This is a series of columns called the Muleshoe Chronicles. Muleshoe is a retired U.S. Air Force veteran who likes to ride. He lives in Benton. Read more of his columns at mysaline.com/muleshoe.
The dark of night comes early these days and riding time gets shorter and shorter with each passing sunset. My passion for the open road is not dissuaded though. Muleshoe here again.
These past few weeks, my rides have ended in the dark several times and the whole notion of motorcycling changes. The single most distinctive aspect which stands out when riding at night, is there is only one headlight, or dual lights mounted side by side. Whichever the case, there is but a single beam of light with a shorter reach out in front of you. All is well until you go through a bunch curves on a dark tree-lined road. The lights can’t reach around the bend in the road. If there is no other traffic, those curves are absolute blind spots and you are forced to slow way down. Besides possibly leaving the road in an unwanted manner, there could be anything waiting for you as an ugly surprise. On top of everything else, deer are on the move during the fall and winter months and pose a special danger at all times.
I have found myself riding in the dark many times. I don’t like it at all, but have grown used to the lack of a good field of vision at night.
First, to combat this situation, plan your ride so you are at your destination before you lose the day’s last light.
Second, if darkness sneaks in before you are off the road, you must, must, must, slow down; especially out in the countryside. Often other vehicles’ lights can give you a little idea what is between you and them. But that reprieve only lasts for a few moments.
Third, if you know you will be out after nightfall, ensure you haven’t consumed any alcohol. Your ability to react is greatly impaired with even one beer or shot of joy juice.
And finally, fourth, know your route. Even if you have never ridden that path before, ensure you know where you are going. Map your route or plug it into your GPS. Today, many bikes and of course smart phones have GPS. Phones can be mounted to your handle bars and are backlighted. Just take the time to learn how to use it. Don’t miss a turn only to be distracted and miss something such as an oncoming car in the road as you struggle to turn around.
A friend and I left Benton about 5:30 p.m. last October, headed towards Oklahoma to attend the funeral of a fallen brother. Neither one of us could leave until after work and we were representing our state’s riding association. Our route would take us through Mt. Ida and westward. Darkness would catch us before we made it to the far side of Hot Springs. Highway 270 to Mt. Ida was pretty easy though. The many lights along the way gave us a little security but beyond the crossroads to the Ouachitas, only jet black darkness lay ahead. I think the rolling hills and long easy curves helped a lot. As we topped each hill, our lights could reach out a little further and the trees on either side were cut way back. Our light bars, those two smaller lights on either side of the headlight, helped illuminate the roadside much better. Thank goodness we didn’t see a single deer that night. When we crossed over into the Sooner State at Mena the road straightened out and we made our destination by midnight.
Another run to Oklahoma for a bike rally saw our arrival in the dark. The guy who was leading later admitted his GPS was not working correctly. As we rolled into Lawton, we simply kept rolling. As the minutes slipped by, I could only watch as the lights of the city became dimmer and dimmer in my rear view mirror. We were on a back road and the darkness could have been hiding almost anything. Potholes, chunks of tires or animals like armadillos could be lurking out in front. I don’t mind saying I am glad I was not in the lead. Later that weekend, we exercised part of our associations ritual which took place way, way out in the boondocks. We went out in the daylight but darkness closed in long before we were finished. The way back was with about one hundred bikes, all doing over 70 m.p.h. on small country roads. I was not a happy camper and very concerned about our safety. My problem however, was I had to stay with the pack because I didn’t know the way back to the hotel. I did voice my displeasure later about our speed. I was loud enough that I think I made my point. After the rally, the way home took us across the top of Texas. The light slipped away somewhere around Texarkana. Interstate 30 was a pretty easy ride, but the thousands of large trucks heading towards Little Rock were a little bit intimidating. Again we had to watch for deer just waiting to jump out to get a better look at our headlights.
The only thing that can top riding in the dark, is riding in the dark while it is raining. It is not uncommon to be caught in a downpour, but in the dark, your ride can end badly. Our chapter was requested to escort a group of Wounded Warriors last year riding from coast to coast on bicycles. We were to rendezvous in Hazen. As the four of us stopped for breakfast in North Little Rock, a torrent of rain set in. As we headed east on Interstate 40 the rain was coming down so hard, a couple of eighteen wheelers slipped off the road on the westbound side just as we passed them. Mercifully the rain slowed to a mist when we hooked up with the riders. Highway 70 towards Little Rock was slow, but free of incident and mostly dry. It took till late afternoon for the bicyclists to reach the hotel at the airport. As a veteran, I was deeply impressed with each of these gallant warriors. Many of them were missing a limb or had their spirit shattered in combat. It was such an honor to escort these brave men and women safely through central Arkansas. My career in the Air Force never took me into harm’s way and I can only be in awe of their unselfish dedication to ensure we continue to live free and safe. Since it was late and breakfast was long gone, a burger in the hotel’s restaurant was more than necessary. During the time spent dining, not only had darkness replaced the daylight, but the monsoon had also resumed. I would be the only one headed home towards Benton. The stretch of Interstate from the airport was somewhat busy but when I merged onto Interstate 30 you would have sworn there was a blue light special somewhere up ahead. With the pouring rain and road spray from everyone doing MACH 1, I could hardly keep my goggles clear. My lights seemed to bounce off the wall of water I was riding into. After I crossed over University Ave., the rain seemed to lighten up a little and the traffic to slow a bit. The next morning we still had the duty of helping the Wounded Warriors work their way through Little Rock and Benton. The weather was just the same as the night before, rain, pouring rain. Instead of hopping on my bike, I pulled the chicken switch and took the truck. Roosevelt to Arch Street, right on Baseline and into Saline County via Stagecoach and we would roll through Benton and on to Haskell. The Big Red is where I would say my goodbyes and wish them Godspeed.
Riding at night is not the worst of conditions but it runs a close second. I can not overemphasize the need to be extremely proficient with your ride and to be on guard at all times. I know someone who hit a large chunk of truck tire in the dark, the type we see on the highway every day. That person went down and both she and her bike slid off the road and out of sight. She laid on the side of the road for hours before someone finally spotted her. My friend did survive and her story does have a happy ending, but she carried away a serious case of road rash. Getting caught in the dark happens. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. But being on your best each time you crawl on board will improve your chances greatly. Motorcycling is a great way of life. Over time you will find yourself waiting for the next warm, dry day to go for a ride. But under any conditions, let someone know your route, expected time of arrival and text them when you arrive safely. This is a firm rule in our association. You will not only make your ride safer but will draw your friends even closer. Well I am almost to Malvern so I had better close out this log. Until next time, Ride Safe. Muleshoe.