Riders on the Storm
by Lou Dzierzak
It was the kind of Sunday afternoon that keeps you going in the middle of a brutal Minnesota winter — bright sun and a sky so blue you catch yourself daydreaming about the exact words to describe the color. Joe and I were returning to Minneapolis after a weekend watching Superbike racing in Elkhart Lake, WI. A brand new Harley-Davidson Softail and a fifteen-year-old Yamaha pointed due west on a country two-lane highway. We were decked out in gloves, boots, helmets, leather jackets showing a healthy respect for the damage that can be done when the human body meets the pavement at sixty-plus miles per hour.
Joe was the first to notice the change. It took me a second to understand that he wanted me to look at the northern horizon. To the south the sky was a brilliant blue. To the north, it was angry and filled with gigantic purplish-black clouds from the farm fields to the heavens. What the hell were we riding into? Feet on the pegs, zippers tight and fingers poised on brake and clutch levers we rode on. No more one-handed side saddle sight seeing.
Just before the I-94 on-ramp, lightning bolts jumped out of the clouds. They were still far enough away that the sound faded before it reached us, but they told us this wasn’t the kind of summer rainstorm you go out and play in.
We stopped for a smoke, some gas and Gatorade. With the tanks topped off, we donned our rain gear in anticipation of a wet ride. My suit was old, small, and ragged. Better than nothing, I guess. Joe was set with his. How bad could it get? With a little luck the storm would peter out before we even reached the leading edge.
The throttles twisted hard, we flew down the freeway on-ramp. I spent the first twenty miles fidgeting and squirming on the seat trying to move the seams out of tender areas and wrestling with the bandanna tied around my neck. The loose ends were whipping around and stinging like wasps.
The lightning flashed closer jumping from cloud to cloud. The sky changed from blue to gray to black.
When it hit, it hit hard. First, the wind, like an invisible hand, lifted me upright in my seat. Then, the rain came like a wall of water. The raindrops felt like gravel pelting my raw skin. Water immediately streamed into the weak spots in my suit. Cold and damp spread to my hands, feet and down my spine. I pressed my legs against the engine to capture some heat.
The temperature dropped and my shield fogged, which made it difficult to see. I passed my left hand across the shield then made a fist to squeeze out the water. Fifty miles rolled by on the odometer before we pulled off. Under the truck stop canopy we drained the water from our boots and bags. My gloves were so wet the black dye stained my hands. Hot water and thick pink soap from the men’s room didn’t fade my new tan.
Sitting in a red vinyl booth we fueled up with coffee, burgers and fries. We were bored after an hour, so we decided to head back out. A light rain was still falling, but we had three more hours on the road. Since traffic was light we cranked up the speed to take advantage of the clear road. Gray skies turned to twilight. Soon the only lights on the road were the thin beams of two motorcycles riding in tandem.
The patter and splat of a harder rain started again. I hunched over the tank bag and concentrated on staying on the road. A short dull roar was the only warning before a long haul trucker rumbled past me. Spray from eighteen wheels soaked and blinded me. Joe’s taillight disappeared in the rolling car wash. Damn, will I run into him? I throttled back and held the bike straight.
The Harley reappeared as quickly as it vanished. Every muscle in my body clenched ready for some anonymous trucker to bounce me off the road or turn me into road kill. I lost track of how many times it happened — the approach, the cab passing with its huge spinning wheels right at eye level, the drenching spray and then…gone. I could breath again and mutter thanks to whoever might be listening.
I was so cold, so wet, so anxious to be home. The sound of my chattering teeth broke through my mental haze. I was shivering so hard the front wheel started to wander, so I sped up next to Joe and frantically pointed to my gas tank.
Exit. One mile. One minute.
I thumbed the turn signal, clawed at the brake lever, pulled in the clutch and rolled to a stop. I couldn’t stop shaking long enough to unhook the helmet strap, so I stumbled into the station with it still on not caring if the clerk thought I was going to rob the place.
In the men’s room, I pulled off my helmet and leaned against the sink. Pale skin, blue lips and empty eyes stared back at me in the mirror. Joe brought in two steaming cups of roadhouse coffee. We slid down the wall, sat on the floor with our legs out and held the steaming styrofoam cups close.
Reflections of trucks and rain kept us quiet for a long time. Warmed up by a second cup of java, we began to joke about the weather — weak bravado. Two hours later the sky returned to its preferred state. A sliver of new moon joined stars as evidence the storm had passed. With dry clothes, full bellies and body temps back to normal we headed home on the empty road. Under clear skies, twin thin headlights lead two riders home.