1.0 Electric Starter — geared too high — and overbored 900 cc top end — staying in the button that long is to risk completely draining the starter battery.
I was either going to need to diagnose this issue on the fly, or we weren’t going to ride this motorcycle this evening.
Pure intuition informed my next move.
After spinning the engine for that long with the chokes set, I should be smelling gasoline in the exhaust.
Ergo, the engine wasn’t getting fuel.
And what was the most likely cause of this engine not getting fuel?
Ummm, water, perhaps?
Fortunately, Bing CV carbs are designed to be dead easy to service. I reached down, flipped the spring clip that retains the float bowl, and brought the bowl up to eye level. Sure enough, the bottom of the float bowl, and especially the depression where the jets sit, was covered in water drops, moving around like the vinegar under the oil in a salad dressing bottle. You could clearly see the water, and it was clearly gumming up the works.
I walked over to the edge of my driveway, and dumped the entire contents of the bowl off the edge. I grabbed a shoprag from the open garage door and wiped out the water residue.
At this point, I realized that in my fixation on diagnosis, I had neglected to turn off the fuel petcock, so the open Bing was gently piddling small amounts of fuel onto my driveway.
If you work for the EPA, I admit fault — I’ll go quietly.
After closing the offending petcock, I repeated the drill with the float bowl from the other side.
I did the best job of wiping the fuel from my hands that a shop rag will permit.
Just on a whim, I dialed the Lord’s extension one more time.
My call was answered.
On the second compression stroke, the /5 fired, and it slowly came up to a slightly less enthusiastic state of operation than was customary. It was operating though, and that was a significant improvement over where we’d been a few minutes ago.
I pulled my Shoei back on, fastened the strap, and cinched down my gauntlets.
I rolled the bike down the driveway and rolled out through the neighborhood.
The Toaster’s drum brakes – also being filled with water — were largely ineffective. It was going to take a few miles of dragging them and putting some heat into the system before actual stopping was going to be a legitimate choice.
I made the right onto the Jefferson Pike and headed down the hill towards Brunswick.
Given the destruction following the flooding today’s ride was going to be the ‘Road Closed – Bridge Out Tour’. Less than 2 miles from home I hit my first ‘Road Closed’ sign. Having spent a few years riding these roads, I know there’s a difference between ‘Road Closed’ and ‘Road Impassable by Toaster Tank’. The county highway men always leave their site control barriers more than 32 inches apart, and 32 inches is all I need.
I knew there was a small culvert bridge just before the intersection of Maryland Rt 180 and Maryland 17 that had failed the first night of the storm, and had been closed ever since. I wanted to head down that way and see just how bad it was – worst case would be that I’d arrive at the bridge, see blue skies and open water and have to turn around. So I skirted around the first barrier and continued in the direction of the bridge.
Just after that I got this strange sensation … and it just wasn’t clicking what it was. When I looked down though, I could see that my crotch and my whole left leg were wet and getting wetter… wet with what and from where were immediate questions that I had. I pulled onto the shoulder and went into neutral. Given that this highway was technically closed my level of risk posed by other motorists was pretty low.
Looking down I could see a clear liquid streaming off the outside of the petcock’s retaining nut — it was hitting the fuel lines and dripping onto the exhaust headpipe. I stuck a gloved finger into the stream and brought it up to my nose. Thankfully, it wasn’t gasoline… so what the heck was it and where was it coming from? So I traced the flow back until I realized it was coming from the bottom of the bike’s chrome tank sides — the toaster panels had had so much water blasted at them that they were both filled up. The combination of some engine heat and vibration had them gushing the trapped liquid out … all over my privates.
I’ve had this motorcycle for more than 30 years, and this was a new one on me.
Having satisfied myself that I hadn’t encountered some new way of having a bike fuel tank go incontinent, I continued west on MD 180, past a second, and then a third ‘Road Closed’ sign. Shortly thereafter I came to the bridge with yet another conveniently spaced sign and barrier. I could see where this bridge’s deck had been torn off, and where crews had already repaired the erosion damage around the culvert and the edge of the highways. The surface of the bridge was graded gravel and some mud, but the signs of recent traverse by tracked construction vehicles was plainly evident, and I could see no sign of it being unsafe for toasters. There may have been a slight drop where the road had been peeled off, but with 8+ inches of suspension travel, I’ve ridden far worse, and cared less.
I continued through the barriers on the other side and up the hill towards 17.
As I started up 17, I hit the stagger and had to switch the bike’s petcocks to reserve. Pulling up 17 though open farm country I was able to get the bike into top gear and finally began sensing the bike was starting to dry out — things were a tad off normal, but I suspect that the combination of a wet air filter element and some slight residual moisture in the fuel were the likely culprits here — running off the bottom of the tank would help to get rid of what at this point was likely some moisture-contaminated gasoline.
With the Toaster finally punching through these little troubles and coming back to itself, my spirits finally started to lift. The bike, as always, handled the tight technical sections of 17 with the grace of a bicycle – changing directions effortlessly and setting up for and driving out of corners with verve.
It paid to be aware, though. There were frequent washouts of gravel and mud — the shoulders and edges of the road were eroded away — and there was substantial amounts of down trees, lumber and debris anywhere near any stream or body of water.
Still, the old boxer came on song, danced though sections of twisting roads that rolled towards us and slid under the forks, and generally made it so that I couldn’t remember why I’d felt so black 10 minutes before.
Which is no small accomplishment when you still look like a man that has just wet himself.