Paradise, Not: Crashing Hell

"You'll need surgery."

Dr. Jensen, the ER physician at Westside District Hospital, was matter-of-fact and professionally calm.

But I just gaped at him, glazed, a dozen questions hazily buzzing in my head, and all I could manage was a weak, stupid, "What … ?", while steadying my broken left hand with my right, looking like a fool and feeling like an idiot at the same time.

"Yep. You have breaks at the base of the fourth and fifth metacarpal bones, see: Here and here." He held up the X-ray, taken a few minutes before by a strange, mean little tech with an indeterminate accent, and pointed with his finger. "I've been a surgeon for thirty years," he said. "I know something about this."

I had no doubts. Dr. Jensen radiated an air of collected confidence, and he looked as though he'd been a surgeon since a long ago time when scalpels were fashioned of flint and bone. But my anxiety was inspired by pain. "Is it bad?" I asked.

The author engages in some male mentoring here via the age-old ritual of Cast Painting. Later, they ran into the jungle, beat drums, scarified themselves and hunted with their teeth. Afterwards, young Philip was a man. "Well," he said, and then paused, and I knew that wasn't good. Uttering the physician's dreaded 'Well', he was, in his way, telling me, "You won't die, no. But you are, in fact, somewhat screwed."

The day had started out nicely enough. Associate Editor Billy Bartels and I were riding up to Monterey to cover Motorcycle Online's AMA Pro Thunder effort and the rest of the Honda Challenge at Laguna Seca in general. We'd been held up in the morning; the boss had called with a wholly expected "oh, by the way" request, asking that we pony up some needed parts. (After seeing a race team operate, up close and personal, I have concluded that racing is a very "oh, by the way" pursuit.) But we'd made great time, splitting lanes through typical LA congestion for the first few miles out of Marina Del Rey and then accelerating to an average 85 mph for the rest of our first 65-mile shot, up to Gorman.

By this time the orthopedist had already forcibly yanked my fingers back into position. He said that it wouldn't hurt. He lied. It did.
The portly anesthesiologist told me that the anesthetic would feel like a slight sting through the IV. This man also lied. It felt like a lava injection. Doctors are liars.
After you're out cold, surgeons shove things down your throat, then take pictures. This is how they have 'fun'. Those wacky guys …
Those little hooks are called 'skingrips'. Here the doctor's getting a good, long look and trying to remember where the heck all those little bones go.
"Nurse, suction!" Doctors get to say cool things. In any case, all that blood just gets in the way. Suck it out, baby.
The Magnaforce Wire Driver at work. Any time a doctor needs to use something called a Magnaforce Wire Driver on you, you know you're in trouble.
Here the surgeon gets a really solid grip while he skewers a bone.
Operating, putting in the remaining pins, making $1,200 per hour, and wondering what's for lunch.
The pins are all in place now, four total. They engaged neighboring bones in the hand to hold the two broken metacarpals in place.
Time to sew up. A surgery isn't over 'til the needlework is done.
All done. It's up to me to eat
Could you wrap that up
Billy started out mounted on a squeaky-clean and shiny Triumph Sprint Executive and I was twisting the grip on BMW's sexy K1200RS. We were looking forward to an afternoon of mercilessly running these fine, and expensive, motorcycles through their paces. This would be full-combat sport touring, no holds barred, the sort of thing that men do when they've learned that the only thing worse than Death is not being able to spit in Death's face, take his woman, and steal his bible. At the Carl's Jr. in Gorman we heartily devoured burgers and fries, cheerily anticipating the carnage we would wreak on the unsuspecting miles to come.

The Lockwood Valley Road was to be our first victim. I'd never ridden up this way before, and Billy cautioned that the spring roads of April might prove a bit treacherous or may even be closed in some sections. This was somewhat a concern, but we remained undaunted. We weren't prepared for the excitement to come.

