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  • Craig Messenger

A Quiet Mind

I decided on the title for this post weeks ago. I had a certain notion of how these events were supposed to play out and what my neat journalistic response would be to them in that case.


Things went quite differently, but the #1 storytelling rule is to always be completely married to your first title idea and so I’m just going to have to find some way to make it work still.


Saturday, April 23


I’m on the road again, freeway, on the far left but staying clear of the carpool lane. My thoughts are consumed by the idea that if some hybrid of Thanos and Dr. Strange came and snapped and suddenly everyone on Earth was beginning their life over again, from the start, that I would be by far the best at it. At this new life. I wouldn’t take a false step.


Because usually during my other freeway commutes my brain is preoccupied by considering and reconsidering and re-reconsidering every decision that I have ever made. And I don’t doubt that other people go through this same process as well, but now since those office commutes were put on hold for a while, and since some people may not ever have to do them again, I think I have racked up enough solo miles on and above freeways that I am the local leader in this department. And so I can now confidently say that, if we all started over again, I’d easily be the best. I have every angle covered. I have it all mapped out.


Most of my solo miles point directly towards or away from motorcycle tracks, and today is no different. Today I’m venturing towards a track in Tulare, a bit outside of Fresno, which I first introduced you to last year.

The Tulare track, amidst farms

The motorcycle has settled in as my favorite recreational vehicle, likely due to the fact that it was the one I used the most as a small child. Yet I also have various backup philosophies to further explain my interest in them, should the need for debate arise. I’ve settled on the 50/50 Theory.


I sort of view all dynamic activities on a spectrum of how much physical control the participant holds over the apparatus. On one end of the spectrum is bicycling and the board sports, where the athlete has very close to total domain over the equipment. The (wo)man is using his/her body and movements to control the board, and there is very little that the board itself can do to control the sovereign body.


On the other end of the spectrum are cars and airplanes, those machines where the pilot can use his hands and feet to give the machine stern commands, but the bulk of his body is inert and helpless, along for the ride in terms of actually controlling the machine.


Motorcycles fall directly in the middle of this continuum, especially their lighter weight variety that I prefer. The rider uses controls and levers and pedals to tell the wheels whether to speed up or slow down, but it still takes arms and legs and that big core in between to actually get the motorcycle to move around while staying upright. And if the bike doesn’t like one of the commands, it has the muscle and means to shove back. So I think that this is what makes riding motorcycles especially dynamic and interesting, the man and machine having mutual control. The reason for all this philosophizing is that I’m hoping to get along well with my own bike tomorrow at a qualifying race for this summer’s Mammoth Motocross, a tradition I try to partake in each year.


The race starts at 6am tomorrow, so I’m making the trek up the afternoon before. The commute is unremarkable until I stop at Fort Tejon, the base of the Grapevine.


 

Inland, slithering through the windy hills that bound the 5 freeway, the afternoon looks a lot different than it does on the coast. Near the shore this time of year, it’s day from 7am to 6pm and impossible to tell what time it is therein without help. And then near 6pm it transitions to golden hour and then sunset.


Here – 50 miles from the nearest waves and with the hilly byproducts of the San Andreas poking up in between – it actually begins getting dark as soon as the sun starts falling. The mountains cast their long, growing shadows so that 3pm is distinctly darker than 2pm and so on. At 6:45, with the world a tigery mix of summit silhouettes and warm orange hues, I stopped at a Blaze Pizza.


The strip mall with this Blaze Pizza was absolutely packed. The boba place next to it had a line out the door. Boba is disgusting. I was left to wonder who these people were. Do they live around here? Does normal life exist in these locales? Or are we all just wanderers, on our way, not quite there yet…together. Overall, it was a diverse group, but there was a large party together that were of an indecipherable ethnicity. Impossible to tell. It kind of looked like they had a little piece of every nationality in them. An entire family of Kyle Kuzmas. I continued on.


