I'm Back

By David C Lawrence

(I originally sent this as an email message to friends soon after returning from the Usenix General Conference in San Antonio in 1992. I'd ridden there on my motorcycle in two days from Washington, DC, staying the night in Atlanta to visit a friend before continuing on directly to San Antonio.)

Well, that was exciting.

I've got a lot of stories from the past ten days. If you encourage me to tell them, I might be obliged to. (Read as: "You probably don't want to encourage me, or ...") Just the past three days are a saga all alone, and I already have several working titles for a story about them:

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Adventures in Motorcycling
David Does San Antonio
There and Back Again
Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying

(Well, as long as I was ripping off titles, I figured I'd take one of my favourites.)

I suppose I should warn you that there are over 300 lines left in this message. I promise my feelings won't be hurt if you just delete this now, having already correctly surmised that I am safe and sound. That is, unless you feel obliged to tell me that you've done so.

As the beginnings of this tale are in the end of my USENIX trip, let's just fast forward to the time when I should have been leaving.


"...two days, 700 miles in ten hours, DC to Atlanta, followed by 1025 miles in fifteen hours, Atlanta to San Antonio..."


"...tertaining conversation with Dennis Ritchie about the evolution of operating systems and how..."


"...obligatory attraction to someone who lives 1600 miles away..."


"...nally stumbled to my room for a much needed sleep. The next day was supposed to be rainy, the same conditions in which I left Virginia, and I didn't want to add fatigue to the hazards."

Ah, here we are.


Saturday dawned bright and sunny with not even a hint of rain to come. Great! The hotel had already express checked me out and everything was ready to go. My roommate and I were about to surrender the room back to the proper authorities when I went for my motorcycle's key. Hmm, not on the television.

Not on the desk.

Not in the bureau.

Furious searching further revealed it was neither in my bags, nor my jacket, nor apparently the room at all.

Panic. Well, my relatively calm version of panic. I did at one point do something I haven't done in several years – punch a wall (yes, there is a dent now) – but that was about the worst of it.

Careful thought led to the hypothesis that it was in the coin pocket of a pair of jeans which Andrew Partan was taking back to UUNET with him. Shipping most of my clothes to the conference saved me the trouble of getting more bags mounted on my bike, and Andrew volunteered to take them home on his flight. His flight which left two hours before I woke up, and which was probably nearly to Virginia by the time I realised my predicament.

The hotel staff was helpful in locating a Suzuki shop in San Antonio. I knew all I had to do was get a number for them from the ignition switch and they could cut a new key. At least I thought it was that easy. I called Alamo Cycle Sales (I-410 and Bandera Rd) back with a number, 386, which I had read off the switch as best as I could make it out. They said it wasn't the right one, since Suzuki hadn't used those simple three digit combos since about 1982. I'd have to pull the whole switch to get the number from the mounting plate.

With tools in hand, I went to work in the hot, muggy, subterranean parking garage and got the switch off. A security guard's light helped me get two more numbers from the switch.

At about this time, some of the people from the University of Colorado at Boulder were getting ready to hit the road for home. Teri Bidwell took me on the twenty minute drive to the other side of San Antonio. (The cab was far more expensive than I could afford, and the bus ride was supposed to be around ninety minutes one way.) At the shop I was told that none of the numbers I presented could possibly be right and I'd have to pull the whole switch and bring it to them.

Back at the hotel, I yanked the whole switch and secured a ride with Craig Leres. (I really appreciate very much how all of these people went out their way to help – not just the drivers, but their other passengers.) A short while later we were back at the shop, whereupon I was told that 386 was the right number. I actually smiled at the man when he told me this. Ten or fifteen minutes later I had not one key for 10$ but two for 5$ (compensation) and I was now capable of leaving.

By the time I was back to the hotel it was 2pm and I didn't have enough hours of daylight for the 800 miles I was planning on doing. Indeed, I would barely be out of Texas by sunset. I only wanted a two day trip, was worn from the shenanigans which had already happened, and really wanted to see the places I was riding through. I elected to stay one more night.

This allowed me to be a bit more of a tourist, a skill which I don't seem to have ever acquired in all my travels. This time wasn't about to be an exception, so rather than seeing something uniquely San Antonian, like the Alamo, I did something that could be done just about anywhere.

Cruised the babes.

No, wait, I mean went to Splashtown, a nearby water park. It's very close to San Antonio with a smattering of slides, a wave pool and a lazy concrete river. Jeff Kellem's attempt to get a crowd there resulted in only me, Jeff and Jim Peters going. A good time was had by all.

We headed back on the Riverwalk for dinner – quite a touristy thing, actually, if not for the fact that I always ended up there more out of convenience than anything else. I had one last chance to dine in the company of many fine USENIX friends before heading back to the lobby bar to veg. As I was about to leave, someone kindly pointed out that I was about to also leave my wallet on the table, for my second would-be loss of the day.

Rather than crash on the floor at Jeff and Geoff's place as had originally been the plan, Jim had an extra bed in his room which I gratefully accepted for a good night of sleep.

