Rain was nothing new to this rider, who had succumbed to his passion for motorcycling 35 years before in Great Britain, where oppressively damp, foggy weather sets the tone for humor, romance and the national pastime: unbridled cynicism. Yet this was not Great Britain, but the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, one of the most beautiful and remote places in the northeast United States. The rain fell with cold insistence, filtering through dense mountain mists that barely yielded to dawn. It was a little after 7 am on the morning of October 15th, 2010, and the temperature was in the low 40’s (Fahrenheit).
The hamlet of Keene is nestled among minor mountains, between four and five thousand feet high that rise in a wild pattern that borders on random. On days like this one, thick mists rise from the trees and hang in the air like incense in a cathedral. It is very beautiful to see — for the first time, and for about five minutes. But locals know these mists are the precursors of lingering, moody weather, and the dark emotions that contribute to life here.
The rider stood in the basement doorway, taking a final drag on a cigarette.
The damp aroma of forest duff overwhelmed the smoke of the Marlboro, but yielded to the reassuring vapors of gasoline and oil in the room behind him. Illuminated by a dim overhead bulb was a 2000 Honda “VFR Interceptor” and a 1971 Triumph T100c. The Interceptor was a modern tribute to speed and mechanical efficiency. The Triumph leaked oil onto the concrete floor with grim determination. The rider had thought of putting a disposable diaper under the antique, but the ghosts of Kipling, Churchill, and T.E. Lawrence intervened. “Do you want a diaper when you’re 55-years-old,” they asked. That time was a mere three years away.
It is the fashion among some riders to name their machines. He called the Triumph his “Strumpet,” as the motorcycle would fuck him at the drop of a hat. The most recent occurrence had been at an antique bike rally in Ohio. The bike had run flawlessly for a month, then refused to start after being trailered for 24-hours. The rider hadn’t named the bright yellow Honda... That had been done for him by a friend, who called it “Hepatitis.”
He pushed the Honda into the driveway.
Fall comes early in the Adirondacks and the aspens and hardwoods in the High Peaks region were well past their autumn colors. The dense rain would beat a lot of the remaining leaves from their branches, forming a slick paste of death in every curve. Cinching his helmet with an extra tug, the rider surveyed the weather with the quiet resignation of a man cursed by circumstances. He would have taken his truck into the office today, but it was as dead as Kelsey’s nuts. And he could have taken his wife’s car into the office, if it hadn’t served as the unanticipated backstop when he’d tried to jump-start the truck.
It was turning out to be one of those days when the innocent expletive “oh” would nearly always be followed by the qualifying noun “shit.”
Chris Wolfe is a medical practitioner with a strong sense of commitment. Babies with their first sniffles... The elderly with the aches of age... And working men requiring the odd shot or the occasional stitch were relying on him to be there at 8am. He threw his leg over the bike, sneered at the rain, and pressed the starter. Snicking the bike in gear, the modern day equivalent of the country doctor roared off into the gloom for the 25-mile run to Moriah, NY. The ride was slower than normal as there was a lot of water on the road, and the wind was beginning to pick up. Yet Wolfe was still able to enjoy the twisties along the river and the mountain pass at Chapel Pond.
It was a busier than usual day in the clinic. Wolfe took his mid-morning coffee on the fly, burning up what few extra minutes he could spare in casual conversation with patients who were really ill. He has a strong rapport with many, who seemed to find some measure of reassurance in his crisp British accent. He was something of an exotic in the Adirondacks, and in his younger years had shamefully used the crease in his speech to slice through conversation in mountain café society, and as a shortcut to getting laid.
On this particular day, nearly every patient greeted him with a remark about the weather, which was getting murkier and murkier with each passing hour. A cold front had collided with a band of moisture about ten thousand feet above the mountains, turning the rain into the first snow of the season. In Moriah on the warmer shores of Lake Champlain, it was still raining. But at higher elevations like Lake Placid, the snow was already an inch deep on the street.
“I’m ducking out of here about 3 o’clock,” Wolfe announced to his colleagues. “I expect this rain to turn to sleet and I want to get through most of it in daylight.” Five miles into the run home he noticed it was a lot colder than it had been earlier in the day, and he began to worry about black ice. Yet the tire bite remained strong as he started his climb into the mountains.
