I became vaguely aware of an airborne object heading my way just before I turned southbound to morning espresso at Super Coffee. Expecting a wasp or a bee or one of the biplane-like oddities that flutter out of the deep woods, my initial response was no response at all. I’ve witnessed too much carnage when 4,000-pound cars swerve to miss four-pound rabbits. I would wait until the bug was close, nimbly dip my head out of its path, and ride on, leaving both of us to enjoy the last gloriously warm day of the season.

That this day had arrived at all was improbable. It had already snowed this fall. Not the Instagram-post snow that amuses grade-schoolers, but a slushy rainfall with the same relationship to regular rainfall as a milkshake has to a glass of milk. As is usual this time of year, the swing to colder weather caught me out. Water had to be drained from the race bike’s radiator, the Cherokee was howling for a left front wheel bearing, the VW bus had yet to be delivered to Harvey’s barn for storage, and eight snow tires had to be exhumed from beneath the sun porch and mounted. And the generators—plural—required attention. The portable one that powers tire warmers and allows me to roam the property with a sawzall trimming any branch that provokes my ire, and the natural gas-powered generator that keeps lights on in the house when the power goes out. Which it does, often. But overdue obligations weren’t my gravest concern—making it out for a proper final ride was.

I won’t settle for a 50-degree shiver-fest ride on a low-ceiling grey day. I require the kind of fall day when the blue sky causes the Pantone color chart to throw its hands in the air in defeat—a sky no man-made color can match. And this day of impeccable weather must land on peak garishness, when autumn leaves are at their freakshow best. But coordinating sufficient air temperature and foliage maturity into a riding day, at the time of year when the weather is raging dreariness, is hit-or-miss.

I’d tracked this day on a weather app for nearly two weeks. Each morning I’d check-in, expecting the sunshine and 72-degree forecast to be downgraded or downright eliminated. But each morning the day of promise moved a column to the left and remained an island of happiness amid a sea of cool, dark, fall days. And that my day was to land on a Friday—my favorite time to ride—made it all the more delicious.

Thursday evening, the night before, I had doubts as I prepped the bike. Wind swirled around the shed and dead, brittle leaves scratched the siding like cat claws. But Friday morning I knew the day was glorious before my head lifted from the pillow. The bedroom was suffused with light that seemed to come up off the earth as much as it was beamed down from above.

Out the door, helmet in hand, it was apparent the day had been delivered as forecast. A glorious balminess contrasted sharply with the cold, stale air of the shed, which was as reflective of what we’d endured the past month as it was an omen of what’s to come.

Three sharp upshifts later I was climbing the Niagara Escarpment on the way for a run down the Beaver Valley. I’d given myself the gift of new tires in the spring and my cornering confidence had blossomed throughout the summer, I’m sheepish to admit. In my dozen years at a magazine, riding new motorcycles on fresh tires, I’d become aware that most motorcyclists were riding on squared-off tires and knackered suspensions. I was always reluctant to ride readers’ bikes because I’d have to step off and answer the eagerly asked “so what do you think?” with a lie. “Great, nice bike,” I’d say, as I’d point out, with supreme sensitivity, that the date-of-manufacture on the tire’s sidewall harkened back an administration or two. “Oh, they’re fine,” the owner would say of the tires, “look at the depth of that tread.”

Which is a longwinded way of saying that the corners that preceded the southbound turn to morning espresso at Super Coffee were dispatched with more vigor than usual. At a slower pace, I may have noticed that the bug making its way toward my head was not a bug at all, but a bird. A good-sized bird. And it wasn’t lollygagging on warm thermal air rising from the earth. It was head-down, wings-a-fury, aiming at my head. There would be no nimbly dipping my noggin to the side. My eyes crossed at the moment of impact, my head snapped back, and, blinded, I rode onto the gravel shoulder at a clip roughly triple the speed limit. I wrestled the bike to an upright stop. Braced my feet on the ground, and waited for my breathing to return to normal. “Another drunk,” I said aloud.

I knew the bird was drunk because the blood that covered my visor after impact wasn’t blood at all, but the deep purple of a fermented berry the bird had been carrying in its beak. This is nothing new—birds had been hammering the house for the past month, staining the windows and startling me breathless.

With the bike pushed into a roadside cutout, I gingerly removed my helmet and surveyed the aftermath. The visor smelled like the floor of a Florida bar, and feathers poked out of purple goo. There was no sign of the bird. I rooted through pockets for something to clear the mess, but the only thing suitable was a facemask, which I’d need to enter the coffee shop. That wouldn’t do. But by dipping my hand into the stream at the bottom of the gully, I’d be able to see my way the final few miles to coffee, where I’d wash the visor thoroughly in the washroom.

The embankment was slipperier than expected, and no amount of clawing the shrubbery slowed my descent until my right foot came to rest on the rocky bottom of the stream. The water was warm, for which I was thankful, but my wet pantleg clung to my leg to just below my knee.

Across the floor and out the door I squeaked with coffee in hand, and on a picnic table I removed my boot and wrung the water from my sock. The best way to dry clothing is to subject it to sun and high winds, and for the next three hours I did exactly that, hitting up every good road in the region—and a few more than once—before turning for home.

I paused on an overlook and checked my phone. My wife had sent a message asking if I was OK. This was odd. Why wouldn’t I be OK? And if I wasn’t OK, I would have texted. And if I really wasn’t OK, texting wouldn’t be an option. I replied saying lovely weather, working my way home now, all good, see you soon.

I’d achieved all I’d wanted in a final ride. Keenly aware that my concentration was waning, I slowed, re-focused on my riding, and became aware when I crested a hill that the sky over my home was as black as the bottom of an oil drum. Rain, wind, and plummeting temperatures arrived in seconds. I had to bank hard to the right to go in a straight line. And then hard to the left. Rain ran down the inside of my visor and down my back. I began to shake violently. I wanted to curl up and die. But I was concerned death would come too slowly, so I carried on home.

My wife greeted me in the kitchen with a shake of her head. Why had I not heeded, she asked, the emergency weather warnings that flashed on the phone? I looked at my phone. There they were. Hail, hurricane-force winds, flooding and road closures possible, it read. “Did you think I was texting because I was worried you’d crashed?” she asked, tauntingly.

I stripped naked in the kitchen, tiptoed to the bath to start the water, shivered uncontrollably in the living room as I poured a tumbler of Wild Turkey, then returned to the bath to lower into such comfort that I groaned like a bear. I’ve long believed deprivation a prerequisite for pleasure. The contrast between riding a motorcycle in foul weather and lowering into a warm bath, or checking into a cozy motel, or waiting out a shower beneath the eaves of an old barn, is the definition of sensual decadence. Naturally, I’d have debunked these words while on the road, but now, pleasantly warm inside and out, I’d gained perspective. That, alone, made the day a worthwhile gift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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