Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Long Way Home (AKA Vacation, Part 7)

Editor's note: Yeah, we realize this is almost four months after the fact. It's still a story that deserves telling.

It was our third day driving home. The first day had been spent driving like mad through some of the country's best roads and scenery in order to get to Howe Caverns before the last tour of the day. We din't make it; near the end, we decided to spend the night there, and go on the first tour in the morning. (Too bad we hadn't decided to do that to begin with — it would have taken a lot of stress out of the driving.) The second day, after a tour of the caverns and a boat ride on an underground lake, we made it to our hotel in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Not the sort of weather you look forward to for a long, long ride.

The third day started out wet and gray. After wearing out the kids a bit in the hotel pool, we loaded up and headed out. I wore my rainsuit right out of the hotel — I knew it was wet, and was just going to get wetter.

It rained. Hard. For hours. Aside from the direct rain, there was the great clouds of water kicked up by every other vehicle on the road. I avoided the trucks as much as I could, but that's not easy on an interstate.

Somewhere around the third hour, I stopped to call Deborah and arrange to meet for lunch. For the fun of it, I even updated my Facebook status. My gloves made little squishy noises while I was texting.

Is making the long soggy slog home. 100 miles in the rain and counting.
3:19 PM Jul 29th from txt

The bike stuttered and stumbled the whole time I was stopped. The engine thumped slower and slower, and finally died before I was done. (I'm not a speedy texter.) I fired it back up and kept going, but the exhaust smelled rich with unburned gas. Something wasn't right — the usual snap and acceleration was gone. I could get up to highway speeds, but just barely. As long as I kept moving, I was OK, but by the time I got to the town where we'd arranged to meet, I had to restart the bike every time I came to a stop.

I stood there in the pouring rain, puzzling this over while I waited for the others to catch up. Nothing was visibly wrong...

Lunch was warm and filling, but desultory. I was shivering and soaked despite my rain gear, and everyone else was fairly subdued. I spent a good while in the bathroom abusing their hot-air hand dryer, and that helped me feel a bit better.

The bike wasn't feeling any better for the hour's rest, though. If anything, it was worse. I could barely keep it going. I took the next exit.

Is attempting a roadside repair. I theorize the engine is choking from all the water in the air.
4:59 PM Jul 29th from txt

I found a beautiful spot: an abandoned gas station, one with a roof to keep the rain off, and no one around so that I could spread out my tools and gear. I got off the bike, and started running through my diagnostics in my head — what does an engine need to run? It needs...

  • fuel (obviously, from the smell, there was fuel);
  • air (questionable; the exhaust smelled rich; which is usually a sign of too much fuel or too little air, and it seemed reasonable that the air filter could have gotten waterlogged);
  • spark (the electrics seemed fine)
  • momentum (the starter turned the engine over fast enough to start, so that wasn't the problem); and
  • compression (I had no way to test it, but I didn't have any reason to doubt that it was fine, either) it must be the air, I figured. Everything else was running fine. Or the spark, said a voice in the back of my head. I discounted that; I had lights, and the engine would turn over — there was plenty of electrical power for spark.

Motorcycles are different from cars. The open architecture makes some things are far easier — I can change my oil filter just by reaching down and twisting it off — but the need to package things compactly makes other bits much more difficult. Accessing the air filter is a good example: Remove the rear seat (to get access to the tools), remove the battery vent panels (to get access to the front seat bolts), remove the front seat (to allow the tank to swing up), raise the tank (to get access to the airbox), and then you can have a look at the air filter, which is bolted firmly to the airbox.

The bonus find of the day was an abandoned gas station, right off the interstate — a nice, big covered place where I could spread out my tools and work out of the rain!

Oddly enough, the filter was dry. I removed it anyway and stuffed it into the saddlebag, figuring the engine could breathe more freely without it, perhaps balancing out the rich mixture. I fired it up. The bike snarled like an angry tiger without the quieting filter, and I revved it a few times just to hear the sporting, wild roar. The exhaust popped and crackled like an overly lean mixture, but it still smelled like gas, like it would with an overly rich mixture — how was that combination even possible? I even peered into the airbox to see if something had gotten lodged in there, but I could see straight into both carburetors as it ran. I could even see a spark arcing through the carb for the front cylinder. Odd.

