Dirt Rag Magazine

2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘A Break in the Weather’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


A Break in the Weather

By Thomas Gada

Running in the summer feels like failure. It’s a missed opportunity to ride. But come winter, my perspective changes. While I never enjoy running, I accept it during the cold months. I’m often told a fat bike is the solution I’m looking for, but in reality its oversized tires won’t lengthen the short days so that I can keep riding before work or make me more tolerant of sub-20 degree weather. So I run. I run to stay in shape. I run so that I’ll be ready when the weather breaks.

If there’s a good thing about my reluctant morning jogs, it’s that I can let my mind wander in a way I can’t when I’m picking my way through a twisting singletrack. As my feet pound the pavement, I look forward to the adventures warmer weather and a winter spent tuning my bike will bring. But today, the salt-stained streets and icy patches on the sidewalk remind me that this is not the first time I’ve waited for winter to loosen its icy grip long enough for me to sneak onto the trails.

My ongoing feud with old man winter started when I was just a kid. I got my first mountain bike in 1988 for Christmas, during a time when most of my 12-year-old friends were hoping to see a new BMX under the tree. But not me. I had wanted a mountain bike since I had witnessed my older brother and his friends return from a ride with mud-splattered smiling faces the previous summer.

That Christmas, I woke to find a Mongoose Switchback waiting for me, and it was glorious. Twelve speeds, 1.5-inch tires, and upright handlebars complete with puffy foam grips. Hardly a mountain bike by today’s standards, but to me it represented endless possibilities. Despite the bitter cold, I had to take it for a spin.

I didn’t know where to pick up my local trails, but that was okay—they would be covered with snow. And to be honest, I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle them yet. Instead, I hit the neighborhood’s biggest hill, eager to see what my 12 speeds could do. Clumsily shifting my bike into the lowest gear, I spun my legs until they were jean-clad blurs. I was a bit perplexed as to why it was taking so long to get to the top, but that was okay. I knew I’d figure it out eventually. I was far more concerned with the adventures to come—I just needed to get through winter.

By the time I got home, I was struggling to brake and operate the above-bar thumb shifters with numb hands. I hobbled in, stiffened by the cold. “I loved it,” I mumbled enthusiastically to my mom through frozen lips. That night, and every night after, I dreamt of leaving the pavement behind.

Winter seemed to drag on, but I didn’t stop. Weekends or after school, I’d hop on the Switchback and see how far I could go. Then it finally happened. A few warm days melted much of the snow. The temperature quickly dipped again, but not before two previously hidden ruts carved into the frozen ground revealed themselves, winding away from the paved roads of the civilized world. A stubborn layer of snow clung to the ground, but I was sure I could ride it. I felt ready.

I stepped off my bike and lifted it over the curb.

My heart seemed to hammer against my ribs as I bounced down the doubletrack into the thickening trees. The trail dipped toward a pond. I paused to take in the sight. As silly as it seemed, the discovery was intoxicating. None of my friends knew it was here, and I wouldn’t have either without my new bike.

The trail meandered up a small hill. After a few tractionless spins, I realized the knobs on my tires were more for show than function. I got off and walked. The snow instantly penetrated my sneakers, numbing my already cold feet.

Eventually, the crude ruts connected to a crushed gravel dirt road. A plow had come through at some point, but left behind a compressed layer of beige snow. Even though it wasn’t a trail, it also wasn’t pavement, and I was eager to continue my exploration. The road twisted past some lonely summer cottages that overlooked a lake covered with ice that looked more like glass. The sand on the empty beach swallowed my tires as I pedaled past the unused lifeguard chair. My world was growing.
Then I came to the hill.

This was like no hill I’d seen before. Dirt, steep and punctuated with ice and snow. Technically it met the minimum requirement for being called a road, but just barely. There was nothing on it—no houses or driveways, no mailboxes or trashcans waiting for pickup. Just trees to my left, a stream babbling somewhere down a hill to my right. I needed to see where it led.

I began rolling. That’s when I first learned about different wheel sizes. By today’s standards, 26-inch wheels are small. To a kid just coming off a BMX, they’re wagon wheels. My bike gained momentum with startling ease. I flew down the hill with no idea how to handle a bike. My ass was firmly planted in the seat. Every bump radiated through my spine. My arms were locked like steel. Beneath my gloves, my knuckles must have been whiter than the snow.

Something in my mind started to tell me to slow down, but a voice in my heart talked over it. Just a little faster, it begged.

Cold snaked up my sleeves, leaving my arms red and angry. The cuffs of my jeans snapped against my cranks. My ears burned, even beneath my wool hat. Tears streamed from my eyes as I sped down the hill beneath a ceiling of overhanging pine trees.

Logically, I have to assume I’ve topped the speed I reached that afternoon many times over the years. All I know is that I’ve never felt like I’ve gone that fast again. But who knows? Maybe my finest moment on the trail was my first.

Then, I was on the ground, skidding across the dirt and snow. I suppose it was good that it happened so quickly; there was no time to be scared. Rocks and gravel bit my icy skin through layers of clothing. My bike skipped over the hardened dirt, grinding to a stop a few feet away.

I instantly realized how reckless I had been. Snowy and stung, I scrambled to grab my bike and get us both to safety on the side of the road.

The Switchback didn’t look new anymore. The pristine white paint was chipped in places, and the plastic front brake lever was dangling from its cable. My heart broke.

I began coasting down the hill again, this time feathering my rear brake to control my speed. The dirt road eventually turned to pavement. Sights began to look familiar. I soon realized I was near a friend’s house who lived in an entirely different neighborhood. The discovery of this secret new route softened the blow of the damage I had done to my bike. Just like my brother and his friends, I was an explorer. My pulse quickened at the thought.

Before I could revel in my accomplishment, I had to deal with my mom. I had nagged her for a new bike for months, then I crashed it after a few weeks of ownership. But as I pedaled closer to home, I realized something: it was worth it. Sure, I had dinged up my bike, but I also learned something. I learned what not to do. I learned something about limits and common sense. But I also learned about the exhilaration that could come with mountain biking and discovery.

I walked into my house and pulled off my hat with a gloved hand.

“How was the ride?” My mom asked. “You were gone long.”

“Amazing,” I told her. Then I proceeded to tell her a sanitized version of my story, with the crash occurring due to black ice, not my stupidity. She wasn’t happy, but I gladly dealt with the consequences. After all, I had lived an adventure. I hadn’t just watched one on TV or read about it. That was certainly worth a few stern words.

The next weekend I was at the bike shop getting my lever replaced. I asked for something metal—the first step in a lifelong upgrading obsession. Milling around the shop while they did the repair, I noticed big mushroom-like helmets on the shelf. Everyone in the magazines I’d been reading wore them. None of my friends had one, but I wasn’t like them anymore. I needed one. My mom happily footed the bill.

It’s funny. Not much has changed. I love riding in the winter, but I simply don’t get as many opportunities as I’d like. Running keeps me in shape better than those rides around the block, but it’s admittedly a poor substitute. While it gets my blood pumping from a fitness perspective, it doesn’t get my blood pumping with thrill of adventure.

