Motorcycle freedom exacts its toll

Spring is here, sure, but something is missing.
Every April for the past five years, at the first sign of a sunny afternoon, I’d amble out to my garage, pull the dusty cover off my 1978 Kawasaki KZ650 and gear up for a little Zen motorcycle maintenance.
Usually a battery charge, an oil change and new spark plugs were all it took to coax the motor from its winter’s sleep. A cloud of blue smoke and a lot of sputtering bespoke groggy carburetors and encrusted floats and pistons, but a gentle throttle and a couple of trips around the block usually brought the old bike back to its spunky self.
We enjoyed many adventures together, me and that old orange tangle of seemingly indestructible metal and plastic. Camping trips, Grateful Dead concerts, visiting friends in Wisconsin and Illinois — I trusted my Kawasaki to carry me there, more so than any car I’ve ever owned.
I even discovered an underground network of good Samaritans who look out for solo bikers on the occasions when I’d get a flat tire or run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
In an attempt to run away from a storm system on a trip to Chicago in July 1995, I was approaching triple-digit miles-per-hour on Interstate 94 just outside of New Lisbon, Wis., when my back tire swerved unexpectedly. I let up on the throttle as the tire quickly deflated, along with my hope of getting away from the rain.
Limping into the New Lisbon truck stop, I had no course of action but to beg the tire technicians for help. Despite their willingness, thousands of dollars worth of state-of-the-art 18-wheeler tire repair equipment served only to mock my Japanese rubber.
But when a Harley-Davidson roared into the truck stall where we stood collectively scratching our heads, I somehow knew I was saved. Grizzled local handyman Ronny Crawford not only offered to take the bike to the nearest Kawasaki dealer with his truck the next morning, but he offered to let me stay at his folks’ house down the road. They’d passed away years before, but he kept the house up for storage and visitors.
I was saved by a guardian Hell’s-Angel, as it were.
The storm rained fury on New Lisbon that night as I comfortably sat in the garage of the little house and pondered whether it was better to have broken down, just to witness this random act of kindness.
I thought of that moment just the other day while at my parents’ house, where my bike now sits idly. I pulled back the dusty cover, but there would be no blue cloud of smoke, sputtering to life or witness to roadside altruism this year. Twisted handlebars and a bent fork bespoke crushing impact; scoring on the orange gas tank and a shredded seat cover signaled the slide that ensued. Most likely, my motorcycle would never run again.
The last time it did was high noon on September 7, 1998 — perhaps the brightest, sunniest day of the summer — as I barreled northbound on Cedar Avenue on my way to The Minnesota Daily’s then-idle offices for an informal job interview. I was running late and my car wouldn’t start, so I strapped on my helmet, fired up the bike and took off.
Besides being foggy from a night of Heineken-besotted sleep, my mind was on the Black Hills — for which I planned to set out the following morning. With a week before the start of school, a ride through the Badlands, I thought, surely would transcend into a successful spiritual quest. Having spent a month living with my folks in between apartment leases, I had plenty of time to prepare myself, and the bike, for the long haul. Gleaming chrome and that feverish whine when I twisted the throttle were rewards for my work; the old bike was perfect, my mind was clear.
The urban spaghetti junction where Franklin and Cedar avenues collide with a handful of other outlet streets was at the time unfamiliar to me; I had just moved into the neighborhood. Looking ahead at the rows of stoplights, my eyes betrayed me — I went through the first lane of Franklin, at full speed, thinking I had a green. I didn’t. A row of oncoming cars, eastbound on Franklin, had no time to react.
I had barely loaded up on the brakes when the bike T-boned a careening white Toyota. My body slammed into the passenger’s side window, my left elbow shattering glass.
A moment of silence followed as I did a banana-flip through the air …
… and belly-flopped on the shimmering hot pavement of Franklin Avenue with a jarring thud.
In the moments that followed — face down and still unsure how badly I was hurt — I could only think of one thing:
“My bike is surely fucked … there goes my trip.”
Six hours later, having endured a neck immobilizer, an ambulance ride on a hard table and 15 stitches in the elbow, I realized I was lucky I could think at all. For two weeks I couldn’t walk very well or use my left arm, but I was alive.
I was alive because two years prior, I had spent $350 on a black, XXL Shoei RF750 helmet. The face shield is now busted askew; countless scratches and gouges, particularly on the forehead, serve as a reminder of that sunny day when a little slice of a daydream nearly turned into permanent sleep. But it didn’t — because I wore that helmet that day. Without it, the surgeon said as he sewed up my arm, I would not have survived. Period.
I don’t know if I’ll ever ride again. That accident has beguiled the romance of the road; I now see the gritty danger in a busy street, the macabre undercurrent of an open highway. Sometimes I just look at that helmet — now a trophy for being lucky and smart — and wonder what the gouges, scrapes and cracks would have looked like on my face and head.
But the sight of a well-preserved Japanese motorcycle still piques my interest, make no mistake. As the weather warms, I get restless as I see them coming out of hiding. At the same time I get nervous — often, their riders’ heads are unprotected. In a moment’s lapse of concentration, they could easily be killed, paralyzed or, at the very least, permanently disfigured. It happens so quickly, it happens so easily, and it happens all the time. Ask any trauma nurse about motorcyclists — the ones who spent two hours taking X-rays of my neck and spine pleaded with me to swear off motorcycles forever. They had to settle for my promise to always wear a helmet — if I ever decide to get back in the saddle.
You know who you are, savvy bikers. If you have a motorcycle, you probably have a helmet. Wear it. When your banana-flip day comes, maybe you, too, can fly across two lanes of speeding traffic, land face down and enjoy the privilege of lamenting the loss of your bike — and that trip you’ve been planning.

Josh L. Dickey’s column appears Tuesdays. He welcomes comments by e-mail at [email protected]