Route 17 is a winding single lane road that spans the sixty-three miles between my home and work. The great Dismal Swamp lays to one side of it and endless farmland on the other. There’s a sign as you head south into North Carolina. It reads, “Warning: 25 People have died on this road since 1988. Drive Carefully.”
The accident was inevitable, with as many hours as I spend on the road I was bound to screw up at some point. In a year of driving to work that damn drawbridge was never up. My poor little Honda civic hatchback got pulverized against the bumper of a dodge pickup.
“So you’re going to start riding a motorcycle,” my girlfriend said, shaking her head, “Why? So you can be sure to die the next time?”
There were a lot of practical reasons for getting the bike. It was fuel efficient, 57 miles to the gallon. I could pay the bike off in a few months, just in time for my contract with the Coast Guard to run out. The insurance was cheap. It was easy to maintain. In these times of economic uncertainty, it was a wise choice.
“You just think it’s cool.”
There was that too.
“What are you going to do when it rains?” she asked.
“I can deal with rain,” I tell her. I had just finished reading Misuyuki’s “Five Rings”, “The Samurai does not run through the rain, but accepts his drenching with dignity.” I paraphrased.
“I’m telling your mother,” she replied.
The first week was thrilling. 65 MPH feels completely different when you aren’t isolated from the elements in the armor of a car. The rushing wind felt as though it were trying to rip me off the handlebars. It pressed my helmet against my face so there was an imprint on my forehead when I got to work.
My commute became invigorating. The brisk spring air every morning woke me up. The physical exertion involved got my blood pumping. The thrill of the ride energized me and filled me with confidence to face my day. I was a road warrior.
“Are you all right?”
I rolled onto my side to look at the concerned old man, who wasn’t quite concerned enough to get out of his car to come over and check on me.
“Ouch,” I gasped and pushed the helmet off. I managed to catch some of the breath that was knocked out of me and, embarrassed, I assured him, “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Okay then,” he smiled and waved, driving away.
I sat up, sending lighting bolts of pain through my chest and back. I had just learned an important lesson about motorcycle riding: two wheels have less traction than four. When combined with the lesson learned in my teenage years: rain makes roads slippery. Then using the pain as negative reinforcement, I modified my behaviors to take turns more slowly in the future so as not to get slammed into the pavement.
Safe motorcycle riding is all about positioning yourself on the road. Most of the time that’s easy, slightly left or right of middle. When I hit 17 it’s a constant conundrum. If I stay to the left, closer to the inside lane, people are likely to see me, but it also makes them more likely to take me out in a head on collision.
The cars and trucks whoosh by me at 65mph, add my 65mph to this and I’ll be transformed into a fine red mist at 140 mph should someone fuck up. It’s easy to do. There’s only a few feet of maneuvering room between those yellow lines. We’ve all had that moment of inattentiveness on a long trip. The mind wanders, you see something to pull your eyes off the road for just a second, long enough to cross that line briefly before jerking back onto the road.
I suddenly felt like I was walking a tightrope.
Spring was invigorating anyway. The grass turning green, the buds of leaves on the trees. The tiny insects swarming in the morning mist, becoming plastered to my helmet and jacket. The sun coming over the horizon lights up miles of farmland on my left. This time of year they’re growing wheat. That’s an amazing sight as the wind rolls over those endless fields. I now know what they mean by “amber waves of grain”.
I hit seventeen one morning and the fog is so thick I can’t see more than twenty feet ahead of me. Should I slow down? If I do will the cars behind me have time to slow down as well? What if I come upon stopped traffic in the fog? There will be nowhere to go on that single lane road. I have the swamp and oncoming traffic to choose from.
I decide to take my chances with traffic behind and slow down, just in time too. As I come upon a row of stopped semis in the fog. I squint my eyes to see what’s happening, as if the problem were with my eyes and not the humidity. I see blue flashing light and the sillouette of a police officer waves me over. When I reach her, I think I can see red flashing lights further ahead.
“The road’s cloased,” she tells me, “Go back and take 168.”
I nod and u-turn back into the fog. The next day I look for signs of the accident, but cannot find any. For the first time I notice three wreaths and two crosses along the side of the road, memorials. Markers of accidents where people lost their lives, only a few feet away in the trees.
It’s impossible to be productive while you’re riding. I tried music, NPR, books on tape, learning other languages. No matter what my mind wandered elsewhere and I’d forget what was going on on the headphones. It was frustrating.
There was also the issue of posture. Slouch, straighten, stretch out the legs, set them on the pegs. My kidneys hurt. Wiggle the fingers. Rotate the neck. I was in a constant battle to keep the muscles from aching.
