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Cold Ride and Why We Do What We Do

My dear high school friend, Julie Bowland, now teaches art at Valdosta State University. She is the only one of a group of us in school that grew up with dream of being artists that stuck with it and now makes her living painting and teaching painting to others. The rest of us either ended up with jobs that had no connection with the arts or or jobs that used that creative side of us as a small part of a bigger whole. One close friend is now a graphic designer and I started in the publishing world on the graphic design side creating book covers, but Julie is the real deal—a painter through and through.

I often make Julie's place an overnight stop on my way to distance places outside of Florida. It is conveniently about 250 to 260 miles from home, depending on whether I take back roads or the Interstate, and it is virtually at the gateway to all places northwest, north, and northeast I may be heading to or returning from on my way in and out from Central Florida. Stopping there gives me a good night's rest and an easy ride home on the final day of a road trip so I arrive refreshed instead of exhausted. Julie and I have been able to reconnect on those short stopovers over the years, but I always hope she doesn't get the impression that I am using her for a convenient stopover only.

I happened to see on Facebook that there was to be a reception for Julie at a gallery at North Florida Community College, where some of her plein aire painting was being shown. I thought it would be fun to ride up and surprise her at the reception. It is only about 230 miles from Lake Wales; I could be up by noon for the reception, have lunch with Julie, then speed home and arrive around dusk. Julie would be surprised and it would let her know that I truly enjoy her company, bed or no bed.

The only problem with the plan was it was January 23rd, and even in Florida January can be cold. And the 23rdwas turning out to be one of the coldest days of the year. As the time approached, I watched the forecast and the cold only became more likely and deeper, although as a consolation I could expect sunny skies and no rain. I pulled my cold weather gear out of the drawers and got prepared to do some cold weather riding.

I laid all my gear out the night before, so getting rolling would be a matter of popping out of bed, jumping into the gear, and going. The reception was at noon so I decided to leave early, in case I had to stop to warm up on the ride north, making me take more time to get there than the minimum.

Over my regular underwear I wore a pair of thermal pants and my Kevlar lined riding pants over those. Knowing I can always remove a layer if I get too warm I put a pair of leather chaps over all this. A lot of riders like to laugh and make fun of chaps, but if they ever have to ride in really cold temperatures I wonder how many would refuse to wear a pair if they had the option. If the temps are really down there, chaps are very handy for keeping the wind off your legs and are easily removable if they prove too much. If I am riding in sub freezing conditions they can laugh all they want while my legs stay nice and warm. Harsh weather riding is no time to be a motorcycling fashionista—I use what works.

On top, I wore a regular T-shirt and over it a L. L. Bean “River Driver” shirt. This shirt is a little secret of mine for cold weather wear. I used to wear one at sea sailing small boats and it works equally as well on a motorcycle ride. This long sleeve shirt is made up of two layers, the inner cotton and the outer wool. It is not bulky and keeps the core warm, and even I, cheapskate that I am, do not regret the $30 I spent on it when out in the cold. I find it the perfect layer under a riding jacket. The wool keeps it warm and the cotton makes it comfortable against the skin. Next came the coat. This one happened to be a Sliders Kevlar-lined mesh all-season jacket. It works well for very hot summer days with no inner layers in, but also works well in the cold or rain with the additional layers zipped in. On this ride I put in both the thermal liner as the bottom layer, then the rain/wind liner, with the mesh jacket on top of it all.

In anticipation of days like this I had finally bought a balaclava to shield my neck and face from those icy blasts I would receive tearing down the highways. I put it on under the helmet and tucked it down into the collar of my jacket. In my boots I wore Smart Wool socks which stay warm wet or dry and are not too hot even in the summer. The boots were my every day First Gear waterproofs, and my hands were inside a no name brand of fleece lined leather gauntlet gloves, which turned out to be a big mistake later on.

I rolled out from under the covers and was on the road by 5 am—more than enough time to cover the 231 miles Google map had spit out.

I had ridden in cold weather before but nothing could prepare me for the icy needles finding every crack and crevice in my armor as I rolled up US 27 in the dark en route to my crossover via the Florida Turnpike to Interstate 75. When I had left Michigan years ago on a cold April morning there was a sheet of ice covering my saddle, but that day warmed quickly as the Mid-West spring sun rose, but this day was cold before light, cold at dawn, and cold as the day grew. Any increase in temperature was compensated by the extended duration of my exposure and my route leading me into ever higher latitudes. I found out later that it had been below freezing when I had left, as as evidenced by the frost on the sides of the roads even after the sun rose. At the speeds I was moving the wind chill brought that number down to single digits.

