St. Louis, MO
Posted - 02/02/2011 : 3:00 PM
Even before I learned to ride, I had heard about Liane who was killed on the Crest.
The Crest, or the Los Angeles Crest Highway, is a narrow two lane highway that eventually leads to the resort town of Big Bear. Carved out of the mountain with deadly drop offs and forbidding cliffs, it climbs through shrub and Desert Candle covered slopes up to resin fragrant pine forests. For the entire length, the highway shunts the rider through curve after non-stop curve, but the rocks and gravel that collects on the road are more dangerous than the turns themselves. And, of all the roads in the Los Angeles area, The Crest attracts the most squids - those bikers who seem to pursue death at high speed.
Liane, a beautiful Asian American woman in her twenties, was not a squid, but she was a new rider. According to mutual friends, she had no concept of fear and didn't realize her skill level wasn't on par with her companions. What they did, she did, and they did the Crest fast.
One Sunday afternoon, Liane was in the midst of the pack as they charged up the highway. She, apparently, didn't notice the gravel on the road. Leaned over in a turn, her tires hit the stones at fifty miles an hour, and she instantly lost all traction. Her bike slipped out under her just like that. No, faster than just like that. Low siding, she skidded into the path of a truck. No contest there: Semi 1, biker 0.
Liane's death broke her boyfriend Sammy's heart. He not only loved her deeply, but he felt responsible - if she wasn't dating him, if he hadn't ridden and encouraged her to ride... It wasn't true, his friends told him. It was her decision; you couldn't have stopped her. But it didn't help. It never does. Not at first. Maybe not ever.
And I hear that occasionally from rider instructors or other riders. Someone they knew and encouraged to ride, or trained, or had sold a bike to ended up dying a few weeks or a month or a year later. Those deaths mean more to them because there was the personal connection with the rider no matter how slight.
And that's one of the most stunning aspects of the motorcycling community. It's the odd but incontrovertible fact that motorcyclists feel some sense of responsibility - ranging from slight to great simply because they had some part in the process of someone becoming a rider. The instructor who worries herself sick because a student died or the site owner that feels sick at heart because the CHP officer challenges him on what the hell they teach in that BRC anyhow? Or the one who sold the bike ashamed to admit he did. We feel a part of those deaths even if we never knew the rider well at all.
I believe it's because we all know that motorcycling is inherently dangerous even for the best riders. We know that to encourage or train or even a sell a bike to someone is to automatically increase their chance of injury or death at a younger age. We know what riding is and what it does so we think it's more than worth it, but even so, I have to say I've felt a slight trepidation when someone tells me that I inspired them to ride in front. Ride safe, please, ride safe. We, as riders, have a vested interest in every other rider staying alive.
Then there are those who riders who die that we know very well, and that loss is sometimes inconsolable. And when our friends die, we need to understand as well as grieve:
Like my friend Yves who died on the Crest as well. Yves was a motorcycle messenger who rode at least a hundred miles a day. If anyone was a safe biker, he was. Everyone knew it, which made what happened all the worse. One sunny afternoon after a leisurely brunch at Newcomb's, Yves headed farther up the Crest with a group of riders. Since he was riding moderately - going a mere 40 mph - he fell behind his friends. When he came to a sharp curve curled around a towering wall of stone, he had no idea that just beyond his sight line, an old man had chosen this place of all possible spots to make a u-turn. The old fellow's Cadillac pulled across the road just as Yves came around the bend. Without enough time to make skid marks, he slammed into the car and died.
We know why Yves died: it was the driver's fault. The BDC who recklessly chose the worst possible place to turn around. It just as easily could've been a car that crashed into the Cadillac, but cars have air bags and seat belts and crumple zones. But knowing is not enough we needed to grieve together.
After I heard of his death, I drove over to Ken's house. He had trashed the place in his grief. Yves was his best friend. He couldn't stand it. He listened over and over to the last message Yves had left on his phone. Later, I drove Ken up the Crest where he placed a toy motorcycle and a cigarette on the ground then he poured a Henry Weinhard beer over it. It helped - but it didn't. Not really. A day or so later, the LABikers got together for a pre-memorial dinner to talk about Yves. A week later, after his elderly father and brother were in town, we held a memorial service and had met again a few days later at the Blues Caf in Long Beach. On a bright, warm morning we all met at the Shell station, went up the Crest and scattered his ashes.
