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Dancing in the Moonlight
A Primer on Riding after Dark
I live way out in the sticks, all the way at the end of the paved road. My farm is bordered by public land and there's an ORV trail system that starts just on the other side of my fence. When the weather's good there's a parade of ATVs, 4-wheelers, and dirt bikes, filtering up and down the mountain from sunrise to sunset. By day, the parking lot on the other side of the fence is filled with pickup trucks.
But twenty minutes after the sun goes down, it's completely empty. Then I have the mountains to myself. When the moon is out, I fire up the big XR and head off into the night. Occasionally, I'll encounter a straggler tucked in behind a cone of light carefully picking their way down the trail. I can only surmise from the big weave in their headlight as I go by that they are having a hard time deciding if it's a dirt bike or a low flying Huey that just buzzed them in the darkness. For the record it was an 18 disc Supertrapp bolted to a 600cc thumper - a combination that I've found works pretty well at creating separation between the large carnivores that inhabit the northern wilds and me. Aficionados will note that the XR comes equipped with a headlight. Mine works when I want it to and usually I don't. It's a matter of preference. Headlights? We don't need no stinking headlights!
Riding at night is an acquired taste. In my case, it's an indirect product of my misspent youth. When I was a kid, I considered every hour spent sleeping, an hour I couldn't get into trouble. I used to frequently take advantage of a total lack of parental supervision and burn off a little youthful exuberance with nighttime bike rides. Unfortunately, neither efficient bicycle headlights nor alkaline batteries were widely available, back in Eastern KY. circa the 1960's. I tried taping a 2 D-cell plastic flashlight to my handlebars, but it wasn't very effective. It wasn't long before I discovered that it was actually easier to see without the feeble light produced by this setup, once your eyes acclimated to the darkness. Even if the flashlight scheme would have worked, and even if I could have afforded fresh Ray-O-Vacs for every sortie, I'd have still run out of juice, long before the sun came up.
So out of necessity, I learned how to ride in the dark. A career was born.
I don't know if it's genetics, or just something I acquired along the way, but I've always felt comfortable in darkness. I do have pretty good night vision. By star light, I can usually find my way around just fine, in the right terrain and moonlight is nearly as good as daylight. But it goes beyond that. I dig the darkness. When I step out into the night I feel right at home. To me darkness feels like a well-tailored set of leathers. I'll use a light if I have to, but mostly I'm able to do without. I've ridden dirt bikes, skied, climbed and run mountain trails for years in the moonlight, (and sometimes starlight) mostly without incident. Terrain is transformed at night. Moon and star lit landscapes are remarkably austere, without the color, contrast and depth that sunlight provides. I like that.
Riding in the moonlight is not merely an unjustifiable affliction of the lunatic fringe. It does have tangible benefits, aside from being able to wear your full armor without worrying about heat stroke. For example: One of the most difficult habits to unlearn in motorcycling is target fixation. Even riders of lengthy experience will often get sucked into looking at the wrong thing, if it's big enough, or poses enough of a threat to life and limb. If you stare at where you don't want to go hard enough, of course, you will usually ride smack dab into it. Well, at night you can't get too caught up in looking where you don't want to go because you can't see it. At night you are forced to ride loose and relaxed and let the bike and it's suspension do it's thing. It's a very tactile trip. Once you can ride smoothly and with confidence in the darkness, you are much smoother over the same terrain when the sun's up and the hammer's down. It works for me anyway.
Mostly, I confine my nighttime riding adventures to dirt bikes, but riding a street bike at night has some of the same benefits for many of the same reasons, though you do have to allow for a precipitous downside. I wouldn't recommend under any circumstances forgoing a headlight on a public road. But riding at night, even by headlight, forces you to concentrate on what's illuminated. That's what's infront of you and with correct headlight aiming, it's where your focus should be anyway. Night forces you to ignore what is extraneous. Riding your favorite canyons at night will sharpen reflexes and improve your concentration. Just take it easy and watch out for deer. No less of a luminary than former MO intern and quintessential go for it guy Timmy B. will, I believe, readily attest to the concentration required by nighttime canyon strafing.
If you factor in street bikes, the continuum of night riding adventures runs from the after sundown canyon GP to sphincter clenching descents of steep trails in pitch-blackness. The factors to be weighted in considering the level of commitment required vary along the same lines: from the relatively benign problem of making an allowance for the mass of your girlfriend in an on the fly howl at the moon wheelie calculation to the distinct possibility of having to order up a nighttime helicopter rescue way back in the boondocks. The more native you go the more things there are to go wrong. Darkness shaves margins for error and you have to account for that. Knowing how far to push is important. In every adventure there is a line, albeit sometimes fuzzy, between failed suicide and heroic deed. Just make sure of which side you are on.
