If I were the hands behind the Dire (and I am) and I had recently survived a harrowing freeway motorcycle accident (which I did), I would probably feel compelled to write something down (which I have).
Flat on my back in the scorching desert sand staring through dust covered motorcycle helmet at my still achingly beautiful bone stock vermillion Honda ST1300 upside down in barbwire fence some 15 feet away, my last clear memory being riding her down the freeway at over 90 miles/hr thinking I was getting much too hot and needed to exit, it’s all together fitting that my first coherent thought was a cucumber laden, “This is no mere pickle, this is very, very, bad.”
Extraordinary beasts motorcycles. I’ve owned three bikes in my life and ridden more. “Son,” my red and white 1973 Honda CB350 starter bike was purchased gently used in the early 80s. He burnt up in the Mohave Desert heat south of Barstow when I uncorked the ill-advised idea to ride him from Salt Lake City to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Stranded at a freeway exit gas station, my eldest brother Bob scurried out in Dad’s two door Chevy Monty Carlo, pitched Son into the trunk, tucked me in the back seat then darted us back to Los Angeles in time to take our reserved seats among the rest of the family at the bronze metal soccer match between Italy and Yugoslavia (Yugoslavia won). Though pleased to be watching an Olympic soccer match with family, the unruffled ease Bob displayed dashing to my rescue in the family car was compelling reminder that I, a legal adult but a few months shy of 21, nonetheless remained young and small.
“M’Lady,” my maroon 1982 Honda GL500I Silver Wing was purchased in the box new from an overstock dealer in Los Angeles as I had no way home from the 84 Olympics and needed another bike. Honda’s experiment in one person touring, she was a strange bird but served me well including Salt Lake origin southeast touring loop well into New Mexico, Salt Lake origin northeast touring loop well into Oregon and occasional trips back and forth to the parents’ home on the California coast north of San Francisco. She even filled in as my only form of transportation for several months one light snow winter making work commutes and supermarket trips until I could procure more appropriate seasonal transportation.
Late summer, late 1980s. Completing my graveyard shift, I step out of the factory into the morning cool, buckle my helmet, swing my right leg over M’Lady’s black seat and begin the commute home. Despite the refreshing morning air the exhausting night long argument festering in my head continues unabated. This is not where I want to be. This is not how I want to live. Have I any reason to believe things will improve? Dangerous question that, for nothing in my experience supports such belief. The logic is immutable. This is it.
Looking ahead I see an oncoming tractor trailer semi-truck and steer into its lane but an unexpected thought stops me, “What cruel thing to do to an innocent truck driver.” Still, M’Lady is no sport bike and we wobble precariously before righting ourselves and returning to our lane. When we arrive home my legs quiver as I dismount. In hindsight I suspect I was clinically depressed but at the time I confused depression with jumbled sleep patterns, occupation malaise and troubled love emotional torment. M’Lady undoubtedly knew all this but rather than elucidate she replied with a steely eyed “It’s your decision” stare handing a much needed moment of agency to her disheveled owner. Though she never again brought the matter up, we both knew and that knowledge fluttered nearby every subsequent time I rode her. Bikes are laconic like that, even wonderfully odd birds like M’Lady. She aged in place until becoming too expensive to maintain.
Motorcycle touring, especially in the vast Western United States, is rarely a spontaneous undertaking. If you don’t plan ahead and pay attention, you can run out of fuel and or cordial weather in the godforsaken middle of nowhere. Neither alternative is pleasant. Familiar with such possibilities, one would think all my motorcycling a carefully considered activity, but no.
“Lurch” was neither a street bike nor my bike. Rather he was an orangish 1983 Honda CR 480 dirt bike modified for racing then abandoned by one of my middle brother Kim’s flakey rental house tenants. Lurch could take you places you didn’t want to go. Delighted at the unexpected largess, Kim and I soon strapped him in the back of his pickup truck and carted him up into the Bountiful foothills to roam his natural habitat.