I shrugged and put the bike back together, sans filter. It was worth a try, and I set out again. The ragged sports-car like rasp was fun for a few miles, but it quickly became apparent that I really hadn't fixed anything. I could barely do the speed limit, and starting the bike required slipping the clutch like I was starting in third or fourth. I pulled in at the next rest stop and conceded defeat. Perhaps a local shop would still be open, and could help me figure this out.

Except that there weren't any local shops. I tried texting Google to find a nearby motorcycle shop; my query returned no results. I asked around if there were towns or shops nearby. Nope, 30 miles from nowhere. The rest area maps confirmed that. What now? Figuring I had friends all over, I texted Twitter and Facebook:

I'm stuck at a rest stop on I80 in PA 29 miles from the Ohio border. Text 260 249 0834 if you can help.
6:12 PM Jul 29th from txt

I sat around, waiting for a response. I put the air filter back in, just for something to do. I called Paul and Deborah and appraised them of my status. I walked among the trucks, trying to think of what I could be missing.

No solutions came. I was stuck. I was going to have to call a tow truck, or something.

My mind railed against that. All my life, I've been served well by the attitude that it will all work out somehow. Call it faith, misplaced optimism, dangerous ingenuity — whatever it is, I've almost always been able to get out of enormous scrapes without hiring expensive outside assistance.

I prowled among the canyons of idling diesels, looking for trailer space. One friendly fellow was hauling a refrigeration unit, and had plenty of space, and said he was heading for Indiana — great! — but it turns out he meant Indiana, PA. I sat there, defeated in the waning light, reflecting on the fact that I knew for a fact that there was a trailer — my own trailer! — heading exactly where I wanted to go, scarcely 50 miles away — but that there was no way I could get the bike on it.

And I prayed.

And I felt like God was telling me to give it another try. That was scary, because I knew I was a long way from anywhere right then. I got back on the bike, started it, and tried to get it to go. Stall. Try. Stall. Try. Stall. I chuckled morosely to myself that it was acting like it had all the power and torque of Strawberry, my old 250cc Honda. And it hit me: I knew how to ride a 250. A 650cc twin with only one cylinder would be a 325; pshaw, that was power to spare! Grimacing at my daring, I revved the engine high, slipped the clutch ever so slowly, and rolled back onto the highway.

Is running on faith. Gulp.
7:11 PM Jul 29th from txt

I can't say exactly why that made all the difference; perhaps it was that I'd made this very trip on a 250 all those years ago, and knew it could be done. Perhaps it was that I knew I could accept revving the engine twice as high as I normally would to get the power I needed. Perhaps it was because I knew not to expect more than the speed limit. Perhaps, like Ezekiel, the little wheel ran by faith, and the big wheel ran by the grace of God. I don't know. I plowed on.

Then the light started blinking.

Back in January of 2008, we'd had a bit of flooding around our house, which resulted in the bike tipping over into some water. The bike was mostly fine, but the tachometer got soaked and the fuel level sensor went out. I eventually got the tachometer dried out enough that I could get it to work with some gentle tapping at startup, but I didn't bother getting the fuel gauge fixed for more than a year. All the fuel level gauge really did was work a light. About 150 miles into a tank, a light would start blinking. That would mean I had a gallon left. A single gallon normally gets me 40-60 miles. If I let that go for too long and let it get down to about a third of a gallon, then the light would turn solid — the "get gas now, dummy" setting. If you reset the tripmeter every time you got gas, you could pretty safely get by without the warning light. I'd finally gotten it fixed just before the trip.

And there it was, blinking. Huh. The tripmeter scarcely had a hundred miles on it. I'd expected the efficiency to be poorer, but not that much. I got gas early, and slipped through the cloverleaves off 80 towards Akron. A text from Deborah said that the rain had finally let up.

In the middle of Akron, the light started blinking again. 80 miles on the tripmeter. I peeled an eye for the next gas station sign. Mere minutes later, the light stopped blinking and went solid. I thought about what would happen if I ran out of gas in the middle of this awful traffic, and took the next exit. It was a city — surely there would be gas stations just off the major exits...

I was wrong. I found myself in what most would consider the Bad Part of Town, without an on-ramp or a gas station anywhere in sight. I squirted up and down side roads, panic starting to set in. Finally, I got directions from a fellow who was taking out the trash, and found a small, run-down gas station a long ways down a residential street. I'm certain I saw at least one drug deal while I was filling up.

