I dread winter like death. If the cold doesn't kill you, the rain will. Or so it seems when commuting by motorcycle.
I tell myself this in the warmer months to prepare for the coming chill. If I'm ready for the worst, anything short of that seems easy. Still, when the temperature in Fahrenheit matches the miles in your commute, the environment can take its toll on you.
My hands ache so that pulling in the levers becomes a chore. My feet numb to the point that shifting gears feels a distant action. When it's truly bad, I seek inspiration in some of the more difficult tours I have made. Whether crossing Roan Mountain with my feet down to stay up on a sheet of ice or exploring the Rockies in a hailstorm and a half helmet, I know I can keep my wits when uncomfortable, even in pain.
But one trip in particular stands out for its difficulty and my lack of preparation. A decade ago now, a friend of mine had just graduated from school and invited me to accompany him on his move out west - by bike.
Sam was my original riding buddy. The first guy to lead me through the switchbacks of the Great Smoky Mountains, he introduced me to all that is good about open-road motorcycling. It was with him that I first began to see riding as a two-dimensional version of flying - leaning into turns, aligning myself with centrifugal forces, rising for the straights like low-gliding birds.
So, when he decided to move to Albuquerque, I felt compelled to tag along for as long as I could. With classes resuming in January, less than a week away, I couldn't make the entire trip and back, so we settled on New Orleans as my stopping point.
First, you should understand that despite our combined number of years riding at this point, we were still using limited gear. Attribute this to our hospitable native climate and, more importantly, to our positions as flat-broke students.
But we were undaunted by a trip in the middle of winter. We would be starting and staying in the South. How cold could it get? It was in the 50s when I left my place to meet Sam at his father's house in upstate South Carolina.
We spent the day drinking beer, packing up, and reminiscing about cycling with his father, who had ridden the same bike Sam would be moving on all the way from Alaska another decade before. I watched as Sam bolted on the Windjammer full fairing and hard bags and wondered if my little windshield and saddlebags were enough for this trip.
We awoke the next dawn to find ice on our bikes, in my case in it. A rip in my seat had allowed moisture to be absorbed into the spongy foam before freezing. It was a brick. For the first time, I began doubting the wisdom of this ride.
But I was committed to cycling and to Sam, and I told myself I was in this for the long haul; So we fired up the machines and watched the ice slowly slide off. We then began the arduous task of getting dressed.
I slipped on thermals, then jeans, then leathers. I had scored a full set of the latter used from a former drag racer months before. Sam followed my first two layers with another set of jeans topped off with the craziest pair of formal wool pants I had ever seen anywhere, much less on the back of a motorcycle. He laughed off my gibes with promises of warmth, and we were off.
The first 50 miles was uneventful backroad barnstorming, the kind of riding we were accustomed to. Then the cold started setting in. I could feel the wind cutting through my cheap, cloth gloves. Made for winter, these gauntlets had proven worthy of regular duty but were no match for long distance.
I ignored the cracking feeling that made its way into my knuckles and looked forward to our first gas stop. Another 50 miles or so later, we pulled into a station.
"How are you doing?" Sam asked, catching the look of discomfort on my face.
"I'm OK, man," I respond, not wanting to let on how bad I felt just a fraction of the way into the trip. "I'm OK."
"I've got something that might help," Sam said, producing a dugout containing herb. "We can hit this after gassing up, before we go."
I expressed reluctance, having never ridden high before. I feared I wouldn't be able to concentrate on the road. Sam assuaged me, recommending I take just a hit or two, barely enough to get a buzz but more than enough to get my mind off the icy conditions.
So for the first time in my riding career, I smoked up before cranking up. And Sam was right: It worked, mostly. The cold was still there but my thoughts were on other things, like the brittle appearance of the gray-barked trees and the crisp scent of Magnolia. That sensation of flight had gained a third dimension, as well. I was not only going to make this run, I was going to enjoy it!
Sam and I weaved around traffic and made our way through Georgia and into Alabama. By nightfall, we were pulling into Montgomery and looking for a place to stay. Both of us had brought along camping gear but decided against it given the chill. Besides, a cheap room divided by two is twice as cheap.
We dropped off our stuff, stripped into single layers, and grabbed beers and burgers in one of the city's sports bars. A good day all in all that left us halfway to my final destination and roughly a quarter of the way to Sam's.
We awoke the next morning to a welcome surprise. The cold snap had snapped and we were told by the weather man to expect temperatures in the mid-60s by afternoon. Off came my middle layer of jeans; Sam paired down his clothing too, adding to the already significant heft of his bungied cargo.
But life was good. We rolled down I-65 toward Mobile with relatively warm air blasting in our faces. Taking turns passing each other, we pumped our fists and smiled, savoring some legitimately enjoyable riding at last.
After gassing up a final time, we turned onto I-10 and began the last stretch to New Orleans. We arrived shortly after dark to a heavy mist that made my windshield all but opaque. I stood up on the pegs to navigate through treacherously heavy traffic and followed Sam into the city's downtown.