Lockwood Valley Road is a beautiful stretch of asphalt, the sort of thing God had in mind when He created motorcycles, what the Hollywood art crowd might call a "highway zen-moto:" in balance with itself and motorcycling. It's twisty enough to keep you happy that cars are for men who eschew leaning at speed -- lesser men than you, in other words. But there are enough straight miles affording a rider the opportunity to lean back and appreciate that Nature still has dominion over a few spots on this planet. Evergreens precede fields of grass and wildflowers, cows lazily munching whatever it is that comprises cud, followed by some farmland and more evergreens: Awesome.

Spring is a bitchy mistress, though. She spends the night and shows you why the word ecstasy was invented, but the next morning your place is a mess and she's gone until, well, the next time. Clearly Highway 55 had played gracious host to the minx. Rocks, sand, and rubble were strewn recklessly across the winding blacktop forcing Billy and I into a "Whoa!" style of riding. Here's a smooth stretch coming up to a graceful left-hander, ahhh, lean into it, look through the turn … Oh no, it's tighter on the exit, hold the throttle steady, lean a bit more, a bit more … Yes! You're out and motorcycles are more fun than hot lovin' in the afternoon. Whoa!

Debris-ridden mud covered by a running stream crosses the path, and you happen to be on a 600-pound motor-schnitzel. So you brace yourself, gently squeeze the brake lever, shedding a clean 15 mph off your speed until you come up on the hazard. Easy does it while slogging through two inches of muck, the Beemer chassis rocking and rolling like a high-school jock's '66 Mustang on prom night. But you hold the throttle steady and no more brakes, just stay smooth, look straight ahead and think happy thoughts.

My happy thought happened to consist of my destination. Once I got to Monterey I'd drop off the parts to Bossman Plummer, say some nice things about his shiny yellow racebike, and then find some swanky Bay Area seafood eatery and inhale swordfish while listening to the sea otters smash shells together. Yes, life would be good.

The roads remained treacherous for several hours, with construction crews peppered about the area, kicking in some human flotsam to spring's jetsam. All told, however, the ride was challenging and fun. Once Billy and I had gotten past the most threatening miles, we traded bikes at the roadside and I played catch-up for the next forty minutes while Billy sped away on the K1200 like a winged rat out of a cold, dark, Godless place. Speaking of which …

Taft: The sort of dusty, depressed town masked men ride through without stopping. Skinny dogs run the streets in search of discarded fast-food wrappers and bits of scraps and bones, which they fight over viciously. Empty shops border deserted avenues, dirty windows displaying the partially effaced names of long-forgotten livelihoods: Fred's Hardware, Ace's Grill, Strings 'N Things, Taft Toys. A harsh wind hotly blows over the barren avenues, storefronts, signs: A town without love, a town without pity.

All right, it wasn't quite that bad, but it was well on its way, in my humble opinion. Billy thought the Bavarian brakes felt mushy so we grabbed some gas at the local Arco (the most modern business in Taft, and where Billy assured me the absolutely best cinnamon rolls could be had, cheap) and when they didn't have DOT 3, we hopped on over to the local auto supply. Two women, whom I'll dub Gladys and Mabel, were out front casually leaning against an old Ford pickup, smoking Pall Malls and looking as though a vampiric sun had spent forty years forcibly sucking every last drop of moisture from their now creased and leathery hides.

They regarded us with a cynical stare, as if to say, "Yeah, we've seen your sort ride through here before, with your fancy wheels and your fancy ways." A hundred-and-six years ago two rough men like us had ridden in on four-legged mounts and broken both their hearts, I could tell. Billy smiled at them anyway (he's nice to everyone, a 6-ft., leather-clad, gun-totin', road-smokin' puppy dog), but they looked at me instead, as I was trying to unobtrusively steal into the parts shop.

"You want to leave your lights on?" Mabel asked me, amused. I'd left the key in the bike, too busy worrying about what the tar twins were thinking, and wanting to push out of this town, to pay attention to what I was doing. I sheepishly mumbled an "Oh, no, thanks," and turned the bike off.

