“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School: Motorcycle Racing 101

Yesterday this whole thing seemed like a good idea but now that I’m blasting over the hill at Road Atlanta’s turn eleven at nearly one hundred miles per hour, I’m thinking that my recliner in front of the TV seems awfully inviting. Especially since the only thing between my body and the blurring pavement beneath my riding boots is an overpowered Suzuki motorcycle. I had gradually built up enough confidence over two days of classroom instruction and on-track riding to crank the throttle open and really lean my bike into the 2.54 miles of Road Atlanta’s twisting turns and curves. But like many novice racers, my bravado led me too far into the realm of speed and as I crested the hill I could feel my front wheel lift and lose touch with the pavement. Past turn eleven the race track begins a long right hand sweep into the front stretch. My bike was drifting inexorably toward the outer edge of the track and the pit wall that loomed twenty feet beyond. Two thoughts raced through my head: “This is gonna hurt.” and “Lean right, gently squeeze the brake lever, and don’t panic.” I slid off the track, fishtailed through the wet grass on the track’s edge, but—miraculously—slowed the bike, retained control and pulled back onto the track, shaken and stirred.

Before my two days of training at the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School at Road Atlanta, my first thought would have still been the same. My second thought would have been “No, this is REALLY gonna hurt” and I would have had an up-close-and-personal interface with the pit wall. Thanks to that training, I had been given enough instruction in body position, panic control, and braking technique that a near-disaster was averted and I lived through an adrenaline-pumping off-course excursion that became the object of gentle kidding from my classmates. Gaining the ability and confidence to control my bike in exactly these kinds of situations was one reason I came to Schwantz’s school.

Kevin Schwantz, a former World Champion motorcycle racer, offers low-stress, high-speed one-, two-, and three-day motorcycle racing schools at Road Atlanta. Don’t go expecting endless lectures interspersed with minimal time on the track. Classroom instruction is an important part of the class but there is plenty of track time. In my two-day class I spent more than four hours on the track, riding just as fast as I felt comfortable with. For aspiring motorcycle racers or adrenaline junkies, the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School is a dream come true—speed and lots of it on the same world-class track that real racers compete on.

I had high expectations when I signed up for the class. Unfortunately, on the scheduled day a heavy rain is falling. I am nervous enough about charging around a dry racetrack at triple-digit speeds and adding slippery asphalt to the mix is definitely a cheek tightener. As we assemble in the classroom next to the track, twenty-nine other jittery students share my apprehension and some are having second thoughts about this whole racing deal.

Chief Instructor Lance Holst calms our nerves. “Usually we have a handful of students who hit the track and immediately get in over their heads,” he says, “but rain makes everyone nervous and tends to slow everyone down and we have a better class with fewer incidents.” A wet track, a wildly overpowered machine, and my trembling hands—what’s to be nervous about?

Our first track session is a twenty-minute slow speed follow-the-leader parade, with instructors leading a gaggle of timid students around the curving track. The first thing I realize is that my motorcycle is much more surefooted in the rain than I ever thought possible. The other students come to the same conclusion quickly and impromptu racing duels break out all over the track. Twenty minutes later as we pull into the pits everyone is pumped up. Nervousness has been replaced with excitement and the ensuing track sessions over the next two days are an ever-increasing spiral of speed, passing, and competitive racing.

But don’t get the idea that the school just turns wild-eyed students loose to run wild around the track. This is serious business and at these speeds you can get seriously hurt. Classroom training precedes each track session, with a specific topic presented to build on. Braking, shifting, panic control, body position, and cornering are covered in detail, with Holst and his dozen or so other instructors providing expert instruction on each area

Individual instruction is a big part of the School and students are encouraged to ask for personal instruction. An instructor will accompany you around the track and provide one-on-one coaching by observing and critiquing technique. I can tell immediately that many of the students are much more proficient at riding than I am. Since I am obviously in need of help, I ask Opie Caylor, one of the instructors and another champion racer, to follow me and assess my riding style. Eight laps later, I pull into the pits with Opie close behind.

