Observations From The Road – Gray Days
The endless stream of clouds marched in from the Pacific like an invading army of sullen, gray giants. Pushed by the relentless northwesterly wind, they stacked up against the slopes of the Cascades where, squeezed between the earth and sky, their life’s blood was wrung from them in the form of a steady, soaking rain. Eventually, the clouds would lose enough of their moisture that they would overtop the great mountain range and continue on towards the east, but the process would take time, and until then, the rain would continue in dribs and drabs, possibly for days.
On the ground below, life continued unabated. For the great forest that stretched from sea to summit, its many giant trees well adapted to life amid the constant deluge, the early summer rain was a chance to store still more moisture against the heat of the coming summer. For the humans, many of us so well adapted to the constant drizzle that we eschewed raincoats or umbrellas – it was a non-event, simply another dreary wet day, one among many.
Recently graduated from college, I had struggled for weeks to find work and had eventually taken a job in downtown Seattle. It was one of those optimistically titled jobs that attract top people but pays low wages, and I ended up living with my mother in that special sort of hell one finds when they earn slightly too much to quit but not enough to live as an independent adult. The commute was long, almost 50 miles one-way, and I first tried using the bus, catching it in the predawn hours at a tiny rural park and ride and spending a silent hour watching the defeated faces of my fellow wage slaves as they clambered aboard at stop after stop until the lot of us were unceremoniously deposited on a busy, downtown street corner. It was a miserable, tedious trip, and I soon decided that, despite the great distance, I needed a better option.
At just over 20 years old, my Suzuki GS850G held a place of pride in my garage and had, I thought, earned a life of relative ease. I had owned the bike for close to 10 years, trading away an old unwanted car for another man’s old unwanted bike, and I had made it my own through what were, at first, a series of tasteful modifications. Over time, and for reasons I will eventually explain in other articles, the modifications had become a cry for attention. I had turned my focus to paint, first changing the color from the beautiful, factory black to a blindingly bright yellow and then later to the garish red on white rays of Imperial Japan’s rising sun. Given its age, it was not the sort of bike to be suddenly pressed into service as a daily commuter, but as the reality of my daily bus trip ate away at me, I decided I had no other choice.
The rain beat down upon the roof with a steady thrum. It had done so for most of the night, and I was under no illusions about the ride ahead as I stepped out the front door and headed to the garage. The big GS850 sat where I had left it the previous night, its once spotless paint and blinding chrome dulled by that special sort of grime that can only come from riding in the rain. The filth was a palpable part of my daily life. Lifted from the very surface of the road by the water and flung into the air by every passing tire, it had worked its way into every nook and cranny of the bike and coated my riding gear like a thin second layer of skin.
Like many motorcyclists, I had cobbled together my own set of rain gear over time. My choices had been based on hard-won experience and, after trying various products, I had eventually veered away from motorcycle specific gear in favor of the heavy rubber bib overalls and raincoats favored by commercial fishermen. The result looked odd on the back of a bike, but it did a good job of keeping me dry while still working with my protective gear. Thanks to the bright yellow color, I was that much more visible on an otherwise gray roadway. Still, I knew, no matter how good my kit, water is insidious and given enough time it will always find a way in.
After putting the bike on its center stand, I set the choke and pressed the starter button. Despite its age, the old Suzuki was dead reliable, and the engine fired quickly and settled into a fast idle. I stayed with it for a few minutes, gradually reducing the choke and slowing the idle until the bike could run on its own, and then, while it warmed, I donned my gear. Despite the many layers I wore, it was not an arduous process until the end when I pulled on my helmet, secured my scarf and cinched down the various seams where one layer of gear met another. I was assiduous about the details, knowing that they would make all the difference, and finally, looking like an overstuffed deep sea diver, I mounted the bike and rolled onto the street.
To be a motorcyclist in Washington state is to ride in the rain. Like so many things, there is a learning curve, and you begin by fearing every puddle, every rill in the road or anything that might cause you to slip. Later, as your awareness grows, the fear recedes from your consciousness and you naturally avoid the danger, focusing instead on things like managing your breathing to prevent fogging your glasses or your inability to wipe your nose. By the time I reached the freeway, some miles away, even these more mundane aspects of riding in the rain had fled, and I was left alone with the cold, dampness and my own thoughts as I swung into the river of traffic and worked my way over to the HOV lanes.
On the left, insulated from so much of the stop-and-go drudgery that is the Seattle rush hour, I made good time. Overhead, the clouds continued to press in from the west, dropping their rain in alternating waves of heavy downpours and light drizzles but never completely ceasing, while all around me cars kicked up the steady spray that made riding on the freeway truly miserable. About 20 miles out I felt the first tiny drop, a speck of moisture that had been sucked from the surface of the Pacific and carried high aloft for thousands of miles before spattering against my visor, find its way around my helmet and onto my skin just beneath my collar. More followed, little by little, and the drops soon spread into a chilling wetness that worked its way relentlessly downward, spreading out first across the breadth of my shoulders and then towards the small of my back.
I had learned over time that a wet neck or back is nothing unusual when one is riding in the rain. It is seldom pleasant but not unbearable. True misery begins when the water finds its way down your back, into your underpants and begins to pool there where your body bends. With nowhere to go, the water soaks into your clothes and, when they can finally absorb no more, it begins to slowly rise until it hits the point where it can run down the back of your legs and into your shoes. And still it comes, one drop at a time, gradually soaking through every layer of your clothes where it wicks away your body heat and leaves you feeling cold and clammy. The first stages of hypothermia are never far behind.
By the time I reached my job and had secured my bike in its place in our covered parking garage, I was half frozen and thoroughly miserable. As I sloshed my way to the elevator my stoic nature took control, and there, crowded in among the decent, dry people of the earth, I ignored their startled looks and vain attempts to avoid brushing up against me. My jaw firmly set, I rose up into the building, hero or pariah I don’t know which. Perhaps I was the newest, lowliest employee in the entire firm, but I was also a motorcyclist, and as long as I was not confined to the bus, I had my dignity. A little water would never change that.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for nine years, Jamaica for two and spent almost five years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A longtime auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.