Yin Yang – Part Two

(Part One of this story can be found here)

 

Funny thing was, as I sat bleeding off road buzz in contemplation of a Ballast Point Unfiltered Sculpin, I realized I had managed to completely and successfully ignore just how hamburgered my throttle hand was after yesterday’s little encounter with an incensed gravity.

As I stretched my stiffening hand and fingers, I realized this was going to take more than a few days to be 100% again.

I’m not sure it’s really right yet.

After a nice ribeye and a dessert grade Imperial Chocolate Stout, I went back to my hotel and slept the sleep of the righteous.

 

***

 

The week at work was one of total focus and absorption. A team of people normally spread from Massachusetts through Maryland to the Carolinas had gathered in one place to complete the launch of a Services product, and that meant taking a range of collateral — from Service Descriptions through Statements of Work to cost models — and crawling through them basically line-by-line, word-by-word, and number-by-number to make sure everything was consistent and reflected everything we knew and had learned.

It was right up there — from a thrills perspective — with watching paint dry, but it was necessary work that would serve to keep us all gainfully employed selling and delivering our most demanded service for the next couple of years. It was hard, draining, but we’d all feel good about when it was complete.

In the evenings, I spent time studying maps, looking for a possible place to stay out in Asheville, and looking at the data coming in from weather.com. Given the location of the Top Secret MotoGiro lunch stop, I could stay in Asheville Friday night, and count on a nice hour ride out Saturday morning to meet the Tiddler Pilots. A few hours of photos, interviews and general bench racing would free me up mid afternoon to head back up the Blue Ridge towards home, a night in my own bed, and a Sunday free of the scourge of the Doghoused Mothersdayless MotoGiro jockeys. It sounded perfect.

Only it wasn’t.

By Wednesday night, it was clear that Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating, and frankly, She Looked Pissed.

Most of my life seems to have morphed into one big exercise in trend identification and analysis.

Thursday night’s Mother Nature trend line was not in the desired direction. The weekend was heading towards one of those “has anybody seen Noah?” events with Friday afternoon, overnight and into most of Saturday looking particularly dire. Deep in the forecast’s fine print was the remote possibility of rain rates that would make it possible to go surfing in the Mountains of Southern Virginia.

If I stuck with the plan, I was looking at spectating and trying to do interviews in what looked like it was going to be steady, steady rain, and then riding 400 miles home in more rain afterwards. Now I’d like to think I have as much character and perseverance as the next rider, but that doesn’t mean I seek out pain on purpose.

Picking one’s battles is one reason I’m still here, eh?

Much as I didn’t like it, the smart money was on bagging the Giro, and heading for the only possible break in the weather over the next three days.

Maybe next year, oh moto nostra.

Given the prevailing weather patterns on the Blue Ridge, we were looking at a pretty standard pattern — low pressure line coming from southwest to northeast — basically following the ridge line of the mountains from North Carolina all the way up into Pennsylvania.

If I could get out early Friday morning, I’d be out in front of the weather for 4-5 hours, and when it finally caught me I’d be most of the way home. Anything other than this gap, and I was going to get clobbered.

With a little luck, I could perhaps hit the Blue Ridge Parkway for a few miles before things turned completely dire. I’d been up there in weirder weather — one freak April snow squall up on Mount Mitchell comes readily to mind.

With work wrapped up, I got my gear repacked, and turned in early.

I wanted to get a good start on the day.

 

***

 

Standing in the parking lot the next morning, I put the contents of my seat bag inside a trash can liner, and then tightened the packing straps that keep the duffel firmly in place up against the backrest on the passenger seat.

It was a little grey out, but very temperate — low 70s. Warm enough to run my ‘Stich with no layers underneath. I pulled on my Shoei and elkskins, fired the engine and waited 10 seconds or so until it assumed a steady four cylinder drone of an idle. I kicked the bike forward off the main stand and trolled out of the parking lot and back towards the highway back through and then out of Charlotte.

 

***

 

Back out on the Charlotte Beltway, things were congested, but moving. I picked up I-77 and headed north into town.

Just as I cleared downtown Charlotte, and when, in a morning rush, I’d expect traffic to lighten up — I mean, everybody should be heading into the city, right? — traffic, well, didn’t. Lighten up.

It got increasingly congested, it slowed, and then it stopped.

And stayed stopped.

Now a K1200LT is a marvelous motorcycle. Comfortable and assured at 80 miles an hour for days at a time.

But the truth must always rule, and the truth is that a K1200LT is just a little less marvelous in crawling, stop and go traffic. 850+ pounds of agility it is not, when working the clutch and starting and stopping over and over again.

It’s really not the way you want to start a long day in the saddle — managing that mass, working the bars, the clutch — you can work yourself tired and sore pretty quickly if the situation doesn’t quickly let up.

Which of course it didn’t.

It was kinda muggy. It was sprinkling lightly off and on. The LT’s cooling fans were cycling on and off while stopped, which wasn’t helping me any. I was starting to get a little overheated.

I kept thinking I’d come round a bend, or over a hilltop, and I’d see the accident that had many thousands of us trapped out here on this roadway.

