I was born with a profound allergy to community. Don’t want a group, a crowd. Can hardly stand a team, and then only for short periods. The older I get, the worse this tendency becomes. I’d rather clean a toilet than attend a gathering. The latest covid chic trend of having “Zoom gatherings” and “virtual happy hours” confounds me: my first and only thought is why the fuck would I want to sit around and look at other people on a screen when I could be blissfully alone.
There are penalties for feeling this way: personal, financial, possibly criminal. The worst part of it, however, is that my antipathy to groups has caused me to walk away from a lot of great opportunities, great communities, great people. Here’s an example: I’ve been a NASA racer for a decade and a half but I’ve attended exactly one social event: the 2018 banquet where they handed out season championship trophies. I didn’t go because I wanted the trophy; I went because Danger Girl wanted to go. While I was there I saw all these people having a great time but all I could think was: I’m here to race against them, not to be their best friend.
I don’t want my son to feel this way. It’s damaging. Limiting. Yet I can already tell he has the same genetic inclination towards solitude. So we will fight it. We are fighting it. We started, as you might expect, by picking up a hoe.
There’s a bike park about 75 miles from the house, north of Cincinnati near the King’s Island amusement park. A local hospital had some extra space and donated it — ostensibly to improve fitness in this placid rural community. Given how many people I’ve seen get hurt there, I think the purpose might actually be to drum up some trauma business. One flat loop, a cross-country course, two asphalt pump tracks, and an acre or so of dirt jumps. The latter has been in considerable disrepair almost from the moment the facility opened in 2018. Lately, however, it’s been getting better in dribs and drabs, courtesy of a few adult riders (and former riders!) who show up to dig on the trails and fix them.
Digging on trails is a huge part of BMX culture: the phrase “No dig, no ride” is so omnipresent that it’s osmosed into mountain biking as well. Yet I’ve never been part of a “trails crew”. Never ridden in one place, or kept the same acquaintances, long enough to join one. I’d rather hand a skatepark twenty bucks than spend an afternoon digging with new friends. This is an outsider’s attitude.
My son likes the revamped trails and he’d noticed the people working on them while he rode. I took a deep breath and suggested that we drive down the next damp day to shape a jump or two. We brought some old shovels I had sitting in my garage. I expected that we would work for an hour then ride for a couple of hours afterwards.
To my surprise, we arrived in the middle of a spontaneously-assembled group. Three or four old trail-digger types, giving directions and shaping transitions. I walked up and asked where we could help. There was a fellow to whom the others deferred. He gave us a simple assignment: get the silt out of a berm and a jump face so it could be used to shape a feature elsewhere. Naturally, we made a hash out of it, so he came back. Over the course of an hour, he gave us some terse but heartfelt tutorials about how to accomplish basic tasks.
“It’s critical that we get the transition on the novice side jumps correct,” he said, in a rural Ohio accent, heavily tapping sections of dirt into place with vein-wrapped forearms and hands bleeding in two places where they contacted the tool handles. “A bad jump can give a new rider a bad experience and scare them off forever. And when we build a jump, we own that jump.” He was thirty-five years old, a former Marine. I was the only adult there who hadn’t been in the armed forces. They chatted idly about pickup trucks, beer, the quarantine, the PTR 91, which is an American-made clone of the HK G3 service rifle. “Getting 4 MOA at 800,” one fellow chirped, which means he can reliably hit a 32″ circle at 800 yards, nearly half a mile. “Bring on the Boogaloo!” There was a chorus of laughter.
I’d expected them to have no patience with John but all of them took the time to introduce themselves to him and offer some advice. When he absconded with a rake to work on a jump face and was obviously doing more harm than good, someone pointed it out to me and said “Don’t worry — we can fix that in ten minutes and it’s good for him to do the work.” At the two hour mark I told John that he could go ride.
“I don’t want to, it’s not time yet.”
“We’ve only planned on 150 minutes here. You’re at the 120 mark.”
“No way. It’s been half an hour.” My watch told me otherwise and my body confirmed it. I’d hoed six wheelbarrows’ worth of silt out of a jump line, bringing a thick and resilient soreness into my shoulders and back. John went to ride the asphalt pump track for ten minutes, came back, and picked up a shovel. I could see that he liked working alone, so I dragged him back and made him dig and fill with someone else for a bit.
“Alright, everybody, I’ve about had it.” That was our leader for the day, giving us all tacit permission to hang up as well. On his way out, he took me aside and told me what tools we’d need to be genuinely useful. Most work in BMX trailbuilding is done with a hoe and a rake. There’s a particular company, hilariously named “Rogue Hoes”, which makes them in Missouri out of recycled Ag-discs. John had been using a five-and-a-half-inch Rogue field hoe, as had I. Today I ordered a pair for us: the four-inch 40F for him, the smallest one they make in consideration of his etheral weight. For me… Well, I wanted The Boss, which looks like it can take out an unwanted roller in a single swipe. In my normal milieu of autowriters, I’m in the top percentiles of general hoe-swinging ability, take that any way you like — but the truth is that I’m overmatched in this company of swarthy, effortlessly athletic Midwestern servicemen/riders. So I got the 5.5-inch combination hoe/rake. Our local trail crew buys them with the ash handles then sands the grain down before generously and regularly applying oil. I decided on fiberglass, because it’s lazier.
“John, these trails are now partially yours — and partially your responsibility as well,” I told him, after we’d loaded up our mostly-unridden bikes and non-fit-for-purpose shovels.
“About one-tenth of one percent mine,” he snapped back, offended on behalf of his trail crew that I’d assign him any significant value when he’d only shaped three tops and dug a wheelbarrow of dirt.
“Which is one-tenth of one percent more than I’ve ever had,” I replied.
“I’d like to get back down there and dig again soon,” he said. Unsaid was the idea that I needn’t come along. The crew had liked him, but what had they made of me? Just a perpetual outsider, an unvigorous hybrid of city and country with viable roots in neither. And yet I’ll show up again, to dig, and to ride, carving out a brief redoubt against solitude with smoothing rake and swinging hoe.
For Hagerty, I told a tale of suspicious purchases.
Something I wrote for Mazda a while back, concerning New Mexico, has now been made available online.