Not too long ago, before Hurricane Irene passed through, I was at my parent’s place in Calabash, NC for a weekend of relaxing and riding around with some of my firefighter friends down in Myrtle Beach. Sunday came and it was time to head home, but my plans to leave by 10 AM fell way through because of a line of storms that rolled in… nasty storms… the kind with sideways rain. So I sat until 3PM when the storms finally passed, and the sky was absolutely GORGEOUS… perfectly blue, white puffy clouds, sunny, everything looked clean after a fresh washing.
The plan was to head up NC-87 to Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg, the 82nd Airborne and Special Operations. It’s the way I normally head to and from the beach from my home farther inland, and until I got just north of Whiteville, everything was going well. By the time I reached Whiteville and headed north towards 87, I noticed a large, vast darkness in the sky ahead. I was heading right into a storm line.
Being the judicious person I am, I elected to turn my happy butt around and head right back to Whiteville. The storm line I saw on the horizon was all north of me, directly in my line of travel, but everything south of me all the way to the west was clear, blue and peaceful. So back to Whiteville I went and picked up I-74 headed west toward Charlotte, smug in knowing I was skirting the south edge of that storm, nice and dry.
And that’s about when things went pear shaped…
I was cruising along I-74 at about 70, and just enjoying the ride, which is odd because I really don’t like riding the Volusia that fast… it vibrates a lot more than my dad’s VTX1800C at highway speeds, and while I don’t have a problem with slipstream from other vehicles, it can be tiring being buffeted at those speeds. Personally, on my Volusia, I prefer a nice, sedate 55 or so at the most, it’s comfy and I can actually enjoy the ride and scenery, instead of the constant madness that is riding at interstate speeds. As I looked further and further ahead I noticed, to my dismay, that the sky ahead was dark.
And not just dark, but an angry, forbidding black. The kind of dark you see on the weather channel. And if you live in the Piedmont or Sandhills of North Carolina for any length of time, especially along the i-95 Corridor where weather is violent and wildly unpredictable, you know exactly what a dark, angry sky means. But I was SO close to the next town… only about 15 miles away. I was sure I could make it to Lumberton before the rain started falling and hole up in a nice restaurant for a while.
And that thought was in my mind as I passed the gas station. And that thought was in my mind as I simultaneously noted that there were about 10 bikes parked under the roof protecting the gas pumps. And that was the thought in my mind as I passed the sign that indicated I was only 12 miles from Lumberton. And that thought was in my mind when the first rain drops fell, big and fat from the pregnant sky.
And then that thought ceased completely. It was if someone had suddenly flipped the UNHOLY RAIN switch to ON. One minute there was just a few drops, the next it was coming down so bad that I couldn’t see more than 15 – 20 feet ahead of me. My windshield coated in a sheet of water, my glasses coated, everything in star-bursts and blurs. And the wind, oh the wind.
First I’d get hit by a 40 mph gust from the left, and immediately an equally strong one would hit from the right. I found myself being pushed all over the road, through the inch of standing water; water from a rainfall so heavy that the road couldn’t shed it all in time. And then I realized that I should have just stopped at the gas station, the ONLY gas station on 74 for miles around instead of simply noting it and thinking “I’ve only got a few miles to go.”
I slowed to a crawl at this point, unable to ride more than 20 MPH safely, blind, hit by howling winds, large fat rain drops, and then hail. Bad hail. Big hail, nickel sized and bouncing off of me, the road, my helmet. And hail in a storm with violently shifting winds is a bad sign. A very bad sign. So I pulled to a stop and took a moment to throw on my rain suit to at least keep SOME of me dry as I desperately made for the gas station I should never have passed.
The ride back to the gas station, that glorious haven was as harrowing as the ride into one of the worst storm fronts I’ve seen all year. Instead of riding into it, I was being chased by it as it moved east, hunting me. I was blown all over the place, pelted with hail, drenched in rain. The cages were all around, unable to see me and I unable to see them until I was almost right on top of them. It was, in a word, dangerous and could get deadly fast.
But finally relief was in sight. The sign for the gas station, green, gold and glowing with high powered lighting was a beacon, a grail shaped beacon leading me to shelter. And then I was turning across the oncoming lane and pulling into the parking lot. And then I was pulling under the roof alongside 10 Harleys and a couple Customs. The leader of the pack that had parked there before smiled and nodded to me and said “did you get wet?”
I had a great time there at the gas station. We were there for just a little over 2 hours, during which time I drank coffee and soda, ate barely edible chicken tenders with anonymous dipping sauce. We had each other for company. They were just out for a group joy ride when the sky started darkening, and smartly, they pulled in ahead of the storm.
“I saw you ride past and I thought you’d be back pretty soon,” the leader said, and he was right. He knew what I should have known before hand: You should never bypass that cozy gas station.
It was a good thing I did at least turn back. Later, the area around the pumps was full, bumper to bumper as this storm was so bad even the cars were coming in off the road, seeking shelter. One set of girls in their 20s stood sobbing, shaking with us as they told us about driving straight into a funnel cloud, being spun in circles before finally coming to rest on the shoulder facing the wrong direction. The thunder was loud like artillery, the hail was thick and the rain came almost in literal sheets. The winds whipped in all directions at once and we stayed.
Eventually, as they do, the storm passed on leaving yet again a beautiful sky ahead. The leader of the pack of Harleys and customs invited me to ride with them for a bit as we were heading in the same direction. So I filed in swing as we all pulled out, one loud thunderous parade giving our collective fingers to the monster that had just ran us over.