Old Dog, New Tricks
For the past ten years I have been an avid boulderer, a technical and powerful form of climbing without ropes. I have climbed with fairly religious zeal, two to three times each week since the summer of 1998. This has been my means of maintaining my center, of building friendships, and enjoying the outdoors, from southern Idaho to Bend Oregon, from Bishop to Joshua Tree, Queen Creek to Hueco Tanks, The Box to Moab, Chaos to the 420s. I have climbed in the U.S., Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Japan, and India.
And everywhere I have climbed, nearly without exception, I have been met with joyful, playful, fun-loving, supportive, good-natured people. The sport itself is an internal competition far more than one between climbers. Climbing promotes personal health, strength, and focus.
Last year I was introduced to mountain biking, which I find an incredible balance to climbing.
Climbing is slow, methodical, planned, and graceful. With bouldering in particular, one finds his or her ass firmly planted on the ground while contemplating a series of moves, visualizing over and over and over again only to strain, scream, and fall in a matter of seconds. Each move is carefully executed, each contraction of every muscle planned, tweaked, and tuned to adjust the center of gravity for the perfect balance, reach, and position. Twenty seconds is a considered a long burn in most instances. Then back to the seated position, nursing fingers and toes.
Mountain biking is quite perfectly the opposite, the human brain making split-second decisions so fast that most muscle contractions and balance reactions are happening in nearly complete autonomy. I remember the first time I came down a trail, on the Northern base of the peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona. In my attempt to keep up with Christa, I laughed aloud for the realization that my brain had not been asked to respond that quickly to that many stimuli for a long time. It reminded me of sprinting across a boulder field, bounding from one house sized rock to another, each a leap of faith with mid-air correction to safely attain the landing zone only presented at the peak of the arc.
But with mountain biking the stakes are higher, for the speed is greater and the potential for broken bones (as demonstrated last summer by both my cousin Brandon and friend Amy) vastly increased. By no means do I claim expertise in this sport, for I am but a novice. However, what I have experienced in Colorado, Arizona, and Utah I have enjoyed.
Ironically, I do not actually like mountain biking while I am doing it. In fact, I rather hate it. It is frustrating. It is painful. I shed more blood in the first month of mountain biking than in the prior nine years of bouldering. And I have determined that more expensive bikes do in fact hold up to abuse better than those of lesser quality, in particular, when deliberately hurled after the tenth failed attempt at riding a particular stretch of technical trail. Mountain bikes equate to pain. Clipping-in is a nearly certain correlation to tearing skin from bone, usually at a complete stand-still, which only adds to the humiliation of the event and utter, long-term damage to the ego.
And so this past summer, in an attempt to further expand my horizons (and potential for bodily harm), I took up another biking activity, BMX and skate parks.
Never Too Late to Learn
Quite honestly, I am fifteen, maybe twenty years late. I was suppose to have learned this stuff a long, long time ago. Most everyone at the parks are between six and sixteen years old, the noted “old timers” in their twenties. They complain of pain and slow healing. I laugh and remind them that I am 38.
My good friend Sean is an exceptional and patient teacher, giving me lines of progressing difficulty. In the first day (riding my full suspension FXR mountain bike, mind you) I was able to dive into and pop out of the 6-8 foot bowls. On the second day, I learned to jump up steps and control the pitch of my bike mid-air. But on the third day I was met with a challenge quite unexpected.
While the Lory State Park dirt track hosts a variety of riders, from BMX to dirt jumpers to downhillers, the skate park is, true so many movies, a place were rough kids ride tough. But what I witnessed remains confusing for me, and difficult to let go.
Five kids sat along a concrete bench, a steel curbed platform for skateboarders to hit and slide (quite confident my vocabulary is completely wrong). A heavier kid sat in the middle of the other four, three to his left, one to his right. He had his head down, a little pink in the cheeks. The kid to his immediate left was half his weight and a bit shorter, but his mouth was unusually potent. Most of these kids, ages 7 to 17 are at the park alone, their use of profanity not so concerning to me as the smoking and outward, aggressive violence toward one another.
