Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mile 1,438: Touch of Grey

I did not get worried until the sky in my mirrors turned green. Blackish-green. The foreboding color that would never be reproduced on a car paintjob or the walls of your kitchen.

Your best ride ever or your worst ride ever is usually the one you just finished. Granted, some days are just routine rides to work or the grocery store. Those do not count in this conversation. I am talking about long rides, vacation rides, the kind that involved hundreds of miles. You come home, take a deep breath, and either think, That was my favorite ride ever. Or you come home, take a deep breath, fall backwards onto your luggage, and wonder, Am I really home? Or am I still in the middle of that misery? 

I managed to achieve both within a single four-day weekend.

It started on Friday morning when my chapter and some guests met up on I-10 just west of Houston. We were supposed to meet up at 11:30, but when I arrived just after 10:30, Big Jew, Bill the Cat, and Wango Tango were already there waiting for me. Needless to say, we were all a tad eager to get on the road.

Once our crew assembled, we got on I-10 and fought it all the way to 71. We peeled off away from the endless train of cages and took control of Highway 71, what felt like at times a road all to ourselves.

Roaring up through the small hills and swooping curves of 71 on our way to Austin, none of us realized until we stopped for gas just how much we got into "the zone." Anyone who rides for years knows "the zone." It is that feeling of being so connected with your bike and the road that you think of absolutely nothing else. All the cares of the world fall by the wayside as your thinking goes into a tunnel, and all that matters is the road.

Later that night, Wango Tango would wax eloquently about the awesome ride where Big Jew and I led, and Bill the Cat and him formed in right behind us so that we were rolling down the highway "like four tires on a car." (Wango Tango's words, thank you very much.) The others, of course, were back there as well. But us "tires" had a zone-ride going that was the best ride ever. Pair that truth with the fact that Big Jew and I over the past three years have put down so many thousands of miles handlebar-to-handlebar--(not an exaggeration, by the way)--that for us to put down another couple of hundred that Friday was almost effortless. Natural. We have talked over the years about the uncanny ways that we actually know what the other one is about to do before we do it.

That best ride ever was only interrupted briefly by two construction zones and a handful of weirdos in Austin. But it was no time at all that we broke through to the other side, ready for more stunning Texas Hill Country scenery on our way to Llano.

More zone. More perfect weather. More fast curves.

We arrived at the site of our weekend run, a Memorial Day tradition we in the Gypsy Motorcycle Club call "Mandatory." That annual event has a reputation in the club for usually being a rain-soaked weekend. This one would be no exception.

Some had already arrived early on Thursday night, but others of us showed up on Friday, and even into Saturday morning. That night, the band was rocking, the dancing bordered on goofy at times, and the love of seeing family you do not get to see that often was as apparent as the nice, cool breeze.

One of my favorite people at runs is also one of my wife's favorite people. Her name is Ginger, and she sews on patches night and day under her canopy. When Ginger sews a patch on for me, it means my wife does not have to drag out the sewing machine, which is why Jen likes Ginger. Ginger also gives "quickies." And before you blush, a "quickie" from Ginger involves an old-fashioned back massager that looks like a belt sander that Ginger hoists into both hands and runs up and down your back. A wonderful way to ease the miles.

Friday night was fun. Saturday morning was an early morning of gate duty where I met up with Big Jew who had already been at the gate for an hour-and-a-half. (Thanks for the little extra sleep, Brother.)

Nice ride to the showers, mediocre lunch at a barbeque place, quiet afternoon nap in the tent, followed by a wild party at the New Iberia compound where our Louisiana chapters excel in having a good time.

The party was followed by a good night's rest, and a quiet Sunday morning with a handful of people who stuck around for just a little more Mandatory.

By Sunday afternoon, I was ready for a lonesome ride in the Texas Hill Country that found me in Castell, Texas, at a little country store serving homemade half-pound burgers. A few other Gypsys were already there, so we sat down for a couple of hours and enjoyed the afternoon. (More of that story is back at "Mile 1,151: Middle Story #2.")

