Daylight Thursday was taking its sweet time
arriving. I rolled over several times in the wee morning
hours to check the clock and find that the time was only a few minutes
later than my previous inquiry. The plan was for me to roll
off the driveway at about 08:30 and meet with Raymond and Dana some one
hundred fifteen miles to the south and then ride on together to Panama
City Beach, Florida. I finally gave up on the whole idea of
waiting for the alarm.
I got out of bed and dressed, checked the weather, and looked over the VRCC board. I sure wished we had been traveling two days prior when the local temps were in the seventies. Today's numbers were in the thirties, but at least it would be dry all the way. Raymond was finishing up a two hour stay at work and should depart the Wichita area about 09:00. At 08:15 I posted a departure note and got on the road.
It took only a few minutes to clear the populated suburbs and begin the flight south on US 69. We were to meet on the southeast corner of 69 and 400. Raymond was estimating that they would arrive between eleven and eleven thirty. The sun was shining; I was running well; and the trip down was mostly uneventful. Well there was the debris dropping off the eighteen wheeler in front of me, but an intervening minivan saved me from the need of dealing with it. At the gas stop, the minivan caught up with me. The driver asked whether they had kept the apples off me. I thanked him and wondered how an apple would have felt at eighty miles per hour.
I rolled into the rendezvous just before ten AM. Good timing, I thought, an hour's rest and a chance to grab some breakfast. I made small talk with the clerk, ordered up a cheeseburger and hot chocolate, and plugged in my cell phone charger. Waiting for my burger I glanced out the door and was shocked to see two black Valkyrie Interstates fueling in the lot. I walked out to greet them.
"Hey! You're here a little early, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Raymond couldn't wait. He left work early."
"When d'you leave?"
"That's great. I thought it would be a while so I ordered breakfast. I'll eat fast."
"That's alright. No hurry."
Dana and Raymond came inside and ordered up fried chicken gizzards for breakfast. We spent a leisurely fifteen minutes eating, chatting, and making use of the available services. We were all impatient to get underway. Raymond showed me a gas can in his left saddlebag as we were leaving.
"Don't be afraid of running out of gas. We're going to run that standard dry before we stop. How far before you hit reserve?' The Interstates carry two gallons more fuel in the tank than does my Valkyrie Standard.
"I get a hundred forty to reserve and then another forty-two to empty."
"You get a hundred and forty miles before reserve? Let me know just as soon as you go to reserve."
It's actually a bit worse. My trip meter reads three percent low so it's really more like one hundred forty-four.
We turned our heads toward Missouri and put our faces into the wind. By noon, despite some traffic and a construction slow down, we were in Arkansas and on the four lane slab. There is a certain pleasure in group riding, and Raymond and Dana are easy to ride with. (Yes, I know I dangled a preposition, but sometimes it just works out that way.) The passage through the Boston Mountains was beautiful and the temperature was rising into a very comfortable range. I began calculating and came to realize that I was going to hit reserve prior to our arrival in Fort Smith. At Fort Smith we would transition from I-540 south onto I-40 East.
As predicted, a short distance out of Fort Smith the Dragon sighed beneath me and I found myself turning the throttle more to maintain cruising speed. Six carburetors really do help the machine to shut down quite smoothly. I reached down to flip the fuel switch and Raymond was almost instantly beside me. What ensued was a short discussion of facial expressions and hand gestures, not all of which I am sure that I correctly interpreted, but it went something like this.
"You on reserve?"
"Yes. Thirty more miles."
"Through the turn to the east."
We cruised on south and through the interchange onto Interstate Forty. Approaching the first exit on I-40 Raymond blew past me and turned on his right signal. It appears that the issue at hand was not so much who was going to go dry as it was who was going to get wet. We had no more talk of running the standard out of gas.
We fueled, addressed our needs, shed a few layers and pointed our faces toward Memphis.
The run across Arkansas was an all day four lane interstate ride in pleasant weather and mostly light traffic. Usually we rode with Dana out front and Raymond sweeping. I like to ride behind Dana because he doesn't miss much if anything. Once he motioned off to the right and I looked to see a quarter of a mile off on a parallel road a white car with lettering on the side and luminous decoration on its roof. Raymond kept the boredom to a minimum level. Sometimes he would run alongside a fellow traveler standing up on the pegs and once or twice he came motoring past us sitting on his pillion, feet properly placed on the passenger pegs.