And then I’d come round that bend to just some more of this.

Hope was created and then dashed, again and again. 5 miles, 10 miles, the interchange with the top side of the Charlotte Beltway I-485, which brought more sufferers into the fold. 15 miles, 18 … I was already considering making some form of shoulder run for it — more than a few SUV driver desperate fellow members of the traffic stream had already cracked and gone for it. It was just getting to the point of utter desperation and insanity when the State of Norf Carolina thought it would be nice to let us motorists know what the bleep was going on.

“Road construction. Single lane open. Mile marker 38. Prepare to merge.”

Mental math – Mile marker 38? That was nearly 4 more miles of this crap.

So here we were, essentially paralyzing traffic in a major American City, where somebody thought it was a good idea to reduce a major interstate to a single lane during the peak Friday daytime travel hours for some bit of optional highway maintenance.

I probably was no longer capable, after 20+ miles of walking speed LT wrestling, of completely dispassionate thought.

The bit of maintenance, it turned out, was the installation of one of those cool, cantilevered overhead interstate highway signs. If they’d been really feeling truthful, that big green sign could have said, “Warning. Doofuses Creating Backup all the way into Downtown Charlotte.”

The work crew, such as it was, was one guy working a crane with the sign rigged up to it, and about 2 dozen more guys walking around, looking at the ground and kicking rocks with their workboots.

I’m afraid I was less than charitable in my appraisal of their work.

I’m not afraid to share than most of my fellow motorists were way less charitable and way more vocal than me.

 

***

 

When I finally got around the North Carolina DOT Work Crew, the relief I experienced upon actually getting into third gear and some moving air was almost orgasmic.

The temperature gauge on the LT dropped back though nominal to cool, and I managed to stretch a lot of the tension and stress back out of my shoulders. I took a brief stop for some hydration and to pull on a light technical fleece underlayer as the temps continued to drop. There was still a fair amount of congestion that kept me in fourth gear and below full cruise through Statesville, Williamsburg and on into Hamptonville, where conditions finally permitted LT-nominal cruise and I began to fall into my customary road rhythm.

I looked down at the LT’s dashboard clock.

We were already afternoon. I’d consumed three plus hours with only 80 or so miles to show for it.

That jump on the weather that I’d been counting on had been completely squandered. I’d lost my lead on the incoming front and things were about to take a turn for the more interesting.

 

***

 

As one runs I-77 out of Charlotte, the road enters wide open rural country where — as the road comes back up the Blue Ridge — speed can rise and one climbs grade after grade towards the ridgeline.

As we climbed in altitude, it got a little greyer, a little cooler, and a little moister. It still wasn’t raining but things were starting to feel classically English outside. Looking up to the peaks, I could see some scenic mist wrapping around the mountain tops. The inner workings of the Old Hippy Brain began serving up the melody of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Misty Mountain Hop’.

As I started working my way up the last few thousand feet towards the ridgeline, the truck climbing lanes and the associated overhead lane control signage began to appear.

“Areas of Fog Ahead. Speed Limits Reduced for Safety.”

I’ll admit that years of motorcycling have made my critical thinking and analytical processes somewhat closed to outside suggestions — self-sufficiency is, at least in my way of thinking, an essential rider’s trait.

“OK,” I thought, “If I have visibility problems, I’d slow down anyway. How bad could it possibly be?”

This would prove to be another one of those karmic queries that never should have been allowed to take shape in my synapses.

The crisp sunny blast down the mountainside that had marked my ride down to Charlotte began to retreat further and further in memory the further up the mountain I went.

Three miles past the warning the first actual fog began to appear.

“OK,” I thought, ” Maybe there might be some reason for these warnings.”

Five miles further up the road the fog began to really increase. We had left 80 mile an hour visibility country and traded it for 50 mile an hour visibility.

The last 1000 feet of the climb went completely critical.

As I approached the exit for Fancy Gap, Virginia, and the exit for the Blue Ridge Parkway, visibility dropped to essentially nothing.

My personal melting pot of All-American Heredity does feature a fair bit of Irish, so I come by a pretty reasonable helping of stubborn honestly.

“Goddammit,” I thought, “First I have to skip my original reason to ride down here. I’ll be snorked if I’m going to miss a chance to do some BRP miles, too.”

Fancy Gap, if my mental map is working, is the second highest point on the BRP after Mount Mitchell. Though it might be foggy up here, three or four hundred feet of elevation drop should be enough to take us back down out of Cloud Central and back to Misty Mountain Hop.

It was a good theory, but reality had another idea.

I dropped down a few gears and took the ramp for Fancy Gap.

When I got to the end of the ramp, it was another opportunity for reassessment.

Looking around me, it was as close to absolutely zero visibility as I’ve ever not seen. Virginia 775 is a tertiary road, which the state had widened to include a median at the interstate interchange. Sitting about 15 feet from my position at the stop sign was a brand new white Chevrolet sedan. It was sitting in the middle of the state highway, stopped. Its occupants appeared to be nearly frantic — either from the utter lack of visibility or because of complete inability to make out the signage at the interchange.

