Last week, as winter reared its big ugly head across the Pacific Northwest, I packed my bags and loaded my motorcycle into the back of a rented moving truck in preparation to hit the road for what may very likely be a yearlong stretch of exploration across the country. My motivations for taking on such a lofty expedition has wavered back and forth from wanting to celebrate somewhat newfound sobriety and a desire to further understand this country that I call home. The sudden aggressive onset of winter and the drive from my former home in Bend, Oregon to my previously former home in Puget Sound, Washington served as an unrepentant reminder that no matter what my reasons for going on this trip were, it would not be easy. As I watched storm after storm wash through the two northernmost states on the West Coast the reality and scope of what I was about to embark on became hauntingly clear. The Uhaul I had rented was a necessary vessel to carry myself and the bike from the snow and ice of Central Oregon to the heavy rains of Puget Sound. The origin of the trip being nearly impossible to navigate away from on two wheels while the destination only harbored minor discomfort and inconvenience in the form of perpetual dampness. What I failed to anticipate leading up to the drive was how much of my time on the day of departure would be spent fighting the elements and testing my resolve.
I put Bend in my rearview mirror around 5:30 in the morning. The weather report and the road condition cameras streaming online showed a small window of opportunity lasting only a few hours, so I took my chances and headed toward the Columbia River rather than forging my way up and over the mountain passes that separate east from west. As I neared the mighty river dividing Oregon and Washington I knew that I would be rolling the dice. The conditions in the Columbia Gorge in winter months have a tendency to change drastically in under an hour, and between cautiously steering the awkward box van through the frozen landscape and fighting the frost buildup on my windshield, I found myself praying for the first time in a very long time. Not to any particular god or entity but to any and all deities that would come to my aid and grant me safe passage. As I left the farmlands of Oregon and descended toward the Columbia, I grew hopeful as I recalled the images I had seen on my laptop back at my cozy apartment in my cozy former town. I did my best to will the road that lay in front of me clear. I would not be so lucky.
I was met with what I can only describe as an ice rink covered in frozen chunder. Between the bouts of freezing rain and heavy snow, I was met with severe cross winds and a continuous pouring of anxiety ridden perspiration. I hadn’t pushed the speedometer beyond 40 miles per hour since I had left early that morning and I was steadily slowing my pace nearly every 500 yards as I progressed. Semis jack-knifed in the median and overturned cars and trucks were a constant reminder of the sudden violent shift in weather and the resulting carnage. Being exceptionally bull-headed I pushed on. The stock tires on the lumbering van were completely devoid of useful traction and I could see them caking with frozen slush with each glance in the sideview mirror. My knuckles were white on the wheel and my eyes burned as a result of my complete fear of allowing them to blink and lubricate themselves. As I slowly slid my way past one town and then another my confidence grew. Only to be quickly squashed by the realization that every single rest stop was clogged shut with literally hundreds of sidelined semis and under-prepared travelers like myself. Broken traction chains littered the highway. A constant reminder that I was more ill-equipped than I had ever thought to consider. For the first time since selling my trusty old Toyota pickup I allowed a deep sense of regret into my psyche. I had tackled roads such as this many times before with relative ease and a touch of prideful enjoyment. Instead of the pride I had grown accustomed to in my former vehicle, I was slowly being consumed by a deep sense of dread. My folly being impossible to ignore.
