The longest day: 2 wheels on the summer solstice

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Tim Sample. (PHOTO BY KEVIN SAMPLE)
Tim Sample. (PHOTO BY KEVIN SAMPLE)

Back in 1974, former Beatle John Lennon scored his only U.S. number-one hit as a solo artist with an up-tempo tune, the chorus of which proclaimed, “Whatever gets you through the night… ’salright, ‘salright!”

It’s worth noting that, in the decades that followed, some of us learned the hard way that this particular musical prescription doesn’t always work out particularly well in real life. Then again, if you’re the sort of person who looks for deep philosophical insight in rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, it’s a lead-pipe cinch you’re going to have a few other issues to deal with.

In my case there was only ever one night which consistently brought on that soul-jarring, heart-pounding, “whatever gets me through” level of desperation. I want to be clear: What I’m talking about here is no mere abstract artistic metaphor. My nightmare is bone-chillingly real.

For me, December 21 is, was and probably always will be, the worst day of any given year for the simple reason that it is the time of the annual winter solstice. You know about the winter solstice, right? In case you don’t, it’s the nadir of old Sol’s appointed rounds, the shortest day of the entire year! Unfortunately, given our northeasterly GPS coordinates, here on the coast of Maine that translates into a paltry eight hours and 53 all-too-fleeting minutes, dawn to dusk.

Last year, as usual, my worst night arrived right on schedule in the middle of the afternoon. You heard me. On December 21, darkness fell with all the warmth, charm and brutal finality of a guillotine blade at 4:03 p.m. sharp! Moments later I found myself hunched anxiously over my office desk, Sharpie in hand, frantically scrawling “RIDE MOTORCYCLE FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET!!!” in big block letters across the calendar square for the 21st of June.

I suppose that desperate “note to self” was my way of implementing Lennon’s “whatever gets you through” survival strategy. I knew full well that I was grasping at straws—and pretty flimsy straws at that. But in that darkest of all possible hours it struck me as the only tool available to shore up my rapidly deteriorating mental faculties.

Looking back on it, I see that calendar entry as the emotional equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass to my future self, a valiant attempt to send some small fragment of my consciousness hurtling off into the light I so desperately needed to believe was waiting at the end of that hopelessly dark tunnel.

Whatever it was, it worked! I not only made it through the night but, one morning last week, the promised light of the summer solstice arrived in all its celestial glory. Precisely at 4:59 a.m. dawn broke across the eastern horizon. By then I’d already been up for a full hour and a half. I was working on my second cup of coffee, while my vintage Honda motorcycle, fresh from its annual physical at the local bike shop, sporting a fresh battery and a full tank of gas, sat idling in the driveway outside.

Donning my riding leathers I locked the kitchen door and a few moments later I was headed west on Route 25, ready to fulfill the promise I’d made to myself all those months ago. I planned to spend every glorious sun-drenched moment, all 55,560 continuous seconds of the longest day of the year riding my motorcycle through the spectacular New England countryside.

Even bundled in heavy riding gear, a full-face helmet and thick leather gloves, the early hours of my trek were a bit on the nippy side. But the weatherman was calling for sunshine all day long, so I figured that things just naturally had to warm up eventually. That’s what I figured. Unfortunately, I figured wrong.

Oh, sure, at some point in the early afternoon when I stopped for gas in Claremont, N.H., the temperature had made it to the mid-60s. But I hadn’t counted on a brisk northwest breeze whisking away any stray BTUs, and by the time I arrived in White River Junction, Vt., turned the bike around, and headed home, the thermometer was once more plummeting precipitously.

I don’t even want to know what the wind-chill factor is when it’s 52 degrees and I’m doing 60 mph. I do know that, after a hot bath and a good night’s sleep, I awakened the next morning feeling happier than I had any right to feel. Making a beeline for my desk, I opened my calendar and made an appointment to spend another 15 hours and 26 minutes the exact same way when next year’s summer solstice rolls around.

Tim Sample is a humorist, performer, and writer from Maine who has entertained Mainers and “people from away” for decades. He was the host of “Postcards from Maine” on CBS Sunday Morning. Visit www.TimSample.com to learn more.

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