The Big Chill
Sub-freezing temperatures and 350 miles later, we live to write the tale
I wasn’t going to ride alone if I could help it. Thirty-six hours until the departure to Florida on my ’01 Kawasaki Concours and I wanted another bike to accompany me on the cruise. After all, misery loves company.
So I took it upon myself to persuade my neighbor Matthew to buy a motorcycle the next day and ride with me 24 hours later. With a case of beer and a Georgia Cycle Trader magazine in hand, I drilled and pressured Matthew, refilling his drink and describing in painfully long-winded monologues the pleasures of riding and the life that comes with it. Two hours later, a phone call and an agreement to meet up with a seller the next morning, the cards were set in place. It only took $4,500 to scoop up a stunning 2003 Honda Shadow Aero Classic 1100 with a black-on-chrome finish and 4,000 miles on the clock. She was a beauty. Matthew named her Marilyn, and we drove her home that day.
That night we prepared. We gathered our gear, half a metric ton in clothing, and the mindset to burn 350 miles south to Pensacola in weather not expected to top 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Those kind of temperatures may be cold, but they’re nothing compared to the wind chill that comes with riding over 75 mph on the highway. I figured we could expect temperatures to settle to 10 below, given the wind chill.
Morning came quickly that Tuesday in January, but not in the form of streaming sunshine or songful birds, but in the form of an obnoxious clock radio and a disheartening color of black in the windows. It was still dark outside and very, very cold. There’s just no reasonable explanation for not taking one's car when facing environmental conditions such as these. But that’s just it. To hell with reason. Riders live to ride and ride to live, so come hell or high water those wheels are gonna burn. After a solid breakfast of eggs on toast, my neighbor and newest riding buddy Matthew pulled up with sleeping bag and pillow bungied to his sissy bar.
‘We on or what!?’
We were on. But despite the high-fives and big cheers, there was an unwavering look of doubt in our eyes. This is going to be a very cold ride.
You can catch I-85 South right in the center of midtown Atlanta. This major artery spawns immediately into five lanes with an additional HOV lane for car-poolers and bikes. Speeds are blistering. There’s simply no choice but to be hard on the throttle when ascending the on-ramp, the rule being ‘do not rely on people to see you or move out of your way, just work that bike through them until you find that open spot.’ The highway was heaving as usual, however the cold was positively biting. Within milliseconds of burning off the on-ramp and jumping across two lanes, it became painfully clear which body parts were either inadequately dressed or simply bare-open to the knives. We burned the heavily laden bikes for 30 minutes before Matthew started giving me the signal from behind – pull Over!
Off the exit ramp and cocking our bikes at the local BP gas station, Matthew approached me experiencing what appeared to be seizures.
‘Duu..uuu.uuu..ude…I can’t feel my fingers, can’t work the clutch.’
I pulled him inside for a mug of cocoa and a smoke, which we killed in the Men’s room. The next 10 minutes were spent explaining to him that he was driving the ultimate motorcycle, an invention of perfection that sports a look on par with Marilyn Monroe’s bust. Once he realized that, he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face, he took my gloves and we jumped back in the saddles.
Fifty miles south we stopped again for some gas. We were in La Grange, GA with at least another four hours ahead of us. Parked at the Shell station we noticed what looked like a nineteenth-century Gold Rush wagon nearby, attached to its roof read a sign “Hot Chili & Gumbo.”
Matthew placed his order first. "Hey, I’ll take all of your chili."
The large bearded man behind the slide window didn’t seem amused. "Yont a large or extra large, son?"
"Big, very big please," Matthew clutching his hands to his chest "and all of your crackers too."
"Y’all on bikes?" the old man leaned towards the window peering down at us.
"Yeah," I said shaking my head.
Handing us two bowls of chili he said, "Well you’re either very smart or very dumb."
As we walked back to the trucker’s lounge in the Shell station I asked Matthew,
"So what does that mean?"
"We’re either very smart or very dumb…Uncle Jesse back there.”
"Whatever man, did you hear what his radio was playing?" Matthew shot me a cocky smirk.
"Damn banjo music man! He’s one of those, y’know, yee-haa, fiddle-dee dudes."
And with that we buried our laughter in wonderfully hot chili. Boy, was it a lifesaver.
The I-85 corridor is always packed with monster 18-wheelers, and the twisting wind funnels that pour off the tractor-trailers desperately try to send a bike into a case of the wobbles. In contrast to my buddy’s Honda Shadow Aero, the Connie sits high off the ground, and tailing those big-haulers (even with my fork stabilizer brace) is like trying to penetrate a tornado. It’s while cruising in the far left lane to get around said trailer that you find yourself noticing spots in the shallow but broad grass median that would be suitable to lay the bike down if somebody were to swipe or cut you off. And then of course you see the storm drains slightly hidden in the grass and you know, if the bike goes down, both you and your machine will splinter upon impact. Charming thought...
