California’s Mt. Lassen—a sublime and chilly scene
I pursued entertainments that might be clumped under a heading of “risk sports,” oh, for about four decades of life. Throughout this funfest, I strove to be guided by a clear and abiding principle: Never let my last thought be: yeow, that was dumb!
Of course, I’ve violated this rule more often than I’d care to admit. I’ve thrust myself into jams from which I then had to extricate myself in triple jig-time—on occasion, with scant hope of success.
However, since I seem to still be present (if unaccounted for), and I’ve not broken a bone (none major, anyway), it’s possible I’ve been able to learn a thing or two. Certainly do hope so! Otherwise, I’ve indulged in bouts of highly hazardous folly for no damn good reason.
One small measure of gain from pain is my grasp of what it’s like to have your adrenal glands spurt like fire hydrants while all your systems spool up to top speed—fueling body and brain as they fully engage and tightly focus on solving a mortal problem in a present moment.
Saving one’s own life can prove quite an intoxicating rush.
I mean, in a manner that soars quite far past the sipping of a liter of chilled Muscat Amabile by the light of a spring moon as crickets saw gently in a vineyard’s frosty distance.
Y’see, it’s considerably more dynamic. And fraught, too.
Here’s Winston Churchill on the topic. “Nothing in life is more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”
Survival does fascinate most if one enjoys some agency in creating that happy outcome. If it doesn’t rely on megadoses of luck, instead. You see, Winston’s example is a lousy one since it’s less about choice than it is about chance. The man on a shooter’s bullseye has tiny to zero influence over how well his enemies are able to perform as trained or untrained riflemen. Are they patient, accurate, fully sighted in and within sure range? Or are they a mere bunch of goons, just banging wildly away in the hope of someday hitting something?
I suppose Winston’s escapee might fancy himself an expert at ducking or dodging when someone shoots. However, I’m reliably informed one never hears the shot that hits you. Way back in the day of a Brown Bess musket, maybe. But we now live in a supersonic era. It’s a situation where great luck seems a more potent asset than a fast duck.
I certainly don’t want to dismiss luck as a factor. However, as a topic, I do now wish to set it aside.
Instead, let’s select the factor of choice for our analysis. And I mean, choices both good and bad. By good, I mean those that open a door to your survival. Bad, of course, would be the ones that mired you neck-deep in a jam, originally.
HEDGE ALL YOUR BETS
Here’s an excellent spot to point out that never, ever, have I sought to court danger for its own sake. Risk has always and only been a by-product of adventure for me. I have neither felt nor succumbed to that moth-to-flame compulsion of a hardcore daredevil. Such a level of thrill-seeking has always seemed ludicrous to me—and wantonly dismissive of our gift of life.
In contrast, my own durable policy has been to keep myself well back from the edge—or the lip of the abyss, if you like. That said, a big surprise can force one’s margin to shrink to the width of a hair.
Most experiences of this sort, I’ve kept private. Well, I have written a manuscript that seeks to capture and render a few of the truly vivid instances. Never felt ready to release it, though. Not quite yet.
I’ve gone public with a couple events in a more derivative manner, projecting in some ways and sublimating in others. As I’ve shifted from outdoor journalism into thriller & mystery novelizing, I’ve found a certain ease, discovered a kind of facility, even, in describing the moments when my characters must face situations of great peril, and are forced to perform (or not).
These moments might be fictional, yet they draw heavily on events I’ve actually experienced.
ONCE UPON A TINE
To make this case, I should provide at least one “for instance” from my own life. It’s a close shave that seriously adjusted my perspective.
The episode I’ll relate is from my motorcycle years. Let’s call it, “The Beast vs The Winnebago”—a highway championship bout for all the marbles.
I rode from age 15 to year 65. Out of the nine bikes or “putts” of various sizes I put up on kickstands, three got wrecked and totaled in accidents. Still, the way I saw things, my odds looked pretty nice. Overall, on any given bike, I always had at least a two-in-three chance of not crashing!
My chances improved a lot more, of course, after I hopped off these suicide scoots forever, choosing to walk away while I still could.
Yet before those years expired, I evolved as a rider to the point where my machines could feel like an extension of my body. In other words, if I could think it, I could pretty much make a bike do it—taking its own limits into consideration, the same way we must take the physics of our own bodies into account.
Maybe you can’t be Spiderman, yet you can do parkour. (That’s close enough!) Maybe I can’t turn a motorcycle into a starship, however, I can transform myself into the top half of a mechanical centaur—one with more capabilities and potencies than I could ever achieve unaided.
To warm up for my story, let me a sketch my motorcycling history with prose captions for this trio of accompanying photos.
The top shot is me at age 18 in 1968 astride a Honda Superhawk, the fourth motorcycle I owned. In this photo, I jump the berm of a swimming pool at the Catholic seminary where I had been studying to be a priest. It’s likely that I was attempting to hit flight velocity, like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” (Despite how it may appear, this Superhawk was not one of the bikes I totaled.)