My plan was to leave Mandatory first thing Monday morning, ride down to Fredricksburg, Kerrville, and Medina, just enjoying the twists and curves on a one-man-one-bike, out-of-the-way long ride home.


Being the weather junkie that I am, I decided late Sunday afternoon to check the radar. And there it sat, like a dragon at the edge of some knight's cave of old. A big green and yellow swath of rain and storms.

In what will go down in my personal history books as one of the stupidest decisions I have ever made, I decided to break camp, load up, ride down to Kerrville, get a hotel, and make the final call on Monday morning where I would go from there. Rain=Get on I-10 and head home; Clear=Deeper into the Hill Country.

The ride to Kerrville was very nice once I got out of Llano. It was barely two minutes after I left Mandatory that the pouring rain began. I pulled into a bank before leaving Llano, rolled into the drive-thru to put on a long sleeve shirt and cover my gear, and then get back on the road. Thankfully, it only rained for a few minutes, and then cleared.

What happened next on the road south could be a story unto itself, but since it happened as one of the many events of this trip, here it goes. If it was a stand-alone essay it would be called, "The Strangest Thing That's Ever Happened to Me on a Motorcycle."

The hills and curves were generous and inviting as I made my way south on Highway 16. Trees and rugged beauty. The sun was beginning to go down, and I was surprised at how cool the air had become. Every time I crested a hill, the air felt a little colder.

And then it happened.

I was flying down one particular hill just outside of Fredricksburg when the air temperature suddenly went up what felt like 10-20 degrees. Seriously. Everything on my bike immediately fogged up. The chrome handlebars, highway bars, the screen covering the speedometer, everything started sweating. It was as though I was riding in a sauna. The windscreen on my full-faced helmet fogged over some, but since I treat it with a defogger regularly, it was nothing that kept me from seeing.

After a few minutes I was worried that my bike was on fire. It had grown so hot that I slowed down enough to crane my head down to the motor. No flames. No warning lights on the display. Nothing. I tried not to worry, but it remained that way for what felt like another five miles.

And then just like that, like a plague of frogs that without notice just stopped falling from the sky, the air went cool and comfortable once again.

I chalked it up to a random peculiarity like something you would see on The Twilight Zone, shrugged, and made my way through the touristy roads and sidewalks of Fredricksburg.

I put the little town in my mirrors, and kept going down the road.

And then it happened again. Same scenario. Same heat. Same fog and sweat. Same sudden hot temperature for a few.

Then gone. Again.

And that's where "The Strangest Thing That's Ever Happened to Me on a Motorcycle" article would come to an end if it were not a part of a much larger best-ride/worst-ride story.

That night in Kerrville, as I kept an eye on the weather, a sudden tornado warning dropped on us from out of the blue. The storm system sped up, and would be here for hours. I tried my hardest to not think about it until the morning, but since the air conditioner in my hotel room sounded like an old Harley every time it came on, it was next to impossible not to think about a motorcycle and a storm.

When I woke up on Monday morning, the system had cleared out a bit, but more of it was headed my way fast. I operated under the delusion that I could beat it east all the way home.

I was wrong.

It was already starting to rain when I entered the ramp up I-10. The giant trucks had their hazard lights on, which was the first harbinger of a bad day.

I am certain that the scenery all around me was breathtaking. But since visibility was next to nothing, I missed it all. That alone is reason enough to call it "the worst ride." The joy of being on a motorcycle is that it puts you in closer touch with the things around you. You see more than you notice from the movie screen of the car windshield. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the rough elements along with the nice scenery. And since the nice scenery was unavailable to me, all that was left was pouring rain and the tail lights of cars and 18-wheelers.

Once I made it almost to San Antonio, I started to feel cautious relief. Did it really just stop raining? Honestly, I could not tell. I really couldn't. But as I made my way through the city, not a drop. I was still soaking wet, but the dark clouds ahead of me were suddenly lifting higher into the sky until I noticed a lighter colored band of clouds on the horizon with only a touch of grey. That meant clear skies ahead.