“So, how did I do?”

“Your elbows are sticking out too far and your knees and feet are pointed out to the sides of the bike. And you look stiff.”

A diplomatic way of saying that I look like a terrified doofus. So much for any hope of snagging the class award for best rider.

Fortunately, Opie gives me a couple of tips and I at least look like a racer by the end of the first day. By day two the rain has tapered off. Our first session is a warm-up run in which we are encouraged to utilize the skills we learned the day before. By mid-morning the skies clear and the track dries out. One student feels the need to test the limits of adhesion and promptly plows into turn nine too fast, crashing into the gravel safety trap on the outside of the turn. We inspect his crashed bike, the shattered bodywork reminding us of the seriousness of what we are doing. But the sobering effect wanes within seconds and the dry track is just too much temptation and we’re pushing our bikes even faster. The class soon sorts itself out into packs based on ability and speed and within each pack there are fevered battles to take the lead. Passing and drafting are rampant and the feeling of actually racing is real.

The remainder of the day my confidence increases. I find myself leaning over in the turns, my knee touching the pavement; I twist the throttle wide open and immediate and incredible acceleration pushes me back on the bike. At high speed the wind beats against my chest and tugs at my helmet and under hard braking and downshifting into the turns my bike bobbles and struggles to maintain traction. The class teaches smoothness and concentration and by late afternoon I feel it all coming together, the turns appearing in my visor just as I visualize them, each section of the track an individual ballet of leaning, accelerating, and braking. A rhythm builds and I begin to understand what it takes to compete at the professional level.

Of course, all of this is just wishful thinking on my part—I’m just an amateur and never will be a professional motorcycle racer. But then Opie screams by on his bike, glances over his shoulder and gives me a thumbs-up and just for a second I feel like a real racer.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Little Missouri River

From my vantage point on a high bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River, I can see the classic symbols of the American West. To my left a pair of massive, shaggy bison warily eye me and in a valley to my right a herd of wild mustang graze the low hills of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

This area of the Great Plains grandly epitomizes the mythical Old West of cowboys and cattle, and for that reason it has attracted people to its picturesque but forbidding lands for centuries. One person who felt the pull of the area was a young Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt decided he needed a break from the intrigues of eastern politics, he chose to escape to this land of carved canyons, richly hued rocks, and verdant plains to try his hand at ranching. He bought the Elkhorn Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri and spent the better part of four years, from 1883 to 1887, tending cattle, riding the range, and generally immersing himself in the cowboy culture. Teddy attributed much of his later success to the time he spent there. The place “has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own”, Roosevelt wrote, “It looks like Poe’s tales and poems sound.” Others were less glowing in their descriptions. One writer described it as “Hell with the fires gone out.”

These disparate views pretty much sum up the dichotomy of the Badlands; breathtaking beauty combined with inhospitable weather and intimidating terrain. The eroded canyons and patterned rock formations sparkle with the rich golden hues of sandstone, the deep green grasslands contrast with the caramel-colored water of the Little Missouri. The sun reflects vivid saffron and vermilion from scoria, molten sand and clay rock formed by the natural burning of lignite in the earth. But there is a cost to this beauty. At the Badlands the gently rolling plains that welcomed early pioneers to the eastern Dakotas abruptly changed into steep gullies, river valleys, buttes, and mesas that stymied the westward migration of settlers. The deeply etched valleys proved all but impassable for the heavily loaded wagons of the western-bound settlers. Those few individuals who were foolhardy enough to attempt the passage were usually unsuccessful, their dreams destroyed in the unfriendly terrain. Consequently, the stream of pioneers wending their way west followed more southerly routes, bypassing the Badlands. This inaccessibility proved beneficial for some, however. The Badlands were one of the last redoubts of the Sioux Indians who were finally hounded from the area by General Alfred Sully and a contingent of 2,000 soldiers in 1864. Although some stragglers returned to the area after Sully’s withdrawal, by 1880 all of the plains Indians had given up, driven even from this wretched stronghold.

