Friday, October 28, 2011

Five Dead Riders

“This marks one of the worst tragedies in motorcycle history. The purpose of this memorial is to never forget those of us who have fallen, and to remind us how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away.  Live to ride, ride to live, God speed and please be careful.”
I first read that plaque on an unseasonably cool Monday in early August, 2009. High sky, no clouds, 77° at noon. Perfect riding weather on NorCal’s west Sierra slope, and the road we’d been following after bailing from US 50 near Pollock Pines was nearly devoid of traffic. A few weeks earlier, I’d jacked-up my rotator cuff falling down a mountain near that same road, trying to save my Nikon after tripping over some rusty barbed wire. That day, my brother and I continued on to Virginia City, where we ate fish tacos, visited the dead in a dusty 19th Century bone yard, and saw a drunk chick ride a little Ninja down Main Street.

On the way back down the hill we spotted a row of five large crosses sheltered by pines on a roadside embankment. We were racing the sun with no time to stop; I had witnessed the effects of deer on the motorcyclists who’ve smacked into ‘em, and I had no intention of letting one claim me. Just as well, as I was also feeling the need for something stronger than Motrin for that damned shoulder after riding several hundred miles using my other arm to lift my hand to the throttle. We sped past the site and made plans to follow up on it sometime later.

Later wound up taking a few months to materialize. Having failed to win the lottery, I was forced to allow work to interfere with other, more important pursuits. On August 3rd we returned. I wasn't prepared for the intensity of my response.

I am a lifelong, tortured agnostic. I don’t believe in any god, but I don’t actively disbelieve either. There’s a switch in my mind, painstakingly installed and subsequently maintained by the usual combination of genetics and environment, which redirects questions about the alleged persistence of non-corporeal consciousness to an out-of-the-way mental crawlspace. Sure, I think about such things, but when the intractability of the problem wears me down, I just stuff it in that fortified thought locker so I can continue to function in a semi-normal manner.

I had some trouble flipping that switch at the memorial. Memories of riding dirt bikes with my dad when I was a kid, thoughts of my own wife and sons and how my death-by-fiery crash would affect them, the history and physical qualities of the site—all of this contributed to a state that felt like the presence of something bigger. I can do a reasonable job of explaining this with my limited knowledge of neurology, but in this case I'll allow the undefined to remain undefined—to a greater degree than it needs to be—because I like it that way. As long as I make that distinction consciously, it’s cool.

Five stout wooden crosses stand as sentinels for this place that memorializes the lives of five motorcyclists who died on Labor Day weekend in 1989. These crosses line the ridge of a ten foot red dirt embankment along the south side of a sparsely traveled road that gains 4,000 feet in elevation over a distance of about 30 miles as you ride east.

To reach the memorial beyond the crosses, you either scale the embankment or walk along a dirt path threading through the trees from a turn-out half a football field west. Either way, when you get there, be prepared for conflicting emotions. This is a peaceful place, and even the occasional passage of vehicles on the roadway below won’t distract you from contemplating the duality of that peace and the violent collision and fire that claimed five lives. The riders were part of a larger group, maybe 30 or 40 bikes strong, en route to Hope Valley on a bright September morning. The young, inexperienced driver of a west-bound truck hauling wood lost control on the downgrade, and when it was done, James Carter, Jeff Pearl, Jeffrey and Debbie Sund, and Doug Wall were all dead.

Echoes of terror are there if you want them. What would you feel, watching a one-ton flatbed coming at you sideways with just enough time to know your fate but not evade it? Which is worse, blunt force trauma or immolation? Would your thoughts—in that brief interval between threat recognition and fate realization—have any coherence, or would all your energy be spent trying to react? You can ponder those questions when you visit this place, but you’ll also notice how calm and removed it seems, despite the proximity of the road below. You can hear ravens and Steller’s jays. Beds of pine needles, sun-dappled shade, a tree with a trunk and dead limb that forms a big dollar sign 50 feet up. In the summer there are plenty of grasshoppers just outside the perimeter of the little clearing, and western fence lizards skitter around on fallen branches. Life amid the remembrance of loss, the juxtaposition more profound and elemental than what you’ll find at a cemetery. Evidence that not only is Zen something you bring with you and discover more readily when distractions are minimized, but also that a ten foot dirt bank is more than enough mountain to scale in search of it.

In a clearing under the pine canopy there is a simple concrete base supporting a pewter plaque that tells the story. Also mounted on this low pedestal is the engine of one of the bikes, and damage from the extreme heat of the fire can be seen in the parts that melted. Touch it. That V-twin power plant once moved a rider through space and time and spiritual awareness just as your bike moves you now. Examine the bits and pieces of tribute left by other riders. An American flag patch. A laminated card of an artist's depiction of Jesus. Cards bearing the logos of several MC’s and riding clubs. A half-smoked cigar and a sticker with the grinning skull logo of Ironworkers Local 118. Some coins. An old digital watch, cracked and burned and stopped forever. Some .38 Special and .45 long Colt brass. A small brown and white teddy bear. A tiny, bent redwood seedling, nurtured by an elderly couple with a can of water, survivor of winter snows and inadvertently placed boot soles. The old collar and tags of a long-dead, beloved dog.

Leave your own tribute, but respect the tone and nature of the spot and the memory of those whom it honors. Let yourself absorb the detail and the generality, the physical objects, their natural surroundings, and the atmosphere they produce. Don't force it, just let it. If there’s enough of whatever it is to register in the undefined zones of my agnostic mind, it will definitely affect you.

© Pseudocognitive

An excellent memorial-themed ride report from NorCal with some compelling photographs can be found on the John Is On The Road Again blog.

Memorial to Five bikers on SmugMug

I obtained some of the information about the crash from the plaque at the site; the rest of the background information about the incident is from an interesting article by RJ “Cowboy” Carter of the BoozeFighters MC.

Note: In the realm of motorcycle riding, there exist distinctions among the various classifications given to and used by the operators of the machines. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the differences between those who truly are “bikers”and those who are not (not to mention trying to dispel whatever misconceptions some readers may have concerning various stereotypes). For that reason, I have chosen to refer to the people who died in this crash by the more general term “rider,” no offense intended to anyone at all.

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