I’m guessing everyone’s heard the expression “I hate to rain on your parade”. And surely everyone understands the underline meaning of such a comment .. because sometime in your life you’ve been caught outdoors in an unexpected shower. And .. if you’re one of the “chosen few” .. you’ve been drenched by an absolute downpour! Raining “cats & dogs” .. “like the sky opened up” .. “like you’re standing under a waterfall” .. “so hard you can’t see you’re hands in front of your face” .. “raining sideways” .. or, if you’re a country cousin, “like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock”. Yep .. that covers many of the euphemisms that gets the point across.
When you’re caught unexpectedly .. naturally you’re unprepared, so the result is rather uncomfortable until you rectify the situation. Uncomfortable enough, and it becomes unforgettable. On a bike, it can even approach the “primal scream” level and the trauma is burned into your brain like a branding iron .. very similar to the “cold” I described in my “Noble” Adventure, December 2010.
Last month, a couple of my lessons were “if you don’t ride in the rain, you don’t ride” and “the only good view of a thunderstorm is in your rearview mirror”. Each have valuable merit .. and thus deserve a bit of elaboration. When straddling your Iron Horse becomes an integral part of your character .. and any other mode of transportation instills anxiety, apprehension, hesitation or depression .. welcome to my world. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily a “good” thing .. I’m saying “Life” is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.
Many riders “have” ridden in the rain .. at least once. That’s all it took to convince them that that’s one road they will never travel again .. understandably so. I will never condemn or criticize a biker for not “wanting” to ride in the rain .. as I absolutely hate it! And we don’t even have to go into the myriad of safety reasons that I support NOT riding in the rain .. enough to criticize those who DO to the point of debating their “death wish”. Sure, we choose not to if that’s an option .. but in the same breath, let me suggest every rider should gear up and deliberately ride out in a rainstorm just for practice. Honing the skills you need to stay alive means utilizing conditions you may one day face “unexpectedly” .. and as uncomfortable or stressful as it may be at the time, your preparation may just be the advantage it took to bring you and your passenger back to the barn. But don’t ask me for advice on how to convince your regular passenger to go practice in the rain .. it’s just something you should do.
Back in 2003, I had just spent the weekend in Milwaukee for Harley’s 100th Anniversary party. Mental note .. that was an “adventure” in itself and warrants a future ingredient in Potato Soup. The weather for the weekend couldn’t have been more perfect .. but just as I left the city limits on my way south toward Chicago .. it began to rain. The weather reports all morning were calling for it .. so at least I was prepared and wearing my rain suit and goggles. By the time I hit the loop around Chicago it was literally pouring. Then came the cats & dogs.
If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Loop .. it’s one of 77 officially designated “community areas” located in the City of Chicago. It is the historic commercial center of downtown Chicago and is a combination of US90, 94, the JFK Expressway, and the Dan Ryan Expressway. It’s normally an incredibly scenic ride through town, and for me it was always the “shortcut” through town to connect with US 80 eastward into Indiana then catch I-65 south to Indy.
But on this day .. the rain was so intense I opted to take the 294 tollway around Chicago, as it also ended up on the 80 into Indiana. Dealing with the tollbooths seemed a better option than congested downtown traffic .. and you couldn’t see squat in the rain anyway. It wasn’t long before I began to debate my sanity .. but sometimes you get yourself into situations where you literally have no options but to “go with the flow”, so to speak. Never in my life have I experienced such a deluge of rain. The only means I had to stay alive was to tailgate a semi tractor & trailer so I could see his tail lights .. and I bet the odds he wouldn’t be stomping on the brakes and making an abrupt stop .. but when the brake lights did come on I began pumping mine. Following his fresh tire track minimized my hydroplaning as this was “white-knuckle” riding at its finest!
As unbelievable as it may seem .. on occasion I glanced at my speedometer .. 65 & 70 mph! The “rooster tail” I was eating from the 18-wheeler was nothing compared to the waterfall that came from the heavens. Though I surmised it was directly from Hell and I was being put to another “test”. Cars had to pull off the road due to treacherously limited visibility .. but I couldn’t even see them sitting by the side of the road until I was passing them. I knew there was absolutely NO way I could pull out from behind the truck for fear of slamming into a stopped vehicle .. so I dared not slow down or lose sight of that red tail light.
Couldn’t get any worse you think? Yeah, right .. It was COLD rain on a warm day, so both sides of my windshield were soaked and fogging. My body heat within all the sealed rain gear fogged my goggles to the point I could barely see the truck’s tail lights. When I tried to put gloved fingers under the goggles to wipe the fog the downpour of water filled them. The intensity of the “sideways rain” was even forcing water through the goggle vent holes. I ended up just pulling them down and squinting .. practically blind now. I lost the truck when I caught I-65 south toward Indy .. but I didn’t lose the downpour .. nor my stubborn determination.
