Mount Saint Helens

Saturday, July 2nd, 1994


"I thought it was the end of the world
I thought it was the Fourth of July."
— Soundgarden

It was the Fourth of July weekend in 1994. I felt lousy because I had nothing real planned. I had only been living in Seattle for about ten months, but I had such high expectations for what would happen to me when I moved out here I was not very happy.

I thought, for example, that it would be a trivial matter to turn my life around and concentrate on the things that made me happy. But, as it came to pass, some of the same old things were getting in the way and nothing seemed to cut through them.

What bothered me for this particular weekend was that I wasn't very happy about being alone on yet another holiday. From my point of view, every person I knew was off doing something important for themselves or was off doing something unimportant with someone else. I'd been listening to people tell me what a dear person I am, what a special guy I'll be to some woman some day, and how great things will eventually be. Welp, handshakes and smiles don't pay the rent and pithy little compliments don't make me any less lonely.

At the time, I was all over the FZ. I was riding it whenever I could, and had started spending more money on keeping it maintained. I'd just had a new chain and sprocket put on it. This was just a part of getting my act together: taking care of my toys. I needed to get a better grip on my finances, my posessions. I needed to take care of what was there, think about the real value of what wasn't, and then decide if I really needed to make any changes.

But I was also hanging around with the motorcycle folks at work. The email we all exchanged was pretty funny and it helped me while away the time I otherwise spent wishing my computers were faster. And it was a good way to meet people, and it was a decent way to get to know the roads around here.

I was very, very tired from working hard. So, when I got up around 6am on Saturday to meet everyone at one of the buildings on campus, I was pretty grumpy. I didn't think it was a good idea to leave so early, and really started questioning my motivation. I hadn't seen Mount Saint Helens, though, and thought it would be best to go with a huge group of people. So, I forced myself through a quick shower, pulled on my ratty motorcycle jeans, and hopped on the FZ to get going.

We all rode away from the campus and went down some of the state highways towards the south. We cut east a bit to get ourselves between the south end of Mount Rainier and the north edge of Mount Saint Helen. The riding was fun: there was such a huge group of people, I was amazed. Some folks had CB radios and a couple had helmet-to-helmet communications systems. I remember vowing to buy some such equipment when I had a bit more money.

We stopped at a little diner just outside the park. I remember sitting with some of my new acquaintances: Christian, who now races, is the only one I can really remember having lunch with. I bought the people who I ate with at that table lunch. I charged it on my credit card because, just after I boastfully offered to buy lunch, I remembered I only barely had enough cash to buy gas.

The little cafeteria was packed with people who were on our ride. There were lots of us, stacking up all the booths on one side of the restraunt. We stacked all of our leathers and helmets into one more booth. The restraunt sold little doodads made from volcanic ash. All of this amused me: I was so close to this big bad mountain.

But as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of the trip. I remember getting onto my bike and nearly dropping my helmet. And that's it: everything else I can recount actually comes from other people.

A Walk In The Park

The road into the park is pretty twisty. It starts out sloping and rolling, surrounded by trees and quiet little breezes. Then, it gets going up. It rolls left and right in predictable little patterns with switchbacks. It reminded me of one of the roads I was on in Virginia back when I rode the FZ from Hartford to Nashville and back. I was feeling pretty good, and at least awake.

Suddenly, the trees go away and everything is dead. I mean, to an ecologist —or to even a hiker or an amateur observer like me, it isn't: you can get on your hands and knees and see tiny plants in the volcano ash and there's bugs on the plants, so there are birds that eat the bugs and rodents that eat the birds, and so on. But it's certainly not the thick, old-growth forrest that was covering us just a mile ago.

And the mountain gets very rugged, too. The turns are not decorated with guard rails. Going into the park, to the right, there are high mounds of volcanic ash. You can't see the top of them from the road. To the left, there are deep crevaces with dead trees poking just high enough to be visible. In some points, it must be 200 feet to the bottom of the ridge. It's the kind of place that, if you ran off the edge of the road, they might not even go down and get your body or your motorcycle.

On a motorcylce, you like to see things go by when you turn. This gives you a good indication of how fast your turning and how well you're tracking the line you thought you were. Normally, what you think about is just at the other end of the road: the yellow line, the guard rail, some trees, some buildings... whatever's over there. But this kind of riding is very disorienting. You end up not looking where you're supposed to because you're quite distracted by the vicious scenery. You can't get a good gague of where you're turning because your reference points are 1000 to 1500 feet away, on the other side of the gorge, instead of twenty or fifty feet away, on the other side of the street.