Motorcycles weren’t the only vehicles prowling that Salt Lake City suburb’s slopes. 4×4 Jeeps, pickups and Land Cruisers stalked those hills as well. 4x4s are powerful, weighty full size vehicles meaning if things go wrong a full size death dealing behemoth plunges downslope. Hill climbing in a 4×4 is a measured, painstakingly deliberate activity. Dirt bikes, especially modified dirt bikes like Lurch, are powerful, agile and light. One operates dirt bikes at speed audaciously bouncing and flailing near the very edge of control. If things go wrong you leap off the bike. Made to endure minor mishaps, the bike doesn’t mind and its driver, free of the vehicle, needs only worry about navigating a forgiving landing. Mixing those two types of vehicle in the same space led to small islands of ponderous 4×4 surrounded by sea of motorcycle deliriously buzzing around them. The relationship between the two wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t entirely friendly either.
Having ridden Lurch for the better part of the summer, I grew increasingly comfortable on him diligently graduating up more and more difficult hills until only the steepest remained. Nearing the end of the season, it was time to give that final hill a go. Lining up at the base of the climb I surveyed the steep before me then goosed the throttle. All went well until I neared the top, lost confidence and tentatively eased back. Lurch quickly bogged down sputtering to a stop before flopping onto his side trapping my right ankle underneath. Such a pickle. Lurch had stalled, I was entangled and kick starting him back to life on such gradient looked dauntingly difficult. A nearby 4×4 seeing my misfortune commented loud enough to be overheard, “Well what are you going to do now?” Piqued, I unwove my uninjured ankle out from under Lurch, scuttled across the steep to tug Lurch’s front wheel downslope, scuttled back behind Lurch’s handle bars then, straddling the bike, leaned back, heaved him up under me, planted my feet on the foot pegs and lunged down slope. Once up to speed I popped the clutch firing Lurch’s engine back to life, made a broad turn at the base of the climb then, awash in macho posture, twisted deep into the throttle returning up the steep. Now at speed, I tore up the slope passing the same ponderous 4×4 before popping over the hilltop and strutting off into the distance.
Lurch fell out of favor when we discovered that panicked dismounts off Jet Skis into forgiving lake water provided softer landings.
Fully aware that sitting on one’s hiney while someone else was riding Lurch would be thumb twiddlingly boring, Kim’s wife and I quickly set about wrangling up enjoyable alternative. A rarely ridden red and white 1982 Yamaha XT250 trail bike purchased from a coworker would fill that role and we presented it to Kim on his birthday. Sans Lurch’s menace, the XT toodled around the foothills providing amusement and respite but never earned a name.
Having completed the ‘Big Steep’ and strutting off into the distance, Lurch and I located Kim on the XT at the south end of the foothills buzzing about in a dry gully. “Check this out!” he proclaimed driving the XT up the east gully slope then turning around to dive back down that slope and across the gully floor to climb up the west gully slope where he once again turned down to dive towards the east slope. Building up rhythm, he got a good slalom going. “But be careful,” he added, “there’s nothing beyond the west ridge but long tumble down.”
Lurch, as always, paid no attention to the warning and I, self-declared Lurch Master, Conqueror of the Big Steep followed suit. Twisting into the throttle we ripped up the east slope, leaned deep to turn towards the west slope then dashed across the gully floor for the next half of the slalom. As my eyes crested the west ridge I became intimately aware that Kim and the XT had undersold their warning. What opened before Lurch and me was not long tumble down but rather sheer chasm of doom. Such a pickle. Going far too fast to turn back and facing decline too steep to ride out I leapt off Lurch abandoning him to his fate leaving me to endure a motorcycle unencumbered hard landing. It worked. Lurch thud to a horrid stop before topping the crest while I, flapping wildly, remained upright popping over the peak then skidding nearly 15 feet on my butt down the reverse slope. Seeing me climb back atop the ridge and dust myself off Kim doubled over in laughter, “I told you to be careful!”
