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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

Through the fog

The view from my house, before things got bad.
Fog is a part of the British experience. It works its way into countless Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle tales, serving as a sort of plot device to allow terrible things to be done unseen. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, pollution-laden fogs known as pea soups brought inhalant death. In 1952, a crippling fog that hung over London from the 5th to the 9th of December ended up killing upward of 12,000 people. 

Even without pollution the fog kills. In 1991, a heavy fog in Berkshire resulted in a 51-car crash that killed 10 people. In 1997, a 160-car fog-induced pile up killed three people in Worcestershire. Just a few years ago, seven people were killed in a 51-vehicle crash that occurred within a great abyss of fog and smoke from a nearby bonfire. 

That last one took place just a few miles from where I was headed Thursday night.

I was going to Bristol, to a literary event at Cube, in the city's centre. Lately I have been trying desperately to kick start my literary career, trying to make happen my dream of being a professional author (rather than just someone who writes a lot) and part of that process is forcing myself to attend things like this.

Most literary events in Cardiff are poetry-driven and I hate poetry. I'm a prose guy. So, I widened my net and found events in Bristol and Bath. And, in a way, that feels appropriate. I am trying to make something happen, wanting to put my all into this goal, so why not drive 50 miles just to be able to listen to some folks read some things what they wrote? And why not do it in the fog?

When I woke up on Thursday my phone's weather app claimed the fog would burn away and yield to brilliant sunshine within a few hours. Those few hours passed, the fog remained, and the weather app updated to say that the fog would burn away in a few more hours. And on and on through the day. Looking out my window at work I watched the building across the road disappear and reappear into grey-white mist but the fog never lifted.

You will, know, of course, that riding in heavy fog is poop. Give me rain over fog any time. In rain, at least, the water pushes along the curve of my helmet's visor and my vision isn't too badly affected. From time to time I may need to wipe the visor with a glove but generally progress continues unimpeded. The mist of fog, however, attacks the visor. It covers every micro-pixel of vision with watery residue and leaves me hurtling forward into a complete unknown. You can wipe it away but usually it will return even before you put your hand back on the handlebar.

Sitting in my office in Cardiff, I considered abandoning the event, but traffic cameras on the Severn Bridge, which I had to cross en route to Bristol, showed clear sky, so I decided to head out –– the last fragments of daylight fading away as I began my way toward the M4.

For those of you playing along at home, the route from Cardiff to Bristol is: A48 to the M4, across the wide and tumultuous Severn delta, then down the M32 to the heart of Bristol. The Severn Bridge is a mile long and crosses over a river with the second highest tidal range in the world. There are times when the tide changes so dramatically that it causes a phenomenon known as the Severn Bore –– a great rolling wave that pushes for miles and miles. Here's a video of some surfers riding the Severn Bore for roughly 20 minutes. None of this has anything to do with my ride. I just find it really interesting.

Crossing over the Severn was uneventful. It had turned dark but visibility was good. Someone from Minneapolis would say the traffic was heavy; someone from Bristol would say it was light. I moved along easily until just before the exit for the M32. Then, suddenly, rolling out from the trees, a great, heaving mist swallowed up the road. Brake lights illuminated in the cloud, everyone slowed and I thought of that crash just a few years ago. I kept an eye on my mirrors, searching for whatever might be coming up behind, and another eye on every available gap ahead of me –– every possible route of escape.

I flipped up my visor to allow myself to see. Within a second my face was completely wet, my eyes watering from the wind and the cold. The fog was rolling in great plumes and I couldn't even read the road signs as I passed underneath them. Within a few minutes, the traffic had come to a complete stop. I slipped into a corridor between two rows of cars and began to filter along at 20 mph, through an eerie tunnel of hazy orange and red and white light. It was quiet, and even though I was riding through endless rows of cars and trucks and buses I felt totally alone.

In hindsight, I am particularly glad I had chosen beforehand to park at Cabot Circus, a large shopping area about half a mile from Cube. Sure, I could have parked closer to the place I was going but Cabot Circus has an enormous, well-lit, safe parking structure that is easy to find. I had never gone to Cube before and didn't want to be riding around in a busy city in the dark, amidst notoriously impatient British drivers, trying to find a good place to put my bike. The fog ended up reinforcing this decision. As did the discovery that Cube is atop a rather steep hill, and the road leading to it is narrow and cobblestoned.