A few miles later, behind the wheel, I ditched the 5 freeway for the 99 freeway so as to not point northwest anymore but mainly just north. I’ve always found the 99 a particularly handsome freeway name and thought that it was wasted on this road to nowhere. Past the Grapevine now and heading through Bakersfield, the ground grows much more level and the billboards also go through a transformation. My two favorites were “Let Your Crop Shine” and “Thank a Farmer.”


My main form of entertainment now came from staring at each farm’s crops and determining how many different angles I could see their rows neatly aligned in, if I timed my viewing perspectives just perfectly. My record ends up being 4, but it requires my fully turning my head around mid pass, Ian style, to get the final one in.


I noticed that all the structures along the 99 are either built of brick or sheet metal, and one part of me felt like maybe that has to do with the fact that a single person could conceivably count all of the naturally growing trees in Bakersfield, and it’s so featureless around here that he/she could also see most of them at once. The other part of me felt that this raw material hypothesis made no sense.


Nearly every town on the side of the 99 has its own airpark – a location that seems to lie between an airport and an airstrip on the landing site continuum. An airport has well manicured asphalt that news anchors call tarmac and a diverse offering of lighting systems. An airstrip, in regions this flat, is pretty much whatever you want it to be (Kansas, the state, is an airstrip). But the Tulare Airpark is somewhere in the middle of these venn diagrams, with some paved sections here and there and a dozen crop dusters parked in mostly darkness.


I always feel vaguely uncomfortable out here and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. I made it to the hotel as it was getting dark, took a shower, and tried to get some sleep.


Sunday


I actually got a really good stretch in this morning. I felt pretty limber for it being 5am on a Best Western carpet. I took this as a good sign. I drove on over to the track as the sun started peeking out from over the Sierras.


I drove past a few vans, some pickup trucks, 2 semi trucks, 34 motorhomes, and 42 travel trailers as I decided on my preferred parking spot here in the chilly dusk air.


This was Sunday, like I said, and we were racing to qualify for Mammoth this summer. Mammoth is the biggest amateur race on the West Coast, the second biggest in the country. That top honor belongs to the Loretta Lynn’s National in Tennessee, and this same Tulare motorsports park held a qualifier for Loretta Lynn’s yesterday while I was out people watching. The day before that, Friday, was the official practice day at Tulare, open to all of the weekend’s racers. I always skip the Friday practice day because I would rather be banned from riding motorcycles than spend 72 continuous hours in this town.


But with this information, you can also gather that everyone that is already here – everyone perched in their motorhomes and with 2 days of dirt already on their bikes – they mean business. This is serious for them. The vast majority of the racers here are under 5 feet tall. The 65cc division (limited to ages 7-11) has the most participants of any. In 2-3 years, a handful of those kids will be faster than I’ll ever be. The rest of them will have burned out and quit the sport for good.


I finally parked and walked over to the registration tent on the other side of the property where I picked up my timing transponder and was assigned slots in the morning practice sessions. There are a few mini practice sessions, each consisting of three laps, just before the racing starts and these are what allow me to skip the torture of the Friday practice day.


I signed up for three racing divisions today (250 B/C, Two Stroke Open, and age 25+), which means I got to ride 2 of the mini practice sessions, and these six laps are enough for me to learn the track.


That first three lap session is always sketchy because the track is super wet and sloppy at that point and I’m just trying to memorize the track layout and get all of the jumps down. By my second session I felt decent though, especially since I knew that the track would dry out and have more traction by my first race. There are two races for each division, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so I will have a total of six races during this qualifier. By the end of the day, the track will be completely beat up and a dust bowl, so the afternoon races are mainly about survival.


Waiting in staging before my first race, the guy next to me tapped me on the shoulder and went: “Dude. Holy Shit. Your bike is sickkkkkkkkk.”


I took out my mouthguard. “Ha thank you man.”


He continued: “No like dude, that thing is sickkkk. You’ve got the cleanest bike out here man. Shit. With the blue in the front and white on the back. Never seen one like that. Dude. Nice.”


