Saturday, August 23, 2014

Paying With Interest


Last night, Donna and I talked about "paying the bill" once in a while for the fun and freedom that our grand adventures bring.  I had a crappy afternoon yesterday and was glad she was not there, and happy to cover the check for my sweetie back home. 

Some days, everything is perfect, and people look at me and think, "Man, that guy has got it figured out.  He has the world by the balls."  Sometimes, they look at me and think, "Look at that stupid SOB.  I wouldn't want to be him right now."  I was about to have the second kind of day.  I've had some pretty bad ones for sure.  This would be the worst day I ever spent on a motorcycle.

Today I needed to get about 325 miles to a reservation in Miles City, MT, that I had made two days ago.  According to the reviews, it was a really nice Comfort Suites, the nicest place in town.  And good thing, because today was supposed to be like the second half of yesterday:  cold, wet and windy.  All 300+ miles of it.


Sure enough, I left with the rainsuit on again, but unlike yesterday it was not just foreboding, it was pouring down rain.  And COLD.  All geared up, ready for anything (so I thought at the time) off I went.

Getting out of town and up to speed, I noticed those same cold, strong, northerly winds that Donna and I remember from our eastward trek across South Dakota a few years back.  The bike is struggling to keep speed, sucking down fuel, and leaned over at a constant 45 degrees, it seems, just to go straight. Then, when you pass a grain elevator, a ridge, or another car, it blocks the wind for a moment and suddenly you're in the oncoming lane, counteracting nothing.  This isn't fun, and in a downpour, it's scary.  As the gusts blast you around and you fight to keep it in your lane, you are afraid to wrestle the handlebars worrying that the swerve will slide the bike out from under you.  No 75 mph today.

Then about 60 miles out, I realized that I had probably missed a turn.  My tank bag is covered due to the rain, and my directions are under there, but I can't see 'em.  It took me a couple miles to find a spot to pull over - US-2 out here is graded with a ditch on both sides and just wide enough for two lanes.  Sure enough, I was supposed to turn somewhere about 50 miles out, give or take, and here I am working on 65.  I betcha it was that blinking yellow light suspended across the road back there.  Now, the decision was, do I stay on the "High Line" - the term for the northern-tier BNSF rail line and the highway that mirrors it, and find another turn to the south, or do I waste the 20 miles and go back?.  Knowing I was on the shortest route already, and not wanting to get out a bunch of maps in a downpour, I made a u-turn.  This would turn out to play a very large role in my day.

The blinking yellow light was it.  I turned left on MT-66 and headed south with just over a half-tank of gas.  Really sucking it down in this wind and rain.

I found a way to get my winter leather gloves inside the big neoprene ones that I use for rain, which I had never been able to do before, but with sheer force of will, I did.  I almost got frostbite yesterday.  Now I barely could operate the controls, but my hands were slightly warmer for a while.  By now, though, they were getting numb again.  Onward, onward, though the cold, gray landscape. This is the stuff you deal with.

Next comes the Road Construction sign.  Out in the middle of frickin nowhere, we again grade both lanes down to dirt.  Fortunately, I had heeded the 35 mph signs, and now backed it down even further.  The trick to this is to keep the center of gravity directly above the axis of the front and rear wheels, whichever way they may be pointed at a given moment, and keep the momentum of the whole system moving forward in roughly the direction you want to go.  This is actually kinda fun on a 275-lb dirt bike that is designed to survive going down; not so much on a street-tired bike that was 750-lbs before you strapped all that stuff to it.  Here we go.

This was only a couple miles, fortunately, interrupted by short stretches of actual tarmac.  I was cold, wet, and miserable, and not covering much ground, but doing OK, until...

This next patch looked different.  And there was machinery parked off to the side.  I came to a stop, as quickly and gracefully as I could for not being able to feel or operate the controls.  This section was not hard-packed with gravel.  It was mud.  Straight up, Montana farming dirt that had not seen rain since May but had sucked up 6 inches worth in the last two days.  There were ruts in it 4 inches deep.

I don't talk to God very much.  I have my own relationship, which I'm happy with.  I honestly do look up once in a while when things are going really well, and say thanks.  I do.  Right now, I looked up and asked for help.  I am 60 miles from the last human sighting, in a downpour.  I don't think I have enough gas to get back to the last place I was.  I know that if this bike goes down, it's too slippery to get the leverage to stand it back up.  I can't feel the clutch or throttle.  I am fucked.

You take shelter and electricity very much for granted until you find yourself in situations like this.  What would someone do out here?  Cold, wet, alone, no food.  If someone did pick me up, what would happen to the bike laying in the mud?  Where would I stay?

I could see the other side, probably only 40-50 yards away.  But if I did get across, was I now stuck between multiple sections? 

I clumsily lurched forward into the mud.  I was completely out of control, handlebars swinging the full range of motion, rear tire pitched competely sideways, and I had to do the one thing you cannot do in the mud:  Stop.

My heart was racing in my chest.  I was out of breath, panting, my faceshield completely fogged.  I knew that if I pushed with any force with either foot, it would slip out from under me, and we'd be laying in the mud.  I was scared to death.

I really don't know what happened in what order, for how long, but I managed to create some forward motion and coaxed Gretchen out of that quagmire to the asphalt on the other side.  I put the kickstand down and gathered my thoughts and breath. I said a deliberate prayer of thanks, and wondered to myself again if I was on an island between mud pits.

A few more miles went by, and I reached the junction of US-191, where a decision not to turn back an hour ago would have brought me, and where I hoped to find gas.  At this spot, hovever, I found nothing but desolation.  Not a soul.  Continuing south on 191 a few more miles, I saw something that made my heart race again.  ROAD CONSTRUCTION 2 miles.  You have got to be kidding me.

One mile passed.  Then two.  Then three.  Five.  No road construction ever appeared, to my great relief.  Now, with my fuel gauge precariously low, my current crisis, aside from not being able to see or feel my fingers, was whether I'd make it to the next intersection without getting stranded.  Eventually I saw a sign for Roy - 20 miles.  I think I should make that.  But after what seemed like eternity, I came to the next junction, where I expected to find a gas station, and instead found an old sign, designed to be lighted from the inside with a lettered panel on each side, but now hollow and rusted.  No indication of whether this was, in fact, Roy, or which way I should go to get there.  You have GOT to be kidding me.  I surely don't have enough fuel to guess wrong, come back, and try the other direction.  There's no guarantee that Roy even has a gas pump, or if I was now in fact stopped and idling in downtown Roy, Montana.  I figure the next town to be 60 miles away, which might as well be 600 with the little fuel I have left.

There is a building standing on the parcel.  It looks dark, except I see a small, lighted sign in the window.  It says OPEN.  No indication of what it is open for, but I don't fucking care.  It could be a pottery shop.  Hell, the guy inside could be waiting to say "It puts the lotion on it's skin."  I do not care.  I'm going in.

There's a lady in there about my age, behind a counter, who sees me and says "you've had better days."  Yep, that's correct.  I look around and find myself in a little store / bait shop / whatever, and I'm clearly the customer for the day.  I trudge back to the restroom, where a coffee can on the toilet tank captures the water dripping in from the ruptured drywall ceiling.  I'm shaking violently.  I realize I've tracked mud through this lady's entire establishment and wonder if I'm about to to be fired upon.

I come out, apologize profusely, and she smiles and says no problem.  She is right now the only person in the world and is Mother Theresa to me.  I spot a little table by the window.  I put my helmet and gloves down, take off my rain jacket, and survey the place.  There's a coffeepot.  Coffee would be good.  I get a cup, and a Snickers, and pull some soggy money out of my waterlogged wallet. I then asked her where Roy is, and if they have gas. 

She says, "I have gas."

I could not have done a cartwheel right then (under better circumstances, I can) but let me tell you I would have.  Lost in the fog of my visor and of my brain, was a solitary, rusty gas pump not too far from the "nothing" sign.  I see it now, out the window.  I then asked her if there were any more mudholes in my future on US-191, and she said, "wow, you made it through that?!" and confirmed that there were not.  She also agreed that my new plan to avoid the 120 miles of nothingness on Montana route 200 and take a slightly longer route was probably a good idea.  My destination was just over 200 miles away, and the next town on my way would be Roundup, 60 miles away.

I put my jacket back on and took the bike over to the pump, where my 85-octane was diluted further by all the rainwater falling into the tank as I pumped it.  By the time I got back into the shack, my hair was soaked.  I went to collect the change from my $20 and she asked me how much I pumped.


