Thursday, September 09, 2010

City Girl in The Dirt

Campaigner was an ‘83 R80st, BMW’s short-lived, streetified variant of the dual sport R80GS. She spent most of her life getting flogged around on the streets of D.C., (a true city girl at heart) but once in a while, she got the chance to feel the grass beneath her wheels and get off-road for a bit.

The ST’s rear wheel came on and off easily (like a car’s wheel, by way of three nuts) and I had a spare rim fitted with a knobby tire for just such opportunities. From time to time we mounted the knobby and took her to Windy Hill, the eight acres of rolling, hilly open land in the Shenandoah Valley where my mother lived.

In the grassy fields, the kids would ride in front of me, holding onto the tank bag, or behind me, depending on where they fit better at the time. We would rip madly from one corner of the field to the other, dashing wildly up and down the slopes without worries of traffic or other distractions, only bothered by the clouds of grasshoppers we disturbed en route. Solo, I would practice J-turns and power slides, occasionally going arse-over-teakettle into the weeds, but never getting so much as a bruise.

Across the way from Windy Hill, prominent to the northeast, was a big hill—or maybe a small mountain. It rose about five or six hundred feet from its base in the valley at Ida to a wooded summit. A wide swath of this hillside was pastureland, and broad strip of open space ran up the hillside most of the way to the top.
I couldn’t look at that hillside without wondering what it was like to sit at the wood’s edge, along the top of that long alpine-looking pasture, and see the view back to where I stood. So one summer afternoon, I took Campaigner and we went to the weathered farmhouse at the base of the hill to introduce ourselves.

I told the old man who stood in the farmyard I was the son of the woman who lived across the road. Whether he knew her or not, I can’t recall. But I explained my interest in exploring his hillside, and he didn’t seem to mind—at the moment, most of his cattle were occupied elsewhere. As long as I didn’t make any trouble and closed the gates on my way through, I was free to go up the hill.

I thanked him and promised to respect his property. I think, truth is, he was kinda tickled to see us there. He sure seemed to take a shine to Campaigner in a crooked-grinning-John-Deere-Cap-removing-head-scratching sorta way. I suspect he may have been recalling a long-lost motorcycle adventure from the shadow of the past as I rode off.

Now, putting a knobby tire on an 800cc BMW doesn’t qualify it as a ‘dirt bike,’ any more than putting a Viking hat on a puppy lets it sing Wagner. For one thing, it’s a big bike, and the suspension lacks the travel serious off-roading demands. But it has loads of torque at low speeds, and it’s fairly nimble overall; it still had the original wide bars, so controlling it was easy. With this in mind, I slowly made my way through the dusty farmyard, getting the feel of the place, and paused to open the metal gate leading to the pasture—and to the hillside I had admired from afar so many times.

Closing the gate behind me, I paused to take in the view and envision my line to the top. The flat field let to a series of gentle rises, undulating and building towards the last stretch—a long, uninterrupted run up the hillside to the treeline.

The grass was cropped short by the grazing cattle; this made the contours of the land conspicuous, and it was mostly a matter of picking my way between various natural and man-made obstacles: roots, rocks and tree stumps, abandoned equipment and fenceposts. As I gained speed, I stood up on the footpegs in true off-road fashion, letting my legs absorb the rise and fall of the terrain. Campaigner eagerly ate up the rolling ground, and shortly we were riding a dirt rollercoaster with abandon, gradually working our way back and forth across the broad slope.

The perfect line to the top began presenting itself. The pasture opened up in a straight shot all the way to where the grass petered out and the trees began—some five hundred feet in elevation from where we started. One more small rise to cross, then we’re home free.

I kept my eyes on the long line towards the summit as we crossed that small rise.

Only it wasn’t a small rise.

It was a ravine. A deep ravine, hidden by the lay of the land.

I watched in slow motion, waiting for—for the earth to come back, I guess. Instead, it kept falling away without revealing a bottom. Or so it seemed for the eternity I was poised there. I noted with detachment the collection of old appliance dumped there: several refrigerators and freezers, washers and dryers, lying haphazardly where they were dumped countless years before. Their colors: white, pastel pink, pastel green, rusty brown; each representing the epitome of fashion for the era from which it was expelled.

Just before Campaigner’s rear tire cleared the ground, I grabbed a great big honking fistful of throttle, and gassed her into space; she pitched up and flung herself across. We hit the far side with the front tire on flat ground, the rear tire frantically clawing earth. I came down on the gas tank hard enough for it to knock the wind out of me, and held on for dear life until I knew we were on solid ground. 

Heart pounding and metallic taste in the back of my mouth, I paused safely past the edge, still standing on the pegs. I never did actually see the bottom of the ravine—cluttered with debris as it was—but at that moment I knew if I had started falling, I never would have stopped.

I was still only halfway up the hillside, with most of the intriguing open strip still above me. I caught my breath, stood on the pegs again and began to pick my way up the hill.

Hillsides are wildly fractal affairs. The smooth, delicate surface they present from a distance reveals itself, on closer examination, to be as rugged and tortured as their parent mountains, just on a different scale. The ravine was an example; the broad open space I saw from afar was in fact, rough, eroded terrain, littered with rocks, stumps and lumpy hillocks of tuft grasses.

We made our way slowly—never getting out of second gear—making little more than a walking pace for the rest of the climb. Where the pasture turned to forest, the ground was scattered with random chunks of logs, remnants from some-long ago clearing effort. My line dwindled to little more than a vague footpath before ending where the logs encroached for good.

At this point, there was no mistaking an R80st for a real dirt bike. Campaigner could go no further. Stopping, I dismounted, propped one hot cylinder head against a log and shut off the engine. I sat on the ground and stretched out my legs as the bike cooled, snapping a few pictures from this exalted vantage point. The hillock where Windy Hill sat just a stone's throw away looked very small and very flat from here. Trees hid the house from view, but parts of the drive, the garden and the fields were plain to see. I swept the crystalline vista that spread before me—Ida…Windy Hill…Stanley…Massanutten…New Market Gap…Little North Mountain and the Alleghenies, stretching far off to the hazy southwest.

I had accomplished what I set out to do—to explore the beckoning hillside and once there, to see what I could see. On the way up, I learned a little bit about off-road riding, and some other ‘life lessons’ that I squirreled away—like something about ‘looking before leaping’ and ‘making assumptions’ and ‘keeping your eye on the ball’ and so forth.

The return trip, following a decent interval, was calm and uneventful; mostly low-gear riding that let the engine to do the braking. I cut a wide swath around the hidden ravine, and saw a different slice of the hillside on the reverse trip. Sore and tired, I paused once again at the gate, then rode the short distance back up to Windy Hill, to continue the important business of showing the kids what motorcycles are all about. 

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