At Little Rock we stopped to fuel and briefly discussed the path that lay before us. We would hit Memphis right at nightfall. We talked of forest rats in the South and the dangers of travel in the dark. The original plan called for us to aim for Tupelo, but to stop when any one of us had gone far enough for the day. Lori, my wife, had commented that the plan was seriously flawed as no one of the three of us would confess to being the one to halt progress.
As anticipated, the sun had fallen as we crossed the corner of Tennessee and made our way into Mississippi. Raymond did a masterful job of leading us through several highway changes in Memphis and onto the US 78 diagonal. I would be reminded of how well he managed Memphis when he later led us through Montgomery, Alabama.
We fueled up in Olive Branch, Mississippi and decided to push on through the night. We held a slightly slower speed through the darkness and when traffic was not present we spread across two lanes to throw as much light as possible upon the road before us. In Tupelo we stopped for gas and asked a few locals about the distance to Jasper, Alabama and the Alabama state line. They either didn't have a clue or didn't really want to help the out-of-towners because they gave us some really off target answers. We decided that we would shoot for Jasper, bundled up, and climbed back onto the highway.
A short distance down the road we stopped again for fuel and hot chocolate. The people of Hamilton, Alabama seemed much more knowledgeable and willing to help. Jasper, they said, was about another forty-five miles. Hey, we could make forty-five miles in any temperature.
On the road again we found that their distance was rounded ever so slightly to the low side, but soon we came to the exit for 118 into Jasper. We made the exit and the first sign that crawled out of the black indicted Jasper to be six miles down the road. Something seemed wrong to me as I had remembered exiting US 78 almost directly into the Jasper hotel district, but we obediently followed the signs into the "Jasper business district". Apparently Jasper is a town much older than I had previously seen. The so called business district was all closed down. We wandered around in circles and arrived eventually outside the local jail where two deputies of varying gender were enjoying a smoke in the cool evening air. Raymond asked them some questions and I could only catch a few "turn right", "follow …", and "turn left" bits and pieces. We rolled out through the ghost town with questionable confidence and after several turns and one loop back we arrived down the road at the entrance to US highway 78.
We turned right onto the highway and after a few short miles it became evident that we had managed to find the first and last US 78 exits for Jasper and had bypassed the Jasper hotels entirely. Caught in the irreversible masculine prohibition against backtracking, we rolled further south into the now near freezing night. Somewhere along about Sumiton, Alabama we gave up on our hopes for a steak dinner and pulled into a McDonald's. We ordered up something to eat and spent a few minutes of lively banter with the local fast food help.
One of the teenage boys was particularly interested in our modes of transportation.
"Who's the crazy one without a windshield?"
"Man, aren't you cold?"
"Yeah, it's cold, but not too bad."
"My dad has a Harley, but it's in the garage right now."
We made inquiry as to whether there were any good places to stay in town.
"No. The nearest good hotels are in Jasper up the road a ways."
"We're not going back. Any on further south?"
"There's some in Adamsville, but you don't want to stay in Adamsville."
"What's wrong with Adamsville?"
"Crap. They're all really crappy."
"Okay where's the nearest good place to stay to the south."
"Nothing until you get to sixty-five then there are hotels all over sixty-five."
"It's about thirty miles to Birmingham. Sixty-five is at Birmingham."
Then arose the expected exchanges.
"Hey, I could keep on going, but I don't think Carl can go any further."
"I'm alright. I could ride on through the rest of the night but if you guys want to stop I'm up for it."
"We're not going back to Jasper."
"You make it another thirty miles?"
"I can make it."
About that time a man easily identified as the earlier teen's parent entered the dining area.
"Which one is the crazy one without a windshield?"
"Boy, I'll bet you wish you had a windshield now. You must be freezing."
"No, not really."
"I got one of those at home but I'm not ridin' it. It's just too dang cold to ride. Yes, sir, it's just too dang cold to ride." He left the area shaking his head. We shook our heads, too.
On the road again we steeled ourselves against the piercing frigidity of the night and headed for Birmingham. About a half hour later Raymond, out front, spotted a small motel and pulled into the parking lot. Out of the shadows a man stepped and exclaimed loudly, "I got it. I got what you need right here."
I was the third one into the lot. I pulled alongside Raymond, put one foot down, raised my visor and said, "I don't think so."
"There's a Day's Inn down the road a ways. Can you make it?"
"Let's go to Day's Inn."
