Nasty, Brutish, and Loud
Hop on (HUH?), rev up (WHAT?!), and take a trip (I can't HEAR YOU!) deep into the hillbilly heart of West Virginia, where gas-huffin' ATV motorheads churn through the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Areaa private preserve devoted to the joys and sorrows of four-wheeling. (ARRRRGHHH!)
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BACK WHEN THEY WERE COURTING—back before their garage in McConnell, West Virginia, was filled with two monster all-terrain vehicles and three teeny-weeny ones—Bruce and Kim Browning used to go riding together. Just the two of them, squeezed close on Bruce’s old Suzuki LT 500. Kim’s hands laced Bruce’s belly, Bruce’s thumb worked the throttle, the aroma of gasoline danced about them, and they rolled through the hills.
“We’d go up a holler near where my mom lived,” recalls Bruce, a 34-year-old manager for a mining replacement parts company, “and we’d ride around for a while, and then we’d get hungry or whatever and we’d basically go somewhere where we knew a little store was and we’d get some pop and some chips, like that, and then we’d head back.”
“And it was real pretty up in those hills,” says Kim. “I miss riding like that.”
Kim, 29, has not had a single day off from mom duty in five years, which is why this afternoon’s ramble through the jagged hills is so sweet. The Brownings have enlisted Kim’s mom to baby-sit so that they can attend the grand opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area, a 360-mile trail system that will eventually expand to more than 2,000 miles and could well become the Disneyland of outdoor motorized recreation.
There are other trail networks, but as ATV Connection, an independent online newsletter, puts it, the Hatfield-McCoy represents “the dawning of a new trail renaissance.” The Hatfield- McCoy Recreation Authority, created by the West Virginia legislature in March 1998 as a public corporation—in this case, a nonprofit whose 19 employees oversee the trail system and work for the citizenry—has paid close attention to the needs of your average ATV user. Field technicians spent a full year whacking through native oak, hickory, and poplar stands in Mingo and Logan Counties, widening existing outlaw ATV tracks, and smoothing old coal-mining and logging roads to create trails that are famously, ferociously steep. The authority’s hopes are high: to draw more than 600,000 visitors a year and, by 2005, to have a network of trails sprawling over eight counties.
On this warm early-autumn weekend, 300 red-blooded Americans are already on hand. The Super 8 in nearby Logan is full, and the Speedway Super America over in Man has been doing a brisk business in glazed crullers and pigs-in-a-blanket. The Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Authority will be hosting a free pig roast, and the City of Logan is staging an ATV Tug-of-War and a Poker Run, which involves contestants gathering playing cards from dealers at checkpoints in the woods. License plates from 15 states—some from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts— are represented in the parking lot at Bear Wallow, the most popular of the Hatfield-McCoy trailheads.
Right now, though, my attention is fixed on Bruce, who is engaged in a jaw-dropping feat: a four-wheel assault on a 100-foot-high pile of coal tailings.
The heap is absurdly steep, curving elliptically up to almost vertical, like a skateboard ramp. As Bruce climbs its flanks, his motor screeching, flecks of coal spitting from his tires, there is a very real chance that his four-wheeler will pop up, roll back, and crush him. This does not seem to worry him. He has won the ATV Amateur National Hill-Climbing Championships two years running. He rides standing straight up, his head canted forward like the prow of a Viking warship.
“That boy’s crazy!” one onlooker hoots.
“Kim’s gonna be a four-wheel widow!” shouts another.
The jeering goes on for maybe 15 seconds. Then, a few feet from the top, Bruce spins out in the rubble. His four-wheeler slips sideways, and the shouting stops. For a moment it seems as though we’re all watching a film in slow motion. He’s way up there on a hot red Honda 440 EX racing quad, bouncing on the shocks, trying to jostle and shimmy his way out of peril, and rocks are cascading down all around him. Shove. Twist. Squirm. Somehow he gets himself facing downhill. But does he slink back to terra firma? No. He just descends a few yards, turns around, and goes at it again. And this time he makes it—barely.