I keep telling myself I’m going to quit soon. Just gotta pay off that credit card debt, get that new computer, then my life will be complete and I can go work some landscaping job. I’m not in love with web design, it’s just a job. I’ll quit this fall, after I’ve saved some safety net funds.
I keep meaning to start a count of the road kill I see on the commute. The cats, dogs, squirrels, possums, various birds, badgers, raccoons, snakes, groundhogs, and unidentifiable lumps of meat and fur waiting to be shoveled off the road. I wonder what the road would look like if each one of them got a cross or bouquet of flowers?
The bugs are bigger in the summer. They hit my gloved hands, leaving stinging spots, sometimes welts. They ping off my helmet, leaving streaks of clear and green bug juice. One hits the vent on my helmet and sprays goo into my mouth as it splatters. Another day a bee gets under my helmet and buzzes back and forth before my nervous eyes until I can pull over and let him out.
The summer heat is oppressive. I bought a new jacket with vents and material that breaths. I stopped wearing my leather chaps. I bought a pair of prescription sunglasses.
Nothing stops the sweat. It soaks the inside of my helmet. It rolls down my neck, my back, down my sides from my pouring armpits. All the fabric clings to me, insulating. Every time I stop, the heat from the asphalt mixes with the heat from my engine to create a sauna. Only speed relieves it, the wind rushing over my body, cooling it.
The thick, gray haze hanging over the roadway looks just like fog, but that’s impossible, it’s 95-degrees out and midafternoon. When I enter the haze I realize from the overwhelming smell of hickory, I’ve ridden into a forest fire. My eyes don’t sting from the smoke and I don’t start coughing like I would expect. I simply cannot see more than twenty feet ahead, so I slow down and carefully navigate this winter-wonder-wasteland.
Black ash floats in the air, like some bizarro world twist on snow. They spin and dance in the gray haze. It would seem beautiful if I did not feel like I was riding through a disaster area.
These fires are common in this rural town, in the summer, when the weather gets dry and the foliage turns brown. They are allowed to run their course, so long as they don’t endanger anyone’s property. This one burns for a week. Each day I ride through it, and smell like a campfire for the rest of the day.
25 people dead since 1988. That’s about 2 people a year. You figure at least 10,000 people drive road every year, those are good odds. You figure I spend 2.5 hours a day on it, a little more than five percent of the year and the odds get a little worse. You factor in the fact that I drive it at the most congested times of day and they get worse still. There’s also the fact that I’ve already had an accident this year, so statistically speaking, I shouldn’t have another one; but then I also think about the fact that the accident might have been because I am a higher risk driver, my insurance company would certainly agree with that. Can you tell I have a lot of time to meditate on these things?
October came, but I wasn’t able to quit my job. I was getting married and the mortgage payment was too much to manage on a landscaper’s wages. I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.
Black skid marks appear on the road and I wonder what their story is. They swerve from the right lane into the left, back to the right and then off the road. I imagine the car, like I’m a forensics investigator. Except I can’t even decide what kind of a car to imagine. A mini-van? A compact car? A few moments later the thought is gone and I become hypnotized by the road again.
Everyone hates rubber necking, but everybody does it. I don’t slow down much for the accident on the opposite side of the road, but I do look. In the strobing red-blue and glaring spotlights I catch a glimpse of an old pickup truck with its front-end smashed through the passenger cabin. There is something laying on the street, in the shadows before the truck. The headlight of an oncoming car reveals it momentarily, and I am left wondering if I saw what I think I saw. I am deeply troubled for the next few days. I keep thinking about the speeding asphalt less than a foot beneath my feet, like sand paper ready to grind me up into what I think I saw.
A Tropical storm has moved on top of us during the day at work, down graded yesterday from a hurricane. Rolling in from the sea and into the mainland. I’m not worried. I click for one last glance at the weather. The map looks as though there is a miniature hurricane spinning on top of us. I zip up my leathers and wave goodbye to my coworkers.
The ride home that afternoon was a battle. Blasts of wind fought to strip me off the bike, and tried to knock it over whenever I stopped. At one point I loosened my grip on the throttle and a severe gust blew my arm off the handle grip and twisted me halfway off the bike. I wasn’t even twenty minutes into the ride and my neck was already fatigued from fighting the wind.
Then it all disappeared, the rain, the wind, the struggle. I was riding in sunlight under a clear brown sky. I looked around me and saw storm clouds surrounding in all directions as far as the eye could see. Suddenly a tidbit of information from Elementary School actually became useful. This was the legendary eye of the storm.