Back in the halcyon days, I was the king of the no headlights off-road nighttime driving challenge. One time, my fiancee and I were 4-wheeling across the desert near Shiprock NM. In the daylight, Shiprock dominates it's surroundings and is easily visible for many miles. But that night, it was lost in the glare of the headlights - a problem I cured by turning them off. Yowsa! There it was framed about as dramatically as one could imagine against the background of a full moon. Even my future ex fell silent in mid rant because it was pretty darned cool. We were both digging it. I should have been paying more attention to the road though. It'd been raining and flash flooding had opened up some huge, deep dry washes right across the road on which we were driving. We found out about the first one when we arrived at the bottom of it. I don't think I'll ever forget crawling out the window of the truck, scrambling back up to level ground and turning around and see my brand new 4 x 4, nose down like the Titanic in the North Atlantic, with a moonlit Shiprock rising like a majestic spectral iceberg in the background. It was truly a sight to behold. For a brief time I was transfixed, to the point that I was barely aware of either my immediate predicament or the noisy harangue, now making up for lost time, coming out of the hole in the ground. The reverie might have gone on longer, if and I swear this is completely true, the sky had not opened up and began dumping rain in biblical proportions.
The occasional epic aside, deserts are ideal playgrounds for night riding and are places I'd recommend to the newbie night dirt-biker. Technically, the terrain is usually about the easiest to negotiate in darkness. But there is more to it than that. Deserts come into their own after dark. In the daytime deserts are hot, dry, inert landscapes with a hard sky. At night the land and sky blur into a single thing. By day you ride on the desert. At night you ride in it.
Up here where I live, we have a great desert that forms the plain of the Snake River for hundreds of miles. I don't know how much sand, lava and primitive road there is out there, but I've ridden most of it after dark. Lava flows and sand in particular, are easily reconnoitered at night (I'm sure that a number of you out there in MO land with flyweight two-strokes, will have experienced nighttime desert excursions - even if it wasn't on purpose). The cool thing about riding the desert at night, is that usually you can hammer it, especially if the moon is up. There are some things you have to be careful about though. Low contrast changes depth perception - so it's best to be cautious about going for the big dune moonlight air unless you've done a few low-warp practice runs. Recently a friend of mine got enough air off a dune we came up on unexpectedly that we considered radioing ahead to the tower to have them foam a runway. The only thing was, of course, that he didn't mean to. It's easy to get carried away. On that point, the other thing is don't run out of gas. Nothing piles insult on top of injury, worse than arriving at the nearest gas station at 5 a.m., after having walked all night to get there, only to discover that it doesn't open until 9 a.m.
Another thing is to make sure that your bike is mechanically sound and will get through the night in one piece. Getting stranded, way out in the boondocks with a broken bike, is rarely painless even in broad daylight. It is, I assure you, infinitely worse at night. Most of the downside of my own night riding career, has occurred as a result of mechanical problems that were either difficult or impossible to correct with a flashlight in my teeth, or resulted in a large hole in the ground. Recently, for instance, a clutch cable gave out on the side of a steep, boulder-strewn canyon infested with narrow switchbacks.
A few dozen XR600R dead lifts later I was much more convinced about the value of aggressive preventive maintenance. Another time, I set out on a 60 mile round trip on my old dual sport,to the top of a large butte way out in the desert. The ride up went fine, so I was loose and ready for a ripping ride back down. The first stretch on the way down was a long coast, through moderate terrain well suited to engine braking. At some point, while on auto pilot, the front brake lever fell off. Unfortunately, I didn't discover this until the very steep and rocky second part of the descent. The upshot was a long and ignominious limp, out that provided ample time to contemplate the wisdom of safety wiring and checking nuts and bolts against torque specs. At least it didn't rain.
If you decide to venture out into the night on your bike, you should probably be prepared to go it alone. Most of your riding buddies and all of your friends and family will think that you are a nut. If you take an objective survey of the range of human behavior in pursuit of recreation, it's a little hard to argue the point. Bollocks! Life's short then you're dead a long time. Tell them to go bugger off. Then concentrate on not making life any shorter than it is already. Always carry a cell phone and/or let someone know where you are going and when you are coming back. This goes double if you take friends with you because there is not necessarily safety in numbers after dark. Your friends, even if they cannot see as far in front of them as their handlebars, will insist on trying to ride up your tailpipe by sound alone. Usually, this has little to do with competitiveness. Every survival instinct they have, is working overtime to transmit the single message not to get left behind. Invariably one of them will endo into a cactus or take a big tumble onto the boulders.
Speaking of company, you should be aware of the fact that just because wild lands are devoid of lite at night, doesn't mean they are devoid of life. Many members of the animal kingdom prefer to forage after dark. Most of the strictly nocturnal animals are quite shy and will simply hide in the shadows as you thunder through their turf. Many larger mammals however, are opportunistic denizens of the night, who will enthusiastically await your arrival, in order to assess up-close and personal, your potential as either food or perhaps even as a prospective mate. Around here, it's a toss up as to whether it's worse to run into a Grizzly Bear or a Moose. I vote Moose, because I'd rather have something chasing my rear end for food, than for love.
That's about all of the wisdom I have to impart on this. I'll be interested in hearing about your adventures in the dark. The normal disclaimer applies so if you read this and go out and break your neck you should know that not only do I actually not exist but I made it all up anyway. Be careful and have fun.