Despite this checkered history (or perhaps because of it), Teddy was drawn to the Badlands like a bear to honey. His legacy remains; Elkhorn Ranch now composes the middle parcel of the three-unit National Park named after him. The north unit of the park is sixty river miles north of the ranch, and the south unit sits forty miles south. Together these three units comprise 70,000 acres of North Dakota Badlands.

The Little Missouri River is the common thread tying the three units together. This ribbon of sparkling water flows from south to north, passing through or touching all three land parcels, and the 100-mile float from the south unit to the north unit cuts through the heart of the untrammeled Little Missouri National Grasslands. Out of the way and little visited, it is not uncommon to spend a week paddling this section of the river without encountering another human being. This sense of isolation adds to the mystique of the river.

The river today must appear much as it did to Teddy 100 years ago. The only signs of civilization we see from our canoe are distant and infrequent ranch houses. Wildlife is still abundant. Wild mustang, prairie dogs, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and coyote call the area home. But the once-most prevalent occupant of the Badlands exists now only within the confines of the national park. About 600 bison roam within park boundaries and they can be easily spotted grazing the lush grasslands.

We regularly spot mule deer coming to the water’s edge to drink as we paddle. As dusk approaches one day, I sense a presence and glance over my right shoulder to meet the gaze of a lone coyote pondering our presence from the edge of a bluff overlooking the river. I stare back as he ponders us with cocked ears. I look away for an instant to steer a minor course correction and when I look back to the bluff, he is gone. I have seen this eerie vanishing act before; the specialty of these wraithlike creatures, it explains why they are called ghost dogs. Spooked by his ethereal appearance, I feel eyes on us the rest of the day; or perhaps he is following us from the bluffline above.

Depending on the length of trip desired, canoeists can put in at the tiny town of Marmarth or the just-about-as-small town of Medora, near the park’s south unit. The run from Marmarth to the north unit is about 200 miles; from Medora the trip is about 100 miles. The river follows a gently meandering path, the banks alternating between cottonwood flats and low sandy cliffs. The river is Class I from Marmarth all the way to the north unit but water levels are extremely susceptible to the weather and can rise quickly, turning the river into an angry torrent with uprooted cottonwood trees and snags presenting dangerous obstacles. The weather is unpredictable and can change a leisurely float into a dicey run. We ran the river in late May and the spring runoff was a roiling brown torrent full of deadfalls and drift.

We want to check out the Elkhorn Ranch so we beach our canoe for lunch near a site where some of the ranch’s outbuildings once stood. This could have been the very spot where Teddy had a boat stolen by a trio of local desperadoes. Teddy and two hired hands pursued them downriver in a flat-bottomed boat, catching up with them and capturing them three days later. Photographs of Teddy holding the three forlorn thieves at gunpoint record his vigilante effort for posterity. I sit in a grove of cottonwood trees near the riverbank and can almost see Teddy relishing his adventure. We nose around among the cottonwoods and fields of the old ranch and spy a couple of wild tom turkeys strutting through a draw near the river’s edge.

When we reach the north unit of the park, we leave our canoe for a day to explore. Buffalo are everywhere, and we walk right through the middle of a sizeable prairie dog town, much to the displeasure of the inhabitants, who bark their disapproval at us until we are well past the town’s edge. We spend our last night in North Dakota camped on a bluff next to the Little Missouri. The high cliffs overlooking the river in front of our tents recede into gently rolling hills covered with sagebrush and cactus behind us. We kick buffalo dung out of the way to make a flat spot for our tents and check out the surroundings. The muddy ground around our camp is cratered with hundreds of buffalo hoofprints and I briefly worry about getting flattened into the ground by an errant herd. So I settle into my tent alert for the rumbling approach of buffalo but all I hear are the mournful howls of a pack of coyotes as I drift off to sleep.

