It's one of those rare summer days when the air is so crystal clear and the sky is such a deep shade of blue and the sun is so sharply bright that everything has that etched-in-stone look. As I descend the Massanutten on my way home, I catch a glance through the trees of the south fork of the Shenandoah, somnolent and timeless as it wends its way down the Page Valley. The sight makes me catch my breath in wonder. Even having been stopped earlier-and thus having to make do with the slight reduction in pace I had promised-it's an extraordinary gift, this day.
A day on which it seems impossible to believe we might die.
"Zero tolerance." I'm stopped at the Mobil station on my way out. The half-dozen riders clustered along the side of the building are talking about an article in the local Rappahannock paper. "That's what it said. They're not cutting anyone any more slack. Yesterday they were even running radar out on [Route] 647."
They're talking, of course, about the police response, itself a reaction to community outrage, to us-sport riders. Because we keep crashing up there on the mountain. It seems to be the one thing we've gotten down pat.
Even the news of the crackdown doesn't dampen many spirits, though. It's just too nice a day. The cool front-rare for August-was forecast several days ago. Enough in advance so that everyone could line up their chores and adjust their schedules so this day would be free. And now everyone is determined to enjoy it.
As I finish my doughnut and orange juice, the group of riding buddies mounts back up. In seconds the air is rent with a joyous cacophony-raspy inline-fours, bass-rumbling V-twins and the rattle of dry clutches. It's the sound of what we do, music to my ears. You can't hear it and not feel the ratcheting heartbeat in your chest, promise implicit in those edgy notes. I have to fight the urge to hurry and mount up myself. I have all of this day in front of me, and I want to savor it.
It's less than 10 minutes to the mountain. Only midmorning, still a few hours before the crowds of two-wheelers will be here. That's intentional. The law-enforcement crackdown isn't a surprise to me, of course-this is, after all, my mountain. I'll get a run in now, while it's still relatively quiet, then continue on and hit the good roads west of the Gap.
Beyond the twisted nature of the road itself, the great benefits of the mountain are the two lanes heading up in each direction-no double-yellow passes necessary-with one lane for each of the descents. It's the finest motorcycle road in a long way.
The westbound ascent starts slowly, like broad strokes of a painter's brush. A couple fast sweepers flashing across tarmac dappled in sunlight and shadow. Then the hard right, a prelude of what is to come, clicking one downshift to get the revs up. That's the first one with a hard apex, the spot where you feel the suspension compress. Then there's the long, lazy left-hander, winding up your heart along with your speed, round past the gravel turnout there on the left to where the serious stuff begins. There's a floating sensation, an aftermath of the delight from that first good curve, and a last moment's appreciation that nearly the whole mountain lies in front of you. Then you're not thinking about the mountain anymore-just riding.
One more downshift, the engine now wound up into the meat of its powerband, just in time for the hard left-hander, pushing now-but not too hard. You're thinking about your tires, and the need to get some heat in them. The next turn is the decreasing-radius right-hander-the one that catches so many riders. It sucks you in, the visual cues promising. But I've been here before. I know of the deception and exactly how much the corner will give. Backing out of the throttle for a heartbeat or two right when one would normally be winding it on, that restraint rewards me with a line that scribes a path just out to the dotted line dividing the two upward-climbing lanes. Then the dance begins. From the deep shadows you emerge into the sunlight, a short, deft little swirl with that painter's brush as you go throttling up through the next left. The strokes become delicate after that, fine strokes drawn in swift, tight arcs, again and again, blood thin.
I love this place.
I know immediately that I'm busted. Over the top and beginning the descent, I've accelerated in a quick little burst to move around the lone vehicle up in front of me before the two lanes squeeze down into one. As I draw abreast of the car I see the cruiser come around the corner 200 feet in front of me. Even as I chop the throttle, my pass aborted, I know it's not enough. Sure enough, there they are, blue lights flashing.
After the usual pleasantries-and noting what a nice bike it is-the young officer matter-of-factly states, "I'm going to have to write you a summons. Do you have your registration?" With the conversation back at the gas station just a few minutes before still echoing in my head, I smile wryly. "Sure," I reply, popping the seat to retrieve the paperwork.
Maybe it's my resignation, the certainty that at this point it's all a given. Or my apology, genuine, disgusted at what has become of this once-wonderful stretch of road. Whatever, the officer offers me an unexpected gift. "I'm going to let you go with a warning."
The weather is not the only thing fine about this day.