The fact is, when I’m out there shuffling along on those short winter days, I smell the same frozen air as when I was a kid dreaming of doing great things on my Switchback. The cold bite on my cheeks—that’s the same, too. So if a break in the weather comes next week or next month, I’ll be ready to pounce. In the meantime, I listen to my footfalls on the frozen sidewalk and let my imagination go wild, reliving past adventures and plotting future ones.

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘Dear Mom’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


Dear Mom

Words by Paul Lowe

Dear Mom,

Sorry it has been so long since I last wrote. Life as a new recruit in the Resistance has been hectic. When they attacked two years ago I didn’t know what to do. I am finally old enough (or at least they think I’m old enough) to fight back and I have the most important job, I’m a courier. I’ll be 18 next year and that might be too late because the war may be over before then, so what’s the difference if they think I’m 18 or not. I know you wouldn’t approve but I feel that I have to do this. If I just sit back and do nothing the Invaders will come for me anyway. We may ultimately lose, but at least we’ll go down with a fight.

The Resistance has set up a defense along the foothills of the Front Range. My job is to bring messages to the front and back. Right now I take messages from Kenosha Pass to the F.O.B. at Waterton Canyon via the Colorado Trail. I turned in my downhill bike for a 29er cross-country bike. I needed a bike that could get me across long distances faster because we are the only way the Resistance leaders can communicate with each other.

Without power, information moves slowly but rumors run rampant. A rumor I have heard often (which makes me think it is true) is that we were the ones who shut down the power. Apparently the government had known they were here for years. I remember watching that old movie Apollo 13 with you. People say in real life when the astronauts went out of radio contact they were actually trying to make contact with the Invaders.

Well, they did make contact and it wasn’t good. The Apollo 13 crew was sworn to secrecy but now we know that they were probed and tortured during their trip around the dark side of the moon. The government decided the Invaders were hostile and tried twice to launch an attack with the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles to make them go away, but they were shot down. Instead, the government waited for them to attack and used a huge electromagnetic pulse to knockout their communication and anything electric, which also knocked out our communication and fried all our machines. Who knows, this could all be made up. What I do know is that the Invaders are real and my job is one of the most important because there’s no way for us to correspond without it.

Each side has worked to get things up and running. We now have tanks and Humvees, but no planes or helicopters. They chose to start with their UFOs or whatever you want to call them. I guess they aren’t UFOs since we know where they are coming from, but they look like the flying saucers in the old black and white pictures from 60 years ago.

Their ships make our job harder. They have some planes that fly too high for our anti-aircraft guns to hit them and then swoop down and take out the couriers. Early on we used roadies in spandex, but the roads are too wide open and a lot of good riders were taken out. Now we stick to single track and ride under the cover of the trees.

The engineers are still working on communication, but they said that they think the Invaders have come up with some jamming signal. If they ever do get the radios working, my job will be obsolete and they’ll send me to the front as a grunt. I’m not too excited about that, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get rid of these jerks.

Anyway, the other day I met this guy named Nick from New Jersey. He said he was there when they first attacked. He happened to be looking out the window of his bedroom which had a view of Manhattan. He remembers seeing a flash of bright light and then Manhattan was gone. The whole skyline was leveled. He just saw smoke and burning embers. Moments later the power went out at his house and he was left in darkness.

He went outside and saw people running. He wanted to find out what they were running away from but he decided to run with them because his sense of survival was stronger than his sense of curiosity. As it turns out, people were running from a battalion of Invaders. He said they look like you would expect them to look from the movies. They’re gray and have big heads with skinny arms and legs. But they’re not naked like in the movies. They wear uniforms and armor. I’ve never seen one and I’m not sure if I want to see one alive.

They were walking through the streets using some sort of net weapon grabbing people. Once they had the people, the Invaders were spraying them with something that would make them stop struggling. The people would walk on their own to the ship that crashed near his house as if they were under some sort of trance.

He remembers getting caught in a net and the next thing he knew was he was sitting on the 50-yard line of MetLife Stadium with tens of thousands of others. After some time there, he saw the Invaders use the same spray on people and lead them out of the stadium to never be seen again. So he and some others decided to escape.

They dug right through the turf and concrete down to tunnels under the stadium. It took them a long time because they had to make their own tools and not get caught. I guess it wasn’t a clean getaway because he was the only one who made it out. He found an old Huffy and rode it all the way to Denver. He was one of the hundreds of thousands we saw crossing the Eastern Plains that spring after millions died the winter before trying to make the same trip.

Nick eventually traded in his Huffy for a fat bike and joined the courier crew. He carries messages from Kenosha Pass to Breckenridge. I only see him about once a week, but he is full of all sorts of great stories from both before and after the attack.

He told me this story about this girl he knew in high school. Her name was Gabriella. He was at this party with his friends which he called guidos. He said Gabriella was a real grenade. I asked him what that meant and he said she was “butt ugly” but she was grinding up on all his friends. He said he was creeping on Gabriella’s friend Angela and needed his wingman to distract the hippo so he could grind on Angela. I only understood half the things he was talking about.

So, apparently this girl named Gabriella had a few too many drinks. She was grinding on all his friends and falling over herself. She was in some sort of white dress that was ten times too small. He was having a good time with Angela when he heard screaming coming from another part of the dance floor and people running. Unlike when people ran from the Invaders, this time his curiosity won out and he walked over to see what was happening. Apparently Gabriella had puked all over herself turning her white dress brown and passed out on his wingman who was now struggling to get out from under her.

I don’t think I tell the story quite as well as he does. But I had to edit it because he swears a lot and I know you don’t want to hear that. Plus he gets so excited when he tells his stories in his New Jersey accent with his arms waving around. It is just fun to watch him.

Anyway, it’s late September and the leaves are starting to change on the Aspens. The trees are beautiful, looking like veins of gold on the evergreen mountainsides. Some of the 14ers are covered in a dusting of snow. It is so beautiful. I get lost in my thoughts and the view when I ride. Then I hear the mortar fire from the battle for Denver off in the distance and I am shocked back to reality.

It’s a terrible reality. I am super skinny. Between the 40 miles plus bike rides every day and the rationing, I am always hungry. One night I was on the trail I was starving and ate some berries. That was a huge mistake. Riding a bike with diarrhea is not very much fun. Also, when I am at Waterton Canyon the mortar rounds are so loud they sound like they are right on top of me even though they are east of Denver. The C.O. at Waterton says that the canyon walls amplify the sound and I shouldn’t be scared. Still, I try not to spend too much time there. As soon as I get the next message and a belly full of food I am back on the trail. The solitude of the trail makes it a little better.

I am glad you are not alive to see this world. When you got cancer I was so mad. I hated everything. Shortly after you passed, I wanted to join you. But soon they invaded and I realized God must have been sparing you the agony of seeing our world this way. Seeing how things could be so much worse, it gave me a new hope and I decided I needed to fight for what we had before they came. That’s when I decided to join up.

I miss you so much. I miss the chocolate chip cookies you would make. I miss your scrambled eggs and lasagna and cinnamon toast when I was sick. I miss all the food you cooked, except the meat loaf. I miss you driving me to swim practice and band practice and track practice and whatever other activities I was doing. I miss heading to the cabin in the mountains to hike and bike and fish and ride dirt bikes. I miss when I was little and you would send me to school with a kiss and every day say “TGI…” whatever day it was. And I would say “Thank God it’s…” whatever day it was.

