Fun with Forest Fires
In these troubling times, when it seems like the entirety of the northwest United States is struggling with forest fires, perhaps an incident that was sort of fun will be appropriate. It will take a bit of reading to get to it, however.
In 1970 I was 23 years old and embarking on my 3rd long distance motorcycle ride. My steed was a pristine 1969 Honda 450 Street Scrambler. Purchased with 843 miles on the odometer, it showed off a few improvements made by the first owner. He had chromed both the side and center stands, and maintained the bike in a manner that would make an obsessive compulsive proud. With silver paint and gold flashes on the tank, it was one of the most beautiful bikes I’ve ever owned.
The plan was to ride from Seattle to Minneapolis to see old friends from high school and college, and then return. I had a large duffel bag on the back with my camping gear and some clothes. That was about it.
This turned out to be the most fraught trip I ever took, but it all ended well.
The first night I was looking for a campsite in southern Idaho, and they were all full. As afternoon segued inexorably toward evening, I was getting very worried. At last I found a campground with a big sign warning that bears had been a problem recently. But – there was an open site! I set up my tent, organized my stuff, and went for a stroll. I spotted an old man leaning over a water fountain, wearing a full length fur coat. This seemed odd, but as I grew closer the “old man” stood up, and it was, in fact, a bear! Everyone around me was scrambling away, and it seemed that all of them had a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back.
I had a tent.
I crawled into my tent, telling myself that both my bike and I probably smelled like gasoline and oil and therefore I would be OK. This made no sense at all, as it was not true, but the bear wandered off.
A big truck soon arrived full of park rangers and dogs. The rangers, bearing rifles armed with tranquilizer darts, walked carefully through the campground, the dogs straining at their leashes. The dogs soon found the scent of the bear, and they were off. I fell asleep to the baying of the hounds far up the hillside.
The next morning I stopped at a small town that had a motorcycle dealership, because the bike needed an oil change. I have no idea why I did not take care of this before I left. I purchased the oil and filter, and set to work in the hot sun. While removing the filter I managed to pretty much weld my forearm to an exhaust pipe, raising a really impressive blister. The next day it broke and I could feel the fluid running down my arm inside my ski jacket, which is what I wore while riding in those innocent days.
After that I was streaming across Montana at about 85mph, which was legal in those days, and a bee struck me in the throat and stung me in his death throes, which seems fair. I’d read in a magazine the previous month a letter from a woman who was arguing against the use of helmets. While riding behind her husband, a bee had flown into his open face helmet and around to the base of this neck, where he was stung. The sting at the base of his skull paralyzed him, according to her. The bike crashed and alas, he was killed.
So while pondering this I continued at high speed, flexing my fingers from time to time to see if paralysis was setting in! I may not have been all that bright back then.
That night I found a lovely park next to a small lake. A ranger was coming around, warning people of a possible tornado. Across the lake you could see a serious weather incident coming directly toward us. I moved my bike up to a sidewalk behind a brick building that housed the bathrooms and showers, and put my tent up right next to it. Now on the lee side of the wind and the approaching storm, I went to sleep. A sleep profound enough to last through the night, the storm, AND the tornado! I woke up as the only person in the campground. There were trees blown down all over the place, and I rode across the grass and anywhere else I could find a clear path to get out.
I had departed very early, as was my habit in those days, and it was about the most beautiful Montana morning ever seen. So much so that I actually parked on the side of the deserted freeway, just to watch the sun come up. Spectacular.
Later I stopped for breakfast. As I got off the bike and removed my helmet, an older woman came out. Obviously on her way to church, she wore a spotless blue dress with white lace trim, a hat, and gloves. She walked toward me, her lips pursed, and I braced myself for the lecture on the idiocy of riding motorcycles many people liked to deliver back then. She took a long look at my bike and then said “My, what a pretty motorcycle!” Absolutely made my day.
In Minnesota I was giving a ride to a friend on the freeway. A white Ford van changed lanes straight into the left side of the bike, knocking me to the right. The ARMCO barrier was right there, and I remember the handlebar jamming into my stomach as I corrected for the slide. The bike then went into a slide the other way, and I slewed and sashayed and swayed to the left across four lanes of busy traffic, coming to a stop on the left hand verge. The van driver stopped and was almost crying with relief that we were not dead, and promised to pay for any damages. (Later he changed his mind).
The damage to my bike was a clutch lever that had bent around my fingers, a white mark on the front tire where the painted bumper of the van had hit, and a grotesque swelling of the ankle of my friend David, who had been hit by the side of the van.
The state trooper could not believe it.
“Let me get this straight Mr. Preston. He hit you back there, and you slid back and forth across all of these lanes, as we can clearly see from the skid marks (I think I had the rear tire locked up), came to a stop here, two up, and you did not crash? How is that possible?”
“I have no idea.”
A visit to the hospital showed that my friend’s ankle was not broken, and we lived to ride another day.
The shock from this trauma did not really sink in until I was heading back to Seattle. I chose to ride up into Canada and head west, and early on I noticed that I was in a near panic if any vehicle appeared on my left. Fortunately, Canada was pretty open back then, and this did not occur often.
While in Minneapolis and I’d spent an evening with Joel, who’d grown up next door to me in Minnetonka. He was now teaching English in New Haven, having graduated from Yale, and was touring the country with a VW van with a Kawasaki 90 that would fit, just barely, in the van. We decided to meet, two weeks later, at a campground in Banff.
As I rode into the campground I realized our folly. There were no campsites to be had at all. What had we been thinking? As my heart fell, I rolled around a corner, and there was Joel, all set up in a nice spot. He was sitting at the picnic table wearing a jaunty cowboy hat and strumming a guitar, a bottle of scotch at the ready. Wow!
Toward the end of my trip I was heading south for the US border when I came upon an active forest fire. Nobody told me to stop, and so I kept on keeping on. Soon I was rolling along through the middle of the battle against the fire. There were people in hard hats on both side of the road, beating down flames on bushes and shoveling dirt here and there.
Thoughts raced through my mind. How was I allowed to ride on this road? Shouldn’t someone have stopped me? How can this be?
Then I felt guilty, and wondered if I should stop to help. Parking a motorcycle in the middle of a fire did not seem like a good plan, and the fire fighters probably would have laughed at me and urged me to keep going.
I believe things are more casual in Canada, but I’m sure that would not happen today.
When I got to the US border the Canadian customs folks were friendly, as usual, and the US people not so much. As usual. I was directed to the side and told they would need to go through the duffel bag on the back of my bike.
In their defense, I did not look like a guy most likely to succeed. I had not shaved in a couple of days, and had just ridden through a forest fire. It was over 90 degrees, and my long hair was plastered all over my head. And I probably smelled like smoke. Or worse.
As the guard was pulling stuff out of my bag he interrogated me.
“Where do you live?”
“Kirkland, Washington, Sir.”
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a junior high school English teacher, Sir.”
“Oh. Well then, have a nice day.” Without further ado he walked away, leaving me agog, with the task of repacking my bag.
So there you have it. If you want to smuggle drugs or whatever and wish to breeze through US customs, tell them you’re a junior high English teacher!”
Copyright 2017 David Preston