Leaning Into The Learning Curve, Part 2
By Nolan Davis
When I returned to Seattle by plane, I met up with some Alaskan friends that were coincidentally there. Next stop, Portland. Once I was ready, I rolled the bike out of the garage and learned that the battery was completely dead. Lights were not even coming on when turning the key. The only option I had was to roll the bike in the garage and fetch a $100 taxi ride back to the BMW shop for a battery charger. The maintenance crew said they could look at it, but that had just been done 20 miles and 30 days ago. Maybe there is a short? A drain? Or it's a bad battery? Even to bring the bike back, I've got to go charge it. Looks like I will be a day behind schedule. After a full night's charge, the bike started right up. I did not have a volt meter with me to test it. I decided to take off. I thought to myself, if I am charging it through the alternator everyday and have a charger when I need it, I should be fine.
It was a rainy day in Seattle, but nothing like the misty rain it is famous for. This was a huge low-pressure system that had developed over the Pacific and would later be named Winter Storm Atlas and it was only mid September. This storm system created heavy belts of rain that caught me and the Pacific Northwest off guard. I was headed due south to Portland and I was scared. I wished I could have left yesterday. Flying South on Hwy 5 with standing water on the road. The amount of water coming off the sides of other vehicles as they passed was like getting hit with the powerful water from a fire truck hose. To make it worse, my visor kept fogging up no matter how ventilated my helmet was. I did not feel safe and pulled over at a truck stop. The store attendant said, "You sure are braver than I am," and then proceeded to tell me about her motorcycle and how dangerous it would be today. I decided to heed caution and looked at the weather radar on my phone. I realized I should hang out for 90 minutes (allowing me to travel between belts of heavy downpour) so I had an early lunch at the truck stop diner and watched some of the SeaHawks game. During a break in the rain I headed south again trying to get to Portland. I wanted to be in Portland much earlier because my friends Rachael and Amanda had an extra ticket to a Lumineers concert and were waiting for me. They had couch-surfed with me in Alaska and they wanted to return some hospitality. While in Oregon, I was making a gas stop and I had to stop quickly at an intersection at the bottom of the ramp to avoid another vehicle. The road was wet and slick with oil. The bike did a front tire skid and I laid it over. I picked up the bike and moved it to the shoulder and inspected it for any damage. The right brake handle had a scratch on it and the right indicator light had broken. The only damage to me was a sprained thumb. I was thankful for my Kevlar protective riding gear. I picked up the amber lens off the road and put it in my pocket. I pulled over at a gas station to wait out the heavy rain, used some Scotch tape from a kind gas station attendant, and taped the light back together.
During the next break in weather, I saddled back up and made my way to Portland. I was pretty shook up at this point and thoughts of ending this trip had entered my head. Was I really qualified for a trip like this? No. Have I had enough experience with motorcycles? No. I guess I could sell the bike and then fly. Thinking this over, I decided that I would come to regret a decision to end this trip prematurely. Yes, there is the chance that an accident could lead me to a situation that I would regret as well, but isn't that an everyday risk? As I came into Portland, I had shaken off the feeling of nervousness and was looking forward to socializing with old and new friends. Because the weather had delayed my schedule, I had less time for seeing friends. So, I turned down the concert ticket and grabbed a few beers with some old Juneau friends living in Portland. It sure is great to catch up with old friends. You know, the ones you haven't seen for years but it feels so familiar, it was like yesterday.
The next morning greeted me with partly cloudy skies and no rain. I noticed that when I plugged my phone into the USB port to get ready to use the GPS function, the phone was not taking a charge. I did leave the cover to the port open and it did rain throughout the night. I'll have to deal with this later. I need to take advantage of this break in the weather. I was really looking forward to using this USB port during the trip. Luckily, I had a solar powered phone charger that I would strap on top of my bags on the back of the bike. First world problems.
