No Shoulder to Cry, on Interstate 81

“SHOULDER CLOSED NEXT 3 MILES” the sign read on Virginia Interstate 81.

The bike lost acceleration and a clattering noise from the rear barely pierced through my headphones and music. I pulled in the clutch and came to a stop on the side of the barricade. “Get off!” I ordered Beth and she hopped over the barricade out of traffic. Beth and I were sharing an MP3 player through a headphone splitter. The MP3 player was on my back in my Camelback. When she jumped off the cord easily ejected for her, but the music was blasting my ears at a level that could be heard over 80MPH winds. “Turn off the music! God damn it! Turn off the fucking music!” My mild case of hyperacusis (a sensitivity to sound) with the added stress of an emergency stop on an interstate without the safety of a shoulder had driven me into a rage of clouded judgement. I rested the bike against the wall, hopped over it. I ripped off my helmet along with the ear buds. Melodies were swapped with the sound of semis charging down the road at us. Finally…clarity set in.

Beth was shaken, “what the fuck happened?!?” I didn’t know what happened, but I knew the chain came off the rear sprocket and my motorcycle was causing a severe road hazard for everyone on the road. I ordered Beth to get in the lane and wave off traffic. “Are you fucking nuts?!?” she replied. I compromised, “Go down there and stand on the concrete barrier and signal traffic to the left!” She was still shaken, “this is insane Bill!” I ran down 50 ft, hopped up on the barrier and started swinging my arms to motion traffic away from my bike. “YOU NEED TO DO THIS….NOW!!!” I yelled over the roar of traffic.

With Beth at her post, I ran back to assess the bike. My luggage had shifted again and my sleeping bag had been sucked into the rear tire, wrapping itself six or seven times around the sprocket. The chain was in tact. As long as I cut this bag off I could get the chain back on and limp down the road to the shoulder a mile away.

I sliced furiously at the bag with my Leatherman. Cars and semi’s were moving over by at least half a lane, but some hadn’t moved at all and the force of the wind pushed me forward, banging my head into my license plate. The sleeping bag was knotted, wrapped and burnt from the friction. The fluffy synthetic material had been transformed into what felt like steel cables. I pierced through the top layers, but the further I got the more difficult it became to cut free.

Cut and pull. Cut and pull. The fluffy innards of the bag were strewn around me as if I was gutting a goose. My hands were unable to grip the tangled strands of nylon. I switched to the pliers on my Leatherman. I gripped the bag and before I pulled, noticed that the serrated blade was still locked open, pointing directly at my stomach. These are how bad situations compound into worse ones. Another *woosh* of a truck swept past me and Beth shouted, “Bill you’re going to cause a fucking accident!” Exercising safety in what was a roadside war zone I took the time to unlatch the blade so I wouldn’t impale myself with it.

The Leatherman that saved the day

I kept working on freeing my sprocket from the tangles of the sleeping bag. I sliced, closed my blade, opened the pliers and pulled aggressively at the loosen bag. Close pliers and open blade. Repeat. This continued for five minutes. I had made it down to the last remaining layers. I saw the panic and fear in Beth’s face and the overall frantic motions of her waving. Her red Aerostich suit was making her conspicuous to the oncoming traffic. “WE’RE GOING TO BE OK BETH!” I shouted and repeated at her until she was able to hear it between the waves of traffic and she acknowledged eventually.

The sleeping bag was finally off. “I GOT IT BETH!” and she came rushing back. I donned my helmet and gloves. I rolled the chain half way over the sprocket and pushed the bike forward to get the teeth to fully sink with the chain. I cautiously accelerated, not knowing the extent of the damage to the chain. Two minutes later I was on the shoulder and I started jogging back to Beth.

Beth packing up at the scene of the incident

She was already walking towards me with the remaining luggage. I told her to take a break, we were ok now. Tears started running down her face and my eyes were welling up. We took a moment and embraced each other. The reality of the traffic situation had been apparent to me, but I failed to realize her emotional realities. She was saving my ass by waving off traffic, but she also had to watch the near misses from the vehicles that couldn’t move over. “They were barely a foot away from your head Bill…” she said with a quivering voice.

My bike was leaned against the barricade and the curve gave oncoming cars little warning of my presence.

It was a fucked up situation. While I was sawing away at the sleeping bag multiple alternatives came up in my mind. The rear wheel was locked up so we couldn’t push it to the center median when we caught a break. I even thought of having Beth steer while I lifted the rear tail end on my shoulder, but crossing three lanes seem more dangerous. Flipping the bike over the cement barricades was a solution that I didn’t think Beth and I could execute with the weight of the bike. The chain was in tact, and there was just the tangled sleeping bag to be dealt with so that’s the plan I commited to despite putting myself at risk. The longer the bike stayed on the expressway the greater chance an accident occuring I thought.

The remnants of my sleeping bag.

While walking back to the bike with Beth I asked, “We’ve been out there for a half hour. Why the hell hadn’t a cop been by in all that time?!?” She corrected me and said that it had been only 10 minutes. It’s common in stressful situations for people’s conception of time to be largely inaccurate. I was no exception.

A motorist assistance agent was up ahead and escorted us to a place with a bike shop down the road. Beth rode in the car, while I limped my Ninja down the road. The chain was clattering a bit. Turned out that the chain had been warped, but it ran ok under 30mph.

I needed a new chain. It was Memorial Day weekend and all the bike shopes were closed. “What are we going to do Bill?” asked Beth. To her confusion I said, “I need to get on Twitter” and the hunt for a new chain in Christiansburg, Virginia began.

  • dswarthout

    I hate those interstates with a passion. I’m glad you were able to fix your problem in 10 minutes and get the hell out of that no-shoulder section.

    As for the Leatherman – I think those things are among the most dangerous tools made. I understand why people like them but your experience with inadvertently pointing the blade at your stomach is far from unusual. I cut my hand when opening a beer at a picnic with one. A friend picked up a beer and the Leatherman after me — before he could open it I warned him to be careful and held up my bleeding hand. No problem, he answered, and proceeded to open his beer, and cut his hand. We now joke that all Leathermen should be supplied with a warning label saying “Do not use if solo.”

  • uncle marc12

    thank god she was riding with you that day.

  • AtlasRider

    @dswarthout I’ve heard that from some people. I honestly haven’t had a problem over the years.

  • George F

    I’m glad all is good and safe, I always dread those areas exactly because of that problem. As for the cops, they were probably under some tree with the radar gun instead of patrolling the road :-(

  • KnollNomad

    Of all places for the Ninja to have decided to eat your sleeping bag.

  • EverydayRiding

    Glad you both made it out safely! Are you going to pack your sleeping bag differently when you get a new one?

    On a different note, your writting is getting much better. You really captured the panic and stress of the situation well.

  • broadwaylee

    damm ninja’s :} glad you guys made it ok

  • ResilientMonkey

    Wowzers! I’m glad you two are OK! Man, that’s some scary stuff. With all the construction around here, that’s one of my worst nightmares. I really feel for you two, that must have been some really scary stuff.

  • ramiiam

    I like the part about getting her over the barrier. I like the part about getting yourself over it. I like the part about trying to warn oncoming traffic. The part about trying to fix the problem in the middle of traffic sounds to me unwise. Suggest the cell phone would have been the better tool to use in this situation.

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  • Fox Creek Leather

    Wow, what a story. Glad everything turned out okay. 

  • AtlasRider

    Thanks. Sure was an experience I’ll never forget.