In the Chill of the Night

It is a wonderful quality of the human mind that, given passage of enough time after an eventful day of ups and down,  uncomfortable or even painful memories however vivid are minimized in favor of an overriding pleasant memory in that same day. But before that time has passed, the mind is solely focused on telling the body what is needs to do to hang on.

This story starts at that time.

I am hammering up Highway 85 on my SuperHawk motorcycle at about 9:00 PM. Or maybe it’s eight. Or eleven. I have no sense of time. I know I departed Monterey with my friend John, riding his VFR, some 50 miles ago. He parted company with me about three miles ago, headed to his home in south San Jose. We chose to come up 101 rather than the more entertaining route of Highway 1 and 17 to avoid the colder temperatures we’d find in the mountain passes. But if it was warmer in the Coyote Valley than in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Honda’s engine didn’t feel it. The needle on the engine temperature gauge registered only halfway to its normal operating temperature after an hour of riding just above the speed limit. Dressed in padded rain pants with Under Armour, with three layers under a new leather jacket, gauntlets and a borrowed neck sock, I was still cold. Frigid.

I was leading. More than a few times we encountered vehicles cruising in the passing lane. I was in no mood to dawdle behind another SUV laden with enough cabin entertainment to host a sports bar. I dropped a gear and changed lanes, John keeping pace and sometimes clearing the way for a change back into the passing lane.  Our speeds were only moderately excessive, and after we made the transition to 85 where John waved goodbye, I settled into a fast lope. Somewhere after the 280 junction the Red Light Of Doom, aka the low-fuel light, came on. I pulled off at El Camino, found a station, gassed up. I bought a cup of hot chocolate and stood next to my bike, feeling my extremities go from non-existent to numb. Cars came and went, drivers hunkering from the cabin to the filler cap and back inside the cabin again as if they were at Ice Station Zero instead of Shell. I finished my drink, re-adjusted my gear, and hit the road.

As soon as I merged back onto 85, I picked up a flyer in a Maxima but the driver hit the brakes, migrated from the slow to the HOV lane and then sat like a schoolboy waiting for a lesson.  I could only guess that in the darkness he mistook me for the CHP, on the quite reasonable assumption that no one else would have any earthly reason to be out here on a motorcycle. I paced him for a while, but there were no other headlights behind us and we were running out of freeway, as a junction was coming up. A decision had to be made and I passed him, pulling ahead into the HOV lane and the flyover that descended onto northbound 101.

This particular on-ramp merges into the passing lane. I’ve noticed drivers tend to speed up to get ahead of the merging traffic, but the irony is that the passing lane itself merges back into the second lane 200 yards later. An observation I heard earlier that day about commuters resonated with me; regular drivers of this road would know about that merge and avoid this lane. As I headed down the ramp I could see an Infiniti racing to beat another car to the merge point.  I could also see, from the corner of my eye, another set of headlights, low to the ground but moving quickly from the slow lane.  I got there ahead of all of them just by dint of  already being ahead, and they all bunched up behind me.

And oh my word, I didn’t think it was possible, but it got colder. I think I have ridden in colder weather, and maybe even longer, but I could not remember when. I yelled inside my helmet, I wiggled my toes in my boots, I flexed my gluteus maximus to its maximum. I did everything I could think of to generate friction without taking my hands off the handlebars – as if I could. The SuperHawk has rearsets and a custom seat and has as much wiggle room as a streetcar at rush hour.

And suddenly in my rear-view mirror were the ground-hugging headlights of the car I’d seen earlier. Behind it was the Infiniti and alongside came  – a Passat. The Passat stayed in place for a bit then accelerated. I changed lanes, and the ground-hugger zipped past, revealing itself to be a lowered Civic with four baseball-hatted guys inside. The Inifinti changed lanes the same time as I did, expecting perhaps to pass, and found itself behind me. He switched back and took off after the Honda.

I caught up to them all again two miles later, knotted up behind traffic. They were all again bunched in the number one and two lanes. I was already in lane three, and the normal flow of traffic took me past them. Like kittens following a string, they unknotted themselves and came flying up behind me again.

Only this time, I unfroze enough to twist the throttle a little further and put them behind me.  I was too cold to care. Actually, the thought of putting distance between me and them gave me a warm feeling, and the greater the distance the warmer I felt. I maintained extralegal speeds the rest of the way into San Francisco.  Once I swept across the city limits, I stopped feeling the cold altogether. It wasn’t until the garage door closed and I removed my helmet that I actually remembered I was really flipping cold. I think that was also the time I remembered my speedometer isn’t quite accurate because of a gearing change I made. To paraphrase Will Smith in Independance Day: Oops.

The next morning John sent an picture from the day before. It had been a stellar day, marked by a good lunch on the wharf, mild weather on the coast, a stunning seascape and a fun ride with friends through the hills and back roads of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel Valley. I barely remembered the cold at all.

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