“Debris! Bobo, we have debris!” I shouted.
He couldn’t hear my movie quote, of course. I was safely nestled in the luxurious comfort of Matt Russell’s brand-new BMW X6 SUV. The driving rain, large hail, gusty winds, and occasional chunks and bits of refuse that zipped hither and thither across the highway as if they were animatedly playing some real-life version of Frogger, were of no real concern to me. Bobo, on the other hand, was riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. The recently deceased Gavin Smith’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, to be more accurate.
And we were heading directly into tornado-spawning thunderclouds.
When our good friend Gavin had died unexpectedly three months earlier, his family made the decision to sell his belongings to support his two young children. It was decided that the best option for selling his Harley Davidson was to leverage his fame in the poker world by auctioning the bike at a charity event in Las Vegas that would be coinciding with the kick-off of the 50th annual World Series of Poker. The bike was being stored by Matt Russell in Houston, Texas, and we needed to get it up to Las Vegas, so Bobo and I jumped at the chance to make the ride. Matt, who wanted to get his SUV to Las Vegas for the WSOP anyway, volunteered to let us use the BMW as a support vehicle for the ride so that Bobo and I could switch back and forth between the two vehicles. We caught a Southwest Airlines flight into Houston on a Sunday evening, spent the night at Matt’s condo, and departed early the next morning for the planned two-day trip. Now, here we were seven hours out of Houston, just crossing into the Texas panhandle near the town of Memphis, and heading right into some serious storms.
And, gloriously, it was my turn to be in the SUV.
As rain followed by hail pelted the windshield of the X6 and the outside temperature gauge showed a plummet of twenty degrees in a matter of minutes, Bobo, dressed in only camouflage cargo shorts, a thin, olive-colored t-shirt that was plastered tightly to his Michelin Man body like one of OJ’s Isotoners, and a pair of red and white Vans low-tops that I’m guessing he stole from a teenage girl at a Venice Beach skateboarding park, finally whipped the Harley to the shoulder of the highway and sloshed his way through standing water back to the SUV.
In the previous ten miles, we had passed thirty to forty “storm chasers” jockeying about in jacked-up pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans adorned with flashing yellow strobe lights, twirling antennas and satellite dishes, and rapidly spinning wind gauges. This hodgepodge of amateur, semi-professional, and professional tornado enthusiasts had flooded the area we were traversing, presumably in anticipation of the tornados that would surely be spawning from the heavy, darkly brooding, funnel clouds that hung low over the flat purple-hewed landscape. The farmhouses and fields that dotted the terrain seemed ripe for victimization as the occupants no doubt kept one ear tuned to their emergency radios and prepared to evacuate to the ever-present storm shelters that are a necessity in this part of the country.
I have never seen a tornado. Part of me ecstacized at the ominous tone of the sky which was so reminiscent of the numerous movies I’ve seen where a twister comes screeching and roaring through a town’s trailer park. The part of me that was a loyal friend to the motorcycle-bound Bobo was less thrilled, particularly when we entered Memphis, Texas and the town’s tornado sirens suddenly began wailing in an ear-splittingly spooky, surreal warbling that sent chills down my arms. I scanned the sky with wide-eyes and took video to document the distinct possibility of a motorcycle becoming an airplane as Bobo, stoically undeterred and seemingly unimpressed, rode on, dodging the debris that littered the roadway, hunching his rotund body into the driving hail, and soldiering through conditions that would have made lessor men curl up into a ball in the back seat of the SUV.
When lightning and thunder began shaking the earth with sizzling smells of ozone and soul-rattling booms, and standing water on the road had reached the foot petals of the motorcycle, Bobo finally pulled into a gas station and parked under the portico. We took shelter inside the small convenience store and watched the raging storm as an early afternoon darkness brought on by the thick clouds descended over us and the store clerk listened to an emergency storm radio that would hopefully provide us with enough warning to cover our bodies in softly cushioning Hostess cupcakes before the tornados arrived.
After several cups of coffee, hot chocolate, and some hot-case gas station burritos, the storm subsided without even a single tornado ripping up the roof of our refuge. The sky lightened into a second dawn as the clouds began to break. The pelting rain slowed and then quit completely, and the weather warmed several degrees. I told Bobo that I figured it was now my turn on the bike. He gave me a wry look but handed over the still soggy helmet and climbed into the BMW to turn on the heater and finish drying his clothes. We left the storms behind us, never even having seen a tornado, much to my dismay.