Nevermind, she says, and grabs a pair of binoculars from when she could read the reels through the window.  I lingered until I could feel my fingers again, zipped back up, pulled the wet helmet over my wet head, and thanked my host from the bottom of my heart. 

I figured if I could break the 200 miles up into roughly 60-mile chunks, I could possibly survive, if she was right about the road conditions, and barring a breakdown or crash (which was by no means a given, with my impaired reactions and cognition.)  Off I went.

60 miles later, I saw my next sign of life in Roundup, as I had dreamed of.  I pulled into the gas station with over 1/2 tank, and filled it up.  Even off the road, out of the dark mist, and under a canopy, I still couldn't see a goddamn thing despite wiping my faceshield.  The droplets were *inside* due to, I assume, a small gap where it closes.

I went inside and took off my rain jacket, sweatshirt, and long-sleeved shirt, all of which were dripping wet, leaving only a wet t-shirt.  I did not realize at the time how dumb this was.  There was to table, nor any flat surface to really put anything on, so I used the ice cream freezer.  I thought of Donna and  me heading right for that freezer at every stop to help cool us off in the very recent past.  What a contrast to today.

I got a cup of coffee, which I was told was free with my fuel purchase, and got to drink the half that did not end up on the floor due to my shaking.  It was already soaked and muddy, so a half a cup of coffee really didn't make a difference.  I was offered a towel, which I graciously accepted but from which I got really no utility whatsoever.  I dried my hair, kinda.  I was also advised that the next town on US-12 was Forsyth, 100 miles east, where it meets the interstate.  Good God.  Almost two hours, when my hands are numb in 15 minutes?

There was a run-down building next door with the only sign of active electric service being an illuminated "vacancy" sign.  This beacon of hospitality did not even have a name that I could ascertain.  The parking lot was gravel, the roof appeared to be falling in, and there was a broken down pickup truck, and I think a bicycle.

I could have cancelled my reservation in Miles City, but that hotel looked so nice, and again, I'd only have to do it under the same conditions tomorrow, behind schedule, if I wasn't eaten by rats in the meantime.

When I had expended my welcome and all the time I thought I could afford, I realized my earlier error. I now had to pull wet clothes back on.  In an instant, I was shivering just as I had been when I walked in.  Please let me get hit by a truck.

At some point during the next hour, I was passed on that 2-lane road by an 18 wheeler.  Unable to see much else, I realized that my view of the rear of the truck, and the precious few other vehicles I'd seen, was only a cloud of mist that blew straight off the right, a good 50 yards out onto the prairie, from the relentless wind.  It looked like a comet.  I continued to wrestle my precious conveyance down the road and count off the miles for what seemed like 12 hours.

Sure enough, there was little more than a grain elevator and a couple tin shacks for 100 miles.  But I survived them.  I couldn't see, feel, or think, but I was upright and upon the junction with the interstate. 

I couldn't see any town, but I knew that my exit was about 40 miles up the road, I had plenty of fuel, and there were good odds that I'd encounter human life if worse came to worse.  I was soaked to my Fruit of the Looms; what good would stopping do?  Now, I HAD to make it.  I'd come this far.  I didn't even look for Main Street - I headed for that on ramp, and accelerated.

Sometime after 4 pm, I took the exit for Miles City.  Unbelieveable.  I freaking actually made it.  I parked the bike under the canopy of the rather upscale hotel, drug my trail of mud and water to the front desk, and uttered my name.  I was handed the most precious hotel room key on planet Earth and told to get a welcome cup of soup from the adjacent table.  What a GREAT idea.  I had never seen that before.

But first, I stripped the first load of bags from the bike and drug them down the hall.  I went back out into the rain and parked it for what could have been the last time for all I cared. I carried the rest of it in, my trail behind me, and got into room 110 and got undressed.  Leaving everyting in a pile on the bathroom floor, I got into the shower.  I stood for 20 minutes and could not stop shaking, nor warm my skin.  I gave up and went and curled up under the covers, and shivered uncontrollably for another 20 minutes while calling my Donna to tell her I was OK.

Then I put some clothes on and got the best cup of soup I've ever had in my life.

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