Sunday, July 15, 2012

Not the afternoon I had in mind

So after the amazing ride through Mill Creek Road and past Andrew's geyser, we had an afternoon ahead of us of Asheville, Waynesville, the Pisgah National Forest, and our ultimate destination, the Balsam Mountain Inn--a gorgeous wooden manor-style inn described as "creaking and cantankerous" on its own website.  

We stopped for lunch in Black Mountain, and a friendly patron warned us--stay away from Asheville--those drivers SUCK.  We figured we could handle it, but YOWZA.  The Asheville drivers were brutal, rude, and downright nasty.  Bill and I already hate Asheville for lots of reasons, but this sealed it for us.  We couldn't get through there fast enough!

But then we were traveling down flat, open-country roads, and things were starting to feel better.  We left-right-left-righted through Canton, and headed again down 110, which is flat and wide open.  I started to hear a strange sound like a low whistling.  It sounded like an air noise, not an engine noise, and I remembered I had loosened on of my saddle bag clips, so I reached down to see if it had moved oddly, but it appeared to be in the right place.  I felt my helmet, checking to see if some leaf or something was making the sound.  I wiggled my head, leaned in to the engine, checked around.  I still hadn't pinned down the sound when we pulled to a red light.  The sound stopped, and the bike shook a little as it stopped.  We were turning right, and as soon as we did, I felt the handlebars shimmy, and I realized what the sound was.  You can't see your tires when you're sitting on the bike.  Or at least, you can't see them and hold the handle bars too.  But I suspected a flat, and sure enough, I had to fight the bike across the tiny bridge next to the intersection, and I swung left into the parking lot of the Jukebox Junction.  Bill, with no way to know what was happening, rode on.  I inspected the completely flat rear tire, swung off the bike and removed my helmet as I headed the few feet back to the road.  It took only a minute or so to see Bill heading back to discover the problem.  He parked next to me, and we set about making a plan.

Thank the gods and Steve Jobs (again!) for the glory that is the hand-held, internet-surfing iPhone, and I googled "motorcycle shops Waynesville."  Our goal had been to ride through the Pisgah National Forest before calling it a night, but really, we were just about 30 minutes from the hotel, and it was Thursday, so things weren't looking too horribly bad.  We called several motorcycle shops but none answered, so I sent Bill off to find the one that appeared to be nearest.  I figured everything is easier to negotiate in person.  We didn't want to leave our valuables in the saddle bags on my bike, so I stayed with it.

As I sat for the next two hours on the large rock in the parking lot of the Jukebox Junction diner, I frequently checked in with myself.  I was safe, I was physically comfortable (as much as I had been at any point on this trip, given that I was wet, but I wasn't cold), I was happy and content.  Honestly, I wasn't even all that bummed about the flat, given that we were indeed close to our destination, we had a second bike to get us around, and things were going to work out.  And I wasn't even all that bored, since we had seen so much and done so much, the forced wait just felt like a break.

The bike shop Bill had set off for turned out to be a junkyard and no real help, but he found the Maggie Valley Bikewear shop, where the people were nice, where they had a phone book and a phone (Bill's had died by then).  They were delightfully nice, helped immensely, and about an hour after he'd left me, he called to say there was a tow truck on the way.  He had called every tire shop around, and the best bet for us was MR Motorcycle in Asheville, where they had a tire in stock, could change it today, and we'd be back on the road by 6.  They later called themselves "The Vacation Savers," and they were right.

Soon enough, Chris, the NICEST TOW TRUCK DRIVER EVER showed up to SAVE THE DAY.  He picked up the bike and me and delivered us both to the shop in Asheville, talking the whole time about the dangers of riding, how he used to have a bike but scraped too many of them off the side of the road to keep it.  We talked about the 24/7 nature of his job, his wife's support and flexibility, her love of riding and how sad she was he sold the bike.  He commented, "Can you imagine if that had happened while you were on the interstate?"  I told him I rarely ride the interstate, which is true.  It's just not that much fun, and it's much more risky.

He pulled the truck over before we got on I-40 and rechecked the straps tying the bike down.  We talked about accidental death insurance and how gorgeous that part of the country is.  I told him I was feeling great--the ride had been awesome, the flat was an inconvenience, but this was all good.  What a great day!

