Day 9: Day of Destruction

Clary’s continuity comment

hi there,
this is not Harold, but his ’secretary’ Clary to inform all of you readers that Harold made it to IOLA, just 50 miles off the border of Missouri. In the hotel however was no internet available, so hopefully tonight he’ll be able to continue his story.

Next day: internet again

Not the eve, but the day of destruction itself. Confrontations with things gone awfully wrong.

I aim for the Kansas-Missouri stateline, past the critical area of flooded towns where houses are more than 5 feet under water with much more rain being forecast. The corridor I am trying to get through is already narrowing with the morning news of the WeatherChannel. I can find no news telling me the road I am on (old two-lane highway 54) is closed down there.

It could have happened that day, anyway. I am approaching the disaster zone. Water from above, water from below.
I am riding through a mixture of the Florida Everglades and the Louisiana swamps. Water is covering the fields, trees raising up straight out of the waters, river waters at top speed gushing down their course, their levels just below the road surface I am on. More rain coming from above, pitch-dark clouds, vast systems moving North to South.

I have learned to read the weather systems. Weather systems to me are now real phenomena, not vague concepts that metereologists use on TV. Here, out in the great wide opens, the systems have material substance; you see them moving like an army, try to predict their course and speed, try to guess their severity. Most amazing is the drop of and subsequent increase in temperatures often within no more than 500 yards. Entering the system usually is passing through a wall of cold air, the wind much stronger and often from the opposite direction. Temperatures must drop at least 10-15 degrees F. Riding out of the system – there always is an end – is reverse: a hit of warm air, high humidy, the sensation of getting choked, no telling in advance from what direction the wind will come.

A new catch twenty-something when riding these trips. If you can see the end of the system, just brace yourself and go ride through it, head for the safety you spot. If you can’t see the end of the system (usually the case), even more reason to get on your rain gear harnass and just muscle along – the idea of waiting is absurd as you have no idea how long you that will be. The bottom-line is: let rain storms never stop you. Unless…. they wash you of the road. And that happens today.

The first thunderstorm is OK, Niagara Falls, but I do see the end I think. I bit of lightning, not too bad. The subsequent hot air works as a dryer at 65 mph. A while later, about 50 miles before my intended stateline stop, Victoria Falls win. Rain drops hit like individual bullets, lots of thunder and lightning, winds blow the rain horizontally inside my full-face helmet blocking vision even more (helmets have no windshield wipers). Streets in the town I am arriving at show the signs of the flash flood warning so familiar now on TV. I have to give in. On the historic square of whereever I am is one kind of awning – turns out to be local museum. I just ride onto the sidewalk, park, get off, what now? Cop car coming! Guy looks at me, knods his head, the law does not apply under these circumstances. Time passes, it is getting dark, the rain eases, didn’t I see a sign for a hotel somewhere back? Go look for it, sure, they have a room. Guest computer for internet use? No sorry about that. I have other priorities right now anyway. Says a lady in the reception: “you are lucky, a few days ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get here, roads all blocked, my house was several feet under water.” I believe her. ‘The rain stays mainly in the plain’ – MS doesn’t have to sing it over and over again, her one big eye is taking it all in.

On the road. Each day a narrow escape, unavoidable. So if you are afraid something may happen to you, don’t even think about starting. Today’s example. It is raining, the roads are a bit slippery, mud coming onto my lane. Around a turn, there it is and I am about to hit it in 2 seconds from now: top danger. I am riding from 6-12 o’clock, a double-track railroad is crossing from 7-1 o’clock. The worst possible angle, motorcycle tires don’t do well on iron. Cut the gas – no brakes. Steer quickly to the farthest right, steer sharply left to get the best posible angle, hope, bikes slips sideways, gets ahold of firm road surface between the iron rails, regain balance, fortunately no oncoming traffic. One more survival test passed.

Devastation as I have never seen it before and never hope to see it again. My riding rythm is fuelling about every 100 miles. Minimum risk of running dry somewhere, taking a short break every 1,5-2 hours. Next gas station is at Greensburg Kansas. It is a town on the map, looks like more than a hole in the ground on paper. Entering Greensburg. A hole on the ground, no gas station, no nothing, flatness, total silence, frozen reality, war zone. A memory flashback, Greensburg ….. tornado …… deaths. Two old-timers spending July 4 hours in a run down gas station 10 miles further, eye witnesses. “I bet it happened in just 5 minutes. Came in from the North, left South. To the day precisely 2 months ago. More than 90 percent of the town flat, 9 people killed; I was in the basement, house started shaking, took the roof of. That is what 250 miles an hour winds circling around will do.” Greensburg slants slightly up onto a hill from highway 54. I see the complete streetplan of square blocks. Except there is nothing on those blocks anymore. Here and there a bit of rubble, a single complete roof resting on the ground, the house that used to be under it disappeared; Caterpillars have done their work and stand like dynasaurs about to clear the last remnants of what once was Greensburg. Sole witnesses to tell: the brick Courthouse, undamaged. Here and there a few cut-off trunks of big trees pointing upwards like spears showing where the forces came from; they lost all their branches and now are showing again the first signs of green. I have seen areas in SouthAfrica where a herd of elephants went through tromping and feeding and pushing around. The similarity is there, but it doesn’t compare. “Feel free to go back into town”, says the eyewitness-victim. I don’t feel free, I am not going to do it, I find it even unethical to take a picture, respect is all that is due, here.

Riding on automatic pilot is dangerous, even when you think you can see the road to the horizon. MS is equipped with something mechanical I am told is a kind of cruise control. It is broken. And it better be. That is about the most dangerous thing you can have on a bike on these roads, cruise control. Tempting but murderous as constant changes of speed are needed for all kinds of reasons. Red braking lights come towards me quickly around the curve. Full stop, traffic jam, how can that be. It becomes clear a bit further down. One minivan is way off into the fields, roof just over the grain tops, must have flown over the pretty sizeable ditch at high speed, windshield smashed, all dented. Another car burried itself into this very ditch, a junk car in one second. Didn’t look, though, as if they collided?! Easing forward: a big truck on the shoulder. Its trailer lost all left tires, a rubber factory all-over the place, must have been a blow-out, scaring the oncoming drivers into disastrous evading manoevres. Could have been me.

Late evening chat with the receptionist at the hotel desk, 4th of July, fireworks outside and on TV, dogs barking. I come in to inquire about breakfast time as I am considering making it back to Bloomington Indiana tomorrow. (I am in Ihola, Kansas, by the way.) She is in her sixties. “My husband and me, we used to ride, too. Had us an HD. Drove all over the country, and Canada as well. He is dead now, my husband. On his HD, ran into a stopped truck with no lights. He lived another year, as a plant that is. Well, he did what he liked. That is all over now (…..pausing…..) these were the best years of my life. You have a safe trip, now”.

I must have said some words, I forgot.

Harold – “Ride to Write”

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