Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mermaid resuscitation and an errant finger!

8 PM. Still three hours from home in Lacey, Washington. I've just flipped off a couple of cops. I shouldn't be surprised or offended that they didn't accept my offer to buy them coffee. So I'm drinking alone. I'm holding a cup of Christmas Blend in my shaking hands. Right now I'm having a discussion with the mermaid on the cup as to what to do with the hot liquid. Two choices are clamoring to win. Either gulp it or pour it down the unzippered front of my Aerostich jacket. Actually, the Roadcrafter pants are unzipped, too. That was necessary to fish around to find my wallet. There's where I keep the money and the driver's license the cops wanted to see. The coffee would be able to run a long ways down inside my gear. There's just enough sanity left in me to realize one can't always go with the initial instincts. Considering that the coffee brews at a temperature well over 200 degrees (f) either choice would have had unfortunate consequences. Like any victim of hypothermia the warming process would have to be taken slowly.

This is easier said than done. I'm s-s-s-o c-c-c-old! It wasn't supposed to be this way.

One of the cardinal rules of long distance riders, especially those riding the Iron Butt, is to never use the ride as the first tryout of equipment. I had broken this rule. This ride was the first time I'd used the electric vest this season. Maybe if I'd done some shorter runs the problem with the controller would have manifested itself sooner. Then again, maybe not. Since the failure happened right away I'm thinking I should have tried it on a shorter ride first. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Fact is, I'm without the electrics for the ride home.

There were people I met that had just had electricity restored as late as Saturday and Sunday. A few were still without power. I stopped at a Safeway store Monday morning to pick up some more AA batteries. All the places where perishable things had been were now empty. The long power outage had caused it all to spoil. A mile away there was still no power. This had been a terrific storm, indeed. I guess being without the electrically heated vest was small potatoes compared to what these folks were still enduring. At least that was my thinking then.

Now all I can think of is the cold. I left Kirkland just after 5:30 PM. The sun had already set. My trip up had been done mostly in daylight. This trip would be made entirely in the dark. Under clear skies the temperature was plummeting. I know it was a crazy time to hit the road. It being rush hour in the Seattle area, and all. On the other hand, I was going to sit somewhere either way. On the bike or in a restaurant waiting for things to clear up some. Since rush hour isn't actually confined to the space of one hour, I decided to saddle up and go. It's only twenty miles from the freeway entrance on I-405 to where I would join I-5. No big deal, right?

That part of the trip took a little over an hour. There was good news and bad news. The good news is that motorcycles are legally allowed in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. The bad news is that traffic in these lanes was hardly moving, either. I was crawling along with everyone else but at least I felt more special about it. After all, I WAS in the HOV lane! Our lack of progress was both a blessing and a curse. Wind chill is less at slower speeds. On the flip side, my visor kept fogging up. My hot warrior breath was too much for the air flow at slow speeds. I'd flip the visor up as long as I could stand it. A lighted sign on a nearby building indicated 30 degrees (f).

At even a few miles an hour that cold air would cause my head to feel like I had brain freeze. It felt like there was a knot in the middle of my forehead. From there it spread to the rest of my face. Then my eyes would water. I wondered what my face would actually look like if I could see it in a mirror. Flashes of an old television commercial came to mind. Do you remember "Bitter Beer Face"?

If you drank any beer other than that advertised, the storyline went, your face would look like someone had just hooked up a vacuum hose to your nostrils and turned it to high suction. I'm pretty sure I looked just like that. Dropping the visor would bring relief for a while but then I couldn't see. So the cycle continued. All the while the warmth was slowly being sucked out of my body.

Sophie and I finally made the junction of Interstate 5. Our celebrations were somewhat premature. The heavy traffic continued all the way down past Tacoma. Somewhere around 50 miles. By now we'd been on the road well over two hours and only come this far. I kept wondering how people who live and work up here deal with this every day. Do they just accept that their work day has to expand by another four hours to allow for commuting time? What kind of people put up with this?

Oh, wait! I do that a lot, don't I? Let's see. 90 miles one way makes for 180 miles round trip. Even at an average speed of 60 mph that makes three hours of commuting. I'm just thankful that the traffic jams I encounter are just in spots and not a steady thing like up there.

Once past Tacoma it's about another thirty miles or so through to Olympia. There's finally elbow room and I'm ready to roll the throttle and blast through the night. I'm almost giddy when I see the speedometer needle climb past 35 mph for the first time in what feels like forever.

