Midnight Run

In “The Case of the Inverted ’Taco,” my mighty 1967 Norton P11 was the protagonist in a faceoff with a hapless little Bultaco Sherpa T, but over time the British steed’s power and weight began to be its undoing. As Southern California’s desert trails became increasingly rough during the mid-1970s, the Norton was having a hard time keeping up with its nimbler competition from Spain, Sweden, and Japan, and my efforts were resulting in an alarming number of pinched inner tubes. Seeing the writing on the wall, my older brother and riding partner Corky had elected to stop racing his own P11 and had instead begun to serve as my pit captain.

In one particularly long District 37 enduro that started east of Lucerne Valley at Soggy Dry Lake, I was enjoying an overdue decent day on the trail until I arrived at the furthest point from the pits on the third and final loop, where the rocky terrain once again got the better of the Norton’s rear tire. I had been riding on a late minute, and by the time my Avon was unceremoniously emptied of air, the sun was already well into its descent. Lacking the tools for a repair and the patience to wait for the sweep crew, I made the questionable decision to leave the trail and head back toward camp cross-country, via dead reckoning.

The abused tire behaved just long enough to get me well and truly into the middle of nowhere, at which point it promptly came off the rim and became entangled to the point that I was forced to stop. I piled some rocks under the Norton's skid plate, removed the rear wheel, and wrestled the rubber out of the swingarm, then resumed riding on the bare rim until it eventually started to crack. It was now clear that I would soon be stranded, and the sun was beginning to slip behind the Granite Mountains. With my options close to depleted, I decided to throw in the towel while I was still on relatively high ground (a ridge overlooking a nearby lakebed) and propped the Norton against a boulder.

The author prepares to start an enduro aboard his P11, both tires valiantly holding air for the time being.

The author prepares to start an enduro aboard his P11, both tires valiantly holding air for the time being.

As the final minutes of sunlight slipped away, I began clearing rocks from a flat spot next to the wounded P11, buttoned my riding jacket up to the neck, pulled my bandana over my nose like a bandit, and prepared to spend a chilly night in the desert. As I stretched out on my makeshift bed, trying to convince myself that it wasn't all that uncomfortable, something made me look up, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw a pair of distant headlights cutting through the night.

Blinking, I surmised that the vehicle belonging to those twin beams was driving across the adjacent expanse in my general direction! Moments later, I was hit by another, less comforting insight: “my general direction” wouldn't be good enough; even the degree or two that the unknown driver was off could be enough to thwart my salvation unless I took immediate action.

I scrambled to my feet and set off down the hill at a dead sprint, dodging like a running back as boulders and creosote bushes emerged from the surrounding blackness. After initially waving my arms and yelling at the top of my lungs as I ran, I noted that the vehicle’s pace and path were continuing unchecked and decided I was better off directing all of my rapidly dissipating energy to my nocturnal steeplechase.

The vehicle was moving at a brisk clip, and as I hit the base of the slope and set out galumphing across clear, level ground, I quickly ran some mental geometry and judged my chances of intersecting its path in time to be about 50/50. In order for the angle on which I had settled to work, the driver mustn’t increase his speed, nor must my own pace ebb.

Already my velocity was in jeopardy of flagging, my athletic performance restricted by heavy leather riding pants and boots. On the other hand, I was hardly lacking for inspiration, so while I no doubt cut a less-than-graceful figure, and my breath was now coming in desperate gasps, I arrived just in the nick of time, bursting into the periphery of the headlight beams at the final possible second and—with the last of my energy reserves—mustering a final spasm of bellowing and gesticulation. 

The startled driver slammed his brakes, and when he opened the door to see why a freak was unexpectedly splayed, panting, on his pickup truck’s hood, the interior light illuminated his face. Amazed, I saw that it was Corky, who had faithfully taken up the hopeless hunt after I failed to turn up back at camp. After I had caught my breath, Corky and I used a flashlight to find the abandoned Norton and roll it to the truck. Back at our camp trailer a couple hours later, I appreciatively climbed into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep, my slumber visited by dreams of brand-new open-class Japanese thumpers being rolled into my garage.

The father of Jonnum Media founder Chris Jonnum, Jerry is a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and former amateur off-road racer. Have a Moto Story you'd like help telling for free? Email chris@jonnummedia.com.