Laughing for the Wrong Reasons
The thin kid slapped the heavier kid upside the head. The other kids laughed. Then he did it again. The bully of the group encouraged him, saying, “Hit him again! Harder!” He did. A sixth kid, taller and older, maybe mid-teens literally explained to the kid on the right how to hit him with a right hook. He did. The kid in the middle tried to defend himself, but he now had two and three kids hitting him at one time, from all sides. In the face, across the back of his head, and arms.
Everyone was laughing but me and the kid who was the center of this attention. My blood was boiling. He was crying, which of course only increased the beating and laughter, “Oh! Are you crying? What’s the matter? Can’t take it?”
I rolled over on my bike, “Hey guys. Not cool. Not cool at all. Knock it off, ok?”
The bully immediately responded, completely unabated, “What’s your problem? This has nothing to do with you.”
I have to admit I did not expect a ten or twelve year old to stand-up to me with such determination. “You keep hitting him, you have to deal with me.”
“Yeah?! You can deal with my dad.”
Now that caused two reactions in me. At first I nearly laughed for he had perfectly played the part of the Disney bully, ready to beat the timid, but equally eager to call his dad when things turned against him. But then my brain built an image of a stocky man with a handlebar mustache, ripped jeans, wife-beater, and baseball bat (or worse) saying, “My kid here tells me you been caus’n trouble?”
I changed my approach. “Nice kid. You can dish it out but you can’t take it. Go ahead, call your dad. Love to talk to him and tell him about how you treat your friends here. What’s his number? I’ve got my cell.”
“What’s it to you? This doesn’t fuck’n matter to you?”
“Yeah, actually, it fucking does. I came here to have fun. To learn how to ride. But when you and your buddies are beating this other kid, it ruins my day.”
He was relentless, his animosity growing. The profanity outweighing any real words. Another rider popped out of the bowl, having witnessed the growing tension.
He handled it better than I did, saying simply, “Weak guys. Real weak.” He was a good rider, and well respected. I was a newbie, my third day –ever.
They disbanded. But the energy of their anger did not.
I could not shake the emotion of that event. I still cannot quite come to terms with what drives children to exercise such animosity and outward aggression toward each other.
While I do not have children of my own, yes, I have seen this before, most recently in my work in Kenya. But it still causes me to pause and wonder how the pattern is broken. When does a kid who is raised in domestic violence at any level, at home, at school, or at the skate park, grow-up to recognize that it is not ok, that hitting another human only invokes a chain reaction which perpetuates for generations. It is a domino effect with each fallen chip pushing the next to fall.
Why are these kids like this? How can such a new life, some less than a decade old, exhibit such raw anger and hatred, especially in a suburbia of Northern Colorado?
My friends Sean, Staci, and Matt later told me I should have just let it go, let the kids figure it out themselves. Maybe I should. But that doesn’t feel right. If there were four teenagers ganging up on one, should something be done? How about four forty year-olds? Call the cops, right? If not the later, then why the former? Are not the kids the most impressionable? The ones who need the most guidance? The ones who still have a chance to get it right?
The Bike & the Bully
A week or two later, I was at the park at the same time as the bully. He rode past Sean as I entered and did my first round, to warm up. He made a rude comment about me and my mountain bike. Sean mentioned this to me. So I rode over to him and said, “So, wassup?”
He replied, “Noth’n man. Noth’n.”
I asked, “Hey, you want to try my bike?”
He was obviously startled, looking at me and then my bike, “Seriously?”
Smiling, “Yeah, of course. It’s all yours. Just don’t wreck it too bad, ok?”
“Yeah, no problem. Cool.”
And since then, he has been ok. In fact, when I finally broke down and bought a proper Felt park bike, he wanted to ride that too. Yes, the tension is still there. The kids are still terribly mean to each other. But I have a better sense of how to dispell the tension, when I can, and how not to let it affect me. If I can break the pattern for just a few minutes and help the bully remember what it’s like to not be on the defense, then maybe he’ll return the favor to someone, someday. Maybe.