When the two rear left tires blew out I was certain I was going to flip off the road and enter the frigid and fast-moving waters of the menacing body of water to my right. I let off the gas, bounced uncontrollably towards the side of the road, and eased on the break. As I carefully hopped down from the truck I was met with sheer ice and a deeply bruised ass. In one fluid movement I had gone from gingerly stepping down to inspect the damage, to violently slamming onto my ass as if a huge hand was trying to press me through the ground. With oncoming traffic bearing down on me I scurried and crawled my way around to the rear of the vehicle, the ground too frozen and my nerves too rattled to allow me to stand and run. As I rounded the backside of the truck and bent down to inspect the damage my heart sank. The two load bearing tires sandwiched together had completely blown out. The sidewall of the outside tire was shredded and the inside tire had a gaping hole in it. As I stood fighting back a massive rage attack I dialed the number for Uhaul and did my best to convince them that they had to get to me with two brand new spares and a set of chains directly. Again, I would not be so lucky. I was told by the frustratingly chipper woman on the other end of the line that, given the conditions, I was essentially shit out of luck until the weather and roads cleared. Upon hearing her recommendation that I “drive to the next exit and look for a place to stay until help could arrive” I went ballistic. My phone very nearly joined the sturgeon at the bottom of the Columbia. I furiously unwrapped a piece of nicotine gum and gnashed it as deliberately as I could, biting a huge chunk out of my cheek in the process. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I had been on the road for nearly 7 hours and according to memory I still had well over 200 miles to go before reaching the ferry that would take me to the island in Puget Sound I was fighting so stubbornly to get to. Luckily, when I called Les Schwab, they were almost disturbingly happy to oblige my plea for a delivery of new tires, but sorry no chains, the sudden onset of a massive winter ice storm had cleaned them out in under three hours. Chaos equals profit in times like these. I was informed that there were no chains available for hundreds of miles in any direction. I’d just have to settle for the new tires. Not a total loss, I told myself. When the truck carrying the tires arrived nearly an hour later I did my best to refrain from showering the driver with kisses of gratitude. As we pulled the replacements from the rear of the service vehicle neither of us spoke. The rain was coming down in sheets and was freezing the instant it made contact with either of our bodies or the unforgiving frozen ground. I offered to help the man who had come to my rescue and as he jacked the vehicle up I began breaking the lugs in preparation to remove the cursed and useless rubber doughnuts. After a short wait and a quick exchange of funds and receipts the brand new tires were mounted and we were fitting them onto the cumbersome brute that would eventually carry me to safety.
Once mobile again I pressed on much harder and more aggressively than I had before. I had a new sense of determination and the weather was only getting worse. No matter what, I was getting to that goddamn island and I was going to celebrate my victory over the elements. Rain continued to turn to snow and back to rain again. The wind howled unforgivingly around the toaster on wheels but I refused to give up. Eventually the snow on the roads gave way to sheets of impenetrable ice. Any miscalculation or sudden movement led to fishtailing and a strong and steady stream of expletives. I tried singing myself calm but it didn’t work. I tried talking myself calm but just got more pissed off and frustrated. Eventually I made it to Portland and turned the unruly beast onto I-5 north towards the greater Seattle area.
The rest of the trip went relatively smoothly. The roads cleared of snow and ice and gave way to the standard heavily drenched trenches of I-5, something I had grown comfortable and complacent with after living in the Pacific Northwest for half of my life. I dropped the truck off at its new and temporary gas station home, argued vehemently with the clerk that insisted I would have to wait at least 8 weeks to be reimbursed for the new shoes I had purchased for the rented death box, and eventually got around to unloading my new home on wheels from the ass of the now suddenly repulsive beast.
The minute I stepped over the seat to my DRZ400 the events of the day began to fall away. I had been on the road for nearly 12 hours and fond memories of my destination warmed me against the heavy rains and darkness surrounding me. I made the ferry just as it was boarding and the deckhands allowed me to park under the covered area rather than making me stand in the rain for the trip across to the island. As we unloaded the rain let up and for the first time that day my brow unfurled and I was smiling. I was one of three vehicles on the road to my long-time friend and family’s house and as soon as the path was clear, I rolled on the throttle and sliced my way through the descending fog. Freedom bellowed between my legs and anticipation pushed me to open the throttle even further. Everything I had encountered along the way disappeared and I was reminded of why I started off in the first place. I pulled into the driveway and counted my blessings. I had finally arrived at the home of the family that has been one of my biggest champions and sources of love and support since I was 15 years old. As I walked up the steps I fought back tears of happiness and appreciation for the love I knew I was about to receive that would be keeping me warm on the road ahead.
A fitting end to the first day of a new life on the road.