Not far from its intersection with I-87 (The Adirondack Northway), Route 73 runs into US-9 at a place called “Dysfunction Junction.” It is the strangest confluence of two roadways ever designed by an engineer, and only its remote location prevents huge pile-ups. Heading north toward Lake Placid, Route 73 leaves “Dysfunction Junction,” paralleling a beautiful stream, gradually climbing a series of rises (and accompanying curves) to peak at Chapel Pond. This body of water is a natural reflecting pool for a sheer rock wall rising a couple of thousand feet straight up. Then the road plunges (very steeply) into Keene Valley, for a fairly level ride for the next ten miles. The drop in elevation is checked by a couple of hairpin curves, on the edge of a cliff. For added safety, a stone wall (built by the Phoenicians in 1204 BC) tops the cliff. The other side of the road is a rock embankment.
On a clear, dry summer day, this is one of the most breathtaking motorcycle rides in the country.
Wolfe instinctively dropped into a lower gear as he approached Dysfunction Junction, which to his horror, was covered with snow. “The transition from rain to snow was almost instantaneous,” said Wolfe and it was coming down very heavily.” He had a decision to make. He could peel off on US-9, which was fairly level (minor hills) all the way to the county seat — Elizabethtown — but which ended up climbing the shoulders of Giant Mountain. This terminated in a straight downhill run, almost like a ski jump, which had fired logging trucks 300 feet into the cornfield beyond. Or he could deal with the much shorter run, and less draw- out drop of Route 73.
“The decision was made for me,” said Wolfe. I caught up to the car ahead of me and decided to ride in its right tire track, as the snow was already two inches deep.” The car was headed up Route 73.
Wolfe alternated between first and second gear for the next ten miles. The climb up to Chapel Pond wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” said Chris. “There was no other traffic than the car in front of me and the driver proceed at a slow but steady clip. He had his flashers on and I was following at 18 or 20 feet behind.” They went through the first curves in the road in this bizarre formation, with Wolfe keeping the bike as perpendicular as possible. “There was no thought of leaning the machine. This is a street bike, with street bike tires, made for flawless pavement. Not this stuff,” he added.
The road surface had not cooled as fast as the air, and the car’s tires were getting through to blacktop in many places. The road also weaves through the mountains which deflect the wind, so the distribution of snow on the road was uneven — being a dusting in some places, and several inches deep in others. That changed on the drop into Keene Valley.
“The snow was a constant two or three inches deep and it became critical that I stayed in this guy’s tire track. The other driver was very careful to maintain a slow speed on the downhill stretch as I am sure he had no desire to hit the wall with his car either,” said Wolfe. “Naturally my concern went a little beyond that as the wall is the ideal height for a rider to go flying over, once free of the bike.”
Wolfe tried holding the bike in second gear, with both feet off the pegs.
“That was a mistake and I didn’t try the experiment for more than 100 feet or so. My balance was skewed and I had to keep wiping the snow from my face shield with my left hand,” said Wolfe. “It was easier to control the bike with both feet on the pegs.”
There was another problem as he got down off the mountain. On the level stretch, the driver in the car began to accelerate, widening the gap between the two vehicles. “As the space between us opened up to 50 feet, the car’s tire tracks started to fill in as the snowfall increased,” said Wolfe. He found himself questioning his place in the cosmos by uttering, “What the fuck” every 30 seconds or so.
“That was the longest ten miles in my life,” said Wolfe. “And I don’t really know if the driver was consciously helping me deal with the problem, but I’d like to think he was.”
Wolfe got the motorcycle back to the barn without dropping the bike. In his estimation, riding in the snow is an overrated pleasure that he can live without. “We’re now in the time of the year when the state begins to salt and sand on a regular basis, and this could be the end of my riding season. Then again, we could have a couple of weekends that are cold but dry and I might get another run in,” he said.
The woman pulled into her driveway with an audible sigh. The Chrysler wasn’t really made for North Country winters. It may have performed better with snow tires, but this Nor’easter had caught everyone by surprise.
“Did you have any trouble getting home,” asked her husband.
“The roads were awful and I took it real slow coming over the mountain,” she replied. “There was some asshole on a motorcycle tailgating me from Chapel Pond all the way to Keene.”
“On a motorcycle?”
“Yeah, a piss-yellow motorcycle. He was right up my ass too. And whenever I pulled away, he got right in behind me. What an asshole,” she said.
“Did you get the pizza,” her husband asked, ending the warm, sympathetic part of the conversation.
“Yeah,” she replied after a long silence. “Next time you can get your own pizza.”
“Hey, you’re lucky it’s not March 14th,” he added with a wink.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamnerlain — PS (With A Shrug)