Biking Into The Wild
by Thomas Day
On an early June morning in 2009, I found myself at the end of the road. I mean that literally. I’d mapped out a weird-assed route through North Dakota, following barely traveled two-lanes, dirt farm roads, and even paths that wouldn’t pass for a decent hiking trail. I was on one of my infamous (to me and my friends) “ghost town tours.” Usually, these trips mutate into something different than I’d expected. This trip was doing that earlier than usual.
Ever since I was a kid prowling away summers in my father’s hometown, Allen, Kansas, I’ve had a fascination for abandoned buildings and, best of all, towns. Ghost towns. I love them. I can spend a day exploring an abandoned farm, enjoying both the old hand-built architecture and the decay. Yeah, the decay. I like to look at how things fail, how nature reclaims its property, how engineering of all sorts breaks and returns to the raw materials from which it came. The reason I started carrying a camera on my trips, 25 years ago, was to document the abandoned houses, farms, and towns I’d stumbled on.
I sort of like looking at the things left behind, too. The stuff that people once thought was important, but that turned out to be too cumbersome, too unimportant to carry away with them when they left their homes for good. I’ve bought a few of these 100-year-old homes, in my younger, more energetic editions, and I’ve always been amazed at the stuff I find in the attics, basements, or even closets of these places. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t been such a transient myself. Some of the things that I found, read and wondered about, and tossed away, might have been even more valuable to me today. But, like their original owners, I valued them for a moment and discarded them because I had to pare down for the next move across the country. Dust Bowl vagrants have nothing on me. I’ve bagged everything I cared about in a backpack, strapped it on the back of my motorcycle, said goodbye to my family, and headed west to California to see if I could reconstruct our lives and fortunes. John Steinbeck would have been proud, or dismayed, at how often Great Depression history has repeated itself in my life.
I know; trespassing. I should be shot. Maybe, some day I will be. It’s obvious that these places–from the unkempt condition of the roads that lead to the places, by the fact that the windows are shot out, the roof is falling in, the floors are collapsing, and the well-established nests of raccoons throughout the houses and barns–are of no consequence to whoever owns them. The “no trespassing” signs are about liability, not stewardship. Nobody cares if I tear down the houses and barns and cart them away in my side cases. I’d probably be doing them a favor. They do care that I might fall in a well and sue them for my stupidity. I’ve been stupid my whole life and I’ve never sued anyone for my poor results. They don’t know me, but I know me.
At that moment, I was sitting at the end of a road that once led to Leal, North Dakota, but now dead-ends after a creek washed away the bridge. And I do mean washed away, other than the pile foundations that once supported the bridge on each side of the road, there is no sign of this bridge ever existing. Sometime in the last year, kids have visited this site to fire off bottle rockets, Roman candles, Blistering Sky Fountains, Festival Balls, Proud Americans, and drink Miller Premium and smoke Marlboros. It looks like a happy battle ground, everywhere the creek didn’t wash away the evidence. There is an abandoned, but solid and new-looking fiberglass Jacuzzi just downstream from the useta-be-a-bridge. I mean it looks right out of the showroom. Not a crack, waterline, or spot on it. An enterprising frontiersman might consider building a house on this spot, just because it already has a perfect Jacuzzi.
If it were later in the day, I’d be tempted to camp here. The place is as isolated as anywhere I’ve ever been. Break a leg here and somebody might find you a decade from now, unless the kids come back on the Fourth to party again. If you die a few yards off of the road, even the kids wouldn’t find the remains. It’s unnaturally quiet, except for the occasional fly-over airliner or fighter jet, the birds, bees, and frogs. Clap your hands, the birds and frogs go silent for a few moments and, on that still afternoon, its the most natural place I’ve been in years. The closest traffic is from two-lane farm roads 20 miles away in all directions. If the bike won’t start, or I drop it into the ditch turning it around, it’s a 20 mile hike to anything. Except, of course, Leal. If I could get across the creek it’s not much of a hike, maybe 10 miles, to what’s left of Leal. But the creek is high and I’d rather walk 20 miles than drown out here.
It doesn’t matter, I didn’t have any problem getting turned around. In fact, to make it a challenge I did the U-turn on the pegs instead of simply Y-turning it on foot. The safe way seemed like cheating the opportunity to be isolated. A little adventurer risk is good for old people. If you survive, you deserve to live another day. If you don’t, it’s not like there is a shortage of old folks littering the earth. Think of it as taking that old Native American tradition of walking into a blizzard when the old one has lost his or her value to the tribe. Just like those abandoned belongings, people ought to have some value to themselves and to their tribe to justify taking up space. Us old guys have to work harder at providing that value, both to ourselves and to the group, than women. At least it feels like it. Since I turned 50, these trips began to feel a little like that kind of test.
When I was younger, I didn’t feel or fear my mortality. I backpacked into the Texas desert, into the Grand Canyon, and across the New Mexico Rockies with absolute confidence that I would be back home and at my job on Monday. I fired up the dirt bike and rode to the starting gate for another race without worrying about pain or death. I hauled my family all over the country in a VW bug or bus and never considered the fact that our vehicle was no more crash-worthy than a paper sack on wheels. I kayaked the ocean and fast rivers, bungee-jumped out of a hot air balloon and off of a bridge, solo scuba hunted the reefs of Baja, flew out of a small town air field and landed in a Nebraska corn field with a old WWII Navy fighter pilot, and I’ve toured isolated parts of Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Colorado, and Baja on a dirtbike. Some of that seems almost impossibly crazy, today. When I did those things, I was bulletproof, invulnerable, young. I was confident that I could get myself and my family through any catastrophe. The catastrophes we did experience I managed to handle fairly well.
Today, I’m 62 and every morning I get reminded of how fragile life and mobility are. Getting out of bed is more painful than playing football was when I was a kid. Making a fist is a reminder of how many fingers I’ve jammed, sprained, and broken over the years. Hell, writing my name on a check is a sore reminder of all sorts of injuries. Bending to pick up a dropped glove fires up a string of aches from my neck to my knees. Once I exercised to make myself stronger. Now, I just do it to keep from turning into a fat, inflexible, useless blob.
Riding a motorcycle solo into the abandoned areas of this overpopulated country is my act of mortal defiance. Thinking about pain and disability and death will turn a man conservative. Avoiding adventure and risk is one way to hurry the end of living. In a wonderful, blast-of-life “Last Lecture,” Professor Randy Pausch said, “It’s not how long you live, rather how well you live.” For me, living well requires a little back-to-my-roots adventure. Crawling out of bed, going to work, coming home to dinner and the idiot box, and crawling back to bed is the kind of routine that feels, to me, like a premature grave. Riding all day without seeing anyone, sleeping in a tent on the side of an abandoned country road, boiling a little instant coffee in the morning while listening to the birds wake up feels like being as alive as I can get. Colin Fletcher, one of my life’s heroes and the author of several of my favorite books, hiked and floated the entire length of the Colorado river when he was 67. Nothing I will ever do will approach his most accessible adventure, but he has encouraged me want to keep at it until I can no longer find joy in places of solitude. Then, I will truly be ready to take that walk into the blizzard.
“Even in these mercifully emancipated decades, many people still seem quite seriously alarmed at the prospect of sleeping away from officially consecrated campsites, with no more equipment than they can carry on their backs. When pressed, they babble about snakes or bears or even, by God, bandits. But the real barrier, I’m sure, is the unknown.” Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker.