Last week, to my surprise, my client asked if I could stay one more week in Vermont turning this initial two week job in to a five week trip. I really can’t complain. It’s good to be busy and making money and even better to be doing somewhere I think is among the most beautiful places in the world.
But it does present a challenge. I have a queue of things to do for this project but the entire queue requires that I be in Toronto. In a last ditch effort, I make a post to Facebook looking for ideas. A day or so later I get a suggestion from Jim, a high school classmate of mine: “You can come ride dirtbikes on technically challenging singletrack with me!”
I love this idea because it seems totally out of left field. It is a perfect combination of challenging, exciting, interesting and really new to me.
Saturday morning on the way to to Jim’s house, I stop by Barnes and Noble to pick up a friend posted about earlier this week:
I think it’s hugely appropriate for this project and today’s adventure as well, though the “wiping out” part is not something I want to experience today.
Along the drive I think about the experience ahead of me. I’m comfortable on a bike on the road. I’ve done a bit of mountain biking back when I was 20 but not since. My only experience operating a motorcycle was when I was 14 and a neighbour got a dirt bike. He was very protective of it and let me ride it once – 100 metres in to a flat field and back. And as I think about this I feel nervous. I remember wiping out on my mountain bike and getting pretty scraped up. What will it be like with a vehicle that isn’t limited by the strength of my legs?
Soon I am back in my hometown and am turning down a road named after my great grandmother’s family. I pass a field I remember walking down with her as she talked about the days when she used to live here, riding by horse and buggy down to town for shopping trips. Up the hill I go until I get to Jim’s house. I turn in to the driveway, passing a sign with his name on it. I know I’m in the right place. This is good because soon after I pass the sign, the dirt driveway turns steeply upward and for a moment I question if I’m in the right place. The tires on my compact rental car struggle for purchase as I climb but I have retained enough memory of how to drive on dirt roads to know how to manage it. At the top I’m rewarded with a view that stretches for miles. It is like being in our highrise apartment but the air is clean and smells of plants and flowers. Instead of being surrounded by a city of 2.5 million people, I’m in a state whose entire population is about 1/4 of that. Even the road has been left far behind. The house is fully off-grid so there are no electric or telephone wires leading to the place. The house is a small island in a sea of nature.
Jim takes me out to a shed where he has several motorcycles of all sizes stored from child sized up to one that looks intimidating. The engine is big and the exhaust is large. It’s got to be fast. It is like I’m going for my first ride on a horse and this is the big stallion – fast and strong-willed. Thankfully he takes this one and gives me a smaller, more approachable one, a gentle pony of a motorcycle. I put on my helmet and get ready to go. Even as I’m standing there, I can feel reluctance building. It’s not so much an “I don’t want to do this.” as a ” Maybe there’ll be a technical difficulty and we won’t have to.” It is interesting to sit above these emotions – to know on one level I’m going to have a fantastic time, but to see this other side of me trying to find a way out. It isn’t even fear of anything specific. I’m not worried about being injured. I seem to be balking at the prospect of doing something I’m not good at. Being present in that moment and recognizing it helps, as does the fact that I’ve committed to this. I am doing this project for just this experience – pushing through things that are uncomfortable to find out what’s on the other side.
And so we start and of course I’m right. I’m not immediately good at this. Why would I be? I’m completely new at this. My 45 seconds of motorcycle riding experience have given me zero confidence at this. Fortunately Jim is a good teacher. He explains how to use the clutch and shift the gears (I at least know how to drive a manual shift car so there’s a little something to start from) and I spend several minutes riding around in circles. I stall out a couple of times, startle myself with quick acceleration a couple of times, forget to use the brake other times, but soon I feel relatively comfortable. Time for the next lesson.
We head down the long steep driveway and now I’m forced to practice using the brakes. I find it a bit awkward because the motorcycle has a foot brake on the right side for the rear brake and a handle on the right side for the front brake. The left handle, where I’m used to finding the front brake, is the clutch. On the positive side, this works out quite well as my impulse when I feel I’m going too fast is to gently squeeze my left hand to give the front brake just a little touch. When I’m riding downhill that makes me go a little faster and then I remember I have the brake near my foot and of course the one on my right hand. By the time we go down and up the driveway I’m pretty sure I can move the bike where I want it to go and braking is becoming automatic.
All of which is good because now Jim’s turning off the driveway and we’re headed into grass. He heads for a small round pond with banked corners above it that he calls the “toilet bowl”, circling quickly just above the water. As he heads out of that he goes forward to another banked curve without a water hazard. Around a banked corner he goes and then over a ten foot high berm – steep on both sides. The first time he takes it slow but in later times he gets a bit of air. After his second time I go for it. I go around the banked corner and see the hill. Now it seems so much bigger and steeper than it did when Jim was going over it. Am I going to go over backwards as I climb it? Roll over forwards as I go down it? Or maybe not hit it straight on and go cartwheeling down the side. There is no time to worry about it, I twist the throttle and up I go. It is ridiculously fun. My stomach drops as I notice that I’m not following the path down the other side but seem to be drifting to the left. There’s no other choice, though, but to just keep going in the direction I’m headed and make my own path. We go around a few more times. Somehow I never once manage to hit the trail squarely but it’s never a problem. This bike will go where I take it.
