Cruising through the Yukon, southbound from Dawson City and maybe 100 miles out of Whitehorse, a disabled motorcycle appeared just on my horizon. It was sitting on its center-stand and had the seat, luggage, and various covers removed. It was the first vehicle I had seen in hours. I rapidly zoomed by and although I could not tell precisely what had happened, I could see enough to know that I needed to stop. The rider was there too. There was a helmet sitting in the middle of the road.
I mumbled to myself, "Now there's something you don't see everyday."
That was a phrase I had used frequently in the last few days, but this time I really meant it. I was pretty sure I'd never come upon a scene quite like this…any day.
I reached up and tapped the front brake, releasing the cruise control. The big bike began to coast down to maneuvering speed as I moved my feet off the highway pegs and sat up. I had been riding in my favorite riding position-leaned back on the backrest, feet up on the forward highway pegs, hands in my lap, cruise control maintaining the speed, and slight shifts of balance controlling the direction.
There was no need to brake, there is always plenty of room out here. I was in the middle of the Yukon…there were miles and miles of empty roads in front of me. There was also no need to hurry. Instinctively I knew the other rider was in no fit state to communicate with and I expected I would have to wait a bit before he was. Shortly the speed bled off and I did a smart u-turn in the road. I headed back to the disabled bike and stopped on the shoulder, about twenty feet away. I sat lightly in the saddle, both feet on the ground, and left The Dragon idling while I waited. It was just possible I would need a quick getaway.
The bike was one of those expensive European sport-tour models guys in their 50's and 60's always buy when they have not had a bike in a while (or never) and are suddenly outfitting for the trip of a lifetime. I had met more than a few of them on this trip, and they really were a sharply defined demographic. Perhaps it's the cost of those particular machines and the financial position of folks in that age group, but they all were outfitted almost exactly alike and had very similar looks, ages, and stories.
Please note, there is no disrespect intended…it really was a marked trend. If I saw one of these bikes, I saw one of these riders. At least they are out here riding…living their dream, and I've got to respect that. It's not what you ride, it's that you ride.
The rider was one of those typical guys that buy one of these $30,000 machines, as well as the thousand dollar matching full mesh body-armor riding suit to go with it. Thin, tall, 60-ish, gray, and more or less clean-shaven, he was exactly what I expected to see when I got a look at the bike…with one key difference.
This rider had completely lost it…he simply wasn't rational.
Part of the scene made sense. The bike on its center-stand, the luggage removed and neatly stacked behind it, the covers and seat removed and likewise neatly stacked, the toolkit spread out on the fuel tank. Obviously the bike had broken down and the rider had been working on it.
Perfect sense…but the rest of the scene had given me pause. The rider was down in the ditch beside the road, and he was absolutely beating the stuffing out of a duffel bag with a stick. I guess I really should say a log, as his "stick" was five or six feet long and at least three inches in diameter. It had recently been part of a small tree and must have weighed about 30 pounds. There were tears streaming down his face and every whack at the bag with this mammoth club was accompanied by a loud grunt or yell, and if the duffel moved or was batted away by the last blow, he immediately chased it down and smashed it again.
I could see by his body motion each time he swung his club that he was putting his all into each swing. I could also tell that he had been at it a while and was tiring. Once or twice he staggered, but kept on swinging. There was no real need for me to intervene, he would wear himself out shortly and wasn't hurting anybody in the mean time. Besides, anybody competent enough to have gotten this far just simply isn't going to lose it easily. For some reason he had some serious emotions to deal with--no good can ever come from interrupting that. I could sympathize, even not knowing the problem. There are times in a man's life when he's just gotta kill something.
I waited, the Valkyrie in gear and grumbling beneath me…ready for instant action. I was not sure if he had been aware of my approach and did not know how he would react to my presence. I had reasons to believe I was safe-I've always been able to read people pretty well-but I already had my own problems, emotional and otherwise…the last thing I needed in the middle of the Yukon was to have some guy chasing me with a big stick.