This wasn’t what I’d in any way expected. I knew from my pre-ride map review that the Parkway entrance was about three and a half miles from the Interchange. I couldn’t imagine riding a mile in this stuff much less three. It was the classic ‘can’t see your hand in front of your face’ thaang.

I’d had an experience with these kind of conditions once before in my riding life, up on the Palisades Parkway outside of New York City, late at night on a visit to my mom’s place. The disorientation and fear of feeling one’s way along — knowing you were likely invisible to anyone else unlucky enough to be driving out here — was as scared as I’ve ever been on a motorcycle.

I wasn’t looking for a replay of that.

Keeping a watchful eye on the paralyzed Chevrolet, I crept across the median, got back on the onramp, and re-entered I-77, and worked my way back down the other side of the mountain.

 

***

 

I guess it pays to be flexible.

Conditions — especially on a long ride — are seldom what you want them to be. They just are what they are. Knowing when to listen to the messages from the universe and adapt accordingly keeps up my unbroken record of successful returns, under my own power, to the garage in Jefferson.

Still, heading down the mountain and out of the fog didn’t feel like a victory. Between the horrific traffic back up of this morning and this Blue Ridge abort forced by the weather the overall emotional trend was not in the ordinal direction of ascend and enlighten.

“Well, let’s gas it, and see what we can see.”

 

***

 

A short run down the mountain brings you back to I-81, and its turn to the northeast, running just west of and following the Blue Ridge. As the temperatures continued their drop from the 70s, where we’d started the day, into the high 50s, I kept the big brick on the boil and decompressed into making miles.

I came back out of the time stream to see more than 200 miles on this tank of fuel, so I landed in Christianburg for a Bad For Me Burger and a Good For Beemer Tank of High Test.

I changed into a pair of weatherproof gloves after fueling, and as I left the station the sprinkles finally turned to a light but steady rain.

I hoped I gotten my ‘Stich fastened properly, and that we had everything buttoned down. I was pretty sure that dry was not something I was going to see for quite a while.

 

 

***

 

After running a few more miles up 81, I began to see the strangest signage.

“Motorcycle Detour Ahead”

“All Motorcycles Must Exit – 10 miles”

“Motorcycle Detour — All Motorcycles Must Leave Interstate”

Now I’ve been doing this driving and riding motorcycles thing for quite some time, and I can ever recall seeing a conditional detour like this, where some users of the road – ME! – were getting selectively discriminated against.

I couldn’t really imagine a set of highway construction conditions that I, personally, couldn’t adapt to.

After my little run in with the Ontario Department of Highways where they’d elected to completely remove about 65 miles of the TransCanada Highway I needed to ride on — leaving me with packed soil and mud for use with my 1000 pounds of highway missile and gear — I was having a hard time imagining that VDOT could come remotely close to even equaling that, much less beating it.

I was confident of my skills and machine control, and whatever it was — abraded, graded, not-yet-paved surfaces, uneven lane levels, parallel seams — I was sure I could ride on it, and safely.

But the Detour signs kept getting closer and closer together, the verbiage more and more insistent, and at a certain point the “Honest, Officer, I am a duly trained and licensed professional” speech was likely to end just as badly as one of Hunter S. Thompson’s offramp soliloquys. This really wasn’t a conversation with the constable that I felt like having right about now. The Ride Luck Count was 0-2, and didn’t like my odds of breaking the streak.

 

***

 

So when the last “You There, Motorcycle! Exit Here!” sign came up, I meekly complied.

The Motorcycle Detour immediately took me onto some very rural secondary roads — filled with working farms, fields and barns that felt very much like the ones I’d left at home. Despite the light rain and the mist, I was warm, dry and comfortable, and there was no denying that the greenness and the mist I was riding through was beautiful.

Not every peak ride experience requires a perfect sunny day.

It was almost as if the designers of the Motorcycle Detour had intended to actually do their motorcyclists a kind of favor, to provide a peak rider’s experience.

And on a better weather day, they would have totally succeeded.

As I kept gaining altitude running Virginia Route 43, the fog began to creep back in. I saw a roadside sign indicating “Blue Ridge Parkway Ahead”.

Was it possible that the same universe that had been consistently taking had decided to lighten up and give one back?

 

***

 

The Universe was definitely giving one, but it sure wasn’t giving one back.

As I got close to the ridgeline, 43 tightens up … a lot. As one approaches the summit the road goes completely drunk-snake — there is switchback after switchback, and crazy banked decreasing radius stuff with big steep grade changes coming out of them. On a sunny day with Finn’s Buell Blast — with its Pirelli Diablos in scooter sizes — you could drag your earlobes out here and be laughing like a maniac all day long.

But today it looked slippery, and treacherous, and like one mistake away from chucking this beast of a roadbike down.

Don’t misunderstand me. My Avon Storms are the best wet weather tires I’ve ever seen. But on this chilly, wet misty day, up alone on that steep twisty mountain, the voice that does self preservation was yelling at the top of its lungs. I don’t scare easily but the feeling that one might have made a bad choice does a lot to induce a strong sense of restraint.