Believe it or not .. that rainstorm continued for days. After visiting my Mother and drying out for another day .. I already had plans to make another westward “loop” .. so I started that particular 11,000 mile “adventure” in a downpour. It actually continued to rain heavily until I’d ridden 60 miles past Tulsa, Oklahoma on old Route 66 .. and I rejoiced in the sun as I shed the rain gear. My leather boots were so soaked that the color had left them and they were a strange shade of grey .. they looked “dead”. I couldn’t wait ‘till my next hot shower.
As it frequently happens .. mountain ranges produce sudden rainstorms .. as do the ranges of Wyoming and it’s surrounding states. You can look off into the distance and actually “see” the storm ahead. Sometimes it’s already touching the ground .. other times it’s just hovering overhead waiting for the right moment to dump on you. But after a lot of miles and a lot of rainstorms .. you get pretty good at predicting when you need to stop and “gear up”.. it becomes a road game. Sometimes I can actually smell it coming. Sometimes I ride parallel to a thunderstorm while only separated by a small expanse of sunshine .. it’s an amazing sight.
Animals sense rain coming .. and I can remember the many times I looked out the windows on the farm and saw the horses all running around in a tizzy with their tails held toward the sky. Sure enough .. the rain came. But then again .. we’ve all heard the remark made about someone “not smart enough to get in out of the rain” .. I’m pleading the 5th here as I recall my decision to continue through a mile long construction detour in the mountains of Wyoming during Sturgis week .. it was entirely a muddy mess. Again .. the 5th.
Sometimes I haven’t listened to my “inner voice” .. or I was just so defiant that I refused to heed my instincts .. then got drenched until I could find an overpass or somewhere to pull under and cover the sog in a rain suit. And I can’t count how many times that’s happened either. But the worst of those times, albeit most “memorable”, was while riding east out of Colorado on US 36 across Kansas on a relatively straight shot home. The treacherous crosswinds seemed about 50-60mph .. judging by that same degree of angle I had to lean into it just to keep going. Next came the sleet .. then came the hail. Traction was precarious to say the least .. and I needed cover .. fast.
By the time I found a closed down farm machinery lot with an overhang to pull under I was soaked again. The hail was the size of peas and it hurt as it pelted my skin. So this time I covered my face with a leather mask and wrapped black trash bags around my boots. I put my leather gaiters over the rain pants to help with the sting of the hail on my legs .. and I must have looked like some sort of bank robber when another couple on an Ultra pulled under the same awning to gear up. We laughed at each other out loud and debated our “sanity” .. but it was just another small hurdle .. nothing more. I did take a couple shots of myself for posterity .. and they still never fail to make me laugh. When my sister, Peg, saw the pictures .. she too laughed and thought I looked like a scary bank robber. Good thing I didn’t walk into a Seven-Eleven or a Village Pantry .. I hear lead bullets can cause chromosome damage.
Another time, I’d been down Mexico way exploring the Southwest and my nephew, Brian, called with a “wild hair” proposition. He was taking a little time off and wanted to ride to the California coast. So we made plans to meet in Virginia City, Nevada, then head northwest to the Oregon coast and follow the coastline south and catch Route 66 in Malibu. He actually made the trek in a little over two days .. blasting through Kansas, Colorado, Utah and finally the desolate US 50 across Nevada! When I arrived, he was already at the Bucket of Blood Saloon .. and the first order of business was to kill two big shots of Jack.
What I soon learned was what a horrific experience he had just endured as he literally flew across seven states. He had been run through the gambit .. and was hit with rain, snow, sleet & hail .. and all the variant degrees of each .. even the “sideways rain” and the 60 degree slant angles of the Kansas winds. As he explained each fierce challenge .. he even mentioned a moment in the center of a storm when he questioned the Devil himself, “is this all you got?” .. that same defiant challenge I’ve uttered myself when facing impossible odds .. we were exactly on the same page .. and I knew for sure, he “understood”. He’s a “real” biker .. and that means he has to be a bit on the “crazy” side too, ‘cause nothing is going to stop you once your mind’s made up.
Facing the rain .. the elements .. is so very much a part of Life. The omnipresent threat of natural disasters is just a fact .. when “shit happens”, we deal with it. When dark clouds loom .. it may be a threat, or it may just be an opportunity to prepare for the worst. When disappointment can be reversed .. when you internalize and make it a challenge that brings out the true nature of your character .. a competitor .. a fierce competitor .. you maintain control. Ultimately .. “you” are the true winner.
But trust me .. not every “victory” ends up in the “Win” column. Sometimes you realize what you accomplished just wasn’t what you expected or even worth the effort .. as the emotional cost was far greater than you ever imagined. But you can’t reset the clock. You’ve also heard “you can lose a battle and still win the war” .. that’s the way it is with Life .. where every day is a battle .. and many days you simply feel like you’ve “lost” .. but you never truly surrendered. Tomorrow is another day .. and another opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face .. even if it’s your own. And that’s a “win” no matter what .. no matter how many small battles you lost getting there.
When the thunderstorm is in your rear view mirror .. you smile. So let it rain …
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …