Oh, sh#*t, Sunday!
My blogging days almost came to an end late Sunday afternoon. Actually, that wouldn't be the only thing that ended, if you catch my drift. Much to the dismay of my detractors, I'm still here. A lot of luck and some deeply ingrained skills helped save my sorry butt. The reason I put it this way is that it was sort of my fault. Not the circumstances themselves, but my lack of awareness as to exactly what was going on. I always stress to my students that when a rider's on a bike their head's got to be focused on managing risk. I violated my own rule. It was Veteran's Day Weekend. I had been involved in a mental trip all day. A mental trip that took my head away from riding. It was nearly a one-way trip.
This will be long journey. Please use the restroom before we leave. It may be dark along the way. War and things related to war can be like that. Rather than avoid the unpleasantness, the best thing mankind can do is remember and reflect. Those who paid the price to serve their country shall not have done so in vain.
Saturday had dawned on a rare weekend off. Our town has one of the largest Veteran's Day parades in the West. Katie and I had gone to watch and then done some errands together. Sunday was my day for what's become a yearly ritual. This blog isn't about war and the Military, though I have pretty strong feelings. A certain war will be burned into my psyche until I die. I believe strongly in our country and duty. But I won't write of such things here. This is a motorcycling blog, after all. Sunday the two came together to form bad chemistry.
Sunday's ride wasn't to work. It was actually a ride to forget work and lose myself in something else. I had rounds to make and respects to pay. It started off dry but conditions deteriorated all day until the skies opened up. Our local weather guessers had predicted torrential rains with a high wind warning. Gusts up to 50 mph were expected. All this was supposed to happen about 10 PM. The guessers were wrong.
In a fit of mischief the Weather Gods brought the storm much earlier. It was to be much worse than predicted. In the morning hours as I set out on my mission I was blissfully ignorant of what was in store. It would not be my only sin of ignorance that day.
Sunday started as early as possible considering how late the sun comes up these days. Official sunrise isn't until 7:10. I wanted to take a picture at Gramp's grave so I lingered over an extra cup of coffee. The sun's low in the Southern skies. Surprisingly, it was even peeking between clouds when I arrived at the gravesite.
This was a weekend to remember veterans. Gramp had been in the military. I think it was a case of the army or jail. I heard a lot of stories about how he and assorted young bucks tried to out "macho" each other. Being soldiers and cops was something we could share that gave us an extra bond. HIs grave was first on my list of stops to pay respect and honor memories.
There really isn't any hidden symbolism in the picture of my helmet by the headstone. Nor is there any particular artistic merit in the picture up top. Actually, the idea just kind of came to me after I'd cleared out some leaves and put some new flowers down. The grass was pretty wet so I put the towel down under my helmet.
All I can say is that I wanted to capture images of two things dear to me. Gramp never personally made the switch from horses to bikes. Still, he helped me find opportunities to ride when he saw how hooked I was. I still have riding in my life but miss Gramp terribly.
I had to hit the road. There was a little over 80 miles to my next stop. Plenty of time to reflect on memories. Too much time, actually. With the memories came some strong emotions. The mental state was starting to go someplace at cross purposes with riding. Nonetheless, I brushed it off. I knew what was coming mentally. I'd been there before. The mental state was the purpose of the ride. Four decades of riding combined with commuter battle experience should compensate, right? Radar scans are so deeply ingrained that habit should carry me through. Today there would be a bogey on the radar screen.
Next stop was Willamette National Cemetery in Clackamas. WNC was set up under the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Veterans and their families could be interred here. Some here were K.I.A. ( killed in action ) but most came out of the service and lived civilian lives until their death. The first burial happened in 1951. Today there's over 125,000 at rest there. WNC covers about 249 acres of a hillside. A relative and a couple friends of mine are buried there. I've had a few students in my classes who wanted to be a part of the Patriot Riders. These are the motorcycle escort folks made up of vets who keep war protesters at bay during military funerals. I looked up a couple gravesites. Russ is here. You may remember that he was my friend and fellow instructor who died on his bike this year.
