“The writer writes his book to try to explain to himself what’s beyond his comprehension.”
— Gabriel García Márquez
This is a story about a dumbass. It is all true, to the best of his recollection. So true, in fact, that the characters are all real people, names unchanged. Why not? There is only one dumbass in this story and that’s the guy who’s writing it.
In The Beginning
We didn’t really need a fire. It was July 4, 1986. A fire just seemed like a good idea. We were out in western Holmes County, Ohio at Pat and Pete Morgantis’ home in the boonies. Only the men-folk opted for the fire, the wives preferring the cooler indoors. So it was Pete, myself, and Pete’s brother-in-law Mark sitting around the fire, sipping the suds and discussing the issues of the day. Then Pete changed the subject.
“I was reading an article the other day about some guys who agreed to meet each other at a certain place, at a certain time, exactly ten years later. And, they agreed to arrive by different means, unknown to the others. They would simply arrive at the right spot at the right time. There would be no further discussion among them. That’s what I think WE should do.”
Mark and I exchanged knowing glances.
“OK. Where should we meet?”
We discussed various places, Los Angeles, Vegas, even Alaska. No consensus. Then it became clear that Pete had a destination in mind all along.
“How about this? I propose that we meet in front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West at high noon.”
Hmmm. He was on to something. All three of us were frequent visitors to Put-in-Bay, a small city of bars out in Lake Erie. At the Bay, Sloppy Joe’s was legendary both as Hemmingway’s hangout and the place where many of the musicians who played the Bay went in the winter. The idea received instant approval. Except that, wouldn’t it be hotter than hell on July 4?
We agreed that it would. So, we decided to add six months. Except, isn’t that the most beautiful time to be in Ohio, with the fall leaves and all? True. So, OK six month plus one. There was not much to miss in Ohio in November. We were agreed.
So, how would we get there? We couldn’t all three find ourselves on the same plane, or whatever.
“I’m flyin’” said Pete. That left Mark and me few options except driving, or maybe a bus or a train. Then I had an epiphany. Years before I had, over a series of trips, traveled almost all of the US by motorcycle, easily the greatest adventures of my life to date. Although I no longer had a bike, it seemed no challenge at all to come up with something in ten years
“I’m going by bike.” Mark and Pete looked at each other.
“OK. Whatever” I had been so focused on how I might come up with a bike that I set aside the detail of what a November ride might be like. At least the Ohio part. I remained committed. Mark did not declare any means of travel that day.
“OK,” Pete went on. “The only way this is ever going to work is if we get the ladies to buy in. And, the only way that will happen is if, every time we get together, we bring the subject up: November 4th, high noon, Sloppy Joe’s, Key West. Over and over and over.”
We saw the wisdom in his plan. We shook hands, then ran indoors to tell the wives. They barely looked up from their wine glasses.
People, for the next ten years, I mean ten long years, at every possible opportunity, we stayed on message. And, with each passing year, we were taken slightly more seriously so that as 1996 drew closer, some hard questions started to be asked. By this time I had taken a new job as the superintendent (the title given to the person who runs things) of the Coshocton County program serving infants, children and adults with developmental disabilities. This had necessitated a move from western Holmes County to a home just over the line in neighboring Coshocton County. Although we were farther removed from our friends we were still able to keep in touch. Just not as often. And we were still able to reaffirm our plans.
While I began the year steadfast in my determination to make this a motorcycle trip, one nagging problem could not be overlooked: I did not own a working motorcycle. And, with our daughter Emily beginning her freshman year at Miami University in the fall, this did not appear to be the year to be busting the very tight budget for an item that would be welcomed only by me, and mightily scorned by all others in the family. My wife, Dianne, had finally come to accept the inevitability of the trip, but the motorcycle part was quite another matter. It appeared I would flying the big bird after all. Then a miracle happened.
One spring day I happened to tell this entire story to Dennis Eggerton, a co-worker and a friend. He said, “You need a bike? I’ve got several. You can use one of mine!”
Wow! Now things were getting REAL! I promised I would pay for a tune-up and replace any worn items when I got back. He wasn’t even much interested in that part.
As summer turned to fall, final plans fell into place. Pete made hotel reservations at La Concha for the three of us. We were each fine tuning our plans. That’s when the boys broke the news that they were both flying AND they were both flying together, acts far removed from the spirit of the original plan. I had no problem reminding them that at least one of us would be true to our agreement. They were unmoved.
About a week before departure we met one last time to talk over final details, and, most importantly, to synchronize our watches. Remember, this was before cell phones and also before the internet was of much use. We shook hands and said see ya in Key West.
By way of preparation, I first had to make arrangements at the program to make sure everything was taken care of before I left. I put in for a week of vacation, figuring three days to get down there, three days there and three days to get back with an extra for weather. Four of those days would be weekend days. Dennis was the man in charge in my absence.
My plan for departure was to leave of November 1st which should give me plenty of time. It is roughly 1,450 miles from our home to Key West one way. To keep down costs I took our used camping gear so I could just put up a tent along the way. And, while in this day and age a person would spend hours and multiple dollars at an outfitting store choosing all the right gear, I went to Wal-Mart in Millersburg bought a vinyl plastic rain suit and a sports bag (not waterproof) for a suitcase. The plastic garbage bag with which I covered the sports bag and sleeping bag made them waterproof.
I took grateful possession of the bike about a week before the departure date. It was a 500cc Yamaha Virago. I was a little concerned that a 500 would be under-powered for a trip like this, but it was not. Even carrying my gear and myself it zipped around traffic with the greatest of ease.
It had been quite a few years since I’d even been on a bike, so the trip to our house set no land speed records. I appreciated the electric start, as my Triumph was a kick start. Not really a problem, but electric is much easier. The one issue I spotted early on, however, was that this bike did not have a sissy bar, so there would be nothing to fasten my sports bag, or my sleeping bag onto. I went to a metal shop and asked them to bend a piece of rebar in a shape that would work. I painted it and then fastened it onto the bike frame with hose clamps. It worked like a charm.