Sunday also dawned bright and sunny, though there was the hint of rain to come. In short order I was leaving the hotel, with yet one more problem. I couldn't find my gloves. Lost and found did not have them either. The irony of these losses is that I spent a fair amount of the week with someone who would frequently leave something behind somewhere and have to return for it. I fear I've been cursed.

A petrol fill was immediately in order. To get things off to an anxious start, my newly cut key would not open my locking gas cap. A few hurried moments produced the other key, which was a little tight but worked. Finally I could hit the highway for home.

Things went fine for the first couple of hundred miles. I did get stopped for a rather bogus speeding ticket around Italy, Texas. 80 / 65 = 70$ (The New Math). I don't dispute that I was probably doing that speed, as was the Ford Explorer vaguely travelling with me for several dozen miles, but we weren't really moving much faster than the surrounding traffic at all. I'd be surprised to know they were going slower than 75. Yes, at least the Ford was pulled too. Theoretically one of us could have run, but all things considered paying an out of state ticket is much simpler.

At the next fuel stop, in Prescott AR, I noticed my chain was very loose again. As I'd just adjusted it less than 400 miles before, that was very peculiar. Fifteen minutes later it was adjusted and oiled and ready to roll. So I fired up the bike and ...


Hmm, starter isn't working.


Yep, definitely is not working.

This was very peculiar. While I did pull the ignition switch the day before, and had a hell of a time getting it reconnected just inside the frame (and bruised my hand in so doing), the fact that when I turned on the key all of the lights came on really suggested the connexion was still correct. Similarly, the chain adjustment didn't touch the electrics at all, so the two events should have been coincidental.

Modern street bikes don't tend to come with kick starters any more, but the bike was hot and easy to push start. I got back on the highway and headed for Little Rock.

Several miles out of Little Rock a storm front rapidly invaded my sunny day. Just as well, I suppose, as the back of my hands were getting seriously sunburned from the exposure. I hoped and hoped that I could make it through to the brighter skies beyond without being dumped on.

Then something fascinating happened. It started to pour. 50 yards away from me, on my left. This continued for several miles. The storm line was amazingly well defined; I could have been going westbound in the far left lane and been dry, but soaked if in the right lane.

By the time I was leaving Little Rock I'd had about five drops hit me total. At this point I was on the run, headed for the Mississippi with major storm activity visible in my mirrors. Nightfall's appearance was accelerated by those black clouds and before I could reach Tennessee it was dark.

Actually, it was a little darker than it should have been. My visor was layered with several generations of gnats, though I could still see through it. Those were weird little critters, too. Most gnats grown out this way tend to come in one shade of black, not green. I guess I'm more used to looking at their outsides, though.

Near Jackson TN I took another pit stop and convinced the attendant to a free cup of coffee. I had very little cash at this point, mostly just enough for the petrol home and perhaps a cheap National Park camp site. Conservation of currency was in order, and the coffee break welcome. I had been toying with the idea of doing all 1600 miles straight through, running from the storm. Some folks at Jackson told me that it was supposed to be clear for the night, and that the lunar eclipse should be easy to see.

At the rest stop just west of Nashville I pulled in and quickly decided to throw down my bag. It was 1am Eastern (I'd left at 10am Eastern, 900 miles before) and I'd had enough. The rest area had several copses in which I could settle, so I drifted to sleep under the stars.

I then alertly woke up when the next car pulled in, concerned about the security, or rather lack thereof, of my belongings. This procedure basically repeated itself for the next five hours until sunrise, so my sleep was not immensely restful. The worst of it was probably when the park service guy had his highbeams on me for a minute before he apparently wisely decided to let the sleeping dog lie.

By the time I was sitting on my bike again, it had completely cooled off and push starting it was a bit more difficult. I made it happen though and soon enough I was rolling along.

... listening to the kachunk-clunk of my loose chain catching in ways it shouldn't have been catching. On the shoulder of the interstate I set to work pulling the wheel back even more. As long as I was down I decided to try to figure the starter problem. I pulled some body parts, completely reconnected the ignition switch harness, pulled and checked all of the fuses and couldn't find the problem. During this time two people stopped to try to help.

The first one stopped to see if I needed gas. Let's examine the scene: two pulled body panels, seat off, luggage on the ground, and tools spread all around. Yep, sure looks like I need gas. I do appreciate his intent, though.

The second guy was a Harleyist who made for good conversation (no lie!) while I worked. The two of us never did figure the ignition problem, and that meant about an extra forty-five minutes of wasted time.

Soon afterward, I discovered that it would have been much better if I had either gone forty more miles the previous night to the next rest area on the other side of Nashville, or ignored the ignition problems and otherwise avoided the rush hour traffic. I spent a lot of time sitting in stopped queues nearly as bad as those around DC.

I had to start babying my chain like never before as it continued to stretch like a rubber band. Accelerating very slowly I could work my way up to speed. By sound and feel it seemed that 80 was better than 70, and downhills were better than uphills (loading changes, mostly). South of Bristol, a town at the TN/VA border, I adjusted it for the last time to full out on the swingarm. If it stretched any more I I just wouldn't have a way to take up the slack.