He had scoped out a youth hostel to serve as our single night's accommodations. Upon pulling up at the front of the place, we were informed by the innkeeper we would be better off finding a nook in a nearby alley to hide the bikes. Motorcycles had a way of getting ripped off out front, she said. Great.
We did as advised and wedged the machines together, praying our flimsy locks wouldn't leave us stranded. We then went inside to find our bunks, the showers, and some drinking&smoking companions.
It didn't take us long to rustle up a crew of Aussies who were ready to make the night a highlight of their weeks-long binge in the Crescent City. We bounced from bar to bar, sampling drinks and music throughout the French Quarter. Needless to say, it lived up to expectations.
Sam and I returned to the dorm late and passed out talking up our final adventure together. I woke up to see him absent from the room. I showered quickly, drying off with a dirty t-shirt, the closest think to a towel in my bag.
I had begun getting my things together when Sam returned. He told me he went souvenir shopping and had grabbed a thing or two. He then presented me with a parting gift, a few items to see me through the trip back home: weed, a bowl, two emergency hand warmers, and his thick, leather riding gauntlets.
At first I refused the gloves. I had seen him wear them on too many tours to feel right about taking them. But he assured me he would pick up some more before leaving town. Besides, he wanted me to have something of his as a reminder on future rides. And the cold may not be over.
With that, I packed up my cycle and got ready to go. Sam passed along his contact info in New Mexico, and we said our good-byes. I started my bike, gave one last wave, and headed for the highway. As feared, the chill had already started to return. I veered onto the interstate heading east and gassed it, wishing my old friend safe travels.
By the time I got to Mobile, the cold had again started to get to me, despite the added warmth of Sam's trusty gloves. I pulled into a motorcycle dealer to chat up bikes, drink the free coffee, and thaw out. The folks at the shop were impressed with my moxie (or did they say, "stupidity") and welcomed me to stay awhile. Knowing night was coming, I said good-bye.
About 50 miles before Montgomery, darkness brought glacial winds. To keep warm, I tucked much of my body behind the windshield and slipped my left hand down beside the engine cases. Finding heat through my glove, I locked the throttle and gave my right hand a turn. It wasn't perfect, but it was keeping me awake and flexible enough to work the controls.
Seeking protection and conversation, I swung into a diner I spotted from the road. Warm air I got but the welcome was chill. The lady behind the counter was curt to the point of frustration, and nary a single trucker wanted to talk bikes.
I was disappointed but not utterly surprised. I've gotten worse service. I've even been denied vacancy after pulling up on my bike. In retrospect, I don't know how a kid in black leathers should expect to be treated in some country diner. I ate my eggs and left.
I found a KOA just outside of Montgomery that seemed as likely a sleeping spot as any, so I pulled around the office and set up camp. I ruled out a hotel room for the obvious reason of cost and, more importantly, my need to use this gear I'd been carrying for more than a thousand miles now.
So I set up my $20 pup tent, spread out my bag, smoked a big, fat bowl and called it a night. Somewhere in the middle of the darkness, I begin to feel the tips of my fingers and toes giving way. Frankly speaking, they were freezing. Or at least they seemed so to my young, frightened mind. An epiphany of possibly dying in a roadside campground near Montgomery and nobody giving a damn.
I took these stiff claws and plunged them into my bag. Within moments, I had found the emergency warmers Sam had given me, torn into them using my teeth and activated them. I then jammed one into a sock and held the other between my hands, warming them to usability. Soon, I had socks on both hands and was rotating each warmer between extremities.
Glad I saved that room fee I was not! The night lasted longer than I care to recount. I vacillated somewhere between dreaming and dormancy, occasionally waking fully to an unending quiet. But I made it.
At first dawn, I dragged myself out of the tent, packed up my belongings, paid my tab, and hit the road. I knew I had to make it home by dark. Had to. So I goosed the bike, tucked in, and made for the Georgia border like my life depended on it.
I got there quickly and kept up the pace, stopping here and there for gas and coffee. By mid-afternoon I was around Atlanta and rolling like hellfire for South Carolina. But my time ran out in Augusta, on the state line. Darkness came quickly with a coolness I had tried to forget.
Within striking distance, I crossed into my home state and pulled into a gas station near Aiken. Less than an hour away. My fingers, however, were beginning to suffer once again. No amount of radiated engine heat was going to thaw these crinkled critters out. So I ducked into the bathroom and gave the hand dryer a try. Miracle!
I kicked myself for not thinking of this before. But desperation breeds creation, they say, and this was proof. I stayed in the restroom for 10 minutes or more, hovering around this little whirring godsend like a moth to... something warm and bright.
With renewed vigor, I climbed back on my machine and fired it up for the last time. I coasted into Columbia with an unimaginably large grin on my face. This was it. I spent the rest of the night regaling loved ones with my bravery (or was that stupidity).
So, now, when I crank up my bike in these winter months, I can look back on these moments and laugh at my ill preparation, mentally and physically. I can think of them and know I'm capable of handling whatever rain, wind, traffic and chill can throw at me.
But when it gets really cold, I forestall my usual winter handwear and go straight to those old, leather gloves, lined with wool not unlike Sam's thriftstore trousers. And I embrace a time when life was harder but simpler.