Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Berlin Wall (or, Freakin’ Out, Part 2)

“Wall” in this case being a metaphorical barrier to dirt biking progress, and “Berlin” in this case being our track in Berlin, Vermont. The track is short, winding, and currently muddy, zigzagging through recently logged forest owned by Chris’s family. I believe we met Chris in my last blog post via total non sequitur, so let’s reintroduce him with another:

“It’s just like tennis!” says Chris, hurling a muddy rock the size of a rutabaga into a puddle in the middle of the woods.

“What kind of tennis have you been playing?” asks Greg, narrowly avoiding the backsplash.

This isn’t ONLY a surrealist performance, I swear--the puddle we are filling with rocks is a front-end-swallowing problem in the middle of the hero section. The past--and following--weekends will be filled with such expert trail work: we have my father’s Husquvarna chain saw with us, intended to remove some logging-generated pongee sticks in what has recently become our second field track, but none of us can figure out how to start it. Nonetheless, our caveman methods have rendered the original field track and hero section ridable, and once the last puddle is filled, we warm up our bikes.

Field tracks are not known for containing dealbreakers, but for some reason, Greg and Chris have included in this one a short, uphill swath of muddy logging road still partially covered with snow. I can’t get half-way up it without losing my front end, or my rear end, getting cross-rutted, hitting a tree, stalling out, or all of the above. After most of an hour spent absorbing roost from Chris and Greg while attempting to haul my bike out of this miserable abyss, I am more than ready to abandon the hobby and find some baby seals to club in my free time instead. Perhaps, I think, bench-pressing the KDX for the nth time, I could club them with Dad’s chainsaw, as it seems to be good for fuck-all else.

Greg and I return later in the week, hoping for better conditions after a string of warm days. Indeed, instead of being half mud and half snow, the track is now all mud. Greg says this is better, but I see no difference, and my performance on the sludgy uphill goes from poor to horrible. By sundown, Greg is looking at me like I am a one-woman minefield. Conceding that the mud is bad for my morale, we retreat to high ground for some wheelie practice.

On Greg’s instructions, I make a lap of the field, trying to compress my front end and then lift it with throttle on the rebound. This makes nothing happen, and Greg shouts bits of advice from his KTM. I attempt to put them into practice, but the proper coordination eludes me, and on my next go-round Greg is walking towards me, no doubt with some other helpful information that I’ll be unable to absorb--

“STOP!” I shout before he even opens his mouth. “Stop telling me things! I haven’t done what you told me to do last time, so how am I going to do what you’re going to tell me now? I just need to try it a thousand more times! More advice isn’t going to help if I don’t have time to DO anything with it!”

His reply dissolves as I whack the throttle. I circle the field again and again, kicking at the pegs and pulling on the handlebars. Greg is nowhere to be seen--I assume he is off riding the track again--but it is getting dark, and I am getting tired, and my wheelies, if possible, are getting worse. I should go find Greg, I think, and kill the engine to get an idea of his whereabouts.

The KDX sputters out, and I’m left standing in total silence. This makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, so I take off my helmet and listen harder. There’s a bird, somewhere, and a truck on the highway, but if the KTM is within a half-mile of me, it isn’t running. It’s a compact track--the only place I’d be unable to hear the bike is the back of the hero section, and it’s too muddy to ride there in the half-dark.

Greg is too good a rider to get hurt just tooling around, I think, and too smart to try anything stupid alone at this hour. But still, accidents happen... I kick the KDX to life again and make a slow lap of the field track: nobody home. I think of the pongee sticks in the second field track and begin to feel ill. I recall a story about someone from around here, found dead in the woods near his house--he went for an innocent backcountry ski, fell on a sharp branch, pried himself off it, and never made it home. Stuff like that gives you an imagination.

Back at the entrance to the track, I shut the bike off.

“GREG?” I shout.


I ditch my helmet with the bike and run through the second field track as fast as my boots will let me, then up the hill towards the hero section--

“GREG!” I call from the top of the rise.

