Wall cloud...on steroids. Picture from NOAA
Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
The weather here lately in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania has been a bit of a mixed bag. The geography of the mountains and the proximity of the Great Lakes (Erie in particular) normally generates a fairly wet climate. It's rare, even in the driest part of summer, that we go more than three days without precipitation.
Now, this can make for a frustrating time for motorcyclists. Nobody likes to ride in the rain, but neither do we like to see our machines idle in the garage. Consequently, bikers in this area (at least the more dedicated ones) will bite the bullet from time to time, don the rain gear and hit the road. I've done this on several occasions, sparking some interesting reactions from my colleagues. A few understand the passion, tending to nod knowingly with respect. Most, however, just shake their heads scornfully. This has made for some interesting elevator rides, especially when I step in, still dripping from my ride in.
Once in a while, I get the question, usually from folks motivated to determine exactly how mentally bent and crazy I actually am:
"What's the worst ride you've ever taken?"
I love to reminisce. As I have often related before, motorcycling is more than just a ride. It's the accumulation of wonderful memories, stored in the recesses of the brain like a shelf of china cups. Once in a while, you take one of the memories down off the shelf, hold in your hands, and close your eyes, letting the remembrances flow through your conscious thoughts. And for me, after almost 18 years and close to 300,000 miles, it's a full cupboard.
Scattered amongst the shelves are good memories, autumn days through forests aflame with bright colors, roaring across a desert highway as the sun sank towards the horizon, the long weekend at Deals Gap, balancing the centrifugal against the centripetal on a knife-edge of lunacy.
But there are also the not-so-good memories. The heart-stopping sight of flashing red lights in my rear views, my accidents, and the two occasions when my bike died beneath me, both times literally in the middle of nowhere.
Now, bad-weather rides can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it's usually a time of intense discomfort, your mind on red-alert status and your body tensed for any number of unpleasant outcomes. However, on the other hand, you realize that your riding skill is being tested and you find yourself reveling in the challenge.
When I look back over the years, two incidents spring up.
It was January in Missouri. The forecast was for a nice day ("nice" meaning 40-degree temps and no precip) and with Cheryl and the kids occupied with their own interests, I decided to take the bike out for awhile. I donned my winter gear, fired up the bike, and headed out. Initially, I only wanted to go out for a half-hour or so, just enough time to charge the battery and circulate the fluids. But the day was uncommonly beautiful, the sun (relatively) warm, and suitably entranced, I kept going.
I had wandered along several roads, finding myself some 60 or so miles from home when suddenly the sunlight went out. The wind shifted into the north and acquired a bite. Surprised, I looked to the western sky to see dark, angry clouds looming on the horizon. I had lived long enough in the midwest to know what that meant. I turned and headed for home with dispatch. The problem was, I had ridden east of town, so my return trip was face-first towards the menacing storm. I rode as quickly as road conditions allowed, but I was still about 30 miles out when I rode under the leading edge of the storm and big, fat, heavy flakes of very wet snow began pouring out of the sky.
My first concern was the road surface. Wet snow is bad for four-wheel vehicles. For motorcycles, it's terrifying. I slowed down and carefully scanned the road ahead, a task becoming more difficult in the lowering visibilty. Now, generally in Missouri, it may snow for quite a while before accumulations begin. But today, the road began to quickly turn white. I cautiously navigated the straightaways, and every time a curve in the road came up, my whole being seemed to pucker up. At one point I was down to about 20 mph. I was getting close to home, when a county snow plow pulled out in front of me. Chafing at the added delay, I now had to deal with fresh salt being dumped on the road directly in front of me (think marbles here), and the avalanch of slush and road grime thrown up by the truck's massive tires. It was not only uncomfortable, it was nerve-wracking.
Eventually I got home. As you might expect, the only time I actually came close to dumping the bike was trying to get up the sloped driveway into the garage. Once safely in side, I shut down the engine and slumped over the handlebars, exhausted. I knew I had pushed the limits that day and that I was fortunate to be home alive and in one piece. I got off the bike, removed my gear, and did what I could to clean the salt off the bike. I went inside, crawled into a comfy chair in front of the television and was there an hour later when the rest of the family came home. Knowing the reaction I'd get if I 'fessed up, I remained mostly silent, awaiting the inevitable question from my wife:
"So, what did you do with your day?"
