So there I was out on the interstate with an early 40’s Harley Davidson. It chugs along surprisingly well on the modern highway. Tall rear sprocket, short front! Cars cruise by on my left perhaps slowed by the appearance of an odd character astride a 70 year old contraption clunking and banging along at 60 MPH. The bike is small by today’s standards. 6 foot 4 stem to stern. My ‘11 Road Glide over 9 feet with tour pack. The little pan has single chrome sprung seat, springer front end, and a single leather saddlebag hanging low and left off the rigid mount frame rail. This bag is, as required by circumstance, filled with tools. The assortment I’ve carefully chosen is a full bevy of box wrenches, 2 channel locks, 1 needle nosed plier, 2 fresh tire tubes and hand pump, 1 large hammer (22 ounces), 3 coiled up wire hangers, 50 zip ties and a dozen spark plugs. There are 2 containers of liquid neither one gas. One, a quart of 50 weight oil, the other, a pocket sized flask of Tullamore Dew. Medicinal purposes only. If that can’t fix it, then to hell with self reliance. I’ve got Irish whisky and a cell phone, someone will come to get me.
My trip is simple. It spans from Washington, DC, home to Atlanta about 600 miles in length. When the bike was new in the early 40’s this is a 2 or 3 day trip. The bike remains historically accurate however the highway that I propel forward upon is much improved in the last century. My goal is to knock it out in a single day. Optimistic.
In my preparation I have peered tirelessly at a dog eared paper map as you may know I am inclined to employ. Mapquest is great but conjures no fond memories of childhood trips planned with Dad at the kitchen table. The trip as viewed on paper is only 6 inches long. How difficult could this be? A ‘sun up’ to ‘sun down’ affair. If run straight through at 60 miles per hour, then a 12 hour ride gets it done. My average cruising speed of 60 coupled with fuel stops, potty breaks and at least 2 mechanical failures renders a tight schedule. First light comes at 7:28 am and last ends at 6:19 this day. This spans short of the necessary 12 hours but a simple filament headlamp I’ve got. What I did not rely on was that the interstate has much longer sections between exits and rest stops than pre ride calculations accommodated. If my bike has 3 ½ gallons of gas and get about 40 miles per, then it’s an easy hundred mile stretch between fill ups. Certainly no gas exit is farther than 100 miles from the last.
As it turns out exits outside DC are a scant 2 or 3 miles apart. As the morning wanes, exits become an endangered species. Their linear relationship to each other stretches. I begin to gamble and pass gas sign after gas sign, hoping to cheat odds a bit. By the afternoon my gamble forsakes me. Anticipated exits do not come. The road stretches for what seems to be the panorama of the western horizon ending at the Pacific. I feel that heated nervous anxiety producing sweat at my temples and I sense an increased heart rate. The bike runs great but I know the truth, I know my tank is low. I have no odometer much less low gas warning lights or fuel gauges. I’ve been cooking along at my highway cruise at about 3,000 rpm’s a bit over an hour. A wristwatch I’ve got. I trust that the next exit will be just over this hill or around the next long slinking curve. I can picture it in my mind but it never appears. Like a stranded desert hiker hallucinating an oasis just over the next sand dune. I am disappointed at each crest and at each apex. As worry sets in that I’ll run out of fuel, I roll back off the throttle and bring the RPM’s down to about 2 ½ grand. I estimate my speed at 45 or 50 now. Less gas used but less pavement crossed. Tall pines line my path on both sides and move by slowly now. I imagine an exit sign beyond the next long curve. I will it to be so. No cars in view front or back as I sit perched on my steed imagining a “Shell” or “QT” sign in a twilight zone scene that to this day I recall as eerie. The ribbon of roadway straightens before me and a bridge crosses overhead FAR in the distance, perhaps 2 miles. I am in Southern South Carolina and pray to see signs for Lake Hartwell marking my cross into home state territory. The grade is uphill by only 2 or 3 degrees, but enough for me to realize the bike will call for more fuel to push our combined 800 pounds forward.
Then without warning the power shuts down completely. No sputter, no cough, no warning just death to internal combustion. I distinctly hear the carburetor suck wind signaling no fuel mix. I know what has happened. Nonetheless, my right hand instinctually rolls throttle back and forth multiple times to squirt what is nothing but air into my 2 gas starved cylinders. I am surprised to see how quickly I am roadside, right of the white line, right of the rumble strip, long dry weeds waving in the breeze brushing my right knee. I hear crickets and nothing more. I peer forward and scream an explicative to no one. The bridge ahead is 25 or 30 feet higher in grade than I and well over a mile away. Far enough to be hazy in my view given the late afternoon heat. I don’t even unscrew my gas cap. I know what’s in there. And what’s not.
Without hesitation, I dismount and start pushing. Surely that bridge ahead is an overpass at an exit. The sign I cannot make out tells me this instinctively. The 600 pound bike gains a pound every step. I hit the gym every morning but this is not a workout I’m ready for. As I push I switch back and forth over the bike left to right as if doing so somehow changes anything except my view. My boots clomp along on the rough shoulder and I take deep breaths thanking God I never smoked. I heave the bike forward an agonizing battle UPHILL about half way to the bridge. It takes me an hour. Half mile down, half mile to go. Trucks surge by kicking pebbles and dirt in my mouth and dust creases on my neck and face. I can see the sign now. I squint and focus trying to see what exit. My heart sinks. The sign reads: “EXIT – 2 Miles ahead”. Meaning PAST this bridge, damn. I realize I cannot push the bike 2 ½ more miles uphill. It’s an easy mark for a thief if I leave it roadside. Just when my quandary reduces me to near exhaustion I see a figure in the distance walking my way. Perhaps a homeless wanderer or ax murderer, I do not know. We walk towards each other for what seems like 20 minutes. He reaches me and without a word assumes the position on the opposite side of the bike and begins to push. I am kind of taken off guard but ecstatic to have help. His silent kindness shocks me. He eventually explains he’s a biker too and a truck driver. Passed me in his 18 wheeler a while back and pulled off the exit 2 miles up and walked back to help me push!!! We both sweat and push and sweat more. Not much is said between us beyond introductions. The hill takes most of our breath. We make it to the bridge in silence sans the huffing and puffing. 2 miles to go but at least the uphill grade now levels off. What do you say to a guy like this? How can you thank someone for being so selfless? I make vague attempts, he waves them off. After a long silence and much pushing and huffing he says “have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” No kidding. Like pass the butter matter of fact. I’m happy to have help and fear if I say “no” he’ll leave me there!! It shames me to admit that. I stutter a bit, never having been asked that before. “Uh, I’m Catholic” is my reply, hoping that at least gets me enough points to remain at his mercy. He seems satisfied that at least I’m not lost. Sweat pours from his brow splashing off my empty gas tank. I begin to think of those foot prints in the sand stories. I feel guilt seeing him work so hard for me, a stranger. We push the last mile in silence. My mirage of a gas station is real this time. We arrive in darkness and he waits till I fill up and kick the bike to life. We shake hands and he says “God Bless You”. I thank him. No, Dude, God bless you. I do not know his name. I think of him often. True story.
And remember, ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home. Written by Steve Murrin, the ‘Original Biker Lawyer’