I pulled into a truck stop, got some gas, took a drink of water from the water bottle in my fork bag, and went inside. On the way to the restroom I noticed corduroy long-sleeve work shirts for eight dollars. Easy choice. Buy the ugly shirt, walk out the bike, peel off the two shirts I'm wearing, grab paper towels from beside the gas pump, and dry off right there in front of the cagers in a vulgar display of post-shower joy.

I am not sure that I have ever put on a more comfortable shirt. It was dry, warm, and thick. Such relief.

I took a deep breath, sighed, put on my helmet and gloves, smiled, started the bike, kicked up the kickstand, put it into first, and rolled to the stoplight. Onto the ramp, onto I-10 headed west towards home, and the comforting band of light grey sky began to widen on the horizon.

But then a sprinkle. Then a fat drop of rain on my face shield. Then pouring rain. My new shirt was soaked in a split second, and I chewed myself out for a good five minutes for leaving my rainsuit behind on this trip, a mistake I promise you I will never make again.

I did the only thing I knew to do, and on I pushed. Only 160 miles to go.

I did not get worried until the sky in my mirrors turned green. Blackish-green. The foreboding color that would never be reproduced on a car or the walls of your kitchen. This was no way to spend my Gypsy birthday.

It was Memorial Day, the 26th of May. Three years prior, I ate with Raoul, the man who brought me into the club. It was one year to the day later that I patched in. Here I was on my Gypsy birthday, supposed to be riding all over the Texas Hill Country and then home. But instead, I was fighting with all my might just to make another mile.

I was just outside Flatonia, Texas when I began to tremble. My body was going cold, and I could not feel the tips of my fingers. In spite of a good pair of gloves, there is only so much gloves can do. As the middle finger of my right hand brushed the index finger next to it, it felt like my finger was hitting something medal. I was in trouble, and I needed to stop.

Gypsy Motorcycle Club Houston (GMCH) has a habit of stopping in Flatonia for gas at the Shell Station and food at Joel's. I thought I would stop at Shell for gas, and try to come up with a game plan. But as I came down the ramp, there next to the gas station, was "Grumpy's Motor Inn." Should I stop? Get a room? Just as I was about to pass it, I made a split decision, turned into the parking lot, woke up suddenly to a jarring feeling as my bike hit about eight deep inches of water flowing in front of the driveway, at which point I knew that this was the right decision.

I pulled up under the awning, shut everything down, and walked inside. The little Indian lady behind the desk smiled and asked in a thick accent, "How are you?"

"Wet and tired."

"Well we can fix that. Yooo go to room 1-0-4, take off those clothes, and let me put them in the dryer."

"Okay. Thanks so much."

I went to the room, stripped down, put on a towel, and took my clothes to the room just next to mine that happened to be the laundry room. She and her husband were there waiting for me.

"Should I come back and get the clothes in a little while?"

"NO!" the little lady commanded. "He will brink them toooo yoooo!" she said as she pointed to her husband, a hunched over little old man with a few missing teeth. He said nothing, but just smiled and nodded in a grunt of obedience.

"Thank you," I managed while starting to tremble again.

"Uh!" the old man grunted.

I walked back into my room and climbed in the shower. This was no five-star hotel, but it was shelter that I desperately needed.

After what felt like thirty minutes in the warm shower, I got out, dried off, and climbed into bed to call my wife. I was not sure whether I would be there until the morning, or what would happen. I needed to check in, and I needed to rest.

After I called Jen, I put down my phone and looked around the room. The light that hung from the ceiling was a single light bulb hanging from an electrical cord. The desk in the corner was pieced together from what looked like two other desks and a small chest of drawers all from different families. The refrigerator next to the "entertainment center"--(a generous assessment, by the way)--looked like something the old man bought at a garage sale back in the 1970s, not your typical hotel room refrigerator, but a full-sized, dirty white fridge with a missing door handle. I am guessing he bought it as a pair with the old television that only got eight channels. I guess the Discovery Channel and Headline News counts as the "Cable TV" advertised on the marquee.

But again, it was shelter. Warm, comforting shelter.