We dove back onto the road for a few more miles. Dana was in front now and the Day's Inn was just before the entrance to Interstate 20. Dana missed the turn and sat watching from the I-20 ramp as Raymond and I pulled into the lot for Day's Inn. Dana was only about twenty feet down the ramp. I believe I would have violated the law and the normal flow of traffic, but Dana is a more honorable man than I. He disappeared down the ramp and I wondered whether he would seek the next exit or if we would just see him in Florida.
We noticed that the hotel had a tall iron fence around it and a security guard on duty. Odd, for a highway stop, don't you think?
"What about Dana?"
"He knows we stopped. He'll be back."
Dana apparently took a little tour of north Birmingham. He says he ran three stop lights getting out of an area in which he didn't feel he would fit well.
Inside a young Indian gentlemen took our questions.
"Do you have a room with three beds?"
"No, but we have a suite with a king size bed and a fold out couch."
"Can we get a roll-away?"
"Yes, but with the king size bed you may not need the roll-away."
"No. We need three beds. I don't share. How much?"
The price was not right, but it was late, we were cold, and our decision making properties were almost expired. We took the room.
Early morning found us packing our bikes and wiping the ice from our saddles. We turned south through the Birmingham highway system and once again Raymond led us through. People in Birmingham, it seems, are in a great hurry to get to work, even on Veteran's Day, but the responsiveness and acceleration of the Honda Valkyrie have a tendency to uncomplicate what would be a significant dilemma for the unfamiliar traveler.
By the time we stopped for fuel, the temperature had climbed into the fifties and we were shedding layers again. From there south the ride and the weather just got nicer and nicer. The ride through Alabama was without incident except that we did take a rather interesting tour through the residential streets of Montgomery. Raymond was leading. We did find our way back out onto the super slab and blew past Dothan and deeper into the sunny South. It seemed that when we crossed the Florida line that the ambient temperature jumped by ten degrees and by the time we rolled into Panama City it was like a return to summer weather.
Finding our way to the hotel did involve a long route through the populated area and one, maybe two, requests for directions. Crossing Panama City a young lady in a red Toyota attempted to join me in my lane of traffic. I gave her a rather ample sampling of my horns and a good talking to. It reminded me of how pleased I was to have replaced the stock horn and how much I needed to go ahead and install the air horns for maximum effect. She did later pull alongside me and mouth the words, "I'm sorry."
I replied, "That's okay, Sweetheart," and we all went to bed feeling very good about ourselves that night.
We arrived at Howard Johnson's Panama City Beach Resort to find only a couple of Valkers and a man on a scooter in the parking lot. Steve, the Valk rider, informed us that a bunch of them had just ridden out to lunch and he was only there because our rooms weren't ready yet. We checked in to the hotel and Raymond worked his magic on the desk clerk. We walked away with three keys to our room on the third floor overlooking a beautiful Panama City Beach beach.
The room was all we could have hoped for; two full sized beds, two bunks, a kitchenette, and a picture window looking out over the gulf. I took the top bunk. I know it doesn't make sense as the lower bunk was not to be occupied, but I just always like to be on top.
We decided to cruise down the main thoroughfare and find a place for a late lunch. We passed several spots and ultimately aimed for a Subway but landed in the parking lot of a deli across the street. It was a fortunate accident. They served up huge sandwiches and we sat to eat in very comfortable benches. For the first time in two days I began to feel the effects of road weariness.
Dana contacted Winghot of Cullman, Alabama. He told Dana they would be right over and if we finished eating before they arrived to wait for them. Dana said, "Yes, sir," hung up the phone, and finished eating.
We did wait for a few minutes in the comforting sunlit warmth of the parking lot before Winghot and his posse arrived. We renewed acquaintances, shook hands, slapped backs and acted like long lost brothers; as well I guess we were. Eventually we roared out of the parking lot toward the hotel and I found the sound of multiple Valkyries instantly rejuvenating. The road weariness that had accosted me had been very short lived indeed.
The hotel parking lot was filling up with a steady stream of Dragon riders and friends. Swoppie was flitting around like the secretary of a hundred V.I.P.'s being certain that everything was in place for the gathering. Swoppie was becoming quite worried about Strider and his crew. Swoppie does seem to like to worry, but we didn't want him to stay worried so we made a call home to get Strider's cell phone number and then called Strider. Surprisingly, Strider answered the call immediately and reported they were a little over an hour out. They had had some adventures involving a flat tire and otherwise slow going.