“Not my bike!” I rejoined raising my hands beside my shoulders before climbing down the gully side slope towards the undamaged Lurch. Only upon wrapping my hands around the handlebar grips did I discover a painfully overextended right thumb. A tender reminder that it was I who aborted the decline attempt, not Lurch.
The XT250 fell prey to the same Jet Ski menace afflicting Lurch.
“Kiddo,” my ‘Candy Glory Red’ 2008 ST1300 was Honda’s long running Sport Touring model. By time of my purchase Honda had worked out all the model’s kinks making her an annoyance free pleasure to operate. Like Lurch, she was a powerful beast. Unlike Lurch, her power lay underneath a civilized sheen. Like M’Lady, she could tour and commute. Unlike M’lady, she could also carve a mean mountain switchback. Like Son, she too would die in the Mohave. Unlike Son, she would check out in spectacular fashion.
Kiddo was to be motivating self-reward for paying off the business loan I used to purchase my condominium management company but those plans were delayed a couple of years by a cancer scare. With tumor successfully removed and no evidence of reappearance, I began motorcycle shopping in spring of 2008, settled into a ST1300 decision by early summer and finalized purchase in early August. Though over two and half times more powerful than my previous bike, I immediately felt comfortable on her despite over a 10 year absence from motorcycling. Equally at home on twisties or long tour slab, she joined me in anything I planned from local mountain morning pleasure rides to two Salt Lake origin northeast touring loops – one through Colorado, the other through Idaho/Wyoming. In the winter months when passing by her parked in the shop, I’d often gently caress my hand across her fairing whispering, “Spring will be here soon Kiddo.”
For Kiddo, a 2014 reprise summer jaunt through the Mohave was cakewalk. Unlike Son’s air cooled inline two cylinder, Kiddo’s water cooled rock solid V4 could motor through the fires of hell. For me, however, things had changed. 30 years on and now 50, I would be much more susceptible to the desert heat making me the weak link in the touring chain rather than the bike I rode. Nonetheless, I with my ST1300 and Kim with his CBX having just stopped in St. George for food, liquid and fuel proceeded on schedule. The shocking post lunch exterior temperature increase generated no alarm as we had only the final short leg to Las Vegas left for the day. Past Mesquite I started to feel sick to my stomach and not wanting to puke in my helmet I decided to take the Carp Elgin Road exit just a few miles ahead for cool off. As I had to notify my brother that I would be exiting, I planned to speed past him, flip my blinker on and then exit thereby making my intentions glaringly obvious. Gunning the throttle is the last thing I remember before return to consciousness on the desert floor.
Kim reports seeing me catch up but not pass him, flip my blinker on and proceed toward the exit followed shortly by clouds of horrifying dust. Accordingly, we must conclude that though I don’t remember it, I remained in control of the bike adjusting the original plan to suit the circumstances by opting not to pass him as that would have carried me beyond the desired destination. We must also conclude that exiting is when I blacked out as I certainly wouldn’t have pitched both myself and my bike off a freeway given a better option. At this crucial point only three distinct entities were in play: Me, physics and Kiddo. Physics being elemental forces, pressures and heat would take no active role beyond setting the parameters around what was about to unfold. I, now blacked out, would be purely passive participant. Kiddo alone would bring us to finale.