Now I wasn’t really flattered because he wasn’t telling me anything that I didn't already know. A lot of motorcycle people, especially those who use the dreaded “dirt bike” term, have no sense of style or design, and their bikes look horrendous. I am an expert designer. My bike is beautiful. So it came as no surprise that in the looks division here at the Mammoth Qualifier, the top spot was taken by your humble narrator.

It's Luka's favorite bike, too

The race began and I got a terrible start because I am terrible at starts, but I made a clever move in the first turn and got by a handful of people who bunched themselves up on the inside. A few corners later I took another inside line and was able to blast by two more guys, now solidly in qualifying position. The track was shaping up really well at this point, so I put my head down and tried to make up some ground on the guy ahead of me. My next lap would be my best of the entire day. I pulled 2 seconds on the guy behind me and was keeping pace with the guy ahead. Then things went sideways.


The back section of the track at Tulare has a pretty high speed straight away with a jump in the middle. The jump has a nice, big takeoff but it is actually quite short, so you have to check up and slow down right before it. Now, I was feeling like a champion, and a well dressed one at that, and I had designs on catching the guy in front of me, so I knowingly hit the jump too fast and tried to take a diagonal line up the face to scrub off some of my speed. As soon as I left the takeoff, I knew I was in trouble.


The diagonal line had sort of worked, and I was now flying through the air a bit sideways after having scrubbed off some of that speed. This is totally normal.


Still, I was flying too far and it was clear that I was going land past the landing, pretty much to the flat. This is also relatively normal. On any but the largest jumps, landing in the flats isn’t such a huge deal.


The trouble came from both of these normal situations occurring at the same time. It’s totally fine to land a bit sideways, so long as you land softly on the downslope of the landing. And it’s all well and good to land in the flats, so long as you land true and straight. But you aren’t supposed to make both mistakes at the same time. It’s just, it’s not allowed.


I got the bike back as straight as I could but the rear wheel was still hanging out over to the right when the impact came and my right foot flew off the peg from the force of it all and hit the ground. I felt the disconcerting, crunchy feeling of what seems like your foot getting bitten off by an amphibious shark but is actually just rolling an ankle. The other problem here was that I didn’t actually even crash – I saved it – and so I was still now traveling forward at a decent rate of speed. I had to just look down and verify that my foot was still there and pointed in the proper direction. It was. So I figured I might as well try to ride this thing out. There was a small jump and then a large jump in the next section so I took them at a reasonable speed and straight as a mothatrucking arrow and they went fine. It appeared that my ankle was just sprained and not amputated. So I kept on racing.


Now the issue was still that my ankle was indeed sprained and I couldn’t flex it at all, so it became impossible to use the rear brake pedal, and this meant that I had to come into corners really a lot slower than the champion in me was hoping to. I also declared that this right foot was not allowed to get anywhere near the ground for the rest of the day, so I had to take pretty conservative outside lines in all of the right hand corners from there on out. I lost 6 seconds per lap of pace and there were still 3 laps left, so I helplessly watched qualifying positions sail past me. I could still do all of the jumps, and my left hand corners were sort of alright, so I held off the rest of the pack, but I ended the race 1 spot outside of the cut.


I made it back to the van and knew that it was time to get busy. My last race wouldn’t end until 8 hours from now so I was going to have to find some way to make the ankle last that long. I still had 5 races left on the day and the absolute first order of business was cutting that number down. 25+ is a very competitive division and I knew it would be tough for me to qualify for it even in top shape, so I immediately ditched those races and figured that I would be able to survive the 3 I had left. I restrapped my boot as tightly as it would go and it still wasn’t very tight, so I needed to go in there for surgery. I found a youtube video on how to tape an ankle and gave my best rendition with gorilla tape and it actually seemed fairly secure. Then I pounded some Advil. I had about a 90 minute break until my next race, so I decided I needed to walk around and try to keep the adrenaline going. I made my way to the small grandstands at the center of the track.

After a successful surgery

There, as I watched a few races, I was able to fall back into a nice bit of people watching. Some moms were sitting together, commiserating over their boring sacrifice of attending the races.


“You know, if we weren’t out here doing this, we could go to a tennis resort. One of those all-inclusive ones.”