Good for gas again, I set out to get back onto the highway. I rode back to where I'd gotten off, but the only on-ramp I found went East, and I wanted West. I followed a sign for the West route, and found another on-ramp for the highway going East. Frustrated, I wound up back at the gas station, where the both owner and the security guard said I had the right idea about my overall route to Indiana, but neither of them could remember how to go West on that highway, even though they remembered that the entrance was in a rather different place than the eastbound on-ramp. Even a local cop directed me towards the wrong entrance. Nearly blind with frustration in the darkening twilight, I roared onto the highway going East. I found another highway, merged onto it, and took the first exit. An underpass later, I was back on the highway, headed back to where I'd come. I grinned with frustrated satisfaction as I came across what I was looking for: an exit to go WEST. Exactly what I'd wanted an hour ago!

Finally away from Akron, and back out onto the open road, I felt free to have my nervous breakdown. Deborah sympathized with me and encouraged me over the phone. I was finally nearing the last major route change — the next one would put me on 30, all the way to home. It was supper time, and I felt I could sure use the break. I found a Denny's just outside of Mansfield and collapsed into a booth to dry out, decompress, and recharge. I even started to see the humor in it all.

Is limping across Ohio on a single cylinder. 80 Miles max between gas stops. It's an adventure, right?
10:46 PM Jul 29th from txt

Still life with coffee. Can you see the condensation built up on the inside of my cell phone?

The only other motorcyclist and I recognized each other instantly upon entering. He was driving his new rig back home; apparently they manufacture these somewhere in Indiana. Maybe when my hair is gray and my balance isn't as good...

The check came, and I gathered my stuff to go pay. The hostess ran my card several times, each time with a darkening look on her face. She disappeared. A moment later, the manager came out. He tried running the card, too, without success. I offered my MK List Visa, which I knew had money on it, but that one was refused, as well. The manager left with my card. I started wondering if the next person I'd see about the matter would be a police officer. A long while later, the manager came back out, and said that everything was fine, but that he'd called, and my bank was having some trouble with their computers. I apologized for my bank, and tipped generously. I saddled up, and went across the street to fill up at the Jetson-esque gas station. My card worked just fine there. Odd.

By this point, my text messages had made it to Facebook, and I was having to stop every mile or so to answer incoming messages of help, support, and suggestions. My parents had friends in Mansfield, and I knew I wasn't too far away from my friend Nathan in Galion, even if none of them knew I was coming. It was getting late, and I bounced the idea of "calling it a night" off of Deborah. She was just about home by that point, and was not happy about the idea of waiting even longer to see me. She wanted me there. I was still at the other end of Ohio. I sighed and promised to try.

Thank God gas stations try to compete with each other. I'm not sure what compels owners to build across the street from each other, but it worked to my advantage. When one gas station would decline my card, there was usually one across the street that would take it. I was stopping as often as I could, every 50 miles or so, not knowing when the next station might be. The towns get to be few and far between once you get west of the middle of Ohio.

My luck ran out in Upper Sandusky, OH. There were two gas stations across from each other, but neither of them would accept either of my cards. I thought ruefully of the one real credit card I had, the one I'd had gotten "for emergencies," safely tucked away in my safe at home. I headed inside to see if there was something that could be done.

Not much, it turned out. One account was frozen, and the other wasn't accepting transactions. No, she couldn't force the transaction. No, she wouldn't take a check. I rifled through my wallet and pants for cash. Not even enough for a single gallon. I turned away in defeat, figuring I had to call the bank, when I heard the cashier call to me. "Where are you going?" I told her. She looked at me a bit sourly, her tired eyes appraising me. "I'm putting ten bucks on pump number four. That should get you far enough that you can call someone to come get you." I thanked her profusely. "Pay it forward, OK?"

I was rolling again.

Western Ohio is a very empty place. Western Ohio at three in the morning is an extremely empty place. I droned on, flattening myself out on the gas tank, trying to get ever last yard out of every drop of gas that I could. Streetlights came and went. I saw signs for towns, but not the towns themselves.

Blink, blink, blink. 20 miles to the next town. I might make it.