I love you mom and I can’t wait to see you again. But I have work to do. I have an important job. It’s a dangerous job, but I am the best one to do it.

Rest In Peace,

Your Son

 

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘Everything Flowed’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


Everything Flowed

By Thomas Gada

The rocks felt like magnets. Magnets that were pulling Eric’s tires toward them. His big 29-inch wheels bounced and ricocheted off them, constantly killing his momentum.

He knew the trick. He had read about it in magazines and on mountain bike websites. Look where you want to go. Sounded easy enough in theory—but outside on the trail with the bike fighting him and the wind in his face and everything else happening at once—it was awfully hard not to stare at those rocks.

This was turning into a bad ride. Eric stopped to compose himself.

He took a long draw from his hydration pack, then exhaled a blast of steam into the wintry air. Ahead, Eric caught a glimpse of his roommate, Scott, and his friends as they disappeared behind the leafless trees. There they go, he thought. Sure, they’d wait at the next turn off, but he was tired of being the anchor.

They flowed over the trails. That’s what Eric wanted to do. Don’t over think it, he reminded himself. They’ve been riding for years. He listened to his own breathing for a moment to ground himself, clipped in and started over. It’ll get easier.

The trail dropped in front of him. He pushed his weight back and attempted to float his front wheel over a series of exposed roots. Just like Scott showed me, he thought. But his back tire bounced over a square-edged rock, sending a jolt through the rigid frame directly into his spine.

Eric clenched his jaw.

He crested a small rise, and again saw his friends further down the trail.

They were rounding a corner, approaching another, larger hill. To their left, something caught Eric’s eye. A blast of gold through the gray trees. It was a glimmer of light playing off a small pond.

He continued pedaling toward them, but they were soon out of sight once again.

The trail started to meander upward. They’re gone. He slid forward to the nose of his saddle, preparing to grind up the hill.

Then he heard the voice.

He squeezed both brake levers with gloved fingers. It was a girl’s voice, and it sounded as crisp as the air. Eric rubbed his ear. It tingled, like someone had whispered warm breath into it.

Eric looked around. “Hello?”

He turned his gaze to the shimmering water to his left. It was a few hundred feet off the trail in a grove of pine trees. The pond was very small with a hard, rocky shoreline. It was the kind of thing you passed once or twice on every ride but didn’t think much about.

“Guys?” His voice hung in the air for a moment, then faded.

Eric clipped one foot in and returned his attention to the trail that cut through the woods in front of him like a jagged brown scar. He knew this area well, but not this trail. It was completed during the fall, so he had not yet explored this area of the reservation. Few had, thanks to an early winter.

Eric felt alone.

“I’m here.” He heard the voice again. It was soft, yet very clear. Eric nearly fell from his bike. He felt the hairs on his arms bristle beneath layers of clothing, while his sweat-covered back turned to ice.

Eric whipped his head toward the pond.

He couldn’t see clearly through the trees, but he had located the source of the voice. A young woman was at the pond. No, he realized after a moment, she was in the pond. In the cold water of the pond and looking directly at him. Her head and shoulders were just visible above the water.

“I’m here,” she said in a voice that sounded like ringing crystal. It was all around him and inside his head. “Come here.” She raised her arm and water streamed from it. Then she gracefully waved him toward her.

She flipped backwards away from the shore and slid beneath the water with the tiniest of splashes and a flicker of silvery-green, only to reappear a moment later, now in the center of the small body of water.

Eric didn’t know what was going on, but he knew it was crazy. It was crazy and wrong. He fumbled to begin pedaling, his bike moving jerkily forward with only one foot clipped in. Not now, he pleaded with himself.

He felt his other foot connect with a loud snap, and he was off.

At the same time, the girl released a sound unlike anything Eric had ever heard. It was a song, but it also wasn’t. He couldn’t identify any words. Her melody was unclear. But it was most certainly a song.

That’s when the imprint was made. That’s when the pull started.

Eric cut his handlebars hard to the left. No, he thought. This isn’t right. He watched as his bike veered off the trail and he heard the crunch of trailside debris beneath his tires, but he felt as though he was watching a movie.

Her voice came to him more clearly now and he pedaled faster toward her. Toward the pond. Aware, but helpless.

He was riding on leaves, layer upon layer of brown oak leaves. The churning of his wheels released an earthy smell that, for a moment, made him think of riding his bike through piles of leaves in his backyard as a kid. Then the song seemed to tighten its grip and squeeze the memory from his mind.

Eric pedaled madly. Her voice embraced him and drew him toward her. Branches pulled at his jacket and whipped his cheeks. Without thought, he lifted and pushed his bike over the rises and drops in the terrain. It was effortless.

He could see her more clearly now. Just a little closer.

The big wheels gained momentum as he rolled down the slight hill toward the shimmering pond. He dropped his heels, pushing the tires into the ground to increase his traction over the loose terrain. Yes.

Once, his bike’s wide bars clipped a tree and sent him pinballing side to side. Yet he recovered, aware only of the song in his head.

He could see her now. Her hair was long and brown, clinging to her bare chest. Her skin was pink in the winter air and dripping with tiny rivulets of water. She didn’t look cold, despite the temperature.

He careened toward her, his bike choosing the route. As he got closer, the song in his head got louder and louder. He could see her perfect lips moving in time. And her eyes—an earthy shade of green that matched the surrounding pine trees—were watching him hungrily.

As Eric neared the shore of the pond, a dead branch flipped up into his wheel. Several quick pings filled the air, then the wheel seemed to fold and twist to the right. His grips were pulled from his hands. Everything slowed down when he went over the bars. He saw her then, her hand over her mouth, stopping the song. Stopping his song. She had fear in her eyes, and it made him sad.

That was his last thought.

Then he landed on an outcropping of rocks just on the edge of the pond. His outstretched arms buckled under his momentum and weight, then his head met the rock, and everything went black.

The first thing Eric remembered was being in Scott’s car.

“Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll get you to the…”

Then everything went black again for a while.

He woke in the hospital, then vomited. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his family was there and they kept him awake. I was in a dream, he thought, through all of their talking and well-wishes. It’s like I was in a wonderful dream and the alarm screamed and jumped me awake. But I wasn’t dreaming. It was real. It was real, and I lost it.

He struggled to keep up with their questions and to give them appropriate answers. He wasn’t there. In his mind, he was flying down the trail, back toward the pond. Zig-zagging effortlessly through the trees, his hands loose, his feet planted securely on the pedals. He and his bike, a 175-pound missile hurtling toward her and her song.

Two days later, Eric was at home on the couch. Scott walked in and threw Eric’s smashed helmet into his lap.

“What the hell were you doing?” he asked. Eric could tell he had been eager to question him so bluntly, but had held off until his roommate felt better. “Why were you off the trail?”

“Who was that girl?” Eric asked before he could stop himself. He chose not to look at the helmet. He didn’t want to see it.

“What girl?” Scott replied.

“By the water. In the water.”

Scott assured him that there was no girl in the water, then smiled and laughed it off. “How hard did you hit your head, buddy?” He asked, trying to hide his concern.

After that Scott let him rest. But Eric knew what he had seen and heard.