With weather at a grand high of 31, the ride had turned into intermittent cases of the chills, shivers and sudden body jerks that repeatedly ignited the mental argument of: 'What was I thinking?'
Scenery was hard pressed to enjoy. Southern Georgia and the neighboring shoulder of Alabama consist of coniferous trees and balding grasslands, hard shoulders dotted with candy wrappers and a curious number of flattened six packs. Oh, and don’t forget the abandoned sofas that tend to pop-up on the roadside once every 30 miles.
Keep Alabama The Beautiful
The large green sign welcomed us to a state renown for Smokey And The Bandit and banjo-playing country boys. The achievement of making it down to Alabama was quickly jaded by the thought of the state’s colorful past and painful pastimes. We had made the switch to the I-65 corridor but you wouldn’t know the difference. The scenery was cold and bland, the hard shoulder dotted in empty Coors cans. Was that the drink of choice for broken down motorists?
The faster you ride, the colder it gets and, my God, was it freezing! Thanks to Matthew taking my gloves, I had to use my backups, a pair of racing gloves covered by a pair of leather specials from Target. Simply put: Not good enough. Fortunately the Connie’s high windshield proved to be the force that made the ride more doable. Unlike my poor Aero rider, who was ‘fairing-less’ and taking 80-mph frigid winds to the chest and head, I was able to sit quite comfortably. Even so, I took several opportunities to lie chest down on the gas tank resting my shoulders and enjoying over and over the sudden environmental change that comes with the move: no more screaming wind, no more helmet buffeting, nothing but the steady howl from the engine... and a few moments of crystalline clarity. Sadly it’s sometimes moments like these, often just milliseconds of dreamy thought, when out of nowhere blue lights are in your mirrors.
'The faster you ride, the colder it gets and, my God, was it freezing!'
Alabama police are known for a couple of things: They wear funny hats and come out of nowhere. And it was on this ride, that Officer Buford T. Justice got me doing 86 mph in a 70 zone and my friend a respectable 91 mph. So, how was it then that the officer gave my buddy a warning and me the ticket? His answer: ‘You’re 31 and should be setting an example to your younger buddy.’ One hundred-fifty dollars later, we’re back on the road, shivering uncontrollably from the recent pull-over and noticing more than ever that no sun was penetrating the clouds this day. And though it was barely 3pm, the skies were already working towards night.
In the immediate aftermath of the speeding ticket, Matthew allowed the distance between us to grow. Evidently he thought I was pushing the speed after just being fined (we’d find out later his speedometer was reading 8 mph over any speed). Several times I turned around and waived him to get a move on, but he just slipped further and further away. By the time I lost him completely in my mirrors, I pulled over to sit among the Coors cans and wait for him. Two minutes went by with no sign. I tried his cell phone, no answer. So, I decided to risk one more ticket by turning my bike around on the hard shoulder and shooting back the way I had come… and then there he was. Broken down on the hard shoulder. Specifically, out of gas. His Aero, though a stunning cruiser, doesn’t have a gas gauge, so it’s always a guessing game when it comes to ‘how far can we make it?’ A motorist pulled up in an old minivan, his hair gray and matted.
"Yeah," I replied "Gotta switch him to the reserve tank."
"Should have bought a Harley," the man said.
"What?" I said, "Be broke and doing maintenance for the rest of my life? No thanks,
I think we’ll just go get some more gas."
It’s one thing to offer help, it’s another to pull over and be smug about your ride.
The final leg of the journey dragged on longer than a Cuban cigar. Highway 29 is a two-lane country highway made up of plentiful hills and bends. The posted speed limit is 70 mph, so you can have a good ride, provided the weather’s warm and you’re not in a desperate hurry. The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping by the minute and yet, despite all the cold, the numbness and the shame, our bikes purred on with style and class. The Connie maintained an even yell throughout the ride while Matthew’s Aero gurgled and grumbled with a heavy thomp.
Twenty-two miles to Pensacola, I looked behind and gave Matthew the thumbs-up. No response. He was hunched over, leaning forward, face blocked by a full-cover helmet. Was he nodding or just shaking? Did he see me? Then his high-beams flashed, all was well and we were burning into the last minutes, the final seconds of the ride.
We did arrive at the condo in Florida, eventually. Nighttime had settled in, but with it came a Gulf coast breeze that rocked the bikes on the final stretch of the beach road.
When it came time to dismount and grab a well-deserved glass of medicinal brew, we knew we had done something special, we knew we had fought the elements and won, we knew we had braved the Alabama police, but most of all, we knew that our bikes had taken care of us this day. And, for that, we loved them.