This is my bike, “Oscar.” From time to time, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my time in the saddle.
The four of us start our ride heading south, through Spearfish Canyon. It is a fairly easy ride, following the creek, the curves just tight enough to be interesting. The clouds hang so low they snarl in the tops of the pines. They also dampen sound through the canyon, almost like a heavy snow in winter. I can barely hear the throb of Oscar’s 650cc engine and I can’t hear either of the two Harleys, which is only just this side of miraculous. The entire canyon is muted, shrouded in fog, but the grass that hugs the banks of the creek and the trees that cling to the sides of the canyon are preternaturally vibrant. Almost two-thirds of the way through the canyon, the rain starts.
At the old stagecoach stop-turned-bar in Cheyenne Crossing, we seek shelter in the tent of an artist with about a dozen paintings displayed for sale. They are almost photo-realistic. Soap suds trickling down a crimson and chrome gas tank. A V-twin hugging a curving, tree-lined road that will soon disappear over a hill. A woman leaning back against the tank of a motorcycle, blonde hair lifting away from her shoulders. A pin-up girl armed with a Tommy gun and standing next to the front fender of a green 1940s era convertible. The artist laments the surging rain bands. He can’t afford to lose two days’ worth of sales and by the looks of things, he would do just as well to pack up his wares and head to the next rally. Sturgis 2014 is looking like a bust. A quick check of a weather app suggests that we can ride out of the storm if we head
east west. We climb back on our bikes and head towards Newcastle, Wyoming.
Somewhere around O’Neill Pass, the rain trickles to a stop. The sun bursts out from behind the clouds and for the first time since leaving Sturgis, I begin to feel warm. Long, sweeping curves encourage an open throttle while the relatively quiet roads just beg me to notice the streams that cut through the meadows and the wildflowers that fleck the hillsides. The Black Hills give way to the high plains of Wyoming, mountains yielding to wind and canyons and prairie. We pull into a gas station just inside the Newcastle town limits for a quick refuel stop and then continue on to the south, intending to complete the loop back through Custer and Rapid City and then on to Sturgis.
More than ten miles of road works slow us from 65 mph or better to little more than half that. We begin a four mile stretch of unpaved, unmarked, twisty road with no shoulders and steep drop offs. The rain starts to fall again. I know it won’t take much to turn the hard-packed dirt into a slip-and-slide adventure that I have no wish to take on a 300-pound motorcycle. With the rainfall comes an almost immediate temperature drop of more than 10 degrees. Whatever relief I had gained between O’Neill Pass and Newcastle vanishes. Almost 27 miles later, we make our way into Custer, South Dakota, trying to avoid the sand and gravel that has washed into the streets and the water that flows freely where the street isn’t otherwise clogged with washout debris. We pull off the road, intent on finding someplace to eat. By the time we have finished lunch, the storm will have passed. That’s the hope anyway.
Lunch at Bitter Esther’s does much to restore our spirits and energy but then another consultation with radar confirms what none of us want to acknowledge. The storm center has set up between Custer and Rapid City and it is not moving.
We have three choices: Head back towards Newcastle and try to avoid the storm by circling from the north; continue to wait it out; or endure the storm and press on. If we go back the way we came, we have to navigate those four miles of twisted, unpaved road again and who knows what kind of condition that road might be after an hour of steady rain? If we wait, we still have about two hours of riding ahead of us. With no promise of a break in the weather, do we really want to add the risk of riding in the dark to the challenge of riding through the storm? We mount up, brace ourselves against the rain and push on.
Two years ago, I bought a jar of goo that promised to let water sheet off my face shield, keeping it clear in the rain. At the start of every ride season, including this one, I treat my face shield with the orange paste. I am spoiled living in Colorado: I have never had to test its efficacy. The goo doesn’t work. I run a hand across my face shield, trying to clear enough rain so I can see. It is about as helpful as trying to empty the ocean with a tea-cup. I do the only thing left to me. I crack my face shield just enough that I can use it like the bill of a ball cap and rely on polycarbonate sunglasses to protect my eyes.
Riding in a steady downpour at 60 mph with a partially opened face shield is not fun. The rain finds every gap, driving icy needles into unprotected skin. Rain water trickles down my neck, under my rain gear and then beneath my motorcycle jacket and down my chest. I can’t stop shivering. I’ll be more worried if the shivering stops, though. My gloves are sodden. I can’t tell how tightly I’m gripping the throttle. I can’t feel much of anything below my wrists, to be honest. Before long, the rain finds its way into my rain pants, soaking my jeans from hip to hem and seeps into my boots. I am wet, I am cold, and I still have more than fifty miles of road lying between me and a dry set of clothes.
Twenty miles from Sturgis, the rain starts to lighten just a little bit. Not a lot, but just enough that I can see clouds hanging low over the hills, almost as if the rocks and trees are trying to reel them down to earth, one wispy tendril at a time. The sap still flows strong in the pine trees along the road. The sharp, sweet, resin scent drifts over me. It smells like home, encouraging me. I catch a whiff of clay that has drunk its fill of rain water. It has an odd combination of rawness and age that I find oddly comforting. Grasses and wildflowers carpet the meadows, creeping up the hillsides. Grey-green and purple and yellow paint the valleys with a suggestion of mauve fire, almost like a dream. I notice the air smells cleaner somehow, as if the rain has scrubbed it of most of the exhaust and heat and dust. Even the way Oscar rumbles down the highway sounds different, reassuring.
We ride out of the rain not long before reaching the Sturgis town limits. I don’t think the temperature ever reaches the mid- to high-70s the weather apps projected. I’m okay with that, though. I lose sight of two of my companions somewhere in town, easily done with 400,000 bikes in the area. The third left us in Custer, wanting to get out of the rain as quickly as possible. Me? I am still cold, still shivering. The campsite is less than six miles away and I am tired of being cold. More than two hundred and thirty miles of riding lie behind me, and me wet, cold and shivering for most of it. As I pull into the campground, I realize I have learned a lot on this ride.
- There are times when you have no good options. Going back the way you came is almost as uncertain, almost as risky as going forward and staying put is just delaying the inevitable. In those cases, the only reasonable thing you can do is saddle up, do what you can to protect as much as you can, and venture back out into the storm.
- Frozen fingers, water sloshing around in the bottom of your boots, ice water soaking your jeans and shivering everywhere – yeah, it sucks. But if you make the effort to notice the wonder that surrounds you, it might take some of the misery out of the circumstances. You never know. You might find it is enough to keep you going.
- Sometimes the kindest, most self-honouring thing you can do is just to get home.
What about you? What life lessons have your favourite pastimes taught you?