That afternoon I got to see some old friends and to meet some people whose names I had known but whose faces were new to me. I saw Smokin' Joe and met Detn8r, the VRCC's only Valkyrie submarine captain. Charlie and Lori Koon whom I had not seen for a year and a half were there. They are a couple of people with hearts as big as all outdoors. Thunderbolt was already busy helping someone change his plugs and check his carburetion. They were working on one of those beautiful and rare 2001 blue and white standards. Counting mine, there were three of them there that weekend. RedValk and Sherry arrived. RedValk is a man that oozes enthusiasm. If leadership is mostly inspiring others to follow, then RedValk is a natural leader.
Sherry called out to me, "Hey, Paul!" I gave her my usual stern glare.
"Alright," she said, " I won't do it again, but I had to just once."
Chrisj CMA and his wife, Judy (Queen Dinky) were there. They had been chatting with my wife, Motomama, who told them I needed to be supervised.
TJ and the boyz, Dakota and Ram, arrived. Dakota and Ram were two of the best behaved and friendly Rottweillers that I have ever seen. Sadly this would be Dakota's last outing as he was suffering from an enlarged heart and passed away the following week. To see him that weekend, one could not tell that he had any physical issues as he was running and playing and enjoying all the people just like, well, one of the boys.
Britman of Georgia was there. Paul can handle idiocy with civility better than anyone else I know.
Names that add color to a gathering were there, Jeff K., a man who knows all that needs to be known about the mechanics of a Valkyrie; Hard6, a great guy who rides a beautiful Dragon; Scooter Trash who rode his scooter all the way from Birmingham to Panama City Beach; and DDT, the all time long distance champion of the VRCC.
Strider and his Mississippi and Louisiana posse finally arrived and the night was complete. Strider is a man to whom the term, positive attitude, can be appropriately applied. He lights up a gathering by his presence and he is a people person extraordinaire. He brought with him Pun and Moonshine. Well, actually others brought moonshine as well, but Strider brought Moonshine.
I met several people for whom I only learned first names. Rob, Larry, John, multiple Steves, and several Woody's. Swoppie had provided some home made beverage and Winghot had a cooler full of refreshments in the back of his pickup. Some of the attendees slipped inside the Blue Moose for a noisier place to gather. It seems that almost everyone was content just to hang around in the parking lot shooting the breeze and checking out one another's rides. There was a pavilion provided by the resort for our use but it was only late into the night that a small few of us slipped into there for a while. Most of the conversations took place under the warm and wonderful Florida night sky. All told there were more than one hundred seventy people who gathered and a parking lot filled with fabulous machines.
A few of us gathered around Nia, Winghot's and Robin's little girl. Little children in general are fascinating, but this one is a double dose. Judy had brought a mechanical dancing chicken and we spent some time encouraging, and being entertained by Nia's dancing with the chicken.
Several of us inlanders took a break during the evening to go eat seafood. It's a closely held secret, but for the short ride down the street Raymond rode bitch on Blue Velvet. There were two firsts associated with that brief excursion.
All too soon the night wore on and we each drifted off to our hotel rooms as the weight of our journeys overtook us.
Saturday morning we began gathering for the ride before nine AM. First departing group was scheduled for ten, but once more it seemed no inconvenience to populate the parking lot well short of departure. There was no shortage of friends to be enjoyed and conversations to be had.
I left in the second group. I don't really recall a lot of the ride out into the Florida countryside except that we made our way quickly out of the populated area and began to enjoy some perpetual spring scenery. The column moved cleanly and quickly and soon we arrived at the first stop. Raymond was not quite ready to stop riding and passed some time running up and down the road that skirted the service station. Once I did notice him passing by in his own unique version of the driverless carriage display.
Dana had some fun with some of the folks asking, "Did you see that idiot ride by on the passenger seat?"
"On the passenger seat? Who was driving?"
"No one. That's just crazy."
"Yeah. That's just crazy."
I guess there may have been only one first on that ride to dinner.
After a while we pulled away from the service station. I was near the front of the column but immediately pulled over because I couldn't recall placing my camera back in the left saddlebag. By the time I checked and rejoined I was within ten places of the end of the column.
We turned down a rather remote pathway and began to enjoy some twists and turns. There is something mystical about watching a column of motorcycles fall successively into a banked turn, something almost hypnotic in its pleasure.
I rolled into a relatively sharp right hand curve and halfway through noticed that some of the riders ahead of me were frantically motioning for a shutdown. I glanced to my left and saw a yellow and black Valkyrie on the ground with a rider well separated from it on his back. I pulled off the right side of the road and, leaving the bike, rushed back to the spot of the downed rider.
