I dreamed about ‘the woods’ last night. The woods were a sprawling swath of undeveloped land separating my neighborhood from Interstate 270. During my grade school years, my friends and I spent our afternoons and weekends searching for salamanders and crayfish under rocks in the rainwater stream bisecting the woods. We roamed well-worn paths and gave uninspired names to all the landmarks. The Abandoned Car, the Big Hill, the Old Tree.
The stream traveled through a five-foot diameter and thirty-yard-long drainpipe crossing under I-270 to the ‘other side of the woods.’ A place I never visited. My parents forbade it. They concocted unlikely scenarios that would undoubtedly occur if I ever made the trip under the highway.
“A flashflood will fill the pipe with water. You’ll drown and be swept away.”
“That pipe is full of sewer gas. You’ll die right in the middle. We won’t even be able to retrieve your body.”
“Hobos live on the other side of 270. You don’t want to meet a hobo in the middle of the woods, do you?”
These cautionary tales, probably passed from one parent to the next, worked exceptionally well. Many kids claimed to have explored the other side of the woods, but I never once saw anyone make the trip.
They bulldozed those woods by the time I graduated high school. Rockville, Maryland boomed in the late seventies. Every home built was immediately bought. The next generation of neighborhood kids missed out on a life altering experience. Even today, I explore those paths nightly in my dreams.
As my friends and I abutted our teens, those same paths transformed into a race course for our stingray bikes. We constructed banked turns and jumps made from wood scraps found in our basements. We dug pits and dragged fallen trees across the paths. We emulated Evel Knievel’s latest dares. The older, cooler kids tried the most dangerous tricks. Not many years later, we snuck into those woods to smoke cigarettes and pot and drink mixed liquor concoctions from pickle jars.
I change little. Forty years later, my drug and alcohol days are long past. But I still love exploring wooded trails, the more remote, the better. And recently, racing a bicycle through the woods has become my principal hobby.
In the summer of 2019, Eli joined a mountain biking team. By fall, I caught the bug and bought myself a mountain bike of my own. In 2010, I disassembled my last, worn-out mountain bike for spare parts to help lower the cost of a bike I was building from scratch. At forty-eight years old, I assumed my mountain biking career was complete. Ten years later, I ride as much as thirteen-year-old me. I coach Eli’s team, so starting last July, I ride trails three days a week, every week.
As fifteen-year-olds are wont to do, Eli spends much of his free time watching YouTube videos. What videos? He’s pretty interested in cooking, so a lot of chef videos. And lately, his primary topic is mountain biking. Recently, he’s watching people build bike parks in their back yards.
A couple of weeks ago, getting ready for the patio project I promised my wife, I dug forty pavers out of an old overgrown patio in a corner of my yard. Twenty of those pavers are more like blocks: six inches wide and eight inches long. They sit three inches off the ground. We lined those up end-to-end and made a skinny—a long skinny structure, six inches wide, to ride our bikes along. The point is to ride the whole length without falling off. Eli is great at this. From time to time he stacks a few blocks randomly on top of the skinny and rides over them as he keeps his wheels dead in the center on the blocks. With no extra obstacles, I fall off two-thirds of the way across… every time.
Last Sunday, Susan and Eli went to a butcher in the next town over. They were gone at least forty-five minutes. The entire time, I rode the skinny. Down around the fire-pit, to the edge of the lawn, up onto the skinny, and… “Crap!” I fell off. Down around the fire-pit, to the edge of the lawn, up onto the skinny, etc.
My neighbors just built a beautiful patio on the back of their house. It’s huge, covered with a roof held up by three grand columns. It features an eating area and a couple of large wicker couches with cushions. They sit back there all. the. time.
On Sunday afternoon, they entertained their parents. Both sets, I think. Six adults and three children thirty feet away. The grandparents look a few years younger than me. Because we planted a forsythia hedge eight years ago, it’s now chest height. They couldn’t see that I was riding an obstacle. All they could see was a middle-aged guy riding circles in his (smallish) back yard for the better part of an hour saying “Crap!” every time he passed close to the house.
Last week, Eli asked “Hey Dad, have you heard of Whistler in Canada? They have a huge mountain bike park there.” Funny question. I actually follow the blog of a mountain biker who lives in Whistler. I feel like I know quite a bit about the mountain biking in Whistler. Eli watched several videos of their pump track. A pump track is a small, tight mountain bike course with close rolling hills and banked curves. On Friday, Eli said, “I want to build one in our back yard.”
I’m not a yard-guy. In the fifteen years since we’ve lived in our house, we’ve never spent a cent on fertilizer. We spread grass seed when areas look especially rough, but our bar is low. Much of the yard is actually moss, which is fine with me. It’s green and it doesn’t grow. The only time we’ve put any real effort into our back yard is when we decided to farm it. Living in a rural area inspired us to plant crops. That only lasted two years. Being a farmer is hard work. “You want to build a pump track? Knock yourself out.”
And so it started. On Saturday, we loaded a scoop of top soil in our pickup ($26) and dumped it in the yard. Eli built a pretty banked curve and a couple of rolling hills (rollers). Everything is somewhat small right now, but another scoop will bring it all up to scale. Susan helped with some of the construction, as did Eli’s friend Jonah. Me? No, I didn’t build it. My fifty-eight-year-old back hurts from mountain biking three days a week. But I certainly rode it.