Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Saddlesore 1000

"Have you ever heard of the Iron Butt Association?" I asked the young lady at the other end of the phone conversation. Really, you'd think they could come up with a different name, especially for times like these, awkward conversations with total strangers. There was a pause, "Er, no," she said cautiously, ready I'm sure to hear something really gross from this nearly 52 year old filthy old man.


"They are a group of people who formed a club for other people who like to ride ridiculously uncomfortable motorcycles absurdly long distances in laughably short amounts of time," I said, "and I want to join." I must be mad was the recurring thought running through my head, as I tried to convince the nice young operator of my Shell Mastercard that there was a reason for me running up the spine of Florida in the middle of the night buying absurdly small quantities of gasoline. We talked for a while and she allowed me to get my gas (with my five percent Shell card discount), once again. And those precious effing receipts. "You be very careful" she told the dirty old man, sounding like she was warning gramps about the dangers of self propelled lawn mowers. "Iron Butt indeed! What was your wife thinking when she let you go?" Well, she's the one who insists we buy Shell gas to get our five percent discount, was what I wanted to say, which is why I am here calling you. Instead of riding. You've just got to keep riding to fulfill the immutable mandate of the Iron Butt. Yeehaw Junction just after sunrise got a photograph only. An enormous breakfast lies less than half a mile away with endless coffee. What do I do? Pee in the bushes and Keep Riding.
The Iron Butt Association is very strict I am told. So my wife, the ex-lawyer got me a manila folder and an envelope and paper clips and a pen and I laid it out in my top case, on top of my backpack. This was the bureaucratic heart of the operation. While I steered up in front, the office in the back of the motorcycle laid down like this, just waiting for the next opportunity for me to get to a gas station where I needed confirmation of my presence.And then, WITHOUT FAIL, I would slip my gas receipt into the envelope and write down what I was doing. For someone like me who is rather lackadaisical with the paperwork of his life, this was sheer hell:Friday night I worked as usual, came home and slept soundly till 1pm. The afternoon dragged on as we watched a video and pottered around as we would normally do. I felt like the condemned man watching the clock ticking inexorably towards "the time." I checked the Highway Patrol website for accidents blocking my intended route: nothing. The weather forecast was perfect, a dome of high pressure over Florida is keeping rain away and temperatures a little higher than normal. Frost around Gainesville was highly unlikely. Bugger!


"I feel like I'm standing on the dock in San Diego," I told my wife and her lips smiled while her eyes got her Public Defender glint of determination no matter the odds. It happened that we were in San Diego in 1998 ready with dogs and boat to cast off down the inhospitable Baja California coast with the Baja Haha Rally and I got seriously cold feet. It seemed like madness, we had money, a place to live, a delightful fall climate- why go? My wife prised my fingers off the dock and we had a great two year sail. I was not getting out of the Iron Butt Saddlesore. That much was clear.I felt sorry for the Bonneville just thinking about what we were going to do together. I should point out that my Iron Butt mechanical preparations consisted of cleaning the chain in my usual way with kerosene and a stiff brush and checking the tire pressures. Oh and worrying that there wasn't enough tread on the rear tire to get me through this without a flat. In which case I would try that stupid can of repair goop I carry then retire defeated and call Triple A. I didn't have to be anywhere till Tuesday morning when the actual Public Defender has subpoenaed me for questioning about something about which I know nothing. (When will they learn dispatchers aren't cops? Grrr). I was figuring that with a mechanical failure I could still be back in Key West by 10am Tuesday if all else failed. I got on the bike and started riding. Without the rider the Triumph looks entirely capable of doing the thing on it's own: I had thought of starting the ride more sensibly at the Hampton Inn in Homestead, at the foot of Florida's Turnpike, which would have meant a two night stay and a day by the pool for my long suffering wife. Instead I started from home, less expensively, figuring Saturday evening the tourists would have arrived and the drunks would be starting their nightly binge. Of course I met eight of the slowest drivers in Christendom in the least passable parts of the Highway and my average for the first 100 miles was something absurd like 23 miles per hour. Oh well I thought, that was predictable and now for the Turnpike, 310 miles of open road, 70mph speed limits largely ignored and a reliable chain of 24 hour gas stations to carry me swiftly to Ocala...Which was not at all how things started out. When finally I got on the Turnpike at dusk all I could see was a long, long line of red tail lights. Oh dear, I said to myself this won't do, perhaps I should break the law. Well honestly what else could I do? Give up? Instead I started lane splitting and immediately remembered why I never much liked it even in California where it's legal. Cutting between cars is easy in countries like Italy where it's expected, but in a place like Florida where road rage is taught in Elementary School as a God Given Right and guns are handed out with less controversy than condoms, cutting between cars is a noxious activity. I got my just desserts when I arrived at the Snapper Creek service station (Mile 19) and found a humongous line at the men's loo. I was bursting and that's why this picture is so crappy (pardon the pun):I filled up with gas and remembered to file the cursed receipt. I was so nervous about standing around I forgot to drink water or to wash the windshield and I got back into the traffic flow. The little white box in the windshield of the bike (the picture doesn't enlarge for whatever reason) is the transponder for the Sunpass system which