By now the rain had started. I was planning on taking a picture or two but was stymied on a couple of counts. How do you take a picture that does this place justice? When the weather's clear this cemetery is a beautiful place despite its purpose. The Big City of Portland can be seen down the hill. Today the rain and clouds made it all look so depressing. The rechargeable batteries in my camera showed fully charged but had expired after the few pictures I took at Gramp's headstone. Screw it. This really wasn't a photo-op ride, anyhow. Wandering among the markers and thinking about how many people had been laid to rest here was mentally staggering. I was falling farther into the emotional state that started earlier. I don't know why it was hitting me so hard this year. There's just been too many tragic deaths around me lately, I guess. Some you read about here, some you didn't. You put on a brave front but inside things aren't as tough as you'd like others to believe. The pump was primed and the flow started.
Coming off the hill I headed over the river into the Big City. Sophie and I were on the far East side. My next stop was clear over on the West side near the Portland Zoo, a trip of around 30 miles. There's a replica of the Vietnam Wall. The difference is that the names inscribed are of Oregon soldiers who were killed in action. There is a power to this wall that pretty much pushed me off the edge mentally.
I know it seems impossible if you haven't felt it for yourself. Just the sheer number of names can be sobering. Here in the rain there were few visitors. Those of us there were quiet and somber. It's not a place of cheer and happiness. I put my hands on the wall and shut my eyes. Before long I was in another time and place. Intense, intense, intense. I had to shut it down.
A fat man with a straggly beard came over to me. I was still kind of dazed and sort of brushed him off. He looked like one of those panhandler transients. When I looked into his eyes they were blank. Not blank like a lack of intelligence. More like he just didn't give a damn about anything anymore. He told me his name was Charles Bronson. Seriously. Drafted in 1967. We walked back to the parking area. His car was a rusty old Cadillac. From a bag in the seat he pulled out two Silver Stars, a Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, and an Air Medal. Most who served in-country came out with Purple Hearts. It was a dangerous place, after all. This guy paid his dues and then some. He was within 10 days of being rotated out when a RPG exploded and blistered him with shrapnel. Charles got a helo medevac ride out then shipped home a little early.
The guy didn't look like he ever really got past the experience. He's got plenty of company. I was thinking about him, those like him, their families, those who didn't come back, and more. What makes the difference between coming back and moving on or being forever scarred like Charles? Beneath it all ran the haunting melody of war and the dark things that come with it. I shouldn't have been on the bike. What did I do? I made it worse.
Rumor had it that there was a display in a place on the North side of the Big City. This one was dedicated to Operation Enduring Freedom, the mid-east conflict. After Sunday it would be packed up. The weather was getting far worse. Sundown wasn't all that far off now. Official sunset is at 4:45. Despite that, I felt compelled to go. This was a trip to pay respects to veterans. Especially to those who paid the ultimate price. There was no choice. The mission must be fully carried out.
This display was the most haunting of all if you have any capacity for empathy at all. It was a simple affair of a few standing partitions. On the partitions were neatly arranged white cards. They were about the size of a standard sheet of paper laid on its side. The cards were arranged by month and year. Each card bore six pictures; face shots from military ID's. A brief bio ended with a date of death. All were considered to have been killed in the line of duty. Altogether there were 2,801 photos. I looked at each and every face. It was hard to describe seeing those faces and knowing that they were no longer with us. Large numbers are one thing. Looking at a face makes it much more personal. For the most part they were kids. The age of my boys. As a human and a father it was disturbing. I'm a patriot, I just hate the costs involved.
One boy in particular caught my eye. His name was Tyler. In one of those strange things that work out in life, his family had lived next door to mine when Tyler was a little boy. My two oldest boys were just a little older than Tyler. Tyler would stand on top of his parent's car and call over to the house. "Hey boys! Can you play?" Many years and one state later we ended up within a few miles of each other again. Who ever thought that hyperactive little nut would turn out to be such a fine young man? A young man who took a sniper's bullet to the head in Iraq.
So now you know my mental state when I set out for home on the bike. I was lost in another world. This year things had become so much more personal that I was totally absorbed. I set off home and then I met The Bridge.
Meet Portland's Marquam Bridge. The Willamette River bisects Portland. There's a series of bridges that span the river and connect the city's halves. This one also happens to carry Interstate 5 across. Sorry for the blurry picture. I came back later to try to get a photo. Northbound traffic uses the top deck. Southbound uses the bottom deck. North is to the right in the picture. My experience started over there. Here's a closer look at the road surface.
