I can't see my boots on the gravel below me. In front of me is the dim gleam of the black bitumen, sheeting cold on this blackest of nights, running east west, carless and silent. For the past three hours i've been trying to hitchhike out of this predicament back to Albany. But it is hard when there is no traffic. Not a single car in either direction. And they call this a highway?
Predicaments. Always trying to hunt me down and trap me.
It's Sunday night and it's late. I don't know how late, because my mobile is dead and in pieces. And my 40-year-old Seiko mechanical watch just stopped the other day, shortly after i met Miss Polly, and refused to start again. Now my beloved Nikon F3 is also destroyed, having hit the tarmac at 130km/h earlier in the day, along with the rest of the contents of my shoulder bag. Five kilometres out of Ravensthorpe. That's the third camera i've lost or destroyed in a bare few weeks. Is the universe is trying to tell me something? And now the motorcycle stands wet and silent, immobilised. It coughed sporadically and died. Just after sunset.
This has not been a good day.
I've never seen a night as black as this. No lights on the horizon. I figure i'm probably about forty kilometres from Manypeaks, having ridden about four hundred this afternoon from the Bay of Isles, Esperance. Forty clicks is a ten-hour walk, so there's not much point embarking on that, other than to keep warm. I can't see my hands in front of my face, let alone how i'm going to make it home tonight. I pull my helmet and gloves back on for warmth as more rain drizzles in from the south. There is no shelter. It's going to be a long, cold night.
There must be a way to fix this bike. In the last of the fading light, i checked and found there was fuel in the carburettors. So i figured the problem must be electrical, and probably not anything i could fix without a bit of time to spare, and a test lamp or multimeter. I had none of these things. So it was then i decided to just push the bike off the road, into the bushes, hitchhike home, and come back tomorrow with a trailer.
I wish i could say that was my first mistake. But i have made so many in my brief time on this planet.
Standing on the side of the road these past few hours, while i haven't exactly been bowled over by the traffic, i have had time to do the logic. The bike first started playing up when i reached the outer limit of the tree plantations. The road gets real rough from there on in from the log trucks - the bitumen is corrugated. I have had time to remember that it was shortly after i first hit those bumps that the bike started misfiring. So it's got to be a loose connection, right? Either a broken wire or a short. The voltage is being switched off or drained off somewhere, either way, it's not enough to keep the electronic ignition firing. If only i could see the wiring...
The headlamp. Of course. I feel my way back into the bush, searching for the motorcycle. I step into a hole and twist my ankle. I walk into a bush. Then i find the bike and wheel it back out to the roadside. In case a car comes along. Ha ha. I switch on the headlight and scan the dripping melaleuca bushes on the side of the road. There is no shelter, i am not going anywhere, so i am just going to have to try to fix the bastard.
Because rule number one says never give up. And rule number two? Always remember rule number one.
So i pull the side covers off, and grope about in the dark for the rudimentary tool kit. Working by feel, i unwrap the screwdriver and spanners from the smell of the oily rag, fit a flat head, and unscrew the retaining bolts for the headlamp. I switch it on, and by guiding it out a bare few inches, to the extent of its wires, i can turn it around to use it as a torch. I stare at the glaring, multicoloured spaghetti inside the headlamp housing. I need to find and fix this problem before the headlamp flattens the battery. Without sufficient voltage, i won't even be able to kickstart this ancient machine.
And you may ask yourself, well, how did i get here?
Friday afternoon, my boss sauntered in, all cowboy boots and swagger, and asked in his usual booming voice what i was doing for the weekend.
"I'm riding to Esperance for a kebab," i stated flatly.
"Esperance! That's 500 kilometres. On that old bike? For a kebab?"
"Not my idea of fun," he said, and stomped out.
Well, i think. You obviously never met my friend Gonca. She has the Turkish bakery in Esperance.
Besides. On the open road things are
different. Once you're settled in on the saddle, with your helmet
sitting right, the wind and the steady thrum of the motor the only
sound, the bitumen starts to roll like credits in the movie of your
life. It's a meditation. It's an escape. It's a chance to think. Or better
still, to not think.
Of course, all the photos were destroyed when the Nikon hit the bitumen. The back came off, exposing the film. I've only got this noisily lame ass mobile phone photo of Gonca on one of Damo's custom pushbikes, the Para Locos, or Crazy Mama. We were at the Aqua Shak, a.k.a. Damo and Martine's shed, where you drink beer or stuntman cocktails (that's the one where you snort the salt, squeeze lemon in your eye, and drink the tequila) and stare at the many broken surf boards that decorate the roof and walls. Damo's partner Martine teaches yoga. "And what do you do, when you're not breaking surfboards?" i ask Damo.