He went on long time. His stamina was truly impressive. Twice he fell and I thought he was done, but he staggered to his feet and continued. Eventually the physics had to catch up to him though and on one particularly violent swing he went down hard. It took him about a minute to get up again, and when he did he spun twice and in a spectacular throw heaved the club about fifty feet into the river that paralleled the road. He actually did not throw it quite that far…it did have to bounce and slide to make it into the river…but I doubt I could have done it.
That was it. He was done. He just stood there, kind of limply and with his hands at his sides. He looked utterly defeated.
I pulled the Valkyrie up in front of his bike, turned her off, and dismounted. I discreetly pocketed my keys. He watched me approach but did nothing. In a normal tone I asked, "Problems?"
"Well, let's take a look." I knew there was more to it than that. This outburst was not about a broken bike, although I had no doubt the problem with the motorcycle had triggered it. He had chosen to interpret my question that way though, so there was no sense in me pushing the issue. It would come out if it needed to.
"What happened to it?"
"The battery died. It shouldn't have, it's only a few months old."
That was odd. Old batteries fail, and occasionally I've seen brand new batteries fail, but new batteries that have been successfully in service more than a couple weeks generally hold up for at least a year.
I stuck my hand out to help him out of the ditch. "You're sure? That is kind of odd."
"Yes. I checked all the fuses. There is no juice." He turned and yelled into the wilderness, "The one time it HAS to run, and it just dies!" He cursed and kicked the battered duffel. Apparently not very heavy, it flew and bounced to join the former club in its journey down the Yukon River.
He then turned and took my offered hand. With some difficulty I pulled him out of the ditch. It was a good thing I had not removed my thin leather riding gloves, as his hands were lacerated and bloody from the violent handling of the rough log and I would have lost my grip.
He did not so much as wince from the contact. I have a firm grip and it took all of it to help him out of the ditch, as he was weak and unsteady. Those hands were a mess. It had to have been extremely painful.
He would not meet my eyes, but I could tell he posed little danger to me in his exhausted state so I turned my attention to the bike. I know machines, and have had or fixed nearly every conceivable problem. I often learn a lot about what is wrong with them just by knowing what they were up to when they started misbehaving. "What happened? What did she do?"
His voice was kind of dead, "It was running fine, then just died. Like I'd turned off the key."
"Did the lights go dim?"
"No. Everything just died."
Whatever it was, it was not the battery. Nothing's impossible, but a battery failure that shows those specific symptoms is extremely rare.
I glanced at his toolkit. "Have you got a voltmeter?"
"I do, hang on. I'll get it."
"Suit yourself. The battery's dead. We won't find one this side of Fort St. John." A little emotion crept back into his voice and he nearly growled, "That'll take days!"
Ah. It was the time and distance getting to him for some reason. He had somewhere to be…somewhere unexpected when he had set out on this journey. I was glad I had pocketed my keys.
Fort St. John was 800 miles away at least. It really is big out here so it pays to be sure what you are about before heading out on a mission to find parts. I already knew he was wrong anyway, but it would be better to show him than to tell him. I did not want to somehow become the focus of his emotions.
I dug around in my saddlebag and retrieved my small meter. He had the battery and cables exposed already so I was able to go right to work.
Ten seconds. Three tests. I chuckled at the machine, "Got you."
Positive cable to negative cable-nothing.
Positive battery terminal to negative cable-nothing.
Positive cable to negative battery terminal-13.5 volts.
I was right. The battery was fine. The negative cable was bad, right where it connected to the battery terminal. The crimped connection was faulty. Ten seconds. I am good at what I do. The machine was cold. He'd been there for hours. To be fair, I've seen this before.
There was no corrosion so I just spun the cable in the terminal and squished it with a pair of pliers from his tool kit. The keys were in the ignition so I turned it on. The neutral light was lit so I pushed the start button. The machine came instantly and quietly to life.
He literally jumped.
One more check with the voltmeter to make sure the bike was still charging. Most modern alternator/regulator assemblies can be damaged by disconnecting the battery while they are charging. Basically, sudden removal of the load (battery) causes a spike in the voltage when the field coils don't unload fast enough. That spike can fry the diodes in the regulator. He was lucky in this case. 14.1 volts. Working fine.
