Springtime is rough on me. Besides the yard work that’s always there after a long winter, there are also the constant reminders that my mind and body are no longer in sync about how to spend my free time in warm weather. Getting old is a bitch.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear the whine of a bike as one of the kids in the neighborhood rides by the house. Sometimes, when they see I’m watching, they’ll drop down a gear, goose the throttle and pop a wheelie. I smile when they do, because it takes me back over forty years to a time in Pennsylvania when my bike and two bucks worth of gas was all I needed to find absolute freedom.
When I was sixteen, the only thing between my house and the woods was an open field that I could cross in three minutes with the throttle wide open. Once there, a spider web of paths could take me anywhere I wanted to go. I really do mean anywhere because one of the paths led directly to the power line right-of-ways that crisscross through the state.
Technically, riding on the right-of-ways wasn’t allowed, but the reality was that, for someone to catch me, they’d have to be riding a trail bike too. Even then, they had to be good and their bike had to be nimble because I was good and I had a 185 cc Suzy that could climb up the rocky paths underneath the power lines like a sure-footed mountain goat.
One warm July day in 1971, I was headed for those right-of-ways. Just as I was getting ready to head out, my cousin Craig pulled into the drive. We talked a bit and then I suggested that he come with me on the ride. He had the time, so I pulled my old backup bike out of the shed, gassed it up and away we went.
Craig had never ridden on the kind of terrain that you find under the power lines in the Appalachian foothills, so I opted to go northwest which wasn’t quite as treacherous. We rode for hours and eventually reached a point where we could break off and ride on some more gentle forest trails. Eventually, we broke into an open field.
After hours of seldom getting out of first or second gear, the temptation of that flat, unobstructed field was just too much to resist. Craig and I both wound it up as we happily clicked our way through the gears. Craig was riding a 90 cc Honda that was more suited to climbing hills than flying across a field, so I steadily pulled away from him. About halfway through, I could see that there was a little rise just ahead and I had an overwhelming urge to catch some air. So I goosed the throttle just a bit more and hit the bump. Imagine my surprise to find an abandoned quarry on the other side.
Craig saw what was happening and he had just enough time and room to lay his bike down to avoid following me off of the edge. Time dilation being what it is, everything happened in slow motion. I went up, I saw the ground beneath me disappear and I fell. It seemed like it look minutes to hit the bottom. Craig saw it differently. He said it was a little like a Wiley Coyote cartoon. I went up, looked left, looked right, shrugged my shoulders and disappeared into the abyss.
My memory is that the quarry was about a thousand feet deep. Craig said that it was more like forty feet. Either way, survival was questionable. Looking back, the only thing that saved me was the fact that I landed smack in the middle of a five foot deep briar patch. That’s a good and bad thing. The good part is that I lived. The bad part is that I had to crawl twenty feet through briars to get out.
Within minutes, Craig had found what remained of the road that led to the bottom of the quarry and made his way over to me. By all appearances, nothing was broken and I didn’t have any internal injuries, so the task at hand was getting my bike out of the briar patch. Doing that took an hour with a pair of wire cutters that I carried in my tool kit (don’t ask) and, when we got it out, it was obvious that I had come through the fall better than my bike. Riding it home wasn’t an option.
Now children, you’ll find this hard to believe, but we didn’t have cell phones with us, mostly because there weren’t any cell phones. Our only option was for me to stay with the broken bike while Craig rode back to civilization and called home from a pay phone. Pay phones were telephones on poles or in booths that required you to put actual money in them before they would work. There was an option though. You could make a “collect call”, which was when you dialed zero for an operator (a person) and they called the number that you wanted and asked the recipient to pay for the call. How well that worked depended on whether the person you were calling knew you and whether they liked you. That’s probably why people, as a general rule, were more civil then.
It took Craig about an hour to find civilization and a pay phone. Obviously I wasn’t there, but I’m told that, when he called my house, my stepdad answered and the call went something like this.
“Hi Paul, this is Craig.”
“So the operator said.”
“Uh, Jerry had a little accident with his bike.”
“He rode off a cliff.”
“HE DID WHAT?”
“Well, actually he rode off of the top of a quarry.”
“Is he hurt?”
“Not so much, mostly cuts from crawling out of the briars, but the bike is in pretty bad shape.”
“Where are you?”
“OHIO. What the &#@% are you doing in Ohio?”
The rest of the conversation was a little intense, but eventually enough information was exchanged that my stepdad knew where to come and what to bring. The later included enough rope to reach to the bottom of the quarry. The bike had to get out somehow and riding it out wasn’t an option.
To his credit, my stepdad used the ninety minute ride to calm down a bit so, by the time he arrived, the odds of me experiencing additional physical pain were pretty much eliminated. Fortunately, so was the potential of casual conversation.
I was sitting on a downed log when Paul’s truck bounced down the old access road. He stopped, walked over to me and asked, ‘You alright?”
“Hmmpf. Well, let’s get the bike out.”
Craig and I just stood there looking at him. Finally, his eye brows raised, his arms extended with his palms up and he said, “The rope’s not going to tie itself on to the bike and, since I’m not crawling down to do it, that leaves you two.”
Craig and I scrambled down to the bike, tied on the rope and stood back. My stepdad tied the other end of the rope to his hitch, crawled into the truck and pulled forward. As he did, my sad little bike bounced and scraped its way from the bottom of the quarry to the top. When it was safely at the top we loaded it into the bed next to the Honda and headed home. It was a long and thankfully quiet ride.
For the most part, that finished my riding for that summer. Besides the inevitable sanctions I received from my Mom, it also took a good four months of work to get the Suzy back to riding condition. I learned a lot about being a bike mechanic that summer and when I did start riding again, I stayed closer to home.
If there’s a moral to this story, I suppose it’s that there are times in life when we break out of the woods and into a clear field. When those times come, it’s a good idea to know what lies ahead before you open up the throttle. If you don’t, you might get a nasty surprise.