Bill and I had agreed he would check in to the inn and drop off his saddle bags in case the bike couldn't be ready tonight, and I would be able to attach my bags to his.  He would then meet me at the shop in Asheville.

Chris dropped me off 30 minutes before closing, and they agreed to get me back on the road, though it would be a bit after 6.  Bill eventually showed up (we had been out of phone contact), and we were happy to be reunited.  Soon enough the bike was ready to go, and we headed off, hoping for dinner and a hot bath at the beautiful inn.  Bill kept telling me how gorgeous it was, and I couldn't wait.

We talked at length about how to get there.  The only reasonable way was on the interstate.  Bill had just come through there and warned me it was brutal, but the alternative was a nearly two-hour trip all the way around everywhere, including back through Canton, and I just couldn't do it.  We headed off.

The speed limit on that section of I-40 is 60 mph, but no one, and I mean no one, drives slower than 75.  It was a steep mountain pass, truck drivers jockeying for position as they climbed aggressively up the hill so they could take best advantage of the coming downhill, and it was pouring down rain.

I was a tiny dot of a little red rear light in horrible visibility, out-racing the optimal speed of my engine, winding up a crazysteep hill, the wind whipping, water on my visor, squeezed between trucks, and feeling the rattle of every cross wind, every truck tail wind, trying to stay to the right, begging to slow down but knowing the trucks needed me to keep the pace.  We reached speeds of 80 at one point, with me cursing the craziness of all this, when I felt the front end wobble.  I hoped it was my imagination.  I kept on.  The front end wobbled again, and then didn't stop.  A slight shake at first got more intense as I kept going.  I slowed to 75, then 70, checking my mirrors to make sure the trucks saw me.  The handle bars shook violently, and I held tight, keeping the bike moving straight forward.  The trucks could see me, apparently, and moved past me on the left.  The handle bars were shaking violently in my hands, and I pulled to the right side of the rightmost lane, slowing to 60, avoiding the slick white paint line and the rumble strips.  At this point we were cresting the hill, and I'd seen signs for an exit coming up.  I kept checking my mirrors, and the trucks, realizing some sort of distress, were giving me clear space.  Bill, who had been far up ahead as I slowed, pulled back, offered me the thumbs-up sign.  I did not return it, holding tight to the shaking handlebars, focused only on making it to the exit as we careened crazyfast downhill, twisting to the right with the curve of the road.

Would the tire hold out?  At what point would the rubber shift under the rim, or rip out completely, bounce the rim into the asphalt and throw me from the bike?  How long could I go 60 on a flat tire?  How long would I remain in control?  Would I have warning?  Should I pull onto the shoulder in the rain on the edge of this pass, or will I make it to the exit, which I could now see? The bike was still under my control, and Bill, powerless to help and not knowing what was going on, kept trying to signal me.  I was afraid to even shake my head for fear of disrupting the balance of my rim on the now-thin sheet of rubber between me and I-40.  He pulled off on the shoulder, but I didn't think it would be safe there, so I continued to the exit.  He got back on and followed me then, and I was able to pull over, look down, and see the flattened rubber.

I'd made it.  I was safe.  Bill was safe.  "Rubber side down," as they say.

I burst into tears. 

Bill reassured me and I got off the bike.  We called Chris again, who laughed at our funny joke.  Oh, no joke, and within what seemed like three minutes, he was there again to save the day.  And this time had his wife with him.  The dealership now closed, Chris agreed to keep the bike on the flatbed over night and meet us at the shop in the morning.  He helped us get the saddle bags off my bike and onto Bill's, he led us to the Sagebrush steak house, and he congratulated me on staying safe.  He would then call us periodically through the weekend to make sure we were safe.  He is my new best friend.

Turns out they had replaced the inner tube, not the whole tire, assuming that was the only problem.  Unfortunately, the belts had separated inside the tire and chewed the first inner tube, and then the second.  The shop covered the cost of the second tow and redid their work for free, charging me only for the tire itself.  The bigger issue for me was that we had to get back to the shop the next morning.  The rain came in sheets, and again, the only reasonable way to get there was on I-40, through the horrific mountain pass, with the trucks, in torrents of rain. I clung tightly to Bill, who, poor guy, could barely breathe as I squeezed my whole body against him.  Because the best thing to do when riding in horrific conditions and you're terrified, is to suffocate the driver.

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