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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.