At my next petrol stop, in Wytheville VA, I noticed something peculiar – a motorcycle shop open on a Monday! "Oh," I thought to myself, "how I wish I had some money, I do, I do!" I was 300 miles from home still and hoped I could make it.

As I headed up the on-ramp for the interstate, my chain flew off the sprockets. It stretched too far. I thought at first it had actually broken, which would have made a major mess of my engine. I could remount it though and was able to delicately nurse the bike back to the shop.

Though it was pretty rural, this town had an ATM and it was my direct-deposit pay day. He sent me there since he worked cash only, though he was happy to help me pronto. 20 minutes and 200$ later (over twice what he estimated but more in line with what the thieves around DC gouge bikers for) I was back at Hill Top Cycle and we were trying to figure out how to work with the special drive train of my bike.

It seems as though the Gods of Good Luck and Bad Luck were having a war with me as the battlefield. On the one hand, the lousy chain had given up the ghost somewhat prematurely from my previous experience. On the other hand, there was this shop open on a Monday. On someone else's hand (hey, I only came with a pair!) Suzuki had decided to screw with compatibility by setting my model up with a non-standard pitch chain. Basically, 530 and 630 are the industry standards and mine had a 532. Later, my early chain failure was attributed to someone (not me!) installing a 530 chain on my 532 sprockets.

Several ideas were advanced, from cutting out a couple of links so I could run that way (rejected: sprockets were in bad shape by this point) to getting the parts from the distributor (rejected: would take two days to come overnight from the warehouse in Wisconsin). The fellow they thought could probably help me best was out fishing for the day.

A couple of hours went by and I was expecting to spend another night in my sleeping bag when The Fisher King called. He had a front sprocket and a chain for sure, and could drill a new rear sprocket if he had to. It was clear that riding the bike the fifteen miles south to his graveyard would be a very iffy proposition, so they kindly trucked me there. For free!

An hour in the shop had the new chain mounted on new sprockets. The rear one dropped two teeth, giving me a higher top end – as if I needed it on a 160mph bike. Total damages were a very reasonable 105$. The 15$ shop rate was over three times lower than what you would hand to the afforementioned thieves. Additionally, the ignition problem was diagnosed as a battery fault, but there wasn't much to do about it then and since bump starting was working, I could get it home.

We rolled it out of the garage just in time for a the beginning of a soft spring rain ("like an English rain" – love and bottlerockets to the first one to tell me where that's from). I got it back to Wytheville for a short dinner and a chance to suit up for what looked to be an unavoidable drenching. It was my first meal since supper in San Antonio on Saturday night, forty-six hours before, and I enjoyed it immensely despite it being McDonald's.

When my sunburned hands opened the pouch to get my boot covers, I discovered yet another joyous surprise. There were my gloves. How thoughtful of me to have put them there so they wouldn't be lost!

Just a few minutes later on the highway it was raining on me heavily. The down pour was torrential in places with rivers visible across the interstate, which is usually well-designed to avoid that sort of thing. It was worse than the heavy rains in which I had left Virginia while headed to Atlanta. I still don't know what the Roanoke area looks like dry, and I've been through there four times now. It did eventually stop raining, but by then night came swooping down to envelop me again.

In Raphine I stopped again at the only station which I visited on both the way out and the way in, more a coincidence than anything else. During the intervening week they had raised their prices by a dime per gallon. "I used to get my gas here," said the attendant, "but not any more."

My head was starting to itch a lot in the helmet and there was no effective way to satisfy the itch. None of the "Next Town 108 miles" signs were telling me about towns I was interested in, so I had only the vague notion that I would be getting home around midnight. I was weary and just wanted the trip to be over. Of course, that was true way back in Wytheville.

Finally, at around 0015, I pulled in to the apartment complex. I lugged my stuff upstairs then went back out for the battery. Every one of the cells, which had been ok at the very start of the trip, was near bone dry. I filled them and set it on the trickle charger, checked my paper mail, and headed for bed. I actually thought about what time to set the alarm before I more fatalistically decided, "I'll get up when I get up."



Eleven hours later I regained consciousness. I'm not really any worse for the wear, except for a tight right shoulder – perpetualthrottlitis, which is avoidable with careful application of a throttle lock, yet to be purchased. That and the sunburn should both reasonably go away in the near future.

Thank you for the concern that you have expressed. While parts of the journey were difficult, none of it was life-threatening nor even significantly troublesome. A lot of it was actually quite good, though I haven't documented it here. Those who know me well enough can swear to the veracity of the statement, "This was actually an abridged version."

Would I do it again?



    But risks must be taken,
      because the greatest hazard in life
    Is to risk nothing.
    The people who risk nothing
      do nothing,
      have nothing,
      are nothing.
    They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
      but they cannot learn,

    Chained by their attitudes,
    They are slaves.

    They have forfeited their freedom.

    Only a person who risks is free.

                From "To Dare", author unknown to me