It was yet another incredible evening as I left work tonight and headed west on St. Paul Avenue. After loading up the motorcycle, strapping on the helmet and navigating some of the most congested incoming Summerfest traffic, I felt I was clear as I headed across the river and towards the Amtrak Station, or Multi-Modal Station as it called in Milwaukee. Traffic was still heavy coming east, but since I was heading west out of town, I was thinking I was past the worst. But as I approached the station on the left, I noticed a line of cars up on my right, trying to turn left from a cross street, through my westbound traffic, onto St. Paul and into the eastbound stream. As I got closer to the waiting line of cars, a previously hidden minivan shot out from the right side of the line in a crazy attempt to make a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane.
I can only imagine what somebody is thinking at that moment in time. They are making a left-hand turn, from the right-hand lane, in front of a waiting line of cars? Are they thinking the cars are waiting for no particular reason? Maybe the guy had main stage tickets for Katy Perry and the thought of being late was driving him crazy. Maybe he didn’t really ever learn how to drive and thought turning from any lane to any direction was acceptable. Maybe his wife was distracting him, in a bad way or in a good way, and he just lost his mind. Maybe he was just incredibly impatient and didn’t make the logical connection that the cars that were waiting next to him, were waiting for a reason … namely me.
The next 2.4 seconds felt like an eternity. As the van pulled directly into my path only 30 feet away, my eyes registered the image and sent it to my brain for processing. Within a split second, the danger was recognized and my brain instructed my adrenal gland to flood my system. At that moment, time actually seems to slow down. You are processing the available information at an incredible pace. I remember thinking about whether to swerve into the oncoming lane, or hold the bike straight and brake. Brake! Simultaneously, my right foot shot forward to the brake pedal as my right hand grabbed the front brake lever. It didn’t really matter, because the Gold Wing automatically distributes the braking pressure front to rear for maximum stopping power. But at that point, everything was instinctual, muscle movements trained over the last 35 years of riding. Quickly and deliberately, I applied increasing pressure on the brakes as I straightened my arms to push my weight backwards. Shifting weight back helps to keep weight on the rear tire and give just a bit extra bite on the road. Listening to the tires start to whine, the point where they are just beginning to lose traction and skid, I loosen just a hair on the brakes. Whining is OK … skidding is very bad. Somewhere deep inside the front forks, the anti-dive valves had pinched closed, stopping the compression of the shocks and keeping the back of the 800 pound bike firmly on the ground. By this time, the driver of the van had finally noticed that he had pulled directly into my path, slammed on his brakes, and came to rest in front of, and turned slightly towards me. Heart pounding, blood pumping, teeth clenched, I held the bike straight as it bounced over a rough patch in the road and screeched to a stop. My feet shot out to the sides and hit the pavement.
Everything was frozen in that moment. I was sitting on the bike, in the middle of my lane, with my arms straight and stiff, leaning back and trying to exhale. Three inches in front of my front tire sat the silver and black Dodge minivan. At about a 45 degree angle to me, I turned slight to the right to look directly into the faces of the man driving, and woman sitting next to him. Perched in their leatherette high back seats, they both were motionless and wide eyed. She held a yellow strip of paper in front of her, as if she had been reading it. Through my helmet, visor and sun shield, they could likely see very little of me. I, however, remember the most interesting details. He had some Asian ancestry, but mixed with something else. His mouth hung open, as if he wanted to say something. There was a wad of gum perched on his right lower molars. She had black shoulder-length hair, a green scoop neck t-shirt, and one of those leather braided necklaces with the little silver pieces on it. When she wasn’t looking horrified, I would suspect she has a pleasant smile.
Maybe they thought I would faint, or start screaming, or kicking the front of their van. Considering the incredibly stupid maneuver he had just attempted, all of the aforementioned would have been justified. Instead, I simply took a couple of deep breaths, made sure the road was clear and headed on my way. It took a good 15 or 20 minutes for the adrenaline rush to completely subside. I was passing the Milwaukee Zoo on I-94 as I thought about the different close calls I have had over the years. I realize that on a motorcycle you are invisible to a lot of drivers, and you have to drive like nobody sees you. It really does make it difficult, however, when they hide behind a line of patiently waiting cars and shoot out in front of you. That one is really hard to anticipate. That one was really close. As that thought passed through my mind, I started laughing, thinking of the million times I have heard my father say ‘Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.’ Tonight, close really did count; and tonight, it counted in my favor.