“He got lucky now, didn’t he?” someone says.
Kim unclenches her jaw. “He’s a showoff,” she says, “but I can’t stop him. He loves to climb, and he’s very good at it. I’m proud of him.”
YAMAHA RAPTOR. HONDA RUBICON. Polaris Sportsman 500. Kawasaki Mojave. Suzuki King Quad 4×4.
In 2000, 734,000 all-terrain vehicles were sold in the United States. The ATV industry—whose biggest players include Honda, Yamaha, Polaris, and Kawasaki—aims to crack the million mark by 2004, and the hope is not unrealistic. The sale of ATVs has risen 120 percent since 1997, and the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an Irvine, California-based trade group representing nine top manufacturers, is laboring ardently to keep that number trending upward. In 2001, it put roughly 43,000 people through its free half-day ATV Ridercourse.
Then there’s the BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents 600,000 U.S. motor-sports enthusiasts, all in the off-road-vehicle (ORV) category, from ATVers, snowmobilers, and jet skiers to motorcyclists and dune buggyists. The Coalition has a simple message for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: “This land is ours,” it trumpets on its Web site (www.sharetrails.org). “We ride safely. We are courteous toward other users. We care about conservation. Yet environmental extremists continue their attacks. With emotional hysteria.”
Founded in 1988 and based in Pocatello, Idaho, the BlueRibbon Coalition is funded mostly by mom-and-pop ORV dealers, though in the early nineties it also got financial support from corporations that shared its desire for wilderness access—Exxon, for instance, and Chevron, and Boise-Cascade. At present its constituency is hoping that Congress will authorize the construction of the Great Western Trail, a 4,455-mile off-road corridor zigzagging from Montana down through Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona. It’s not a pipe dream. The BLM already offers ATVers unlimited access to 36 percent of its lands (and limited access to another 45 percent). The Forest Service, which currently allows ATVs on 60,000 miles of unclassified “ghost roads” out of the 445,000 miles of roads it oversees, published a study in 2000 embracing the Great Western Trail concept.
And the Bush administration is pro-ORV. Interior Secretary Gale Norton suspended Clinton-era bans on jet skiing at four national parks last year and is now lending a sympathetic ear to motorheads fighting a Park Service proposal to ban snowmobiling in national parks. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management has welcomed ATVs and other motorized vehicles onto eight of the 20 national monuments Clinton designated during his presidency. Ironically, in the latest political turnabout, Utah governor Michael Leavitt announced in January that he would ask President Bush to use the Antiquities Act—as Clinton did— to turn the red-rock backcountry of the San Rafael Swell into a 620,000-acre national monument accessible to off-road vehicles. Under President Bush, “there’s been definite improvements in the treatment of ORV recreationists,” says BlueRibbon Coalition executive director Clark Collins.
The prophets of eco-doom are, of course, shrieking, and also jockeying to influence the BLM and the Forest Service, both of which will revise their respective off-road policies one region at a time over the coming decade. For starters, the Wilderness Society alleges that ATVs are ripping trees and wildflowers from the hills of Kentucky, muddying the sparse streams of New Mexico, scaring grizzlies and wolves in Montana, and mercilessly crushing slower creatures, such as the endangered desert tortoise in California.
In May 2000, the Wilderness Society and the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads joined with Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the Bluewater Network, and 80 other environmental, hunting, and animal-rights groups to form the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. This alliance is now urging the Forest Service and the BLM to keep ORVs on designated trails and out of riparian zones, as well as areas that the agencies have short-listed for wilderness designation. It also wants the Forest Service to resurrect the so-called 40-inch rule, officially dropped in 1990, which banned ORVs wider than 40 inches—meaning most of today’s ATV rigs—from singletrack trails. One NTWC affiliate, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is currently waging a lawsuit in federal court in Utah, arguing that the BLM has illegally allowed ORVs to rampage through prospective wilderness areas, neglected to update its land-management plans to account for burgeoning ORV use, and broken its promise to close areas already ravaged by ORVs.
“Off-road vehicles are out of control on our public lands,” says Scott Kovarovics, director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. “Every year, manufacturers make them bigger and more able to go anywhere, over anything. They are destroying the backcountry worse than ever before.”
BlueRibbon honcho Collins vows that his group will counter its environmental foes by “riding responsibly.” “We will continue to be good citizens,” he says. But sometimes his allies resort to distinctly un-Gandhian forms of civil disobedience. This past Thanksgiving, 190,000 ATV and dune-buggy enthusiasts invaded Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, about 150 miles east of San Diego, for a long weekend of racing and raucous partying; by the time it was over, 220 people were injured, 70 were arrested, and three died. In November 1999, in the desert near El Centro, California, a group of ATV riders vented their feelings about restrictive regulations by stealing the keys to a BLM-owned four-wheeler and then heaving full cans of beer at a group of police and BLM rangers. Twenty people were arrested. Two months before that, four ATVers turned themselves in to Forest Service rangers in Blanding, Utah, after being photographed motoring through a prospective wilderness area.
“We were legally breaking the law,” said Joe Lyman, one of the riders and a member of Southern Utah Land Users, an ORV access group. “But we didn’t feel we were doing anything wrong morally.”
I DECIDED THAT it would probably not be a good idea to show up in West Virginia wearing my Birkenstocks and humming “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I went instead with an open mind, as a novitiate in search of an ATV guru.
Luckily, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America hooked me up with a brilliant instructor. Would it be too much to call Bob Johnson, the 47-year-old West Virginia native who guided me through the fiery hoops of my ATV initiation, my moral compass? I think not. For amid the perils and surging testosterone of the ATV universe, Bob showed me how to ride and play safe—and he did this without ever uttering anything sharper than “Now, you’re a-takin’ to this four-wheeling like a duck to water, aren’t ya?”
Bob is six-foot-six and balding, with a ruddy face that often eases into a grin. He rides just about every day, wearing a Valvoline windbreaker and a baseball cap with a little pin that reads “God Loves You And So Do I.” He has exquisite poise. A retired West Virginia state trooper disabled by a spine-torquing car crash, he pilots his Honda 300 with his back gracefully still and erect. He glides over trails with magisterial slowness, rarely exceeding 15 miles an hour. He is, at all times, cool. When I asked him what he did for a living, he said, “I’m an artist. I’m just a-settin’ on the porch, drawing a check.”
Bob gave me my first lesson a few days before the Hatfield-McCoy officially opened. His instructions were spare. “This here,” he said, pointing at the handlebars on the $6,500, 500cc Polaris Sportsman a dealer had lent me, “is your gas. This here’s your brake.” I turned the key, rotated the throttle, and kick-started my quad into gear.
I drove in a straight line through the parking lot at the Bear Wallow Trailhead, then over some gravel bumps, then in huge, sweeping, undulant turns. I felt the mad spattering of rocks under my wheels. I felt the handlebars vibrate. I felt a deep surge of confidence, rooted, I think, in the fact that my tires were brand-new—pegged, still, with those little black, stringy nubbins. After ten minutes, I found that it was extremely fun to do donuts, to whirl in tight circles so that a cyclone of dust rose around me. I whirled six or eight times, then hit the gas and whipped sharply out of the cloud. I felt like a badass mofo. I was ready.
Riding into the Hatfield-McCoy can be an uneasy trip into Appalachia’s hard-bitten past and not-so-bright future. To begin with, the name comes from the bloody late-19th-century feud between the Hatfield and McCoy clans, who lived and fought along the Tug Fork River on the nearby border with Kentucky. And no sooner had Bob and I left the trailhead than we came upon the crumbling, kudzu-covered remnants of Ethyl, a former mining camp abandoned about 50 years ago. Bob looped left, up a hill, and I followed. Now we were on Blair Mountain, the very ridgeline where the two-year-long West Virginia Mine War reached its ignominious end in September 1921, with President Warren G. Harding calling in more than 2,150 U.S. Army troops and the 88th Light Bombing Air Squadron. Ever since, the coal country of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky has been an inland colony dependent on out-of-state corporations.