Upon cresting the summit, and entering The Parkway, the roadbed at least, takes on the more widely radiused curves that are this ride’s signature.

With some visibility and sightlines, and the ability to read a few corners ahead, the BRP can be run in the wet with a fair degree of assurance.

Only we didn’t have some visibility.

The Parkway runs just below the ridgeline on the eastern or shaded side of the Ridge. And while visibility was not as bad as it had been in Fancy Gap, it was certainly nothing to write home about.

Sections that I’d normally ride — averaging a few miles per hour above the Parkway’s recommended speed — felt downright uncomfortable at 20 to 25 miles an hour — there was limited ability to see to set up for curves ahead, and in the worst spots even the centerline was tough on which to stay oriented.

Fog is evil stuff — it takes away my entire sense of cyclist’s orientation in the environment, and leaves me wobbly and robbed of a sense of strategy in the ride.

Hazardous though it was, it was starkly beautiful. With no guardrails off the Northbound Parkway’s outer side, only the occasional mature pine treetop at the rider’ eye level punching out of the fog gave any hint to the steepness of the land as it dropped away from the road.

Were one to miss the inside of a corner, on a day like this, it would be a likely long time before anyone would find you or come to your aid.

 

***

 

So I took it as easy as I could, tried to relax, and tried to be sustained by the stark beauty of these surroundings. I knew as long as I remained upright, and kept a steady pace down the road, I’d eventually be presented with either improved conditions or options to get down off this mountain.

But 20 mph second gear touring is really not relaxing on a motorcycle this big. It really isn’t a natural thing for a K12 to do.

I really don’t know for how many miles or for how much time I rode this way. It might have been 10 and at may have been 50 — I just lost, with my spatial orientation, all sense of time.

But finally the Parkway descended some, and the roadway dipped beneath the altitude of the worst weather.

I could see two or three curves ahead, and was finally able to shift up a gear and sometime two, and to ride this road like a motorcycle again. The Storms felt planted, without a wiggle or slip under throttle or any sense of anxiety with the bike leaned up on the tire’s edge.

I started to rack up easy, gentle miles again, drinking in the greenness of the steady rain and the ribbon of macadam that split it.

It felt good to be able to breathe again, to relax and just ride, just ride.

 

***

 

A few miles up the road, I exited a corner to see two riders on matching black Road Glides beating together in my direction. They looked like men who were owning their bad, rolling leathery big slow shiny and heavy with little attention wasted on me. With shorty windshields, sunglasses and half helmets they weren’t really equipped for the weather ahead. I tried to flag them in the brief seconds I had, thinking they’d want to know about the foul conditions but they didn’t so much as turn a head to acknowledge me as they rumbled by.

I thought a lot about those guys in the next little while.

 

***

 

After rolling a solid 50 or so good twisting misting miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the rain, I decided to head back down the hill to the Interstate, and to set up for the blast that would take me home.

As I rode back down the ridge back to 81, the rain started to pick up in intensity. On the more modern roadway, the bike was just eating this all up, planted and stable and enhancing my confidence. It’s amazing the effect the attitude of a rider can have on his or her progress down the road.

Being out in front of events always feels better than being a half beat behind, timid and chasing one’s tail.

 

***

 

As I made miles up 81, conditions went from poor, to genuinely bad, to something way worse than that. It’s on days like this that one can really appreciate two things.

First, it’s extraordinary just how good a foul-weather motorcycle a K1200LT really is. Apart from the performance, protection and tunability of the bike’s aerodynamics, the combination of weight low in the frame, zero torque reaction and torque steer, the tractable power delivery of the engine, and a set of state of the art all weather radial tires creates a motorcycle that never sets a wheel out of place, even at elevated speeds, even with wacky rainfall rates and standing water conditions that will have four wheelers and even their 18 wheeler cousins pulling off and looking for cover.

The second thing is just how good a piece of engineered riding gear today’s one piece Aerostich Roadcrafter riding suit really is.

I’ve owned three Roadcrafters since 1985.

The first one was a gift from Sweet Doris from Baltimore, when we were still dating.

She’d decided she really dug me, in a permanent and indelible way, and if I was going to motorcycle — and she wasn’t the kind of woman who would try to talk/pressure me out of it — she figgured I’d better have the best safety gear that love and money could buy.

I never succeeded in wearing any of my Roadcrafters out. I tried. I really did. The first one was worn back in the day when having a job meant riding to it every day, and that suit was on my back no less than 220 commuting days a year, over an 11 year period, in heat, cold, rain and even limited amounts of snow. They also went sportriding on weekends, and travelling on vacations, but who’s counting? All of my suits are still in one piece and serviceable, although in various states of street credible to absolutely vile patina.

It’s just that life took a guy who was 135 1985 pounds and converted him into a guy who is 201 2017 pounds.

Whatcha gonna do?

I run into a lot of rain riding around Maryland in the summer. Heavy rain or thunderstorms are everywhere during summer afternoons and evenings, but these heavy rains are 15 minutes, or maybe 30, tops, before they’ve spent themselves and the sun reclaims its rightful place.