The second shot is me at age 22, packing up my Honda 750 for a ride all the way across the big ol’ USA in the summer of ‘73, trying to find the exact location where I figured I ought to live. Months later, I fetched up at Morro Bay. Right after sunrise, I toured all of coastal Hwy 1 up through Big Sur, scoring my first good look at California. Whereat, “Eureka!” quoth I. (The Honda 750 also wasn’t one of the bikes I totaled.)
The third shot is of a 1988 BMW R100GS, aka “the Beast,” a bike I owned the longest and always considered the best motorcycle ever formed by the hand of man. This GS, however, is one machine that I did come near to totaling, twice.
My story of first of those almost-crashes is the bodacious bout that follows.
HITTING THE ROAD HARD
Among our culture’s most resonant aphorisms, “Pride goeth before a fall,” scores a top mark. Its original source is a line in the Hebrew Bible: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”—Proverbs 16:18. It’s such a great hit because it invokes a blindness. This enjoys plenty of application, since there’s more than one type. Your kind of blindness might be pride, or it could easily be some other sort of psychic distraction or block.
Voluntary blindness is made by a willful substitution of a preferred, imaginary vision for truly perceiving what exists around us. This condition grows acute when you begin to operate on the basis of an utter fantasy.
On this day, the way blindness happened to me was that I began to have way-y too much fun. Whereupon I insisted on having just a touch too much more. In other words, what went before my fall was not pride, per se, but pure whoopee.
Now, let’s spin the yarn:
It’s an absolutely splendid morning in late spring, and I am aboard The Beast and winging my way up through the sweeping curves of Highway 32 as I head north out of Chico. This roadway ascends from flats of the upper Central Valley of California into the hills and then the mountains of the southern Cascade Range, aiming for the gleaming (usually) 10,457-foot summit of Mount Lassen. Before quite getting there, though, this road “T’s” into Highway 36, which turns out of these uplands as it bends westward to the city of Red Bluff.
Hwy 32 is a complete treat for motorcyclists, a rising ribbon of asphalt that writhes through a green tunnel of branching forest, then slinks along a ridge standing off to your left while a merry, plashing mountain stream keeps pace to your right. There’s no side streets or driveways and few places for a CHP patrolman to get a good radar reading. The endless series of broad turns as well as that uphill trajectory means one can simply steer by twisting the throttle—which means no braking required. So, you can go as fast as good sense and the adhesion of your tires to pavement allow. Waltzing through this sort of terrain is a dance that bikers live for, and on this day I wring every possible drop of delight out of it.
At Hwy 36 I make a left to continue the frolic, until suddenly I run up against a long string of slowly moving cars. Very slow and very long. I’d buzzed gleefully at 60-70 mph on an empty mountain highway, just prior. Now I’m stuck going at 15 mph behind a pack of at least two dozen cars… or maybe more… since I can only count the ones visible ahead of me on the broadest of curves.
What makes them so tardy? Why are they wasting my time, not to mention harshing my mellow? A semi or some other truck must be causing this delay, I imagine, maybe a vacationer’s big RV, trundling cautiously around turns until it can find the perfect place to pull over. At least that’s what I hope.
Yet sometimes a vehicle like that, due to the driver’s oblivion, stupidity or obstinacy, simply refuses to pull over in any sort of kindly manner. As more miles trickle by for us, that seems to be what’s occurring. All potential pull-outs are being ignored, so I start to feel a tad frustrated, even a bit steamed. Meaning: I trundle quite a way past impatient.
Finally I come to a turn broad enough to see that my second guess had been correct. The rolling impediment at the forefront of this turgid parade is a Class A RV, a big, beige, boxy Winnebago. Its driver appears heedless of the massive inconvenience he’s been awarding to everyone who’s stuck behind him.
Next, I perceive that I might have enough room here to bypass the whole shitaree. I also see that none of the cars behind this big brown rig seem interested in making a passing move themselves. Probably, because they don’t own anything close to the hefty acceleration or handling that my Beast can boast.
Nothing moves toward me in the oncoming or eastbound lane. But I figure if any vehicle does appear, I can brake and find a niche in that line of slow moving cars to swing back into.
So! All righty, then. I pull into the oncoming lane, twist my throttle open, and in a trice I’m whizzing past the line of cars at 70 mph and straining for 80. It seems I’ll pass them all and finally the Winnebago, and do it quite handily.
Then the RV does something wholly unexpected. Tell me you did not see this coming. Well, I certainly didn’t…
JUST ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL
The rig begins to drift left, across the center line, waddling into the lane where I’m attempting to pass. Probably just a second of inattention, I think, he’ll soon correct, steer back into his own lane. After all, he has no left turn signal switched on, and there’s no side street over there anyhow, the man’s got nothing he can steer into but a steep field of boulders and weeds!
Yet the dude keeps turning and turning and turning. That makes no damn sense. Yet it’s clear this driver’s bizarre movement in a second or so shall present me with a wall of metal that utterly blocks my path. And I myself now travel way-y too fast to stop.
Oh crap! What other options might exist?