One item of preparation not so easily accomplished was tranquility at the old homestead. For Dianne, the bike part of things was still a “no sale”. Considering that she had ridden with me to South Dakota and Wyoming on two separate occasions, one of which was on our first anniversary, I had hoped she might project her fond memories of those adventures onto this one. That did not happen. The atmosphere, in those final days of preparation, was tense.
Departure day dawned bright and clear. It also dawned cold and crisp, somewhere in the mid-forties. I had my winter coat, a sweatshirt, jeans and my white sports shoes and black leather gloves. I was good to go. I wanted to get an early start, so our daughter Jen had not left for school. She gave me a goodbye hug and said “Don’t crash and die.” I assured her I would try not to. Dianne gave me a hug and goodbye kiss and said to call her when I got there and don’t ride in the dark. I said I would call right away, but did not discuss riding in the dark, which was inevitable. Off I went.
At that time we lived on Ohio State Route 83 between Millersburg and Coshocton. My plan was to ride 83 down to US 36, east to I-77, then I-77 to Columbia, South Carolina for the night. It was a somewhat chilly ride down 83. At the point where US 36 meets I-77 there was a McDonalds, so I thought I might as well stop in and get a cup of coffee before continuing on my way. As I was sipping the java I happened to notice a copy of USA Today was sitting on one of the trash receptacles so I got up and brought it back to my table. Before long I was at the back page where the weather report is. When I looked it over I did not like what I saw. Which was, that I might soon be running into snow AND there was an ice warning for the mountains south of Charleston, West Virginia. I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky and wondered how this could possibly be.
Now at this point you might be thinking, well ya dumbass, didn’t you look at a weather report before you planned this debacle? As a matter of fact, no. I didn’t. The reason for that is, remember, this was 1996. I’m not even sure we had the internet back then and if we did, we did not have all the fancy weather sites we enjoy today. We probably had The Weather Channel on the satellite dish, but rarely watched it since it didn’t have local weather on it. The two principal reasons I got that rude surprise at McDonalds were; 1) I had a rain suit and garbage bags to cover my gear so I considered myself ready for the rains that would surely come, and, most importantly, 2) In my mind South=Warm and the Souther you go, the warmer it gets. Good theory, soon to be debunked.
The first flakes of snow didn’t start falling till I was past Cambridge. It began as a squall and I pulled off to a rest area to wait it out. I was chilly, but even though the temps were in the thirties I was OK to ride. The squall soon diminished to flurries and I set out again. The only thing the flakes had accomplished was to make the road wet. My white shoes were soon soaked and my piggies were getting cold. I decided that when I hit Marietta I would pull off and buy some boots. Which I did. I found some cheap rubber high-top boots that I wore under my jeans so they wouldn’t fill up with water. That appeared to solve the problem.
The prospect of ice in the mountains past Charleston now seemed a very real concern, but by the time I got there they had salted the highway so it was only wet, although it was also kind of foggy. Once I came down on the other side the weather cleared and the air warmed up into the forties. I now felt like I could get to Columbia, as planned. It was around six or so that I stopped somewhere near Charlotte, found a pay phone, and called home. A relieved Dianne was pleased to hear I had made it that far. I said I still wanted to get to Columbia, which wasn’t that far away, and call it a night. We did not discuss night riding, per se.
An hour and a half later I was on the Columbia, SC outer belt. Although I originally planned to camp, after such a long day, I decided a cheap hotel was a better option. I had seen a billboard sign for a Red Roof Inn, but could not remember the exit. I rode the outer belt half way around Columbia and was faced with the prospect of either taking the last exit or going farther south. I was in no mood to extend the day beyond Columbia. As I approached the last exit I saw a neon sign: Econo Inn. Actually it was the Economy Inn, but the last two letters of the sign had burned out. Perfect! I was soon greeted by a couple of Indian gentlemen who took my $35 and handed me the key.
This was a single story old southern motel, clean, but showing some age. I locked the bike, pulled off my gear and headed into my room. It was basic, but it served my needs quite well. I settled in, went out to call home and find a restaurant, came back and crashed. A good day.
The next morning, I awoke to the tintinnabulation of pouring rain. A quick look out the window confirmed what I hoped was just a bad dream. I told myself that after a nice hot shower and a change into dry clothes it would all go away.
The shower did indeed melt away some the aches and pains from my previously sedentary carcass. As I was scrub-a-dubbing, however, I happened to glance up at the ceiling of the shower stall. There, glancing back at me, was my first ever palmetto bug, the Southern cockroach. He was black and shiny, about the size of a small dog. To the extent that such a thing is possible, he looked amused. I was not.
I departed the shower leaving only a vapor trail. I ran so fast I didn’t even need a towel to dry off. Soon I was pulling on dry clothes, then my rain suit, then my boots. I covered my luggage with my garbage bag, strapped them to the bike, and was gone.
I have many memories of this trip, of course, and one that often stands out is the sensation of riding up the I-77 on-ramp in that steady rain and, with the gathering speed, how the sounds shift deeper and how intense the pounding rain becomes. Acceleration, people. There is no substitute.
Just out of Columbia I-77 joins I-26. About an hour and a half later this road joins I-95 which would take me the length of Florida. The ride from Columbia to Savannah was like driving through a car wash. The rain never let up and often intensified. I will say this, though, the bike held its own. No slips through the curves, no loss of control during sudden stops. And, even at freeway speeds there was always at least one more handful of power, if needed. Great bike! Thanks, Dennis!