The next day Eric woke with her song in his ears and the twisting trail in his mind. He stood up and wasn’t too dizzy. His stomach lurched a bit as he stepped, but he was okay.

“Scott,” he called out, his voice sounding foreign in the empty apartment. “You here?”

Nothing.

“You home? Scott?”

Eric rushed to the back room where he and Scott stored their bikes.

No. His front rim was bent beyond repair, spokes hanging limp and bent. The handlebars were slick with leaked brake fluid. Unrideable.

Twenty minutes later, Eric was on his way to the trailhead with Scott’s bike strapped to the back of his car. An hour later, his tires were biting the hardened singletrack.

It’s not helping, he thought. Eric had hoped that simply being back on the trail—the saddle beneath him, firm grips in his hands—would quell his desire. But it didn’t. Now that he was on the trail, he just wanted to go deeper. To fly around the next corner, knowing it would bring him closer to her. To once again become overcome by the ride.

Before long, Eric found himself on the edge of his saddle, climbing the same hill on the new trail where Scott and their friends had inadvertently dropped him days before.

The glint of water was barely visible through the bare trees. He watched it as he topped the hill. Then, he saw a splash of water hang in the air for a moment in the midday sun. Eric’s racing heart threatened to burst.

“I’m on my way,” he yelled breathlessly to the woods. To the cold, clear air. To the pond and whatever waited for him.

She answered. She answered with her song, and his heart quickened further. His legs turned to liquid, but he pumped harder. Eric’s head began to throb with every rotation of the pedals.

Her song got louder as he got closer, and Eric started to fall into it again. He realized the sound was no longer in his head, but all around him. Just like it had been the other day. Her words wrapped around him and seemed to be drawing him toward her. Eric’s head didn’t hurt anymore.

His legs no longer burned.

That’s where he wanted to be.

He found his bike once again knew what to do without him—picking lines, rolling over roots and darting between rocks. He could see the spark of the water to his left, and the bike pulled him in that direction. A moment later Eric was mashing through the underbrush, playing off of everything in his path.

Eric was vaguely aware of passing the rocky outcropping that he had crashed into days earlier. The ground was still unsettled where he had fallen, brown dirt upheaved from beneath the weathered leaves.

He could see her clearly now. She was waiting for him. Her head was lifted in song, while her dark brown hair lay heavily over her shoulders and chest. Around her neck she wore a necklace of braided twigs, as gray as those that had been pulling at his feet as he rode through the woods.

She’s so close.

Eric’s front wheel splashed into the water. He pedaled and his bike slid across unseen, slime-covered rocks. Soon the icy touch of water seeped through the stiff soles of his shoes. So cold. How can she stand it?

When the water reached his knees, Eric was no longer able to pedal. He tumbled from Scott’s bike, splashing into the now waist-deep water. Eric pulled the bike behind him with one hand as he trudged forward.

The woman was beautiful. So beautiful he struggled to look at her. He closed his eyes. I’ll just listen. That’s all I need. I’ll just listen and walk.

He put one numb foot in front of the other. The shocking cold water ran snuck under his heavy jersey.

The voice stopped, and sorrow exploded inside Eric. He opened his eyes. Now she was just a few feet in front of him. Her entire torso was visible above the dark water.

“I’m here,” he said to her. “I heard you calling me.” His teeth chattered.

“Come closer,” she replied in a voice as melodic as her song. She opened her arms to him. Water streamed down her thin frame.

Eric didn’t hesitate. He took a step. The rocky bottom of the pond turned and rolled beneath his feet. He inhaled sharply. Another, then another. It was getting easier now. Then everything dropped away beneath him.

How? How could such a small pond be so deep? He was still holding onto Scott’s bike with one hand, but was treading water and trying to hold himself up while reaching toward her with his other arm. It was taking all of his effort to keep himself above water.

Sing, he thought. Please sing again.

She was coming toward Eric now, arms stretched toward him. She was swimming quickly, her upper body still suspended above the water. Eric reached out with his free arm to meet her.

Before he could blink, her hand wrapped around his forearm with a strength that contradicted her delicate beauty.

For a moment, she held him. With one hand she seemed to keep him suspended above the water. Eric smiled.

Then she dove under, her hand still tight around his arm.

She descended so hard and fast that Eric’s head was whipped back before he was dragged beneath the water. He could see the cold, hard sun through the rippling surface. He could see the bike above him, joining him in his descent. Everything around the two of them flowed effortlessly toward something below.

He could see her, too. Her hair was weightless, gently framing her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were radiant in the darkening water. Her tail swayed with easy grace. And her lips—her lips were still moving.

It was then he realized that he could still hear her song. Even though they were now far beneath the surface of the pond, her song was all around him. Before long, he had to breathe. He opened his mouth, and the song flowed into him. Filling him. Encompassing him. Eric stopped thinking, and let her carry him away.

 

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘The Cup’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


The Cup

By Larry Camp

Nine-thirty, jeez.

I need to work on my one-footers.

That dude in the woods behind the skatepark, I don’t know what’s up with that. Heard his flatties were legendary, that no one could table like Keith. I never saw him ride though, he was on to that other thing before I started going to the park. Was he seriously found totally naked? What the hell does that mean? There was stuff in the paper about it, sounds like the police don’t know either. Neither do I, don’t ask me anything.

The new lines are so sweet. When I first started going there, Bill would show up a lot. The track was improving. We only had one track back then. Bill, or someone, we don’t know who really, worked on it when no one else was around. Ruts filled, berms watered, smoothed, steepened, and some lips showed up on some of the rollers. Learned how to jump on some of those lips.

Twelve-thirty.

I really want to get tuck no-handers.

I hate being stuck here all day. I just want to ride. I don’t even want to go home after school, Don’t even care who is at my house, or what’s going on there. I just want to go straight to the park, jump until dark, ride home. Winter’s coming.

Most of the regulars came back as soon as it started getting warmer and drying out last spring. Most of the kids I knew from school, and a bunch of old mountain biker dudes, were always there riding and digging. The pump track and new jumps were in pretty shitty shape after winter and we were hoping our dirt fairy from last year would come back and fix everything up again. Derek has been working on spots almost every day and trying to teach us what to do. He has this thing where he dips his shovel in a bucket of water each time to keep the dirt from sticking and it makes such a smooth skin on the dirt. Everything rides so much faster after he works on it. I don’t like to work all that much, I just want to ride. I’ll work when I’m forced into it, but I don’t really know what to do on my own.

Dawson was gone for a whole year, he said it was for not going to seventh grade. He said he was put into a level two house with a kid who tried to stab someone, and another who tried to set a house on fire. For skipping school. That doesn’t even make sense. Hard to know what to believe though, and that’s something I don’t need to find out for myself. Dawson had a year without riding dirt. He’s back at the park now. Back in the same school he was in before. Like that year away never happened. A year of staring at walls he said. A year of not riding dirt. Not riding anything.

People seem to come and go and sometimes just disappear. It’s the same thing at home, the loser is always bringing his asshole friends around and they just lay around staring at whatever. I’m always glad to see them disappear though. Some guys disappear from the park for a while because they just started a new job, or got a girlfriend, or a car. Some of the mountain bikers are married and starting to have kids. Kevin disappeared for a year because his bike got stolen.

