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Musings from the author.
In the Dark
This is an older tale…and was included in my 4th book, Life Is a Road, It’s About the Ride It has not previously appeared on-line. It is related to this post (and there are some pictures there).
Alone. In the dark.
I took a deep breath and shuddered. There was no point in moving yet. My vision hadn’t cleared. Every movement of my head still resulted in flashing lines, vivid red and white sparks, and even cartoon-like stars to blind my field of view. I was awkwardly and unceremoniously sitting on a sharply tilted concrete embankment. At least it felt like a sharply tilted surface. With the disorientation and accompanying nausea I really wasn’t all that sure about the tilt. I rubbed my temples and groaned, hoping that would ease the throbbing in my head and clear my vision faster. I had been here for some time and wanted nothing more than to mount up and ride.
Of course, that’s not entirely accurate. What I really wanted to do was mount up and run. “Flee” would be the correct term.
There are things for even me to fear…lost and alone in the dark. They’re not on the outside though.
The ride had started out well enough. The balmy southern night air was perfect for shirtsleeves, even at eighty miles per hour. Running the freeways home from work had been wickedly satisfying, but I arrived home to a cold and unwelcoming house. The wife was out of town visiting her parents and as usual I found the emptiness repelling. There simply is no place for me there…without her. Fifteen years and it’s still not any easier. I’m not sure I’d change that if I could.
I threw some food to the pets, took care of a couple maintenance items on The Dragon, and tore out of town. The swirling feelings inside pushing me at speed just as surely as the beat of the big machine. Running from my passion, fleeing my loneliness, denying my dependence, evading my own lust, this ride was all of that and more. I hate to sleep alone. Knowing how short life can be, I hate it with a passion that’s difficult to articulate. It’s tough to sleep without her.
Mostly I just don’t.
Northeast was my direction, chosen simply because that’s the fastest way out of the city for me and it looked darker toward that horizon. In a couple hours I was wandering the dark and deserted roads in the foothills of southeast Oklahoma, the long twisties and occasional spirited straightaway making for the ideal ride, even on this dark night.
Flying, free. Alive. The Dragon and I. Aggressively carving through the hills. Leaning. Running. The man and machine slowly coming together until the border between them is no longer clearly defined. A thousand pounds of muscle, bone, blood, and steel…relentlessly driven through the soothing winds by the intense beat of two hearts.
Two hearts. One is organic, a miracle of flesh and blood, flawlessly powering the man. The other is mechanical, a precision-engineered masterpiece of a power plant, blasting the machine smoothly across the countryside. Apart, they are inadequate, incomplete. Together, they simply soar.
I groaned again and lay back on the concrete, the heels of my hands pressed hard into my eyes in a futile attempt to shut out the disorienting flowing lines. Blinded and alone, the dark side of the man clawed its way to the surface. Scurrying along with it came all the fears and uncertainties that aren’t supposed to bother a confident, adult man. With it came all the worst sort of monsters; those we keep contained on the inside, hidden away from civilized eyes. Suddenly things that normally have no reign or influence on me were freely allowed to rampage across my soul. I wasn’t prepared for it.
The feelings hammered hard and fed one upon another. What would happen if my vision didn’t recover? Would I fail in my role as a provider? Is that the only role I’m valued for? Is that the only reason I’m needed? Would anybody care? Most of my skills and even my passions depend on my eyesight. What would I do? How would I live? How would I ride? My heart jumped. Cripes, is that an animal snuffling around in the dark?
The gamut of feelings flew across my mind. Desire, fear, joy, shame, and passion all mixed in a strange and toxic cocktail. I desperately wanted to kill something, up close and barehanded. Almost instantly that vanished and I nearly wept at a horrible emptiness that could only be filled by loving a woman. No, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t love I wanted; it was sex, raw and primal and bordering on rage. Just as quickly that was gone, leaving me gasping. Shame was next. Shame for the very thing that had driven me out here in the first place. Shame for my dependence on her. Shame for my emptiness when she’s gone. Shame for my love. Shame for my lust. Shame because I don’t want to change it, no matter what society calls strength in my predefined role. Then that vanished too, and fear, plain and simple took its place. Fear with no specific focus. Fear with nothing to fix. Fear with nothing to fight. Then even that died. I almost screamed when the cycle started over again.
Yeah, the dark side of the man was back all right. It was all the stronger after being imprisoned for so long. Inside out, I cringed as the feelings, passions, and fears flowed again. The dark side wanted its day. The dark side wanted me to come to terms with it. The dark side wanted its part of me, wanted to take its place in my life. Steadfastly, I ignored the little voice in the back of my mind that was asking me, “And just how the hell are you going to run from that?”
