Involuntary Immersion

Haspin Acres, in scenic Laurel, Indiana, bills itself as "750 acres of wooded hills and trails for your use and enjoyment," and welcomes "anyone who is looking to have a great time being safe and getting dirty!" This is an accurate assessment of the offerings, since the hundreds of miles of trails and two -- count 'em, two -- motocross tracks, complete with jumps and everything, ensure you'll have fun and the one -- count it, one -- big creek running through the center ensures you'll get dirty.

Tom and I arrived on Sunday at around 1:00. Last year, we brought my bike as well, and Tom's was wearing street tires, but this time we wised up. Pulled in with a knobby-shod Suzuki DR350, mounted to the back of a Chevy Trailblazer support vehicle, complete with two toolboxes and a cooler stocked with ice water. Stepped out of the truck in a shiny yellow Aerostich suit, stuffed to the gills with impact-resistant padding and abrasion-resistant fabric panels. You'd have thought we knew what we were doing or something.

After seeing me ride off for the first couple yards, though, you'd have known different. It was my first time on knobby tires, and darn near my first time on real dirt. So unlike the indestructible pre-teens who zoomed hither and yon astride their purpose-built, featherweight dirt bikes and 4-wheelers, many dressed only in shorts and a tank top plus sneakers and a helmet, I proceeded with caution.

The ruts and channels in the battered surface of the park bore little resemblance to even the worst paved road you ever drove on, with random criss-crossing grooves a foot deep or more, and with every application of the throttle I had to decide whether to dodge the next rut or ride in it. All while dodging trees and branches. In unfamiliar territory. On completely unmarked trails. Some featuring blind turns and two-story drop-offs. Or jeep-sized mudpits (see picture of what happened to somebody else) with the consistency of tar. And a section called "Devil's Backbone."

I was exploring alone, as well, partially because Tom and I were taking turns on the bike, having only one truly dirt-worthy mount between us, and partially because Tom -- in a completely uncharacteristic equipment oversight -- forgot his helmet.

So while Captain Kline headed out to town in search of some cranial protection, I wandered the woods on the DR. I kept seeing other riders in the distance, or sometimes buzzing past in big dusty herds, and couldn't help noticing they were all covered in dirt. And though I was having a lot of fun testing my skills on ever-steeper and narrower paths, crawling up root-strewn ascents with my newfound knobby-enhanced traction, I was gleaming clean still and knew I wouldn't be doing any hardcore mudding like those guys.

No, thanks, I'll just stick to the dry trails and the high ground, ambling around by my lonesome until Tom gets back for his turn. No sweat.

After about 45 minutes, of course, I was hopelessly lost. Having fruitlessly flagged down a line of ATVers in hopes of being pointed toward the entrance ("No, we don't really know either. We just ride.") I got myself stranded in a low-lying bowl of dirt, into which three or four tributaries of the creek seemed to flow. Every way out except the way I came in would involve fording a stream at least a foot wide, something I wasn't sure the DR or my riding skills were up to. And the way I came in was too steep for the bike to climb -- it had been almost too deep for the brakes to even slow the bike on the way down.

But what are you gonna do, you know?

I assessed the most welcoming approach and gassed the bike in that direction. I had to thread the tires between a couple of muddy pools, which didn't seem to present much difficulty. What would be tough was to get up enough speed to make it up the hill and out.

This turned out not to be an issue, though, since I lost traction somewhere between the puddles, tried to put a foot down to steady the bike, realized I'd just stepped into maybe 20 inches of mud and splashed down into said puddle -- bike, suit, helmet and all.

The funny thing was that it didn't hurt at all: the mud was so forgiving it was like falling into bed. Except that once I had done it I was lying on my side with a running motorcycle on top of me. (Pretty though it may be, in its own, battered and brutal way, it turns out I *would* kick that Suzuki out of bed. If I could.) I struggled to get the bike upright, my feet refusing to budge from the muck. It took half my strength just to extricate myself, leaving little to use in the wrestling match against 300 lbs of slippery metal and plastic.

I half worried someone would come by and see me, and half worried they wouldn't.

Eventually, though, through sheer desperation I think, I managed to get it back up on two wheels again. And somehow I swung a mud-caked leg back over it and it miraculously started right back up and we scaled the wall of dirt to ride back out of my predicament. My entire right side was saturated with creek sediment, as was the bike's bodywork, frame, handlebars and slowly steaming muffler. Sorry, Tom.

What I noticed, though, was what a relief the fall had been. Now that I'd gone down, now that I was dirty, I had nothing left to lose. (Well, my life I suppose, if I were to foolishly plonk off the crest of one of those ravines or something, but it's no good to dwell on these things.)

After I was dirty, the ride was even more fun. I knew what it felt like to topple, and had mastered my procedure for righting the bike, and even learned a little about some on-the-bike techniques for avoiding spills in the first place. (Dragging the back brake, for instance, lets you go a little slower while still keeping the engine revving and the suspension settled, making long, bumpy descents and tight turns considerably easier.)

By then Tom was almost back, though, so I eventually found my way out. My secret: just keep looking for bigger and bigger trails (the path *more* traveled by, as it were -- sorry Robert Frost) and don't head down into any more gulches.

The mud was drying in my leg hair, gluing my socks to the skin. Owie.

But once I got back Tom was ready to go. Fearless Thomas hopped on, sped off and proceeded to discover parts of the place I didn't even notice on the map. He jumped the edges of hills, checked out the motocross track and even crashed the bike quite spectacularly, flipping over the handlebars and rolling in the dirt like he was born to do it. Here's a picture from right before it happened, when he's landed the poor bike and compressed the suspension all the way:

(You can even see the waterproof videocamera mounted to his handlebars -- it's that black cylinder that looks like an enormous half-smoked stogie.) And, perhaps most heroically of all, he got video of the whole incident:

And after that I noticed *he* was having a lot more fun too. The crashes didn't make us meeker or more cautious; if anything they showed us that going down doesn't kill you and a little dirt never hurt anybody.

Which is what made me think about, of all things, Veda. I remembered being so scared of her at first... so worried she'd cry or squirm or just shatter in my hands that I could barely exhale until Penny took her. But now that she's almost three months old (three months old!), I know I can play with her until her "talking" takes on a certain frustrated tone, and I can carry her a certain way to prevent barfage, and I know that smiling at her now will usually make her smile back. So I get to play with her.

Something could go wrong, of course... she could cry in such a way that I couldn't stop her in time, and escalate into a full meltdown. She could barf all over me anyway, despite my occasionally nice clothes and hesitance to twirl her around my head until she's had at least one healthy burp, or she could squirm suddenly and almost make me drop her.

All those things are possibilities. But now that most of them have happened, and I had a chance (well, no choice, to be 100% accurate here) to figure out how to deal with each calamity as it comes, there's a lot less to worry about, and she's a lot more fun. If she freaks out I'll try holding her across my chest with her arm down under mine and her head lodged into my inner elbow. If she barfs I'll carry her upstairs and clean her up and change her clothes. If she squirms I'll have anticipated it and will have a secure grip on our fragile little squirt already.

It'll all work out just fine.

The bike will start back up again. The baby will calm back down again. If you fall down you'll get back up. And, dirty as you may be, you'll continue on down the trail.

Now, I'm not likening my daughter to a 1997 Suzuki on-off-road bike. For one thing, the sounds that come out of her tailpipe are distinctly quieter and more effeminate.

But I will say that off-roading is at least a bit like parenting -- it's scary at first, until you just try it, and then it's still challenging but actually kind of fun in its own way. And the better you get, the better you feel.

Oh, and there's a good chance you'll end up covered in something you never intended to touch. But you know what? You'll live. You might even enjoy it.

Thanks for the outing, Tom. And the lesson. (Oh, and the coolest picture of me ever taken. That was a nice bonus too.)


Hello, I'm Ryan Noel. said...

It's good to have a dirty dirt biker friend to live vicariously through.

Magnoliawhispers said...

Insane and makes me queasy. Did you play mud puddles as a kid?

-T- said...

Rock on.