As I mentioned last week, in my youth I had the kind of trail riding skills that caused my friends to shake their heads in disbelief. Although, I was never sure whether they were shaking them because they were in awe of my skills or because they couldn’t believe that I survived. As I got older and more domesticated, my wife…er…I decided that there were better recreational opportunities available, so I stopped riding.
In 1999 I took a job working for Johnson Controls at one of their manufacturing plants in Goshen, Indiana. At first, it was simply a chance to return to manufacturing, which was and is the vocation that gets my engine running. I like making things. Soon, after being there only a short while, I realized what a good move I had made. JCI Goshen was a big plant filled with people who all had big hearts. To a person, they made me feel welcome from day one.
One of those people was a manager named Tony and he and I became good friends immediately. After a few conversations, I found that we shared an interest in trail riding. Actually, Tony and his son both rode motocross, which is several notches up on the scale from what I ever was. When Tony said he caught a little air, what he really meant was he jumped fifty feet across a dip in the track. Yes, he was really that good.
Tony never touted his superiority; he was too unpretentious for that. He just liked to ride and a few days after I started he asked me if I wanted to go out riding with him. He belonged to a club that owned some acreage near Goshen where they rode. The club members had spent a lot of time and effort building trails and jumps that provided a fun day for anyone who rode a bike. He didn’t have to ask twice; I was in.
Linda was still in South Carolina waiting for our home to sell and my first mistake was calling to tell her that I was going riding with an expert motocross racer on a custom designed trail. The conversation went something like this:
“You’re going to do what?”
“I’m going trail riding.”
“With a professional?”
“Amateurs are people who gently amble through the woods on a bike trying to avoid running over the flowers. He runs around a track at full speed trying to avoid landing on top of the people who can’t jump as well as he does. He’s a professional.”
“He’s a nice professional.”
“Oh good, then he’ll probably bring your broken body back to me for disposal.”
“I’m going riding.”
“Is your medical insurance in effect yet?”
“How about your life insurance?”
“Yes, that too.”
“Fine, ride all you want.”
The conversation ended soon after, but just before I went to sleep that night, I got an email from my son. It was short and to the point. He said, “I have dibs on your pickup and movie collection. Kristin can have the laptop and power tools. We’ll flip a coin over the pizza maker.”
Tony and I made plans to go riding after work that Thursday and he came to work with his bike and one of his son’s bikes loaded into his truck. I hadn’t come to Indiana prepared to go trailriding, but I did have a serviceable pair of boots and Tony was able to loan me the rest of the gear I needed. Work that Thursday was a blur. Every spare moment I had, I found myself drifting away to a place where the wind was in my face and my legs were jarred from landing rear wheel first as I jumped off a hill. Four o’clock couldn’t come soon enough.
By the time we got to the club site, I was almost shaking with excitement and it took Tony and me less than five minutes to get the two bikes unloaded, gassed up and ready to roll. Before we go any further, I just want to mention that, despite being four or five years older than I was, Tony was in much better shape
Tony hopped on his bike, put his foot on the kickstarter and lit the fire. It was a sweet sound and any restraint that I still had was gone. I went over to my bike, grabbed the handle bars, rolled it off of the stand and hopped.
This is where the first hitch occurred. Keep in mind that it had been fifteen years since I had been on a bike and that in those fifteen years my weight had blossomed a bit and my knees had hung out an “out of service” sign. My hop ended with the bike laying on its side and me falling on top of it. Chagrined, I scrambled free, righted the bike and tried again. This time I decided on a more cautious mount. I leaned the bike slightly towards me, planted my right foot and carefully lifted my left leg over the seat. I almost made it. Just as my leg got high enough to clear the seat my right knee locked and down I went again.
By now, Tony had killed his engine and dismounted. I thought that he was going to come over and say that maybe we should cancel the ride, but Tony was too classy for that. Instead he said, “Man, I should have warned you; that bike has special shocks and it sits really high. Wait a minute. I have a stool I use sometimes to get on.”
I flashed a sheepish grin at his white lie and nodded in agreement, silently grateful that Tony didn’t actually laugh. Tony retrieved a stool from the truck and I used it to get enough height to get on the bike. Once I mounted, things started to go better. Tony started his bike again, I started mine and we took off. He was watching me closely for a while; I think he was trying to see whether I truly did have any skills.
We rode some gentle trails at first and eventually broke into an open field filled with small to medium jumps. I got a little air on the first few and with each jump regained a little more of my confidence. By the time we hit the woods again I had made several good jumps and I was sure that I had my mojo back. Oh silly me.
After another half mile or so Tony opened his bike up and pulled away from me. As I looked ahead, I saw why. He was approaching a gully that was probably fifteen feet across and he was planning to jump it. He hit the rise, went airborne and landed on the other side with room to spare. I watched as he kept going after he landed and disappeared down a path into the trees. As I approached the gully, I slowed and then stopped completely to look at the jump.
When I was twenty-five, I would have taken the jump without a second thought. I might have taken it today if I hadn’t been smacked in the face by reality at the start of the ride. But sitting there on a bike, looking at the gully, common sense prevailed and I opted for the cautious route. Carefully, I rode the bike over the edge and down to the bottom of the gully. I had decided on survival.
What I didn’t know was that, except in the middle of a dry spell, that gully was typically mud a foot deep at the bottom. By the time I figured it out I had both wheels buried six inches. Normally that wouldn’t have been a big issue; anyone who trail rides is used to slogging through mud. The problem is that I went too slow and without the momentum I couldn’t dig my way through without muscling the bike around pretty seriously. There was that pesky knee problem again.
By now, Tony had returned to see where I was and it didn’t take long for him to figure out that I wasn’t crawling out of that quagmire by myself. He stopped his bike, dismounted and crawled down into the gully. “This is a tough one,” he said. “You go up to the top and I’ll ride it out.”
Embarrassed and dejected, I handed the bike over to him and watched as he started it back up and deftly rode it through the mud and up the other side. When he reached the top and stopped the engine, he handed it back to me. It was then that we both realized that my mounting stool was several miles away in the truck. Fortunately we found a downed tree that I could stand on to get on the bike and we continued the ride back to the truck.
When we got back, we loaded the bikes back up and made the short drive back to civilization. As we drove, Tony chattered on about what a good afternoon we’d had. For the most part he was right. But, despite the fun, there was also the epiphany that I wasn’t the invincible bike rider that I was when I was twenty.
As I revisit that memory, I’m reminded of the Toby Keith song where he sings, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” That may be true with most things I’ve done in my life, but trail riding…not so much. We never did go riding again. Tony mentioned it several times, but I always found a reason to decline. A man has to know his limitations. Eventually he stopped asking, so that was the last trail ride that I took.
Still, every time the neighborhood kids pop a wheelie in front of the house, I smile and think, “Maybe I have one good ride left.” Then my knee catches as I climb the steps to the porch and I think, “Maybe not.”