I took out of the Nissan and was a total lifesaver at the myriad toll booths. I don't understand why everyone doesn't have one of these boxes, you can buy them for free for $5 with five dollars worth of tolls already in them. You need a credit card with $25 worth of charges loaded up and they recharge it for you automatically as needed. Welcome to the cash free world of the Florida Turnpike.This was it pretty much, all the gas stations on the Turnpike, roughly every 50 miles, are run by Shell which works for me. They are right there, next to the left lane, and they are guaranteed to be open with food and clean restrooms. For this kind of non-sightseeing traveling the Turnpike is God's Gift to the Iron Butter. Oh and those effing receipts come out crisp and clean and easy to read. With my name on them to boot.The iron Butt people say not to waste time in gas stations because you do better with "quality time" somewhere else. and they may be right but gas stations worked for me. There is unfortunately a severe shortage of places to sit at the Turnpike Service areas so next time (!) I will bother to bring my own cumbersome folding chair. One of those models with folding footrests.Around one am I stopped in the bizarrely named Okahumpka Service Area (Mile 299 of the Turnpike, 400 miles from home) for a not so delicious sandwich and a banana, poor substitutes for one of my wife's delicious dinners. I avoided caffeine until I could stand it no longer around 10 am the next day when I was jolted back to life for the last two hundred miles. I snacked on cold water, crackers and granola bars and drank a few vitamin powders thoughtfully provided by she-who-must-be-obeyed ("I don't mind if you fall off, but if you get sick it will be your own fault" or looks to that effect). I could have used a large bowl of pasta washed down by a couple of glasses of red wine followed by a deep soft mattress surrounded by air conditioning.The great benefit of crossing Florida in the middle of the night is that the unwashed masses are mostly busy snoring. There are no lines, no crowds, nobody around checking up on you which would be useful later when I just had to get some sleep. Motorcycles were almost non existent at that hour as the ass-less-chap-brigade are busy snoring away the night in their suburban fastness, ready to awake refreshed in the morning to terrorize the popular imagination. Meanwhile I had finished with the gruesome roadworks around Orlando which were full of mismatching surfaces and lane shifts and barricades all taken at 70 miles per hour (112km/h) while trying not to think what would happen to my body if I fell off here as I had in Big Coppitt last June.I cannot imagine the tedium of spending all night sitting in your car being "security" for rest areas. They had some unpleasantness in rest areas in North Florida a decade ago and to prevent more murders they instituted police patrols. I've never had a problem in all my travels with being attacked or anything. I don't carry a gun because in my mind, two badly trained amateurs re-hashing the OK Corral gunfight is probably a lot worse for all concerned than handing over your wallet, calling your wife for cash, and getting on with the rest of your life. All good things come to an end, as do a few of the unpleasant ones as well. Lake City loomed in the distance after I covered a hundred miles of Interstate 75 which joins with the end of the Turnpike just south of Ocala. According to Google maps I was 508 miles from home. Good enough for me and it had better be good enough for the paper pushers at IBA. I was cold and grumpy at this point. North Florida didn't disappoint with hills and dips into which some filthy minded person had dumped tons of cold damp fog. I do not like fog and I was getting more of it than I needed or cared for thank you. This picture shows, rather inadequately the yellow halo around the huge street lights that illuminate the off ramps on I-75. Trust me, it was cold damp fog:The Shell station that I scoped out on Google Street View was closed so I went to the nearest alternative, an Exxon. The East Indian attendant came out of his booth to watch me fill up, fill in the tedious log and wash the wind shield and on and on. "Ah, so you are photographing yourself are you?" he asked, making me feel like some actor in a post modern script less play with an audience of one. "And vhat kind of camera is it you are using?" He put me off my stroke so I cut off my own head and such were my feelings at the time I wanted to do the same to him. I was wearing the bulkiest clothes I owned and I was cold, Lake City exit was miserable and the gas station needed a good clean up. I felt like I was back in India like when I was a child, an object of curiosity to be observed and picked apart, after all we are rich and they are poor. He stood in his tweed jacket, his hands tucked behind his back, his skin as wrinkled as parchment and watched me, silently. "Lake City is boring at this hour eh? " I said trying to find something to break the silence. I imagined he might have been a professional man in Uttar Pradesh and I wondered what twist of fate brought him here. He nodded, which in India means "No" but looking around at the cool dark emptiness I had to believe he meant "Yes" as he must have become Westernized by now, I figured. I bought a bottle of water, poured the Emergencee vitamin powder into it and sucked on the bottle morosely, wondering when my wanderlust would please abate. And now I have to ride 505 miles home down the same damned roads.As I was leaving I spotted a police car parked in the shadows. I rolled over, took off my helmet and gloves and holding my hands well visible walked up to the startled Deputy Joyner, one of Columbia County's finest. I had to start the conversation with the by-now well used formula of asking people if they know about Iron Butts, which of course they don't. Honestly, it makes you sound depraved at 3:30 in the morning. He graciously signed my log and promised to drop by to exchange patches if he ever showed up in Key West (note to self: carry patches on next Iron Butt), though after this encounter I doubt Key West and it's iron butts will figure high on his family's list of desirable vacation destinations. Having confused two upright citizens of Lake City, Florida, I made like a leaf and blew.
