Helluva Ride

By Michael Stepp

It was hard to leave that day. I’d ridden the gorgeous Spearfish Canyon Loop with family and friends, but had a hard deadline. I needed to peel off and journey home solo that afternoon.  My grandmother was with our son as my wife was out galavanting around the country on a trip with friends somewhere. Grandma had a commitment and needed to depart O’Neill that evening. 

“I’ve still got an hour. Lunch beers sound good and the ride home should be quick.” 

Main street, Keystone, South Dakota.

It’s a vibe. Posting up on a balcony or front porch for a burger and a pint during Sturgis’ Rally week is damn sure enjoyable; there are equivalent places to be, but certainly none better. 

An hour of laughs and a full belly later, I ripped the Band-Aid off … “Time I head east!” Quick hugs and fist bumps, and I hit the street to find my chopper amongst a vast sea of motorcycles. It was sunny and 85 with no wind and clear skies. I’d left my backpack at camp in the gear rig and was wearing my favorite t-shirt, a pair of ripped up wranglers, and blacked-out Chuck Taylor’s: the perfect armor for a light and quick 400 mile blast out of the Hills. 

Heading south, I’d catch Highway 20 at Chadron, NE and take a left. She’d be smooth sailing all the way home. If you’ve never been on the expanse of Highway 20 that stretches across the sandhills of western Nebraska, it’s a trip. Little towns dot the journey, double digit populations and no services are common. People are few and far between but they are among the best in the world; riding my chopper through this landscape with a 3 gallon tank would take some planning and maybe just a bit of good luck.

Rushville, Nebraska

I’d zoned out 100 miles before. The landscape was beautiful, and the air was perfect but after a 1500 mile couple days I was ready to get home for rehydration and repair. It took a moment to realize what snapped me out of my trance. I think it was the knee-high snow drifts along both shoulders of the highway. Something about them just didn’t fit amongst the 1000 mile expanse of chest high grasslands and 100 degree pavement. “Shit,” I realized, “that’s hail.”

I had plenty of time to ponder which direction this ass-kicker might have come from and which way it might be heading. Back then my phone certainly didn’t have the capabilities of a weather-check and I was 60 miles from service anyway. 

Five miles passed as I considered my options.  “Welp,” I’d concluded, “no stopping…only one way to find out.”



Cody, Nebraska

The temp dropped. I hit a 30-degree temp swing like a wall: 80 to 50. It was refreshing for a moment, but it didn’t warm back up. With a deadline in mind, I hammered eastward, the knock of my knees against the gas tank eventually harmonizing with the soothing rhythm of a big bore V-Twin. I searched for any reprieve; any sliver of relative heat or comfort was akin to an oasis in the desert. Over the next 100 miles I layed with my chest over my fuel tank. My elbows were atop my knees and I guided the bike with a light underhand grip at the bottom bend of my handlebars nearest the risers. My right hand was threaded as comfortably as I could manage between the cylinders of the motor and operated the throttle cable linkage at the carburetor. It was as close to a bear hug as that 100-cubic-inch motor has ever had. 

Valentine, Nebraska

My hours-long question was finally answered; signs of storm had riddled the highway for the duration of my journey and now I could see it. The afternoon sun at my back, I stared into a black thunderstorm that rose into the heavens but looked like the home of the devil himself. The storm was headed the same direction as me, just a tad slower. 

I told myself that I was earning my stripes—like there was some sort of badge or initiation into the brotherhood of chopped motorcycles. I’d built my bike years before just the way I’d dreamt it up: old school and bare bones. Function over frivolity. It was the real deal: primer instead of paint, rust around the edges, and a springer front end. Cool over comfort. My front fender, for instance…doesn’t exist. The rear one is only halfway there, halting at top-dead-center of my rear wheel, inches from the spot where the Good Lord split me. 

The highway turned wet, a sure sign that the rain might only be a few miles ahead of me. The skies were blue and sunny in the aftermath of the storm but the temperature still hovered around 50 degrees. I’d have given every hundred dollar bill left in my pocket for a jacket, or a set of fenders. 

The issue with no fenders is that on wet pavement at 50 mph your front tire throws a bead of water about six feet high. The rear tire throws one right up your spine. The volume and throw of water increases, proportionally, relative to speed—quite simply, it’s physics.

I rolled into Valentine like a drowned rat. The chrome on my handlebars had become too slippery to grip for any real length of time in my warm-motor-bear-hug position. I had to switch frequently between it and sitting upright with a giant lean to my left, keeping my face and eyes from the line of what eventually felt like a power washer to the face from my front tire. 

The path of water from my rear wheel resembled that of a mighty river. From my neck and shoulder blades it ran in a most reliable stream down my back and into canyon country. From there it meandered as it followed the contours of the underside of my hamstrings and calves.  My socks had collected water until the point of saturation, and now guided it further south and through the length of my Chuck Taylor’s. There was a steady stream rolling out the drain-holes near my arches back to the pavement of Highway 20. 

I walked into Shopko in Valentine with a blank gaze. The fucking air conditioner was running and the atmosphere in the store felt like it could snow. Avoiding the stare of puzzled customers and store personnel, I tried to keep my shivering to somewhere south of violent and left puddles behind me that warranted  “wet floor” caution signs. 