By the time I arrived there were already a large number of people milling about. Some had turned their bikes back and some had driven directly into the church parking lot next to where the rider and bike lay. Cell phones were out. Someone came out of the church and was asked about the address. She didn't know. Rural location. A caller reached the 911 operator and learned that he had a GPS locator in his phone. EMT's were on the way.
I stayed next to John and listened to the conversation going back and forth. He was coherent, but in a good deal of pain. He kept saying, "I don't know what happened."
His bike had skidded off the road on the outside of the curve and when it hit the dirt the front wheel had apparently locked leaving a long furrow in the grass. When it did catch traction it predictably high sided and slingshotted its rider away. There was a significant divot in the ground and a matching clump of dirt stuck in the left tail pipe of the downed machine. The bike had a broken left bag, a snapped right driving light, and a broken windshield mount. Altogether that doesn't seem too bad for a machine that did a full cartwheel.
In a few minutes a white pickup truck with a strobe light in its windshield and a wagon load of hay bales behind it rounded to corner and came to an abrupt halt across the road. Two people bolted from the vehicle and ran across the asphalt to where John lay in the grass.
That's a first, I thought. I hope they're not going to transport him atop the hay. Rural EMT's. Quite interesting.
Over the next thirty minutes more people and vehicles arrived; a deputy sheriff, more civilian looking vehicles with attached flashing lights, two Florida state troopers, and finally a real ambulance.
It was a little unnerving to be so close to where someone had just been put on the ground. I'm sure we all tried to deal with the uneasiness in our own ways. I overheard someone quote the old adage about two kinds of riders, those who have crashed and those who will.
"I don't believe that shit!" was Jeff K,'s response. "My father rode all his life and never went down."
I tend to agree with him. To me it seems that one who believes that something is inevitable will subconsciously help bring it to pass.
Ultimately we needed to try to understand what had happened to put our minds at ease. We speculated that John, a relatively new rider of the Valkyrie, had for some reason become spooked going into the turn and touched a brake, most likely the front brake. The path he followed led straight from the middle of the turn to the crash site. It appeared typical of a bike that had been stood up after entering a turn.
Arrangements were made to hide John's bike behind the church and come back to get it later. John was a local rider. I took as many pictures as I could of the crash site and the bike and the professional EMT's hauled John off to the hospital.
There was a moment of panic when I was having a pleasant conversation with a rather mature Florida state trooper and suddenly realized that everyone else on two wheels was leaving to go to a place that I did not know from this location of which I, with no GPS inside, was very uncertain. I disengaged myself, almost discourteously, from the conversation and ran, as best my aged form could, to my mount some sixty yards down the road. It is probably not advisable to leave a state trooper at an accident scene with six open pipes screaming and clinging to the back of a beast under maximum acceleration, but I felt my options were limited as the column had disappeared around the next couple of bends.
I caught them within about a mile an a half; we turned around once, and made our way to the designated lunch stop. I parked amongst all the many Dragons that had been there for some time and made my way into the restaurant which had an excellent buffet and very clean facilities. I was in no mood to eat, but the facilities were a comfort to me.
I found friends who had just finished dessert and were headed out. I joined them. I have always preferred riding to eating. It may catch up to me one day.
We made our way uneventfully to the next stop. I fueled up as I wasn't certain how much longer the ride would be. As I was fueling I glanced over at the road and noticed an electric company truck form Longview, Texas. "Hey!" I hollered, "I was born in Longview about fifty-four years ago."
I'm sure the young man must have found that amusing as that would have referenced no time of which he was aware and probably a Longview very different from the one of his memory.
"Are you going to help with hurricane repairs?"
"On our way home, actually. We've been down there for two weeks. A lot of pole damage. It's a mess."
"I'm glad you were able to help. I work for the electric company in Topeka, Kansas. Some of our guys have been down there, too."
"You work on a line crew?"
I smiled. Just for a moment a thought crossed my mind. "No. I work inside in an office."
"Yeah. You all travel well."
Across the street I engaged in discussions with my riding buddies about the ride back. It seems some were discussing going straight back to the hotel and some were going to complete the ride. We talked some with Swoppie and waffled back and forth but finally decided to ride with the group that would complete the ride.
While we were standing there by our mounts, some of the riders began to file out. We were in the midst of trying to determine which group was which when Raymond interjected, "I don't know which is which but three groups just left and we should have been with one of them."