It's from a building next to the bridge. You can't imagine how hard it was to get a clear shot with no cars! Traffic flows from right to left. Just after this stretch the road opens up to four lanes and heads up over the arch of the bridge. Just before this stretch is a place where traffic bottlenecks. Like many big cities, a lot of traffic has to cross to get where the drivers need to go. In front of the Rose Quarter where the Portland Jail Blazers, er, sorry, I meant the Trail Blazers, play, traffic from downtown needs to get onto the freeway. Right at the same spot freeway traffic needs to cross over to hit Interstate 84 which takes them to the suburbs out East. Which means that traffic crawls there.
By now the rain is quite heavy. As my friend from Wales says, "It's tipping buckets!" Not only that, but the wind's gusting along the river. Big gusts. It's dark. I'm crawling in traffic lost in my mental state and miserable in the weather.
Finally, the road and traffic start to open and we can go. I'm impatient to move and make up time. I've been later than I intended. I smell something that kind of burns my nose but figure it's coming from the paint plant under the bridge. My brain's too busy where it's at to really take time to figure out the reality. All I see is open space and I roll on the throttle. Suddenly, I'm fighting to keep the bike upright. The back end's way out there to the left. It's so bad I put my right foot down by reflex. I wrenched my hip and it still hurts to walk. Now my attentions' focused but I'm right in the middle of the battle zone without really being prepared. You see, it wasn't paint. It was a heavy fuel spill. Only now do I really focus and see the sheen on top of the water. Dumbass! Where was your head? You know where it was and it wasn't here, buddy! I'm not the only player in the game. There's cars spinning out all around me.
That's when I say "Oh sh#*t!!" What the heck do I do now? Traction is almost non-existent where I'm at. Not with rubber on water with a thick diesel fuel filling. I'm trying to get out of the way of the spinning cars. Visibility's horrendous with the rain and the darkness. Three rigs have hit concrete barriers. One little silver car looks like it's going to get me. I can't brake hard and I can't run. I brace myself to get hit. I figure it's going to hurt but I'm not jumping off the bike. In my mind I'm determined not to leave poor Sophie to her fate. If we go it's going to be together. By some miracle the car stops an inch short. I can barely see the driver's face but I can tell it's a woman.
I've been moving trying to avoid becoming a sitting target. Slowly and shakily. There's no place to go anyway. There's no shoulder to speak of. Just four lanes of traffic hemmed in by concrete and guardrails. Once over the rails it's open air and then the river. My salvation comes in the way of a dark colored small Toyota pickup. The driver's just ahead of me and seems to be moving along ok. I aim for the tire tracks where the water's been somewhat squeegee'd off. At the top of the bridge we see the tanker pulled off. The driver's doing something underneath the truck. I'm surprised the driver's even noticed the leak. A connection somewhere in the belly of the tank is leaking. Fuel's running down the bridge toward where we had come from. No wonder it hadn't washed off. A new supply kept running down the bridge.
I'm shaken up more than this tough old warrior cares to admit. I stay behind the Toyota for a while and follow it into the rest area down the road aways. There is an audible popping noise as I pry myself off the bike seat. The Toyota driver comes over and tells me he rides. He can't believe I made it through. He had put the little truck into four wheel drive. I was just really lucky. I made it home without further incident but fought the high winds and heavy rain all the way. I was totally wiped out when I got there.
Truth be told, I don't know for sure what I would have done had I been more tuned in. There was just no place to go. I could have tried to pull over to the small shoulder but it's about two feet wide. That stretch is a concrete canyon full of traffic. I do know for sure that I wasn't ready because my mind was far away. I was doing exactly what I've admonished countless students not to do. Don't ride if your head can't be in the journey. At least with more warning I wouldn't have rolled on the throttle so aggressively and gotten out of shape so badly. Bad enough to be in it without doing something to make it worse by your own actions.
I'm not proud of this. Even if it costs me some professional credibility I wanted to share it. Take this moral away with you. There's some basic truths involved in riding. None of us ever get too experienced or wise as riders to ignore these truths. I guess deep down I thought I could get away with it because of my experience. I almost didn't escape the consequences. It was an apparently much needed wake up call. We push and push the envelope sometimes. That's ok. Just don't forget to take the basic truths with you while you push on. There's a reason they're carved on stone tablets!
Miles and smiles,
P.S. I checked with ODOT later. The final score was 8 wrecked vehicles. Half had contact with each other, half with the guardrails. Sunday night the wind knocked down over a hundred trees on Hwy 18 which closed the road. One of my neighbors had a tree come down on their SUV. This storm caused a lot of damage all over. Gusts at the coast reached nearly 80. Cape Blanco had gusts up to 102 mph!