for my wife and me.
When my wife and I bought our first motorcycle, it was a 250 Nighthawk. I hadn’t ridden in decades and we decided to start out with a smaller bike that would, hopefully, be easier to ride. I rode it as much as possible, including to and from work. After a few weeks, we felt confident enough for my wife to start riding behind me. We buzzed around the block for a few days, then started riding it a little farther, going to some of the back roads just outside of town.
Eventually one Sunday, we decided to try our luck at a longer trip. One of the things we hoped to be able to do was go camping on it. We thought a small tent, sleeping bags, and a little cold food would fit into a couple of backpacks that we’d wear. The campground we’d most often use was just 90 miles north, and a couple of hours away. Finding ourselves with nothing to do one Sunday, we decided to just take a test run up there and back.
The local weather called for a 40 percent chance of rain. I felt pretty good about those odds. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the forecast for the campground. That would be the major lesson on this trip.
The trip up was fairly uneventful. I was worried about the strain we were putting on the little bike. We’ve both lost a lot of weight since then, but in those days our combined tonnage would have run right about 420 pounds. Getting out on the highway I found that I would run between 60 and 65 mph with the throttle wide open. The going was slower on upward grades, sometimes dropping to as slow as 45 mph.
The route we took was beautiful with small, but well kept, roads snaking through scenic hills. The weather was cool for late summer, with scattered clouds. As we crossed the last major east-west road on our way north, we were just 4 miles from the camp store as the first big droplets began to spatter against my face plate.
I asked Sharon what she wanted to do.
“We’re too close now to turn back,” she said. So we plowed onward.
The rain got worse with every mile. By the time we pulled into the store parking lot, it was an all out deluge. I pulled the bike under an awning covering a walkway, and we went into the store to dry out. We bought some snacks and soft drinks. By the time we finished our impromptu lunch, the rain began to slack off. A short time later the precipitation stopped, giving way to overcast skies.
While the sky wasn’t blue, I couldn’t see any storm clouds. I figured the worst had come and gone, and we’d be fine on the trip back home. Though we were still wet, I was sure the wind blowing over us would dry us out by the time we got back to the main highway. But barely a mile down the road, it began to rain again. Every mile south took us into a harder and harder downpour.
The rain wasn’t cold, so the only discomfort was from being wet. Not really all that bad. Somebody had told me that if you ride motorcycles, you were going to get wet eventually. So this was our day. We both laughed about it, imagining what our kids would say when we told them the story. Then came the first great crack of thunder. It was close enough that the boom and the flash came at the same time. I was sure I felt the concussion in my chest. Now it wasn’t funny anymore. With deep, gravely ditches on both sides of the road, we were the highest thing in the area. I thought about getting off the bike and taking shelter in the woods, but I wasn’t sure that was any safer. Additionally, the storm was showing no signs of abating. For all I knew, we might wind up there after dark. That was a prospect I didn’t relish.
There was no place on this little road to take shelter. U.S. Highway 70 was just 10 miles south. If we could just get there, we’d be close to some inhabited areas where we could get out of the rain at a convenience store. We doggedly kept going while I tried to determine if each new clap of thunder was closer. I was trying to decide at what point I would abandon the bike for the woods.
We finally reached the bigger highway. This one would take us west-southwest for the next 30 miles. I was glad to reach it, but in some ways it was worse. It was much wider, with wide shoulders. The land here had been cleared on both sides, and the tree line was now 100 yards or more from the road leaving us much more exposed. I considered just staying there and hiding in the trees.
But looking to the south, I could see blue sky. Just a mile away, or less, was a bright sunny day. Too bad I was now heading west. I hadn’t heard thunder or seen lightning in the last few minutes, and with blue sky in sight and a small town just 10 miles up the road, I decided to make a run for it. But I had barely reached highway speed when the next clap of thunder threatened to knock us off the bike. The rain increased to the point that I couldn’t stand going more that 40 mph. The impact of those fat drops just hurt too bad to go any faster. It seemed that the lightening was getting worse, yet I could still see fleecy clouds and blue sky over my left shoulder.
We eventually reached the small town of Dierks, but to my dismay, there was nothing open on this rainy Sunday afternoon. The lightening was incessant by now. I spotted a little filling station with two pumps covered by a metal top. The store was closed, but there was shelter of sorts up next to the pumps. I wasn’t really sure if that was any safer, but my nerves were completely shattered by now. This was at least different than being out on the open road.
We stayed on the bike under our modest shelter. I watched the line of blue where the sky was clear still to the south and willed it to come our way. But it ignored my psychic urging. Just 15 miles further west, we’d hit U.S. Highway 71 and turn south, toward the peaceful land I could see from our current refuge. But at the moment, that intersection seem as far away as the Pacific Coast.
After 15 minutes, the rain and the thunder slacked off. I could still hear it in the distance, but it wasn’t the spine-jarring reports that had chased us for the last 30 miles. With little hope that the clear weather would move north, and fear that conditions might deteriorate, we hit the road again for that last 15 miles to relative safety.
About halfway there, we got the last close bolt. After that, it was just a moderate shower and distant lightening. With every clap of sound and drop of water, that stubborn line of blue mocked us with safety just out of reach.
In a fine drizzle, I made a left turn heading south now on 71. In less than a mile and barely a minute later, we were riding down a bight, sunlit road that was as dry as a bone. As the temperature climbed, our wet clothes kept us cool as they dried. An hour later, 46 miles to the south, we pulled into our driveway tired, but elated. This had been an adventure, scary but exciting. And we knew that the decision to buy the bike and been a good one.
－ Guy Wheatley