It's a mixed blessing, of course. With the officer's stern admonition that my reprieve is good for one time only-my get-out-of-jail-free card has now been punched-I know I'll be on the hook for anything else that happens today. That, and the fact that I feel an obligation to keep the promise I made. A promise that gets additional emphasis from the officer's parting comment, "I've never given a warning to a motorcyclist before." All of a sudden I feel like I've become a representative for our entire sorry lot. And I'm determined that nothing must happen that later might make that officer regret his moment of clemency. I want the story to end with the notion that maybe cutting a motorcyclist a break now and again isn't entirely unwarranted.
It's suddenly become a day to chill. But that's OK. Even with the edge off my pace it remains a gorgeous day, the next few hours an almost mesmerizing mix of sunlight and shadow and movement along crooked little roads, across a landscape beguiling and wondrous. A day to remind us why we bother in the first place.
John Kosztolnik and his brother Peter are a couple hours behind me. Their mountain ascent begins near midday, with the sun high in the sky. Like mine earlier-like most riders out on this golden day-theirs is a perfect run up the mountain, spiraling up the corkscrewing esses in a smooth, flowing ballet. How could it be otherwise? This road seems touched with something special, a magic that seems to gladden the heart with the curl of every curve and every foot of elevation gained. And they've come here on this day-a perfect day to match with a perfect road-for the same reason we all have: to be touched by that magic.
John is in front on his 929, with Peter running a few bike lengths behind him. Skilled, experienced riders, the brothers tag-team their way into the last mile of the ascent. It's been a good run, and if they feel any disappointment at all it's only in the knowledge that it's almost over. There are only a handful of curves remaining until the summit.
Above them, an R1 rider is making his descent. His track brings him past the long, sweeping right-hander that marks the first serious turn in the downhill slalom, then through the 200-foot-long straightaway leading into the following left-hander. That little straightaway is the last place to gather one's thoughts-and to get set up properly for the turns that follow. The left-hander is a sweeper-easy to negotiate-but not as open as the fast right-hander that preceded it. It requires a modicum of restraint. Overcooked, it can lead to a busted entrance into the right-hander that follows it-a turn that is hard and abrupt, with none of the friendly forgiveness of a sweeper.
John and Peter, heading up, approach the turn at the same time as the R1 rider coming down. Just one of those countless confluences of time and space that pass through all our lives without thought or acknowledgement. For the brothers, the turn-a left-hander from their perspective-is fairly open, the extra radius from being on the outside and the extra space afforded by the double lanes heading up serving to moderate its abruptness. But to both the Kosztolnik brothers heading up and the R1 rider heading down, the turn is blind. John's first glimpse of the R1 is in an already-blooming moment of crisis, after the Yamaha has swept across the oncoming lanes and come over the double-yellow line right in front of him. There's no time for him to react.
I'm still lost in my reverie, enjoying the day. After descending the Massanutten I head back east toward the mountain, retracing my route from a couple hours before. It's only a few minutes away.
Heading up the western face, a track I've ridden a thousand times, I'm in casual mode, happily thinking about which routes I might choose once I'm east of the Blue Ridge. With the spectacular weather there's no need to head home just yet.
Past the summit, I lean hard into the long right-hand sweeper, the same one that R1 rider would have negotiated just a little while before. Around the turn, one last, long, graceful sweep of that painter's brush, until the exit, where I can see into that 200-foot straightaway. Off to the side, right at the entrance to the left-hand sweeper, sits a Park Ranger with his light-bar flashing. His window is down, and as I approach under trailing throttle he motions me to slow down-the first intimation that something has gone terribly wrong here today. Minutes later, winding slowly through the carnage of twisted metal and leaking fluids and flashing lights and grim-faced officers-and blood and tears-the day has suddenly turned. At the bottom of the mountain riders are everywhere, sudden seriousness in their faces, talking about what happened. The sense in the air is that something long-cherished has irrevocably changed. The time of innocence has passed.
John Kosztolnik died this day in his brother's arms. As that news circulates among the riders down below, I suddenly want to be away from here. This is no longer my place-not today.
As I ride slowly home, wondering about things and why they happen the way they do, I pass other riders heading toward the mountain. Riders still unaware that a tragedy has unfolded. Riders who see nothing but a stunningly beautiful day and the chance to ride a great road. And I'm struck by the contrast between that promise-held by every single one of us who ride when we awakened on this day-and what has become of it.