I ride for a myriad of reasons. Many of them are not always clear, even to myself. Some people ride for transportation, entertainment, adventure, or the social aspect, and I do enjoy all of those, but often I ride for no definite reason other than my soul demands it. I ride because I want to…need to…have to. On these occasions I ride alone, indulging my soul’s unpredictable demands as to speed and direction. I ride for the solitude, I ride for the time for introspection, I ride for the testing of my skills, and sometimes, yes, I even ride for the danger. There are those that would take that away…they would do so only at their peril.
Deep within the night my thoughts finally quieted down. It had taken a while. Worries about work, uncertainties about my home life, the intense lust and seething feelings for my wife, and pains from my past, all pushed into the dark recesses of my mind, all finally locked away from conscious thought. All contained, put away where the civilized world insists they must rest. My entire being was about nothing more than guiding the big machine down the dark and lonely roads, the bike’s soulful wail carrying me through the winding terrain. It was a blessed relief to the turmoil that had defined me for the past several days.
Achieving peace, even in the violence of the winds and the turbulence around the fast moving machine. Peace forcefully pulled from the chaos around me. Kind of like life, yes?
As always, I was to discover it just wasn’t that simple. Peace of that kind just can’t last. It’s the winds themselves we must come to terms with.
Completely absorbed. Man, machine, and road totally at one. Content. Mind and body relaxed and at peace. My being…my soul…all entirely devoted to the road to the point where it was unclear where the machine ceased and the man began.
All that made the impact that much more stunning.
It seemed nothing more than a loud pop, but suddenly my ears were ringing and I couldn’t see anything but lights and streaks. The horrendous impact on my helmet snapped my head back, causing intense pain in my neck and ripping my left hand from the handlebars. It all but unseated me. In 600,000+ miles of riding I don’t think anything’s ever come closer. The blow took me completely by surprise. I never saw it coming despite the depth of my attention.
In shock and struggling for orientation I grabbed frantically for the binders with my right hand, even while I was trying to get my left hand back on the other grip. Trying for the rear brake I was surprised to find my feet were no longer on the driver’s pegs. It seemed to take forever to get them back where they were supposed to be and apply the rear brakes. I had to stop fast, I couldn’t see the road and the streaks and my throbbing head were distorting my perception…I felt as if I was falling over, though I knew that could not be correct, not at this speed anyway.
If I wasn’t still running basically true I’d have been tumbling down the road in a mangled tangle of smashed steel and torn flesh. Then a part of me wondered if maybe I was, and this was just what it felt like.
Dizzy and disoriented by the streaks and false images, I tried closing my eyes but that didn’t help a bit. The streaks and lights still flew past my vision and now I was even seeing cartoon stars!
“I’m in trouble.” I meant it. Maybe I said it out loud.
I figured out later that a couple of things saved me from a serious crash. The first was my flight training. Almost automatically I called upon the little instrument training I’ve had in aircraft. There is a point at which you divorce or disconnect your motion dependent senses from your intellect. Part of instrument training emphasizes that visual perception and “seat of the pants” navigating can get at odds with each other AND the instruments under low or no visibility conditions. That training focuses on identifying and discarding the bad inputs. For me there was always a specific point of awareness when I had managed to make that disconnect. I could feel it. When there are multiple sets of data, and they are at odds, there becomes a conscious choice of just what to believe. No less than life depends on making the correct choice. In that moment, I easily achieved that state when I knew I could separate the inputs, correctly identify the bad information, and safely choose a single set of incoming data to use.
Not that there was much valid data to respond to however…
I knew the vision was shot; roads typically aren’t outlined in red flashing lines while doing 360 degree loop-to-loops around my head in time with dancing stars. The “seat of the pants” was telling me I was in some sort of a tight downward spiral—and since I was pretty sure I hadn’t been at any significant altitude at the beginning of this mess—that was clearly not the case.
What’s left? It’s hard to describe, but I could “feel” the road. Subtle inputs from the handlebars and the action of the suspension told me about the surface I was on. Blacktop roads tend to crown, as well as develop a set of tire grooves in each lane from long use. I could almost visualize the pattern in the road and steered the course appropriately. Mostly I just let The Dragon do her thing.
Big bikes will run straight and true…and will self-correct to a degree to do so…assuming you let them and there are no radical changes in the road. Of course this wouldn’t help if the road made a sudden turn, and for the life of me I could not remember what it had looked like ahead before I got hit. It was like the impact had erased the moment of my awareness immediately prior to the event. Grimly I rode the brakes right to the edge of lockup, stopping the heavy cruiser as fast as she was capable.