It's so tempting to just keep rolling through the night. There's lost time to make up. It wasn't that I was really under a tight time schedule. I just wanted to get home. Have you ever noticed that when you're freezing, or wet and cold, that the ride seems to drag on? Not that we don't still love being on the bike. There's a slight change of focus that happens for me. The destination starts to become more important than the journey. It's all good; some is just better than others. I want to get home where it's warm and get off the bike.

My body's talking to me. I've noticed that my head is starting to ache from the cold. Opening the vent on the front of my Arai helmet's not enough to keep the visor defogged. Cracking the visor is the only way to keep vision going. Pressing left seems much harder than pressing right. It feels like the bike doesn't want to go left. There's also a little bit of cramping going on in my left hand. Must be the combination of the cold on top of the clutch work needed during two hours of crawling traffic. Come to think of it, the right hand's also cramping up. I'm always so smooth on the bike. Now I'm starting to feel slightly at odds with the bike and the ride. It's time to stop and warm up.

Exit 108 was coming up. Years ago I did some training up here. There's a Fred Meyer with a Starbucks in the strip mall out front. Katie and I would go there to enjoy the summer sunshine after I got done around 4 each day. I was close to my destination when I almost hit a police car.

Slaeter-Keeney Road is two lanes each direction with a refuge lane in the middle. I'm in the inside lane as my intended stop is a couple of lights up and to the left. There's a City of Lacey cruiser with two officers in it to my right. They're waiting to turn right and merge into traffic. The driver's setting a bad example for the rest of us by not using turn signals. The gap that's open to the police car is next to me and slightly ahead. The cop goes for the gap. It's amazing how much traffic is still out. Must be the big mall in the neighborhood. This is when my freezing brain makes an incorrect assumption.

I assume that the cop is going to keep going in the right lane. After all, there's still no turn signal. About the time I roll back on the throttle the police cruiser has started over into my lane. It's a pretty severe angle of attack on the part of the cop driving. Due to the clumsiness of cold hands and fatigue, my throttle roll ends up being a little more than anticipated. I almost run into the driver side front door. A big handful of front brake saves me. Then I momentarily forget who I'm dealing with.

Somewhere deep inside of me a primal scream of rage takes hold and comes surging out. Blame it on a whole combination of circumstances. I was cold, tired, and now pissed off. The scream came raging out of my left hand. I leaned on the horn button and flipped off the cop car before I could squelch the impulse. No, they weren't blind and deaf. Yes, the street lights were very bright. I arrived at Starbucks under police escort. I soon had an armed officer on each side of me with a blinding spot light glaring at me from my rearview mirrors. The glare matched the stern looks from the cops. Now that I'd sort of gotten things out of my system I remembered the number one rule of police stop encounters.

Do not, under any circumstances, be guilty of what cops call F.A.T. ( failing the attitude test )

I calmy explained why I was stopping in the first place. I also pointed out how the sudden move by the cop driving caught me by surprise. I told him that when I went through police academy we were taught that existence of policy does not negate liability. In other words, even if we were engaged in official "police business", even if we were running hot by order of dispatch, we were still responsible to do what we could to mitigate the potential of crashing with civilians. Diving into my lane without a signal or any warning didn't seem to align with that philosophy. It could even be construed as an attack on me. So no wonder I was upset with them. I could also understand their pulling me over. After all, when a cop gets flipped off they're obligated to respond. It's the Old West Code of Honor. At least I think that's what I was saying through frozen lips. After a quick check of my papers they left me alone with the admonition to make sure I was in shape to continue before I hit the road again. I think they were tired of my babbling and actually had something else important to do somewhere. I'm sure I'll be marked on their F.I. card ( field interrogation ) as a harmless nut case.

Of course now the person working the counter at Starbucks was looking at me strangely. She'd seen the cops talking to me but was too polite to ask anything. I could see the curiosity in her face. I just shrugged and told her I was a professional driving instructor. The cops had stopped me to ask for some tips while they were on patrol. I was pretty sure she didn't believe me when I saw her put my cup on the counter then back away instead of handing it to me. She hadn't warmed up when I asked for a refill. My plan was to ensure I would have to stop a time or two more on the ride home. Two cups of coffee and ice cold air would see to that.