This storm was nothing like that. I’d already been riding in steady rain for 100 miles when I got engulfed by this front, with its embedded thunderstorms, just under 250 miles from home, and it rained heavily, steadily, for the whole four-plus more hours it took me to get there.

Oh, and for the next day and half after that.

For the next 100 plus miles of I-81, I hammered up the road at my customary dry pace at about 3950 rpm on the tach. Despite the LT’s creditable impression of a 1960s Glastron Speedboat — “Ooh, what a lovely wake and roostertail you have, my dear” — the combination of sheer mass and British tires meant I never felt so much as a squirm out of my contact patches.

I adjusted my windscreen so that I could just see over the top edge, while the water streaming off the screen was deflected over my head. My hands were dry and protected inside the envelope made by the LT’s rearview mirrors. The cockpit wind deflectors were shut, and even though I’d elected to leave my goretex lined boots at home in the closet, the lower fairing was keeping my feet dry enough so that my unlined but well oiled leather boots were not admitting any water.

We might be out here riding in the middle of The Devil’s Very Own Lawn Sprinkler, but with this suit and this bike I was dry, comfortable and in control.

 

***

 

After about three hours in the saddle, in the best of conditions, it’s usually prudent to stop if only for a stretch.

After three hours in these conditions — cool, wet, stressy, with a sprinkling of upper body workout — I’d been going through a fair amount of energy, and all metabolic systems had been working overtime.

It was time for a level two pit stop — this human race car needed both fuel and four tires.

At the appointed time, the Northbound half of the Good Old Mount Sidney Safety Rest presented itself.

I executed my customary drop out of hyperspace and engine braked into the rest area and down to walking pace.

I chose a parking spot across the street from the rest area building, rolled to a stop and standed the bike. As I dismounted I tried to plan a route to the bathroom which involved no standing water. When that proved too challenging, I just ploshed across the street like a duckie booted toddler.

The rain rates, now that I was on foot and not at speed, were obviously Nash Metropolitan Fulla Clowns, Firehose Standing in for Sprinkles Full On Slapstick Comically Ridiculous. I couldn’t help but laugh.

People in the rest area were staring at me.

When laughing me finished swimming to the porch of the rest area, I removed my gloves and helmet, and did my best to shake off the water drops from the outside of that gear.

While I was having my moment, chuckling at the deluge between me and my LT, a man walked right up to me and lay one hand on each of my shoulders.

“The Lord Be With You on this day My Brother. May I pray for you and your safe journey?”

“Ordinarily, No, but today I’ll gratefully take any help I can get.”

I bowed my head in silence while my brand new brother petitioned the Lord on my behalf.

I thanked him and then he headed back to the cab of his tractor trailer.

 

***

 

Once into the men’s room, I looked for a ‘family stall’. Using the baby changing table to keep my helmet and gloves off the wet floor, I began the ‘Stich peeling ritual so I could locate the human being underneath.

In more than 30 years of ‘Stichery, I’ve arrived after tough rides looking a tad incontinent and feeling a little squishy, but not this time – I was dry as a bone. I was now, and I would be still when I got home

The third ‘Stich is apparently the charm.

 

 

***

 

 

After swimming back to the bike, I ended up swapping my foul weather gloves back for my elkskins. The new tech gloves’ outer shell had absorbed enough moisture to make putting them back on more of a wrestling match than I had the patience for. With less than 150 miles home and knowing I’d be rolling most all the way, the elkskins would be glove enough.

I rolled the big girl back through the gears, running the revs up enthusiastically before thockking up into the next. I got back up into cruise, and went back to laughing inside the clean hole my motorcycle was punching in this unrelenting rain.

“This kinda weather,” I thought “is just rain out the Yin-Yang”.

 

 

***

 

 

After another half hour on the cruise, it was finally time to leave the Interstate, and roll the remaining 50 miles of rural highway across Clarke County, Virginia, and Jefferson County, West Virginia back to Jefferson, and my home.

The rain, the mist and the greenness were enough to keep me in good spirits, as the final familiar miles rolled away.

Sweet D had the garage door up, so I rolled into my spot, swung my leg over and ju-jitsued the LT up onto its main stand.

Looking at the LT’s dashboard clock, a ride that normally took six hours has taken more than ten.

 

 

***

 

Sweet Doris from Baltimore was glad to see me, and see me off that bike.

All was not perfect however.

“I’m cold, Greggie. I think our heat is broke.”

I should note that Sweet D wasn’t the only one that might have been cold.

When I’m on a roll, I’m really on a roll.

After reading some blinking furnace diagnostic LEDs confirmed her theory, I was at least glad I had some dry firewood stacked inside by my woodstove.

90 minutes later, I had hot iron in my den and some good spirits in my glass.

It is good to journey out. It is better to be home.

 

***

 

So my brothers and sisters enjoy, embrace and carry with you always those rides that are only sunny days.

Just know that inside that sunny day, also lives as well the cold and the darkness.

 

LTO

How do you quantify something that is completely and utterly subjective?

It’s admittedly a fool’s errand.

Fool? Errand?

So this seems like the perfect setup, eh?

I’ll get my helmet.