One of the fun elements of falling behind is the effort to catch up. We left the parking lot like frightened cats, first Raymond, then Dana, and then me. I had to wait on traffic for just a moment and was forced to use more velocity than is reasonably acceptable on a rural two lane to try and catch my partners. That pesky rev limiter always seems to get in my way. Honestly, she just seems to be still pulling really hard when she climbs past the red line. I have mine set at seventy-five hundred, incidentally.
We passed traffic, climbed, fell, turned, and screamed along the asphalt ribbon until we finally caught a column. It turns out they were running around seventy miles per hour themselves. Somewhere along the way back the column got broken up again by a few traffic signals and we were again whittled down to a smaller group. Dana and I followed a small number that included a rider with a GPS unit while Raymond chose to go on ahead and meet us at the hotel.
Back at the hotel we discussed options such as taking a short nap and walking on the beach. Raymond didn't feel that it would be right making the long trek to the seaside and not going into the water, so he donned his shorts and headed for the surf. Dana and I went along to take pictures and laugh. We took pictures. And we laughed.
We passed the afternoon and went to get an evening meal with Winghot and his family. Robin wanted me to choose and I wanted her to be pleased. We appeared to be at a selection impasse. Robin said, "There was a Backyard Burgers down the road. Is that okay?"
We headed out to dinner, this time with Raymond on his own steed. It was a good meal, but a bitter sweet experience. After Robin had finished her meal she had to go out to the truck to listen to the University of Alabama complete its loss to LSU.
The evening festivities were exciting. The pavilion was filled with Valkyrie riders and friends. There were raffle tickets to be bought for a Chinese auction; a pocket bike, and some fine oak woodwork donated by Chrisj.
I have to say that Swoppie and the Li'l Boss Unit did an excellent job with the raffle. On my fourth trip to the prize table I mentioned that I would need to win the knife on the end of the table to safely exit the pavilion. Swoppie offered it to me for twenty dollars, but alas I had invested all my cash in raffle tickets.
The decision was made to donate the proceeds of the evening to John to assist in his expenses and recovery. Britman returned his prize, a front fender guard, to be auctioned off. Several winners followed suit and then Charlie went out to his trailer and brought in a front wheel chock to be auctioned for John. Lori whipped the crowd into a bidding frenzy and Winghot primed the bidders when things slowed down. Before the evening was done something near eighteen hundred dollars was raised to ease the pain and suffering of a fellow Valkyrie rider.
Reelay kept the music going and again the fun and excitement lasted well into the night. When RedValk leaped up onto the table and danced wearing the Viking headgear the party was almost over. When Sherry slow danced with her man it was time for us all to leave.
Sunday morning we were up before seven and the parking lot was already filling with departing riders. Leaving a long distance motorcycle event is an experience of mixed emotions. There is a certain sadness in the farewells but within the soul of the rider also is rising an excitement to get back into the wind. We said our good byes. Joe greeted me loudly from across the lot, there was much hand shaking and back slapping, and then it was time to play the pipes.
We had studied the weather predictions and determined that our best route was to stay south as long as possible and climb north on the far side of Louisiana. We chose to ride two lanes north at a slight angle to intercept Interstate Ten at the earliest reasonable juncture. There was much nice Florida road and pleasant countryside, but I was disappointed to find that after traveling for forty-five minutes we joined I-10 at the same distance from Pensacola that we were leaving Panama City Beach. The Dragons were ready to run. When we hit the super slab it was all I could do to keep the two Interstates in view for the next hour. We passed a rider on a V-twin. I felt a little sorry for him when the first Valk blew past. I just hoped he didn't get off to see why he had stopped when the other two cleared him. My Dragon hit the reserve point some twenty miles before I had expected it to and we stopped for fuel and a Cracker Barrel breakfast in Clearview, Florida. There was apparently a local toy run under way and the parking lot of the restaurant contained several two wheeled vehicles. I was amused to see that we put three Valkyries into a single space while right next to us two half Civic drivers had decided that they each needed their own.
Crossing the tip of Alabama and into Mississippi was sobering. The closer we got to Gulfport, Mississippi the more extensive was the evidence of the recent hurricanes. The sight of steel signposts twisted and turned was a stark reminder of the relative strength of human construction and the force of nature. Pine trees snapped like matchsticks and wind blown litter of surprising sizes lined the highway. Pictures had not conveyed the extent of the devastation to be witnessed along the Gulf coast.
As we entered Baton Rouge we encountered light rain for the first time. We exited the highway and found a near empty shopping center in which we could don our rain gear. It's almost humorous watching grown men without chairs attempting to get into uncooperative rain pants. It seems to always be that second leg that is the most trouble. In fact, I believe if one could learn to leap into both legs concurrently all the issues would disappear.
