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One Bite at a Time

Updated: Sep 8


A hot, humid midwest afternoon. The highway patrol cruiser, LED lights lasering red and blue, is parked off the left shoulder of I-80 eastbound somewhere past Davenport, Iowa. A trooper stands in the median looking down at a dark object. Hard to see what, it has been a wet summer and the grass is tall. Some distance down the highway, another cruiser has pulled over. The trooper is walking toward something orange, and as I draw abreast and can see into the grass there emerges the distinct bodywork and trapezoidal headlight of a KTM motorcycle. Most of it, anyway.


Then it’s all in the rear view mirror and I’m trying to reconstruct what I just saw.


Some time ago a rider had passed on a KTM Super Duke, not exactly a touring motorcycle. Wearing full gear and a backpack, perhaps on his way home from a track day, and riding swiftly but not recklessly — as a fellow rider I’m never irritated by a motorcyclist moving smoothly through traffic, as opposed to a motorcyclist (or a pack of them) clogging up the left lane. The place where he had gone off the road was fairly straight but there had been a lot of construction, which tends to produce sharp edges between new and old pavement. They’re called edge traps for good reason. You hardly notice them in a car, but on a motorcycle you have to cross pavement discontinuities and railroad tracks almost head on; if you hit them at an angle they catch and deflect the front wheel, and it doesn’t take much front wheel deflection to put you down.


Once home, I looked online to see if there was anything about a motorcycle crash on I-80 and took some comfort in the fact that there wasn’t. Since he was wearing gear and wound up in the relatively soft median there was a pretty good chance he hadn’t hit anything solid and was alive. Yeah, let’s go with that. I’ll never know exactly what happened, but it could have been an edge trap, inattention, interaction with another vehicle, or some combination of the above. It was the third accident I’d seen that day, the others being trucks that had run off the road to the right and overturned.


In a trip of right around seven thousand miles it’s not at all rare to see some sort of mishap, for me it’s mostly rare not to wind up stuck in the resulting 5-mile traffic jam. Thanks to COVID it had been two years since my last road trip, but the rest of my life there has been at least one long trip a year. When I lived in the Northwest my family would drive to Louisiana to visit relatives, or to Florida, then Colorado for graduate school. When I lived in New Mexico I’d drive to Montana to fish, or to Oregon to visit bamboo rodmakers. Since I’ve lived in Pittsburgh I’ve driven West every year for one reason or another, and this year’s trip was a bit more convoluted than most. I may write more about this past month on the road — my visit with the Seattle Pipe Club, going to see my machine tool mentor Denny Turk, the debatable wisdom of buying a 24-year-old pickup on Craigslist in Seattle and depending on it to get home, or the transition to an empty nest — but for now I’m thinking about the miles.


Seven thousand miles by car is about a hundred hours, give or take. The interstate speed limit across most of Wyoming and Utah and Idaho is 80 mph, but it’s 70 mph in the east and construction zones knock the average way down, so call it 70 and make the math simple. A hundred hours seems like — hell, it is — a long time to sit in a car, but it’s all relative. Consider that it took Mozart an arduous three weeks to cover less than 200 miles from Salzburg to Vienna. I can remember driving cross country when the speed limit was 55, that was bad enough. You can save time by flying, but air travel sucks these days, COVID or no COVID, and when you drive you don’t have to rent a car once you arrive and you can take all the stuff you want.


When driving you have time to listen, time to think, especially across the middle of the country where traffic is relatively sparse. Again, it’s all relative. While my memories from 40 years ago of driving across Wyoming and Utah with empty road from horizon to horizon may not be perfectly accurate, compared to traffic in Seattle or any big city in the east, western I-80 is still pretty open. There have been trips with bad weather, horrible traffic, broken vehicles, but this time, other than the truck losing an ignition coil in rush hour Seattle traffic, the trip was pretty peaceful. After a stop at O’Reilly Auto Parts and a hot, dirty hour of adult language the truck was fine, and ran perfectly the rest of the way. Besides smoke from forest fires and that glimpse of the unfortunate motorcyclist there wasn’t anything remarkable, it was mostly a matter of keeping the vehicle on the road and watching the gas gauge needle fall.


Long drives share qualities with many long-term projects. When you’re in the middle of them it seems like it’s taking forever, and things can happen, both good and bad, that seem like a big deal, then somehow it all works out and you arrive at the end with kind of a blank feeling. It’s over? Wait, what? Or maybe it doesn’t all work out and you wind up lying in the median of I-80 with a state trooper standing over you and your bike wadded up a hundred yards down the road.


Delivering my youngest to college and returning to an empty house marks the end, in a sense, of another long trip, and I’m nowhere close to coming to grips with that.

There’s the old saying: how do you eat an elephant?


One bite at a time.


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