Riding under the influence

I can recall two stand-out instances from my early days when riding under the influence could have ended my fun. Not alcohol; not controlled substances (these weren‘t on the radar where I grew up) — my riding was influenced by emotions. Raw, turbulent emotions twice produced close calls during my teen years which, in spite of everything I’ve managed to forget, I still vividly recall.


My college days were not uniformly carefree. A gnawing quandary over what major might lead to what vocation plagued most of that half-decade; I changed curriculums with the same frequency I changed bed sheets, which was plenty often for one and not near enough for the other. Weekends at home too often ended in frustrating “discussions” with the parental units. I often departed on the bike in emotional turmoil, hell-bent for state university 100 miles west of my home.

Turmoil is not a good frame of mind for staying alive on a motorcycle; my riding as a result was generally impatient, impulsive, and undisciplined. Once, hardly three miles from home, I was hindered by a slow-moving sedan.

“What the hell’s the matter with that old fart?“ I grumbled as I crowded his tail. Unable to hang back for a legal passing opportunity, I opened the throttle only to realize, too late to adjust speed or direction, that the driver was beginning a left turn. His rear bumper won the altercation and I sprawled on my butt in the middle of the highway, cursing the driver‘s stupidity, too angry to accept any blame for my situation. Fortunately, the damage was limited to my pride and to my riding pants. Fleece-lined but antique, their brittle leather split wide open right up the crack, and offered my backside little protection from the chill of a 97-mile November commute. In an impulsive instant my best piece of cold-weather gear was downgraded from pants to chaps! Fortunately, the incident wasn’t observed by law enforcement, and I roared sullenly away to complete my trip without further incident.

A happier story would proceed to describe how later, realizing the error of my ways, I took up transcendental meditation and became a calm peaceful rider who never again ventured out while disturbed. That would be the happier story. A scant month later I decided Christmas holidays (at home with peeved parents) totally sucked. Several days before actually due back at the dormitory, I headed off into certain rain muttering “This vacation is so over….”

A happier story would describe my nice all-weather Gore-Tex riding suit, with boots and gloves to match. Again, that would be the happier story. This story is timed somewhere between the wearing of animal skins and the advent of Army Surplus. Having ditched the unseemly fleece chaps, my winter riding gear consisted of my nylon bomber jacket and cotton long handles under faded jeans. I did not own a rain suit (that would look dorky); nothing even to cut the wind. I hadn‘t cleared city limits before running into a persistent drizzle. Within minutes, cold droplets were either running or soaking their way into the farthest sanctums of warm skin. An older, wiser rider would have done a one-eighty and slunk back home, but I was eat up with indignation………..“No way I’m going to spend another day at home!“

I stubbornly pressed on. I began to get cold; really cold. Wind chill is hugely magnified by the evaporation of water from clothing and skin. I was becoming soaked to the bone. Years later while teaching first aid to my Scout troop, I learned an initial symptom of hypothermia is the reduced ability to think rationally. (I also learned that hypothermia is potentially deadly) When your starting point is that of a rightfully pissed-off teenager, you bottom out on the Index of Rational Thinking pretty quickly.

My rational thinking insisted that if I could just hang on till the half-way point, I would reach the town of a buddy’s girlfriend, similarly home for the holidays. Though I had neither met her parents nor visited their home, I was confident they would all be present, welcome me with open arms and make everything OK. The obvious and more immediate solution of a cheap roadside motel totally escaped me. This bizarre line of thought was a clear indication my brain was nearing shutdown.

Holding desperately to this thread of hope, I rode on, ever slower, with increasing difficulty just holding the throttle open. The last stretch into their town involved an endless windswept causeway across a TVA lake. The whitecaps frolicking on the water mocked my stiffness.

The partially-formed teenage brain is an amazing thing. Somehow I rallied my focus to negotiate the traffic of an urban environment. Some precious morsel of information guided me to the correct address. I have a vague recollection of letting the bike flop onto the brick wall of their house before crawling off.

I think I managed to stammer something brilliant like “I’m cold.” when the young lady opened the door.

I remember a distinct contrast between the daughter’s concerned but warm welcome and the parents’ looks of skepticism.

I have recollections of restoring my body’s core temperature in a hot bathtub and then of borrowed pajamas and a bed. I probably had visions of being joined by nubility during the wee hours, but I’m quite clear it didn’t happen! Instead, I slept right through to breakfast the following morning.

I remember the kind of looks given only by concerned parents of young daughters that clearly questioned my judgment as they saw me off. I sensed their relief.

I motored on toward school, thankful for a clear, blue-sky winter morning —  the kind which delights a rider to be out on two wheels, dry and reasonably warm, and (in my case) alive. I pondered all the “might have’s” as I completed the journey to school.

Recalling today the 45-year-blurred details (which apparently were none too clear even at the time) leaves me unable to estimate how far along the continuum toward unconsciousness my hypothermia had progressed. What is clear is that my emotional state at the time came seriously close to putting an early period to the end of my motorcycling sentence. While I didn’t magically mature in an instant, never to ride under emotional influence again, I somehow managed to avoid letting my feelings put me in quite such a predicament again. The partially-formed teenage brain is indeed a thing of wonder.

Pete Tamblyn