(This article originally appeared in River magazine)

Talladega Thunder

Six hundred screaming horsepower are blasting my NASCAR Sprint Cup car down the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway and the banked turn is looming through the windshield. I want desperately to lift off of the accelerator and stab the brakes but I remember my driving instructor’s last words to me: “Keep the gas pedal down, even through the turns.”

It sounded easy when I was sitting through my orientation session for the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure but it’s not so easy when all you can see rushing toward you is what looks like a near-vertical bank of asphalt backed up by a very hard concrete wall. I force my foot to stay planted on the gas and my forearms tighten to a death grip on the thick steering wheel. No time to think now, my Ford Taurus tilts crazily as it bends into the turn and suddenly the sky is blue out my right window and the green grass infield is out my left—and I’m still on four wheels. The steep 33-degree banking has crazily tilted my Sprint Cup car nearly on its side—all this while I am hauling around the track at over 170 miles per hour.

Is this how Dale Jarrett does it? Must be, because his experience, the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure, has tutored me on the proper line through the turns, the need to keep my foot planted on the gas pedal, and the no-wimps-allowed control required to guide this 3600-pound beast around the notorious banked tri-oval. The Adventure has been giving speed-starved Tony Stewart wannabe’s like me this on-track adrenaline rush for over six years and has expanded its program to include nine tracks around the country, with Talladega being the jewel of the nine sites. This is not a school for aspiring Sprint Cup champions; it’s an opportunity for the average racing fan to get off of the couch and participate in the thrill of manhandling an ornery piece of heavy American metal around the same track that the Sprint Cup regulars jockey around on Sunday afternoons.

For a gear-head like me, this is a fantasy fulfilled. Where else can you step off the street and, after an hour of classroom instruction, pound around the banking at Talladega at over 180 miles an hour? And the only thing limiting your fun time on the track is your wallet. There are options ranging from the six-lap Superspeedway Teaser ($395) all the way up to the 60-lap Championship Challenge ($3495).

I opt for a package called the Season Opener, which consists of 30 minutes or so of classroom driving instruction followed by ten laps on the track. The instruction takes place in a nondescript building in the Talladega infield. Dominating the view on all sides are the track’s monstrous banked turns. There’s only one way to describe the track: intimidating. I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

The program’s emphasis is on track time, not on spending a lot of time listening to some instructor in a classroom. Since we are all squirming in our seats, barely able to contain our excitement, our instructor keeps the orientation mercifully short, mainly explaining the hand signals (faster, slower, left, right, stop) that we will receive from the in-car instructor who will be sitting in the passenger seat. One more step before we head for our race cars—a quick familiarization run around the track in a van. Our van driver points out two parallel lines running the length of the front stretch and into the first turn. “This is the line you’ll follow,” he says, “miss it and you’ll kiss the wall.” That’s when I started thinking about the hardness of concrete.

We pull onto pit road next to a pack of vividly painted cars, looking fast and mean just sitting still. Sitting low on fat tires with exhaust pipes as big as your arm sticking out from under the doors, it’s obvious that these are the real thing. They are in fact retired Sprint Cup cars, albeit a couple of years removed from the front lines of the Cup chase.

After slipping into a driving suit and helmet, I scramble through the window of the number 88 car, the same car that Dale Jarrett drove a couple of years ago in the “No Bull” competition. The safety crew straps me into the driver’s seat and I meet my instructor, Jarrod, who is strapped into the passenger seat next to me. He gives me the thumbs up sign and I give the car some gas and let out the clutch. We lurch ahead, the engine shoving me back in the seat as we speed down pit road and into the first turn. We accelerate through the first two turns and onto the backstretch and I am assaulted with a barrage of bellowing engine noise, g-forces, and wind blasting through the open windows.

