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Digging Deeper

I got into this mess.

It's up to me to get out of it

Tires on gravel and wind hissing through an open visor are the only sounds. As the motorcycle coasts to a stop, silence becomes complete. With my helmet still on, I check the phone. The four stepped bars that indicate signal strength are ghosted grey. I hold my phone aloft on an outstretched arm, in hope of rousing a satellite’s interest. No luck. No signal. I’m on my own.


My bike has died on a fire road 50 kilometres from the last town. Dusk is in an hour. Nighttime in less than two. I replay the last hour of the ride, searching for a sound, or a vibration, or a momentary hiccup to guide my diagnosis. But the bike gave no warning. It just quit. I recreate turns, stumps, climbs, and the crossing of a shallow stream. Nothing stands out. Except the stream.  


With the tool kit splayed on the ground, the seat and fuel tank come off. In the garage, this takes 20 minutes; with night closing in, it takes less than five. Every wire is traced from stem to stern. Electrical plugs are checked for moisture; all are dry. Fuses are fine. (I try the key again anyway. As expected, nothing happens.)


I think of the night. Twenty minutes ago, I passed a lake. Maybe there’s a camp or a cabin that can offer shelter. I estimate the time to jog to the lake and hike its shoreline. It’s decision time—work on the bike, or, leave for the lake.


I push the bike to the side of the trail and turn to leave. But I hesitate. I begin to rub my thumb against the index and middle fingers of my right hand—my fingers have figured it out.


We know more than we think we do. We’re experts at jiggling toilet flushers, levelling crooked paintings with the naked eye, and knowing how hard to tighten a side cover screw into an aluminum crankcase. How many times have we inserted keys into ignition switches? We instinctively know what a functioning switch feels like. And something isn’t right with mine. I’d tried the ignition after fiddling with the wiring, but in my haste, I leapfrogged overtop clues.


From my pocket I retrieve the key and insert it into the ignition. There it is. A nearly imperceptible nothing. The feel of pins being forced into the depths of the ignition cylinder by the profile of the key is lacking definitiveness. The key operates the switch, but instead of a distinct notch between off and on, the key feels as if it’s been inserted into the fine stones at the bottom of a fish tank—it grinds where it should snap. I withdraw the key and inspect it. The sharp peaks and deep gullies of the key when it was new have been worn down by use to gently rolling hills and shallow valleys.


Human adaptability is a blessing and a curse—the key’s degradation happened so slowly that I hardly noticed the extra little bit of fiddling it occasionally required to make ignition contact. I should have paid attention to the signs. Tonight, I’m paying for my obliviousness.  


It’s past dusk. I won’t be going back to the lake or sleeping in a cabin. If I can’t make the bike run, I’ll be curled up beneath it for the night. I impatiently wiggle the key. Nothing. I try again, manipulating the key as gently as a thief picking a lock. I’m rewarded with a split-second electrical surge. Then back to silence.    


The pattern continues. Blips of life a few seconds in duration. I return to the tool kit, a mismatched hodge-podge of odds and ends. I find a length of shim stock a few thousandths in thickness that I don’t remember seeing before. With the knife from a Leatherman, I perforate the metal and tug it against the blade. I repeat this until I have a half dozen strands of what look like Christmas-tree tinsel, each strip the width of a toothpick.   


I try to shore up the key by sliding the strands in next to it while it’s in the ignition, but there isn’t room. I remove the key, lay a strand overtop the ignition aperture lengthways, and jam it in with the key. The metal crinkles like tinfoil. With the key fully inserted, I try to turn it. It won’t move. I try again. Harder. So hard I risk snapping the key. And it works. Power returns.


I circle the bike three times before I calm down enough to think. In a blink the fuel tank and seat are back on. The bike starts. Tools and zip ties and tape and thread locker are impatiently jammed into pockets. In the darkness, I use the light from my phone to find a glove lost in the grass. I cinch my helmet snug and go.


Whatever I’ve done to restore my ignition switch is temporary. I’ve a better chance of making it home if I lessen the shocks from the trail by taking it easy. But I can’t. I’m in too good a mood. I chase the last flicker of light in the western sky by riding harder than I do in daylight. But soon I tire. I begin to see the eyes of animals in the woods. Behind every tree, around every bend. I carry too much speed across a stream and nearly lose the front wheel on mossy underwater stones.


The trail intersects a paved road, and in 30 minutes I pull into a gas station, undo a battery terminal to kill the engine, refuel, and eat ice cream beneath a sky of fluorescent tubes. I’m covered in grease and mud and water. I’m also deliriously, giddily happy. I laugh aloud. I flirt with tears of joy. I move away from the gas station’s circle of light, look into the night sky, and thank the satellites for their unresponsiveness. Had I a phone signal, I’d have terrified my wife, imposed upon a friend, or pestered the police. But necessity forced me to do something I don’t do often enough—dig as deeply within myself as I dug into the tool kit.

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