Back on the interstate we were immediately greeted with good reason to be pleased with our decision to suit up. The entrance ramp was backed up by traffic making its way around an accident on the highway. It appeared that a cage had hydroplaned and spun around to meet an oncoming vehicle front to front. It gave me a comforting feeling knowing that we were out there on two wheels where the four wheelers were slipping and sliding on the water's surface.
Traffic was moving slightly faster than was I and I let them go. A small pickup passed me with a tall refrigerator tied precariously upright just behind the cab. We crossed in significant rain a long elevated left hand curve of road with steel expansion joints. When I hit the first joint it took me a bit by surprise that the front wheel kicked out as it crossed the slippery steel. I eased up the lean and did my best to keep my pants dry across the rest of the turn. Crossing the river out of Baton Rouge I passed a refrigerator lying on the right shoulder of the road.
About ten miles out of Baton Rouge the rain diminished to a light drizzle and then faded away altogether. We stopped in Alexandria for fuel and a quick lunch and discussed how far north we would be able to go. Our intent was to get to Texarkana before we sat down for the night.
As night fell we began to see flashes of lightning in the distance, first to our left and then both sides of our pathway. As we approached Shreveport the lightning stretched all the way across the horizon and appeared to be very close. Raymond, leading, took an exit off the highway and pulled into the first parking lot.
As we pulled alongside he asked, "Who thinks we're going to get wet if we go any further?" We agreed to stay in Shreveport for the night.
It took us two tries to find a hotel in Shreveport. We settled into one just across the street from Denny's. After we had walked to Denny's for supper and returned, the rain began to fall. We congratulated ourselves on what must have been an excellent decision and settled in for the night.
The best route out of Shreveport for Wichita appeared to be west through Dallas and north on I-35. That was, however, one hundred fifty miles out of my way. My best route was north on US 71 through Texarkana, Fort Smith, and on into the Kansas City area. I was prepared to say goodbye to my friends in the morning, but after a short discussion they informed me that they were riding north into Texarkana.
We had just cleared Texarkana when we got into significant rain and by the time we reached a reasonable place to stop I could already feel the cold water seeping through the seams of my jacket at the shoulders. We found cover under a service station awning and once again began the comic ballet of the donning of rain gear. Faced with a wet jacket, I chose not to put on the outer rain jacket, but to instead use my Joe Rocket rain liner beneath the jacket. I would not remove that liner until after I arrived at home. I called home to have Lori check the weather radar so we could know how far north the rain stretched. She indicated that all the rain was gone before Fort Smith. We terminated the call and then she called back leaving a message that if we would cross the state line west into Oklahoma there was no rain on that route showing on the radar. That was a message I would receive after I arrived at home. While we were under the awning the fiercest rain of the day passed over us.
Back on the road we traveled through intermittent rain for the next ninety miles. At Mena, Arkansas we stopped for fuel and left most of the rain behind us. Although the rain was almost gone, we were now facing dropping temperatures and by the time we reached Mena we were becoming less and less comfortable. We geared up for colder riding and had a short chit chat with a couple traveling north along our route. We were queued up outside the men's restroom when a lady came out of the women's room and said, "I won't tell if you won't."
In retrospect I think she was speaking to her husband, but it was good advice and I took it.
With dry roads and the pull of home ahead we attacked the winding route north out of Mena. There are long stretches of double yellow lines along that path and we were strung out fairly long. Raymond was in front with Dana in the middle once or twice I got hung out behind slower traffic that the two interstates had passed. Once in particular a slower vehicle noting that I had been separated pulled to the right shoulder offering me a free pass on the winding road. I declined the offer. Part of the adventure of falling behind is the challenge of catching up.
It was a good run of eighty miles and by the time we reached the southern edge of the Fort Smith area we were still running on a fair amount of adrenaline or whatever it is that pumps through one's veins while carving the hilly byways. We paused at a red light with Raymond on my right and Dana behind the Black Pearl. When the light turned green with no traffic to our near front, Raymond twisted the throttle hard and I jumped right into his wake. We really didn't run it up much past eighty-five indicated, but it must have been quite a duet to hear. As we approached the traffic ahead two vehicles blocked the lanes before us and held us to a near crawl. Almost immediately a white vehicle with lettering on the side and decorative lighting on its roof slid to a stop at the crossover to our front. I had dropped into the position left and behind Raymond with Dana coming up on my right rear. I gave Raymond the three pats on the head sign and he nodded. I watched the bear as he dropped into traffic behind us and seemed to seek out the places that would be obscured from our view by larger rolling objects. I hope he wasn't too disappointed as we pulled across the way into a service station for fuel, lunch, and the refreshment of the available facilities.