The nice thing about face shields on helmets it they are curved to such a degree that rain runs off and you don’t have to install a wiper. Ha ha. Unfortunately, the rain that runs off, will often find its way down your back, especially when your rain suit is tailored by Wal-Mart. Additionally, by the end of those three hours the wind-whipped plastic of said rain suit will start to shred into microscopic pieces. By the end of the day, there will be little of the lower half of that suit that will be familiar to the original consumer. And that is what much of the next three hours was like.
Somewhere south of Savannah, though, I found that I had outrun the storm. But, a quick glance into the rear view mirrors revealed those same glowering black clouds right behind me. That storm chased me all the way into Florida, through Jacksonville and St. Augustine. I had only time to stop for gas and a brief lunch before the sprinkles would start up again. At Ormond Beach I called it quits for the day.
Once again, I had planned to camp nearby, but the threatening rain and the compelling need to dry out, convinced me otherwise. I called home and explained the situation. I was encouraged to seek shelter. So, just inside the city limits before you hit the high rises I found a little hotel run by a Japanese family that must have had the word “Cheap”, “Budget” or “Economy” in the name. I settled in and changed to dry clothes. I walked up the street and found a very nice German restaurant. I ordered a schnitzel and a couple St. Pauli’s. This was the first time since leaving home that this trip felt anything like a vacation.
I awoke to a bright Florida sun. At last! Imagine my disappointment, then, when I stepped outside to discover that it was only about 40 degrees. Wait a minute! This is Florida isn’t it? So, back on with the Winter coat and off I went.
It’s a four hour run from Ormond Beach to Miami. On my way down I was treated to the stylings of Florida drivers, who, in my experience, rank second only to Michigan drivers for achievements in reckless operation. And, regardless of numerous postings to the contrary, the standard speed is 85 mph. Thankfully, my little Yamaha was more than capable of producing. Years of biking has taught me one thing: you don’t want to be the slow guy in the fast lane and down there all the lanes are fast.
As I came closer to Miami I began to realize that finally the air was getting warmer. In time I was able to stop and take off the winter coat. By early afternoon I was on US 1 which takes the form of a causeway leading to the Keys.
This time I was determined to find a camping place. It did not take long. On the far edge of Key Largo I saw a sign for RV and tent camping. I pulled in and looked around. The place was only about half full and there were many tent sites available, some right near the lapping waves of the Gulf. I chose one of these. I found a small building that passed for an office. There was on one there, but there were cards to fill out and hang at the camp site. I completed the card, hung the sign, set up my little tent and rolled out the sleeping bag. By the time I completed this operation I had already suffered about a dozen mosquito bites with the promise of many more to come.
Just before I had turned into the campground I notice a small general store. I had had more than enough biking by that time so I decided to walk up there. I soon was in possession of a large bottle of mosquito repellent which I applied liberally to myself, my tent and everything inside. It did the trick. I was settled in. It would be another three hours to Key West which gave me plenty of time to get there by noon. Now I had some time on my hands.
I had also noticed , as I rode into town, that not far from the general store there was a nice looking little bar called the Caribbean Club. It promised a relaxing afternoon so, again choosing to walk, I headed up that way.
When you saunter into the place the first thing you see is wood paneled walls hung with large stuffed fish and various pictures of huge fish. In front of you is the wood-paneled bar and to the right a pool table and a wall with a fireplace above which is the biggest stuffed fish in the place, a marlin. I sat at a corner of the bar near the fireplace and ordered a brew. This was a Sunday and the Dolphins game was on the TV. They were losing.
Above the fireplace were several framed newspaper articles and, being in no rush, I looked them over. I was surprised to learn that this very bar had been the inspiration for the movie “Key Largo” and several external scenes were shot here. At that time there was also a hotel here and a larger bar. They all burned down in 1955 and this wall was apparently the only thing remaining of the original. Bogart and Bacall actually stayed here for some “mood shots”.
It didn’t take long to get the idea that the Caribbean Club had a mostly local following. Everybody seemed to know everybody. A little while after I settled in a couple local boys, who had possibly been hitting the sauce before they got here, decided to take up a game of pool. They racked up the balls and one of guys said, “All right. Your ass is grass and I’m the lawn mower!” He shot the break and none too well. It was clear that neither of them had brought their “A” game. The breaker often repeated his famous phrase, now adding numerous adjectives in front of “lawn mower” borrowed directly from his unabridged dictionary of profanity. Of course the other guy responded in kind. The whole thing was very entertaining. Eventually they noticed that I was laughing at them, so they invited me to play. I could hardly turn them down. So, for an hour or so we hit some balls and had quite a few laughs. Sadly, I apparently left my “A” game back on the bike, as well. Even so, it was still a very fine time.
But now I was ready to get out of there, get some dinner and get settled in. When I got back to the tent I shot everything with another dose of mosquito repellent and zipped myself in. It took no time at all to get to sleep.
I was up not long after dawn. I located the shower room and put it to work, then went back to the office to settle up. No one was there and there was no place to put a payment nor any envelopes even if there were. I asked several campers walking by and they told me the owners show up from time to time. I said I couldn’t wait and they said it looks like you just got free camping. Which I did.
Soon I was packed up and heading down US 1. At last I could wear shorts and a T-shirt. I had plenty of time, so I stopped along the way to take pictures. This place was like nothing I had ever seen. The water was all shades of blue and green and palm trees of all kinds were waving in the breeze. It was absolutely beautiful!
US 1 is a four-lane divided highway but the speed limit through most of the Keys is 45 mph. Before long I found myself in the small village of Tavernier. Being a huge Buffet fan I was immediately reminded of his lyrics from Meet Me in Memphis: “He was holed up down at Ramrod Key at the Tavernier Hotel..”. Sure enough, off to my left stood the Tavernier Hotel. It was showing its age, but was still open for business. I stopped in for breakfast. It was a very pleasant place, with big bamboo ceiling fans. It was not, however, on Ramrod Key, which is many miles distant. Clearly Jimmy was playing fast and loose with the local geography.