My next destination was Bend, Oregon. Less than an hour out of Portland, I could see a darkened horizon a head of me. Definitely rain. Before I entered the Cascades, I found myself in a torrential downpour. My visor was fogging up again, visibility was limited and road conditions were getting dangerous again. Soaked to the bone, I pulled over and filled up. Once again, another store attendant that owns a motorcycle shared his thoughts, "You sure are braver than me." For a moment, self-doubt enters my mind but it is dissolved when I walk outside and see that the weather has cleared up. I got on the road again and within minutes, was in the same storm system. Of course we were both moving East. I pulled over again and after another fifteen minutes it was clear. I looked at the weather radar on my phone. Sure enough there is a band of heavy rainfall traveling with me. It appears to be moving 30mph or less. There is not another viable route to avoid the lengthy band of nasty weather running north to South and I want to get to Bend by dark. I get very nervous on the secondary roads after dusk. I see too many deer on the roadside just thinking about jumping in front of my bike. Maybe I should have just waited another day, but I was anxious to get going. There was little traffic on this road headed to the McKenzie Pass so I decided to just barrel through the storm system and fight my way to the front of it. That was thirty or forty minutes of pure teeth gritting misery. I can distinctively remember the feeling of hopefulness the instant the dark horizon lightened up. It was the light at the end of my tunnel. Then the heavy rain turned to sprinkles and the wet roads gave to dry pavement. I could feel my whole muscular system relax. And just in time, the pass was up ahead. Snaking around the mountainous curves I wondered if my slowed speed would allow the storm system to catch up. I could see the frontal system in my mirrors. And when I would stop to stretch, I did not waste time. I wanted to stay ahead of this thing. As the evergreens gave way to the shrubs of the high desert, I felt like I was in the clear. I wanted to pull into Smith Rock to snap a photo of my bike in front of it. I missed the left turn for it but was able to turn at the next street ahead. Before I took another left at the end of the short block, I stopped and popped up my visor. Even though I was in the high desert, there was still so much humidity in my helmet that it would fog up when there was no airflow. I could see the intersection to the left where I would make the turn that I missed to get to Smith Rock. I left my visor up for this short ride to the next stop sign, and I got nailed by an unseen flying insect just on my left cheekbone. I thought to myself, why didn't I just put my visor down? I was lucky that it didn't nail me in the eye. The sun was getting low and lighting up Smith Rock in all its glory. I could see rock climbers scrambling up and really wanted to be on the sharp end of the rope leading up Monkey Face, a popular climb there. But, I wanted to try to get to my next destination, which was Matt and Rachel's house in Bend before dark. I take a photo, put my helmet on and saddle up.
Back on the main road just outside of Bend I feel a tickle on my left cheek and in my peripheral vision I can see a bit of movement. Is that just my beard? But it is so high on my cheek! It must be that insect that hit me! How? Going down the road, I lean over a bit to get a look at my face in the mirror. It is a yellow jacket! Inside my helmet, on my face! Trying hard not to panic, I looked for a place to pull over. There is an intersection up ahead about 100 yards. I take a right and pull on the shoulder on the side street. I lift the visor and hope that he would just fly out, but he doesn't! Damn. Can I get this helmet off without him stinging my face? I gently lifted the helmet off and then was able to swipe him off my face down to the pavement without him harming me. Whew. How did that bee stay in the helmet when I took it off and put it on at Smith Rock? I don't know. Maybe he was in my wooly beard the whole time! I had a pretty substantial beard. I pull in to meet Rachel and her lovely daughter. We catch up at their place in Bend and look at the weather forecast. It is supposed to snow tomorrow! We agree that I should wake up early and try and stay ahead of this band of snow showers.