I’m not a novice at this, I once drove a NASCAR car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, at one of those follow-the-leader schools where you trail behind an instructor’s pace car, and passing and speed are tightly controlled. After my first lap at Talladega, the difference in that experience and this one is apparent. Instead of doggedly following an instructor-driven car around the track, I am able to go where I want, as fast as I want. At lap three I see one of my fellow drivers ahead. I blow by him like he’s standing still. Take that Earnhardt! I try drafting, passing, and side-by-side racing with the other drivers. My in-car instructor basically turns me loose to let her rip.

I’m having a blast—this is way more fun than any other driving experience. And then I see the flag man up in the starter box giving me the two fingers sign –“Two laps to go!” About five more miles to see how fast I can go. So I keep my foot to the floor all the way around the track, even through the turns. I feel my lap speeds picking up and the G-forces are tugging at me through the turns. The wall blurs by my right window and the bellow of 600 horses rings in my ears. We’re flying, the car bouncing around as even the slightest bump sends me sideways a few feet.

All too soon I see the checkered flag, my track time is up. I do a cool down on the backstretch and pull into the pits. I climb out the window and hit the ground on wobbly legs. I am told that my top speed was 181 miles per hour—faster than I’ve ever gone earthbound. I have only one regret--I didn’t have an extra $3495 lying around to do the 60 lap package.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

A River Runs Through Him

We met Harry at Shawnee Creek, under a cooling canopy of hickory and sycamore trees. It was getting late and we pointed our canoe toward the low sandbar that had formed where the narrow creek flowed into the swift running Current River. My longtime canoeing buddy Jim and I wanted to cook up a hot shoreside meal before paddling another hour downriver to a favorite campsite.

We saw Harry standing on the edge of the sandbar, hands clasped behind his back staring out over the Current’s sparkling riffles. The low sun filtered through the trees and silhouetted his stooped figure. Tiny embers of golden sunlight jetted from the dancing waters in front of him. I remembered my camera stashed away in a duffle bag.

Our paddles interrupted his reverie, but he was glad to see us. We could read it in his eyes. He introduced himself, asked how far we were paddling. He talked through one of those voice boxes, holding his hand to his throat to make sure the device worked. Normally we like to visit with these “river rats” who gravitate to the banks of running waters. We enjoy hearing their stories and swapping lies. But this evening we were in a hurry, needing to eat and make camp downstream before dark.

Harry had other ideas. He asked us how far we’d come, what we’d seen, where we were from. His eyes were deep green, a young man’s spark in an old man’s orbs. He told old man’s stories, full of reminisces and cherished weavings of warmly held memories. He’d lived his whole life on the banks of this river, in a small and cozy house high on a bluff. He saw the river every morning and every night. It never changed, looked just like this when he was a little boy, fishing for bass and catching crawdads. He used to swing on a thick rope, high out over the river and let go to fall splay-legged into the cool pool below. The old rope was still hanging on a thick limb nearby. It had been a good life.

Things weren’t going so good now. His wife had died last winter, just after the cancer ate up his larynx. The disease made him sick, and tired. He couldn’t drive to town much anymore. His kids had moved away and they sometimes came to visit, but they had their own lives. The grandkids didn’t care much for the river, they liked to sit in front of the TV. So he came down to the sandbar often, to see the river up close, to watch the water go by, a crystal ribbon of life, rushing by and gone.

Darkness was creeping over the river. Harry had held us captive and the sun had slipped away. We wanted to stay, so did Harry but he had to get home before dark—his eyesight wasn’t so good anymore—and we had a campsite to reach.

We pushed off and waved at Harry’s thin outline receding into the dusky shadows. He watched us drift downriver, out of his life. Dusk enveloped Harry, he melted into a wall of trees and water. I wondered how many things he’d watched drift out of his life, along the banks of this river.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)