That’s a real problem lately. He was a great rider, and just stopped cold like that. I could never just stop riding cold. We’d see him on his skateboard, and he’d stop and hang out and watch the new jumps get built. Finally he scrounged up cash to buy a hand-me-down from another kid and he’s back at the tracks. He kills it too, big whips, and way up in the tree. I don’t ever want to disappear from the park.

Jack is one of the bike thieves. BikeJack we now call him. Idiot didn’t know there are cameras at schools and got caught stealing a rattle bike from the same middle school he goes to. Or, went to. That wasn’t his first. After that he went somewhere else. He was at the park every day until that happened, almost always in jeans, no shirt, no helmet. Really good rider, and rode every single day. He’d come and go all day in summer, even in the rain, which totally pissed off Weird Beard, who always lectured BikeJack and us to help out and fix ruts. We haven’t seen Jack this whole school year. He was here every day before. Now, no days. No way I could do that.

Our dirt fairy never came back this summer. Neither did Bill. We now guess they were one in the same. Someone saw his name in the paper. The only smart thing the loser ever said to me was “stay out of the newspapers.”

Two fifteen.

I really want to get more sideways whips before winter. Want to get everything before winter. The old crew added a bunch of new weird side jumps, transfers and options. I can barely do the easiest one so far, and some of those guys can seriously rip them. I keep running this one line over and over and getting closer to getting it. Definitely. Want.

I kind of like riding the park early on weekend mornings. I always like to get out of the house before anyone wakes up and they start smoking and yelling. Weekends are the worst at home. The older kids never ride until the afternoon and the mountain bikers are usually racing XC or at a kids soccer game or something. I have the runs all to myself. Most of the other kids have another house they go to. Another parent, a grandparent, whatever. I’ll take the park.

I don’t usually try anything crazy on those mornings, just work on flow. I really love four, which is a rounded step-up that no one ever tricks. It’s just a set-up for five, and you just float over it and sort of hover, weightless, for a moment. That moment – right there.

Weightless…

Silent…

Careless…

Hover right there…

Forever.

The weekends sometimes get a little crowded with newbs. They usually come in a car with a parent, sometimes they ride from somewhere in town, though we never see them during the week. Those kids usually have helmets. Sometimes the dads ride, but mostly it’s just moms sitting in their car watching or reading or smoking. The regular kids just show up on their bikes from wherever. None of them have dads that ride. Most of them don’t even seem to have dads. One of the mountain bikers calls us “feral kids.” I don’t even know what that means, but Weird Beard laughs when he says it. I wish I could see my dad again.

One kid usually gets dropped off by a parent. Good rider. Sometimes his mom or dad will sit in the truck and watch him ride, sometimes they leave and come back. He usually wears a helmet for the jump line and takes it off for the pump track. Off and on, off and on. Helmets are kind of a thing, the kids with the helmets are usually the kids with the parents and they usually have nice bikes. And of course the mountain bikers wear helmets and have nice bikes, and some of the high school BMX kids too. Full face even. Kids with rattle bikes don’t have helmets.

Dark is coming.

Winter is coming.

He’ll be 37 when I see him again.

Twenty till three.

I’ll almost be out of high school by then.

I can wait.

It’s better than seeing him that other way.

Some old homeless guy has been sleeping in the woods and hanging out at the park during the day. He sleeps down by the creek where we fill the buckets. Man I hate that job. Hauling water up the bank to the track. It sucks when you just want to ride, and they have the tracks shut down to work on them. The mountain bikers are always pressuring you to help, especially Weird Beard, he’s always on us. The older kids don’t usually say much, and sometimes I help, but sometimes I just say screw it and go ride street.

That homeless guy was pretty funny though, telling us stories of different drugs, jail and the free food he gets on which days at which churches in town. He laughed about having sex on the picnic table we were all sitting on right then. Someone’s dad said he’s drunk, and some of the guys were egging him on for more stories. After a few days of him being around, security chased him away and we haven’t seen Old Joe since. I wonder if he’s still living down by the creek. He needs to make it somewhere until winter when the shelter opens back up.

Some other crazy guy was fighting with his woman on the rail-trail one day, when a couple of the fifth grade kids rolled by and somehow got in on their argument. Then the crazy guy starts chasing the kids, right up to the bike park while a bunch of us were riding. One of the fifth graders, DeAndre, wasn’t backing down one bit. Said he’d kick him in the balls and ride away. DeAndre is a good rider, clears all the jumps, and is pretty big and tough for a fifth grader. I’d guess he flunked a grade somewhere along the way. He’s OK though, and is one of the few guys around on weekend mornings with me. He’s been riding here for a couple years now and I’ve never seen his parent.

A sign went up last week at the park. Looks like the mountain bikers are holding a contest thing in a few weeks. It’s $5 to enter the jump contest, and $5 for the pump track race. I don’t have $10. I don’t have $5. It sucks that a bunch of outsiders will take over our park for a whole Saturday. Guess I’ll ride street that day. I don’t want to stand around and watch them have all the fun on our lines. The last time I asked mom for money for a new chain that loser smacked me. I swear if he ever does that again I’ll kick him in the sack and knee his asshole face when he doubles over. The next time he makes me pee in a cup for him he’s getting a face full. He better not take it out on mom.

It was so much better last when he got in trouble with his parole, and it was just me and mom.

Just me and mom.

Quarter till three.

I love that feeling of landing three; that speed; the G’s of the big berm. Coasting right back to the top. Swing your bike around, do it again. Again.

Again.

Again.

Til dark.

When it’s warm in summer, I like to just sit at the top of the roll-in after it’s gotten dark, after the guys have put the tools away and gone home, or gone for recovery drinks, or wherever they go. I stay there and watch the town get dark, the noises go down. That one time last summer I laid down to watch the stars and didn’t wake up until almost midnight. That was the best night of the summer. It’ll be a long time before I can do that again.

When I sit up there, I don’t even think about whatever hell is happening at home. A couple weeks ago cops came to the house looking for one of loser’s friends. Wish they could’ve taken both of them away. I wonder if I can somehow sneak in and get food after they go to sleep. That worked good last week, since they were hanging outside on the deck. It’s almost too cold for that to work now.

Ten till three.

Mom wasn’t feeling good this morning, and said I might be having a new brother or sister soon. Says we might have to move again so she can get a job with insurance.

Spin the bar, whip the tail, bring it in, pump the next one. Really need some good runs before winter.

Winter.

Winter.

Winter.

Five till three.

Time changes next week.

How can I get dirty pee?

 

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘The Sleepy Girls of Hurricane Creek’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


The Sleepy Girls of Hurricane Creek

By Mary Emerick

I saw right off that the Sleepy Girls were different than anyone else in the tenth grade. Their eyes drooped low in math; they chewed gum furiously in history. They jogged in place sometimes until the teachers sighed and told them to sit. They took naps, finally, in study hall, where nobody cared, snoring lightly. Their elbows throbbed with bruises and their hair was snarled in yesterday’s braids. The other kids, all scrubbed and fresh-faced, ranch kids with tins of chewing tobacco in their jeans pockets, avoided them. Obviously being new, I had to stay away from them or I would never fit in. The Sleepy Girls stuck out in a way that felt raw and dangerous.