The next morning brings menacing low light grey soft clouds warning of snow to come. I say my goodbyes and have an early morning start. I choose the more southerly Hwy 20 over Hwy 26 to avoid the Ochoco Mountains and the Aldrich Mountains, thinking that it could possibly snow there sooner being further North and higher in elevation. An early morning start is the best anyway for today. I am planning on traveling over 500 miles to Sun Valley, Idaho. With such a long day, I am looking forward to listening to some music in my helmet. I did not bother to learn how to listen to music off of my phone through the helmet because the USB I had installed was no longer working. Surely that would be a silly waste of battery power. But I did learn how to easily listen to FM radio. But it was humbling, at how many stations I could pick up in Eastern Oregon. Zero. Again, first world problems. It wasn't bad. It gave me a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery and get a bit lost in my thoughts because this stretch of road was desolate. I motor out passed the front and have cumulus clouds ahead of me. It is a bit windy, probably a combination of the typical high desert wind and the approaching front. But I find it fun mentally and physically compensating for the gusts of wind. I am relieved that I am staying ahead of this front, but it seems that I am not making any ground. I am a competent driver of four wheels in the snow, but two wheels in the snow makes no sense. I get to the small town of Burns, Idaho and have lunch and turn on my phone. I learn from Rachel, that it started snowing a couple hours after I left and it is accumulating. That sounds like a close call. I decide to inhale the Subway sandwich, send a text to my Mom and my sister that all is well, and hit the road. I make sure to check in with them frequently. I am in touch with my sister more than anyone and I adore receiving texts and pictures about her two sons.
As I was heading northeast to Idaho, the storm seemed to be getting closer. Was it? Maybe it was my stop for lunch? I thought the system was headed due East which would make sense because I was headed NE. But it seems to be closer on the Southern side. I am confused, and lay on the throttle. As I get closer to the Idaho border, with this menacing band of grey on my back, I get some FM stations. Music is nice. I cross the border and jump on Interstate 84/Hwy 20 to go through Boise and onto Mountain Home to continue on Hwy 20 to make my way to Sun Valley. Interstate 84 is running SE and now, instead of an occasional glance in my mirror, I can see this huge front named Winter Storm Atlas off to the right. And the trajectory looks inevitable. We are going to collide. It doesn't matter what song was playing through my helmet. The only song I could not get out of my head was Riders On The Storm. The song in my head and the song in the helmet get interrupted by a ringing. It sounds like my phone ringing in my helmet. Oh, it is. I look at my phone on the mount. My younger brother is calling me. I remember having a lot of adrenaline during that conversation because I was literally out running this storm. My younger brother is just like me. We are 18 months apart but are often mistaken for each other. At his wedding, we traded places once during the photos and the photographer didn't even notice. We grew up as best friends and I still consider it so. He has an adventurous side as well; one that blossomed years before mine did. Currently his biggest adventure lies with my only niece and youngest nephew.
I speed through Boise and am getting closer to Mountain Home when my visor starts getting lightly littered with raindrops. But these raindrops have a crystalline form to them. Shit. Should I call it a day? I do know people in Boise. I feel like if I can just make it to Mountain Home and get off the Interstate and back on Hwy 20 where the road turns North, then due East, then due North to Sun Valley, I can continue to ride this thing out. It cannot be moving as fast I am once we are going in the same direction. I was correct. Once I turned onto that Northeast bound secondary road, I gained some ground and the road was dry. I let out a sigh of relief. The high desert is intriguing; tumbleweed and the smell of sage, ranches and many antelope. Antelope are on my worry list now. It is going to get dark and that is when I fear I am going to hit an antelope and I will be the road kill. I can probably drive a bit faster to make it by dark. The road is fun and there is nobody on it but me. I drove by a part of high desert that was blackened and smelled of ash and I remember hearing of major wildfires in the West this passed summer. Thirty miles outside of Sun Valley it gets dark. I am visiting my friend Carter in Sun Valley. I went to college with Carter and eight years ago we climbed Mt. Rainier together. On that trip his girlfriend, Margot, was with us (ten years ago Margot patched my broken nose up when I was dressed as an elf, but that's a whole other story). Even though Margot experienced some altitude sickness, we all summited. What I did not learn until later, was that there was a diamond ring burning a hole in Carter's pocket the whole way up and the whole way down that mountain. Carter and Margot are now married and have a son I am excited to finally meet. Several miles from their house I see signs for construction ahead and the dreaded Motorcycles Use Caution sign. Ugh! There is uneven pavement and it is now dark. My motorcycle feels pretty loose and I am having a difficult time controlling it. Whoa! This feels dangerous. I slow down and regain a fraction more of control. I safely pull into their drive and into a warm embrace. Their three old son Angus is highly intrigued about the motorcycle. His dad tells him that we can look at it in the morning when it is light and the engine is no longer hot. He agrees… with the caveat of being able to inspect my helmet inside the house. It is always great to see old friends and to catch up with them. After a good dinner and some microbrews, a comfortable guest bed greets me. Tomorrow I look forward to a scenic ride through the Bitterroots and up to Missoula, Montana.
