My best ride ever

Morning dawns at the KOA near Niagara Falls.  The $18 fee feels exorbitant in 1993.  I am lying in a puddle, which I had noticed hours before.  An amateur mistake in setting up my $17 used tent.  I elect to deal with it by not moving, so as to leave the water still, which had soaked my whole back side.  Then it isn't too cold, and I can sort of sleep till a reasonable hour.


The time comes to get up.  I am reluctant to face moving my long body in the very cramped tent, to commit to being without shelter for the rest of the day.  I spend a while in the puddle just strategizing about how I would recover some dryness out of all of this.  I gingerly feel for the small plastic bin of repackaged Smarties, which I had scored in Canada, on the way from Ann Arbor the day before.  They remind me of London, where Auntie May introduced me to candy, without my parents' permission, when I was three.  I thought it a coup to find some again.   My fingers connect with the bin, and creep inside.  It is wet.  It is slimy.  I sit up and look at the bin, which had, yes, been sitting in a puddle.  Inexplicably, the plastic let the water in, making a soup like a lumpy melted eight-flavor ice cream pie.  This really sucks rocks.


I consoled myself that there is always another Smartie, as I have a motorcycle, and I can sneak into Canada some other time.


I find my boots.  One stinks, the other just smells wet.  I guess the strategy of putting plastic bags over my boots backfired.  Yesterday was the third straight day of rain, since Minneapolis, and my clothes have not gotten a break.  My rain gear is primitive vinyl stuff, so if the rain doesn't get you, your own sweat does.  That does it, I'm going to the KOA laundromat, and putting lotsa quarters into their stupid dryer.  I guess that's cool to have around.  


What about the tent?  I really don't want to put it away wet, so I dawdle over my breakfast of oatmeal, and washing and drying my pot, hoping that the overcast skies will still be dry enough to dry my tent.  By 10AM I settle for a little damp, and pack up, kind of disgusted, and fearing future mildew in the tent.  But I want to go east!


The $300 1977 Yamaha 400 is loaded with my $20 Target shoulder bags bungeed on the seat under a green tarp, and my freshly dried sleeping bag is protected by a garbage bag on the rack. I set off.  As it had before, and as it has since, the XS400 fires right up, wet as it is.  Puddles are left over, but I also witness the first dry asphalt for days.  My bike is rattling obnoxiously.  The radiator hose clamp I had used to clamp the left aftermarket muffler to the header had snapped, and was migrating around on the pipe.  I find an auto parts store, and buy more hose clamps.   I clamp the junction of the muffler and header straight to the frame this time, to keep it still.  That works, but I am a little frustrated at getting on the road so late, just before noon.  At least it's almost dry!


Maybe it is five minutes, maybe ten.  It doesn't feel like a long time.  I see it ahead, as distinct as a traffic jam, and nearly as welcome.  A violent burst of water, like being in a highway-size shower stall, envelops me.  I have ridden in rain as bad since, but hadn't at the time.  The backsplash of the raindrops is ten inches high.  There is half an inch of water on the flat, straight road.  Ok, ok.  I know how to do this.


The rain lightens, but never lets up all day.  Again.  I am traveling due east on US20 through upstate New York.  My hiking boots are supposed to be waterproof, but they are not.  They fill with water slowly.  It is mid June, and I have never seen such an intensely green place. 


For some reason, my adult life has been pervaded by a sense of inflexible hurry, like I am really not where I want to be.  This feeling has dogged me even on my longest motorcycle journeys, even since the journey of this story, my first to take more than three days.  The drivenness really steals the wonder from the moment, and I noticed this, even at 24.  But normally I can't shake it, and that's annoying, too.


Today is different.  The increasingly hilly terrain of the Finger Lakes region, and the tall trees lining the road, and the rain and occasional muddy tracks require me to slow down.  50 seems right.  Nothing I can do about it, this is where I am right now, and all I need to think about is going east, at whatever speed works.  Let's just sit back and see what's on right here in front of me, as I await Massachusetts, lying somewhere out there, behind the mist, behind many hours of riding.


The little Yamaha is right in its sweet spot, in every way.  It is running 4000RPM in top gear against nearly still air, on roads with modest curves, with plenty of torque to respond well to the wet road.  I don't usually allow it the luxury of modest speeds.  It feels fine.  The points, nestled on the side of the cylinder head, up under the tank, are too hot to collect condensation, too high to get splashed, and protected from the rain, unlike a lot of contemporary Kawasakis, whose points are on the crankshaft, right where the front tire splashes.  The rain goes on.  I am soaked from the waist down.  But look at everything- green and gray calmness and fertility, brand-new fresh just this spring, and no worries about drought, let me tell you.  Looks like Eden.


Time for gas.  The 100-mile tank stretches considerably at these low speeds, but still the time comes.  I stop by the pump, stiffly unfolding my long legs from my short bike.  The tepid water above my feet sloshes to beneath my feet when I take them off the pegs, then quickly sloshes back over my feet when I stand on them.  Suddenly, colder water exposes itself to my feet.  Sigh. I pull one pantleg up, and kick my heel up behind me, pouring that boot out past my knee onto the ground.  Then the other side.  This'll make a great story, I think to myself.


On the other side of the pump, a woman who had been filling her car holds a newspaper over her cowering head and hunched shoulders as she sprints in a gingerly trot toward the building, out from under the awning.  I laugh.  Maniacally.  Almost forgot it was raining.  I just don't care anymore.  I can hardly get wetter.  And I'm really happy to be here.  It's beautiful and lush and wet and the road's fun and smooth and I have nothing to do but just drink it in, as long as the day lasts.  I feel pretty indestructible.  And lucky.  And wise. 


Something just occurs to me- many of the things we generally recognize as suffering, and strategize to avoid, mask astonishing treasures of experience, if we brave our fears, and put up with the trouble, and break through to the other side.  Pay dirt! I found a whole new degree of freedom which the gingerly lady in the newspaper hat cannot conceive, in her current state.  I found a whole galaxy of things I don't need to avoid, in building my life.  I feel like a Rook in Chess that had blinked and become Queen.  But there is more east to go yet, before night.  The Yamaha spins up, and off we go, into the wet afternoon.  The beautiful, relaxed rollercoaster/log ride continues, and the rain keeps on and on.


I haven't seen the faintest suggestion of the sun since this morning.  But a sharp brilliance from directly behind me creeps over the rainy landscape ahead.  The monolithic dark grey clouds resolve into mottled indigo and grey and lavender and violet, and the intense green of everything else glows brighter and brighter, with a gentle, bright, warm light.  The rain sparkles as it sheets down, as the sun descends below the cloud layer that has dogged me all day.  I see a bright rainbow off to the right, across the field.  I follow the arc up, and up.  I hit the top and follow it down to the left.  It's ground-to-ground!  I get the whole thing!  For half an hour, till the sun sets, I am heading straight through a full rainbow, with all the colors.  Occasionally, there are hints of a second rainbow next to it.

Words fail me…


Night falls somewhere south of Syracuse.  Campgrounds have been extremely sparse, so I decide to go for a hotel.  The lady wants $65, out here in the sticks.  I walk away, leaving a trail of water on the lobby floor.  She calls me back from the door, and I get it for $35.  Being unafraid of suffering has market value, I guess.


In the room, I take full advantage.  Heat on.  Wet layers on the heater.  I've been at the point of shivering for hours.  Warm shower.  I spread the contents of my bags and my tent all over everything, hoping to shed some dampness for the next day.  I have had days as lovely since, in different ways, and with way better equipment. But none better than that afternoon.  I sleep well.

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