Because I knew my father had grasped onto this small Idaho town as a way of forgetting, I recognized that we wouldn’t be here long. He still remembered, and this place wasn’t far enough away, just two states, a day and a half by car, if you had enough Red Bull and gumption to keep pushing forward. I just had to stick it out, do my time, and maybe the next place we moved would be the one where we would stay. This was a pass-through place, a town where the mountains were big and the people had all lived here forever. The Sleepy Girls fascinated me, but I resolved to make friends with others, the safe kids, the ones who wouldn’t ask any questions. The ones who would not care when we inevitably moved away.

“Why are they so tired?” I asked Dennis, the kid whose locker was next to mine. He pulled his lunch and a fresh can of Copenhagen from his backpack and shrugged.

“Nobody knows,” he said. “We’re all too afraid to ask.”

“Hey Rusty,” the one called Cat said. She had snuck up on me in the cafeteria and plopped down into the empty seat next to me. The seats at my table were all empty, the other kids were feeling me out before they made a move, looking at my not-Wranglers, my closely cropped hair. Nobody else had been bold enough to come near.

I tried not to stare. A faint shadow of a healing bruise darkened her cheek, and dirt was embedded in her nails. She looked like she had rolled out of a bed of leaves. She looked like nobody else I had ever known; a hint of wildness and fresh air in a room that smelled of sweat and macaroni.

“Rusty,” she said again. “You’re from Portland, right, where it rains like a mofo? And there’s your hair, what there is of it.  So, I’m calling you Rusty. Do you have a bike?”

I put down my PB&J and gaped. I had expected her to ask me for weed or a flask, looking the way she did. “A bike?”

“A bike,” she repeated. “A mountain bike. Do you have one?”

“Well, a Trek, it’s kind of old…”

“Good,” she said, rising from her seat. “We need a fourth since the logging dried up and Cindy’s dad moved her away. To Iowa. God. You know, a fourth? If someone gets hurt? One person to stay, two to go for help.”

“Hurt? Help?”

“Are you just going to repeat everything I say? I thought you were supposed to be smart. Don’t make me regret asking you, Rusty.  Meet us at the Hurricane Creek trail at nine tonight. And bring a headlamp.”

“Headlamp?” I managed. “So we’re riding bikes?”

Cat winked. “Not just riding. We’re night riding.”

My sandwich and loneliness forgotten, I watched her stride away to where the other two sat, a colorful island in a sea of grey sweatshirts. The other kids eddied around them carefully, giving them room. The Sleepy Girls were a force. They mattered. Nobody, I thought, could ever leave them and not come back.

Getting away from our rental house was easy. My father had turned into a slump-shouldered man I no longer knew. He heated up mac and cheese in the microwave and hunched over his plate, TV droning in the background, his eyes blank. I could have said I was going to a crack house and he would have barely blinked. His sorrow hung so thick over the house that it was like breathing smoke. Sometimes I thought I would drown in it.

The girls were waiting at the Hurricane Creek trailhead, just up the road a half mile. They leaned against bikes of indeterminate age, bikes dented and paint-chipped and duct-taped. When they saw me, they only nodded. They wore jean cut-offs, the long fraying strands loose on their thighs, and faded AC/DC T-shirts. They did not look like the mountain bikers I had seen on the trails in Portland, all decked out in shiny logoed kits. But when the girls swung onto their saddles it was breathtaking. Their legs pumped the pedals and their hair streamed back over their shoulders. They were not girls riding mountain bikes but one thing, one creature, steel and flesh. Within seconds they had dropped me, speeding through darkening trees as if they had wings.

I had never ridden a bike in the dark, and the part of me that was still careful knew it was dangerous. Anything could happen. Broken collarbone, wolves, mountain lions. I thought about going back, but the memory of my father’s sunken face bathed in blue light from the television spurred me on. I thought of the silence, thick enough to drink, and the phone that never rang, my father lifting it to listen to the dial tone. Night riding couldn’t be worse than that. The light from my headlamp bounced through the dark woods and onto the slender ribbon of trail. I hung on white-knuckled, my butt bouncing off the seat, the front wheel skipping sideways over unseen rocks.

I thought back to all the afternoons I had ridden around Portland, looking for my mother’s Jetta. It had to be somewhere, at the Safeway down on Twenty-third, in the apartments over on Fifth. I rode until my butt chafed, until sweat turned my shirt damp. I never did find it. I still had no idea where she was.

The trail punched through skinny lodgepole pines and snaked its way uphill. Switchbacks gave way to an eroded tread. Pebbles slipped under my wheels. I ground my way in granny up a steep incline and braked hard on the descent, death-gripping. This was not the safe riding I had done in the city. This was combat riding, alluring and terrifying. Trees loomed close in the oval cast by my light; bushes slapped my face. After a while, spooked, I got off and walked, hauling the bike over fallen trees.

I came around a sharp corner to find Cat off her bike, waiting for me. Fresh blood trickled down her leg and she rubbed at it with a bandanna and spit. “Went over the bars,” she said cheerfully. “Took the turn too fast and hit a branch. Face plant, big time. Rookie mistake.”

I straddled my bike, breathing hard. I was sure I had failed some sort of test. “Sorry I can’t hang,” I said. “How come you don’t ask some of the boys in school?”

“We don’t invite boys because they get too aggro. We just want to ride. None of the balls to the wall competitive stuff. You’re doing fine for the first time.  We were all like that, in the beginning. Hike a bike, mostly.”

She seemed in no hurry to move on, so I gulped stale water from my bottle. “How come you night ride?” I asked.

“Because,” Cat said. She idly picked at a scab. “It’s the only time we feel free, I guess.”

She studied me carefully under her headlamp. “And what’s your story? How come you came night riding with us? I thought you would bail for sure.”

“What about the others?” I asked, avoiding her question. “Aren’t they going to get pissed, having to wait for us?”

“Dude,” Cat said. “None of us get pissed.  That’s for, like, the Barbie girls. You know, the ones in school with the makeup and hair thing going on? We’ve got each other’s backs. None of us really have family. We’re each other’s family. “

Suddenly I wanted to be one of the Sleepy Girls, wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted in my life. I wanted to be in their family, tousle-haired and tough, a family I wasn’t born into but one I chose. The words came tumbling out.

“My mother left us,” I said. “She met a man, and she left us. Not just my father, but me too. Threw me away like I was trash she no longer wanted. She hasn’t called and we don’t even know where she is. She needed to be happy, she said. Her life was passing her by and she needed to be happy.” I remembered staring into the mirror, grabbing the scissors to hack at the long hair, so much like hers. I’ll show her.  All that beautiful red hair. Don’t ever cut it, promise. The sting was still there, even three months old, even though my hair was finally starting to grow back.

“That’s no big thing,” Cat said. “All of us have our own secrets. Riana’s dad’s in prison. Killed a guy with a steak knife outside the Lost Souls Tavern. Amber had a baby in sixth grade and gave it up for adoption. The dude just blew her off, wouldn’t even admit it was his. Don’t think you’re the only one with a story.”

“And what about you? What’s your story?”

She looked down at the ground. “I’ll tell you one day,” she said.  “If you stick with us.”

“Okay.”

