Story last updated at 3:11 p.m. Thursday, December 19, 2002

Moped trip becomes third-world adventure
Micah's Musings

Editor's note: Homer resident Micah Ess, a 1997 graduate of Homer High School, recently departed on an extended trip to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He will be submitting essays about his travel periodically. This is his third installment.

Eivin and I are now equipped with state-of-the-art, highly efficient, extremely mobile mopeds. The world now gets sucked up through our helmet visors and spat out through our rearview mirrors. This is now our preferred method of travel.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to weave in and out of traffic on a mountain pass at about 50 mph. Words like "freaky" and "extreme" come to my media-saturated, MTV-addled mind, yet what do they describe?

How about imagining every chase scene George Lucas has dreamt up. OK, now replace the big gunships with trucks hauling bags of rice, or loads of cement stacked twice as high as the top of the cab.

These trucks are always running on one last commission -- so near junkyard status, yet because of crack team mechanizing and strong-arm third-world techniques, they are still years away from that final cough of combustion. They always belch black smoke, it rolls out the crippled tailpipe and hits the ground like water -- like a fine layer of snow on an Alaska highway.

Every time we go to pass these things, their effective smokescreen gives us about 10 seconds breath -- and about the same number meters of visibility. We negotiate oncoming traffic and weave through the falling cow debris and chicken funk as we ride around the island.

It is not such a bad situation all by itself, at least not harrowing. But there are also about a bazillion other mopeds vying for the top seed at the right flank of the truck, where visibility and passing options are the best.

One would never know, but the ones you have to watch out for are those little girls in school uniforms on brand new blue and black Honda 110s. (See, I'm down with the moped talk now.) They think that just because they have a little extra power, a lighter body and a new helmet, they can cut, weave and pass like maniacs.

Eivin and I, because of the way we look at moped riding, (racing, George Lucas style) rarely ever get passed up. We are the moped masters -- the dynamic white boy duo -- Eivin, with his Evel Knievel white dirt-bike helmet, and me, with my plastic, Nazi issue, black hard hat contraption. We rule the space between the two yellow lines.

On our last day of our rental contract, we were coming back from the north shore at about 6 p.m. when the clouds got dark and rain started to pour down on us. We still had about 60 miles left, and there was nowhere to stop or hide. Just rice paddies and pavement. Eivin had been running low on gas and every station on the island was already closed because of the lightning.

Just as we came around a corner, lightning struck the top of a radio tower just off the road. In one deafening second, in one gothic flash, all the hair on our bodies leapt up and stood on end -- or as much on end as hairs could achieve while being hit by drops of water at about 100 kph.

We both instantly downshifted out of the triple digit range on our metric speedometers and started shouting some of the most coherent and pointed expletives I have ever heard. All the traffic seemed to vanish with the first shot of bright white. It was just the trucks and us.

In 30 minutes, the road transformed from a standing lake of warm icky-poo brown, to a river of cold, clear, cloud mucus. We hunkered down over our almost empty fuel tanks and slowly dropped down out of the foothills.

The villages became more populated, but there was still no sign of an open gas station. We stopped several times and asked the locals, but they couldn't give us a straight answer.

At about 9 p.m., we gave up on pressing forward and pulled over next to a small house. On the porch already were a dozen or so other mopedists fighting for the best place to stand in the leaky refuge.

We stood there and shivered for the better part of two hours before the rain let up and we kicked our bikes in gear again. Eivin had already switched to his auxiliary fuel, and I was getting close, but the road was mostly downhill and we coasted for a lot of it.

At the bottom of the first hill the traffic came to a stop. We slithered up to the front of the line to see what the problem was. A man was standing in the road on a sharp corner with a wilting tree branch in his hand. He was directing traffic around a pile of branches at his feet.

Now, when a truck has a flat tire or someone runs out of gas, sometimes they put out some branches in the road to let people know of the hazard, but I noticed that there was a shoe in the leaves. Then, in a flash of light, I saw an arm and some clothing. Off to the left side of the road was a tattered bike on its side. A person must have lost control coming around the corner and put their moped into the front of an oncoming truck.

The traffic started up and we continued very, very slowly. Just as Eivin's moped began to sputter and choke, a lit up gas station sign reflected off the pavement on the black horizon. It seemed like some renegade petrol-pumpers thought that a little lightning storm was no reason to stop selling gas, and in as long as it takes one man to pump about 20-odd mopeds full in the line before us, we were filled up. Everything was going to be OK! Funny how one takes a full tank for granted.

After that it seemed like no time at all before we were back in the garage at home. The rain finally died down as we stripped off our wet clothes and sat on the porch, unable to sleep and giddy with adrenaline.