"You're good to go."
"Thanks." He finally met my eyes, and there was some hope in his. Hope is good, but I knew he had not completely returned to the real world yet. Those hands had to hurt!
I explained what had been wrong and he nodded and without another word began putting the covers, seat, and luggage back on the bike. I helped some, handing him pieces when it was obvious what he needed next, but really I was waiting for an opportune moment. It came as he was putting his tank bag on the bike-the last item.
I reached out and grabbed his wrist as his arm passed near me. He tried to pull his hand away but not violently. Few will break my grip once established anyway. I forcibly turned his palm upward and held it in plain view of both of us. I gently asked, "First aid kit?" The blisters, blood, and lacerations were startlingly clear and he seemed to see them for the first time. He gasped.
I released his wrist and asked again, "First aid kit?"
"Yes. Top pocket of the right saddlebag." He was staring at his hands.
These prepackaged first aid kits are a joke. Apparently, any injury should be able to be taken care of with a small pair of dull scissors (to cut…what?), tweezers, and a half a dozen small self-stick bandages. They are completely inadequate to deal with most any injury a motorcyclist is likely to get.
At least my kit had a roll of gauze and some tape. Between the two kits and a bottle of water I managed to clean his hands up pretty well. I was careful but the work still hurt. Several times I heard a sharp intake of breath, but he never flinched or pulled his hands away. At least he could get his medium-weight gloves on afterwards and grip the handlebars.
Pain can be good sometimes…one kind of pain lessening another…and he seemed to become a little more lucid. We talked while I worked on his hands.
He, like many of us up here, was on the trip of a lifetime. He had managed to arrange enough time off from work but like me, he was carrying a two-way text pager similar to mine. Like mine, his had quit working as soon as he left home. Like mine, it had suddenly worked just long enough to receive queued messages for a brief moment…right in the middle of the most remote area I could imagine. For me it was on the Dempster Highway, north of Dawson City in the extreme northern Yukon Territory. The pager suddenly went off and several pages came in. Questions from work, a couple system pages, and other things I could do nothing about streamed in. I laughed as I noted that even though it had received messages, it still showed "no signal" and could not send messages out. I had looked around at the dense forest and incredible scenery and had chuckled at myself. Work would just have to do without me for a while.
In his case, the message he received was not a good one. Apparently his wife was leaving him, and had sent an email to his pager to let him know. Pretty low-blow in my book…leaving somebody while they are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip…and doing it by sending them an email. He had dropped what he was doing and headed for home.
As we were finishing up his hands I asked, "Where're you headed?"
"When are you due back?"
He sighed. "I had another 3 weeks." His frustration showed through and he stomped a foot. "I need to be back now!" He looked tired. "25 years down the drain. I've got to fix this." The last was said very quietly. "I've been riding for close to 20 hours now."
I smiled. I could understand the need…the drive…but southern California was, at a guess, 3000 miles away. He had several options and none of them were easy. He could just ride it, or he could get somewhere that he could catch a commercial flight. Of course that would entail abandoning his bike and gear, or arranging for shipping, both expensive and time consuming options.
Whatever option he chose, he had a long way to go and he would have to pace himself or he would never make it. Frankly, I wouldn't bother. A woman that leaves via a text message isn't worth the angst, but there was no way I would try to tell him that…he needed to arrive at that conclusion on his own. I hoped he would…before he killed himself. No matter the route, he was still a very long way from home. Days at best. It is big up here.
I asked, "When did you eat last?"
The question seemed to surprise him and he answered, "I don't remember." A pause. "Yesterday."
"Then you'll join me for breakfast at Whitehorse." I glanced at the gauges of his idling bike. "You'll need gas anyway."
"Thanks, but I'll just gas and go. I need to keep moving."
I just grinned and said, "I wasn't asking. You'll join me for breakfast at Whitehorse."