My fingers suffered the worse, feeling like skinny, brittle icicles, frozen in their position wrapped around the grips. I cursed myself for not getting better gloves and made a note to remedy that. Each gas stop was a routine of filling the tank and drinking hot coffee. I was taking advantage of stop lights on US 27 to warm my right hand on the cylinder, while as I was moving I would continually hunch down and move my free left hand onto the cylinder on that side. If I left my hands on for two or three minutes I would get five or so minutes of relief before my fingers would return to their semi-frostbit and rigid state.

By Ocala, I had as much as I could take, and I shivered my way off of the bike and into a Cracker Barrel restaurant for some hot breakfast. For at least a half hour I ignored my food and kept ordering more coffee, only releasing my grip on the hot ceramic mug when the waitress took it to refill. When I finally had most of the feeling back, I dug into pecan pancakes and ordered more coffee. Once again warm, I headed out again on I-75 and accelerated back up to that bone chilling 70 mph. No matter how many layers you have on at those temps, the cold finally finds you; all the layers do is slow down how long that search takes. In the dawn's special brand of cold I was finally feeling the freeze in my legs and my chest.

Coffee at every gas stop, along with the delay of thawing out at Cracker Barrel stretched a five hour ride to almost seven, but I arrived enough early enough to find a diner in Madison and have a couple more coffees before trying to find the campus and gallery. I entered before Julie arrived and took a look at her work while munching on treats put out by the gallery staff for the group of attendees.

Jack, Julie's dad, walked in with Julie, and he was the first to recognize me. Julie didn't have a clue until the gallery director filled her in on my presence. Mission accomplished—she was completely surprised.

After Julie was introduced and had done her talk on her work and answered questions from visitors and art students, Jack, Julie, and I met up at a Mexican restaurant, where we chatted about art, friends, and old times, and made future plans to get together. I had a hardy lunch of chips with extra hot green salsa, refried beans, and flautas then said my good-byes and remounted the Bonnie for the ride home.

The temperature had relented a little by the time I left for home, getting somewhere into the upper 40s I would guess. I rolled south fairly comfortably even as evening approached, with my hands the only part suffering, but not getting as frozen as they had been on the way north. The continued southing also helped compensate for the lowering temperatures as the sun got low on the horizon and finally left me in darkness again. It was not long after sunset, though, that I arrived back home, tired and chilled but with a feeling of satisfaction at getting though the challenging ride.

If you've ridden for hours you know one thing you have is time to think (or time to try to stop singing that song that's sticking in your head—“…Just give me a reason, just a little bit's enough, just a second we're not broken just bent…”), and as I was doing this ride I was wondering what made me do stuff like this, stuff I know will be hard and painful, stuff that will make me uncomfortable for hours, stuff that will leave me sore and tired for days after. I could have stayed home; Julie would not have been disappointed; she didn't even know I was going to show anyway. I knew the forecast; I could have gone to see her some other time, some time warmer.

The more I thought about it the more I realized I was not alone, not unique. There are thousands of riders who do that. They know the trips they do will test and even scare them, and maybe even break them, but they go anyway. There are hundreds of them on telling the stories of their trials and triumphs. I'm not unique or rare, or even very adventurous compared to many other riders. But I do share some of their motorcycle genetics; I ride whether it will be warm or cold, dry or wet, because riding in the long run is a bigger reward than all those risks and pains are a punishment.

Why? My guess is that a ride, a sailing trip, and hike, any kind of an adventure is really not an adventure if nothing goes wrong, if it is a cakewalk. We don't sit around campfires telling stories of that ride that went so well, where the temperature was 78 degrees and the clouds were out just enough to take the glare off the sunlight. Instead, we tell about the time the rain came down in torrents and the wind was howling as we crossed Beartooth Pass with the cold front and snow approaching fast, and we just made camp in time…or the time we didn't clean the camp area up well enough before hitting the sack and when we got up a bear was sitting outside our tent…or the time it was 109 and we were crossing Death Valley and our reserve light came on…

Not only are the memories from tough trips vivid and enduring but the feeling of accomplishment is long lasting. Sometimes the very idea that a trip will probably take a hard turn and become a challenge is the very reason we go out riding in the first place. Riders don't go around the world because it is easy; they go because it is hard. These are the chances to test ourselves and see what we are made of, and more times than not we find out we are made of much tougher stuff than we thought. When we push ourselves and persevere, each subsequent time we find we can push further yet.

We don't all have to circle the globe, ride to Ushaia, or dip the front wheel in the Arctic Ocean. Each person's challenge is different. To some it may be to simply ride overnight somewhere and return home the next day; to another it might be to see the West Coast, and for another it may be to just learn to ride a motorcycle on their own. The common thread, though, is that each time a limit is challenged and surpassed, we have confidence that the next hurdle will fall, too.

The next time you feel a goal is just out of reach, reach anyway. You might surprise yourself and begin a journey that may open a new world of things to you that you once thought not possible.


Road Dog

"Ride Your Own Ride"

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