The second thing that saved me was that right near the end…when I was getting close to stopped, a shiver traveled down my spine as I heard a voice clearly say, “You’re too far right boss. Move it left a tad.”
The voice, undeniably female, yet husky and seemingly composed of several interlaced harmonics, was instantly recognizable. It also meant that I was really in trouble, as it belongs to something I normally don’t encounter except in dire circumstances. The voice was one of my guardians…I’ve written about them before. This one was Adoraim, the translucent black dragon of immense power and captivating beauty. She rarely visits, except in dreams…or unconsciousness.
Grimly I wondered which it was. A dream? Unconsciousness? Perhaps death? Would I know? How would I know? Did it matter? The fight still needed to be fought, didn’t it? I wasn’t sure. Still, I’ve been influenced in this way several times, always to the better. I long ago learned to accept it.
It is what it is, whatever that may be. It works. I still live. Why should I question it?
I was unsurprised when something pushed solidly on the back of my left hand, counter-steering the bike hard back toward the left for a moment. The pressure released and the voice spoke in my ear again, “Stop. Now. Hard. At all costs.” Then she was gone, leaving only a tantalizing trace of her spicy smell behind.
I pressed harder on the rear brake and squeezed the front till the bike shuddered. “At all costs” is a literal term for me. If I use it, I mean it. My guardians—or my subconscious for the less ethereal readers—would do the same. “At all costs” meant even if I locked them up, even if I went down. It meant something catastrophic was going to happen if I didn’t get stopped right then. Smoothly but decisively I kept increasing the pressure on the brakes.
The bike came cleanly to a stop, the superb brakes giving feedback and control so precise that I only felt the wheels break loose in a lockup at the very end of the roll.
I took a couple deep breaths, trying to calm my shaking hands and clear my vision. I was marginally successful with the hands, but the vision was having absolutely none of it. As I removed my helmet streaks and lines continued to stream by, sometimes making it appear I was moving backwards. Intense flashes of mostly red light starkly punctuated the disorienting visual illusion and I could feel the beginnings of motion sickness creeping up on me. Motion sickness is not something I succumb to easily. These inputs were extreme.
I held a hand up in front of my face and rapidly blinked my eyes. Nothing. Not even a shadow. If I rubbed my temples, eyes closed or not, the cartoon stars rushed into my field of view. It would have been a novel sensation if my head would quit exploding in precise time with each and every heartbeat.
At least I was breathing.
It sounds silly…but at that moment, had I been able, I’d have gladly traded the ability to breathe for the ability to see.
Sitting in the saddle with both feet on the ground seemed safest and I did that for a while, but at some point I realized that I needed to figure out just where in the road the bike was. If I was stopped in the middle of the road, I was easy prey to the first car or truck to happen by this lonely spot. The night had been nearly pitch black. It would be horribly ironic to manage to safely stop while completely blind, only to be plowed over by the first vehicle to come upon the scene.
I put the stand down, and as is my habit, dismounted on the right side of the machine. Dizzy and nearly retching, I moved carefully. My boots touched asphalt. I started to wonder whether I was on the shoulder or the road itself but that question was answered with annoying rapidity. Stepping back from the bike with one hand on the handlebars I started to turn, intending to feel my way toward the shoulder. Immediately the guardrail caught me squarely on the back of both legs, right below the knees. I’d been stopped no more than a foot from it. I tumbled over the rail and down the steep slope. Slipping and sliding, completely disoriented, blinded by streaks and flashes, I wasn’t really sure when I came to a halt, or if I was facing up or down when I did. Kind of “three stooges-ish” I know, but cut me some slack. Up and down still hadn’t managed to resolve themselves.
This just wasn’t going my way. In sheer frustration I shouted, “Shit!” The expletive echoed satisfyingly back through the quiet night but otherwise really didn’t help much. The fireworks in my vision seemed to spell out the word in flaming letters with each echo.
I slowly sat up, taking stock. All my body parts were intact, although I was certainly going to be a mass of bruises and aches. Eventually I barked out a short laugh and grinned ruefully. At least I knew the bike was parked on the shoulder!
I got unsteadily to my feet and carefully made my way up the hill. Shortly I should have found the guardrail and the bike, but after going what I was sure was too far I halted, confused. I turned to my right, somehow deciding that was the correct direction and intending on walking a few paces parallel to the slope. I stopped when I realized I was walking on steeply sloped concrete instead of rock and grass. I was startled to realize I didn’t know how long ago the surface had changed or even how long I’d actually been walking.
