The Gift

“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready” - Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway)

It is 2:30 on a late October afternoon. I am on my way home to North Dakota from a meeting in Minneapolis. The temperature must be in the high 60’s. No clouds in the sky. The air has a fresh, autumnal scent as I barrel along on a northwesterly track at 75 miles per hour. The warmth of the day combined with my early morning wakeup makes me begin to feel sleepy while I ride. I pull off at the rest stop just southeast of Alexandria and shut off my machine. All is quiet now. There are no time pressures and no pressures of any other type either. I stretch out under a maple tree, still dressed in my Aerostich, and the late autumn sun warms me to sleep as I think about the gift that is this day. Gift days always occur in the fall. One never knows at the time whether the day will be a gift day or a day from hell until it is too late to do anything about it. The day is a gift when I choose desire over common sense and ride when everything logical suggests that I shouldn’t, and my boldness/idiocy is unexpectedly rewarded with a gorgeous day. Today is just such a day. But it didn’t start that way.

This morning everything argued against taking the bike. And first and foremost were my sore shoulder and bruised spleen. The reason for the sore shoulder and bruised spleen was that I flopped my bike two weeks ago. A flop, as opposed to a high side, low side or wipe out, is when one is riding along in a straight line one minute, and is suddenly and without warning on the road the next. The cause of my flop was mud on the road. The occasion was what is known in the Red River Valley (of the north) as the “annual sugar beet harvest” in the long version, and just “beets” in the abbreviated version. The beet trucks pull into the fields to get loaded up with beets, and track that good Red River Valley, jet black soil onto the roads. All of that is well and good—as long as it is dry. But let there be so much as a smattering of rain and the road becomes a hockey rink.

I had left work under threatening skies, headed for a doctor’s appointment. I needed to choose between the heavily patrolled but probably cleaner St. HWY 75, and the county roads I usually take. Because both have beet fields and beet yards anyway, I reasoned, I would take the county roads which have much lighter traffic. I was fine for the first ten miles, but after that it began to rain fairly aggressively. Nearing the Scandia beet yard I was down to about 10 MPH and barely keeping purchase. I had already decided that I needed to cut over to 75… if only I could make the two miles to the first cross road. Just before the Scandia beet yard (where all of the trucks go to pile the beets, and consequently, where the mud is the worst) I pulled into the left lane and waved a loaded semi past me. Twenty seconds later I was on my face, in the mud, on the road with my bike sliding slowly ahead of me. There was no warning, no slip. One minute I was riding and the next I was sliding and that was that. I could tell that nothing life threatening had occurred, so I leapt to my feet and got my bike on its feet and off to the side of the road (40,000 lbs of beet truck bearing down vests a man with incredible, instant strength). By riding on the unpaved shoulder for next couple of miles I made it to the crossroad, which was mercifully clean, and over to 75 which, it soon became clear, should have been my choice in the first place. But on a motorcycle you make choices and, right or wrong, you live with the results. Well, I made it to my doc’s and now he had two new things to diagnose: 1) separated left shoulder; 2) bruised left rib and spleen. Despite all, two weeks later my sore shoulder, bruised spleen and I were speeding through a misting rain at 75 miles per hour in the pre-dawn light on our way to my monthly meeting in Minneapolis, some 250 miles distant. Although I was dressed for it with layers and layers of clothing topped off by my rain suit, it was only 35 degrees outside and I knew I was in trouble if it set in to rain all day, although it was not supposed to. The gentle spatters of rain were not enough for me to close my face shield. I was glad. I ride with the shield open in all but the coldest or wettest of weather; I like the contact with the environment. I like the smell and feel of the cool moist air and the taste of the occasional splashes of cold water which make it past the spoiler and wet my lips. It reminds me that I am alive.

In spite of the not-all-that-hardship of weather I was enjoying myself immensely. I sped past Fergus Falls as the leaden sky lightened in the east. Miles of space between me and other cars out here, so despite the rain, safety was never a concern. The Giali electric gloves were a comfort, keeping my hands both warm and dry. I glanced at the laminated school pictures of my four grandchildren clipped to the left and right edges of my windshield and I was beguiled by an array of the gap-toothed smiles of the innocent. Those pictures, changed every year, remind me to not take extra risks, and to drive like I have a target on my back. In part, I have watched my babies grow up from the seat of my motorcycle at 75 miles per hour.

