A Midnight Ride

by David L. Smith

There’s nothing like a midnight ride in October. I roll solo through Cottage Grove, my only companions the clusters of stars peering through wisps of ghostly cloud. Rows of vacant, rust-fringed box cars watch silently from the shadows, as I wind my motorcycle up Highway 61. At Highway 694, I veer west and ride towards the celestial lights of the capitol building in St. Paul. midnight

Crouching low over the chipped tank of my old Yamaha XJ650, I hide from a head wind which seems determined to strip all the warmth from my body. Faint gusts of heat puff up from the engine to reward my effort. A woman passes in a red Cavalier, smoking a cigarette with an apathetic expression and nodding her head to an unheard radio song. Sad, I think, to be sitting in a car on a spectacular night like this.

For a second I resent having to spend weekday mornings and evenings trapped in a car instead of on my bike. For this rider, however, dodging rush hour speeders on a twenty mile commute to Plymouth is not a pleasant experience. I have no problem with riders who choose to duck and roll through the heavy traffic, but, more often than not, I’ll choose four wheels. The headache I get from concentrating on avoiding the jerking steering wheels balanced shakily between coffee mugs and morning papers is sufficient to keep my motorcycle locked in the garage.

Thanks to a pleasing mix of nippy night air and adrenaline, I feel intensely awake at this late hour. The light jacket and riding gloves I pulled on hours ago were ideal for the warm afternoon sun, but with a predicted frost nearly upon me, they are now not. As I pass under the Kellogg Avenue exit sign, I realize the tepid summer evenings have definitely departed. And while I look forward to pulling onto my street in Northeast Minneapolis and getting out of the wind and cold, the rush of my filled senses makes me hope this ride will never end. The faint scent from an all-night donut shop reaches my nostrils, and I can almost taste the first luscious bite of my standard blueberry cake selection. Ahhh… what a ride!

My neck hair stands up as a pair of headlights suddenly flash brightly in my bar-end mirrors and an image of Ichabod Crane catching a glimpse of a flaming pumpkin over his shoulder enters my mind. I look back to see…not a headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow, but a Tastee bread truck pulling over from the Snelling Avenue on-ramp. Sigh. No danger there. My tensed shoulders relax a little.

The thought of pumpkins reminds me of Saturday morning rides to Stillwater, where you’ll find more hand-painted signs reading “PUMPKINS 4 SALE” and “PICK APPLES HERE” staked in yards than you can shake a fallen maple leaf at. This ride is still one of the best escapes of the fall season despite its popularity. If you’re an early riser, you can steal a couple of quiet hours to enjoy a cup of coffee and take in the exquisite sights of the banks of the St. Croix blazing orange, red and yellow. If you arrive after noon, you will meet moms, pops and the kids with candy apples in hand, as they browse the huge selection of antique shops and bookstores and reduce main street traffic to a miserable crawl.

Without a doubt, the six week span from September to mid-October is the prime rib of my motorcycling diet. Oddly enough, this brief season seems to pass much quicker than the snow covered, ice-caked weeks of February and March. Once outside the metro area on one of these cool but sunny afternoons, the charms of nature’s flirtatious hues and the fragrant perfumes of crackling logs in nearby fireplaces meet you at nearly every turn. If tooling along some forgotten Minnesota back road and drinking up this last delicious taste of fine weather before the state freezes over isn’t motorcycling at its finest, I don’t know what is.

The white roof of an illuminated storage building triggers a memory of last winter’s towering snow banks, which reduced my back alley to a complex tunnel system instead of a passage to my driveway. Before long I’ll have that familiar ache, just under the right shoulder blade from tossing aside heaps of freshly fallen snow before work. Just knowing that autumn’s perfection will be past soon heightens my enjoyment of the here and now.

A wind picks up as I veer onto Highway 280 for the final stretch of my ride. My shivering worsens slightly, and I lower my chin so that it nearly perches on the handlebars. The feelings of nostalgia fade away, and I twist my frigid throttle wrist focusing now on my destination. Tomorrow is Saturday, and you can bet I’ll be up early to ride through the final hurrah of the motorcycling season! If the season is merciful, there may be yet another October Midnight Ride.

M.M.M.

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