“But Sherri, you don’t even play tennis.”

“Oh, I just want to drink.”


They also commented on the prevailing smell at the track. Tulare, at times, smells a bit like manure. The rest of the time, it smells a lot like manure.


“You know I heard that there is a sewage treatment plant right near here. I think that must be where the smell comes from.”


I was skeptical about Sherri’s theory. Seems like more of an outhouse kind of demographic around here.


The premiere race of the day was the Prosport division, where a local 17 year old kid was the heavy favorite. He has been the top amateur in his age range for the past decade and is graduating to the pro nationals with factory Kawasaki this summer. He’s actually pretty well spoken and normal for a homeschooled kid in this industry, and unfortunately for him his parents were true prophets and gave him the Christian name “Ryder” (Deuteronomy 5:41, I think). You can tell that he sort of cringes and winces every time he has to say it.


He’s incredibly fast. The only word that comes close to properly describing his technique is beautiful. We shared a starting gate (sometimes two smaller divisions share a gate) on my final race of the day and he lapped me.


After that Prosport race, there were a bunch of delays because, as you can imagine, the guys who run and promote these sorts of events aren’t the best at their jobs – and also a kid crashed on the same jump where I had my drama and he had to be ambulanced out, so I didn’t start my second race until 1:30pm. I was worried that maybe the Advil was starting to wear off.


My second race was horrible. I rode so poorly. My ankle didn’t really hurt any more than earlier but I was just riding like a complete goon. On one small jump into a corner on the first lap, I jumped clear off the track. Wasn’t even close. I had to flat track it around the turn to rejoin the race after having lost several more spots. I was 2 spots outside of qualifying position now in this particular race.


Half a lap later, coming into a bumpy corner, my left hand completely fell off the handlebars and with only one hand and one healthy foot I was in no position to steer the motorcycle so I continued on straight, towards spectators. Thankfully, they parted the seas for me. By the time I righted the ship and got back on the track I had lost another spot, now 3 outside of qualifying.


I could tell that the next guy ahead of me pretty much sucked, and so after feeling embarrassed for a few seconds at how mortifying it was to be passed by someone of his status, I focused in and figured I could at least get back by him. By now, everyone else was long ahead of us. There was no chance I was making the qualifying cut in this particular race, but these were just the morning races and we still had the afternoon races left to go, so as long as I stayed somewhat near the cut line, I could hope for a miracle later on.


Even without rear brake abilities, I made up tons of time on this guy going into every corner. He was taking awkward lines and I closed onto his rear wheel within half a lap. But I knew that making a pass was going to be difficult. I followed him closely for two full laps and couldn’t find an opportunity and now I was starting to really hit rock bottom, thinking that I was going to finish behind this dude and why didn’t I just pack up and quit for the day because I’m just a hazard out here, a slow hazard, jumping off the track with hands falling off and swollen ankles and I wonder if I’m messing it up more each lap, the ankle, and –


I read somewhere that if you actually want something, you won’t disqualify yourself from it. I’ve disqualified myself from many things, hundreds of things – things that I thought I wanted but when it came down to it I guess I really didn’t. And DQing sounded sort of delicious right now.


But I like racing motorcycles and I like going to Mammoth and it’s nice to do hard things sometimes and I like puffing my chest out and feeling prestigious talking about it and I’m riding the prettiest bike out here and if I quit right now my journal is gonna end up so boring that I probably won’t even write it and then I’d be shirking my duties as your humble and courageous narrator and that is where I draw the line. So I guess I am gonna finish the day out and make everyone else DQ me instead.


Then a few seconds later the goony guy in front of me tipped over in a slow right turn and I nodded at him as I scooted by, real condescendingly, and I thought “wow the universe is kind of a fun little place.” I finished 2 spots outside of the cut and was quite satisfied with myself.


