May 03, 2005
Murphy’s Law 2 or how I learned to stop worrying and drive a dead motorcycle 450 miles across the country or 16 hours in hell or when karma attacks
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It all started innocently enough. I made it to the Providence airport with plenty of time to spare, glided through security with only the taste of irony at having to take off my shoes, but leaving my big metal watch on and still not setting off the metal detector, and sat around for over an hour folding origami out of “MMDC Confidential” cover sheets from work under the mildly amused gaze of a goth girl with about as many piercings as I have shoes and a head of unnaturally red hair swept back in twin pony tails. She later bashed her head into a metal crossbar on the window behind us and couldn’t stop laughing about it. Boarded the plane approximately on time, displaced a tall skinny girl in designer clothes who was surely a model who had taken my seat (no really, you don’t have to move). Reflected once more upon the existence of girls outside of engineering.
The lights and ventilation system on the plane fluctuated on and off for about 20 minutes, scaring the feint of heart. Apparently the power source they were attached to was poorly wired. Way to instill confidence! The plane left the terminal about 15 minutes late, but we were only about 10 minutes late into Detroit, and my bag was the 2nd out of the baggage claim. Grabbed some food from The Fleetwood on the way back. Picked up the bike in Kalamazoo, hung a billion things to it with bungies, and headed for home at around 11:30.
The machine was wonderful. It was quick off the line, comfortable, practically exuding power. It was quite a bit lighter than the bike I’ve used most, and had a larger engine by 200ccs. It ran great… for about 20 minutes… at which point it decided that 4 cylinders were overrated, so it would only use 2 of them. I sputtered a few miles, contemplated giving up, decided against it, then was amazed when it practically took off from under me. It was running fine again! At least for another couple miles. A few more cycles through this, and I’d made it home.
Home… at least that’s what it used to be. Where I used to live now was no more than a quiet empty husk. Devoid of all life for a couple months, with no furniture, and none of the same feeling… depressing. Despite being tired all day, getting home always wakes me up, so I made a few calls, as it was only about 1am, but no one answered. Beaten, I headed to bed, meaning a mattress laying on the floor of the master bedroom.
I laid, my mind racing. My torpidity was interrupted after 2am by my phone: it was Brandi! She asked if I wanted to hang out, and in my half-asleep state I was less than eager, but she persisted, and I love her for it. I had just begun explaining how to find my house when her phone, which is prepaid, ran out of time. I doubted she could find the place with just what I’d told her, and there was no other way for me to get in touch, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I really wanted to sleep, but I gave her resourcefulness some credit, so I waited. Within 10 minutes, I saw headlights crawling down the street. It was awesome seeing her again, it had been years. We hung out till about 6 in the morning. The Greene’s across the street got lucky we weren’t thinking too clearly. The sun was coming out when I finally got to sleep.
My dad guessed it was one of the ignition coils that was causing the motorcycle to run sporadically rough, and managed to pick up a used one from a junk store and we put it on Friday morning. By now, the weather was hinting at its forthcoming wrath. It was cold and raining, but I still had to test the bike to make sure everything was in order. I rode it around a few miles, getting my pants nice and soaked. Saw my mom briefly. Ate lunch with Matt, who was nice enough to come all the way back from school for it. Thanks goes to Mary for threatening violence to make that happen. Had dinner with Joanna before she had to go to work.
Brandi never bothered to put more time on her phone, so she was totally incommunicado. So not cool.
I rode the bike around a bit while Joanna was at work, and noted that gas was escaping out of the #2 cylinder through the spark plug threads. There was a noticeable loss of compression and power.
Hung out with Joanna Friday night and ended up going to Kalamazoo and helping Ashley move some crap around. Anything to help screw over Brian Greene.
Saturday morning, the fun started. I’ve often joked in the past after doing something nice for someone that I’m really only working to pay off my karmic debt at all the horrible things I’ve done in the past. Well the Karma Collector carried a 52 when he should have carried a one. Consider my debt paid.
It was in the mid 30’s and snowing when I strapped all my things to my bike or my back and headed out. The plan was to stay in Ann Arbor Saturday night and continue on to Massachusetts Sunday. I was wearing one pair of regular socks, one pair of wool socks, boots, boxers, long underwear, cargo pants, jeans, ski pants, a t-shirt, fleece hoodie, regular leather jacket, riding leather jacket, winter coat, balaclava face mask and neck warmer, my helmet, and leather gloves. I made it to Bangor before the fun started. As I was leaving Bangor, the bike began to run out of gas. Luckily, motorcycles all have reserve tanks, so I switched to mine, and figured it would take me another few miles to the next gas station… such is not my luck. About a mile and a half from the gas station I was heading for, the bike died. In the snow, packed into enough clothing to resemble the Michelin man, with crazy hair from the combination of my lack of a hair cut in about 10 months and wearing a face mask, hood, and helmet, I attempted to hitchhike. Somehow, in about 5 minutes a red van stopped and ferried me to a gas station for a gas can, then back to my bike. I then managed to drive back to the gas station with the gas can in one hand to give it back and fill up. That’s so much harder to do than it sounds.