The remaining three hour ride passed without incident except for the black ice in Wilsonville. At the South end of town is a bridge over the river. Once I'd hit Portland the fog had come. It got thicker as I moved South. The air over the bridge was cold enough that the fog froze and fell like snow. I pointed Sophie for the cleaned off tire tracks. We hit ice and slid what felt like a long ways but was actually only enough for a small sideways drift. It started at the left third of the lane and ended in the right third. Not serious, just enough to raise the pucker factor and snap me alert again. The last forty miles were spent in the right lane travelling under the speed limit. I was getting fried and just wanted to make sure I got home in one piece. At 11:30 we did just that.

Here's the moral of the story. The reason for the telling. It's a lesson in recognizing when you're becoming impaired and listening to your body. Ignoring the little signs and pressing on is what gets riders in trouble. Sometimes the impairments sneak up on a rider. It's a lot like becoming slowly intoxicated. Recognize the signs and make adjustments. In this case, it wasn't normal for me to react the way I did. I could have shrugged off all the signs and kept on rolling down the superslab for home without stopping. I do that a lot. My brain was saying I've done much longer rides in much colder conditions and never had a problem. It was telling me that I was a pansy for feeling what I was feeling. Under normal circumstances it would be true. There were some extenuating factors this time.

Sleep was scarce the night before. I was in a motel room. There was a family with fussy kids in the room next door. One of them was still going on well after midnight. People above me seemed to be pacing the floor all night. I'd had breakfast but no lunch or supper. For whatever reason my stomach had been queasy all day and I couldn't eat. I'd spent the day sitting in a chair around a conference table listening to people talk. My night ride started out at freezing and got colder as I went. I had planned the ride counting on an electric vest. Without the vest the cold just kept draining me little by little. The time involved was greatly stretched by the traffic around Seattle and Tacoma. Small thing heaped upon small thing. I truly wasn't my usual self and had to face that reality. As far as flipping off the cop car, I won't go there. It would take too long.

Listen to what your physical being is telling you. Recognize the signs of impairment. They can come on cold days, hot days, long days, or short days. They can come any time of day. Especially when commuting home after a long work day. Make the needed adjustments. Live to play another day. Oh yeah, it's really never a good idea to flip off a cop!

Miles and smiles,

P.S. Sleep wasn't any better last night. Turns out I was actually coming down with the flu. I spent all night trying to turn myself inside out by heaving. I think I had a fever running during the ride home but it was so cold I couldn't tell!


Steve Williams said...

After just reading Gary's post on Rush Hour Rambling about Rambling Route Delta and being all warm and hungry after reading this one I'm hungry and cold. Both you guys write too well.

Other than the heated vest that doesn't work don't you have any other layers inside the Aerostich? 30 degrees would suck badly without a lot of layers.

I think the motorcycle safety training should include a piece about police interaction and the power of the finger. You're description is a gem. I stopped using that finger a long long time ago when it managed to conjure a rifle in my face. It is a powerful little digit.

I just can't wait for warmer weather so I don't have to shiver when I read your posts!


Anonymous said...

You are an outstanding writer. I really enjoy reading and learning from your postings.

Combatscoot said...

One thing that I haven't gotten out of the habit of since I left colder climes is carrying a windbreaker in my saddlebag. It's not much for layering, but it's ability to keep-out wind can save me when the windchill gets unexpectedly bad.

Dru_ said...


It's interesting that you say that. I've never lived in a cold climate and I still carry a nice little canary yellow long fleece lined ( so it doesn't stick to my leather riding jacket ) Totes rain coat under the seat.

I find that it is the most effective item I have at moderating the effects of wind-chill on cold or windy days. Using that, in conjunction with some layers, I've had excellent luck on a couple of days when it has dipping into the teens and twenties here.

For that matter, I also keep a pair of UnderArmour gloves that work well as liners, and an Old Navy wool scarf under the seat as well for those days when I unexpectedly *need* an extra little layer of protection.

dan_durham said...

Glad you made it in one piece. That was one heck of an adventure.

I've wondered the same thing about drivers up here and how they can deal with that rat-race cager commute day after day... I'm content with working swing shift my entire career to avoid that.


irondad said...

Sorry for the delay in replying! I've been sicker than a dog for a few days.

I had on a golf-type shirt and a light fleece. I have a bulky fleece from Aerostich but it's almost too big to go under the jacket. Most of the problem is that I can't stand to have the jacket closed tightly around my neck. I get a lot of cold air to the upper chest and neck.

to my anonymous reader,
Thank you so much! I'm enjoying the venture.

I should check out something similar for those "just-in-case" moments.

I used to love working swing shift as a cop. It's a different view of things. I'd think that going to work would still be a traffic snarl for you. Coming home shouldn't be too bad, though.

take care,