We mourn not only the person but the rider, and whether they died on a bike or from a disease or old age, we show our respect and sorrow on wheels. Motorcyclists can even get very upset when non rider families won't let them express their grief in particularly and perhaps peculiar biker ways. Non riders sometimes just don't get it neither that their loved ones would want us to ride nor that we need to ride in memorium. When they don't, that can make our grief worse.
But sometimes it's worse because we cannot understand why a rider died at all:
Like my friend Tony who was an ex-outlaw biker, e-drug dealer, master mechanic, and welder. He was the kind of guy who'd give you the finger then fix your bike for free. He had also ridden for 34 years and never fallen. Everyone knew that because he told everyone at least once.
On August 30, 2001, Tony and some other friends took their weekly Santa Monica Mountain ride. Tony was on his new, red Honda SuperHawk, and they had left Muholland Highway and were coursing down Old Topanga Road. While approaching a gentle bend that even a novice biker could navigate without fear, Tony's bike wobbled a bit, then straightened out and simply went straight off the road. The bike hit a boulder and flipped up. Tony flew into the air, crashed head first onto another rock, bounced off, and landed by a small summer dry stream. Our friends rushed down to him lying there on the green weeds under the green trees. His Arai helmet had split completely open.
Dark bruises were already appearing on his face, his eyes, nose and ears were bleeding and he had trouble breathing. "Take off my helmet," he asked and they did, because it was clear leaving it on wouldn't save him. "I'm hot. Take off my jacket," he begged. And they did that, too. The ambulance and the Highway Patrol came, and Tony was rushed to a helicopter in a nearby field. Halfway to UCLA hospital, he suffered a fatal heart attack and died. He had only fallen once in 34 years of biking but that's all it took. In a fight against boulders, cars, or trucks, the biker loses even when he doesn't die.
The coroner's report states the obvious: Tony died of massive brain injury. But no one can explain why he crashed in the first place. No one saw an animal run into the road. The pavement was dry. The bike had no mechanical problems. We can't let go of that slight wobble, and so we speculate: maybe he had a seizure, maybe he had reached to adjust the volume on his radio, maybe he fell asleep. Something had to have distracted him enough so that he did the unthinkable, the inexplicable he failed the easiest of turns. We'll never ever know, and that troubles us. Not Tony! Not on that turn!
And perhaps those deaths trouble us most of all. Why did he or she die? What could've been done to prevent it? We cannot let them go without an explanation, a justification to assuage our grief.
And whether it's a Liane or Yves or Tony, we remember our fallen forever. We remember the deaths we heard about whether the famous one in a cornfield in South Dakota or Den Valentine who taught in the Illinois and Florida programs and, despite his expertise, was taken out by a stupid, impatient BDC. There is no Unknown Rider in the motorcycling community even if we never met the one who died.
That's what the sideways wave is really all about. While some Harley riders won't wave to sport bikers and some sport bikers won't wave to Harley riders, in death, all marque and club affiliations or lack thereof disappear for at least a little while. One of us is dead, and that trumps all else.
For those moments, it's not us vs. them, it's They-R-Us. We know, at a different time, at a different place, it could've been - or may one day be - us. We are riders and thats enough for each death to be regretted by all.
And that's why riding is a community and will always be so. We share the same joys, the same experience of freedom to be sure, but we also share the dark communal secret that death rides pillion every time we fire up the bike. It's part of what makes us motorcyclists and, truth be told, I don't think we want motorcycling to be as safe as bowling. True riders experience Life more intensely, vividly and abundantly and realize how precious it is. Riding, then, is a life wish, but only because death is a constant possibility.
That's why motorcycling community is not the same as the motorcycle industry even in the increasingly rarer cases when top executives actually are riders. The student who dies isn't just a customer; the fellow we sold a bike to wasn't merely a business transaction; the guy we knew by sight from the local bike night wasn't just another cager driving down the road. They belong to us and we to them. We are riders first, last and after death. Through the ride triumphant and the ride tragic, we are all brothers and sisters in the fellowship of the road.
And that's why, even though riding is the most magnificent activity on earth, and although seen as much or more as a sport rather than transportation, we know it isn't a game.
It's never merely a game. The stakes are far too high.
It's a joyfully serious business.
It has to be because that's how we stay alive to ride again.