Billy bought the brake fluid and spent the next twenty minutes determining that he didn't need it. I was eager to be out of this desolate burg, but forty minutes from then I would fondly remember Gladys and Mabel, wishing I could turn back time to see their shoe-leather faces again. I will always think it odd that after two hours of negotiating the perilous spring roads of a cool, shadowed forest, dodging obstacles on a big, fat deutsche-bike, that instead I crashed, for the second time in my motorcycling history, on a sunny, seemingly clear road. Ain't it always the way …

We rode out without trading bikes again. I was still straddling the Triumph and happy to be doing so. Billy had complained of poor wind protection on the Sprint, and he was right, but I enjoyed the pleasant exhaust note of the throaty triple, and being a Triumph-phile I was glad to be giving the Sprint a go. Lean-angle testing would be a blast.

The road out of Taft is dull for twenty minutes but gets fun after that, consisting of a chain of long sweepers and some shorter turns. Where the forest roads were mostly a string of tight, lower-speed leaners, this stretch required some more speed management, but I looked forward to the change of pace. This would be paradise after Taft.

A quick right-hand turn ended with a long uphill climb, encouraging a downshift and careful right wrist to place the Sprint in optimal torque numbers. I could see the top of the climb and where the road cut sharply to the left. A yellow caution sign to the right warned of a hairpin, so I gave the right brake some pressure and scrubbed off some speed, releasing the brake as I entered the turn. So far, fine. I'd done this before, I'd been doing it all day. I felt good. I felt mean.

I felt my rear wheel slip. It was a small slip, but it happened just as I needed to lean in a smidgen more to accommodate the tighter-than-expected radius. I didn't know why the wheel slipped, but it had. Unfortunately, of all the places along the road that day where fortune had tossed in some slip or slick, I would have chosen any other spot on the way to run afoul of traction. Just why quickly became apparent.

I tried to give a touch of gas to keep my mount stable, but from the edge of my vision, to the right, I caught sight of a rocky shoulder that ended abruptly in an extremely steep, grassy, cliff-like decline. The rear wheel continued its sideways journey and I began to suspect that I would soon be soaring far and high over the panoramic grasslands north of Taft, except that I didn't have wings and Triumphs aren't known for their aerodynamic lift.

And yet, here I was beginning to move that direction, my rear wheel still sliding. I tried to go upright a bit, with the hope that traction and I might be reunited, old friends, happy to see each other again. But our reconciliation came too late. Now I was moving roughly toward the shoulder in an unstable lean, the rear wheel gaining grip just somewhat, and the chassis wobbling like a 400 lb. ballerina after a bottle of Booker's 20-year. Yipes.

All this happened very, very quickly. I hit the rocky shoulder and both wheels lost traction. I was moving quite fast on the dirt, something the Sprint was not designed to do well, and the bike went down, twisting, hitting some larger rocks, pitching.

I've always found weightlessness to be an uncomfortable sensation, but fortunately it didn't last too long. I hit the ground squarely on my face and chest and began sliding, eyes open, watching dirt, gravel, and grass pass under the face shield of my Arai. It's funny, sometimes, what goes through your mind in times of crisis. Even through the shock of smacking the Earth at speed, the humility of wadding, and general horror over the whole situation, I thought, "Yes! Full-face helmets rock!"

I'd been thrown about twenty feet and slid a few more, and finally came to a stop. I lay there, conscious, looking at the ground through my helmet and said a little prayer. "Please let me be in one piece." I started to wiggle my extremities and did all right up until I tried my left hand. Ouch. Ouuuwwwch.

I sat upright, hazy, and saw stars dancing. Pain chased them away. Tossing my helmet off with my right hand, I then reached gingerly for my left with some dread over the dull, intense ache. Carefully, I slid the glove off and was not pleased at the misshapen wreck that used to be a perfectly good paw. My third and fourth fingers were jutting out at a 45-degree angle, and were jammed in rudely so that they were about a half-inch shorter than normal. A large swelling lump was developing over my knuckles. I hadn't used my hands to break my fall, so I could only speculate later at how this had happened.