After breakfast I continued on my way, stopping to take pictures from time to time. This was before the age of digital photography. I had a Pentax ME Super, a pretty good camera for its day. I had loaded a roll of 36 pictures to make sure I didn’t miss an opportunity. And there were plenty, with the beautiful water, the pelicans, the palm trees, and, best of all, the Seven Mile Bridge. You pick up the bridge just past Marathon. It is an absolute thing of beauty as it winds across the water and onto Bahia Honda Key. I got lots of sure-to-be award-winning shots.
I arrived in Key West at about 10:30. Here US 1 winds its way through a complex of high rise hotels and marinas and then into the city proper, then into Old Town. I knew generally where Sloppy Joe’s was, but I had to find out for sure with about an hour to spare. The principle street in Old Town is Duval Street. It is not hard to find. I decided since I was early I would risk being seen and take a run up the street. I only had to go a few blocks till I saw Sloppy’s up ahead. I took a hard right on Eaton, rode up a few blocks and parked the bike.
I was constantly on the lookout, but there was nobody around. Sloppy Joe’s is at the corner of Duval and Greene Streets. I walked up to Greene and found something like an old lumber yard or shipping area. There were pallets stacked around. I decided to make that my hideout. I guessed it would take about a minute to walk from here to Sloppy Joe’s. I waited and waited. Finally, at 11:59, I started down the sidewalk. Sure enough way up ahead I saw Mark and Pete standing at the corner looking around. I was down to thirty seconds. Mark saw me first. They both just stood and stared as I held up my watch. At exactly 12:00 noon, on November 4, 1996 we shook hands in front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Key West.
Well, in no time at all we were sitting at the bar in Sloppy’s with a bucket of Polar Beers talking over our adventures. The boys, it seems, flew into Orlando, visited Cape Canaveral then headed south. On the way back they would stop at the Everglades, then the Dali Museum at St. Pete’s. Just a couple of regular tourists. I, of course, needled them at every opportunity about their divergence from the original mission. A good time was had by all.
Eventually, we decided to get me checked in at La Concha, so I went to get the bike and said I would meet them in the parking lot. La Concha is not hard to find since it’s the only high rise in the Old Town. As I rode up to Duval, Pete snapped this picture:
I saw him about to take it so I returned an appropriate salute.
La Concha is a swanky joint, so I was both surprised and pleased that they let me park the bike under cover near their entrance. At the time I parked it I had logged 1,455 miles.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening exploring, enjoying sea food, and doing the usual tourist stuff. Rather that toast the sunset at Mallory Square, though, we went up to the top deck of La Concha and toasted it from there. We had planned to go out for the evening, but I made the mistake of stretching out on my bunk and was soon sound asleep, the first of many clues to come that, at age 48, I was not a kid any more.
The next day we enjoyed breakfast by the sea at the Southernmost Beach Café’, then we headed for the Southernmost Point. Some British guy was there offering to take videos and pictures. He took this one:
Pete is on the right
After this photo op we headed up Whitehead St. I had long been a fan of Ernest Hemmingway and his home was open for tours. Mark and Pete declined, but this is something I really wanted to see so I went ahead without them. It did not disappoint.
However, I had taken my camera with me on the tour and, as I was taking pictures, it began to dawn on me that even with a 36 frame roll I ought to be hitting the end. The more pictures I took, the more nervous I became. Finally, I decided to wind up the roll and put in a new one. As I turned the little crank, though, there was no resistance. I anxiously opened the camera and discovered that the film had slipped out of the little slots that hold it in place while it turns on the spool. It had never advanced. Not a single picture I had taken in the Keys had been saved. For the rest of our stay I did my best to make up for the lost pictures and promised to stop on my way back through the Keys to shoot again.
After the Hemmingway Tour the day was spent enjoying seafood and visiting some of the numerous watering holes to be found there. We were sitting in the Green Parrot when all of a sudden we see a long parade of hydrofoil power boats on trailers, pulled my muscle trucks rumbling by. Turns out that this week there was a huge power boat race.
But even more important, this day, November 5, was election day with Bill Clinton opposing Bob Dole. Pete and I were both Clinton supporters. Mark, a staunch Republican, favored Dole. We were back in our room by the time the early returns came rolling in. There was the usual bantering back and forth, but, unlike in current times, it was good-natured and often humorous. Once again, however, I found that I could not keep my eyes open much past 10, but by then the matter had pretty much been decided.
On our last day in Key West Pete had some things he wanted to do, so Mark and I headed off to the beach to check out the power boat races. It was quite a spectacle with helicopters flying over the boats which were throwing out big rooster tails as they flew by. We had wanted to go snorkeling, but with the races, none of the boats were going out. Instead we did some shopping and the usual bar hopping. Pete caught up with us eventually and day soon turned to night.
This time I managed to stay awake past ten. Mark and I went back up to Sloppy’s. They had a rockin’ band and, with the racers in town, the joint was jumpin’. We did not make it back to the room till after the witching hour. This time it was Pete who was already asleep.
It was time to head back. I was up early, cleaned up and packed before the boys had hardly opened their eyes. I said my goodbyes, gave them the final handshake, and headed out.
Here was the mission within the mission: Our eldest daughter, Emily, had just begun her freshman year at Miami University in Oxford, OH. This upcoming Saturday was the football game with Miami’s hated rival, Ohio U. I told her I would take her to the game on my way back home. Kickoff 1:00.
Here was the problem: The previous night, upon viewing the Weather Channel, my attention was drawn to a cold front that stretched from Hudson Bay, all across the country, and down through the Gulf. There was no way to avoid it.
I wound my way out of town on US 1 and before long I saw the Seven Mile Bridge in the distance, a perfect opportunity to re-take some of the pictures I had lost. I found a little turn-off that provided a very nice view of the bridge and took some brilliant shots, no doubt Pulitzer contenders.