She gave me a thumbs up. “Yeah. I knew you were one of us.”

That was why they rode, I thought. For a few hours the Sleepy Girls could forget the things that dogged them like shadows. They could fly weightless over boulders and through rivers and under the canopy of the trees. They rode old bikes that slipped gears and had brakes that screamed hot on the downhills, bikes that nobody else wanted. It didn’t matter to the Sleepy Girls. They were chasing something that they might someday catch.

I didn’t want to say what I was thinking, not yet. If I was right, there would be endless nights of riding before the snow shut us down, September and October nights with aspen leaves, big as plates, falling onto the trail. Nights to escape the life I had somehow tumbled into, nights to figure out how to leave it.

“Hey, we’re not getting anywhere just sitting here,” Cat said, jumping up. “Let’s shred.”

“What’s ahead?” I asked, peering into the shadows.

She grinned, her teeth a flash of white. “Let’s go find out, Rusty. You in?”

I hung behind her wheel for a few minutes before she hurtled out of sight, her headlamp fading as she pulled away. I was alone again in the darkness, skinny legs pedaling for all I was worth, but this time it felt different. I knew that the Sleepy Girls of Hurricane Creek were just ahead of me, their lights shining bright, chasing away from things that hurt them, chasing down whatever they could find and keep.

 

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘Bandana Man’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


Bandana Man

By Ryan Parker

Bandana Man first appeared at the bike shop in Northwest Portland in the spring of 2002. He worked at the health food grocery nearby and usually wanted to trade random lunch items for repairs. My coworkers and I took up calling him Bandana Man amongst ourselves, due to his propensity for wearing bandanas. He turned out to have a real name, which was Bob. His personality was eclectic, at best, and he intrigued me.

We started riding together, first in Forest Park, then on progressively longer excursions as we grew accustomed to each other’s company. Our midweek days off coincided and allowed many opportunities for adventure. We were both in our early 20s and poor by American standards, but kept low overhead and could move about freely as long as we showed up for work often enough to pay rent and buy fuel. He liked to ride uphill for extended periods of time, which is something hard to find in a partner, and he’s in the “we’re not really riding ’til we’re walking and carrying our bikes” camp when it comes to pondering which trails are enjoyable.

That fall we decided to ride the Ape Canyon/Plains of Abraham/Smith Creek loop on Mount St. Helens, leaving after work the night before so we could camp in his brown Ford van and get an early start. We figured the ride might take us eight hours and neither of us was known for getting out of town early.

Bandana Man’s automobile maintenance schedule is prioritized like the Millennium Falcon’s—the van ran great but I could see the road through several holes in the floor and we had to wear earplugs to block out enough noise to hear the radio. On the plus side, he had an ice box inside that would stay cold for a week and was constantly restocked with slightly damaged or recently expired foodstuffs.

The next day was beautiful and we had found a campsite in the National Forest close enough to leave the van and ride to the Ape Canyon trailhead. We rode uphill for several miles in the woods then the trail opened up into a volcanic wasteland. This was cause for much stopping, gazing, and indescribable wonder over the next several miles. At the Windy Ridge viewpoint, which is aptly named and roughly our halfway point, we hid from the wind in the toilet, ate sandwiches, and discussed whether any of what we’d seen so far was real. I’m still not sure. Reader, I encourage you to go look.

The Smith Creek portion of the trail was next, initially offering several thousand feet of descending on deep pumice switchbacks along a nearly vertical hillside. Trees and bushes had returned to the landscape, but they mostly served to disguise the magnitude of the cliff alongside the trail. Bandana Man was leading and I watched as his front tire washed out and he cartwheeled down the hillside out of sight. I stopped at the point he left the trail and waited for the dust to clear, my heart pounding, hoping to hear him hollering some indication he wasn’t dead.

While we had the essentials, we’d failed to incorporate catastrophe recovery into our plans. Even if we’d had a phone, it wouldn’t have worked here, and I was terrified by the now overwhelming logistics of rescue. I saw movement, a couple hundred yards down the hill and started scrambling down to him, really just sliding on my backside on the beads of pumice and grabbing shrubbery to slow down. He stood and yelled he was OK as I approached, and though covered in dirt and scratches, was beaming. “Check this out, I found a cave!”

Bandana Man had come to a stop by grabbing a small tree, which had uprooted in the loose soil and opened a hole big enough to crawl through. He was already digging through his pack and pulling out a flashlight. “You’re not going in there are you?” I asked. “Are you OK? You fell off a cliff.”

“Miraculously, I feel pretty good despite the deep pumicing of my entire body, and yes I’m gonna look in here. It could be full of gnomes or fairies or hill dwarves, or lined with gold ore, or all of the above.” He crouched down, cringing a bit, despite his claims of no injury. “There’s a cavern in here, not very deep but big enough to get into. I have to check it out.”

“OK,” I said, “though if you die in there after living through that crash we’re both gonna feel pretty dumb. I’ll stand watch out here against the gnome patrols.”

He crawled into the dark hole. I stood by the opening and tried to look inside. His light periodically presented itself, but I couldn’t see what he was doing. After a few minutes he reappeared face first on his belly at the other side of the hole. “Looks like a lava tube in there. It only goes back about ten feet and doesn’t get taller than four. I found a treasure though! Check this out.” He handed out a turquoise rock, semi round, about two inches in diameter. I took it from him and immediately felt a cool tingle flow up my arm then through my body. The hair stood up on my arms. “Crawl out here and take this thing. I think it’s radioactive. You’re carrying it, if you must, but the aliens are going to track it to your house and try you for theft in space court.”

“Nah, it’s not radioactive,” he said. “I’m flying to my folks’ house next week and I’ll put it in the tray at security. If it’s radioactive those new TSA guys will let me know.”

His bike had stopped before he did, and we retrieved it on our careful slog back up the hillside. The bike too had magically escaped a trip to the bottom of the ravine by getting hung up in a tree. Off we rode, finally finding our way down to Smith Creek and completing the ride with a lovely fifteen hundred foot climb over four miles of fire road back to the van.

Evening had arrived, so after recovery beverages and a snack of one half-rotten (but half good!) cantaloupe, stale bread, and canned oysters, we set out for home. We passed the Ape Caves on the way out, which reminded me again of the rock he was squeezing in his palm as he drove. Darkness crept in, and I dozed until we got to the freeway. Bandana Man still held the rock in his right hand as he turned onto the ramp marked Portland. “There ought to be portals between interstate ramps so we could go to any Portland we want,” he mumbled. “I wish I could check out Portland, Maine, right now.”

There was a flash of light and a lurching feeling, and when it cleared we were still on a freeway ramp, but not the one we’d been on before. He dropped the rock like it was hot. “Holy shit,” he gasped as he pulled the van onto the shoulder. “Where are we? And what was that? You might be right about the alien gnome police coming for that rock because it just made my hand numb.”

I peered ahead at the next sign. It had I-95 and I-295 symbols and read “I-295 North. South Portland, Downtown Portland”. “We’re in some version of Portland, just not ours.”

“What? No way. Did I die during that crash today?” He took off his bandana and wiped the sweat off his face. “Let’s get off this road ASAP and see what’s really going on.”

