It's a funny old world. Since Mike inspired, encouraged, cajoled and convinced me to write a story for his Rally for Rangers fund raising challenge, I find myself living more and more in the past. Memories, some from more than fifty years ago, have begun waltzing unchecked through the mosh pit of my mind. Even my dreams the last few nights have included my Mom and Dad and others long gone from the earth. They all seem so fully present, vibrant and engaged. Only the dream world can suspend the linear passage of time in favour of random wanderings. In the morning when I look in the mirror it is sometimes a surprise to find that the inner image of self is so unglued from the reality of the present. My reflection looks me square in the eyes and asks what the hell happened?
After a lifetime in Northern Ontario, Lynn and I moved to the Okanagan Valley in November to retire. This is supposed to be Canada's California. Winter so mellow that dirt biking is supposed to be possible in practically every month of the year. Turns out that this year is the worst winter in years. Could have stayed in the north and saved the moving expense. The good news is that all this story writing activity has put me back in touch with my old friend Gord Martin. Gord is heading out to the Phoenix area, where he has a winter residence, to do some riding next month. My new plan is to haul our fifth wheel toy hauler out there and find an RV park close by and do some riding with Gord. If anyone reading this wants to come out and join us, our toy hauler sleeps 6 comfortably.
Gord and I were discussing how dirt biking influenced and shaped who we became in life. There are many life lessons and hidden benefits to being a lifelong dirt bike rider. For me it is the one thing that I have remained unflinchingly passionate about since day one. By comparison, after 35 years and many thousands of hours of bush flying, I never think about flying anymore. In fact it would not bother me one way or the other if I never flew again. But I think about riding all the time. And at my age I wonder and often worry about when l will have to stop.
So I thought I would share a few adventures and lessons learned over the years.
Sometime in the early 80s four of five of us went out for a road ride as we often did to cool off after pounding laps at the Charleston motocross track. The two local iron ore mines had been recently shuttered and various gates and road blocks had been installed to keep people off of mine property. Obviously this was an open invitation for us. The entire area of the mines offered the finest obstacles, dangers and challenges imaginable. Miles of dirt roads festooned with huge towering gravel banks and steep slag piles sat abandoned and ready for play. Rail road lines carved through long, dark, bed rock tunnels drew us like moths to flame. In the early 80s before the buildings were dismantled and removed, we found a way inside and rode throughout the interior of the massive pellet plant building itself. I had worked there until it closed in 1979 and had always fantasied about riding in that building. It was a blast! We rode up conveyer belts to great heights, climbed up and down steel stairways and tore around and around on the concrete walk ways. The very places where I had experienced the drudgery of work I was now experiencing the joy of play. It was transcendent.
A few kilometers away and requiring a short ride down the active rail line was the Atikokan ski hill. Riding on the railroad tracks is always interesting. Especially the active rail line where you could be overtaken by, or meet a moving train. The trick is to ride on the foot long section of tie just outside the rail. One must get up to a good steady speed before the ride smooths out. Granted, the margin for error is small and the penalty of failure is exceedingly high, however once you get used to it you can zip along in top gear for miles like this. Once arriving at the hill we enjoyed racing up and down the various ski runs and after a while took a break. At this point one of us (probably me but I forget) came up with a brilliant new game idea. We were clever that way when we were young. The idea was to launch the bike down the very steepest section engine off, transmission in neutral. It was a game of chicken whereby the winner was the one who hit the brakes last. The near vertical incline of the launch area was optimal and allowed for rapid unaided acceleration using only the force of gravity. At the bottom of the hill stood the shack that housed the workings of the ski lift. The idea was to not touch the brakes until the very last second but still stop before hitting the shack. Mike won the last to brake game hands down that day. He hit that plywood shack so hard it came right off its foundation. We all rushed down to find Mike moaning and thrashing about on the ground. He had knocked the wind out of himself and so had difficulty communicating his particular complaint. He was whispering something in a voice like a dying man. I bent my ear to his lips and heard him say those true dirt biker words "my bike, check my bike."