I packed the camera away, hopped back on the bike and hit the starter button. Instead of the usual deep-throated rumble, however, what I heard instead was a high-pitched whine. I was baffled. There had not been a single problem with this bike till now. My first thought was that maybe I had just hit a flat spot in the gears. I pulled in the clutch, moved the bike a few feet with my legs and let the clutch out again.
Then I slipped it into neutral and hit the starter again. Same sad sound. I racked my brain trying to think of a solution. None came. I repeated the above a few more times. Then, an epiphany. Maybe I could push-start it! I had had plenty of experience push starting my various broken-down vehicles over the years, but had never push-started a bike. As I thought the process through I concluded that the best gear ratio would be fourth gear since it would generate higher rpms. So, I turned on the key, shifted into fourth, pulled in the clutch and pushed as hard as I could. When I finally attained Mach speed I let go of the clutch lever. Gravel flew everywhere. The bike did not start. This was not good. Once again I considered my options. They were few.
It was clear I could not solve this problem by myself. I went up to the highway where cars were whizzing past far faster than the posted 45. After what seemed like hours I spotted a police car. As he drew closer I waved him down. He pulled into the turnoff.
I explained the problem and told him I needed towed. He didn’t look all that interested, but he got on the radio and asked the dispatcher to find a tow service. He told me they should be here in an hour or so and drove off. I hardly had a chance to thank him.
About 20 minutes later the tow truck showed up. And right behind him came Pete and Mark, who happened to be passing by on their way home. They were sympathetic, but we all agreed there was little they could do. They took this picture and wished me a bon voyage:
The tow truck driver made quick work of securing the bike, then he asked me where I wanted to go. He said there is a bike shop that works on Japanese bikes back in Key West, or, he said there was a Harley dealer in Marathon who works on all kinds of bikes. He further advised me that these are islands and people here work on island time. Which means that they may or may not be open. Of course, this is before cell phones so we couldn’t exactly call them.
I opted for Marathon since it was at least headed in the right direction. When we crossed over on the Seven Mile Bridge I got to thinking about my pack and whether it was well secured for a cross-wind. It was no problem picturing the whole thing flying right into the ocean. However, it did not.
He drove me to the dealer, who, thankfully, was open. I paid him and off he went. The guy who ran the place was a classic Harley rider with tattoos long before tattoos were popular. I gave him the lowdown and he promised to take a look soon. Which he did. Then he got on the phone. He called me over to give me the news that my starter was shot. He said he could get the parts in about a week.
Two bad answers. I asked if I could make a long distance call. He was fine with that, so I called Dennis. I gave him all the details and he said, “Just leave it. We’ll figure something out.” I told him I might have to, but would still try to come up with something and that’s how we left it.
When I hung up, the bike guy looked up and said. “You know; you could push start it.” I said I’d already tried that. He asked for the details. He listened and then he didn’t exactly say, “Well, ya dumbass!”, but it was implied in his tone. “You put in in FIRST gear, NOT the FOURTH!”
I said, “Show me.”
We went out to his nicely paved lot. I turned on the key, kicked her down into first, hopped on, pulled in the clutch started pushing like the bike was a football blocking dummy. When I felt the breezes blow through my curly hair, I let go of the lever. It started right up. Thank God! I thanked the guy profusely and off I went.
So, here’s the big problem with this bike. First, it is intended to be a street bike, not for touring. Which means it has a relatively small gas tank. The maximum range I could get out of a full tank was a little over a hundred miles. Now, I would have been perfectly willing to leave the bike running as I filled her up over the 1,400 miles I had yet to cover, except for one thing. To open the gas cap, you need the ignition key. You can’t pull the key out without shutting off the engine. There would be lots of pushing in my future.
So, here’s the big problem with Florida. There are very few hills.
Now the routine began. I would nervously watch the trip meter. When I was near a hundred miles I would scope the area for a gas station that was even slightly elevated. I would pull up to the pump then reluctantly shut off the engine. I would open the cap, fill her to the max, lock the cap and turn on the ignition. Then I would hop on squeeze the clutch lever and start pushing. When the speed seemed right I would pop the clutch and listen for the roar. Except sometimes the engine wouldn’t start. In which case, repeat. I will say, a man can get a little tired at the end of a day doing this.
Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “Hey dumbass! Why didn’t you get another key made?” Well, two reasons. First the Yamaha key is not a standard key. I did not consider it likely that, say, an Ace Hardware, if I could find one, would have a blank. Second, while Yamaha is a known brand, it is not nearly as common as Honda or Harley. Any available dealership would likely only be found in larger cities. Which would mean I would have to find a phone book that hadn’t been vandalized, then get directions, then find the place, then find my way back. Could be that in some cities this might be easy. I had no way to know. It also could be that the whole process could take many hours. And, I was still all about the mission: Get to Oxford by 1:00 Saturday. Push starting was a pain in the ass, but it worked. I pushed on.
Sometime around 8:00 in the evening both I and the first sprinkles from the cold front arrived at some cheap hotel in Valdosta, Georgia.
No surprise, it was raining when I woke up. I soon found out that it was also dramatically colder, probably mid-forties. I had discarded my previously shredded rain suit, so the first order of business was to find a Wal-Mart for a replacement.
The desk clerk was helpful with directions and the Wal-Mart was nearby. As I pulled into the parking lot I was tempted to leave the motor running, but quickly concluded that my problems would be much, much worse if somebody decided to hop on for a joy ride. Once again, reluctantly, I shut it off. The rain was more of a mist and a drizzle. I soon had my shiny new rain suit. I wore the top part under my coat since it wouldn’t fit over it, and the pants over my boots. I was ready to ride! I gave her the usual push, and off I went! Even better, I later was able to find a gas station on a hill, so all I had to do was coast down to start it. Things were looking up!