Wind and rain blasted me again moments later, but they did not feel overwhelming. Suddenly the thousands of miles of commuting felt justified. As if I wasn’t driving to and from work, but traveling toward that moment, that momentary experience.
It wore off the next morning.
I read about the accident that morning when I got to work. It must have happened shortly after I passed through, but 17 was closed and would be for most of the day. Two semi’s had collided head on. There was no picture with the article on my yahoo news, so I am left with my imagination.
Road crews are still working furiously when I reach the accident scene that night. One lane is open and one cop waves me through, while the other stops oncoming traffic. He pushes his hands in a downward motion for me to slow down.
I realize my imagination has nothing on whatever actually happened here. There are construction vehicles still loading blackened wreckage into the backs of dump trucks. There is sand everywhere, and where there isn’t, there is charred asphalt. The next day there are new road signs before the location of the accident warning “Rough Asphalt”. The road is black and rough from the fire that scalded off the top layer. There are numerous gouges everywhere and two long gouges that run for some 30 yards. Like the rubber marks that lead off the road. I wonder about the story behind these marks, unlike those rubber marks, these scars will not heal for a long time.
It seems like my whole world is darkness. Darkness when I leave home in the morning, darkness when I come home at night. There are no windows in my office. This is what it must feel like to be an astronaut traveling to Mars.
Not that there is anything to see. Barren trees standing up in the bog. Knobby things, twisted and gray all tangled up with each other. The farms have all burned their fields into ash to renourish the soil, and now there is only vast plains of mud. These sights are only slightly better than the darkness.
It’s 30-degrees outside. With the wind-chill factor, going 70mph on my bike, it feels like 15. When I hit Route 17, and enter the Dismal Swamp, it will be even worse.
When I park my bike, the act of setting my foot down on the ground sends little knives of pain up my heel. I slowly dismount my trusty steed and hobble into work. I keep a cardigan at my desk now and I wrap up in this, sipping coffee as I begin my day.
Everyone asks me the usual, “How’d you like that cold coming in this morning?” I want to scream, and today someone adds, “I used to ride a bike. I think if I ever want to feel the wind blowing through my hair again, I’ll buy a convertible.”
The brown haze of distant city lighting peeks over the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond these endless miles of country darkness was my home. I could not say how far, the country all looks the same when it’s pitch black. Did I pass that bend in the road with the white house on the right? What about that cellphone tower in the farmer’s field?
I can’t feel my hands, my feet. They stung for awhile, but are now no more. I take turns reaching each hand under the gas tank to warm it against the engine. It brings relief, before I let the wind chill sting and numb again.
The vents on my helmet are closed. A black scarf wraps around my neck, over my face and down into my leather jacket. It took three scarves to learn how to wrap it so it would not unravel and fly off my neck.
Just below my jacket and chaps I wear a rain coat, below that a pair of sweats and a flannel. Below that is my button up shirt and kakis. A t-shirt and thermal underwear is my last line of defense. The cold has worked its way through all of them, and my muscles have tensed in an attempt to keep the chill from robbing them of their precious heat.
I pull all of this gear off once inside my house, throwing the jacket and chaps across the radiator in the living room. The stack of bills on the coffee table reminds me why I endure this. I am a samurai, now the samurai must take a long, hot shower to rejuvenate himself and work the chill out of his bones.
One day, while I’m riding home, meditating, I think of my commute as a metaphor for life. With spring being youth, all new and refreshing, and age being winter, vapid and confusing. Wouldn’t that make a cool sort of symbolism? I hope I can remember to write it down when I get home.
Out of everything, the fatigue, back pains, time wasted, the worst is the hypnosis. The worthless time wasted not listening to the radio, not thinking about the issues of the day, not even daydreaming. Time lost, that is all. Time I came out of wondering where I’ve been for the last uncountable minutes. It’s like reading a book half-asleep. Your eyes scan the pages, but your mind is elsewhere. Then you realize in disappointment that you haven’t actually read the last five or six pages. I want those moments of my life back.
The new year came and went. Spring was around the corner, but never arriving fast enough. I was 5% more valuable to my employer. I was married, had a house, 365 days closer to achieving my dream of immortality. 35,000 more miles of wear and tear. 50+ road kills. 780 gallons of gas. 11 oil changes. Fifteen more pounds of waistline. 121 shavings. 78 loads of laundry. 1095 bits of good advice. 547.5 bits of bad. 10,000 memories. 58 life lessons. 3 new friends. 14 acquaintances. 650 hours commuting.
How do you measure a year?