Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Like many other aspects to life in the Laurel Highlands, spring is quite often an acquired taste. We came here from Missouri, a land where sauna-like summers and long, relatively dry winters are sandwiched around a few weeks of temperate nirvana we call spring and fall. We did have weather fluctuations from time to time, but the climate was fairly consistent. And predictable.
This is important to a motorcyclist. The decision to take the bike out for a spin or a commute involves a complex analysis of many climatic factors. Spring, at least around here, is a time when you scrape frost off the windows in the morning and wear shorts, sandals, and t-shirts in the afternoon. Jim, Tim, and Tony may tell you with confidence that the chance for precipitation is low, only to endure a tropical downpour or a snowburst on the way home.
As a weather nut, I understand the orographic influence that mountains have on air masses and how that can make forecasting a crap shoot. This leads to the inevitable question: “Do I ride today?”
Before you jump to conclusions, let me introduce you to the dynamics of my commute.
I live in Somerset and my day job is in Johnstown. That’s a 30-minute trek up the thrill-a-minute US 219, or a more leisurely trip along SR 985 or 601.
Shortly after my arrival here, I was warned about the hazards associated with 219. I was puzzled by this. 219 is, by all appearances, a modern and well-maintained four-lane Interstate Wanna-Be with limited access and clear sightlines. But over the last several years, I’ve come to know this stretch of road the way one is wary of a grouchy neighbor. Any hunter who grouses about the lack of deer should jump on a motorcycle and ride that road just before dawn or just after dusk. Trust me. You’ll get your deer. And while your bike may be a mess, at least you’ve saved the cost of ammo and the time involved cleaning your gun.
The route through the hills is scenic and interesting. But there are pockets where the road is laid bare to the west winds, which can result in a surprisingly powerful gust that can leave the unprepared struggling to avoid the shoulder. These are the same spots where snow drifts regularly form in winter.
PennDot spends millions putting up sound barriers in Pittsburgh and Philly, but can’t seem to provide a few windbreaks around here. Oh well….
When a younger man, I had determined that 25° (F) was my benchmark. I had good enough gear to withstand the cold for 30 minutes, so as long as the road was dry, I rode. But now, age has impaired the circulation, especially to my arms and legs, so my benchmark is now at least 10° higher. If I lived close, if the trip was less than 15 minutes, this would not be a problem. But 30 minutes of high-speed riding at…um…65 mph produces a wind chill of 10°. My core stays comfortable…sorta. But my fingers and feet usually go numb. There are gloves and boots out there for those conditions, but they’re big and bulky and make deft movements on the controls impossible.
My dilemma is that this time of year, the afternoons warm up enough to impose a sense of guilt over not riding, even though the conditions at 6:30 a.m. seemed arctic in comparison.
My impatience these days is somewhat ameliorated by the certainty that the summer will eventually arrive, with days long, glorious…and warm, if I can just wait out these spring days when the temperature can (and does) rise as much as 40° between dawn and afternoon.
But there’s the rub. At this stage of my life, it’s hard to wait for “someday” when you know the supply of that commodity is rapidly dwindling. Maybe I need to abandon caution and adopt the devil-may-care attitude of the Harley culture so well articulated by their famous bumper sticker:
“Screw it. Let’s ride.”
Maybe that’s where the spirit of freedom is found.