A neurologist friend once told me that the nerves in our brains have one speed. They can’t fire faster, despite the impression we tend to have that, under stress, our brains speed up. The actual trick is that, under stimulation from an adrenaline surge, nerves can fire much more frequently. Some can repeatedly spike at the rate of a fresh bolt every two milliseconds. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.) Thus, what speeds up is not our brains, per se, but the human mind abiding therein, as it grows capable of lickety-split parallel processing.
It’s what gives us the impression that, at moments of high crisis, time slows down. What happens instead is that our intake of info and our ability to analyze it spools up. It’s an ancient and highly useful survival skill. And the aspect impressing me most is a pellucid clarity which can infuse that mental state.
Our standard rubric, that danger stimulates a “flight or fight” response, is inadequate as a summary. At minimum, that menu should also hold, “freeze, and/or figure it out.” The latter option strikes me as most intriguing, since when survival is surely on the line, if emotions like fear or anger seem beside the point, they’re quickly cancelled. In their place, at the core of an ice-calm awareness, you see your remaining choices fan out ahead of you—and can factor in that onrushing, non-negotiable deadline for picking one.
SELECT YOUR SHOTS, SCHATZI…
This day, on a curve of a highway from Lassen to Red Bluff, I see that I cannot swerve right to go past the rear bumper of the RV, because the cars that have been stacked up behind it are eager to finally move ahead in the westbound lane; they now tightly pack all available space.
I can’t swerve left, try to go ahead of the RV and off the pavement because beyond the left edge of the pavement that embankment falls away quite steeply and I’d fly out into rather rough terrain at a high speed.
I could try to lay the Beast down and take my chances on sliding and skidding in a shower of sparks beneath the RV. However, in this niche all kinds of bad stuff might occur, including having the rig run over me, or having my motorcycle jam into its undercarriage, followed by me smashing into that fresh mess.
Just one thing is sure: if I freeze and stay on my present course and speed, I shall punch through the metal side of that Winnebago and wind up lodged somewhere it its dining area, likely with my corpse in a state of gooey disassembly.
So, what should I do?
I perceive a narrow, rapidly closing slot of opportunity: maybe I can keep myself on the pavement and go around the RV’s front bumper. However, I’m simply not going fast enough to make that work. Not yet! Thus, I must go faster. In a split-second, I select this option and commit to it. I twist my throttle open all the way whilst aiming my Beast’s front tire at that stripe of white paint on the left side of the road. I lie flat behind my handlebars, focus on that line, and refuse to look at the RV or speculate any more on the worst that could happen.
At the final instant, if a collision does seem both imminent and inevitable, I can soar off the roadway and take my chances on landing way out in the rough. The bike’s suspension will absorb a first hit. What might happen after that is anyone’s guess.
Beast doesn’t have a top speed much over 100 mph, but this machine is low-geared and owns stump-pulling torque, so it does accelerate swiftly. Thus, with my right hand, I not only wind my throttle tightly against its final peg, metaphorically I also fling the dice of fate across the tabletop of this situation while fervently praying they don’t roll to “snake-eyes.”
The Beast’s exhaust roars, my tires hit the white line at the edge of the highway, the front of the RV fills my peripheral vision like a giant wall, I think I see or perhaps I only imagine the eyes of its driver widen with shock and wonder as I flash past his front bumper with mere inches to spare between his rig and my boot on the Beast’s right footpeg.
Then I flash past him to discover that I’m now fully in the clear.
The moment is akin to breaking a sound barrier, or observing your Millennium Falcon make its leap to hyperspace.
In one instant, I confront death or maiming, but in the very next I’m flying alone down a stretch of open road with nothing around me but sky and trees and open fields. This lovely result seems to call for a sigh of relief, and I heave myself a grand one. Then I slow down and check my mirrors. No cars appear behind me. Maybe everyone has pulled over to search for my broken motorcycle and crunched-up body somewhere off the roadway’s south shoulder…
ALL I AM SAYING, IS GIVE ‘EM A CHANCE
Back to writing. When it comes time for me to scribble an action scene, what I’ve just described is the sort of experience that provides the grist for my mill.
Now, I do know of a moderately successful thriller writer who says he thinks his job should consist of dropping a series of pianos onto his hero’s head. Okay for him I reckon, but I don’t see things his way. I’ve found that it’s not necessary to inflict mayhem continuously or even often on your characters. There are lots of better and different ways to create an air of suspense and foreboding. You can just raise the stakes while keeping the threat level the same, for instance.
You see, I love my characters, even most of my baddies, so I always want to give them an option, a route to survival, however slim. But! Are they willing and/or able to follow such a path? Well, y’know, thereby might hang more than a tale or two.
PS: Some time later, highly curious, I went back to that part of Highway 36 to see if I could figure out why the Winnebago guy sought to turn off the road at that peculiar spot. What I found was that the steep left embankment led down to a narrow, rocky ramp and a crude wire gate set in the middle of a ranch fence. This gate looked like an entry or exit for an ATV or a dude on a horse; not suitable in any way for a massive RV. Apparently, the driver had been moving so slowly because he’d been searching for that particular opening. Why he ever imagined it was a fine spot to try to turn off the road and enter a ranch with his big ol’ rig, well, that answer lies far past my ken. Or as Bob Dylan might’ve sung, it’s blowin’ in the wind.