Bad Day at Hanging Rock (Or, Memories of the Swamp Monster)

In the early 1970’s, much of  my motorcycling  was spent on my TS250 “dual sport”  exploring the backroads and in the woods around eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, but I often made forays into Ohio, particularly the abandoned strip mines at Hanging Rock across the Ohio River from Ashland. Here was a moonscape of ruined land, scraped and gouged by mining equipment for years until nothing of the original surface was left but jumbles of rock and earth piled in no apparent order along old gravel roads. There were ponds everywhere, some looking incongruously pristine in such a devastated setting, but most in some state of greenish decay. There were slurry dumps, where the wash water from the mining was ponded and left to evaporate, resulting in what looked like immense dry lake beds, flat, gray and cracked. My friend Mick, freshly returned from the conflict overseas, and I went to Hanging Rock frequently to satisfy his taste for “flat tracking” his Triumph 650 in long sideways slides on the graveled mine roads and my penchant for finding challenging riding  places amongst the rocks and shale.

On one such outing, I was prowling along a bank of tailings when I got the notion to ride out across one of the dried up slurry ponds. I was enamored of doing wheelies in those days and the long wide open flat expanse looked quite inviting for such silliness. I rolled out onto the cracked surface standing on the pegs, got up a little speed in second gear and hoisted the front wheel, picking up more speed and finding the balance point, that elusive spot where one could keep the wheel up in the air for as long as one wanted….sheer nirvana, until the bike disappeared underneath me.

There was a moment of weightlessness, a “does not compute” confusion, and then I found myself up to my armpits in stinking goo with only the handlebars of my TS 250 visible in front of me. The bike had broken through the cracked crust of the pond, which I could now see was only a few inches thick at this part, and fallen into the concentrated mire of whatever toxic stuff they’d washed off the coal a few generations ago. It was about the consistency of heavy gear oil and smelled much worse. For a moment I thought I was going on down, like one of those pith-helmeted explorers in the old jungle movies, caught in quicksand. Then I realized that my old Boy Scout manual had prepared me for just such an event (not likely that it was in their contemplation at the time) in that I could pull myself to the surface, spreading my weight out as if on thin ice, and crab-crawl to the firmer crust nearer the edge. By the time I got to a place where I could stand up, I was covered completely in the foul-smelling goo and mud and I was exhausted. I began to climb up the steep tailings bank to make my way back to the trailer to find Mick and devise a way to rescue my bike.

We weren’t the only ones who made use of the lonely strip mine roads. Teenagers often came out here to park in privacy for lessons in anatomy, physiology and bipedal mammalian hormonal influences. As I got to the top of the bank, drawing each noisy breath like it was my last, I emerged onto the road right beside a car in which such exploration was well in progress. I recall the look on the young lady’s face (her partner with his back to me obscured the rest of her except for her knees) as the mud splattered, helmeted creature, covered in oozing glop and groaning as if in torment, appeared in her view. She screamed, his head hit the roof of the car and my wheezing attempts at explanation were completely ignored. He vaulted over to the front seat, sans clothing, and the car accelerated away, spraying gravel to complete my sticky ensemble as his companion, still in the back seat looked at me in wide eyed horror through the rear window. I still wonder if they ever told that story to anyone….and if they did, who would have believed it.

I located Mick and we hatched a plan to use connected bike tie-down straps to pull out the Suzuki. We placed the Triumph on the hard surface at the edge. I crawled on my belly back out to the bike and hooked a strap around the center of the bars, between the clamps, and scuttled my way back to Mick.  With me pulling like a Volga boatman, we used the Triumph’s power to slowly pull the submerged 250 from the muck, looking like a prehistoric animal being dredged from the tar pits. The pull was hard enough to straighten out one of the strap hooks. We dragged it to the edge and then pushed it to the trailer for the ride home. Once there, I had to take the bike completely apart, finding foul-smelling muck in every possible crevice…and several places I would not have thought possible. While I had it apart, I hacksawed off the footpeg mounts and had them welded back a few inches, to make the bike easier to wheelie….I guess part of the lesson had escaped me.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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