Every rider arranges his or her machine in whatever way seems natural and personal to them. I took inventory of the rest of the cockpit and thought for a moment about the appointments that made it my bike alone. Besides the pictures, there was my Mag Lite flashlight in its holder on the left side of the Hannigan SS fairing, and my water bottle holder on the right. Stuck to the left side of the windshield with its two little suction cups was my $1.99 kitchen window thermometer which was supposed to be a temporary installation last spring, but which remained throughout the season to become a valued part of the bike. Besides, it was the only thermometer with numbers big enough for me to read while riding. Up on the dash were my Coleman NightSight watch, glasses case, and of course my “cell phone.” Partly in protest of cell phones and partly as a joke a few years ago I stole from my granddaughter’s toy box a Play Skool, four button, white plastic cell phone, which used to play music when you pressed the buttons. The funny part about that phone is the number of people who ask if it’s real. I usually tell them that it is but that it only works with a Fisher Price adaptor. Some get the joke and some smile weakly and nod uncertainly. But the best response came from the former owner of this particular bike.

I bought this machine from a woman who had painted it a non-stock blue and had set it up like a café racer with a small fairing, etc. After I bought it I had it painted avus black and I set it up for touring with a large fairing. At the Hiawatha Rally that year she came over to see what I “had done to her bike.” “I really hate that big fairing.” (Nothing like starting off the conversation with an insult, I always say). “That’s okay, Karen. It isn’t your bike anymore so you don’t have to like the way I have it set up.” She agreed. “You know, that cell phone won’t work down in these valleys.” “Ah, Karen? This phone is a toy, see? So it wouldn’t work anywhere.” “Well even if it was real it wouldn’t work down here.” I couldn’t help but wonder why we were having a conversation about the lack of reception on my toy phone.

At Alexandria I took my one break and bought some gas. As I had to be at my meeting at 10:00 I had little margin for error and so I was back on the road in a timed 10 minutes. It was full light at 8:00 and I could start to see evidence of a clearing sky and sun, appearing as a thin strip of light on the far western horizon. I made the 60 miles between Alexandria and St. Cloud in 45 minutes; after that I entered the beginnings of the tail end of the Twin Cities’ rush hour. I have always disliked that part of the ride. I have grown unused to the hand-to-hand combat skills needed to ride in a large city. I was driving at plus 70 miles per hour with fewer than 50 feet between the car in front of me and the car behind me. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I have found that if I move slightly faster than traffic I actually feel safer, for then I am constantly choosing my position rather than letting the traffic around choose for me.

By the time I neared the University of Minnesota campus commuter traffic had thinned. I was buoyed by the thought that after a brief two hour meeting I would be back on the road. Only then I would be headed in the right direction: OUT of the city. The parking ramp allowed cycles to park right near the exit. I slipped out of my riding kit and locked it safely away in bags and trunk. I entered my meeting at the stroke of 10. This was a pretty good meeting as meetings go. It started and ended on time and it actually accomplished something in the middle. I found as the time neared noon I actually got excited at the thought of the ride home! One might think that after 20 years of riding including a full season this year one might get a bit jaded, but not me. Even though there were tons of things to do on the huge campus, I had only three things on my mind:

1) getting on my bike and riding;

2) getting OUT of the city;

3) lunching at my favorite restaurant in St. Cloud.

I strolled quickly across campus, cut through the massive Coffman Student Union and back into the West Bank parking garage. I put on only about half the amount of clothing I had on this morning, started the bike and headed for the exit. I carefully threaded my way down Washington Avenue and across the mighty Mississippi. I hooked left onto I-35 south for only a few hundred meters and veered right onto I-94. Almost immediately I dived into the semi-darkness of the Lowery Hill tunnel, and as I cleared the other side of the tunnel the sun burst out of the clouds as though it was all planned for my riding pleasure. The heat was felt immediately and it was very pleasant. Seven or so miles later I crossed the Mississippi again and blasted onto 94 west, outbound for Fargo. The sun was out, the temperature was coming up and I was finally in my element: headed away from the city and toward open prairie.