20 miles later, I came not to a town, but to a crossroads that led to a town. Blink, blink, blink. How far was the next town? Should I try and find this one, or try to find the next one? Maybe it would just be a crossroads, too. Blink, blink, blink. I turned and fired off into the dark, hoping the town wasn't far.

It was a lot farther than I'd hoped. Blink, blink, blink. I rolled up to a gas station. Closed. Blink, blink, blink. I rolled up to another gas station. Closed. I thought they invented "Pay at the Pump" for situations like this. It should be something you can leave on at night, for weary, desperate travelers. Blink, blink, solid. The fuel light burned into my consciousness like a slow flame spreading across a scrap of parchment.

I'm not sure how I wound up at the police station garage, but the officer there was clearly not used to people walking in on him. His eyes burned into me as he held his paperwork in his surgical-gloved hands. His demeanor made it clear that I was not his problem, but he at least pointed me to an all-night gas station not more than a mile away, but only once I told him that I'd already tried the town's other two stations. I'm not sure who was more creeped-out by whom.

I almost cried with relief to see that it was a Marathon station. I knew I could get gas there. My card had worked at every one I'd tried. Marathon earned my loyalty that morning.

I never thought I'd be so glad to see this sign!

I scarcely recognized Fort Wayne without all the traffic. I was less than hour from home, but my consciousness was fading fast. I waggled my head, sang songs to myself in my helmet (very loud, repetitive ones, I'm afraid), did deep knee bends... but it was no good. I found another Marathon station and invested in one of those awful energy drinks, and, for reasons I cannot now explain, an old army ammo can. Something about it being waterproof.

The Red Bull was already fading when I finally pulled into the carport at home. I grabbed my bags off the bike and stumbled into the house shedding helmet, boots, and clothes. With my last shred of consciousness, I pulled out my cell phone, and texted five characters:

5:45 AM Jul 30th from txt

* * *

Several days later, I'd woken up and recovered enough to start thinking about the motorcycle again.

After a few hours of dorking around, checking for cracks in wiring insulation and the like, I walked over to a computer, and typed in "rain SV650." Behold. Entire on-line forums, discussing my exact make and model of motorcycle, who had also lost a cylinder in heavy rain, and what to do about it.

Pyramid Plastics out of the UK makes this nifty "Fenda Extenda." This will be one of my winter projects.

It turns out that the SV has a relatively short front fender. In a normal rainy ride, this isn't a problem; in a several-hour downpour, the shortened front fender allows enough water to spray up, force its way through the radiator, past two sets of seals, and fill up the spark plug well on the front cylinder, shorting out the spark. They realize that even this is possible, so they include a small drain hole to make sure it doesn't do this. It was crusted over with road grime. I took a small straw and poked at the drain hole, which emptied a surprising amount of fluid onto the carpet in my shed.

I fired it up. It ran.


Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

What a night! Now that it's long past, I can tell you another thing you could have worried about with your gas station problems--frequent gas station transactions (without actually purchasing gas) are a red-flag for credit card fraud. Thieves will use the pay-at-the-pump as a test to see if the card has reached its limit yet. At least one major company I'm familiar with would have automatically blocked access to your card for security reasons.

Linus said...

I had the nerve once to buy textbooks and take a road trip and Christmas shop all in a two day period. Now when I plan on spending a large amount of money in what appears to be a suspicious, random, willy-nilly way, I alert my bank ahead of time. "Hello, I am planning to drive to Maine. There will be a lot of out-of-character spending in the next week. Please do not shut off my card and leave me stranded. Thank you." It might be unnecessary, but it has never happened again.

Jonadab said...

Heh. If only you'd *known*, you could have made that repair on the road, no problem.

Linus, if you are planning the thing in advance, there's a much older solution that works pretty well: cash.

Andy said...

Yeah, I'm definitely taking some cash next time. Not that it would have helped when the station was closed...

I'd heard of people having their accounts locked for that, and I figured that's what had happened when the gal at the Pilot station in Upper Sandusky said my account was frozen. Turns out my bank was just having a bad day.

Linus said...

@Jonadab...I always take cash too...I'm one of those overprepared people...the call is just in case I don't know, my car breaks down :) I could need to repair it, rent a car, or buy an airplane ticket. Plus, depending on the length of the trip, you may not want to have that much cash on you.