Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 12
Growing up as an SDSU area local, Inland North County was always the Unknown Zone. Until a dozen years ago, I'd hear the traffic report for the 78 corridor or Vista/San Marcos and tune it out with a vague "Where-the-heck-is-that?" attitude. Every stretch of beach from La Jolla to San Onofre has known my footprint at one time or another for most of my adult life, but what lay inland was a disjumbled mystery of names. Moving back to San Diego after years abroad though, I took a part time teaching job in the evenings at a community college in North County and have become quite familiar with various ways of getting from one place to another there. Have been bitching about the commute ever since, but everything else about the job is quite alright so here I am twelve years later still doing it.
Always a clever fellow at beating the system, I've found ways around the commuting headache and the routine has since become so ingrained into my lifestyle that I'd find it hard to change. On days of the week when I don't have to come back to the SDSU area, I camp out of my ride, spending the days at South Carlsbad and working out of a beach chair. I grade compositions, catch up on paperwork, and take long walks along the shoreline. There's a shady spot outside the north end of the campground that is, for all intents and purposes, my personalized parking space. I brew coffee on an old stovetop percolator with a single burner Coleman stove, and enjoy my stress-free semi-retirement.
Other days, I'll fire up my Honda Shadow Spirit and make a game of beating the endless traffic jam on the 36 mile commute. The bike's license plate frame reads, "You're just jealous", and it does seem to genuinely annoy people on four wheels when groups of three to ten of us form up spontaneously in a single file line of mismatched motorcyles, plugging along between stalled lanes at rush hour. There's always someone on a bike who doesn't join in, of course, but bikers tend to band together for safety in heavy traffic, forming the loosest of temporary social groups before bursting out separately when traffic opens up again past Lake Hodges.
A few weeks ago, just after the Daylight Savings Time switch, I was chugging up to work at dusk. Just before Qualcomm Stadium, I flipped the tank onto reserve like dozens of times before. There's usually plenty to get me to the 78, where I'll pull off and fill the tank.
For some reason on this day, though, just past Felicita Road there was a nightmarish sputter and the engine went dead. No doubt at all as to what had happened, and I knew I was utterly and completely screwed.
It was a bit of a downhill slope, so I coasted in neutral on the shoulder until things leveled out. Then I started pushing. When the uphill resumed, I pushed harder. Was working up quite a sweat and wondering whether I wasn't getting old, huffing and puffing so. Then I realized that I really wasn't doing half bad, considering the bike weighs over 400 pounds.
Within sight of the Auto Parkway exit, I decided it was time to take a breather and try to develop a plan. Was still in no danger of being late for work, but wondered how far I'd have to go to get to a gas station. It was downhill to the exit, but then what?
Well, I was leaning on the bike, feeling like Davy Crockett; never really lost but sometimes a bit bewildered.
My head flashed back to summer '99, coming back from Prescott with a rental truck half full of furniture and a spa for the house I'd bought in my hometown after an unhappy year in that narrow-minded little town. A buddy had come along to help me, and we were avoiding the triple-digit daytime temperatures by driving at night. We were about five miles from the I-10, and twenty miles or so from Quartzsite... the middle of BFE in other words.
There in the dark, we saw two Harleys at the side of the road, their riders trying desperately to flag us down. Both of us being bikers ourselves and not by nature paranoid, we made a quick decision to stop. These guys were, in fact, pretty well screwed. One of their bikes was completely out of gas, and the other was running on fumes. They'd been hoping to find a gas station open in one of the little settlements along Route 60, but hadn't.
After a short pow-wow, we decided that it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to pack one of the bikes into the back of the truck and take them to Quartzsite. To make a long story short, we ended up packing both of the bikes in. I remember the guy pondering how he could get light in the pitch-black cargo area of the truck, and I suggested turning on one of the bikes' headlights.
Taking the turns gently, we pulled into the Pilot station in Quartzsite and opened the cargo door to two of the most relieved looking faces I've ever seen. We had truly saved the day for these guys. I figured I'd acquired some good karma from the deal, and was happy to have been of help. My buddy and I sometimes speak of the experience as one of the more memorable incidents in our almost fifty years of friendship.
So, my head returns to the present reality. What to do? And in that moment, a pickup truck with bike racks pulls over in front of me. The driver had just dropped off his Harley for service, and was on his way home. He had all the equipment to get my bike loaded and to the next open gas station... which turned out to be almost five miles away!
Unloaded at the Shell station on Nordahl and Mission Road, I took out my wallet and offered him a ten. He waved it off, telling me it was good for karma and that we bikers have to watch out for each other.
It was still a few miles to the college with my full tank of gas, and I was still sweating a bit. I caught a pretty bad cold from the ride, but didn't let out a whimper of complaint as I nursed myself back to health.
Had to call in sick a couple of times over the next two weeks, but my students had heard the story and their only concern was that I get better soon. At times, lying in bed all day and doped up on too much aspirin, it felt pretty damned spiritual.