Oh, those long dark miles, hum-de-dum, the Bonneville rolling along impeccably, just like we were on a high speed commute to somewhere important. Funnily enough I didn't get bored on this trip, perhaps it was the need to accomplish a goal, or it was the time distance calculations, or perhaps it is the night habits I have fallen into working night shift at the police station, but I found the ride quite enjoyable. Perhaps too, the goal of completing the ride liberated me from other considerations. I wasn't sight seeing, I wasn't here to take photographs (early on in the ride I put the camera in its case in my backpack and locked it in the top case). Photos were bonus but they weren't the motivation. I was just here to ride the motorcycle and that was in some sense liberating.
Let's face it, Florida roads aren't what a lot of motorcyclists crave, but as freeways go, the toll booth littered Turnpike is pretty good. When the sun came up I started to feel tired because I am usually falling asleep at that hour. I had napped under some bushes for half an hour back at Turkey Lake Service Area, but it wasn't enough, I was nodding off again. So I stopped near an embankment where the shoulder was wider and I stepped outside the guardrail. The bank was steep and when I laid down, fully dressed, I was about vertical. Such was my exhaustion I kicked my heels into the grass and dirt and pressed my shoulders into the ground. I set the alarm on my cell phone for twenty minutes and faded to black.
A passing truck woke me up 15 minutes later and I lay there looking at the blue sky thinking "This is absurd, I am lying here like a survivor on the slopes of Everest and I am feeling refreshed. What's happening to me?" Was I enjoying the sleep deprivation experiment? I had watched Martin Breashear's documentary of the deadly 1996 expedition to Mount Everest, Storm Over Everest, and thinking about Buck Weather's travails put mine in perspective.
I was stopping too often at this stage, though this was only the second time I stopped for pictures (the other was for the attempt to illustrate the fog) but I am fond of Yeehaw Junction as I used to stop there all the time when I was riding across Florida to escape Tampa on the weekends. By now it was daylight and people started to appear on "my" Turnpike, flooding the road and parking lots and when I stopped for coffee at a gruesome service area I managed to get yelled at by a diminutive mother of one who was standing in line with her daughter. She was a young black woman with her head in braids standing next to one who I ASSumed was her younger sister and I thought they were together with the regular sized black woman ordering at the counter. I didn't half get grief from her when I suggested she move up the line. I perhaps should have yelled back or wrung her neck or something but all I could think was, in 200 miles I get my life back, while you've got to get on with yours until you drop dead. I just hope she was older than she looked, but she looked 15 with a five year old in tow, and I hope for the kid's sake she finds better ways to relieve her stress. Remind me again, why do people have kids? Or more to the point why do people ride 1013 miles in 20 hours and 51 minutes?I wasn't sure how I felt about the experience when I got home. Relieved yes and in surprisingly good physical shape. My right hand could have used a throttle lock for sure and it was cramping a bit, but for the rest I was fine. My wife took me to her personal trainer last week and she showed me some stretches I could use while stopped. I actually adapted them for use while i was riding and they worked wonders. I highly recommend getting a pro to teach you how to stretch and getting limber enough to do them (while stationary is the sensible way of course). I was sleepy that's for sure and I wanted something decent to eat and a glass of wine to go with it. First we went for a swim then I got steak and mashed cauliflower (like potatoes with no calories to speak of) and some cabernet franc to finish me off.Inside that gear is one very sweaty tired human being. The Bonneville looked ready to do it all over again except for the rear tire which is pretty much finished:
People always like to know how one prepares for these trips and I did very little as outlined above. I wanted to do the ride from my home and back with the motorcycle that is my daily rider. I used the Loobman chain oiler of course and the chain still seems fine after more than 32,000 miles of service. I carried a thermos flask of water for emergencies (if I got a flat and had to sit by the road in Florida's heat) and some crackers and granola bars, along with the few tools I carry anyway in the left saddle bag. In the other saddle bag I added a blanket and my winter gloves (which I never sued as it happens) to the waterproofs that live in this bag. I had my Florida map along with me but I never needed to consult it as I knew the route backward. For a first shot the Turnpike was an excellent basis for a Saddlesore ride. Certainly riding 1,000 miles in one direction would have made the second half more interesting but for my first time out I was pleased with the timing of the ride and selection of the route. Riding at night is a lot easier for me and I did it without harnessing portions of the solar system to my bike to make the world a brighter place...I understand the need for documentation which doesn't make me feel any less ridiculous when I am at a gas station filling in a pilot's log in front of God and Everybody. I hope it satisfies the compulsives at IBA and if it doesn't I shall have a good story to tell at their expense.
What I really want to next is to ride up to the middle of nowhere and wait for the sun to rise. In my urgent need to complete 1,000 miles I missed some truly astonishing pictures of fog lying across the Florida fields in amazing whorls and loops and the sunrise was as always, quite excellent over land as over water in this astonishing state that is Florida. I recommend seeing it at your pace and if that happens to be an average 42.7 miles per hour over 24 hours you can consider you butt to be made of iron.