 

***

 

I’ve been working my way back from an unplanned riding layoff.

And since life’s little unpleasant surprises prefer to play tag team, that experience was superimposed on one of those character revealing all-out maximum effort sprints in my worklife that make the other parts of ones life go all blurry until it’s over.

On Wednesday, my work team of 9 mothers delivered their one month baby. On Thursday, my workplace seemed preternaturally quiet. The mental image I had was more than a few people coming to face down on a carpet somewhere, panting shallowly, and finding the silence — and unaccustomed absence of ringing phones, multiple computer inbound instant message and e-mail klaxons, and mobile phone Hmmmmmmmmnnnn Hmmmmmmmmmnnnn vibrations — strangely disconcerting.

Later in the afternoon, with a clear calendar, and a life that had been on hold for several weeks, I decided to head up to the bank to take of some urgent business. The sun was out, the temperature had finally broken into the 17 minutes of Maryland’s Spring, and my emotional batteries were showing red and in need of a charge. I Vansoned up and headed for the garage.

 

***

 

If I had a truly modern motorcycle, like a Yamaha YZF-R1, the engine control unit’s electronics would have at least a dozen ways of measuring the absolute rush of proper motorcycle operation. On a modern bike, the ECU is integrated with an Inertial Management Unit, which, through a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes and wheel speed sensors, can model acceleration, deceleration, roll, pitch, yaw, bank angle, wheel spin and whether one or both wheels are off the ground and headed back towards or further away from the pavement. The motorcycle is essentially self aware and self-protective, and will do whatever is necessary to keep overall machine dynamics inside the envelope prescribed by the IMU’s mathematical physics dynamic model. And while the control electronics will occasionally — like a 1000 times a second or so — consult the position of the ride-by-wire throttle to monitor what the rider is requesting, that throttle position sensor is just one of many inputs, and can be considered merely a suggestion, to be ignored if required, rather than the deterministic order that it represents in the motorcycles to which I’ve grown accustomed and enamored.

Thankfully, though, I don’t own a truly modern motorcycle, so the number of operational parameters available to describe the ride is reduced, for all intents and purposes, to one.

The throttle.

If the slides on the Del’Orto PHM 38s are up, we’re accelerating. If the slides are down, we’re slowing down.

Do it right, and it’s as if you’re dancing with angels. Do it wrong, and those selfsame angels will be taking you home.

It’s the most fundamentally analog of systems, and it makes a far simpler way to represent that tightrope walk between that laws of physics and the demands of the rider’s emotion.

 

***

 

Things in my life, generally, have suddenly become a great deal more vivid.

Seems I’d been looking straight at things that I had just not been seeing.

So a sunny day, an R90S, and a ready, receptive soul was a recipe for motorcycle enlightenment.

Running up the Jefferson Pike, I found myself far more deliberate, far more aware and far more prone to use of Large Throttle Openings than my customary riding style employs.

The S, in stock form, is known for its long travel suspension. Mine, modified not for the track or for some museum, has fork gaiters which, while not pretty, do make it more likely that the fork assembly will cheerfully survive tens of thousands of bug and road filth infested miles.

Running the up through the gears was an adventure in big gestures, big movements, and big pieces of metal in motion. Roll the throttle to well open and let the bike pull the gear up through six thousand RPM. As the power comes on, one can see the fork gaiters stretching out as the fork unloads and the front wheel gets light. Preload the shift lever and finger the clutch while simultaneously snapping the throttle closed. In the seam between applications of power the gaiters settle back down as the fork compresses. A firm toe in this gearbox — freshly rebuilt with the updated shift cam — yields a uncharacteristicly solid and deterministic shift when compared with most BMWs of this vintage. After the “Thokk” of engagement reaches my ears, I feather the clutch back in while rolling the throttle open again. In every gear the cycle repeats, with the bike doing its best to keep the front tire skimming the ground.

After a ride like this, it makes perfect sense that I’m wearing out two rear tires for every front I replace. One doesn’t wear out tires that are barely ever on the ground.

 

***

 

A test of the aforementioned YZF-R1 I saw recently did analysis of the data that was provided by the bike’ s IMU and yielded the data that the bike was able to make use of more that 50% throttle application roughly 18% of the time it was in motion.

Absolute power means almost nothing if, like the nuclear deterrent, one can never use it.

Taking the S up the National Pike into Gambrill, in contrast, was an extended meditation on Large Throttle Openings. 67 horsepower might not seem like a lot, but in a world filled with hypersports that knock on the door of 200 horses, they were 67 horsepower all of which I could freely use. Gears could be run all the way out. The intake howl created by the S’s liberally ventilated airbox housing was singing out and playing against the machine gun exhaust report — echoing back off the rock cuts on either side of US 40 — of the boxer running in it’s peak power zone.

This vivid and completely engaging experience encapsulates what I most love about this 42 year old motorcycle.

Nobody, not even me, is disconnected enough to argue that an R90S is an objectively fast motorcycle in 2017’s motorcycle arms race. Forget BMW S1000RRs and Suzuki GSXR1000s. It is likely that a Kawasaki 650 Versys — hardly a manly-man expression of sporting prowess — could wipe it up in a straight line test of acceleration.