I never told anyone about that day, until now. I guess we'll now find out how often she reads my blog.
One another occasion, I had ridden to Kansas City from Columbia to get some scheduled maintenance done on my ride, a '91 BMW K75RT. There being no BMW shops in Columbia, I had to go to KC to get any work done. I didn't mind. After all, it was a perfect excuse to go out and put 250 great miles on the bike.
The ride over was uneventful. The BMW guys, efficient as always, raced through their tasks and in less than three hours, I was back on the road.
Choosing routes is always a fun part of any ride. Going over, with time being a critical element, I stayed on the Interstate for the whole trip. Going back, however, I chose US 24, what had once been a major thoroughfare, but now was a friendly 2-lane country highway, with light traffic, pretty countryside, and enough curves to be interesting.
I rode through Independence, picking up 24 near the Truman Library. I headed east, eeling through the traffic in town before finally clearing the mess near Buckner. Relaxing a bit, I opened the throttle a little more as the road unwound before me.
It was a warm day, and the humidity seemed to grow heavier with every passing moment. I began to glance over my right shoulder from time to time towards the southwest and sure enough, I saw the tell-tale signs of thunderstorms.
I've been a storm spotter for several years, and a certified weather nut for many more. Living in the midwest, you learn to read the clouds, particularly on those summer days when the air turns both sultry and electric.
I increased my speed somewhat, although with a healthy respect for the Missouri Highway Patrol in mind. As time went on, the clouds grew rapidly and soon I began to hear rumbles of thunder. At Waverly, I abandoned my original route and picked up US 65, heading through the river towns of Grand Pass and Malta Bend. Just outside the latter, the rains started. As is normal, the inital raindrops were huge and stung, even through my armored jacket. With me heading southeast and the storms pushing northwest, we met in the town of Marshall.
My sense of timing has never been the best, but this time it was superb. At the edge of town, I pulled off to a gas station. As I exited the highway, hail began to fall. It was relatively small, perhaps quarter-size, but it REALLY hurt. The noise inside my helmet as the stones pelted the top was deafening. Fortunately, I was only in the hail for a few seconds as I found shelter under the roof by the gas pumps. I sat there for a time, waiting for the hail shaft to pass to the northwest. Eventually it did, and I pulled out and pushed on. I thought I was passed the worst of it, and in fact, the rain had slacked off and the winds had slowed. I should have known better.
I rode carefully out of Marshall on Missouri 41, with Boonville 30 miles ahead. I knew that if I got that far, I could go to the factory where I worked and at least pull the bike inside the building. Passing Arrow Rock, however, the air grew very still. Electricity seemed to building in the air. Suddenly, I sat bolt upright in the seat. The hair-raising sound of sirens began to spool up all around me. I knew I was in deep trouble and real danger. Although I was south of the main line of thunderstorms, I took no real comfort from that. I pushed on, my mouth dry, my heart beating a tattoo inside my chest.
I reached I-70 at Pilot Grove, feeling a little relief, knowing I could now go much faster. But as I made the turn onto the bridge over the Interstate, I glanced back to the north. There, hanging in the sky, was the recognizable shape of a wall cloud. Fascinated, I stopped. Despite it's proximity, I felt reasonably safe. I was south of that particular cell and it was moving away. As I watched, a funnel dipped out of the wall cloud, reaching for the ground. The inflow winds began to make themselves felt, climbing rapidly in speed and power. I turned the bike around, keeping the wind-borne rocks, dust, and debris to my back. The funnel touched the ground, becoming an official tornado. I watched, fascinated, as it tore through a field for a couple hundred yards before roping out and dissipating.
At this point, my common sense frantically pushed aside my fascination and urged my continued travel. I roared down the ramp and sped towards home. The heavy rains returned, but I could hear the all-clear being sounded.
I eventually did make it home, wet, bedraggled, but excited. I had survived a severe storm and seen a tornado close-up. Despite the danger, discomfort, and moments of terror, it had been a fine ride.
It's a weather-nut thing. You wouldn't understand
Over the years, I've ridden in a lot of bad weather, all of it unwillingly. (See? I AM sane, after all!) I guess you could say it's those few bad weather days that make the good ones that much more special.
And truthfully, while I may have had some rough rides, it's never really a bad day when you're on a motorcycle.