Crossing into New Mexico, we hit Interstate 40 and headed due west into the setting sun toward Albuquerque. As it got dark for the second time that day, we stopped in Santa Rosa, New Mexico on historic Route 66 and checked into the Route 66 Inn. This was a simple but decent motel with a community firepit, and we grabbed some dinner-to-go and a few beers, enjoying the fire for a couple of hours before heading to bed.
The next morning, we toured the Route 66 auto museum which was probably the most interesting thing in Santa Rosa, but still definitely skippable unless you’re a real classic car buff. We got back on the road before 10 o’clock and made our way west to Albuquerque. By the time we arrived, the wind had stiffened from an annoying headwind that was blasting us around on the Interstate, into a truly treacherous gale that constantly threatened to upend us, regularly sending us careening across the lane divider or onto the shoulder of the highway in spite of our best efforts to stay safely in one lane. It was a clear, sunny, otherwise beautiful day that would have been perfect for riding had the wind speeds not topped fifty miles per hour. To make things worse, the winds were directly in our face and the Harley had no windshield, which meant that even at a modest 60 mile per hour speed—which was much slower than the posted limit of 70 and 75, and almost dangerously slower than the average speed of the normal vehicle which was 80 to 85—we were still experiencing a direct wind in our chest and face of 110 miles per hour, a thrashing wind that left us beaten and exhausted like we’d spent the day breaking a bull.
We stopped for gas in Albuquerque and then hit the highway again with me on the Harley. After fifteen minutes of riding, my neck was aching from the pure strain of holding it upright in the 110 to 120 mile per hour winds that blasted the heavy, full-face helmet I wore. I tried lying flat against the tank of the bike and tipping my head down to let the wind press on only the top of the helmet, and that helped some, but looking at the ground while riding a bike isn’t very conducive to safe operations, and I realized this wasn’t going to be a good permanent solution. To make matters worse, we had no leather chaps to protect our legs, and small rocks were ripping into us constantly from the driving wind and the semi-trucks that would get blown onto the shoulder of the road releasing a maelstrom of dust and debris from the dormant shoulder, each of those grains of sand feeling like shotgun pellets as they blasted our denim-clad legs. It was nightmarish, and Bobo and I started switching rides every twenty to thirty minutes from our previous switching times of every two hours. At one point early on, I tried to convince Bobo that the conditions were just too hideous and dangerous to continue, and that we should spend the night in Albuquerque and finish the ride the next day, but he was insistent that he wanted to be back in Vegas that night. Knowing my misery, and making me feel like a complete wuss, he powered through a 1.5-hour straight ride that had me shaking my head in awe. He could hardly speak when he stumbled off the bike at the next stop, his ghoulish face conveying his misery with nary a word as we switched spots. It had been a Herculean effort that pushed us through the worst of the hellish wind, and I was grateful for his selfless stamina.
Once we’d left the wind behind, the rest of the ride went smoothly. We made quick work of Arizona, flying along the macadam in perfect riding weather, and crossing the top of the state at speeds that must have averaged more than 90 miles per hour. As we approached the Nevada border, Bobo asked for the honor of taking the final stage of the ride, bringing Gavin’s Harley back home to Las Vegas, and I gladly ceded him that honor. We crossed the Pat Tillman bridge over the Colorado River as the sun was dropping toward the horizon, painting the sky in dazzling brush strokes of reds and golds shining through heavy clouds, our journey ending in a magnificent display that so well represented the end of the era of Gavin Smith. Twenty minutes later, we eased over Railroad Pass and the expansive desert valley spread out before us, the vividly blazing lights of Las Vegas welcoming us home.
The ride had been objectively one of the most hazardous and despairing motorcycle rides I’ve ever been on, and yet, it seemed that the very things that made it such a tough ride were the things that made it so worthwhile. We spent three days with the spirit of our good friend Gavin riding beside us, and the toils of the ride ensured that it would be one we would never forget. Two weeks later, I would ride Gavin’s motorcycle to the charity auction where it would sell for significantly more than its true value, and the money would go to the pool of donations contributed by the poker community to ensure that his children, now effectively orphans, would be well-taken care of. Although Bobo and I had lost a close friend, we will forever have the story of the incredible journey we made bringing Ol’ G Smith’s Harley Davidson home to Las Vegas.