A knock at the door. The man with my laundry. A "thank you" and a returned nod. I was just about to climb in bed when another knock sounded. I opened the door. One more t-shirt he had left behind. Another "thank you" and one even subtler nod.

And before I knew it, I was asleep.

I awakened gradually, feeling rested and much better. I ate a Clif Bar I stored in my bag for just such emergencies and decided to check the radar. Supposedly it was clearing up a bit between me and Houston, so I decided to make the rest of my way home, the only place in the world that I really wanted to be.

As I stood outside the lobby where I had parked my bike under the awning, the little Indian lady came out, "Vhere are yooo go-eenk?"

"I want to go home. I'll be fine. And thanks for the hospitality." She smiled as I secured my bags to my bike. Loaded down, dry, and ready to be home, back on to I-10 once again to push east.

Ten minutes later, the sky opened up yet again, and I was getting wet once more. The rain was not nearly as bad, just steady. And I made it a whole twenty miles before I had to stop yet again.

Two miles before Schulenberg every set of brake lights in front of me lit up like the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. The interstate was coming to a dead standstill. It was raining. We were not moving.

It did not take me long to decide to pull a classic biker move and start riding slowly on the shoulder to the exit, which is exactly what I did. I rode down the ramp, turned right on 77, and pulled into an abandoned gas station where a couple of other weary road warriors had already sought shelter.

We stood and talked under the rusting canopy for about 15 minutes when the cars on I-10 finally began to move again. At that point I said my goodbyes, put my helmet and gloves back on, pulled out, and in two seconds noticed that I-10 was creeping back to parking lot status.

Change of plans once again.

Because I have some friends with an old farm in Schulenberg, I know the area well. Thankfully. So I decided to shoot down 77 South to Halletsville, and then catch Alternate 90 East all the way into Houston.

And that's what I did.

It quit raining as I flew south, and I even felt my new old shirt began to dry with every curve out in the Texas pastures that just happen to host a highway.

Turn left in Halletsville east to Eagle Lake. On that road that I have ridden many times before, Eagle Lake always feels like I am almost home.

But once I made it past Eagle Lake, the rain hit harder than it had been at any time on that fateful day. With very few cars on the road, I slowed to about 40 mph, and just kept going. I feel like I owe my trusty bike, Rocinante, a gift after what I put her through, and what she did for me. It was on that Memorial Day that my bragging about Michelin Commander II tires turned into a now undying loyalty. For all the bad conditions, my bike never once drifted, shifted, or hydroplaned. It was as though the bike had the claws of a big cat climbing a tree.

The sign up ahead read "Rosenberg 15 Richmond 18." Almost home. It was still pouring, but I knew I was going to make it.

Once I jumped on Southwest Freeway, it was a fast ride back into Houston. And since I live on 59, I rushed to the Chimney Rock exit, made the u-turn, and passed the used car dealerships that looked so welcoming after a rough day.

Turn into my neighborhood, notice the flooded streets, pull up to my gate, round the bend in front of my house to an opening garage filled with three people who were obviously listening for my bike, just as desperate for me to be home as I was for myself.

I ride the bike up into my garage, shut down the motor, throw down the kickstand, and then fall backwards onto my luggage. Am I really home?

"That was the worst day of riding ever."

But there was my wife, my son, my daughter. And there was my faithful Rocinante. And my home. And the memories of the weekend that included some of the best rides ever.

To tell you the truth, I would do it all over again.

But not today.

And next time with a rainsuit.

1 comment:

  1. Great story and, no doubt, a memorable, if not miserable experience. In contrast, I left the Mandatory run site at 8am, rode 29 through George Town to 95 to 79 to 6 to 30 to Huntsville and then 190 to Onalaska and DIDN'T get but a few drops of rain. I was home by 2pm - high and dry!!!

    It's amazing how the weather can change so dramatically with what was probably close to a hundred miles for two riders, both with the same goal: to get home to the familiar and safe confines of their homes.

    Great story Jeff ... I'm enjoying this entire series of stories.