Blog entry for December 23, 2008

pioneersquareseattlewa

     Jolly Rogers Motorcycle Club riders are a rough and ready group who, over the years, have easily faced the trials and tribulations of 420 foot “stairway’s to Heaven” TT track races, road races and crappy weather of all sorts.  For the past couple weeks, in Seattle and all of Washington, we’ve faced new challenges that have tested our patience and have given us a taste of what winter is like for most everyone else in the northern part of our Nation.

   Most of us are having enough trouble getting around in our four-wheel cages much less our motorcycles, (though if anyone has an ice-racing bike that would probably do okay in this weather).  I did take my sidecar outfit for a spin on Saturday and it managed but the other traffic that had ventured out was no confidence builder. People were sliding around corners, turning stop signs into yield signs, fish tailing on turns and generally mucking up things for an intrepid sidecarist. Throw in the fact that pedestrians were wandering down the middle of most streets because they wanted better footing and it was just plain dangerous.

   Ice and snow covered ruts challenged the drive wheel on the Harley-Davidson and as it dug its way up inclines and managed to pull forward but in a back and forth swerving motion. I recognize now that the third wheel, on the chair, kept the bike from tipping over and pushed back against the drive wheel to propel the machine onwards. Still, with the loonies who were driving with the skills of troglodytes, I felt that discretion was the correct action. Keep this trip short!

  At the Exxon at Barton and 35th SW I filled up the tank with gasoline and continued to amuse all the pedestrians who were waiting, helplessly for the bus which never came. (So much for the Mayor’s emphasis on public transport – I saw an articulated bus crashed at Roxbury and 35th SW and two regular buses stuck near High Point. With this sort of record we can be assured that low-quality service on Metro will continue, as ever).

  Back to gassing up – yes I put gasoline into the tank and filled up and then headed over to the Westwood Post Office to mail some bills. I continued to weave back and forth in the odd motion of a sidecar outfit on thick snow. I passed another stuck bus on Barton Street, its flashers annoyingly announcing its distress. A cop went by in the other direction with an incredulous look on his face as he stared at me passing the other way. At the post office I dropped the mail in the drive up mail box and some customers asked me if I wasn’t scared of driving that “thing” in this weather.  I thought up some sarcastic comments but decided it best to merely ignore these kind of fools. I continued on back to Barton and the traffic combat zone.

   I headed back to Arbor Heights and calculated that Roxbury and 37th would be the least of the inclines I’d have to face as I headed home. The outfit had to really tug to get up the rutted and icy 37th but it did. I was fearful of getting stuck but that didn’t happen. For the first time ever I kind of wished I had a lower first gear.  Four blocks later I was at home and the outfit was in the garage. I didn’t realize it till I dismounted but I was shaking a bit. Guess the ride was more grueling than I had first thought.

  In the warmth of my house and with my fingers slowly thawing out, I got thinking about the hellish driving I’d just experienced and appreciated, more than ever, our normal winters when the only irritation is cold rain and slimy streets. At least in that kind of weather motorcycles can get around as long as the riders exercise some level of caution and awareness. But not in this snowy stuff – The Minnesota effect is too extreme.

  Pondering on this and being passionate about history I got to wondering about what it was like for drivers back in the day. With the help of the internet and Seattle City Archives I did a search on “roads” and pulled some interesting pictures from the early days of motor vehicle transport. Seems that our intrepid first motorists and motorcyclists faced some really nasty driving and it wasn’t just during freak snowstorms. Looking at old photos it can be seen that only the central parts of the city were paved and the paving was brutal. It consisted of large, lumpy paving blocks that would have given the primitive motor vehicles of the day a kind of jack-hammer riding experience. If you want to know what the entire City of Seattle was paved in just cruise down 1st Avenue in Pioneer Square to the Totem Pole. There is an old street that has been turned into a pedestrian mall which has kept these old turn-of-the century paving blocks. They are so uneven that pedestrians can trip walking over them.  I’ve included a photo from the first ever motorcycle competition in the area taken in 1911 that shows the exact place I’m talking about.

  In the picture above the roadway appears smooth and level but it isn’t. Consider the brutal effect on the skinny two inch tires on those Excelsior motorcycles. While the jack hammer effect of riding around the city on this pavement would have been nasty it was luxury compared to what most of the city streets consisted of.

  Only the central part of town – Pioneer Square over to Virginia and up to about 8th or 9th  Avenues would have had these blocks of pavement. After that it was all “water-bound macadam” a kind of generic term for “mud road”. As soon as the jack-hammering ended the rider would have driven into thick mud (except maybe in summer when rutted dusty roads would have been the alternative). The riding experience I just had in the snow would have been the normal, regular, daily experience of an early motorist or motorcyclist.

   And just as we’ve seen how unprepared and amateurish our local governments have been with this current snow situation, it was even worse back in the day. Typically the government would wait until things were so bad that axles were braking on commercial vehicles. Then they would send out crews of laborers to shovel large rocks into the ruts. Steam rollers would come out and compact the resulting mess of rock and mud to a somewhat level appearance. And then they would leave and nothing would be done until large numbers of citizens, once again, complained and the City would repeat its antics. This next photo shows an example of water-bound macadam on a Seattle street in November 5, 1915. This street is actually in good condition – none of the ruts look like axle breakers but can you imagine hitting this at about 20 to 25 mph with your motorcycle and its 2 inch tires?
14thaves1
  The photo shows 14th Avenue S looking northward from Director Street. Notice that the posted speed limit is 20 mph.  I can imagine motorcyclists would be slogging from side to side as their skinny tires followed the ruts. It would have been extra difficult with the clutchless engines of those days and if a bike stalled it would have to be pedaled in this muck to get it started again.
Think of the sweat and pain that would have been.

   So, in my reverie of things past I realized that the current nasty riding conditions will soon be history themselves and we will be back to our soggy, slimy Pacific Northwest streets. Consider your current misery as a dose of driving from the past and then you can appreciate better how far we’ve come and how gutsy the bikers from back in the day had to be.

 

Biker Bone

 

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