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The Long Road Home

by Jeffrey Harth

I was sitting in a restaurant in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, with my hands cupped around a mug of hot chocolate trying to get some heat back into my body. It was 6 PM Saturday night and I had been on the bike since noon. I had gone a total of 200 miles – 200 of the coldest, rainiest, snowiest miles of my riding life. I had 300 left to go.

The last two days had been, to say the least, interesting. I spent Thursday and Friday with my web browser pointed at different weather sites. The forecast all around was for mixed conditions: snow and rain and cold. The closeness of the isobars also suggested a windy ride. I kept looking for something but I didn’t know what it was until this morning. It was then that I realized I had been waiting for a message to appear on the screen saying “It’s going to be OK, you should go”, or conversely, “This is a bad idea, think again.” I got both responses, vehemently, from the BMW list. God never put his/her 2 cents in. I waited for those 2 cents for a long time.

Saturday, 6 am, was the go/no-go decision. Actually it was a go decision. The question was what form of transport we would be going home with. Fellow beemer rider Bruce Pharis in Cansfield, OH had offered to drive his truck to Columbus, pick me and my bike up, and drive us to Philly on his way to Maryland to look at a possible new bike for himself. Such a generous offer almost had me accept out of sheer appreciation.

Shortly before sunrise on Saturday I sat at Walker Powell’s computer. Walker and his family had put me up for the night before my ride back. I had a great time (a word of caution: if you ever stay at his house don’t let his eight-year old son, Zachary, weasel you into a game of basement soccer. He is tenacious and has a mean head fake.) I selected the Doppler radar image of the region which showed the band of snow approaching the area from the west. I judged the speed of the front from the time-lapse image to be slower than what was predicted. I went to the window and, though the skies looked dark, the roads were dry. I stared out the window into the gray morning and realized what I had to do. It was my decision and no one else’s. I would be the one to bear the consequences. There were no guarantees. I took a deep breath and whispered to no one, “I am going – I am riding my bike home.” As soon as I said the words, it started to snow.

I left Northwest BMW at noon in a driving rain/snow storm and headed east on route 70. No sooner than I had left the outskirts of Columbus the temperature dropped. It was now hovering somewhere near freezing. I reached down and plugged in my jacket liner and waited for the warmth to begin. Nothing. I pulled the plug and re-inserted it. Still nothing. “Oh, what’s the deal?” I yelled into the helmet. My visor fogged immediately. I pulled off at a rest area, put the bike on the center stand, and began to troubleshoot. I checked the fuses, the connections to the accessory plug, and the connections in the liner. Nothing seemed to be out the ordinary. Now the snow was getting heavier. I decided I needed to go. Back onto the interstate and I headed to Wheeling. Somewhere past Zanesville my neck started to get cold. I bent my helmet forward to adjust the neck gaiter and a stream of icy water ran down my back between my shoulder blades, soaking the back of my shirt. Then I noticed that the inside of my Gore-Tex gloves were soaked. The outer fabric of my Kalahari jacket had wicked the water inside the cuffs of the gloves. The heat from the heated grips had prevented me from noticing this before but now it was obvious. My hands squished inside my gloves whenever I squeezed the grips. It was time to stop.

I exited at Cambridge and stopped at a Bob’s Big Boy. I noticed curious faces peering at me from the windows as I parked the bike. I walked inside to meet those same faces now gawking at me. One lady just about lost her dentures when her mouth dropped open. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my miserable condition I would have busted a gut laughing. I sat in a corner booth and started shedding my wet gear. An hour later I had eaten lunch, donned a dry shirt in the men’s room, and was back on the bike.

The bike and I settled into a comfortable rhythm. I cruised at 50 to 60 mph, weather permitting. The roads were wet and I started to think about that small, icy patch that I knew was waiting for me, somewhere. I crossed the Ohio River and passed through Wheeling, then into the mountains I cruised. The temperature dropped again and the wind picked up. The rain turned quickly to snow. I stopped in Washington, PA for gas. The young lady behind the counter asked me, “Are you riding that bike?” “No, lady. I’m pushing it” was the response in my head. “Yes” was what I said out loud. Obviously I had lost my sense of humor. I rode on.

