Some Rides Are Just Better Finished
We never saw the storm coming, a Colorado squall that stalked us from behind, waiting to sucker punch us once we had our backs turned. A few hours before on this idyllic August day during the Colorado 500 we were enjoying perfect weather. Our fast group of five were Colorado 500 board member Hutch Collier, his wife Dawn, his son Currie, his riding companion Phil Weida and me, and we ripped through the narrow canyon lands leading to Gateway, smooth red rocks and polished boulders doing their best southern Utah impersonation. I couldn’t believe our luck to get these roads with such stunning scenery and perfect weather, one of those days on the motorcycle you wish you could bottle. We had no idea we were riding on borrowed time.
Geography of western Colorado has a southern Utah flavor, and the roads are just as good.
Leaving Crawford south on Highway 92 we foolishly dawdled as the road snaked down to the dam at Curecanti National Recreation Area. We stopped at overlooks, paused to take pictures, even waited to observe a deer instead of blazing past. All this sightseeing did was give the storm time to build, flex and gather strength. Like a prize fighter it was waiting for the right time and place to strike.
As we made our way to the dam below I could sense it. Humidity had increased and the hair on the back of my neck could feel static electricity, like taking newly warm clothes out of the dryer. Sunshine that earlier had us stripping off sweaty layers had disappeared, hidden behind a sheet of steel gray cloud cover. Foolishly we waited at the dam to regroup, giving the storm yet more time to build, time it didn’t need.
The storm was ready.
When we turned east on Highway 50 towards Mount Crested Butte the first drops hit with a jab, painful and loud enough to echo inside my helmet. Our plan was to speed the 60 miles back to Mount Crested Butte but as Mike Tyson once stated, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Storms are different in Colorado. In most parts of the country you look up at a storm, admiring it from below, awestruck by the mayhem overhead while you are safe beneath, all of the chaos happening at an elevation far above you. However, the elevation in Colorado puts in the middle of the tempest. You don’t look up at a squall in Colorado, you live inside of it, buried in the belly of the beast, fury echoing everywhere around you and sometimes, with enough elevation, beneath you. It is frightening, spectacular and the wrong time to be on a motorcycle.
Looming dark clouds should have been a hint, if we had bothered to turn and look, which we didn’t. After this the camera didn’t come back out, for obvious reasons.
There was no transition from the first drops to full storm, no slight build up, no time to prepare for the first jab to the jaw. Seconds after the first drops announced themselves the storm’s full fury punched me in the mouth, instant rain so thick there was no time to consider what had just happened, no time to catch my breath, no time to prepare. It was instant deluge.
Thunder applauded the rain’s first strike, roaring loudly, chuckling at our humiliation, taking only a brief time to catch its breath before belching out rumbles that vibrated my windscreen, shook my helmet and pounded my chest like a kickdrum. Riding inside of it all, heading east through the flatland of Highway 50 I couldn’t tell where it was coming from but it didn’t matter, it was everywhere all at once.
Riding inside the storm quickly became ridiculous, but we had to make it back to Mount Crested Butte. There was no other option. It was just 60 miles.
Really, how bad could it get?
Three miles in I knew how bad it could get. Puddles several inches deep had already formed in the wheel tracks of the road making me slow to avoid hydroplaning. Forceful drops worked their way through helmet vents I had no time to close and dripped down inside my visor, running down my forehead. My leather gloves were soaked while wind forced water up my sleeves. My trusty Klim Latitude gear was working hard to keep the rest of me dry but I was wearing vented boots for my nearly three week camping trip to Colorado and water had no problem finding the vent holes. Just three miles in, if I wiggled my feet I could feel the cold water squish between my toes. It was going to be a long 60 miles.
Blinking the dripping water from my eyelashes I could see a lone taillight up ahead that I recognized to be Currie’s. Although the rain scattered our group, Currie and I had somehow found each other. Then I realized why- there was a large semi truck plodding in our lane.
Fully loaded and creeping, the truck threw up a rooster tail of spray like a hydroplane on Lake Washington. Biblical rain from above was bad enough but adding forceful spray from the semi truck answered my earlier question of how bad could it really get. This was the answer.
I could not see. Riders sometimes throw out the claim that they have been in rain so bad that they could not see. It had been my exaggerated claim as well but now, I actually could not see. Spray from the truck was like a pressure washer on my visor forcing more water up my sleeves, into my boots, into my helmet vents and down my forehead. I blinked the water off my eyelashes but it was replaced faster than I could clear it.
Events had gone from apocalyptic to dangerous.
All I could see was a tiny red dot ahead through a fog of grey and I figured that as long as I followed Curries’ taillight I was okay. He was on pavement and moving so as long as I was on his six I was going in the right direction, and if he left the road and crashed, well, I would too. You never leave your wingman. Then I saw a yellow flash. It was Currie’s left turn signal blinking. He was passing the semi. Crap.