The next few hours were a series of stops for gas, pushes (or sometimes coasts), and rides. Somewhere south of Atlanta the rain stopped. I did not want to ride through downtown Atlanta so I took I-285 around. It may have added to my time, but at least I didn’t have to deal with drivers in that crazy town.
More stops, pushes and rides. Just before I got to the Tennessee line I stopped for dinner and called home, then called Emily. I told her I was still on target for the game, but might be running late if the weather didn’t improve. No problem.
By the time I finished my calls, it had started to rain again. And, the temperature was now in the thirties. Off I went. To make things more interesting, it was now getting dark. People, I can tell you it is a lonesome feeling slogging down the highway in these conditions. As the eighteen wheelers whiz on by, adding a nice spray to the mix, one thing you know for certain is, if you’re going to be out here you better keep to freeway speed because you just might not be the most visible thing on the highway.
North of Chattanooga there is a long steep grade. As I started down a small miracle happened. First, it quit raining. Then, I just happened to look up to notice that the clouds had parted and I could see stars. They were in the shape of a “W”, which, of course, I knew to be the constellation Cassiopeia. That little bit of astronomical insight would not make it into this story except to say that I had often seen those very stars from my deck at home and I knew that right now, if I were there and the clouds were gone they would be shining there too. Sounds sappy, but given my current unnerving circumstances, that constellation had a remarkably calming effect.
Said effect, however, was short-lived. It started to rain again, but it seemed cold enough to snow. Then the engine started running rough. It was OK if I maintained speed, but if I tried to go faster or slower it would start to cough. No doubt water was getting in somewhere. This made for some unpleasant riding.
I was now into Kentucky. I had hoped to make it to Lexington, where I would have a relatively short haul to Oxford, but I knew getting to Oxford by 1:00 pm was doable even from where I was. I took the next exit, Corbin. As I came off the exit I saw a sign for a cheap hotel, then I could actually see the hotel at the top of a very steep hill. When I stopped for the stop sign at the bottom of the exit ramp my engine died.
I pushed as hard as I could toward the road at the bottom of the hill that would take me to the hotel. I let out the clutch, but it would not start. I sat there in the rain for a time trying to figure out what to do. I could not start this bike without more speed and I wasn’t even sure it would start then. I clearly did not have the strength to push the bike up that hill, but it finally dawned on me that I might be able to make it up high enough to start the engine if I pushed the bike up the hill at a slight angle side to side, like a switchback. And so it started. I pushed all the way across the road and gained maybe three feet of elevation. I turned the handlebars and pushed it back across the road at a slight angle and gained maybe two feet. I repeated the process maybe ten times till I was up about twenty-five feet. I knew I would get plenty of speed at this height. So, I hopped on, somehow remembered to turn on the key, pulled in the clutch and started down.
It didn’t take long to pick up speed and I was going about 20 mph when I let out the clutch. Varooom! It started right up. I turned around at the bottom of the hill, keeping It revved up so it wouldn’t stall, and rode all the way to the top of the hill to the hotel office. I was afraid the clerk would look at my soaked and bedraggled remains and say, “Sorry, Buddy. Full up.” But he hardly looked up from the TV he was watching. He checked me in and handed me the key.
I could push the bike to my first floor room. I took the sports bag off and brought it inside. The garbage bags worked their usual miracle. The rain suit sprung its usual leaks. Adding to the problem, water was getting into my boots. My feet were freezing. I hung out my wet clothes to dry, as though they actually would. Then I changed into something not soaked and hit the hay.
Although it was overcast the rain had stopped. It was now much colder. In the 20’s. I didn’t care about the cold, but I was in no mood for precipitation of any kind.
The bike ran fine through the rest of Kentucky, but the sky was increasingly overcast. As I approached Cincinnati I ran into some kind of freezing fog. It didn’t attach itself to anything and the roads were not slick, but it was not a regular fog. It seemed to bounce of me and the bike. It didn’t last long, however. Soon it was replaced by snow.
I took I-275 west and picked up SR27 north toward Oxford. By the time I got to 27, though, it was snowing fairly hard; a squall. Fortunately, the road was only wet. Not long after the snow began, the engine started coughing again. I was in stop and go traffic moving slowly through the Cincinnati burbs. To keep from stalling I revved the engine at each stop, but now I had a new problem. The throttle was sticking. Which meant that when I revved the engine it stayed revved. I couldn’t slow it down. Thankfully, when I let out the clutch it didn’t pop a wheelie. Instead I worked the throttle and clutch together. Eventually, it would drop back down to normal Rpms.
After the first such event I did not repeat the mistake of revving up too high, but the throttle still was sticking. The only thing I could figure was that water had gotten inside the cables and was freezing in there. It took a lot of fancy clutch and throttle work to keep it under control, but eventually traffic started moving. Once I could maintain highway speed, it behaved much better. I continued to work the throttle and in time, whatever was causing the problem broke free. I was able to control the engine speed, but it was still running rough. In time, I saw a sign welcoming me to Oxford.
Emily was staying at Wilson Hall that year, which is, thankfully, on the east side of campus where 27 comes into town. I only had to rev my way through a couple of lights till I was heading into a parking space in front of Wilson. As I pulled in the engine promptly died.
It was still snowing off and on and there was a fair breeze. As usual the inside of my boots were wet as were some of my clothes. I was sure that I didn’t look too presentable at the time, so I pulled off my sports bag and headed into Wilson Hall. Thankfully there was a public restroom on the first floor. I was able to get out of my rain suit and get into some drier clothes. I also was able to put on my trusty, and dry, white shoes. I packed all my wet stuff and put it back on the bike. Then I went back in and called Emily.
Although the rivalry is intense between Miami and Ohio U, neither one of us, especially me, felt like sitting out in the snow to witness the contest. We decided instead to head uptown and have a nice lunch. Then I would be on my way. She drove us into town.
