When hints of warm weather finally start to tease us in late March, the buzz-saw irritation of accelerating motorcycles punctuates the usual drone of nearby traffic. I am often reminded by both the fickle changes in the weather and the noise of the “donor”cycles of the fragile nature of my own mortality…and I can hear the echoed question posed by others my age: “How did we live to be this old?” The combination of a warm March afternoon and a motorcycle brought me once very close to living a short and meaningless life.
On one balmy afternoon in late March of 1971 my best friend and college roommate, Snake, decided we needed to hitch to his home in Cameron, MO, and drive back to campus on his Suzuki 250 with its home-built sissy bar. We’d made the trip to and from Cameron by thumb before, and that wasn’t much of an adventure. Just getting five or six miles south of town sometimes took the longest, and we walked that a few times. Hitchhiking in the countryside was always “iffy.” Finally got to the old homestead, though, and enjoyed the afternoon along the highway because it was sunny and in the low 70s. Absolutely gorgeous spring weather. It is the Midwest, though. The next morning we woke in Cameron to cloudy skies, 20-25 mph winds out of the northwest, and temperatures dropping into the 30s with chances of precipitation. Oh, boy.
After stoking our furnaces with a good, solid, homemade breakfast courtesy of Mama Perry, we set out on the hour’s drive north. I had every confidence in my good buddy’s abilities. The only thing uncomfortable at first was the spare helmet that I was wearing. It must have been sized for Andre the Giant. My head felt like the clapper inside a bell. By the time we’d gone twenty miles or so, however, I was ready for that “fun trip” to end. I had a splitting headache, my hands were in cold rictus clutching the sides of my seat, and I could have sworn I no longer had toes.
Everyone in that area of far-northwest Missouri was looking forward to the completion of Interstate 29 between St. Joseph and Omaha. The paving was finished up to Rock Port, I think, but the stretch from about Oregon to the Rock Port exit at Highway 136 wasn’t open because the shoulder grading and seeding work still had to be done. We got to the barricades where the road was closed and stopped to look at all that smooth pavement just begging for the first 75 mph vehicle to lay tracks.
Neither of us remembers our having a discussion at that point. We are still close enough today that we can almost read each other’s thoughts. (I just flashed on my wife, years later, shaking her head at us and saying, “One of these days you two are going to hurt yourselves.”) He shrugged. I shrugged. Well, it would shorten the trip….
Soon we were tooling along at a good 75 mph or more, hunched into the icy sting of almost freezing rain and driven by the wind, both of us glad there was no traffic on that road and the thought of reaching our destination much more ahead of schedule than expected. A warm room, dry clothes, and perhaps some “antifreeze” beckoned. We were both presenting low, streamlined profiles except that I frequently peered over Snake’s shoulder to see what was ahead. Luckily I looked up at one point just when I should have. The image is seared in my brain.
We rounded a slow curve and, just ahead, the unopened highway passed beneath another road. That’s Missouri River bluff country, and the Interstate follows the hillside most of the time, so the earth rose up on the right hand side, but the southbound lanes on the left were across a wide ditch median and the center support for the overpass filled the opening between lanes. No problem with any of that. Unfortunately, someone had left about a foot-and-a-half of dirt piled right in the middle and shoulder-to-shoulder across the northbound lanes along which we cruised at breakneck speed. The closer we got to it, the more obvious it was that the rain had turned the top of the dirt pile to slimy cold mud, and work vehicles had left numerous ruts, as well. OK. Slow down and go around it. Wrong.
Guarding one side of that muddy minefield was a bulldozer. Standing sentinel on the other, a road grader. Nothing to do but cross the dirt pile. I think Snake got it braked down to about 70 by the time we arrived moments after I looked over his shoulder at our impending doom.
We’ve talked about this often in the last forty-plus years. The bike completely left the roadway, of course. My good friend and I still marvel at the synchronicity of that feat. We could have been performing with Cirque de Solei…or at least Ringling Brothers. With my hands simply touching his waist for reference and he still grasping the handlebars, the two of us rose from the seats and foot pegs as if we were one body. When gravity insisted on our return to earth, we again made the trip in unison. The front end wobbled a bit in a rut. The back tire may have slipped somewhat. Snake just straightened it out and gave it more gas. We didn’t stop until we had to at the next stop sign. Didn’t talk about it until we were back on campus and our teeth had stopped chattering.
“How the hell did we do that?”
It wasn’t the first time either of us made it out the other side of a potentially lethal event, and it wasn’t the last. We usually just roll our eyes and shrug when someone rehashing his or her youthful escapades states the obvious: “It’s a wonder we’re still alive.”