I made it to Kalamazoo and my dad, who had the spark plug wrench I needed to try to fix the loss of compression from the second cylinder, determined that the spark plug had been cross threaded. I’ll explain why this is bad. Engine blocks are made of Aluminum, which is light, a good conductor of heat, and relatively strong. The threads on a spark plug are made of steel, and hence substantially stronger. When a spark plug is cross threaded in an engine block, the spark plug threads essentially tear through the soft aluminum of the engine block. This is bad…
There are devices called helicoils to try to fix the threads, so we got one and managed to get the spark plug in… but it was ugly. The helicoil didn’t want to go in all the way, and as we took turns forcing the spark plug down a few millimeters by hauling on a wrench, there were more than a few moment where I was convinced something was going to snap, and I’d be on a bus bound for Boston.
So the bike was running, and apparantly at 100%. It seemed like things might be alright after all, aside from the snow and bitter cold which relentlessly followed me to Ann Arbor. I had to stop twice to warm up. My fingers were purple.
I made it to Ann Arbor and hung out the rest of the night. Sunday morning, I moved only enough to realize how horrible the weather was, and postpone my trip till Monday. I went into hardcore bum mode the rest of Sunday. Monday the real fun started.
I got up at 8am to frosted windows obscuring yet more of the bane of 2 wheeled existence: more snow. I suited up and hit the road before 9. It was damp and cold, but blissfully less than the previous 2 nights. Everything was relatively uneventful through the Canadian border, despite high winds on the bridge crossing it. In Canada, speed limits are disregarded, so I was making the best time of my life. I was cruising down the freeway averaging around 90mph, figuring when the signs say “100″ they mean go ahead and try to do 100. Things were going far too well, till 100 miles into Canada, when I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw a billowing cloud of white smoke tracing back to my exhaust pipe.
My heart sank. My mind raced. I slowed the bike down and the cloud dissipated. Hoping it was a fluke, yet not believing it for a second, I slowly sped up again. After I crossed about 85mph, the cloud returned, going from non-existent to forest fire within the span of a couple miles per hour. I downplayed it in my head. The bike wasn’t known to burn any oil at all, so maybe some had just been spilled. I’d topped it off before heading out of South Haven 2 days previous, perhaps it had just vibrated itself to somewhere hot enough to burn. I didn’t buy it at the time, but I could pretend long enough to get to a gas station.
Begin the noir.
I pulled up to a pump in some post industrial-holocaust town the Canadian welfare system surely wished didn’t exist. I lowered the kick stand and leaned the bike onto it. Then came the oil. It did not drip. It did not patter. It would be an injustice to categorize it as pouring. The oil gushed from the bike. Rivulets of the thick brackish liquid danced from a plethora of dipping pieces of plastic and metal that adorned the mechanical miracle that is a modern engine. My confidence drained right alongside the 20w50.
I filled up the tank, moved the bike to a parking spot, and went into the neighboring Dunkin’ Donuts to warm up and get some caffeine so I could bask in my own self pity. This was exactly what I was doing when a car pulled up and an old man in a business suit emerged asking where in Michigan I was from, as he had a cousin in Grand Rapids. He noticed the torrent of viscous liquid defecting from the side of my bike.
“You better get that looked at,” were the next words out of his mouth. Can I get a ‘here is your sign’? He was, like essentially every Canadian I’ve ever met, a very nice guy, and he directed me to a Honda dealership less than a mile away which may be able to look at my bike, so I went to try my luck and rode there.
I sauntered into the dealership, sauntering being the only movement afforded me by my 4 sets of leggings, 2 pairs of socks, and riding boots. The man behind the counter had appraised me before I’d crossed half the showroom floor. I told him of my troubles, and the extent to which time was the essence. With coffee in hand, cheap cigar clenched in his teeth, and staring at my through eyes that said he’d seen enough to know I was screwed, he told me just that. He recanted the poor timing of it all, revealing that ’tis the season for summer vehicle repair, and that I’d be lucky if anyone would even consider taking a look at it in the next week. That said, he agreed to take a look at it, but not to do any real work.