In recent years, this region—which forms the heart of Appalachia—has waged a desperate campaign to make money. In 1991, for instance, McDowell County, on the southern edge of the state, flirted with Capels Resources Inc., a Philadelphia company that proposed to fill 800-acre Lick Branch Hollow with 3.5 million tons of garbage from New York City and New Jersey. (The plan never got off the ground.) Since then, the region has become the world leader in a super-efficient, super-reviled form of coal mining known as “mountaintop removal.” Coal-rich peaks are simply blasted apart, denuding and leveling thousands of highland acres at a time, and the rocky wreckage is then dumped into local streams.
It sounds perverse, but in such a landscape, the Hatfield-McCoy represents a relatively clean source of cash. Leff Moore, who works in Charleston as a lobbyist for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, calls it “environmentally friendly, an improvement to the flora and fauna.” If anyone can be called the Father of the Hatfield-McCoy, it is he. A husky, ebullient 57-year-old, Moore first envisioned an ATV trail system in West Virginia in 1989, when he suggested to the Forest Service that it open the Monongahela National Forest to ORVs. The Forest Service didn’t cotton to the idea, but Moore was undeterred. “I realized that well over 50 percent of southern West Virginia is owned by a handful of land companies that lease to coal and timber extractors,” he told me. “I thought, ‘What if we got their permission to ride?”
The SVIA and the Motorcycle Industry Council thought Moore was onto something, so in 1991 they hired him to make the Hatfield-McCoy a reality. Moore began by approaching the Pocahontas Land Company and the Dingess-Rum Land Company, southern West Virginia’s largest landowners. His sales pitch was fairly simple: Since the locals were already careening all over their corporate turf, swilling beer and attempting Evel Knievel-style leaps over downed logs, they constituted a liability suit waiting to happen. If the companies allowed these rough-hewn paths to be cleaned up and transformed into a trail park managed by some form of state recreation authority, well then, the authority would become the liable party. Moore also reasoned that a world-class ATV park might actually lure tourists and businesses to southern West Virginia, in which case Pocahontas’s and Dingess-Rum’s tax burden would drop.
The land companies bit, and Moore was soon able to find some allies in the state legislature, especially when he called its attention to a 1996 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report. Noting the popularity of the West’s two premier ATV havens—Utah’s 260-mile Paiute Trail and the Silver Country Trail, a 1,000-mile snowmobile and ATV network straddling the Idaho-Montana border—the Corps projected that the Hatfield-McCoy could potentially create 3,200 new jobs and pump an estimated $107 million annually into the West Virginia economy. A case of irrational exuberance? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the legislature was impressed. In 1998, it pledged $1 million to develop the trails. Two years later, the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Authority was up and running. The state, through the clever use of private land, had created an ATV safe zone peripheral to the larger eco-war.
Still, environmentalists shuddered. Jim Sconyers, former staff director of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, sardonically calls the Hatfield-McCoy “somebody’s brainstorm—a way to fuck up the environment and get away with it.” Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a Bend, Oregon-based backcountry advocacy group, and a man who has been fighting ATVs for over a decade, was a little more grave. “They’re looking to sacrifice southern West Virginia,” he told me. “They want to turn it into a Mad Max hell zone.”
AND SO INTO THE HELL ZONE I RODE. Midway up Blair Mountain, Bob and I encountered a guy who’d just rolled his quad and tumbled headlong into a ditch. He was Steve Green, 33, a machinist from Butler, Pennsylvania. He wore a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt that blared, “If you can read this, the bitch fell off!” He was limping. I asked if he was OK.