Additionally, Cabot Circus parking for motorcycles is great. There is a designated space for bikes between two low concrete walls, which means cars can't get near your bike to accidentally knock it over. Additionally there is railing to chain your bike to, and lockers that are specifically for helmets and gloves. There are attendants walking around all the time, it is clean and very well-lit. Oh, and motorcycles are allowed to park there for free. Choose Cabot Circus for all your motorcycle parking needs.

But walking half a mile to Cube resulted in an extra adventure later in the evening. As the event was taking place a heavier fog rolled in, turning the city into the stuff of Victorian horror fiction. When I stepped out of the building, I could barely see across the beer garden. Within a few steps of walking down the cobblestone road I was totally disoriented; there was nothing ahead of me, nothing behind me –– just a mysterious orangeness from unseen street lights. I got down to a road wide enough for two cars and couldn't see across it. There were voices of people going about their evenings but all of them unseen. And soon I was lost. I found myself having to stand almost within touching distance of shops, staring at them and thinking: "Did I pass this way?"

The enormous roundabout I had walked across to get to Cube, the towering Holiday Inn I had passed, the courts building -- all of them had been swallowed whole by the fog. A group of guys emerged from the nothingness singing "Flower of Scotland." I walked past them, then felt perhaps I was going the wrong way. I turned around and they were gone but for their voices bouncing off unseen buildings. Eventually, I had to navigate back to my bike using the Google Maps on my phone: eyes down, watching the little arrow move toward its destination and hoping the signal was accurate, that I really was where the phone thought I was.

I did make it back to the bike. I took my time getting geared up, and clicked on the sat-nav ("GPS" for those of you playing along at home) to guide me home. I couldn't see road signs or landmarks. I had to put all faith in the 4-inch screen of a TomTom.

According to that screen, the road I was on had a 70 mph limit. I was uncomfortable going more than 30. My visor was up and the freezing mist stung my soaking-wet face. I flicked on my hazard lights and slipped on and on into the ethereal unknown, keeping an alert eye on whatever might be coming up behind me. 

Before long, the streetlight-orange tint disappeared. I was far enough away from the city centre that there were no street lights. Now it was just darkness. I was a tiny ball of white and orange light, the blinking lure of a deep-sea monster. There was no sky. No anything. Every once in a while, a great wall of light would come up from behind me and slowly, slowly a car would pull up in the lane next to me. I would look over at the driver, staring intently into the nothingness, and ease off the throttle to make sure we weren't riding abreast. Everything was quiet, and slowly they would slip away.

I thought of the stories of the Mabinogion -- Celtic tales from more than 1,000 years ago -- and the heavy fog that would descend upon entering Annwfn, the other world. I watched the cars' tail lights fade and imagined them as eyes of the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd, out hunting for mortal souls.

Comments

  1. Chris:

    I'm not sure why you wouldn't just follow the cars that came and went by. Keep within visual distance and let then guide the way. That's what I do when I am tired whilst riding at night and I am not familiar with the roads and hazards

    glad you made it safely both ways

    bob
    A weekend photographer or Riding the Wet Coast

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are a few reasons. The main one being that I was having to ride with my visor up and the freezing mist was hurting my eyes. Riding above 40 mph was too painful. Secondly, a lot of people in Britain drive with a sort of teenage suicidal confidence. That's how you get things like 160-car pile ups. It's how my car ended up totalled on the same motorway a few years ago. If I can't see where they're going, I don't want to follow them because I do not trust the average British driver's judgement. Especially in that scenario; the fog really was so thick that in order to see them I would have had to abandon the 3-second rule that I was employing for the conditions.

      Delete
  2. I love riding in the fog around town, I find it great fun.

    The only thing I find annoying is that most people here don't bother to put on any lights.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chris,

    I've only ridden fog a couple times, but once it was rather thick. Of course, I was riding solo and meeting Highway in San Diego. In California we aren't known for thick fog, but in San Diego we have it often. That evening I had to travel about 40 miles in some pretty thick crap.

    I did as Bob said and just picked a car and followed. But I kept enough distance to barely see their lights, so I wouldn't run into them when they crashed and died. And I only followed a car for a few miles at a time, then slowed a bit. It actually got me through quicker than had I taken it based on my own pace.

    I have been told to use the de-fogging liquid that scuba divers use on my visor. I bought some "Cat Crap", a water repellent wax that I spread on my visor. It works great! Just needs to be reapplied often. Since you live in a foggy place, maybe you could find something like that.

    Smooches,
    Sash
    SashMouth

    ReplyDelete

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