A little bit of sense finally poked its way through the disorientation and one of the first rules of how to behave if lost popped into my head. Basically, I needed to just stop. Wandering around aimlessly just makes it worse, leading to possible injury at the worst, and at the very best, just more…ur…uh…lostness. Yeah.
With a sigh I slumped down on the concrete slope. I needed help and I knew it. That’s not an easy thing for me to realize. I pulled my cell phone out of my back pocket and unlocked the keys by feel. I thumbed down a few entries in my phonebook, not sure of who it landed on. I knew that anybody in the index that I could reach would know me and be able to at least get the proper help to call me back. I pushed the “call” button and put the thing to my ear.
Shortly the phone beeped three times. The call wouldn’t go through. Typical. I tried again with the same result. I guessed the three beeps meant there was no service out here, but with nothing else productive to do I kept trying.
When I realized it was futile an uncharacteristically strong surge of emotion shot through me. I had the overwhelming urge to throw the phone as far as I could. Surprised, I realized my hands were shaking and made a conscious effort to calm down. I was only partially successful. The first of my demons was coming to visit me.
I locked the keys again and stuffed the cell phone back in my pocket. My disorientation cost me again, as I did not get it fully in the pocket and as I slewed back around to put my hands on my knees I heard the phone go sliding and skipping down the concrete slope. It seemed to go rather a long way. I never heard it hit the bottom.
Alone. In the dark.
Old lovers, old pains. Failures. Demons. Scars. We all have them. We’re rarely put in a position where they can freely come to visit. Civilized life demands we hide them away, that we keep them from close examination. We’re rarely prepared to face them down.
As the waves of dizziness were accompanied by emotions and vivid memories too powerful to fend off, I found myself straining to look upward. If I could just see the stars…
This was going to be a long night.
Demons, failures, scars. It doesn’t matter what they’re called. One by one they rolled on through my soul, exposing the fears and failures, prodding the raw pains of lost lovers and missing friends, and replaying all the times I made choices I knew were wrong. One by one they rejoiced in the pain they caused, never realizing that in being forced to face them, I was slowly coming to terms with them. Never realizing that their true power only lay in the fact that I’d not consciously done so in the past. Never realizing that, as a part of me, as a creation of my own id, as a manifestation of my own dark side, that they could not destroy me in the process. Despite the pain I knew they could only make me stronger, more complete. What does not kill me makes me stronger, yes?
Eventually exhaustion overtook me and I gratefully drifted off to sleep. As I fell into the darkness I thought I heard a large animal moving nearby again. Before I started fully awake in alarm I felt the distinct and unmistakable presence of my guardians return, one of them, the wolf this time—large and warm and furry and perfect to hold onto—nestled tightly against my side.
“We’ve got you boss. Sleep.”
The bare glimmerings of early predawn light woke me and I sat up blinking at the purple and black sky and wondering where I was. It took fully two minutes before the memories came back and I realized the weak light had awakened me because I could see it.
I could see!
I was sitting on the sloped concrete erosion control structure of a bridge, far below the road and on the other side of it from my bike. Apparently I had actually crossed under the bridge in my directionless and disoriented wandering around. It was a good 40 feet down the sloping concrete to a mostly dry riverbed below. What water remained was running in a narrow central channel.
I shuffled straight down the concrete until it ended on the dirt bed and looked around for my phone. It wasn’t hard to find, and I brushed the dirt off it and thumbed the keys. Through the cracked display I could see that I had been correct earlier. It had no signal. They just don’t put cell towers along the back roads of America. I grinned. I can’t really gripe. That’s one of the reasons I ride them I guess.
It was a long climb back up to the bike, and once again I resolved to get in better shape. The bike was parked on the shoulder, less than a foot from the side guardrail. A chill shot through me as I saw that the front tire was stopped not more than six inches from impacting the concrete railing where the road narrowed to cross the bridge. My eyes traced the trajectory my body would have taken had I hit that at speed and I blinked at the sheer height of the bridge when viewed with that criteria. “At all costs” indeed.
A quick inspection of the bike revealed no major damage. The windshield was deeply scratched near the top left side and would need to be replaced. That was a clue to the nature and strength of the impact. Those windshields are very hard to scratch deeply. My helmet was deeply scarred on the left chin covering and over the top just above my left eye. The face shield was completely gone, ripped away along with one of the pivot points (called base plates). The clear riding glasses I’d been wearing had been ripped off my face, the tough polycarbonate lenses nowhere to be found. I found myself looking at the deep abrasion patterns on the helmet and wondering if I would even have eyes had I not been wearing the glasses. I’d guess without the helmet I’d have been scalped. Hmmm. It was useful for once. I usually wear it simply to keep my earphones in. Heh.
