“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Road Rash and Worse

“There are two kinds of riders, those who’ve been down and those who are going down.”

Somehow, I knew it was going to happen before it went down. Without trying to sound like some kind of mystical psychic nut case, when I saw the Ninja come wide around the turn, I wasn’t surprised. Something along the lines of “yep, there he is” rushed through my brain.

The silver Ninja drifted wide around the curve into our lane from the other direction, plowing full speed into my buddy Rick, who was minding his business on his Honda Shadow Aero just ahead of me. A tremendous blow followed—more like a loud thudding “Oooomph” than those crashing, tearing sound effects you hear on TV, a literal explosion of plastic body fairing, metal engine parts, searing exhaust pipes and—worst of all—human bodies. Shrapnel flew in all directions, both riders flew into the air and crashed head to head into each other then fell in a heap on the ground. Both bikes came down simultaneously, one landing on top of the down riders. Jerry, another of my riding buddies, dumped his bike behind this carnage to avoid piling up into the mayhem and out of my left peripheral vision I watched a green Ninja go down, sliding down the highway in a shower of sparks, the rider following in leathers. All of this happened in mere seconds.

We had been riding—twelve of us, a group of friends who gather a couple of times a year—for two days through the twisty mountain roads of Tennessee and North Carolina. Our semi-annual trek took us to the tiny town of Bryson City, North Carolina where we used a local campground as our staging area for day-long rides on the area’s meandering and scenic asphalt.

Our featured ride is always Deal’s Gap, an infamous stretch of Highway 129, a narrow, snaking ribbon of extremely twisting road that famously features 318 turns in eleven miles. The Gap, known commonly as the Tail of the Dragon, carries an almost mystical reputation with bikers and sports car enthusiasts and on any given weekend you can expect to see dozens, often hundreds, of riders and drivers tackling the curves, many at high speed.

The Gap is also notorious for accidents and fatalities, a grim roster of which is kept on the website http://www.tailofthedragon.com/. The danger is part of its attraction and the accounts of accidents seem to add to its mystique. In 2009, five fatalities were recorded on the eleven miles. The number of injuries and metal-bending off-road excursions is not known. Suffice it to say that of my many trips to the Gap, I’ve never come away without seeing at least one mishap. And, yes, I guess that was part of the attraction for us. To ride the Gap unscathed makes for great tales around the campfire.

So we spent the weekend riding the scenic byways of the area; the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Parkway, twisting North Carolina Highway 28 and other back roads that offered rollercoaster thrills. We ran Deal’s Gap three times.

We had just come through our third Gap run and stopped at the bottom to regroup, all of us in high spirits. The adrenalin was still pumping and we were ready for a leisurely cruise through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our plan was to ride Foothills Parkway, a gentle, wide and smooth strip of road that offers easy laid-back touring along the ridges leading into the National Park. We were less than ten miles down the Parkway, traveling at no more than 40 miles per hour when the Ninja hit.

Parts were still tumbling down the road past me as I clamped down on the brakes and dove to a stop, my front tire less than ten feet from the ugly scene in front of me. I jumped off my Speed Triple, threw my helmet on the ground and ran to the Honda, lying on its side with gas leaking onto the pavement. I remember someone else next to me also lifting the bike—to this day I don't know who—and we both pulled the bike off the two riders and literally threw it down behind us.

The sight underneath the bikes was ghastly. Both riders lay flat on the pavement, facing each other head to toe, just as they’d landed after their bodies smashed into each other in midair. In my confusion I couldn’t remember who had been riding in front of me so I looked at his face to see who had gone down. I couldn’t tell, all I could see was a bloody mess but I recognized the helmet and realized it was Rick. The other rider’s full face helmet was cracked almost in half in front. Rick’s left hand was nearly severed, hanging only by the skin and a thin strip of muscle. Two bloody white bones protruded from his wrist. The left side of his face was mangled and bloody, his nose hung loosely from his face. He was bleeding profusely from his mouth and the gurgling sound with each labored breath was ominous. The other rider looked remarkably untouched, hardly any outward signs of injury but he was unconscious and his breathing was very shallow.

We were far back in the Smoky Mountains with no cell phone service. Luckily, a ranger station was just up the road and a rider sped ahead for help. A couple of park service volunteers were on the scene in minutes but it seemed like an eternity before professional medical help and Park Rangers arrived to attempt to stabilize both riders (the other two riders who went down did not need hospitalization). A med flight from Knoxville was called and it was almost an hour before the chopper arrived. In this hour Rick bled profusely—there was a crimson stream a good twenty feet across the road--and both riders stopped momentarily breathing at least once.

So what’s this all about? More than just a gruesome recounting of a random and tragic accident. It’s about a loss of confidence, that it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude that we all carry so self-assuredly astride our bikes. Rick didn’t do anything wrong. He was on an easy ride, doing everything right, enjoying life when instantly everything changed.

It’s been a while since the accident. Rick recovered, though he still has lingering effects. The Ninja rider suffered serious head injuries, prognosis uncertain. A lot of uncertainty and reassessment went on. Reading about the toll at the Gap is one thing, to actually experience the results, to see mangled flesh, hear perhaps the last breath, feel the warm blood on your hands—it changed the whole game. It affected us in different ways. Some quit riding. I’m considering selling my bike. Does this make me a wuss? Am I overreacting? Maybe, all I know is that every time I ride now I’m constantly peering around the next curve, wondering if someone is going to come screaming around and cross into my lane. The freedom that riding offers has been taken away. Will it return? We’ll see. In the meantime my Speed Triple sits in the garage awaiting its fate.

1 comment:

  1. "The Gap is also notorious for accidents and fatalities, a grim roster of which is kept on the website http://www.tailofthedragon.com/. The danger of the Gap is part of its attraction and the accounts of accidents seem to add to its mystique. In 2003, four fatalities were recorded on the eleven miles, in 2004 four more. The number of injuries and metal-bending off-road excursions is not known. "

    Gee- sign me up! Sounds like my idea of heaven! Are you CRAZY?!? I vote you SELL THE BIKE!