Someplace along the way, I was taking a right turn. That is, I was on the road and the road went to the right: it wasn't as if I was at a traffic light and decided to hook a right turn. But something went badly wrong in the corner. I remember feeling terribly startled and then hearing a squealing sound and then finally realizing that it was my own bike. I had somehow locked the back brake and was skidding in the turn. I wasn't thinking at all, I guess because I just wasn't really into the ride that day. I let go of the back brake and badly high-sided.

If you don't ride a motorcycle, you probably don't get this. But you can imagine that motorcycles, like bicycles, have to lean over to negotiate a turn. I was doing just that, and I was probably leaned over about sixty percent as much as the bike would possibly lean over. And then I locked my back brake. The only way to be totally safe is to not do anythign else: the bike hates having the rear wheel locked in a turn, and you're screwed. You could, if you had some skill, bring the bike upright and let go of the locked brake. Once upright, nothing will go wrong.

And I knew all these things, since I was in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes—that is, I took more than one training class but still screwed it up. I just wasn't thinking: the bike's rear wheel was going out to the left and the front wheel was being counterbalanced against the skid. This causes the bike to twist in a way that loads the spring in the back suspension with an immense amount of energy. And, unfortunately, that energy is released into the bike and its suspension when the rear wheel regains traction—that is, when I let go of the back brake, the bike dumped everything it had into suddenly getting the back wheel into line with the front wheel— causing the suspension to expand and the bike to snap inline with itself and violently, quickly throw the rider over the other side of the bike—to the outside of the turn. This whole trick is called a highside.

Sometimes, on ESPN, you see the pro riders get out of a highside by showing more balls than I could ever buy in a bucket. But the rest of the time, you'll only ever catch people like me flipping over so hard they don't know what hit them.

I was wearing jeans and a very good leather jacket. I had a full face helmet on. As I slid down the road, very much on the other side of my bike from where I thought I ought to have been, I worked on getting into a tucked position so that I didn't get maimed. And then I can't remember anything: that's it.

Free Ride

They got me into an ambulance. I might have told someone that I was ready to keep going if someone helped me pick my bike up. I had to find a way to get up, that's all. By then, I was getting into the ambulance. I couldn't hold a conversation with anyone. I'd interrupt myself and I couldn't understand what was happening.

At the hospital, I was completely disoriented. My only memory of getting in there was in the ER examining room. I was sitting on the table and my shoulder hurt like it was going to fall off. I kept asking people to find a doctor for me. I yelled out something about not knowing what the heck was gonig on when this doctor finally came over.

He looked stern, not pleased at all. He told me that people had explained to me what had happened five or six times already, and that I had better quit asking. He told me I had a bad concussion, and that my tape recorder wasn't working. That's exactly what he said: "your tape recorder isn't working".

I started laughing, I think. That was it: I woke up the next day with a sharp pain in my shoulder and a tube in my arm. I was in bed, completely flat. Somehow, this beautiful nurse came right in just then and helped me with the needle in my arm. I guess I'd moved just a bit and having that thing scrape around inside there was what really caused me some pain.

The bed was a mess. It was a semi-private room, and I had it to myself. But I was to the right of the bed stand and couldn't reach the TV remote or phone with my left hand. The nurse explained to me that I had a broken collar bone and a bad concussion, and that I'd have to hang around for a day or two for evaluation.

I didn't know what day it was. I didn't know what town I was in. I didn't know why I was there until someone reminded me. I couldn't remember what clothes I had been wearing. When you see the quarterback on TV get clocked, it's a big joke when you see the trainer come over and ask the guy what day it is. But it isn't so funny when you're there, in the middle of this fog and you just can't think of what's going on by yourself.

I somehow called a couple of my friends, dialing their phone numbers from memory. The doctor cuaght me doing this and said it was a great sign, but I still felt groggy and stupid. My left arm was useless. I couldn't even sit up in the bed enough to flop my right arm over to my left side to get the phone or cable control.

Sleep It Off

I asked my (now-ex) girlfriend to call back my friends since I didn't think I could even stay awake much longer. I had her call my friends and have them call the hospital to figure out what to do. I had her call one of my riding buddies to get the real story and then asked her to call me back so I could figure out what had happened.

I kept thinking that the police would stop by and ask me questions, but I had no such luck. It would have been nice to see someone who wanted to talk to me and maybe even comfort me in the slightest.

The nurses kept coming in and checking on me. I was embarrassed because I could hardly move, but I was still having to unrinate gallons every hour or two. I filled two bottles one time. I was so tired that once I didn't even move the bottle: I just clamped it between my legs until the nurse noticed it and took it away while I was sleeping.