While a suspension-enhanced S can hang with or even embarrass a inexpertly piloted modern 600 class Sport bike on a tight or technical enough back road, it isn’t because the motorcycle is objectively fast.

What enamoured me to this motorcycle is not that it is fast, but that it feels fast.

Lots of modern BMWs and lots of other manufacturer’s motorcycles are so refined that they lose any sensation of personality.

The S, in contrast, makes every moment spent with throttle slides rising feel like the fastest thing in the world. One can feel every explosion in the cylinders — they ring the tubular steel frame like hammers ringing on a large bell. The frame squats, the front end rises and the bars go loose in your hands.

There is no electronic minder. The bike clearly needs you, and the overall experience is one of barely contained mechanical brutality where the rider’s skill and ability to read the road ahead is what frankly, is the margin that separates a completely immersive motorcycling life from a short and violent exit from same.

I’ve moved well past my brief look straight onto the eyes of death.

On this green sunny day, working Large Throttle Openings on this old classic motorcycle, I have never felt so alive.

The Greatest Show On Earth

its probably
good for you
to have a brush with death
every once in a while
these white hot flashes
of mortality
serve to clarify the mind

its not
why i ride motorcycles
but riders
accept
that these things happen
sliding tires
you gather up
no one the wiser
how near a thing that was

after surviving
your vision sharpened
everything shining
a new focus
on what counts
learning to ignore
anything that doesn’t propel one forward

the thing about death
is that it just doesn’t manage very well
showing up from random places
at random times
and usually not
while doing the things
conventional thinking
would accept should kill you

so you can ride the wall of death
everynight my friend
you can smoke camels
drink jack
wrangle the big cats like Gunter
or be shot out of a cannon
like The Human Cannonball

none of the things
that should kill you will kill you
there’s way more than a million ways
to be struck or missed by the lightning

i know that you want
gunpowder
explosions
lurid twisting orange fireballs
of exploding hightest gasoline
what you get though
is blue light
a dark spot on your arm
and a silent doctor
with a concerned look
on his face

 

***

 

I’ve got to tell you, I get the worst PMS.

I can tell from that look on your face that you have no freaking idea what I mean.

PMS, or Parked Motorcycle Syndrome, is a debilitating condition. PMS leaves sufferers irritable, depressed, and prone to seemingly impossible extremes of emotional volatility.

And so it is with me, too.

After two days or so, I’m nervous. Jumpy.

I make these inexplicable spasmodic rolling motions with my right hand and wrist.

After about five days, I can be observed sitting rocking in the center of the rug in my den, quietly making little motor noises with my lips and tongue.

After about 7 days, I am reduced to staring out the window, insterspersed with brief spasmodic weeping.

After about ten days, I’m queing up to be fitted for that nicely tailored snug natural canvas sportsjacket with the arms that tie together in the back.

It had been thirteen days since I had ridden a motorcycle.

 

***

 

The fact that my lay up was a result of Doctor’s orders wasn’t making it any easier.

In fact, it was making it particularly harder.

A trip to my Dermatologist to have a bad looking spot on the back of my upper right arm examined had resulted in a nearly immediate return for some outpatient surgery.

As a full-blooded American — which is to say a 50% Irish Catholic, 25% Christian Arab and 25% Polish Jew (although there could be more stuff in there for all I know) — my fair skin is prone to hocking up all sorts of bumps and oddballs. Squamous cells, Basal Cells — a Carcinoma or two.

Considering none of my outside has ever seen the sun-containing world outside an Aerostich suit, this is puzzling, but nonetheless true.

I ought to qualify for some sort of high volume scrape ’em and 4 suture club discount.

All of these things are a tad annoying, but 98.8% harmless.

This wasn’t one of those.

This was why we needed some fast lab work, and a post haste return visit.

After spending 90 minutes making surgery can-we-please-talk-about-something-else-smalltalk with my Doctor which was supposed to be 30, a much bandaged and still more sutured me was toweled off, propped up, and sent home with the instructions “not to lift anything heavy for 4 or 5 days”.

In my slightly stress-goofy state, I remember thinking “Well, I guess that rules my K1200LT right out.”

 

***

 

My first notion that something was amiss came after the local anethetic had worn mostly off, and a nice beer seemed like something that might have therapeutic uses.

I decanted a Nanticoke Nectar, leaned down to enjoy the fresh hop bouquet, and then took the glass into my right hand. Everything was preceeding swimmingly until the glass — moving delightfully in widescreen slow motion — got about 6 inches from my achingly thirsty lips. As the glass got closer and closer, it moved with increasing resistance, running into the new limits of my arm’s flexibility, which apparently contained a great deal less arm than it had this morning.

Friends I’d spoken with about the the diagnosis and precedure had warned me about this. The protocol involves being very conservative, and that translates to removing a fair amount of additional tissue.

I muttered a favorite oath — one I suspected would get a good throttle stretching run over the next three weeks or so — set the glass back on the counter, and resolved to learn to drink left handed.