I brought the bike around to the back, and, with a fresh cigar jutting from the corner of his mouth, the man emerged with a small tool box and his cold eyes set to high. He stared at the bike for several minutes, squinting at angles I didn’t know existed. He suggested it might be the #2 spark plug, to which I regaled him with the helicoil tale. He waffled through some preliminary notions before getting to the jist of it all: the bike was totaled. There was no way it was going to end up being worth the cost to repair it, I might as well buy a new one. Second opinion from dad: the same. Prognosis: cracked piston. Conjecture to my ability to make it the remaining 450+ miles to Massachusetts: doubtful at best. My solution: try.
I thanked the man for his time, bought the first of many quarts of oil, and took off into oblivion.
Canada passed with little warning of how bad things would get. Unsure of how much oil was losing, or how much I could afford to lose, I stopped every 20-30 minutes to top it off and get gas. I had to start topping off around 80 to avoid leaving a smoke trail that could be seen from space. The snow dissipated, I saw the sun not once, not twice, but THREE times in a row for about 50 feet each time. That turned out to be the only sun I saw on the entire trip. I was convinced I would get stuck at customs in Niagara after I was waved by when my bike almost didn’t start (by now, it was idling so rough I couldn’t hear the officer over the engine, so I had to turn it off). Then it was on to the 270 mile stretch of i-90 through upstate New York.
The oil was a disaster. It oozed and vibrated everywhere. My boots were shiny with it, snowpants soaked through with it, gloves slick, coat dripping, socks drenched. I rode with the ever-present stench of burning petrol. the foot pegs were slick with the ungodly substance, as were the soles of my boots, causing no end to the troubles. The seat of the bike, the sides of the gas tank, every last centimeter of the engine, the back tire, the bake brake, all exuded it. I stopped every 45 minutes to refill the oil once I got back to the states. I was fairly confident that at any moment the engine would give up because of the piston, or the entire works would seize due to lack of oil, sending me flying over the handlebars and, in my imagination, under 5 axels and 9 tires of a random semi-truck. In my head I could hear the sound of my motorcycle helmet snapping as it was mashed into the pavement. I stopped buying food, only coffee, the rationale being I probably wasn’t going to make it out of the whole ordeal alive anyways, so I might as well spend the minimum, and I needed something warm to drink and hold. The overpasses looked progressively more attractive as targets. It got pretty bleak.
As dusk approached, it started raining again. The sun set. Fog settled. It got very very cold. I left the oil cap off the engine at a gas station on i-90 and drove for a mile or two before noticing. My entire right side got doused in oil. Somehow, the cap, which I’d placed in an alcove behind the cylinders, had stayed put so I didn’t have to scour the roadside. Later, in another gas station, the kick stand, which was covered in oil, slipped off the pavement, which was covered in oil, and the bike tumbled to the ground, (which was covered in oil). It was nearly impossible for me to pick it up again seeing as though my boots just slipped along as I tried to lift. The windshield popped off and the mirror and blinker became loose, but the bike was fine. I’d be thankful for my luck with the cap and the falling bike, but I figure it was all part of some plan to keep me microscopically close to breaking but not pushing me over the edge. Well it worked.
When I finally got to the Massachusetts Turnpike and only had about 115 miles to go, I filled up my tank and oil, and set my sights on home. It had been dark for hours. Nearly every inch of my body was covered in oil or water. The few that were spared were painfully cold, the wind chilling my literally to the bone (those who’ve traveled on motorcycles in the cold know what I mean). My right wrist ached constantly from maintaining pressure on the accelerator. About 10 miles till my exit onto 495, and my last 15 miles till home, the bike began to run out of gas. There are few exits on the turnpike, so it was a few miles till I got to one. Knowing how little I would get out of the reserve tank, I feared every moment as I paid my toll and exited the turnpike. I found a gas station, but they had no gas. My teeth clenched
The trip from Ann Arbor to Marlborough should have taken slightly over 11 hours. With the time I was originally making in Canada, I should have been able to do it in quite a bit under that. I got home after 1am. It took over 16 hours. I parked the bike in front of my apartment, where it will remain for who knows how long, laid out newspaper on my floor to put my oil-soaked clothes on, and crashed, knowing all I had to show for my hardship were a dead motorcycle, oil stains, a sparser-than-normal time sheet, and a story which would garner little more than laughing and “I told you so”s. It was the worst day of my life.
But I just saved a ton on my car insurance by switching to Geico.