As I approached New Stanton I noticed that there was an accumulation of ice on the windscreen. As I looked closer I could see that the ice had accumulated on the entire front of the bike. My arms were encrusted and my visor required constant clearing. Now it was getting dark. It was time to stop. I got a room at the Howard Johnson’s and immediately took a hot shower. The bike was parked under the overhand outside the room, and I went across the street for food. As I sat at the table nursing my hot chocolate I considered the day. I remembered a vision I had as I rounded a mountain curve past Wheeling and was blasted by a gust of wind coming across the road. In my head I could see my body tense and freeze and then see my bike sliding into and over the guardrail at 60 mph. It was then that I started to consider the possibility of my own death. I have thought about this before. Its not a morbid curiosity, its just that I know that someday I will die. I obviously don’t know when or how, but I will. I thought about those who I have known who have died on motorcycles, or in airplanes, or on boats; those who have died doing what they love. Their loved ones sometimes curse the activity in which they died, as if the activity had a mind of its own and reached out and snatched the one they loved; an angry beast that lures the unsuspecting and then delivers the mortal blow. I suspect anger over losing someone you love requires a lashing out. But, sitting in my booth, watching the snow blow sideways past the window, I had the opportunity to consider this from a different vantage. There are things that I do that others consider dangerous. That is the way I have set up my life. It is me that is responsible for what I do. I came to the conclusion that I will continue to do those things that make my life complete. Riding motorcycles is one of those things.

The next morning broke with 5 inches of snow on the ground. I packed my gear, loaded the bike, and eased my way to the Turnpike. The road surface was pretty clear. Once into the mountains, it started snowing again, only this time much harder. The mountains essentially “ringed” the snow out of the clouds as the cold front crossed them. The traffic speed dropped to 40 mph. The road surface was now covered with snow in some places. I was able to pick my way through. My back started to cramp and I was getting shooting pains up my arms from the death-hold I had on the grips. I had to concentrate just to loosen myself up. I passed through one tunnel followed immediately by another with a separation of about 50 yards between them. As I approached the end of the first tunnel I could see snow blowing fiercely across the opening . I judged the wind speed to be about 40 knots, funneled between the mountains. I checked to make sure that no one was to the side of me and heeled the bike over into the wind as I exited. The force of the gust put me almost into the adjoining lane, even with my correction. I then went into the second tunnel trying to settle the bike down and clear my visor. The shooting pains were back. Then the voice of a flight instructor’s advise as we entered severe turbulence on a cross-country flight echoed in my ears, “Ease up, you are overcorrecting. Fly with two fingers on the stick!” My grip eased. I realized I have done this before.

As I approached Breezewood I could see the dark clouds of a storm reaching down to ground. The snow intensified, and the visibility dropped again. I checked the road surface every minute or so. My braking was OK. Then I entered the snow squall. The traffic speed dropped to 25 mph. I could barely see the car in front of me. I started looking for a place to pull off. I could set up my tent, pull out my sleeping back, and light the stove for hot water and soup. I was still looking when we broke out of the other side. It was clear: sunshine and blue sky! I couldn’t believe it. The temperature jumped at least 10 degrees. The ice and snow began cracking off of the front of the bike and flying past my helmet. I looked back and could see a wall of snow where I had just been.

The road quickly became dry and I upped the pace. I cruised home to Philly, arriving shortly before dark. As I hosed the salt from my bike I knelt by my machine and thought about the ride. I had ridden through conditions that I have never faced before. There were several times when I considered the possible stupidity of my choice. “Why did I do it?”, I asked myself. “I passed up on a perfectly good ride home in a truck.” There were two reasons that occurred to me. One was right in front of me. Motorcycles are designed to be ridden, plain and simple. The second is that it gave me a chance to find out something about myself, experiencing events that allow me to grow in the process. The more I think about it, the more it seems that is the reason that I ride.

Jeff Harth
1986 K100RS
Road Assist Rider