The abrasions and obvious weight of the impact convinced me it was a “road gator”, the motorcyclist’s slang for those big truck tire treads left in the road after a blow out. They are heavy and solid, and usually have steel cords sticking out of them to do all sorts of nasty damage. They normally don’t hover though…this one had caught me at head level. It must have been thrown up by a truck, but I didn’t remember passing one. That’s okay though. I didn’t remember seeing anything about to hit me either.
Those memories are probably hanging out with the shattered remains of my glasses, wherever it is they ended up.
I looked behind the bike for debris, but it was too dark to see very far against the black road surface and I couldn’t spot anything. I shrugged. Irrelevant anyway. Life rolls forward.
I’d left the ignition key on, and the bike’s lights were very dim. I turned it off, wondering whether the battery had sufficient power to start the bike. I looked around at the barely visible countryside and shrugged. I may as well give it a try.
I saddled up, put on my helmet, and fished around in my tank bag for some more glasses. Sunglasses were the best I could do, but I chose the lightest colored pair I had. With no face shield, tinted lenses were better than nothing.
The starter wouldn’t turn the engine, but I knew how to handle that. The sheer weight of the Valkyrie actually makes her easier to push start, provided there is enough juice for the ignition to fire. Well, that and if the road is not uphill. There was only one way to find out if she’d start. I backed the bike off the shoulder, pointed her over the bridge, popped her into third, and rocked forward, letting the clutch briefly and partially out just as I reached the end of the push and my feet came off the ground. I pulled the clutch back in as the big engine came to life, popping slightly. I watched the voltage gauge climb as the alternator began feeding the hungry battery. Shortly The Dragon was running smoothly.
I sighed in relief. “Thanks babe.”
As I worked the big bike through her gears I pondered my destination. I was far into the back roads, perhaps 80 miles southeast of McAlester, Oklahoma. Behind me, not too far, was the Arkansas border. My vision was still a bit shaky, pulses of light throbbing in time with my heart when I exerted myself very hard. I decided to head for McAlester. It’s a big enough town that I was sure I could find medical care there.
Gently carving corners, totally absorbed in the road, the cool winds managed to blow the last dregs of my ordeal from my mind. Within 30 miles I was totally refreshed, reveling in the power available with the slight twist of my wrist, the big machine nimbly responding to my every whim. Ahhhh.
I really do love to ride.
My mind turned to the thoughts and emotions from the night before, and I smiled and twisted the throttle even more, laughing to the winds. Yes, I have a dark side. Yes, I have my failures and my pains. The dark side is integral and necessary; I’d simply been pushing it down too far. Society seems to demand it and I’d been wrong to allow it. The fight, the aggression, the passion, the drive…all are necessary to some degree. Suppressing it does nothing positive, and indeed, gives it power it does not deserve and should not wield. My failures and pains came to haunt me, but one by one were balanced out by my successes and my pleasures. One by one they came to kill or enslave me, and one by one they lost their power and died, snuffed out by the very act of their own exposure.
I howled as I negotiated one particularly tight turn, accelerating uphill into the barely visible landscape, the fresh air reviving both my body and spirit. Without realizing it I’d changed my plans. Medical attention? Bah. Breakfast was what I really needed. A big one. It’d be more effective and a hell of a lot cheaper. Then I had to get to work. At a guess it was a couple hundred miles to Dallas. With any luck and a little bit of speed, I might even make it before rush hour.
With a savage joy I turned my thoughts once again to the road and the precision machine I was astride, its lonely wail carrying me through the remains of the night.
The dark side of the man. It’s a primal, powerful, and sometimes dangerous thing, but we’ve still got to let it out once and a while. I’ve met mine, and though I wouldn’t say I’ve conquered it, I at least know that when it’s necessary that I set it free, it will do my bidding.
More or less. Sometimes. Mostly.
The day may come when my dark side again gains more power than it should. The day may come when unbidden, my dark side claws its way to the surface and sets its sights on me. The day may come when I see its unpleasant grin again. Yeah, that day will arrive. When it does, and the dark side rises, I’ll meet its eyes, plant my feet, grin, and say, “Bring it.”
As for my failures, my pains, and my demons, well, they all have their counterpart. I’ve successes, pleasures, and guardians. Life will be what I make of it, and I’ve all the aces on my side.
I think I’ll watch out for the friggen road gators though.
Alone. In the dark.
There are scary things.
But the scary things aren’t on the outside…
What is it that you see, alone, in the dark?
Posted Monday, September 22nd, 2014 in Road Stories | No Comments »