We always carried tools with us and were soon able to straighten his bike out enough that he could ride it home. Mike limped around for a few days and his bruised ribs made him whimper when you made him laugh, but he was riding again in a week or so. I have wondered over the years what the ski hill crew imagined could have shifted the building from its moorings like that. The lesson here is an important one. Knowing one's personal limitations with regard to judgment and risk assessment are essential to personal growth. Life lessons received through painful experience are often easiest to remember. The best lessons often translate well into the fabric of daily life.
Sometimes however, due to the curse often referred to as the "human condition" lessons need to be relearned. Each spring over the last few years the Cox brothers, their kids and any friends daring enough, meet up for a dirt biking vacation in Merritt BC. A couple of years ago we were all geared up to head up the mountain. I imagined that as the older brother it therefore fell to me to be the wise voice of caution and to present a safety lecture to the group. "The import thing guys, is to take it easy the first day" "Let's all just get to know the area and not do anything too risky" I was rewarded with a rousing litany of ya ya ya from my fellow riders and away we went.
Mike was riding nephew Michaels new Yamaha YZ450F for the first time. This bike was a fire breathing beast. It had great gobs of arm stretching power. It should be noted that Mike hadn't ridden at all in over a year and it was his first time on a 450. It was a well-mannered machine as far as suspension and handling goes and granted Mike does have a well-developed skill set, but it could fairly be argued that good decision making was on the decline from the outset.
The riding area known locally as the "bench" presents an early challenge. Riders have to climb the precipitous base of the mountain for a couple of kilometers in order to access the alpine areas above where the good riding begins. It involves navigating a winding technically demanding track up a steep, snaking trail strewn with loose sand, rounded cobble and washouts. At around the half way point you come to a near vertical debris field littered with boulders, random stumps and broken trees that ascends 500 meters directly up into the alpine. Achieving this hill climb would allow for circumventing the snaking trail. It has been climbed successfully from time to time by certain skilled riders in the past. However, the trail while quite challenging, is far and away the safer option.
To be fair, Mike misinterpreted a cue from Pat who was merely pointing up at the gigantic washout for the purpose of having us all observe its menacing nastiness and marvel at the fact there are indeed riders who would be so foolish as to try it. But Mike thought he was being encouraged to give it a shot, so he did. That big 450 snorted and Mike went blasting by. The rest of us stared horrified and transfixed as Mike navigated over and around the most formidable obstacles and rapidly ascended that colossal mountain spillway. Three quarters of the way up he started losing traction and so too his forward momentum. At this point the safe thing would be to just lay the bike down and step away. But no. Oh no, that would have been a sign of weakness. Mike knocked it down into first gear and pinned it.
By some miracle he was able to wheelie up and maneuver 90 degrees laterally. He was now aimed towards a stump and boulder infested washout that would easily swallow up an elephant. He actually shot over that section of debris in a most remarkable manner! A roaring chorus of wow and holy shit emanated from the mesmerised spectators below. But now, much like at the ski hill years before, Mike entered into a rapid, unrestrained, gravity driven decent.
It was something to behold as he held on tight right until the bitter end. What terminated this daring display of technical prowess was a ricochet off of a massive log laying across the decent patch at a geometrically pleasing 45 degree angle. This had the effect of launching bike and rider both skyward and askew. It goes without saying that a fall from great height while already nearly vertical anyway, well nothing good can ever come of that. Mike hit the turf, flipped and bounced a couple times and then the bike, seemingly having remained aloft in order to locate his position, landed right on top of him. More flipping and bouncing by the two of them continued unabated for some time.
You should have heard him whimper when you made him laugh after that!
Mike wrote his own account of this same incident. Be sure to check it out.
I think this story was worth a heck of a lot more than the price of admission. If you have a few dollars earmarked for charity, please consider Rally for Rangers using the button below.