Being August, the long-johns department was non-existent. The long sleeve shirt department wasn’t much better and, being Sturgis season, the entire aisle of rain gear shelving was as bare as a Who’s house on Christmas morning. I found a chintzy-assed version of a thermal Henley, and a fashionable hoodie that you could see light through. 

I repeated this process at three stores in town with potential for useful gear and I’m confident that I bought the last rainsuit in Valentine, Nebraska that day. On the same receipt was a giant roll of Gorilla Tape. With kindred spirits I squished across the hardware store parking lot toward that bastard of a bike. 

That’ll hurt like a sonofabitch later, I figured, ripping layers from the roll of tape, applying it directly to the hair on my lower forearms and wrists.  Doesn’t matter, I reasoned, ought to keep the water out.  I was already soaked to the point of sopping wet. My thinking was that if I kept new water from flowing through my outfit, the rain jacket would operate like a neoprene wetsuit in cold water—my body heating my wet layers. The hope was to bring my core temperature up from somewhere near frozen rocks. 

I repeated the same process down low, duct-taping the pants to my ankles. I cinched a Gorilla-Taped belt, marrying the cheap rubber of my pants to the cheap rubber of my jacket and tossed the empty cardboard tape-roll in the trash can I was parked beside. 

The new system worked pretty well. Comfort is a relative term in this story but I began to thaw out, just slightly. There was a definite shelf life on the tape seal, and my baggy pants instantly melted across my exhaust pipes, but I’ll be damned if negative thoughts were going to steal one single degree of warmth from me. 

Eastward I charged. I’d already blown grandma’s deadline. The mid-day burger and beers had long since depleted, but I needed to get my ass home … in one piece. 

Ainsworth, Nebraska

The water on the road began to stack up. I was no longer under clear skies and the depressed tracks in the highway held standing water narrowly on both sides of my line. I’d gotten over the sketchy nature of this ride and was pretty comfortable operating the beast regardless of terminally shitty conditions. At this point I was feeling one with the bike.  “We’ll get each other home,” I muttered through drips of gritty sandwater rolling from my top lip. 

Bassett, Nebraska

I cracked the throttle as I left the outskirts of town. Forty miles to go and I was starting to get the hang of this. I was super-soaked and cold as fuck, but the body hits a point of submission and eventually just deals with the terrible scenario you’re force-feeding it. 

WHAM!

I wasn’t sure if the sound was the deafening and simultaneous clap of thunder and lightning or the death pucker of my asshole’s reaction to it. 

Despite my greatest wishes, I’d caught the bitch. 

I’d never seen lightning like it before and never have since. Bolts from Zeus’ sword slammed into earth nearer than 5 miles ahead. They raced upward and outward over my head, past my peripheral, creating an awe-inspiring blanket of bolts between me and the sky. Best thing was I had a front row seat—not even an annoying windshield to look through.

I was in my late 20s. Fear didn’t exist in a man’s world. A child of the late 80s and 90s, I hadn’t spent much time contemplating the concept and certainly hadn’t dealt with it on anything that resembled a real level in my adult life. 

I couldn’t find a speed slow enough to be comfortable in the rain. It came in sheets and, coupled with the water from my front wheel, felt more like a waterboarding than individual drops. Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th blanket of bolts I had time to ponder that fear thing. Young-gun attitude and masculinity aside, I was scared shitless. 

Stuart, Nebraska

I carried on this way, hanging as far off the left side of my bike as I could manage, hugging what I could see of the white line on the highway, peering through squinted, rain-pelted eyes. I scoured the gray-blue abyss in front of me for oncoming headlights, and prayed that God might grant an idiot like myself an escort of safe passage home to my family. 

O’Neill, Nebraska

I approached the familiar lights and landscapes of the western edge of my hometown and my knuckles gained some color as my grip loosened. The intensity of my flexed body lightened, and my spinal cord relaxed and shook, not so much from the death grip of freezing cold and extreme fear but as if to shake away and shed the heavy scenario that I’d lived within the past 3 hours of my life. The roar of my bike slowed. Pipes cackled as I let go of the throttle and settled into a slow cruise. The warming sensation of streetlights glared from wet concrete on Main Street. 

The rain subsided and the storm slid southeast. It left behind the pinks and lavender purples from an undercutting sunset on the pavement. I’d grown up riding bikes and cruising on this street, but it had never felt like home so much as it did that evening. 

I rolled into my driveway and ditched the chopper in one fluid motion. “Thanks for the ride,” I said out loud with a loving pat on the gas tank, and an appreciative glance toward the heavens.

As I strode through the front door, Brigham toddled his way across the kitchen and Grandma gave me a big soggy hug. She headed on her way with a brand of understanding and empathy that only a grandmother can hold. I jumped into a hot shower. Briggs sat in a diaper next to a mountain of dripping clothes on the floor and there we both remained for quite some time. 

All these years later and I laugh, endearingly, at the way that day played out. Stupid? Absolutely.  Reckless? A bit. I’ve pondered that day many times since and I wouldn’t change a moment of it if I could—save for maybe getting grandma to her event on time.

The spirit of adventure itself is born from the concept of embracing the unknown. You’ll never be able to plan your way out of every possible variable, and you’d never experience the thrill of raw life if you tried. 

Go on. Get out there and put yourself amidst the inevitable; live alongside uncertainty. Give yourself a crying chance at watching the beauty of a true adventure as it unfolds in real time.




From the FE Films Archive


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