I turned and got on my bike. Without another word I put on my helmet, fired up my machine, and left. I couldn't force him, but I figured with some time to think and his bike running well beneath him that he would stop. Always there are two factors to consider in the distance-rider's equation, the man and the machine. Particularly out here with the vast areas involved, their fates are linked and both must be cared for. If not, both will falter. We had already seen that today.
I rapidly worked the big bike through the gears and stabilized her at about 70mph. Relaxed but alert, I reveled in the cool air of the morning and the miles of incredible scenery. I had gotten this man back on the road; there was little else I could do for him. He needed to find, for himself, a pace that wouldn't kill him…and a reason to adhere to it. Hopefully the emotion spent by his forced pit stop would allow time for at least some of the rational man to return. I grinned as I spotted two black bears foraging in the woods near the road. There had been a lot of them this morning. The scenery could help too. If we are open to it, the sheer size and beauty of this place can quite solidly put our own problems into perspective.
Somewhat over an hour later I reached the outskirts of Whitehorse. This morning's first leg had been a rather long stretch and I had hit reserve some twenty-five miles outside of the city. The Valkyrie was almost out of fuel. I nearly always service the machine first so a quick gas stop was in order. That was accomplished easily and a motel/restaurant just down the street looked promising for breakfast. I backed the bike into a space that was easily seen from the street, just in case my acquaintance from this morning was actually inclined to stop. I hoped he was…he needed some perspective…not to mention some breakfast.
I selected a window seat and turned the waiting coffee cup right side up. That was the universal sign for, "I'll have coffee please" and always instituted quick service. The waitress poured my coffee and handed me a menu. I had been such having terrific luck with inexpensive restaurants on this trip that I just handed the menu back to her, smiled, and said, "The special please." That statement had netted me some of the best and inexpensive breakfasts I've ever experienced. I was counting on that again today.
I was well into my second cup of coffee, just sipping and staring out the window, when I was startled out of my reverie by a voice. I blinked and as if by magic, standing at the table was the man from this morning's venture. I looked back out the window and there was his bike, parked right next to mine. Strange I had not seen him arrive. I guess contemplating things much bigger than myself can be distracting.
I had not clearly heard what he said so I looked up and mumbled, "Huh?" or something equally articulate. I really had been deep in thought.
He repeated himself, "Why did you stop?" he paused, "I wouldn't have." He looked a bit chagrined or embarrassed.
At the point the waitress came over and asked him, "Can I help you?"
He looked at my coffee and said, "That smells good. I'll have what he's having." He grabbed a chair and sat down across from me.
The waitress started to say something…I am sure she was going to ask if he just wanted the coffee or actually wanted exactly what I had ordered. I caught her eye and shallowly pointed a finger at the table while nodding. She got the message, filled his coffee cup, and wandered off to turn in another order for breakfast. Most of the exchange between the waitress and I was out of his direct sight.
I answered his question, "You needed help." I looked out the window. "Out here I stop for everybody…unless they are holding a camera or wave me on."
"That's not what I meant." He looked at his bandaged hands. "How did you know I wouldn't come after you with that club?"
I smiled. I've always been able to read people pretty well, but he was pretty easy. "I knew you hadn't totally lost control."
I countered with another question. "What was in the duffel bag?"
He looked puzzled, "My sleeping bag. It's not important. I can get by without it."
I just grinned.
It took him a moment, but he got it. I was tremendously glad that he did…that showed he was starting to think again…starting to take some of the control back from the passionate man. My estimate of his chances of survival went up a couple of notches.
See, a completely irrational man in the circumstances I had found him in would not have been beating a duffel bag. If he were beating anything, the completely irrational man would have been beating the bike…doing his best to smash the betraying machine into dust. Although he had lost control and was deep in a "smash and kill" rage, he had at least chosen the target for his frustration. Chosen something he could smash and kill without serious consequence. Somewhere, deep down, he knew he would eventually come back to the real world and have to deal with the problems.
That is a key difference.
He had finished his coffee and started to get up. "Good coffee. That was just what I needed. Thanks for the help this morning."