Still nothing.

I scramble down into the valley where Greg, Chris and I filled the water crossings with rocks, start to climb up the other side, calling--but it’s pitch dark under the big pines, and near dark everywhere else, and we just took the headlight off the KDX because the mask was all busted--

Go back to the car, I tell myself, or you’ll be walking out of here.

Maybe, it begins to dawn on me as I fly down the logging road, maybe he got mad at me for yelling at him and went home. But the thought doesn’t stick--I yell all the time at everything, and he’s not spiteful enough to leave without telling me--or to leave at all, given I’m a new rider and flip the bike on myself every other second. We came in two cars, I remember--if the Element is gone when I get to the parking lot, all is well, but if it’s still there... Time to call the police.

I skid into the last, precipitous descent with my ass on the back fender and my heart in my throat. From the parking lot, I see a glimmer of light through the trees--

It’s the Element. We left the tailgate open.

“OH MY GOD,” I yell. My rear tire finds traction on flat ground, the KDX slows--and from behind me swerves Greg, helmetless and in street clothes on the KTM, looking at me like I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?” I say, and without waiting for a response, gas the KDX into the garage, park it, and slam the sliding door on my way out.

Greg runs after me as I war-path back to the car. “I went back to the car and changed,” he says, “but you never showed up and was getting dark, so I went looking for you.”

“I thought you were still on the track,” I say. “I was running around the whole fucking thing because I thought you were fucking DEAD.”

At this, he pauses.

“I thought you didn’t want me around anymore. You told me to go away, so I went away.”

“I didn’t tell you to go away. I told you to stop telling me things so I could practice what you already told me.”

At this point, my field of vision is beginning to change from red to the soothing purple-blue of late evening, and Greg, in this light, looks... like he needs a hug. I give him one, and remember that I’ve been wanting to hug him for a while. This sort of thing, I think, has got to stop.

We are back a few days later, our relationship mended and the safety-orange chainsaw once again in tow--Dad showed us how to start it, and that means trouble for the pongee sticks. The new field track is a nightmare for me at first--one downhill, off-camber turn flips me face-first onto a stump every time. I am making an effort to swear less and be nicer to Greg, and to keep my eyes from popping out of my head because of this, I take to viciously kicking my skidplate whenever I see it facing the sun, which is often.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Greg asks, watching this performance.

I rotate the KDX 180 degrees on its y-axis, then 180 degrees on its x-axis, then carry on.

By the middle of the week, it is drier, legitimately--the horrible muddy hill doesn’t deflect my front wheel at all as I fly through it standing on the pegs in third gear, and the field track is getting grippy and fun. At one point, I whip a rear brake slide into a smooth 180-degree turn--perhaps the long hours I spent watching supercross in the bar all winter haven’t been in vain! I make one perfect lap, then we ride the track backwards and I get TWO perfect laps. I am feeling cocky enough at this point to add in the section we have been skipping, a swampy, footpeg-deep rut leading uphill to an equally rutted step-up, almost vertical and about as tall as the bike. On the second try, I make it, courtesy of a mostly accidental clutch wheelie. I slide in total disorder around the birm immediately following, somehow stay on the bike over the next tiny jump, and buzz across the field to where Greg is waiting, feeling cautiously triumphant.

“You looked like you were having fun out there,” Greg tells me over dirty martinis at our local, overpriced, hippie pizza joint an hour later. “I can tell because you were hooning it around the turns. You’ve never done that before.”

“Never done what--had fun?”

“No, hooned it around the turns,” Greg says. “I HOPE you’ve had fun!”

Perhaps it is just the effects of the martini, or the effects of the passing of mud season, but I can’t help feeling relieved. Maybe the worst is behind me, I think--meaning the part where you spend more time under the bike than on it, and even when you’re not falling, nothing feels comfortable or natural enough to let you relax, go fast and enjoy the ride. And maybe that’s only true for me on this one short, fairly smooth track, and in dry weather--but at this point, I’ll take whatever I can get.