At that time there was a restaurant/bar called Attractions, which we both liked. It was great to hear how her year was going. She had made some friends and it was everything we all hoped it would be. I talked generally about my adventures on this trip, but left out a few details so as to avoid concern and, even worse, unsavory calls back home. After a very pleasant time, she drove me back to the dorm, where I put on my rain suit and boots, and we both headed out to the bike.
I asked her to take my picture, which she did. I said my goodbyes. Then I said, well there is one more thing you could do. Would you mind pushing the bike?
Having a little starter trouble.
I pulled the bike out of the parking space and got it headed in the right direction, not sure if it would start at all. Emily got behind as fast as she could. I popped the clutch. It started right up. I waved goodbye and headed for home. Here is the picture she took:
I headed out of Oxford on SR 73. It was snowing lightly. I knew there was a gas station down the road, so I stopped and filled up. I gave the bike its umpteenth push and it would not start. I looked across the road, though, and saw that there was a cemetery with a paved road on a slight incline. I pushed the bike across the road and up the incline. I rode back down, popped the clutch and she started right up. I continued on my way to I-75. Like its rider, the bike seemed to benefit from a little rest. By the time I got to the Interstate it was running fairly well.
I was now about three hours from home and I was single-minded of purpose. Namely, getting there. Although the snow was off and on, the roads were wet. To add to the enjoyment, each passing semi would spew spray all over the place. The net effect was that it didn’t take long to get wet again and a good amount of that water had found its way into my boots. My piggies were frozen and my hands didn’t feel much better. I decided that the surest way to relieve the misery and to continue would be to stop and a gas station and use a hand dryer to warm and partially dry my socks and gloves and also heat up my boots. I took the first station I came to, limped inside, and discovered that they were one of the few stations in the US that still used paper towels.
Even the warmth of the place, though, provided some benefit and gave me a chance to ring things out. After circulation was finally restored, I re-assembled myself, pushed the bike, which thankfully started, and headed down the road.
This is as good a time as any to step back for a moment and raise a few questions. For example, why in the hell didn’t you just get a hotel, either back in Oxford or anywhere else along the line? Or, why didn’t you at least stop and buy a better rain suit, or gloves, or boots or something? Or, perhaps a more global question like,” What the hell’s wrong with you?” comes to mind.
Believe me, I have asked myself these same questions and more, many times over in the last 20 years. The quote at the beginning of this story from Gabriel Garcia Marquez was not chosen at random. First, I can tell you that I believed all my various calamities were manageable. AND, I was only three hours from the goal line. AND, none of this was a totally new experience. I had been through it all before on my various bike trips out west. Of course, that was 25 years earlier and you might think I would have learned not to do this stuff again. Not so. AND, (I know for a fact this is not unique to me) it is possible to be entirely consumed by the simple act of completing the mission, even when there is more than one act and many of them are not simple. I continued on.
My reward was, to repeat exactly the same thing that happened above. My cold piggies became worrisome. I stopped at another gas station. They also had only paper towels. I got somewhat dryer and warmer. I took off again. I was now on I-70 headed into Columbus, somewhere around Springfield. Yet again the cold started getting to me and even though there were none of usual signs telling me about the fabulous services to be found, I took the next exit. Not only were there no fabulous services of any kind, my bike stalled at the bottom of the exit ramp. And, although it was a 4-lane divided highway, there was no one around. I pushed the bike up the exit ramp, rode down and it started again. Happily, all this work restored my circulation and I was able to continue on.
By the time I reached I-270 around Columbus it had started snowing again, on and off. I decided to pull off at the Westerville exit and call home. I found a gas station and, to my great relief and surprise, they had a hand dryer! I spent about a half hour in there and came out feeling much better. I got some snacks, found a pay phone, and called Dianne. While she was relieved to hear from me, she was not pleased to hear that I was going to try to make it the rest of the way, about another hour and a half. I asked if it was snowing at home. It was. About like here. I told her if it got any worse I would bag it. None of this conversation went particularly well.
I then went out and, for what I hoped would be the last time, filled the tank and gave her a push. It was now almost dark. Off we went.
In a very short time I was on SR 161, recently converted to four lanes. In a short time four lanes became two. It was right around there that my real problems began. My mask started to fog up. I was able to briefly clear it with my glove, but it came back. My glasses began to fog up as well. They were much harder to clear. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath the whole way home. Yes, I could have taken the mask off, but my glasses were the real problem. In the snow they would not stay clear
The only good news was that traffic was not moving at its usual rocket-like pace. I was able to navigate by following the blurry tail lights of the cars ahead. But I knew I couldn’t keep going like this. I had to find a way to improve visibility and I couldn’t do it while riding. I started looking to the side of the road for a lane or something to pull off onto. The ground was covered with snow, but grass, though also blurry, was still visible. I slowed down now and in my mirrors I could see a line of cars behind me. All the more reason to get out of here. Finally, I found a spot that almost certainly looked like the end of a drive. I slowly pulled onto it. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. I hit soft, wet grass and as soon as I did, the bike slid out from under me. We both went down. I heard the distinctive sound of something breaking. Turned out to be my left signal light.
I was not hurt, so I got up right away. I HATE it when this happens. I was pleased, if that is the word, to see that my headlight had not broken and was still shining brightly. The engine, as had become its custom, had stalled. I was sorting all this out, when all of a sudden I heard a voice from behind. I looked up to see a car had stopped and somebody was running toward me.
“Are you OK?” somebody yelled breathlessly.
I said, “Yeah, I just hit a soft spot. Could you help me lift the bike?”
“Sure!” We both found something to grab and soon the bike was vertical again.
I thanked him profusely.
He asked if I was sure I was OK.
I said, “Well, there is one thing. Do you suppose you could give me a push?”
“My starter’s broken and if you don’t push this thing I’ll be stuck out here all night.”
He did not sound pleased.