Seeing my confidence improving, Jim suggests we try some single-track. I pause for a minute. I didn’t perfectly manage the berm the way I wanted to. But I trust Jim’s judgment and I also know that the bike will only go as fast as I tell it. If I get in over my head I can just stop. And so we go down a narrow trail that is barely discernible from the forest floor around it.
I’m being kept right at the edge of my comfort zone which is good. And so off in to the woods we go. The path is very narrow and we don’t go very fast but concentration is required to stay on the path, to avoid the occasional log or big rock. I’m surprised to be getting exercise as I do this. My arms are challenged by steering and my core by holding my position.
I enjoy the fact that operating at this limit of my capability puts me right in the moment. It reminds me of when I am exercising at the limits of my endurance. There is no room in my mind for regretting the past, worrying about the future, planning my next workday or even making a shopping list. There is not even room for self-judgment about how I’m doing. There is only now, the present moment, and the only thing to think about is what I am currently doing.
We get to a mud hole and Jim flies across it. I hesitate, wondering how to best do it and make a half-hearted choice to go one way, then as I go through doubting myself and changing course. And at that moment the back wheel loses traction and I struggle to stay upright shouting a startled “SHIT!” when I end up on my side. I’m not moving fast so there is no worry about injury but I do get my leg covered in mud to my knee and bury one side of the bike in the mud and it stalls. I’m surprised to find that I’m not upset at my failure at all. I just heave it back upright, put it in neutral and push with all my strength to get the bike out of the mud hole where I can start it back up.
And I’m off again, around a corner and to a hill. This way is narrow and steep and I get up most of the way before, unsure of myself I let off the gas and stalled part way up.
We start it back up and finally we’re at the top of the hill. We turn off the engines and the forest is silent again. Jim tells me that we can continue down with the engines off. There doesn’t seem to be much of a trail so I just follow generally where he’s gone. The interesting and completely counterintuitive thing is that going slowly makes it harder. When I try to go slowly and carefully balance is harder and uneven ground, rocks and sticks have more of an impact, knock me off balance and I have to stop. But those times where I am able to just let go, to trust that it will go OK and get up some speed, everything works just fine. Until I get nervous and slow way down again and find myself working hard to keep the bike upright again.
When we get to the bottom we head back to the house to catch up on the 30 years of time that had passed since we last talked to each other. I take off my helmet and my hair is as sweaty as if I’ve just finished a spin class. As we talk I realize my arms are feeling tired as if I’d been doing push-ups.
It’s almost time to go but before I do I have a chance to take Jim’s larger, more powerful bike out for a ride. The bike that seemed like an intimidating stallion when I first arrived now seems fun though something with more than enough power to demand care and respect from me. The bike hasn’t changed, but I have.
I start it up and try to start a few times. This one is a little more challenging and I stall out a couple times before heading out. I go around in a few circles before heading down the driveway. After some time riding I realize how much easier it is to go a bit more quickly down the driveway. Once I get to the bottom, I turn around and come zooming up the driveway, even making it in to third gear!
This experience, that I hadn’t even thought of trying a few days ago was one of the most fun of all of them so far. As I drive back to the hotel, I think about the big lesson I took away from this day: commitment matters. Safety matters above all, but if you overthink it or go in assuming that you can’t do it you will be more likely to fail than if you just dive in and go for it.
And the more I think of it, the more I realize that this is a common thread with nearly every one of these adventures so far. Whether it’s African Drumming, biking up a mountain or an improv workshop, attitude is everything. As I face other possibly more challenging adventures, I need to go in with the commitment to give 100% and not hold back. Like my friend teaching the improv workshop advised: “Try to get yourself in to trouble.” This obviously doesn’t mean “Be reckless and do dangerous things” but it means that instead of trying to do things you’re 100% sure will succeed, why not try something that’s got a 60% chance of success? You’ll either surprise and enchant yourself with your success or you’ll have an interesting adventure that you’ll learn from.
Related to that, if I’m going to try to do things I’m only 60% sure will work, I’m going to need to adjust my expectations accordingly. Today I did things I wasn’t sure I could do. Sometimes I thrilled myself by managing to stay upright flying up over a tall berm. Other times I stalled out on a hill or literally fell in the mud. Other than a bit of surprised profanity coming out of my mouth when I found myself in the mud hole, I wasn’t bothered. There was no inner critic trying to tell me I should’ve done better. It’s not because I don’t have an inner critic – mine’s among the harshest. But figuratively speaking he and I had a talk. I was prepared to make mistakes and maybe even walk away with a minor injury or two. When even that didn’t happen the falls and mistakes became fun spice to add to the adventure.
And then it occurs to me. Even in daily life it all boils down to three simple things:
- Whatever you do, give it 100%. Do it as if it is the most important thing in your life. You’re spending time doing it so in this moment it likely is.
- Whatever you do, set your expectations commensurate with your experience and capabilities.
- If you fail, regardless of your expectations, your energy is best spent getting back on track and figuring out what to do next, not berating yourself for your mistake.