We did, and stopped at a quickie mart with a hobo drinking Night Train by the dumpster. He said we were in Portland, Maine. We went inside and asked the night clerk who confirmed the hobo’s story. We hung around out front for a while, hoping for a third opinion.

“Well?” Bandana Man asked as we climbed into the back of the van for a parlay, “How are we gonna get home?”

“I’m not sure how we got here,” I said. “What were we doing when it happened?”

Bandana Man reflected for a moment. “I was holding the rock, and wished we could go to Portland, Maine.”

“Try it again and see if it takes us home.” I nodded toward the console where the stone rested. He picked it up and wished us back to Portland, Oregon. Nothing happened. “What else could it be?” I asked.

“We were driving, on a freeway ramp marked Portland,” he hypothesized. “Should we try that again?”

“Can’t hurt,” I said. “Lets get on the road and look for an exit ramp labeled Portland.”

In less than an hour we’d found another ramp indicating the path to Portland. We pulled over as soon as we saw it. “Ok. Lets attempt to recreate what happened the first time,” he said.

The magic rock was in Bandana Man’s console cup holder. It appeared blue-green and shiny if I looked right at it, but if I looked from the corner of my eye it pulsated light. I chose to only look at it directly or not at all. He picked it up and pulled the van back into traffic. His bandana was across his thigh and he held the magic rock up to the windshield and said, “I wish we could go to Portland, Oregon.”

Again, the lurch and flash of light. We appeared right back where we’d come from two hours before. He set the rock down in the console and kept driving. I was freaked out, he was freaked out, and we didn’t talk about it again until he got home from his parental visit two weeks later.

Bandana Man had taken the rock through airport security without a hitch. He came by the bike shop, more crazy eyed than usual, indicating he’d “taken a few trips” and wondering if we were going riding that week. I was scared of the magic rock, but also fascinated, having slept very little since our portage to the east coast. I hadn’t told anyone of our experience, mostly because I wasn’t sure it had happened. It happened to me, but my opinion is moot. “Where do you want to go?”

“Springfield?” He replied. There are Springfields everywhere. For all I knew he was going to take me to the Simpson’s version of Springfield but I knew I had to go regardless. He said he’d been busy trying all sorts of wishing with the magic rock, but the only thing he could get it to do so far was to open portals between freeway exit and on-ramps of the same name.

Through November we spent every day off riding or driving around looking for appropriately labeled freeway exits all over the continent. We hit quite a few Springfields that had trails nearby. We went from Milwaukie, Oregon, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, discovering the magic rock didn’t care much about spelling. We went to Vancouver, Canada, from Vancouver, Washington. We learned a lot of geography.

Both of us were in trouble at work due to getting stuck places and calling in because we had to drive home. I finally called a sabbatical to our adventures for fear of getting fired. I preferred to come across at work as moderately responsible. Winter was here, and at many of our potential destinations, so we cooled it for a while until spring got our blood flowing again. I still thought it possible I’d dreamed the whole thing up. Other explanations sounded insane.

In March, Bandana Man brought a load of day old veggie burritos by the bike shop and we had a chat. He looked haggard, but his eyes were bright, and a bandana was still perched on his head like a flag. “Let’s go to New Zealand. It’s early fall there in terms of weather, opposite us.”

“Do you have a plan yet, or know if they even have freeways?” I asked, concerned, but interested.

“Absolutely. They have a Springfield, and it’s just outside Christchurch.” He gave me a conspiratorial look.

I’d been riding to work in the rain for five months. Business was still winter slow, and I thought perhaps not making the boss pay me would be better than standing around building wheels we didn’t need or spending all day assembling one bike while watching Pink Flamingos on the shop TV. I checked in with the man and got permission to escape for a week in early April. Bandana Man was ecstatic.

We set out on the two hour drive to Springfield, Oregon, on a Tuesday evening after spending several days pondering our needs. If we interacted with New Zealand police (which was more than likely considering Bandana Man’s van had Oregon plates and neither of us had a visa stamp) what would we do? Due to limited options, we resorted to the plan my wife, the woman of my dreams, recommends: Play dumb.

How would we have gotten here without proper documentation? Here are our passports. I’m sorry your customs people forgot to stamp them, but they must have seen them, right? This plan is highly dependent on our behavior. Mine I could trust, but Bandana Man was a loose cannon. The bandana alone was enough to send us to the gulag. I didn’t care. The reward was worth the risk and I figured at worst they’d send us home. As we pulled out onto the highway the first Springfield exit sign we saw on I-5, Bandana Man picked up the rock and wished out loud.

I’ve never had a better time. The U.S. dollar was worth more than twice the New Zealand dollar then, and we stayed everywhere essentially half price. We landed at a hostel called “Dreamland” in Christchurch, and rode every trail we could find on the south island without being hassled.

Too soon, our time ran out. On our last day we decided to ride the Avon River Trail to the beach in Christchurch. Bandana Man ran out to embrace the ocean. I made a nest in the sand and paused to reflect. When he returned he opened his pack to retrieve and light a fat joint, the contents of which he’d purchased from some guitar playing kid on the waterfront in Queenstown. With our imminent departure at hand, we rode slowly back to Dreamland.

Upon arrival, Bandana Man noticed he’d forgotten to zip his bag closed after our beach excursion. He began running around the room like a Tasmanian devil. “Where’s the magic rock? Have you seen it? It was in the pocket with the joint and now it’s gone. My multi-tool and patch kit are gone too. Have I just unleashed a yard sale of epic proportions?”

I helped him search. We turned his hydro-pack inside out, combed every inch of the room, and decided that Murphy or Karma had struck again. The magic rock had fallen out somewhere on our journey. We retraced our steps, including another ride to the beach at dusk, but if the rock was visible from the path, someone had already taken it home. We certainly weren’t going home today. I called into work, hoping the caller ID would show I was really in New Zealand and not entirely full of fantastical excuses.

Bandana Man knew his van wasn’t going to make it back to the United States. We drove to the airport and scouted around for a flight home, paying with my credit card since he didn’t have one. Next we hit car lots from the phone book until he managed to sell the van for the best pittance offered, which was better than expected due to the novelty of the steering wheel being on the wrong side. Included in the sale negotiations was a ride back to Dreamland, since our flight wasn’t until the next day. We sat in the empty pool that night and reflected on our situation. Sure it was bad, but yet it was good. In fact, how much better could it get? What if we hadn’t lost the magic rock and had continued to traverse the world uninhibited? Eventually our reign over time and space would have come to an end, and we’d had a good, if not impossible run thus far.

We flew home and resumed life as we knew it before the magic rock. Who knows what else it was capable of and with whom it ended up. Maybe it’s lying in the bushes waiting for the next Bandana Man.

More than 10 years have gone by now. I’m married and have two kids. Even Bandana Man pays the mortgage on a house and has had the same partner for five years. We still go riding as much as we can—often taking the kids since it’s the only option. We’ve included new riding partners who have kids too so we can take turns babysitting and riding.

Do I wish Bandana Man had zipped his Camelbak? No. The time we had with the magic rock was a gift. We exploited it but not in any way I’d consider unethical. If we still had it, would that be the case? I doubt it. He would probably be using it to smuggle something from Portland to Portland, or Springfield to Springfield. Enjoy the time you have while you have it, and go riding.

 

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