The Coldest Ride

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No matter how many rides a motorcyclist takes, a few always stay in memory, like the spiny cockleburs that stick to your jeans long after a walk through the forest.

The best rides are the reasons we set out again and again; the worst – including the I-can’t-believe-I-did-that ones – provide lessons and good stories for your mates.

My coldest ride was Nov. 18, 1995; I’d just moved to Reno, Nevada, the farthest from home I’d ever been. I’d gotten a new job at the paper there. I drove across the country in a 1991 Ford Ranger XL with a 5×8 foot U-Haul trailer containing lots of books, a little furniture, some clothes and, most important, my motorcycle, a 1994 Yamaha Virago XV750.

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She was the first bike I’d bought new. I got her from a dealership in Fremont, Ohio, and it was with her I started my tradition of naming my motorcycles after Antarctic exploration ships. I called her Discovery, from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 expedition, which was also the first of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of my heroes.

Nov. 18 fell on a Saturday and I was off work. I’d been in Reno for seven weeks and I’d already taken the Ranger down to San Diego to see my great motorcycle-riding uncle Robert and beloved cousin Shannon the month before. I had taken small rides to explore the area around Reno and Carson City and Lake Tahoe, but I was itching to do more.

I was dying to see San Francisco – the Golden Gate Bridge, City Lights Bookstore, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, everything. It’s about 220 miles from Reno to San Francisco and I kept thinking about doing an out-and-back ride, some 440 miles. It would be the longest ride I’d yet attempted in a single day.

I dawdle around the apartment early that sunny morning, thinking it over, then, in a burst of energy, I stuff a few things into Discovery’s saddlebags – tools, extra sweatshirt, rainsuit, heavy gloves – check the tires and engine oil, and take off.

The temperature is in the mid-70s and I’m wearing boots, Levis, a sweatshirt and a medium-heavy leather jacket. I have a pair of lined leather gloves and a white Bieffe helmet I’d bought from some independent motorcycle shop in Huron, Ohio.

donner summit elevation 7,239

The ride starts out great. I shoot north up 395 and turn west on I-80, intending to make time. Interstates are known more for function and less for scenic beauty, but 80 cuts a beautiful path through the Sierra Nevada. Once I get past Verdi, on the state line, I’m dazzled by the mountain pass and the ancient railroad tunnels. I pass the Donner Summit, the place where the Donner party was marooned by bad weather and reduced to cannibalism in 1846.

There’s a special feeling in riding a motorcycle over unknown roads. Everything is new and you’re much more in tune with the road, the scenery, the very air you’re flying through. Outward bound, the hours zip past and the highway signs count down the miles to San Fran.

Traffic gets heavy as I fly across the Bay Bridge, but I don’t care. I jump off at the first exit and follow the signs to Fisherman’s Wharf, moving slowly in the thick of traffic but seeing everything and the Golden Gate in the distance and loving it. I end up at last on Columbus Avenue and roll past City Lights and looked up and see the sign for Jack Kerouac Alley. And, like Sal Paradise riding through Colorado in On the Road, I keep thinking, “Damn! Damn! Damn! I’m making it!”

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Then I cross the Bay Bridge again and start home.

At first I don’t notice anything because there is still lots of daylight, even though I’m not making good time. The sun is noticeably lower when I reach Sacramento and lower still when I refuel in Auburn. That’s when the air starts getting chilly. I put on the extra sweatshirt and keep going. The sun is gone by the time I reach Colfax and the air gets seriously colder as I climb into the Sierra.

Night comes down hard in the high desert and like a fist in the mountains. It’s a peculiar, heavy dark, unpunctuated by streetlights except for occasional small towns on hillsides. The stars are bright in the clear air but the cold makes them seem even more distant. As the traffic thins away and the elevation gets higher, I start freezing.

It’s a perfect comedy of errors; I’m in the mountains, in the dark, so the air is colder. I’m underdressed and don’t have the proper gear. And Discovery, bless her V-Twin, has no fairing or windscreen to deflect the cold air I’m riding in, creating a wind-chill effect of 30 degrees, or so it feels. Whatever it is, I’m shivering like a madman.

I stop to refuel and warm up in Emigrant Gap, a small station in the middle of nowhere. I plunder the saddlebags for anything wearable but find only the rainsuit and the other gloves. “Man, you look cold,” says the attendant when I come in to pay and suit up.

pool

The rainsuit is a yellow plastic two-piece affair that smells like the liner of the cheap backyard swimming pool you had as a kid. I pull up every zipper and close every snap, hoping it will keep the cold hands of the wind off me. I make sure all the helmet vents were shut, pull on the heavy lined suede gloves, fire up the bike, and take off.

I soon find the rainsuit doesn’t help. It cuts the wind a little but the chill slips under the sleeves and around my neck. The suede gloves seem worse than the leather ones – I can almost feel the frigid air streaming through them, making my hands feel as if I’ve plunged them into buckets of ice. They’re so cold they feel like they’re burning.

It goes on that way for the next 50 miles, an endless, piercing cold that makes me feel as if I’m riding on the bottom of an ice-choked river. I have to force my hands to work the clutch and brake levers. I keep telling myself that it will get better once I get out of the mountains.

After an endless time, I sweep past Verdi and descend from the Sierra Nevada, where the bright lights of Reno blaze across the valley floor. I am so glad – so relieved – to see them. The air warms slightly and I make it back to the apartment, where I put the cover on the bike and stumble off to bed.

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Things are much changed since then; Discovery is long gone, given to my dear cousin Shannon in Missouri in 2000, when I moved back East. She is still there. Endurance and Terra Nova, my current bikes, have frame-mounted fairings and windscreens that protect against the chill. Both bikes have large plastic shields over electrically heated handgrips.

I wear insulated textile suits and layer up beneath them – SmartWool shirts and polypropylene, and an electric Gerbing underjacket that draws its heat from the motorcycle’s power system. That Gerbing saved my life on my first Iron Butt ride, 1,000 miles in 24 hours, that I did in October 2005.

I have a variety of cold-weather hoods that fit easily under the helmet and keep my head warm. I have serious winter gloves galore. And I make sure that Linda, my wife and favorite riding partner, has them, too.

I still have both pairs of those old gloves, in a box in the attic. I don’t use them any more but I can’t bear to get rid of them. I run across them every now and again and I think of that night, the distant stars, the lonely gas station and that cold, cold ride.

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