I worked the bike up the edge of the berm, cleared my mask and he gave me a running push. The bike started right up. I don’t know who that guy was, but if he should ever happen to read this, he can be assured he has my undying gratitude. And I would return the favor in a heartbeat if it turns out the he is also a dumbass.
Well, I was moving again, but I knew now that it was game over. Then I looked up and saw a bunch of flags flying in the snow. I now knew where I was. On my numerous professional trips to Columbus I would always pass a golf course that flew the flags of many nations. I was at that golf course. Even better, they had a lighted, paved entrance. I pulled off immediately and just sat there. I took off my helmet and re-discovered how much better things are when you can see stuff. What I saw, far up ahead, was what looked like an exit. What I saw in my mirrors were increasingly bright red and blue flashing lights. I was about to be visited by a member of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“You OK, Buddy?”
“Well, I’m having a little trouble seeing. My mask keeps fogging up”.
“You see those lights up there? That’s Granville. You follow me to that exit. There’s a gas station up there. You go there and make whatever arrangements you need to make to get you off this road. And then you stay off.”
“Thanks for your help!”
Soon I was following flashing lights to the Granville exit. Soon I was parked at a BP station where my engine promptly died.
I called Dianne and told her I couldn’t make it, which was a relief, at least as much as there could be relief given the circumstances. I knew Granville, of course, the home of Denison University, and had visited there several times over the years. Pretty town. The only hotel I knew in the area was the swanky Granville Inn. I found it unlikely that their Water Rat Suite was available. I called them anyway and it turned out no room was available. Actually, there was nothing in Granville for me at all. After talking things over with the mechanics at the station, I called a cab from Newark, about five miles away. I told the cabbie to take me to the cheapest hotel he could find. Believe me, he did.
I told the cabbie that, unless the cockroaches had eaten me, I wanted to see his ass back at this fleabag no later than 8. He was there promptly. It was Sunday and when he pulled into the BP station back in Granville, I quickly observed it was closed. I paid him off and the next thing I quickly observed was that the bike was covered with ice. This could not be good.
Thankfully the weather had cleared. I spent the next fifteen minutes or so chipping off enough ice that I could run the thing. This was the first opportunity I had to look at the damage done by my little spill. The left turn signal was broken off and hanging by a wire and a few pieces of busted plastic, and the lens was gone. The mirror was bent and there were some scratches. I could hear the cash register ringing.
Finally, I got enough ice off to be able to turn the throttle, run the brakes, and not slide off the seat. I pushed the bike toward the entrance which was elevated. Where I really wanted it was at the top of that elevation, which was up a grade to the right of the gas station. About the time I realized I couldn’t push it that high, a guy in a Jeep Wrangler pulled into one of the pumps, apparently not realizing the place was closed. He stepped out and looked around.
“I’m afraid it’s closed,”I told him.
“Awww”, he said. There was a pause in the conversation.
“Do you suppose you could help push this bike up to the top of the grade? My starter’s broken and I can’t get it started.”
“Sure,” he says and comes over to help.
We get it up there. I climb on, start rolling and pop the clutch. Nothing.
I get off and start pushing back up. He comes and joins me. This time it is quite a push, since we are at the bottom. I thank him profusely.
We get up the top. I hop on, pull in the clutch and start rolling. Good speed now. At the bottom I let go of the lever. Nothing.
I sit there for a while and the guy shakes his head. He says he doesn’t think it’s going to start. I said, “Let’s give it one more try.”
We push it again, both breathing VERY hard. Finally, we are at the top. I hop on, pull in the clutch, and start rolling. I pop the clutch. ONE cylinder fires. It is REALLY running rough. I wave to the guy with my clutch hand, but I can’t even slow down or I know she’s a goner. Now I’m out on SR 16 which crosses over the road I had come in on. I know I can’t even slow down to get onto that road or she’ll stall for sure. I continue past the on-ramp headed south on 16, praying the engine will warm up enough to fire the other cylinder. In what seems like an eternity, it finally does. I turn around and take the ramp onto the four-lane, headed home.
I don’t know who that guy was that helped me, but if he should ever happen to read this, he can be assured he has my undying gratitude. And I would return the favor in a heartbeat if it turns out the he is also a dumbass.
I was maybe five of six miles down the road, traveling in cold, clear weather when something didn’t feel right. I reached back behind me. My sports bag was gone! Since it was a four lane highway I couldn’t just turn around. I looked in my mirrors. Nothing on the road. I felt back there again. Still nothing. Then I looked down. The bag was hanging off the right side of the bike above the muffler. Somehow it had rolled off the seat, but was still fastened to the bike by its bungees. I could not reach back with my right hand to get it because that would mean letting go of the throttle. I kept checking it and it seemed to be riding OK. I decided to keep going.
Finally, I was now passing by Coshocton. This is a city that sits in a valley and our house was up in the hills, about twelve miles away. As I turned onto SR 83, the road that would take me home, the engine once again started missing badly. I couldn’t believe that, being this close, I would not complete the mission. I sat and worked that throttle for maybe ten minutes. It never did smooth out entirely, but I finally convinced myself that it had enough power to pull the hills.
People, it was a mighty jerky ride up that winding, twisty road, but at long last I was pulling into my own drive. The engine promptly died. I never heard it run again. Later we would trailer it to a mechanic for repairs and tune-up. Long before that, however, Dianne made me promise to never, ever, ever, ever, EVER do that again. It was not a hard pledge to make. At least, not then.
One thought on “KEY WEST, NOVEMBER, 1996”
Well captain, once again the chilling details contained within your story have pierced my sole. Having heard many of the minor details of this trip over the years since, I thought I had enjoyed the just of your fine adventure; I was wrong. Good grief man! What are you some kind of dumb ass or something? As always I found great pleasure in reading your story. What a story! What a dumbass! WELCOME TO THE CLUB