“Didn’t hurt at all,” he said. “Loosened me up. Just got a few nice scratches on my helmet, that’s it.”
Steve had come down for the weekend with two of his older brothers, Tom and Ron. Both were standing off to the side, chomping on venison jerky as Steve hobbled around. Tom offered Bob and me some jerky, and we killed our engines and listened as the Greens related the joys of ATV riding. “This is what guys who work in the mills do to unwind,” Ron said. “It keeps you from driving the wife crazy.” They spoke of touring back roads in search of taverns, of scouting for wild boar, of a friend who busted his CV joint deep in the woods. “He had to ride the rest of the day with his back wheel strapped to the quad with a bungee cord,” marveled Steve.
Bob remained silent, but he apprehended the manly tenor of the conversation. After a while, he broke in, offering a little West Virginia hospitality. “I don’t know what y’all are looking for,” he said to the Greens, “but there is a boobie bar in Logan.”
Giddy schoolboy laughter wafted through the forest. It was time to mount up. Bob and I headed back down to the trailhead as the Greens rampaged away, heading for one of the Hatfield-McCoy’s ugliest obstacles, a three-foot-deep mud bog that had been sucking riders Grendel-like into its muck all afternoon.
Ron got stuck almost immediately, he told me later that night in his room at the Logan Super 8. “The bike disappeared underwater,” he said. “All you could see was the front rack. I had to get my buddy to winch it out.” Ron was so disgusted that that very afternoon he traded in his 2000 Polaris Magnum 325, with only 200 miles on it, for a 2001 Polaris Scrambler 500, a lightweight banshee of a racing machine. The new vehicle glowed beneath the lights in the Super 8 parking lot. It was candy-apple red, with a needle- nose front end and the aerodynamic lines of a midget Corvette. It had all the attributes of a superior ATV: four-wheel drive, hydraulic disc brakes, automatic transmission, and a burly suspension system featuring thick red 10.5-inch Fox Shox. All in all, with the trade-in, it cost Ron $1,700.
When I caught up with Ron, the Brothers Green were between visits to Sheer Fantasy III, the boobie bar. Ah, but they had tales to tell. There was in Logan a certain stripper named Rose, who for a small tip would pluck the hat off a customer’s head and rub it in her crotch. “When we go back,” Steve assured me, grinning, “I’m wearing a hat.”
I SLEPT IN MY CLOTHES that night. When I awoke, the Sunday-morning sun stung my eyes. I assumed that the day would, in time, offer some mercy from my hangover, some softer splendor. But I found no reprieve. I meandered into Uncle Sam’s pawn shop in Man, the next town over. On the glass counter there was a curt one-sentence petition to “stop the Hatfield-McCoy Trail from taking the local trails that have been used for the past 30 years.” Another petition, signed by 30 people, demanded that the Hatfield-McCoy be closed during hunting season. Neither bore any hint of an author or organization, and neither voiced any criticism of ATVs. When I asked the clerk standing by the gun case who was behind the petitions, he refused to say.
This laissez-faire attitude toward ATVs is what makes the situation in West Virginia so idiosyncratic. In almost every other region of the country, hikers, kayakers, and climbers are intent on silencing the loud motors of the ATVs, jet skis, dune buggies, and snowmobiles that shatter their Thoreauvian reveries. They wage their anti-ORV campaign in part by citing a host of grisly statistics. In 2000, 218 Americans were killed in ATV accidents and 95,300 people were sent to the emergency room. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than a third of those injured were 16 years old or younger.
American flora and fauna have come in for harsh treatment, too. According to the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition, jet skis dump a gallon of gas directly into the water for every four gallons they burn; swamp buggies have carved 23,000 miles of muddy trails into Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve; and in Yellowstone National Park, 66,000 snowmobiles invade each winter, belching carbon-monoxide-laden exhaust and drowning out the steamy gush of Old Faithful with the whine of their engines.
The word that environmentalists use when discussing ATVs is “damage.” The word that many West Virginians use is “horsepower.”