Beyond Monticello traffic thinned and the country began to open up once more. Having made this trip hundreds and hundreds of times in my life, it has become a “touchstone” ride, something that is familiar and reassuring rather than boring; a trip which is freighted with memory and nuance. Memories of trips past came in fragments. Cold rides, hot ones, my first trip this way on my new-to-me bike in 1993, all were remembered, and each one contributed its weight to the joy of this ride. I stopped at St. Cloud, at a restaurant called “Dong Kahn,” out by the Crossroads Mall. Susan and I discovered this place many years ago when, appropriately, we were on a bike trip. Now I will suffer almost any pains to get a meal there. After lunch I gassed up the bike and proceeded northwest on Division St. I passed through the town of St. Joseph, MN, and entered the freeway only a few miles from the St. John’s/Collegeville exit.

Avon, Albany, Melrose, Sauk Center. The sun was warm and I began to get sleepy. This used to present a problem for me as I couldn’t sleep during the day no matter how hard I tried, but somewhere along the line I learned to take catnaps. The ability to catnap (or powernap in today’s vernacular) has been a real boon to my riding, for now I can take off at virtually any time of day or night, on any amount of sleep, because I can always stop to sleep if I get tired. This is especially handy when I have trouble sleeping on the night before a big trip; now I just get up and go. Then, a mile or ten or a hundred down the road when my excitement is under control and fatigue sets in I sleep better. Just southeast of Alexandria I pulled off to take a catnap at the rest stop which brings me back to the beginning of this story.

Twenty five minutes later I arise feeling rested and grateful for the day. I use the restroom and mount up again. Now I am torn. On the one hand I’d like to get home; on the other hand, it is the third week of October and the chances that I will get another day like this before next May are slender. Add to this the fact that I am enjoying the opportunity to ride 500 miles in a day while “on the clock” AND getting mileage for the whole deal, and I am left to conclude that there are worse ways to spend a day. That makes me want to milk this one as long as I can. But, after all, I am homebound, and that always, always wins out. Anyway, it’s Friday, and that means that Susan and the grandbabies are waiting for me, so in the end I resolve to enjoy the trip for what it is, neither adding to nor subtracting from the final distance. I mount up in that clear, redolent autumn air, trail out of the rest stop and get full-on the throttle so that I am up to 70 miles per hour by the time I clear the entrance ramp. Four o’clock is rolling past as I bend around Alexandria.

There is something different about autumn sunlight. It seems warmer, softer somehow. The sun lights up the wheat stubble on the rolling fields, putting me in mind of Sting’s song, Fields of Gold. The shadows of the occasional trees along the freeway are longer now, and I can feel the air cool slightly as I pass through them. Even though it is only 650 cc, my BMW R-65 is practically asleep at a mere 70, but that only adds to the general feeling of relaxation. Nothing is busy, not my mind, not my bike, not even the weather. I pass the final real city of any sort, Fergus Falls, in a ride-induced reverie. I flirt briefly with the idea of taking county roads the rest of the way, but why tamper with success?

A few miles down the road my trance is broken by a pair of headlights in my mirrors. Soon enough a couple of Harleys sweep by on my left. I wonder if they always travel at these speeds or if they saw my bike ahead and “hunted” me. The answer soon becomes apparent as I wick up to 80 and tuck in behind them. They push it to 85…then 90…then 95 and finally 100 MPH. I stick with them (hey, who ever said I was mature?). I know for a fact that there aren’t many stock V-Twin Harleys that are comfortable at 100 miles per hour, which leads me to believe that either these aren’t stock HD’s or that the riders are paying a price for this pace. I do notice that they keep looking back to see if I am still on them. My bike, on the other hand, will run comfortably all day at 7,250 RPM. But what I know and they don’t (or maybe like me they are also at the end of their throttles) is that if they put on 5 more MPH they will lose me. The standoff finally ends after 40 miles when they pull off at the Moorhead exit, just one exit before my own. My little foray back into adolescence has gotten me home in about 30 minutes instead of the usual 45, plus I got to needle a couple of Harley guys who thought they were the baddest thing on the road.

I choose to ride through town for my last five miles, amazed that it was just this morning that I had left in the foggy, misty, dark. It seems longer ago. I pull into my driveway, shut off the engine and switch off the gas. Susan comes out and asks me how my trip went. “It was a gift,” I say.

— Rand Rasmussen (2005)