EVERYTHING HAS A LAST TIME
I didn’t remember to put my face shield down when the dump truck passed, so tiny rocks sandblasted my helmet and skin like someone popping a rug in my face, shaking the dust out. I pulled my visor down and heatwaves filled my helmet inside. This is Texas, and it was 99 degrees outside. I was out on FM 962 past Hamilton Pool Rd on the way to Johnson City, just because. Maybe I’m crazy. Riding in a jacket, boots, and pants, with all of that sun, all of that engine heat rising onto my shins and legs. But I didn’t buy this bike to park it. I bought it to ride.
But I’ll have to admit, these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dangers we face when we get out on the road. Semis. Grass clippings. Drivers texting. And even our own folly. I don’t remember a time I’ve seen this many motorcycle fatalities here in Austin. Fellow bikers riding for the last time. I’ve been thinking about them every time I throw my leg over my bike. That last time, was there something different when they turned the key? Did they feel like something wasn’t right? At least 5 have died in Austin since July. Not in another town, but here on the same streets I ride. I tried to keep myself from reading all the details, but couldn’t. If you’re like me, you know you’ve been in the same scenario they were in, many times. I read every one. We’ve all tried to beat the red light. We’ve all twisted the throttle on an empty street, spinning the back tire haywire and running wide. We’ve all had that car ‘not see us,’ and pull out right in front of us with not enough time to stop. And we’ve all made high speed runs up a slope in a high-speed trance without knowing what was on the other side.
This all came to a head when I was out on a ride in the Hill Country two weeks ago. I had started late in the day which meant I would be riding back into town when the schools let out. Parents would be lined up for blocks on the shoulder of the road to pick up their kids, and lined up again, trying to make it out. It was 97 degrees and I had to unzip my jacket to cool off. I also had to turn off my bike at a few red lights, because, well, you know, 14s don’t like sitting much. I sat there on my seat moving around restlessly. All I could think about was a fresh blast of AC and a nice glass of iced tea.
I was also thinking about the close call I just had 30 minutes earlier. I was outside a restaurant in the country that I use as a pit-stop to stretch and check my phone. I was still in a trance when I drove into their parking lot, so I was coming in a little hot. Another car, in a hurry, screeched to a halt as I passed right in front of him. His car lunged when he braked, and rocked back. I had the right-of-way. He waved his hand at me, apologetically. Shaking my head, I was mad. Mad at him. At myself. I didn’t need a car bumper snapping my femur bone in half. I saw him drive off into the staff parking lot. I was a restaurant manager for 21 years. It was obvious. He was an employee running late for his shift.
I parked by the staff parking lot, just for the shade of an oak tree, and I saw him walk up. I took off my helmet, my long hair falling out and my dark face coming into the light. I frowned and raised an eyebrow. I’m sure he thought I was going to give him a shove and a piece of my mind.
So 30 feet out, he apologized. And so did I. “Hey man, I was going too fast, too. Don’t worry about it. “ He was young, and walked past me, stiff, embarrassed, and stopped to meet other servers in the parking lot. They smiled and laughed, giving each other handshakes and went inside to work. I checked my phone, cooled off, and headed back home.
Twenty-five miles later, I passed the Travis County line. My bright lime-green, unzipped jacket was flapping in the wind, in the hot air, and I just laughed. I looked like a cyclist from the Tour de France, every shirt-flap wide open, half undressed. But now I’m stopped again. Traffic on 1626 is backed-up, 30 cars deep. I turned off the ZX. I’m a Texas hiker, so I’m pretty good in the heat, and I waited. I waited and duck-walked my bike up traffic one foot at a time, until I saw the fire engine truck.
I saw a state trooper walking across the road. Must be a wreck, I thought, and I’m going to be here awhile. As I got closer, I saw firefighters crouched down, huddled on the ground. One of them looked up, and I could see it on her face. The trooper directed traffic, but he was doing it with a worried face like he didn’t know what else to do. Right by him was a motorcycle on its side. When I got closer, I saw a man on the ground. 15 feet away. He lay on his side. And he wasn’t moving. If it’s 97 degrees, how hot was the ground? My chest started heaving. I wasn’t breathing right. My forearms tensed as I rode by. This is so damn personal. I couldn’t just ride by. Something welled up in my chest and I yelled, “I’M WITH YOU, BROTHER. I’M WITH YOU!” Another state trooper in a cowboy hat turned his face to me, surprised, and I could see it on his face the instant he realized why I was yelling from my bike.
Whether I should have said anything at all, I don’t know. I was a stranger, I know. But I believe in the power of words.
Seeing this man on the ground screwed me up for two days. I took off my gear slowly when I got home, and poured myself an iced tea. You know exactly what I was thinking. Should I keep doing this? Should I continue to ride?
Well, I decided that a long time ago. I’m a motorcyclist. I love the open road. Those dangerous, beautiful roads with frantic deer, SUVs with five TVs inside, and swerving dump trucks, dirt and rocks blasting off from the top. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot. I’ll be out there. Trying to get better. Trying to find beautiful places. I’m still out here even after seeing a fellow rider lying on his side.
Only bikers understand. I tell my wife I’ll stay prayed-up. And when I turn the key, I’ll treat it like Sully on a plane ride. It’s a minefield, I know. But I didn’t buy this motorcycle to park it in a garage. I bought this motorcycle to ride. To go out in the country and look for new places on the side of the road, where I can watch the Cypress trees sway in the wind, by rivers and streams, my ZX14 parked behind me.
Everything has a last time.