Once in charge, Kiddo calmly commenced an astonishing set of actions. With my hands no longer steering nor operating the throttle, she eased us over the paved ranch exit shoulder onto the gravel embankment where she then guided us in reasonably straight, gradually decelerating line down slope into a soft sand and dust filled drainage wash situated at the low point between freeway exit and all too quickly approaching frontage road. Here she dug her front wheel hard into the soft wash sand bursting her front tire, over stressing her front wheel forks and pitching her forward and to the right in a high arching aerial summersault thereby pitching me, her disconnected, unaware passenger, forward and to the left helmet first through the left side of her windscreen. Completing her flight, she landed upside down in the stout barbed wire fence separating freeway and frontage road, assorted body parts detached and scattered about due to the series of punishing jolts. (Yes, available evidence suggests Kiddo took flight. Had she simply plowed straight on into the fence front end scratching and damage would be present but no such damage was found. Ergo, she dropped out of the air onto the fence.) Meanwhile I made a short low three quarter flip depositing me unceremoniously on my back in the soft dusty desert wash sand, my helmet covered head facing Kiddo setting up the achingly beautiful rise to consciousness image already reported. The police officer conducting the post-accident investigation concluded we had slowed to 40 or 45 miles per hour before striking the sand. Clever girl, Kiddo. This should have been very, very bad for me but for reasons I cannot fathom, she chose otherwise.
Landing in soft wash dust, I had no broken bones. Not skittering about, I had no road rash. There was no blood or far-reaching pain. Even my nausea had disappeared. Rather I only suffered minor bruising along the right side of my body including right thigh where leg contacted fuel tank as Kiddo and I pitched in opposite directions and barely noticeable black right eye generated by my helmet mashing my glasses into my face as I tore through Kiddo’s windscreen. With the exception of some missing ornamental doodads and unsightly scratch where chin guard contacted windscreen edge, my helmet remained undamaged. Even my dust covered cell phone, once found, survived unharmed and fully functional. Kiddo, bless her piston driven heart, soaked up every ounce of damage the crash would produce. Emergency room chest x-ray, head, neck and full body CT scans coupled with overnight purely observational stay in a Las Vegas hospital would confirm these astounding facts. In truth, as I write this a mere 9 days after the crash the only noticeable accident pain remaining is a sore left index knuckle due to striking something solid. I choose to believe it struck Kiddo. A final, appreciative caress of the bike that gave her life for me.
Addendum March 2015
Six months post Kiddo and technically speaking the last of the accident is behind me. A few weeks back I cut a final $535.30 insurance deductible check to University Medical Center. (University Medical Center of Southern Nevada and Humana Health Insurance squabbled for months over hospital charges which, while amusing to watch, was of no financial consequence to me beyond delaying when I paid my share.) Earlier this week I completed a follow-up chest x-ray as the Nevada emergency room examinations had revealed a calcified granuloma lung nodule. Though not connected to the accident, the serendipitous information wasn’t ignored. Showing no growth, the nodule has been declared benign.
Still, financial and physical disengagement does not equal psychological disengagement. Some aspects of the accident continue to haunt me.
Roughly every other week I awaken to images of Kiddo upside down in her fence. The colors are vivid but shimmer in odd slow motion. Sounds are muted. Desert heat is unnoticed. All is achingly beautiful. Such mornings, when they occur, generate a mix of horror and humiliation. Until that day, I’m unaware of having ever abruptly passed out. I’ve certainly been woozy before but there was always time to pause and lie down. Here there was no such time. Rather I was operating a motor vehicle and lost consciousness while doing so. One shouldn’t do such things. Thus the humiliation. Though I’ve no special reason to worry that it will happen again, occasionally – especially on those days when I awaken to the accident – death sits next to me and whispers, “It could happen again.” Thus the horror. Neither the humiliation, nor the horror are debilitating. If I’ve somewhere to drive, I drive. Rather, mundane life is intermittently laced with eerie. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.
Addendum August 2015
One year post Kiddo and the vivid morning accident recollections have ceased. Actually, they stopped shortly after committing the repeating phenomena to writing. On good days it appears writing down can exorcize the uninvited from the mind. On good days itch to own another motorcycle returns. He’ll be a metallic blue and gray BMW R1200RT. He’ll have a legacy to live up to. Sporting BMW’s venerable flat-twin ‘boxer’ engine he’ll shoulder such expectation with casual ease. We’ll christen him “Thumper”.