With impeccable timing, the waitress chose this moment to show up with a huge tray heavily laden with our breakfasts. She started unloading plates of food to the table. Bacon, eggs, sausage, and hash browns were the main plates. Two saucers of mixed strawberries and grapes were next, followed by a plate full of perfectly done waffles. She laid out butter, syrups, and jellies and a plate of toast. "The Special" had paid off once again. It smelled great.
I looked him in the eye and phrased it as a question this time. "You'll join me for breakfast?" His choice here, in my estimation, would determine whether he made it home breathing or not.
My friend hovered half out of his chair for a long moment just looking at the large quantity of food. I could see the decision coming. He took a large sniff of the luscious aromas, watched the waitress refill his coffee, and sat back down again. He didn't say it out loud, but I saw him mouth the words under his breath.
The hell with it.
Inwardly I smiled. He would be all right. He had a long way to go, and probably a lot of pain to endure…both on his journey home and his journey in life…but he would make it.
About half-way through the meal he looked up at me with a sudden realization. "You knew I would stop didn't you?"
It was a rhetorical question. He was not expecting an answer. I just grinned and went back to my breakfast. I didn't know…but I was expecting him to.
He shook his head, "Gods! You're a confident son of a bitch." There was a trace of a smile in his eyes and he continued to attack his breakfast with gusto.
Most of the rest of breakfast was spent in silence or with small talk. That was actually a good sign, as it was the common state of southbound riders. Overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of this rugged place our thoughts turn inward while we try to integrate it with our view of the rest of the world. It is a daunting task. It is not possible to take this journey and not come away changed.
The bill for breakfast for both of us, including tip, was twelve bucks. Yeah, the special is the way to go. We stepped outside and got ready to leave. He suddenly took his helmet back off and said, "I'll be a few minutes" as he stepped back into the restaurant. A call of nature. I had counted on that. I had one more thing I wanted to give him.
I was carrying some chewy chocolate granola bars. These are excellent "trail" food…good to take the edge off hunger and restore alertness. I use them when I get caught out away from convenient stops to help me make more distance. They are the secret weapons of the distance rider and can substitute for a meal and reduce the need for time consuming breaks. I had not needed them up here, as I was having too much fun stopping at all the little roadhouses and gas stations. The long days were allowing me to make the distances I desired while still taking leisurely stops to meet interesting people and find new friends.
I grabbed the unopened box and did something I would normally never do…I unzipped the tank bag on the other bike to stuff them inside. He would need them before all this was over.
I stopped in surprise. On the top in the tank-bag was a dog-eared and water-stained copy of my first book. Wow! He was a "Life is a Road" reader. It finally occurred to me that we had never actually introduced ourselves. After the events of the morning it had just seemed more comfortable that way. Obviously he had not recognized me from the small pictures on the back cover. I am often just not quite what people expect anyway.
I flipped though the book. He had highlighted passages in parts of the text and I could tell immediately that under less trying circumstances he would have an interesting outlook on life as well as a quirky sense of humor. I had been carrying a couple copies of each book with me as possible gifts and had one copy left. Luckily it was of my second book so I quickly grabbed it out of my saddlebag, autographed it, and stuck it in his tank bag along with the granola bars. I thought carefully for a moment, then autographed his copy of my first book also. I inserted an author's card inside, and put it carefully away in his bag.
Southbound again, I found myself certain he would make it home. I just wondered what that might mean.
I thought of the message I had written in his book along with my signature. The words had suddenly come back to me from earlier in my journey…from many days and thousands of miles ago…from my own time of need:
"Everything happens for a reason.
"Good luck on your journey.
"I hope you find what you are looking for…
"PS: It's really much closer than you think."
I looked around me in awe at the landscape and reflected on my experiences so far on this journey. Many of the people I had met were seeking something, but most knew not what. Sometimes I could see they were just trying to find their way home. I wondered what I was trying to find.
Home. It meant different things to different people…and I found I was wondering what it meant to me.
Home. I thought of the man I had met today. I thought of his passion…I thought of his pain.
It was time I was getting back there myself.
Life is a road, let's see where it takes us.