I had a hot ham and cheese sandwich and Raymond had some sort of chili dog or two. We took a good deal of time to thaw out.
"Dana and I will be riding on up to Tulsa. It's the quickest route home and Dana gets a real bad case of get-home-itus."
"Cool. I'm straight on up seventy-one. I've been this route before so it won't be a problem. I think I'm about thirty miles closer to home than you all are."
"Yeah, but I'll bet we'll get there before you. You have all that mess around Bentonville to go through."
I made a mental note to be sure and get home before my friends.
Outside the station as we were mounting up a woman approached us and asked, "Are you from around here?"
"No, Ma'am. We're just passing through. I'm headed for Kansas City area. They're going to Wichita."
"Oh. My husband has a Valkyrie and we always notice other Valkyries."
"Cool. Does he go out to the VRCC bulletin board?"
"Yes, he goes to the Valkyrie board to read, but he doesn't post much."
I still wasn't certain that she meant the VRCC board so I gave her a card.
"You all ride safe."
We turned north out of the station and reached my turn off in about a half mile. Actually I missed my turn and had to double back, but only for a short distance.
There is a joy in riding with company, but there is also a certain thrill to riding solo. We spread the Dragon's wings and she began to fly. It seemed that every cage we passed would move over to let us by. People would nod in recognition and pirate ships would lower their flags as we went sailing by. No wait, that's a different song.
There was little resistance upstream and in no time at all we were rolling into Missouri. As the sun was falling I was within range to one stop the run into home. I ran until she called for the reserve tank and then ran for several miles further. I stopped for fuel just out of Carthage, Missouri and placed my hands free cell phone unit inside my helmet. Back out on the highway I decided that even with the visor down there was too much wind noise for the cell phone to work. I didn't call.
The cold seemed to increase rapidly as the sun fell. My strategy when traveling through cold weather is to delay putting on the coldest weather gear as long as possible so that my body will acclimate to being much less than warm. The trick, however, is not to wait so long that all the warmth has been sucked out of the body. I was in danger of violating the condition.
I pushed as far as I could and fought with the disappointment over not one stopping the last leg of the journey. I stopped in Rich Hill, Missouri and pulled every possible layer that I was carrying out of my right saddlebag. I spent a long time inside and all the time I was in there I could envision my riding partners flying up the interstate. I accepted my defeat and decided it was more important to live than to win. Besides, they didn't even know we were racing.
I called home.
"Yeah. I'm in Rich Hill. I've been slowed down a bit but I should be in by six o'clock at the latest."
"Yeah. I'm really cold, but I'm okay."
"Where's Rich Hill?"
"I think I'm about seventy or eighty miles out."
"Well, we're going to eat about six o'clock but you probably won't be home yet."
"I told you I will be home before six!"
There was a rather long, uncomfortable silence. I'm really not very nice when I'm into suffering mode.
"Okay. Well I guess we'll see you then."
"See you in a bit."
I took a few more minutes to feel sorry for myself and then went out to rejoin my ride. It seemed that everywhere people were glancing sideways at me and whispering to one another, "Don't look straight at him. I think he's crazy."
Sealed against the cold I rolled back onto the highway and began the last leg of the journey. As we accelerated on up to highway speed I began to feel remarkably well and increasingly more so as the minutes ticked by and I began to move into more familiar territory.
I made my final gas stop in Olathe and rolled into the driveway at about five forty-five. I wasted no time in getting inside to post my arrival home message. I posted at 17:57 local time. Raymond arrived at six o'clock and the Valkhound got home about six fifteen.
The following morning the air was full of huge snow flakes and the temperatures were dramatically lower than the night before.
It's been almost a week now and the memories are beginning to dull around the edges, but if I close my eyes, lay my head back, and try really hard I can still hear the surf rolling in and feel the warm Florida breeze against my cheek. I can still feel the glow of the presence of my friends and brothers from the road and I can faintly hear the music of all those beautiful Valkyrie flat sixes winding up again. Good times, good people, and good memories are the stuff that we live for and they were all there in November, 2005 with the Dragons on the Beach.
If you would like to send Willow some words of encouragement, follow this link.