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Free Range: Racing the storm

By Felicia Morgan

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I’d set out for a mellow autumn ride across California with plans to soak up some Southwest sun but found myself hip-deep in grief after just a few hundred miles. Electronic highway signs warned of mudslides and road closures ahead as a nasty wind kicked up a dust storm that swallowed the sun. I could smell the rain coming as I pulled into a truck stop for fuel and decided to seek shelter for the night.

Next morning a dense fog settled over the valley so the Beast and I took it slow along the farm roads until the sun broke through and we eased onto a freeway, which was about the same time a massive traffic jam came into view. Drivers had decided to wait it out instead of taking alternate routes and the freeway had turned into one huge parking lot of semi-trucks idling in an eerie, dingy yellow haze. A doomsday feeling crept over me. I braced myself for an intense ride of splitting the narrowing lanes between cars and trucks for more than a dozen miles before reaching the exit to the detour route. Looking back there was traffic as far into the horizon as the eye could see, sitting dead still. I imagined this as an Armageddon.

Pulling over to talk to the CHP officers, they filled me in on the detour route and shared predicted weather conditions. One guy leaned in close and tapped the fairing, grinning as he announced, “You’re gonna love that ride!” And he was absolutely correct: the canyons were beautiful as were the river, farmlands and incredible mountain range, at least as far as I could tell though my rain-streaked face shield.

After another three hours of gliding through twisties, I pulled in for gas at a station that was packed with cars at the beginning of the westbound detour. Panicked drivers swarmed a Highway Patrol officer as he announced that the route I had just taken was now closed due to weather and traffic. He offered alternative routes to the freaked-out cagers. After five straight hours, I was soaked to the bone.

The wind and rain showed no signs of letting up, and leaving my helmet on, I headed inside. A fat line formed across the building so I opted to take a break at the tables arranged against the window, stacking gear as I peeled off layers of wet leather. The scruffy guy scrunched up in the corner nursing a beer in a brown paper bag stared me down, so I nodded an acknowledgment. I was pretty sure I looked like hell. He winked.

“You don’t look like a sportbike girl to me. What you riding? You’re on a Harley, right?” he asked as he took a slug from the bag. We talked motorcycles for a minute, then weather and routes, then back to bikes. He offers that I’m pretty cool and suggests I “take a squat.” The kid said he used to ride, raced actually, but lost a foot in a freak accident. Suddenly his glory days were gone. I sat down to hear the story as he stuck his leg out, pulled up his pant hem, and showed off the prosthetic foot that’s held on with a brace. He mumbles about how one shitty day can make a forever difference in your life while taking another swig from the paper bag.

“Wow, that sucks,” I offer. “No way you can set up a bike so you can still ride? Seems to me there’s lots of innovative ways around that kind of thing.”

He shrugs and talks about money problems. Mostly he talks about disappointments, both his and his parents’ who, apparently, had thought their little prodigy would ride the circuits and make them famous. He scoffs at that statement.

“Yeah, don’t ya love it? I’m the one busting my ass and they thought I would make them famous. How does that even work?” he kills the beer with one last draw and tosses the empty toward the trash can. “I don’t give a shit about bikes anymore. There’s more to life.” He steadies himself before he unloads on me.

“There’s another storm coming; you ain’t gonna get a break. You be careful. I’m sure somebody out there really cares about you. Why, I bet you’re even a grandma. I bet you’re important to somebody, aren’t you? What are you doing riding in this shit anyway? Ya got a death wish? I mean, what? Why are you even out here? Why aren’t you home baking cookies or something?” I say nothing. We stare at each other a good long second before he reaches over and wraps his arms around me. He hugs me hard then shakes his head. “Please, just go back home, lady. Seriously.”

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