August 2009: I nearly got us killed on the motorcycle in Hungary.
It was one of those humbling Oh My God did I really do that moments that never really leave you, but instead are called up by memory usually in the dead of night when you’re trying to get back to sleep. There are hard lessons learned in such moments, but they’ll haunt you.
It happens while we’re riding to Miskolc, a good-sized town about 112 miles from Budapest. We’re traveling from Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, where we visit Linda’s relatives, really nice people we haven’t seen since our first encounter in 2006.
We leave Kunova Teplica around 5 or 6 p.m. The sun is fading, but it’s only 50 miles to the hotel so I’m not really worried, even running in the dark. We’ve taken the bike from Vienna to Piestany to Zvolen to here, about 270 miles, and everything has gone smoothly. Even on the two-lane Slovak roads, which gave me the most foreboding, present no difficulty. I’ve been careful to move to the right when cars want through and drivers pass us with care.
Two-lane roads weave through the countryside that Slovakia and Hungary share. It reminds me of southwestern Pennsylvania. The towns are small and dimly lit and rear up in front of us as we approach and fade away in my mirrors as we sweep through.
It’s dark by the time we cross the border, marked by a ghostly abandoned station that I would stop to examine if it weren’t so late. It’s easy to imagine barriers and soldiers with rifles, the whole Checkpoint Charlie thing.
But that was in the past. Tonight we speed through unhindered.
We reach Miskolc a short time later and Linda guides me from the passenger seat as we move through town.
We’re making good time and I have only to cross one intersection and make two left turns before we’re at our hotel — the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel és Étterem. The intersection is just ahead, a four-lane city street with a flashing yellow light so naturally I slow a bit to look for crossing traffic…
…and two cars from nowhere rocket through the intersection in front of us. I jump on both brakes, front and rear, and the BMW noses down and Linda slams into my back as we skid to a halt. I’m standing over the saddle with both boots on the ground and twin deathgrips on the clutch and brake levers. Below me, the bike is idling quietly at a thousand rpm but the adrenalin is surging. “Jesus Christ! What was that?” I yell inside my helmet and a few more cars race by.
“I don’t know!” Linda yells and I look at the lights and realize there are flashing yellow lights for the entire intersection. What is this, a malfunction?
Then I see the triangular YIELD sign, big as a billboard, on the street post. Instead of a flashing red to make you stop, the Hungarians use a flashing yellow and a yield sign.
I didn’t see it.
I didn’t see it, and by not seeing it I came within seconds of sailing us into oblivion in the intersection, where we would have been broadsided by Hungarian Speed Racers in black BMW sedans. It would have been my fault. I could have killed us both. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, months later, where the memory of those cars still makes me wince.
I thought I was doing pretty well on these European roads, but if I missed that, what else am I capable of missing and with what consequences?
We arrive safely at the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel a few minutes later and the night clerk is very kind and opens a gray gate and has me bring the bike inside. The building is old and Old-World elegant. Our room is on the fifth floor and is warm and stuffy so we leave the window open and I’m tired but can’t sleep and lie awake for hours, listening to the traffic rushing through the Hungarian night.