After I left Uncle Sam’s, I went to the Hatfield-McCoy inaugural pig roast and met some of the disgruntled folks who’d signed the petitions, among them Roger Morrow, a 51-year-old tattoo artist and auto mechanic from Logan who’d been riding the local trails since the late eighties. Morrow had come to commune with kinfolk (his wife is a McCoy). “They’re making us pay to ride the trails,” he said. “Twenty-five dollars a year—and we built half those trails. We pulled the logs up and threw down rocks to fill in the ditches. And you can’t drink on the trails now, and you can’t camp and you can’t build yourself a fire pit. If you want to sit around and tell stories at night, you can’t. You gotta go to a state park and be packed in with all these…strangers.”
Others complained about the ban on double-heading, the practice of two people riding on one ATV. But it was 90-year-old Robert Seay who posed the most cogent rebuke against the Hatfield-McCoy. Seay was bone-thin, with a stooped back, white hair, and piercing blue eyes, and he carried a freshly cut sourwood cane, which he occasionally raised—either to pantomime the beating he wanted to give a certain Polaris dealer (Seay’s a Yamaha man) or to add emphasis to his hoary pronouncements. He pointed it at a distant hillside. “They’re calling that hollow up there Browning Fork,” he said, alluding to the official trail map. “Now, I was born and raised here, and I worked as a coal miner for 42 years. I knew [Hatfield patriarch] Devil Anse’s grandson. I put electric heat in his house! And I’m telling you, I never heard that name in all my life. Browning Fork? That hollow’s Rockhouse. Where did these people come from?”
The cane was whitish-yellow and crooked, with a small triangular handle Seay had carved out of a deer antler, and when he finished his speech, he just let it hang there in the sky, quavering.
A FEW HOURS LATER, at the Poker Run, I met Jamey Thompson. Jamey is, was, and shall be many things—a former Marine Corps urban sniper, a 180-pound karate black belt, a corrections officer at the Logan County jail, and a veritable sage on the way ATVs should be driven through the hills of his homeland. But he is best known for an egregious youthful blunder. In 1992, after a man beat up a friend of his, Jamey bit a chunk off the man’s nose. He was charged with felonious assault and avoided imprisonment only by promising the judge that he’d enlist in the Marines.
Jamey, who is 32, was sitting on the tailgate of a friend’s pickup, sipping a can of Bud Light and professing how nighttime was the right time to go four-wheeling. “There’s just something about having a machine and a female in the dark that puts you in the mood,” he said. After a few more beers, he became so thrilled with the prospect of a night ride that he pulled out his cell phone and called his 20-year-old girlfriend, Beth. “I love you,” he cooed. Then he clicked off and stepped toward me, eyes gleaming. “Yeah, I’m gonna get some poontang tonight.”
Jamey invited me along. But when he picked me up at my motel at 10 p.m., I was a little apprehensive. Beth was with him, along with his cousin Kevin, a case of beer, and several sticks of Ted Nugent Biltong Beef Jerky. (“Gonzo meat,” read the label, “Flamethrower” flavor.) Jamey advised Beth to refrain from wearing a helmet, arguing, “If you wear a helmet, how you gonna drink beer?”
We rode. To get to the Hatfield-McCoy trails, we first had to ascend an ancient three-mile path up Peach Creek Hollow. Known only to locals, Peach Creek is quite possibly the nastiest trail in Logan County. Not only is it steep and full of sharp turns, but it abuts a 150-foot drop- off and its surface tilts laterally toward the edge. Jamey was double-heading with Beth, and when we arrived at the base of the trail, he stopped and spoke to me in a strangely serious tone. “Remember to downshift,” he said.
Then he gunned forward, mad for momentum, rattling over the rocks, skirting the edge of the cliff, heaving his chest at the handlebars. I followed, standing up, shivering. Jamey’s headlamps flickered as he and Beth climbed impossibly high. The woods screamed with noise. I rounded a turn, and in the murky light, way up the hill, I saw Beth pitch off the back of the quad. That was enough for me. I got off and began walking, still wearing my helmet.
