Thursday, July 06, 2006
Imaginary Helmet Science
About two months ago, in Lafayette, Indiana...
“Here’s a few very simple suggestions: Never go faster than you’re comfortable with, always slow down before making a sharp turn or before a blind spot, and if you get lost, stay put and wait for one of us to come find you. Think you can handle it, Steve?”
“Yeah, come on, let’s go!”
It seemed like forever since I’d been invited somewhere. Well, that’s not true. I get invited to campouts, vacations, road trips, and waterslide parks with baffling frequency. I generally brush off such invitations, for any number of reasons, the most common being financial. I’m a monetary disaster, cycling between payday advance scams, floating checks at the grocery store, and borrowing from my employers. I can’t accept an invitation to go downstate and barbecue steaks and burn old tires when I have seventeen cents to contribute. That’s embarrassing and pathetic. So I excuse myself, claiming severe incontinence, or bleeding toenails, or whatever. My roommates have taken to labeling me agoraphobic. I shouldn’t have taught them that word.
This time was different. The summer was just beginning, I was feeling restless, and I had a few bones to burn. This rare confluence of personal elements was rare, like an eclipse. Additionally, I wouldn’t have to drive my deathtrap automobile any significant distance, and finally, I would get to ride a four wheeler around a forest. Cool. I Accepted.
I had never driven an all-terrain vehicle before. Ever since a frightening motorcycle ride when I was six, I’ve been leery of motorized vehicles whose passengers are unenclosed. I’ve always imagined myself crashing, my flailing body ejecting skyward, eventually descending to meet the pavement where it bounces, not once, but over and over, and at each bounce I leave another piece of myself behind, so that a casual pedestrian following my trail would first see a smear of bloody skin, then some scalp, then a foot, then an intestine, meters apart, one red clump after another. I would spread out like wet taffy.
After twenty years of this appetizing scene visiting my brain every time a motorcycle passed, I welcomed the chance to erase my preconceptions. Sure, ATVs are slower, there’s little or no traffic in the forest, and the risks are more manageable than that of, say, a neon green Kawasaki rocketing down the highway at ninety miles per hour, but I allowed myself the illusion that I was conquering my fears, standing true, being a man. Yeah.
Before mounting the vehicle, one last gem of wisdom was imparted to me:
“Oh yeah! Most important rule. Put your safety before the four wheeler’s. If you’re gonna crash, bail the fuck out. Do not hesitate. Get off the fucking thing. This activity can be dangerous and you can die. So be prepared to jump if it becomes necessary. Okay?”
There were three other riders and two vehicles, so we went out in pairs. Each riding partner took me on progressively tougher trails. The first time out, we stuck to pastures and wide trails. The second time out, tight trails with low hanging tree branches, steep inclines, and tight turns. All went well. On my last ride out, my partner put me on a steep learning curve. He zoomed far beyond me, daring me to keep up the pace. I was flying about, faster and faster, taking turns tightly, engaging in risky maneuvers. I began crossing creek beds. Six foot nearly vertical drops sheathed shallow rocky streams. It was like driving down and up the letter V. I got to enjoying the splashes and lack of traction.
I got too giddy. Racing fast to close the gap between the other rider and myself, I sped up as I approached a deep culvert. This particular wet ditch had a concrete pipe running down the center, and it wasn’t until I got very near that I saw it and realized my peril. I knew that if I hit that concrete racing at this speed, my ATV’s front end would buckle as the back end rose, and the heavy monster would flip and land atop me, mangling my fragile flesh, pulverizing my brittle bones. I panicked. I pushed the brakes. Unfortunately, in my muscle-clench freakout, I also squeezed the throttle. The net result:
I sped up to nearly 40 mph. Full speed.
I was wrong about what would happen when I hit the pipe. No flip, no pancake crush. Instead, the ATV launched into the sky, striking a massive tree aside the trail. I, sensibly enough, bailed off before the impact. I flew fifteen feet in the air before landing. I didn’t bounce, as my imagination had indicated. Instead I rolled, picking up wood chips and gravel like I was covered in adhesive. My left knee shouted bloody murder and my skin fled my legs, leaving patriotic stripes.
But I was okay. The other rider did not see the impact, but he heard a gut-curdling scream that caused him to look back. All he saw was this: me, airborne, eyes as big as baseballs, arms cartwheeling, mouth open. The ATV, spinning in mid-air, above me, then in front of me, then bouncing away sideways. He said I looked funny in midair.
We walked back and looked at the tree. There was a big chunk of bark missing, which we later found embedded in the wheel. I was lucky, as that bark could’ve been jammed up my nose if I hadn’t leapt for luck.
My heart was pounding, adrenaline was burning up my nerves, and new pores were birthing upon my skin. I felt alive. Bloody, damaged, and elated. My hosts limped me back to our campsite, where they fed me beer and told me about their magnificent lawyers. I promised them I’m not the lawsuit type. I even offered to pay for the repair, hoping desperately they wouldn’t actually want the money. Two months later, they still haven’t assessed the damage cost, but when they do, I’ll find a way to pay.
Maybe I learned something on that Saturday. Maybe I supported my theory that open-air velocity is a fearsome and foolish activity, that bad things happen when hesitant people pilot fast and fickle machinery. No. What I learned was this: Danger is fun! Injury is thrilling! What’s the fucking phone number for that fucking bungee/skydive outfit?
I’m thinking about a stealing a motorcycle now.
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