The next morning there is a dusting of snow but the promise of blue skies. As we walk out so Angus can inspect the motorcycle, Carter immediately points out a rear flat tire. Totally flat. Hmmmm. Maybe that is why the bike was feeling extraordinarily loose those last few miles? Well, I did not plan on this at all. There is an RV center just to the South in Hailey that sells motorcycles. I call them up. They can put a motorcycle tire on the rim, but they do not sell any. They also informed me that it was illegal for them to plug a motorcycle tire, because of the risk and the liability. It is not illegal for you to plug your own tire. Well, I will not feel comfortable riding the rest of the way across the country on a plug. I've done it on four wheels, but I do not want to take the risk on two. I look up the closest BMW dealers. There is one in Twin Falls and one in Boise. I am going in the Twin Falls direction. I look at the forecast. Snow. Maybe I could plug it and then get there? I call. Twin Falls does not have the tire the bike requires. I desperately call Boise and they have one left in stock. They say it is snowing in Boise and it will take 2 days to ship it to Sun Valley because it won't go out until tomorrow. I don't have much of a choice. I tell them to ship it. Carter tells me that I can push the bike down to his neighbor's garage and he would be happy to offer the space, some tools and assistance. I push the bike to his neighbor's house and we knock on the door. His neighbor is the fire chief and when he opens his garage for us I am sure my mouth dropped. There are at least a dozen motorcycles in his garage. He has been riding for about forty years and was a motorcycle expert. He raced for a couple of decades and now restores bikes for a hobby. Seems I broke down at the right place. He pulled out his impact wrench and a jack. We took the flat rear tire off and he showed me what to do when I get the new tire because he was not going to be around tomorrow. It was surprisingly simple. He quickly looked over the bike and recommended replacing the front tire. To me, the tire looked like it had plenty of tread. He showed me the wear indicators. He said that there was probably only a few hundred miles left on the front tire. Not enough to get me to the East Coast. He probably erred on the side of caution, but he said, "Tires are the best insurance you can have." Before that, when looking at the tires, he said, "You are a braver man than me." Geez. This was the third time I had heard this quote. And it is not true. It is not bravery it is simply ignorance. He also pointed out fluid on the front disc and suggested getting the caliper looked at. I thanked him for his help.
The next morning greeted us with a blanket of snow. Great. Even if I do get the tire in and on, I am still stuck here. It at least gave me time to spend with good friends. The tire came in the afternoon and I took the new tire and the old tire and rim into town to swap them out. Here I learn that motorcycle tires came in different hardnesses and that longevity and performance is inversely proportional. I was surprised to learn that the average life of a motorcycle tire is 7,000 to 12,000 miles. I had no idea. There is my ignorance again. Not bravery at all. The tires looked good and had less than 8K miles on them when I purchased the bike. I had put about 2K on them at this point. And they were as old as the bike: 16 years. Why did the shop in Seattle not mention anything? They knew I was going across country. Ultimately, the responsibility comes down to me. My ignorant self is learning a lot in this adventure. The only way to overcome ignorance is education and experience. After the tire was changed, I inspected the old tire and found a rock still in place that had punctured through the tire. This made me nervous about the front tire, very nervous. I immediately decide to heed the Fire Chief's advice and change the front tire at the next convenient BMW dealer on my route (which would be Denver). The Twin Falls dealer is closer but they do not carry the tire I need. Will the front tire even make it to Denver? It was difficult to handle the bike with a flat rear tire, and I imagine a front tire blow out being much much worse… possibly deadly.