Esperance. I didn't mind Esperance. Nice bunch of people.
I did the second rebuild on the 650 twin out on the front porch of Mickey T's place in Carnarvon, and it wouldn't start then either. I'd towed it up from Perth in a trailer behind my $200 Datsun, with a swag and my son. I rewired it completely, front to back, with a new wiring loom, working from a diagram. I'd order parts over the internet, and pick up packages from the post office. I fitted an electronic ignition to replace the mechanical points setup. I pressed replacement brass bushes into the swingarm, to fix the notorious high-speed shimmy caused by Yamaha's plastic bushes. Roller bearings in the forks, new fork seals. New clutch and throttle cables, and a new oil seal for the clutch pushrod. New battery, oil filter, fuel filters, and air pods. New rubbers for everything. A schmick custom paint job, reproducing the colour and design of the early model, right down to the triple white stripe on the tank. New handlebars, side mirrors, and indicators fixed most of the damage i'd done when i crashed into the horseshoe bridge. The motor i rebuilt in my bedroom in Harley Street in 2006.
I threw out the large, ugly stock instrument panel and replaced it with two small guages - a speedo and tacho - with white faces and stainless-steel housings. Noice. Relocated the ignition barrel to the frame, just in front of the fuel tank. The front brakes took some fixing, and i had to have a new flanged copper pipe made up. This was the only thing i didn't fix myself, and the brakes later failed on me coming up to a T-junction on the Brand Highway, just out of New Norcia. But that's another story, one i'm lucky to be around to tell.
When i'd finished, the bike sat on its brand new Pirelli Sport Demon soft compound tyres, and wouldn't start. So i traced the problem back through the wiring until it did. And raced it down past the bougainvilleas on South River Road, over the Nine Mile, and back the other side of the Gascoyne River. No front brakes or registration, but it went.
On the side of the road now, eighty clicks from Albany, the rain drips off my nose. I am applying logic, desperately rather than systematically, with a hot headlamp in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. I take the twelve volt wire from the ignition coil to see if i can spark it against the chassis. No. So there is no voltage getting to the coil. I make up a length of wire and run it straight from the coil to the battery, basically hotwiring the old thing. I kickstart the bike. The engine kicks into life. Well. That was easy. I replace the headlamp and i'm back on the highway.
Before i rode a thousand kilometres down from Carnarvon, i'd never done a road trip on the 650. Just short bursts around town, evading the cops. And then there it was, freshly rebuilt, hopefully with all the nuts and bolts torqued down and good to go. Heading out onto the North West Coastal Highway that first time, luggage strapped behind me, was a leap of faith. Just winding the throttle on and getting it up to 120. Flying, the leather jacket zipped tight. Telling myself nothing can go wrong, because i'd built it with my own hands. Trusting i had done it right. At first i was tense as hell, a bundle of electric nerves, bracing myself for that moment when the wheel came off, or the handlebars worked loose. But by the time i made Billabong Roadhouse, i was relaxed. It was okay. And i never looked back.
Motorcycling and road trips suited me, right down to that tread pattern on that red dusty ground.
Ten kilometres closer to Albany, the bike coughs, fires again, and cuts out. I notice the headlamp going dim as the bike splutters and runs down to a halt. What the hell. There must still be a short circuit somewhere. I dismount, and look around. The same wet bushes. The same wet road. I mouth the same invective, and kill the headlamp. Yep. The same starless, bible black night.
Always remember rule number one.
I pull the headlamp out again. This time, i notice the horn, brake lights, and indicators aren't working, but the headlamp is. I switch on an indicator, and rummage about in the wiring behind the headlamp until the flasher comes on. It blinks orange, like an emergency beacon. Excellent. At least all these cars won't run over me. I rummage some more. It stops. Using this highly scientific system, which i call rummaging, i fine tune the problem down to a male connection on the end of a brown wire. It has come loose, and is out and about doing things it shouldn't. Bad wire. I press it back home into its female socket, ask it to please remain monogamous, at least for the rest of the journey, and kick the bike. It starts. I push on towards home.
But now every time i hit a bump, i hear an awful loud sound burbling away down to my left. Sounds like the exhaust pipe is about to fall off. Fuck it, i think. I'm not stopping for anything. I hunch down and watch the black ribbon unfold in the wet yellow beam.
When i get in after midnight, having been on the road since three o'clock, the exhaust pipe is broken in two, and is barely holding on. Metal fatigue.
And some days you just got to know how that feels.