It’s dark outside. I’ve been riding all day. I left Wakeeney, Kansas before 7 this morning, and now it’s after 11. I finally found a place to camp – at least, I think it’s a place to camp. It was dark when I pulled up, and there’s no one around. There’s no camp host, no designated camping spots – I just pulled the bike near some trees in what seemed to be a clearing, in what I am very much hoping is Hoosier National Forest, and pitched my tent. It’s so hot. Unbearably hot.
I can’t bring myself to try to go to sleep yet – I’m still wound up from a long day of riding, and really, it’s so hot. So I sit, sweaty and sticking to my little backpacking camp chair in the dark. No book, no music, no campfire, I’m too tired for any of that. Just the dark. I watch the fireflies flicker.
I’m here now. I’m comfortable. I’m fine. I’m on schedule even! Still, I can’t escape the sinking feeling in my stomach – the one that is so insistent that it’s all about to go wrong. Or worse, that it’s already gone wrong, and I’m too incompetent to realize it. It’s been with me for the entirety of the 2 days since I left home.
I’m not a mechanic. I’m not really even mechanically inclined. In spite of that, last summer, I bought an old motorcycle, and deemed myself fit to both ride and maintain it. For the most part, this has been smooth going – stuff stops working, I furiously google until I have a guess for what it is, and manage to fix it. I read endlessly on motorcycle forums to find new things that might go wrong, and try to decide what needs to be overhauled next.
I buy tools and parts. I mess things up, then figure out how to fix what I broke. I break down on occasion. I read, and read some more. I put together a toolkit with the things most likely to keep me running on a long trip.
I’m still no mechanic, but slowly, steadily, I’m building a mental model of how the bike works – what happens when I start it, what to check when it feels like the engine is going faster than the wheels, what it means when it feels like the handlebars are bouncing too much. What the bike should sound like when I’m on the highway, and what it should sound like when I’m pulling away from a stoplight.
I’m a thousand miles from home, sitting peacefully on a quiet Indiana night, and I’m convinced the bike has an oil leak.
My suspicion started last night, in Kansas. I had pulled up, let the bike cool down for a while, and checked the oil sight window – and just at the bottom was a hint of an oil line. It should be right in the middle, maybe even a little over. If I lost that much oil in the 400 miles that day, I was in real trouble on a 6000 mile trip.
Tonight, reluctantly, I tap on my phone’s light and walk around to check the sight window. No oil. Of course. What did I expect?
I check around the bottom of the engine for signs of dripping, and don’t find any indication of leaking oil. I am not comforted, just further convinced of my own incompetence. Probably all real motorcycle mechanics know that leaking oil shoots out the handlebars or something, I don’t know. I just know I’m going to be stranded here, lead astray by my own hubris. I’m sure of it.
There’s nothing to be done but sit in the sticky humidity and ponder where it all went wrong.
After a bit of good old fashioned wallowing, I look at the bike again, from my chair. It’s parked on the soft grass, on a slight slant. it’s leaning slightly to the left. The oil sight window is on the right side of the engine. Logically, I know that this means the oil would have settled in a way that would be invisible in the sight window. To check the oil that way, the bike has to be level. Not seeing the oil in the sight window is meaningless.
Now that I think of it, I had this same thought last night, in Kansas. The bike was leaning left then too, and I knew it. Logically, the evidence provided by the sight window tells me nothing – and I knew it both nights. but still, I can’t shake the idea that there is an oil leak.
I’m now faced with a discrepancy – between what I can reason, and what I feel. I’m a rational person. I know there’s no reason to suspect an oil leak if I have no evidence of an oil leak. And yet, as I talk myself through this, rationally, logically, the very real feeling rock in the pit of my stomach does not go away. I’m unwilling to trust logic. The bike is not going to make it, I just know.
The next morning, is cool, damp, and pleasant. I pack up the tent, load the bike, and it starts like an anxious toddler who has been told we’re going to the park. The bike purrs through the misty Indiana hills. It’s some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever experienced. At the first town I come across, I find a gas station to head inside and pick up oil to refill what’s been lost. Coming back out, I check the sight window. Here, parked on level ground, I can see what I rationally understood last night – no oil had been lost. The bike was fine. It ran for 5500 more miles, and got me home (almost) without issue.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this night for the rest of the trip. I had no evidence to believe that the bike was not fine, but it wasn’t enough. I was far more willing to believe my fears than reason. My brain wanted, needed something to worry about, and it wasn’t about to let a little reason get in the way of that.
Worry is a hell of a drug.