X-rays are cool. How often do you get to see your own bones? It almost made the crash worth it. Good Samaritans emerged from seemingly nowhere. Two women called out to me, "Are you all right?" One of them went to a call box, and the other acted as a kind of temporary nurse. Billy, who had been a few minutes ahead of me, rode back after a short span and, as usual, treated the disappointing situation with his characteristic diplomacy and good cheer. After about fifteen minutes a cop showed up and started taking cop-notes. An ambulance hit the scene and two paramedics fussed over me, threw me on a stretcher, and tossed me in the back. After that I was treated to a forty-minute ride to Westside District Hospital, staring out the back at Billy somberly riding chase on the K1200, while one of the paramedics tried to engage me in some cheerful banter. Perhaps he was worried about some undiscovered head trauma, but I was in a foul mood. He assured me that this was all right, though. "I'll understand if you're really bummed," he said. Somehow, this wasn't comforting.

Managing Editor Mark Hammond had to sacrifice the rest of his Friday night and drive the MO van all the way to Taft from the Marina to retrieve the thrashed bike and his thrashed co-worker. When Mark passed the word on to Brent, calling from the hospital, Brent responded with concern over my well-being and some good advice: "Tell him not to worry about it. You're just supposed to keep as many miles between each crash as possible."

Nice elkskin gloves, dyed black, saved my hands from getting torn up as well as broken. We have a little saying that we like to pass around the offices at MO: Crashing sucks. Admittedly, this isn't too profound on first hearing, but with further meditation it takes on a kind of Tao-like simplicity. Crashing does indeed suck. There isn't too much of an upside, and there are a limited number of angles you can take after a crash. I came up with these:

Thank God, or whatever higher power it is to which you surrender, that it didn't end up worse. I won't pretend that my couple of broken bones is anywhere near as serious as some other injuries I've seen suffered by other riders, or racers. So, whatever happens, rest comfortably knowing that fortune cut you a break, so to speak. Unless, of course, fortune didn't treat you well at all. In that case, be an American: Look for someone to blame and sue them. 

2. Learn from the experience.
Be brutally honest and answer some tough questions: "Did I wad because of rider error? Was there something I could have done to avoid the accident?" My experience is certainly an example of how one unexpected situation can lead to a cascading series of crises. Perhaps it might be best to go drop a few hundred bucks acquainting yourself with Keith Code before buying that hot, new set of pipes.

3.Congratulate yourself on wearing proper safety gear.
Wearing a great helmet and some great gear saved my great butt. Still, every summer day I venture out on the freeways of LA and I see some squid riding a brand-new YZGSRX-11000 sporting a full-face helmet along with a T-shirt, shorts, and a pair of sneakers. Be proud of the fact that evolution has produced in yourself a more advanced, intelligent human. Very cool: Propelled through gravel and earth at speed, and the Allproof got a little dirty. Otherwise, not a scratch, not a tear was left to remember the crash by. I wish my hand were made this well.

4.Congratulate yourself further on how you've established such a familiar relationship with your primary care physician at your HMO.
Now that you've responsibly reviewed your policy, and have gotten to know your doctor, you won't have to spend the same unnecessary seventy-two hours doped up on Vicodin that I spent while waiting for my HMO to ascertain the difference between its corporate posterior and elbow.

5.After you recover, use the scars from whatever injuries you've sustained to pick up members of the opposite sex.
Lie, and tell them you crashed while passing Gobert doing 120 mph at Laguna-Seca. Or, if you don't want to impugn your own riding skills, say you got hurt in a gang fight.

Finally, get back on your bike, spit in Death's face, take his woman, and steal his bible. Go back to the road that got the best of you and get the best of it. That is precisely what I plan on doing. I'm a motorcyclist, damn it, and there's a swordfish filet in Monterey with my name on it.

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