It was day four of a beautiful and wonderful ride across the United States of America by motorcycle. I was given nine days to travel from Camp Pendleton, CA to Quantico, VA for Marine Security Guard school in May 1982. I wanted to ride my Yamaha 850 instead of draining it and shipping it over. I wanted to see the country I would be representing if I passed this school and was sent overseas to protect a US embassy. I wanted the experience of riding a long distance.
Did I tell you I love motorcycling?
The feel and freedom of riding is like nothing else in this world. I had a schedule. Ride eight hours a day, eat three times, rest, and repeat until I got home. I lived in Maryland, so when I crossed the state line of North Carolina, I felt home. I have family in North Carolina. I was born a few miles north of there on the Virginia line. Crossing the state line at sunset gave me a rush. I thought if I could push it a couple of more hours, I could get closer to Gates, NC and surprise my Aunt Shirley who had the best barbeque I knew. My mouth was already watering over the minced pork sandwich I was going to ask her to make for me. It was going to be epic. The interstate was quiet. Cars were scarce. The radio couldn’t lock on to any station but I let the static play on for noise. I had made it from the West Coast to the East Coast. Nobody I knew had done that before on a motorcycle. I was corporal in the United States Marines and couldn’t legally buy a drink yet because of my age but this was worth celebrating. I was a “hard charger” in the Corps. I had been promoted out of boot camp, meritoriously earned my E-3 and E-4 ranking.
I was looking forward to this new school and military occupation because I was not a good heavy equipment operator in comparison to my peers back in Camp Mateo. Those guys were wizards having been long shore men, construction workers and farmers prior to joining the military. The drone of the radio and the darkness of the North Carolina highway swallowed me. It felt like I was driving into a tunnel made by trees and asphalt. The Pigeon River and the wetlands near the road interrupted the silence with a plethora of bugs that hit my windshield, my knees and my knuckles. Two hours and I would call it a day. That would push my riding on this last day to ten hours. I was starting to feel it. My back hurt where my arms had been in a permanent “U” for almost a week riding this motorcycle. I was looking forward to a motel with a tub in a few hours. I was going to soak, and sleep tonight. The trip across the country was beautiful because I saw the desert that starting In Barstow, Ca, and Flagstaff, Arizona. It actually got cool in Flagstaff and I was glad I had bought a new leather jacket that seemed to hot for the first part of the ride. In New Mexico, I ran into the first Native American brother I can remember. We bumped shoulders in McDonalds, as I was leaving and he was entering. The dude was lean and solid. Normally I would have said something “smart” being a Marine, and all, but this guy was a throwback to the original people of this land. Something told me not to play. He had no shirt, and just a vest. We were the same size, but he had no fat on him. Instead of saying something dumb, I apologized for bumping into him. New Mexico was aesthetically amazing to see. Nothing like I was used to. Texas took forever to cross and I think I was in it two days of my trip. It was between there and Oklahoma that I saw my first tornado. I had company on the highway. Since Barstow, I saw basically the same tractor trailers going east. I don’t know where they stopped but I caught up to the same ones every day. When I got to Oklahoma, one driver warned me of a storm that was coming our way. He told me to get my “crazy A off the highway and hunker down somewhere.” He yelled it out the window as I sped passed him. I pulled over and put on my rain gear. I searched the radio frequency for a report. I finally got one a few minutes later in between the bluegrass station I found. The sky got dark and the stillness of the air was noticeable. The road was empty except for me and a truck I could see miles ahead. The fields on both sides of me were flat for miles. Then I saw the craziest thing. The black angus cows that were grazing, started to sit down.
The wind started to pick up. I twisted the wrist and sped up. My goal was to find a motel in the next few minutes. The rain slowed my roll a little as I didn’t want to eat pavement. It stopped but the wind increased. Brush, hay and all manner of things were starting to flying into the roadway. And then I saw it.
Looking like a giant black snake writhing on the horizon was a tornado on my right. I sped up. I prayed. For a few minutes I had to lean my bike like I was taking a turn just to keep it upright against the wind. A billboard let me know that a motel was a few miles up ahead. Thanking the Lord, I leaned in and aimed for it. When I arrived at the motel, they had opened all the doors and windows in preparation for the storm. They were used to it. I was not. I didn’t realize how afraid I had become. I rode right into the lobby from the highway.
That wasn’t looked upon favorably but they understood when they saw my face. “You’re not from around here are you, son? “No sir. There is a tornado right behind me,” I said. Well get that bike out of here and I’ll I give you a room. I rolled my bike to the room and chained my bikes front wheels to a post in hopes it would be there in the morning. I was beat. I took a bath and awoke to cold water. I was still in the tub. The storm and tornado passed. I survived but my leathers were soaked from perspiration. I forgot how I dried it but I was good to go the next day. When I crossed into Arkansas, the landscape changed. Trees appeared. The altitude of the mountains made my bikes carburetor sputter. I saw the first African Americans since Los Angeles here. Knoxville, Tennessee was a blur but the country was also breathtaking. And now here I was on this back road of North Carolina. I locked my wrist at 60 miles an hour and motored on. I awoke to a car beeping its horn frantically trying to wake me up. The driver was on my right as I was now doing 80 mph in the left lane. There was a pool of saliva on my tee shirt. There was a car in front of me, with two kids looking wide eyed at me and the whole event. I lifted my chin and saw them wave. I looked to my right and saw the driver mouth the words, “wake up, you were sleep”. I looked at him and said what are you talking about man? You act like I was sleep on a motorcycle. Then it hit me. I was. By the grace of God, I was still alive. How long was I out, I don’t know? When did I change lanes? How was I able to ride unconsciously? I was not in control. I slowed down to 50 mph and let the cars pass me by. I beeped my horn and pulled off on the dark country road where I proceeded to have a church worship service. The frogs joined in and it was awesome. I’ve been a man of Faith ever since…
I will praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all thy marvellous works — Psalm 9:1
*the pictured Yamaha is not mine. This one is an 1100 but mine looked just like it at 850 cc.