As he pulled out to pass I made the split second decision to follow. I wasn’t leaving my wingman. Increased speed meant brief moments of tire push as the front tire hit standing water but at least we would be away from the deadly truck. I kept the throttle pinned because whatever happened next, good or bad, success or failure, wide open throttle would speed up the ending.
Mercifully the trucker slowed to let us pass and Currie continued on. We rode for a while as a pair, him shaded to the left part of the lane and me to the right. I avoided the water troughs in the wheel ruts when I could but occasionally I would wander and the bike would slow dramatically when the front tire hit these mini rivers of freezing rain from this unholy Colorado storm.
Miles rolled by. Rain punched us in the mouth. The thunder laughed.
Intense focus does strange things to the mind after a while. For the first few minutes all is a hushed focus, a quiet intensity where nothing exists outside the helmet and cockpit. Every input is felt, diagnosed and processed through a soaking mind that somehow manages to think through the fog. Some call it “flow“, others call it being in the moment, but whatever you call it, it can only be maintained for so long.
Soon, scenes begin to adjust, even dull a bit, because the mind can only endure such overwhelming sensory input and focus for a brief time. Something has to give. The rain was not done punching as left jabs were followed by right crosses. The weak link in the equation, my mind, began to cave. Crazy self talk began.
How am I doing this? Better yet, why am I doing this?
This is stupid, I said to myself. How am I doing this? Better yet, why am I doing this? How can 650 pounds of sportbike, rider and gear stay upright on such a slippery surface? I can’t do this much longer. I am absolutely going to crash. Yep, I’m definitely going down. I wonder how I will land? I hope I don’t hurt the bike too badly because I need to ride over a thousand miles back home. I hope when I crash I don’t scratch my helmet. I really like my helmet. And how in the hell can it be raining INSIDE my helmet?
Miles slowly trickled by like the water dripping down my face. I would occasionally turn my head to the side to let the wind clear my visor but it had the unintended effect of letting water go down the back of my neck, then drip its way down between my shoulder blades. As good as the Klim Latitude gear is, the rain had found its weakness. Rain is good at telling you your weaknesses.
Ted and Currie- marked safe, soaked and still reasonably sane after riding the storm.
Currie and I pulled into Almont and at a red light I put my feet down into two giant puddles. I was so cold, wet, and fatigued that delirium took hold. I wiggled my toes just to feel the freezing rain water squish up between them. It made me laugh. I stopped blinking and let the rain drip from my eyelashes, then licked it off my upper lip while I smiled. Another drop made its way down between my shoulder blades while I arched my back, winced, shivered then giggled. I began to wonder how long it would be until the drops reached my underwear.
It was a game now, an entertaining misery.
During this, the longest red light of my life, I turned to look at Currie. I saw his head rotate my way, pause, then look back ahead. Through his helmet I could sense his despondence yet, somehow, he soldiered on. I resolved that if he was doing it, so could I. This simple fact was the only thing that kept me going. Come hell or high water I was not leaving my wingman.
More miles poured on more misery as the shivering intensified. Water wicked its way up my socks from my toes to my shins. My frozen fingers lethargically reached for their controls. Drops trickled down my back and I learned that if I blinked fast enough it would briefly toss the water off my eyelashes, only to have it replaced soon thereafter. Currie was still ahead, and I was determined to not leave him.
Pulling into our hotel at Mount Crested Butte we got stares from strangers hiding under porches watching the storm and seeing what brand of idiots ride sport bikes in this stuff. As we dismounted the bikes and walked to the front door neither of us said a word, just blank stares.
We had done it, and it had done us in.
After warm showers we made our way to bar hopping the honky-tonks in Crested Butte, warming ourselves with aqua blue tequila. No food was permitted. I told Currie my comedic tale of suffering, my thoughts of quitting, and that the only thing that kept me moving forward was that he was indeed tougher than me, that I was not leaving my wingman, and if he was doing it then maybe, just maybe, I could do it too.
Currie froze and stared at me.
“I only kept riding because you wouldn’t stop.”
We stared at each other briefly, broke into laughter and emptied our glasses.
Empty glasses were refilled with more aqua blue death potion while we discussed the absurdity of it all. My fingers had warmed just enough to hold my drink, my toes were still pruned from the soaking and if I inhaled deeply enough I shivered reflexively, dripping tequila from my overfilled glass down my fingertips, just like the rain on my eyelashes not long before.
The tequila was just as cold.
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Ted, it is good that you did not mention Dawn’s expletives at the conclusion of the day’s ride. I am sure the editor would have redacted every other word.
Currie also had some expletives I did not mention in the story. It must be family vocabulary.