 

***

 

So there I was, stuck on the couch, comtemplating my own mortality while snared in immobility.

It was pretty dark.

And I was going absolutely nuts.

For the first week or so I was too beat up to even consider escape. If we went out Sweet Doris from Baltimore was behind the wheel.

On or around day 5, I regained enough flexibility that I could split time between drinking left handed and drinking right handed.

Having discovered this, I immediately walked out to the garage, swung a leg over the Slash 5, and assumed the position.

Given that motorcycle’s almost custom fit to my body, it was heartening that I could sit astride the bike comfortably — there was no pain to rest a portion of my weight on my arms.

Then I tried the throttle.

This was going to take a while.

 

***

It wasn’t the last such trip I made to the the garage and to my Toaster Tank.

Progress was slow, but it was progress.

Day 13 after the surgery dawned sunny, cold and windy.

My arm, though, seemed like it could stand to be wound WFO without too much discomfort.

At lunchtime, I went back to the garage, and sat back on the Slash 5. I took a few tentative rolls of the throttle. No klaxons.

I walked over to the garage door, and gently raised it.

I rolled the bike forward off the stand, and then rolled it backwards into the open door, and gingerly placed it back onto the Reynolds Ride-Off stand.

It was go time.

I wandered back inside and gathered up a set of boots, my Duluth Trading Blacktop jacket — notable because of its built in fleece lining and lack of any armor — and a fresh surgical adhesive dressing and some of the prescription antibiotic ointment my doctor had provided.

I went into the studio where Sweet Doris from Baltimore was working a new painting.

“I’m going for a ride, Baby. Could you please put a dressing back on my arm?”

“I don’t think that’s….”

Folks that know me well know that I never get like that.

This one time, I got like that. Sue me.

 

***

 

Out in the driveway, I snapped the collar of my jacket shut and pulled on my gloves. I swung a leg over, opened the left fuel petcock, and pushed in the ignition pin. Having sat for a while, the boxer swung through two or three more compression strokes than was customary before the engine fired. I swing the choke off before it was smart to do so, and had to repeat the drill. Afer 15 seconds or so, the engine was taking throttle, and assumed its steady near-human heartbeat of an idle.

I pushed off down the driveway, toed the gearbox down into first, and banked left up the street.

Motion!

I took the long way around the neighborhood — gently rolling the bike left and right — a baby-step version of the racer’s tire warming manouvre — checking to make sure I could position the bike without running into the lowered limits of my flexibility and strength. Thanks to boxer balance, what little I had was enough.

At The Jefferson Pike, I made the right down towards The Brookside Inn, and deliberately thockked the old girl up through the gears until I shifted into fourth.

With temperature in the low 40s, the sun was shining bright in a clear sky, the wind blowing hard, this old school ride — no windshield, no heated grips, and just a set of elkskin gloves — was letting me experience the day with an unparalleled vividness.

It was bright. It was cold. It was great.

Never has such an old slow motorcycle made me feel so alive.

 

***

 

As much as I didn’t want to overdo it, I didn’t want to stop, either.

After a brief run up The Pike, I made the right up St. Marks Road. St. Marks leads down into The Bottoms — I just wanted to just be alone next to the creek, feeling the wheels working underneath me and being kissed by the broken sunlight coming through the trees. Where the road comes down to Catoctin Creek, it follows the streambed closely, making a series of gentle lefts and rights, with the ancient road surface providing endless contours for the suspension to follow.

After a long time as a wallflower, it felt oh so good to be dancing again.

St. Marks has a medium long straight, and feeling good, I gassed it.

I wasn’t the only one that was feeling good, apparently.

Old boxers love cold dense air, and 50 horsepower never felt so powerful. The Toaster’s sleeper motor — with its big bore kit and small valves — was right in the sweet spot, and it hit with everything it had.

I didn’t need an action cam to know about the smile in my helmet.

At the creek sits an old iron framed one lane bridge. I got up on the pegs and gassed it again — getting just a little air as I left the bridge deck.

Away from the creek St. Marks climbs steeply. The sightlines are restrictive and the road twists, snakelike, as it rises up the hill. I gassed it again and was pleasantly surprised as the front wheel lightened up and lightly skimmed the pavement over 60 or 70 feet.

Slash 5 power wheelies don’t happen very often, but today was clearly a special day.

I might hurt later, but right now that front wheel wasn’t the only thing that got lifted.

 

***

 

Back in the driveway, I remarked that my gear removal speeds had recorded better split times.

Then again, today wasn’t about speed, it was more about simple existance.

My Toaster is clearly a motorcycle that gets used. Its got dirt. And gear oil. And mud. It hasn’t got any ‘pretty’.

Today, though, it was a thing of beauty.

I grabbed my phone out of the phone holster that is built in to my favorite brand of cargo pants to check for messages. I had a voice mail.

“Hmmmmnnnnnnnnnn.”

“Mr. Shamieh? This is Jennie down at Dr. Han’s office. Just wanted you to know that the biopsies and labs came back, and they’re all clean. You have nothing to worry about. Call if you have any questions. ”

Seemed like a pretty good time to reacquaint myself with drinking beer right handed.