Now I keep referring to this “cut” line, the qualifying line, and my landing outside of it, but that’s a little misleading. There isn’t actually a tangible “cut” line for the morning races. It’s not until the end of the day, after our afternoon race results are averaged in, that the cut line becomes a real thing. Now, I was in no shape to be passing any of the people that finished ahead of me in my two morning races, so I just had to keep to myself and finish. If you DNF the afternoon races, you’re out. I was going to need a few of the people ahead of me to DQ themselves, and also not let anyone else behind me get ahead.


 

The afternoon races went exactly according to plan. I mostly hung around by myself, taking conservative lines and protecting my ankle, but I still was able to fend off all attacks from the rear. In race 3, a guy on a pink Yamaha ran up my left side in the same turn where my hand fell off earlier in the day, and I conceded the position to him, knowing that this would probably wreck my chances of qualifying in this division but also that there was really nothing I could do about it. I was going as fast as I could. Pink Yamaha guy made a mistake coming out of that same turn and wasn’t able to clear the jump at the end of it, so I stuck to my outside line and jumped back past him. He must have gotten tired or something because he wasn’t able to make that time up for the rest of the race.


On the second to last lap of race 3, I saw a big dust cloud a few sections ahead of me and figured that someone must have gone down. By the time I was in the cloud myself, I saw at least one rider down but I could have sworn there were two. My immediate reaction was to hope that there were two casualties, paving the way for me to slide securely into qualifying position. I then mentally censored myself and figured I should be wishing that the downed rider(s) find themselves in good health.


By the time I came to that section for the last lap, the dust cloud had thinned and it was clear that whoever had crashed had collected themselves and was now upright again, so I could go back to hoping that the dust cloud had claimed at least two uninjured riders. The more the merrier. There was really no way for me to know until the final results were posted at the end of the day.


Race 4, my race 4, started at 5:30pm and it was not only my final race of the day but it was the 38th of 40 total races on Sunday. All the little short kids in their motorhomes were already packing up and leaving, and skipping out on races this late in the day is a really tempting idea. I was confident that at least a couple of the guys who had finished ahead of me would leave early and that I’d get my golden ticket.


Once we were called to the starting line, I counted 2 no-shows ahead of me. 2! Two of them! This was it! It was really happening. I was gonna make it, so long as I finished the race.


And I’ll tell you, I’ve never ridden any slower. I was taking 0 chances. I was probably 15 (yes, fifteen) seconds per lap off of my best lap from race 1. I still pulled away from all the rest of the goons behind me even at this snail’s pace. My ankle was making noises now, or at least I was convinced that the mangled mess of gorilla tape and ligaments and blood down there was making noises. Ryder lapped me, like I said, and for a brief (emphasis on brief) moment I was able to witness his beautiful technique up close and personal. But I still felt like a hero. I was going to have to corroborate it with the final results sheet, but based on my mental math – I was in.


Now that I was done for the day, it was time to pack everything up and leave this dirty town, and I was eager to get out of here as quickly as possible, but I also recognized that the order of operations was about to become extremely important.


Motocross boots are big, bulky things kind of like ski boots but with even less range of motion, and for sprained ankles this is very comforting and convenient. I walked around all day in these things with minimal discomfort, plus my gorilla tape brace seemed to have been done just expertly. I knew that as soon as I took all of this protective equipment off, I was going to become much less mobile, so I had to do things backwards, loading the motorcycle and the spare wheels and the spare parts bin and basically anything heavier than 1 pound into the van before I changed. I didn’t have the patience or mental capacity left to untape my ankle so I cut the entire sock/tape system off with a pair of scissors.


And that thing was sprained. Badly. It was black and blue and purple and swollen and cankle-y and ugly and kind of looked dead in a way, but it was still attached to my body and I could sort of move it around and all things considered, it served me pretty damn well, my ankle did.


Before beginning my annual 12 month vacation away from Tulare, I returned to the registration tent to turn in my transponder and reclaim my credit card (I had put no less than 9 sticky notes around the van to remind myself to do this after last year’s fiasco). There was a scrum of sunburnt dads and small little kids huddled around the results table. I slowly made my way to the front and found my own personal name on my division sheets, floating safely above those mean, red lines of demarcation.


And on that long, lonely drive home, I had no new life decisions to reconsider.