Twenty minutes later, after Jamey, snickering, delivered my four-wheeler to the summit, I was still shaking. There came a faint noise in the distance—more ATVs, it sounded like. “Fucking pot growers,” Jamey hissed. “A couple weeks ago, they killed three people up on these trails—hung ’em in the trees. There’s shallow graves all over this place.” The noise grew louder. “Fucking inbreeders!” he blurted. “Beth, get my pistol.”
It was all B.S., of course, except that Jamey really did have a gun in his backpack, as well as a high-power light capable, he claimed, of spotting a deer a mile away. He demonstrated its strength by flicking it toward my face.
We pressed on—down a short hill, up a ridge. The night air was crisp, the woods silvery beneath an almost-full moon. Jamey wore a purple bandanna knotted pirate-style over his hair. He let out war whoops. He tossed empties into the woods. He threatened to shoot a hole in a power transformer we rode by.
And then, a little after midnight, just before we descended a long hill into Logan, he stopped to take a leak and celebrate the essence of night riding. “Freedom!” he shouted. “It’s just you, your machine, and your friends!” He grabbed a fresh beer and looked over at me. “If you wasn’t here, we’d be flying,” he said. “I’ll tell you straight out, Bill, you’re a shitty rider. You suck.”
I NEEDED BOB. I needed his gentle ways, his serene guidance. Early the next morning I met him at his house outside Man for a purifying ride. We were bound for a nearby strip-mined hilltop where, Bob promised, “it’s so pretty you can talk to God and you don’t even have to call long distance.” Bob’s preacher, David Fisher, was coming along. Fisher, 49, is pastor of the Claypool United Methodist Church in Man. He has a white beard and wears wire-rim glasses. When we met, he’d just come from Hardee’s, where he’d partaken of his “daily biscuit.”
We started our quads, then whirred along the quiet streets near Bob’s home and through the clear eddies of a creek before beginning to climb Wylo Ridge. It was steep, and the trail was awash in loose golf-ball-size rocks. “A lot of weight on the front of the vee-hi-cle now,” Bob said, “and go slow.”
We crawled, but the trail became steeper and steeper, and my sense that I was safe in a warm cocoon spun by Bob’s wisdom began to fade. The fear that I’d felt on my night ride with Jamey jittered through me anew, and I remembered what can happen when you flip a quad on a hill: It pitches back. It lands on you. It snaps your spine. I became so terrified of flipping my quad that, in fact, I did flip it. I hit a rock, halted, then hit the gas a bit too abruptly. The front wheels lurched skyward. I bailed off the back, and as I ran, the quad reared up on its haunches. It tipped backward and slammed into the earth, first with its handlebars, then with its black, ugly tires. It rolled a full revolution before bashing into a sapling. There it stopped, its engine thrumming, its handlebars mangled.
I waited for Bob. When he arrived, he stood there puzzling over the damage. “Well,” he said finally, “it’ll still drive. You just gotta kind of point the handlebars to the side a bit.”
I let Bob drive my wreck. I climbed onto his, and the rest of the ride was quite pleasant. The ridgetop was lovely, a vast field of vetch grass bending in the soft breeze beneath a cloudless blue sky. I felt so happy to be there, so happy to be breathing exhaust in the mountains. I knew what the preacher meant when he patted his quad and said, “These things are a blessing. You can get back to nature with them, and God created nature for the enjoyment of the people.” Jesus Christ himself might have benefited from an ATV, he added. “He would’ve gone 35 miles an hour across the desert on one of these. He could have evangelized the known world!”
Perhaps. But when Bob called me a few weeks later with the inevitable question, I had come out of my ATV reverie. “So,” he said. “Do you think you’re going to buy yourself a four-wheeler?” “Maybe next year,” I said. I was being polite.