I drifted in and out of sleep. My girlfriend called back and I couldn't answer the phone. I was in some dream where the phone was way down the hall and I just couldn't find it even though I heard it ringing. I finally picked it up and then dropped it and had to sit up to get it. It was such an amazing effort. I was afraid that I would be stuck like this for life.

The doctor stopped by and talked to me after I hung up. No big problems, the worst news would be that I'd have to get a pin in my shoulder to help set my collarbone. I guess it had broken when my head came down and pushed the chin bar of my helmet into my shoulder. My jacket was a little tight, so I suppose it is possible that it just tugged hard over my shoulder and snapped the bone. The crash really was that violent: going down was just something that took about a tenth of a second. I didn't know it happened.

I dozed in and out of sleep, much more relaxed that the doctor said things weren't that bad. The next morning, which would be Sunday, I was finally able to get the right answers to the questions they were asking me. A nurse came in and offered me a sponge bath: she was the cutest of them all and I just couldn't let her do it. I would react, and then I'd be embarrassed. And I felt like I was drunk. It was terrible.

I finally felt coherent. They interviewed me, and the X-rays I don't even remmeber having taken didn't show anything wrong. Except, of course, for my split collar bone. I called Frnak, my best friend, and begged him to come down and get me. I felt terrible because I just couldn't even hold a conversation but still wanted to give Frank some sort of reward for driving two hours one-way to come get my sorry fat ass.

Before we left, I realized that I couldn't pull up my jeans and hold them and get them buttoned. I had to ask the nurse to come and do it for me. I'm not sure I've been through anything more embarrassing in my life.

Back In The Saddle

It took me about a year to decide that I really did want to keep riding. I gathered some of the money from my book advance—the little bit of the money that I didn't spend on computer equipment or software or supplies— and bought my new motorcyle. I had the dealer deliver it to my brother's place in Virginia Beach, and I rode it back to Seattle. You can read the trip report for this one, too, to get all the details.

But the thing the trip report doesn't describe is the immense thought that went into wanting to ride again. The mountain really scared me: I was riding very well that day, and I felt great despite not being completely passionate about participating in the ride. But I didn't even know what happened just before my crash. I have no way to know what mistake I made to cause the crash. And that was unnerving, because I had no way to learn from what had happened. How could I ever guarantee to myself that this mistake wouldn't happen again if I didn't know what mistake it was?

Aftermath

What a nightmare this whole thing was. I had to go down to a miserable little town and collect my bike. The jerks at the recovery place had the bike lying on its side out in the yard in back of the building. It was covered with dust and dirt. I recruited a friend to ride down there with me in a rented truck. We got the smallest van we could rent that still had a ramp. We pushed the bike up into the van and tied it down. I was surprised to see that the damage wasn't that bad.

Only a week had passed since I wrecked. The tow company charged me over four hundred dollars to tow the bike. But they were also charging me $12 per day to store the bike: they were into me for $84 just because I was resting my broken collar bone. And for that twelve dollars per day rate, they didn't even put the bike on its side stand, not to mention push it inside.

Apparently, I was given two ambulance rides from the mountain. One got me out of the park and the second got me to the hospital. About three months after the accident, I suddenly received a "Past Due" bill for one of the two ambulance rides. My name wasn't spelled correctly and my address was incorrect and incomplete. My insurance paid the bill pretty promptly, even though it was suspiciously late.

Another three or four months later, though, I received a nasty letter from a collections agency. The guys at the ambulance company had sent my account for collections. The agency was difficult to deal with: it took me two letters and ap hone call before I even figured out their demand for money was actually for the ambulance company. I sent them copies of the receipt from the insurance company and then they left me alone.

For a little while, at least. A couple more months went by and they started calling me at work and sending me letters again. Once more, I sent them the receipt and they left me alone. But two months later, they were bugging me again. Each time, they denied receiving the letter. And, each time, I sent copies of all the previous letters along with the receipt.

Only recently—sometime in April, as a matter of fact—they took me to court. A process server came to my house on Sunday afternoon and hit me with the complaint. So, I went to a lawyer and he told me how to respond to the complaint and request a trial. My trial date was actually the day before I left for my four corners trip!

I couldn't believe this had dragged on for so long. I kept showing off this receipt to everyone. I showed it to the opposing counsel when he noticed me waiting for the trial. Since his witness (from the ambulance company) didn't show, we moved to have the matter dismissed with prejudice. The "with prejudice" part, the judge explained to me, just meant that the matter couldn't be brought back in front of the court.

Somehow, my life is a magnet for this kind of randomness. Sometimes, when I calm down and look back on it, it's really kind of funny. But while I have to struggle and crawl through it, it's hard to imagine anything harder.


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Last modified on 5 July, 1997.