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A near miss...

By John Locke - Posted on 09 April 1996

I came around the bend to see the motorcycle down on the highway, and the truck heading for the ditch. I pumped the brakes but instantly my wheels locked on the ice and I slid downhill towards disaster.

It was near the end of my drive north, already. My friends in San Francisco were both extremely busy--one had some weekend catering to do, another was unreachable--so I went rollerblading around Golden Gate Park and the beach. In Berkeley I met Alice, who went up to Fairbanks and stayed with my parents over Christmas break on a quest to see the Northern Lights and Alaska in winter. She also had evening plans, so we shared a late lunch and bicycled around the marina. Then, I decided it was time to roll. Up the freeways, let the miles roll by.

I hate freeways. I am coming to the conclusion that freeways are the longest subjective distances between two points. It relates to boats and horsepower, an insight I had while travelling the Yukon river in a 110-hp jet boat. It seems to me, that the bigger your motor, the faster you expect to go. When you hit a big river, like the Yukon, you just can't go fast enough. And the bigger your motor, the more frustrating that fact becomes. I would enjoy weeks floating the Yukon in a canoe or a kayak, but the 5 hours it took to travel from Ft. Yukon to Circle seemed interminable.

Likewise, on a freeway you are driving to get somewhere. After an hour or two, the scenery all seems the same, the cars all seem the same, the road seems wide and slow. It seems to take much less time to drive the winding, interesting backroads, because you have something new to look at around every bend, and you have to slow down to negotiate the terrain, as well as the scenery. And so the time passes faster, and the trip seems more full. But the theory of relativity applies: while everything seems to move so much faster for the traveller, to those who are standing still, his journey takes much longer. In deference to my diminishing bank account, I thought I might speed on up to Seattle, even though I would have to endure several lifetimes on the interstate.

Looking at the California map, I realized that, out of all the times I've driven through the state, I had never taken I-5. And then I spied the clincher: Mt. Shasta. I have only ever seen it from an airplane. That does it, I'll take the freeway north until I get tired, watch the comet, and then have breakfast near another energy center. . . ( I've been listening to too many kooky am talk shows, or reading too much Heinlein. . .)

The comet. Amazing sight. To see it makes me realize how scary this sort of thing must have been to those who didn't know where it came from. . . Here's this great big fuzzball with a thin tail that moves across the sky almost as fast as the moon, from Arcturus through the Big dipper and then the Little Dipper. I've never seen anything like it. What does the savage think? Perhaps that it is a demon sent to warn us that there are other forces more powerful than us. Perhaps the savage is right; perhaps he laughs at us, who think it's only a big dirty snowball hurtling through empty space.

Mt. Shasta dominated the sky, and warped the very time-space continuum so that that stretch of I-5 was actually interesting and enjoyable. It exerted a magnetic pull on my car, nonetheless, that pulled it right off the freeway and onto the highway that wrapped around its back side: US highway 97, to Klamath Falls, Oregon. As the volcano shrunk in my rear view mirror, the car propelled itself up to Crater Lake, where, there being fresh snow on the ground, I had to go ski.

I pulled the track skis off the car, and went racing down the trail left by a dozen other enthusiasts. The trail was a road in the summer, but in winter, it is buried under some 20 feet of snow. It winds around the lake, coming several times to the rim, where the ground drops away to the unfrozen blue lake below. It would be a fun ski down, but one tumble and you could end up taking a swim. . . I got nearly 4 miles around the lake, and hit a little whoop-dee-doo, and snap! my ski broke. Uh, oh. Fortunately, it broke behind my foot, so it was more an inconvenience than a problem. It made for a good reason to turn back, though. . . Since it was clouding over, I packed up and decided to drive east, get beyond the mountains and towards sunny Bend, Oregon, to spend yet another evening comet-gazing.

It was a surprise blizzard. The radio said the weather was clear and cold, perfect conditions to view the comet, but the view through the window of my van did not agree as I drove up highway 97 in southern Oregon towards Bend. So I changed course, took the road over the Cascade mountains towards Eugene, hoping to find more clear viewing of the astronomical event of my lifetime. The motorcycle passed me soon after I left highway 97, but as we climbed up in the mountains, the snow started sticking. I caught up with the motorcycle, and a truck on its tail. I tested my brakes, and found it quite slippery, so I slowed down to 40 mph and gave plenty of following distance. When I turned that downhill corner, it was almost not enough. I jammed the gear shift into neutral, and the wheels caught and lurched me into a fishtail and I fought to keep direction, putting my van between the motorcyclist and the left shoulder before reaching a stop.

The motorcyclist was shaken, but okay. I helped him load his motorcycle into the back of the truck that had narrowly escaped the ditch, and saw them off. And as I reached the western edge of the mountains, the clouds disappeared and the comet came out.


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