Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Driving for Two

Hot Springs, AR

When you're riding a motorcycle, you don't get the luxury of just keeping track of yourself. If there's anyone else around, you can't zone out or coast along thinking about something else. I occasionally listen to music while I'm riding, but I turn it off anytime I'm in a place with crossroads or more than two lanes each direction, because you can't afford to lose that amount of focus and attention.

When you're riding a motorcycle you have to drive for you, and for everyone else. You have to expect that the car on the side road is going to try to shoot the gap between you and the car in front of you, or worse, pull out in front of you like you're not there. You have to expect that the car in front of you in the left turn lane is going to turn just as you're getting to the intersection. You have to expect that the guy in the pickup truck is going to change lanes right on top of you, even when there's empty space in front of you and behind you. You have to expect that the girl blasting through traffic at 25 over the speed limit isn't going to notice that you started to change lanes and is going to cruise right through you.

Every single one of those things has happened to me on this trip. And today, that expectation saved... well, at least the bike. Maybe more.

The past few days has been interesting on the motorcycle:

  • Outside Houston, a pickup truck blasted through an empty lane, ignoring all of the empty space behind me, and then last second decided to merge into my lane to make an exit - while right next to me.
  • Last night, a deer jumped out in front of the bike at 10pm, then froze right in my lane. This morning, a deer shot across the road just in front of me.
  • Also this morning, I got tailgated by four cars. I was going 65mph in a 55mph zone, on a wet, curvy, bumpy road with bad pavement, and multiple people were tailgating me - closer than I would feel comfortable tailgating a car, even if I was trying to prove a point about them going slow - and passing me in no-passing zones.
  • I was about 60 miles into my tank of gas when I woke up this morning, which was 20 miles more than expected - missed some turns last night. Then the town I was going to get gas at apparently had no gas stations... so by the time I entered the National Forest on the border between OK and AR, I was pretty low on gas. I actually almost ran out - put 3.4 gallons into a 3.7 gallon tank.

On top of that, I was pretty tired today. Last night was the most miserable camping I've had this trip. It started with heat-advisory weather and no wind. Even at 10pm it was about 95 degrees, and though I was laying in my tent not moving with a door open on each side of the tent, I had sweat literally dripping off of me.

Finally some wind started up around 11pm, but it was gusty and seemed to be trying to pick up my tent. Then it started pouring, so I had to close up the rainfly doors. The wind blew hard enough that the tent seemed like it was going to collapse, and it pulled the rainfly stakes partially out of the ground - enough that the rainfly was loose and flapping around, and occasionally got high enough that the rain would hit the mesh part of the tent and get me wet. It rained hard enough that water was pooling up underneath the tent. Add to that some pretty loud thunder and bright lightning, and I wasn't sleeping much.

Then the rain stopped, but at 4:30 this morning the winds were gusting to (what the weather channel said this morning was) 50mph, so I actually had to get up and stake down the tent, which I haven't needed to do yet on this trip until this morning.

All that is to say, I slept very little last night, and motorcycle riding had been pretty stressful.

And then, to top all of this off: I was coming into Hot Springs, in a 40mph zone, two lanes each direction with a center left-turn lane. I was at the back of a line of cars, with a little bit of space between me and the car in front of me.

And a woman pulled out from a road on the right, directly in front of me.

I had seen her there. I could tell this was a busy road, and I therefore assumed she would be itching to hit any gap she saw, because there probably aren't many. I saw her wheels start to turn and got my hand and foot on the brakes. The wheels rolling isn't always a sign of someone not seeing me - often people just start rolling forward a little when they see I'm the last one, and then actually pull out behind me. (If you're someone who does this: don't. Seriously. Just wait the two seconds until I'm completely past you before you move, because the extra three inches is not going to help you and it will freak me the hell out.)

So I was ready, and as soon as I saw that she was actually pulling out, I hit the brakes as hard as I could without skidding. She apparently saw me at the last second, and hit her brakes - which meant she stopped with her front end right in my lane. I had almost enough room to stop, but not quite, so at the last second I swerved a little bit to go around the front of her car. That change in direction was enough to make me lose my balance, and the bike tipped over - though I mostly caught it, so it went down lightly.

(In case you didn't know, it's extremely difficult to brake and turn at the same time on the motorcycle.  Braking seems to make the bike tip back towards upright - I'm not sure why.  Does anyone know?  They just teach you in motorcycle class to never do it.)

I gotta be honest, my first reaction was anger. I was effing pissed. I wasn't hurt, but if my bike was damaged and wouldn't run... that's the end of the trip. I don't have the money to fix my bike AND finish the trip AND move to someplace new after I get back. After some serious lifting, I was actually able to get the bike back up on two wheels (I didn't know I could - it weighs about 600 lbs loaded down), right about the time that the guy in his car behind me came over to help me get it out of the road.

After I got it out of the road, I started checking it out while the lady pulled off the road and to the side. There's some scuffs on the battery cover, some scrapes on the windshield, and the mirror was a little out of place (but easily put back into place), and that was it. It started back up and immediately died, but the second time I tried it stayed running. That's probably due to the fuel lines emptying while it was down, which also explains the puddle in the middle of the road where I went down.

Once I saw everything seemed to be okay, I was a little less angry, so I was calm by the time she came over to talk to me. She was probably in her 70's (had some of these on), and immediately started in with "I just didn't see you." Yeah, I figured that out.

We went to trade information - she said she had a pen in the car, but then couldn't find it. So she gave me her cell phone number and I called it, and was then explaining to her where she could find her recent calls list on her phone when she finally remembered where she had a pencil, so I wrote down her name, number, and insurance info right about the time that a woman in a car labeled "accident investigation" showed up.

We explained the accident (the woman still making excuses - "his bike is just so dark." What? It's white) and then a cop on a motorcycle showed up. He and I took another look at my bike, and he confirmed that it looked like everything was okay, so I decided not to have them write her a citation.  The officer gave her an extremely stern warning - in no small part because he knows exactly how dangerous it is on a motorcycle.

As a small tangent, the road into town (270 going east into Hot Springs) was a really good motorcycle road.  Nice sweeping curves that you don't have to slow down for but are still fun, two lane road that occasionally widens to give a third lane for passing, etc.  There were also a couple of biker bars - places called "Saddlebags" or "Hawg's."  And every one of them had a sign that said "Look twice, save a life" with a picture of a motorcycle.  I probably saw 5 of those signs on that road.  And guess what the cop said to the woman?  "Look twice next time."  The number of signs makes me wonder if this has been a problem for them.

So. Here I am, about to head to Little Rock, which my mom just informed me is 4th most dangerous city for driving. Awesome. I think tonight I'm going to stay off the bike once I arrive at my host's house.

1 comment:

  1. For the bike tipping upright while braking... I think it's because at speed, a bike turns by countersteering (ie the front wheel actually points in the opposite direction of the turn.) At low speeds though, the bike steers like a car, turning the front wheel in the direction of the turn. By braking, you're going from one turning regime to the other, so the bike fights the original turn and tries to swing over to turn the other way.

    Enough nerdiness though, Good job avoiding catastrophe. Keep the shiny side up!