My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, all-terrain motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled, motorized means of transport designed for a driver and, at most, a single passenger―on America’s public-lands trails was born one day in the early 1990’s.
I was backpacking a trail ascending to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed. Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation. Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman. By the 90’s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd, and the surrender of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to that religion.
At times while making my way to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery. The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with limbs and branches to discourage traffic of any kind. Yet even with 45 pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute. Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake settled my nerves.
Thus, I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris asked me to represent the Council at a two-day “training event” for ATV and dirt bike operators.
Aren’t ATV’s and dirt bikes the Council’s sworn enemies? I wondered. But I didn’t verbally question her request.
The event was held on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa. I commuted to the event both days.
The first day, the participants met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon. Some 25 people, mostly male, were present. The participants included the instructor, an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee of an ATV “touring” business located in Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely place in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of a dirt bike dealership in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV (off-road vehicle, another name for an ATV) organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area.
The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad,” still another name for an ATV. Eight quads were provided for our training. They were militant, muscular, Jurassic, open-aired vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads.
The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses. As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and spiriting me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor.
So much for subtlety, I thought.
Although superficially cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event. Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt rather out of place. She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads. Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie. I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery.
Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “track” we were quickly excavating, our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust. When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”
On his own vehicle, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed. But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the brute force of these machines.
At the end of the day, we dripped dust. Meanwhile, a third of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled and clearly bore an eight-foot-wide circular dirt track: the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.
The following day we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead. Far more people attended this event, which dealt with the operation of my old friend, the dirt bike. Some 50 males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, arrived―from where, I had no idea―on their bikes: motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock absorbers and more tires bearing formidable, hungry teeth. All were dressed in tailored-for-cycling shirts and pants―many in electric colors―helmets, boots, gloves, and what appeared to be Gothic breastplates. Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail.
An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.”
Then, Kenton proceeded to advise the warriors to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of their machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and ravens that chattered―in protest?―on the limbs and branches directly above us. I could almost hear the attendees salivating when Kenton informed them, to my astonishment, that the Rio Grande National Forest had 800 miles of trails available for motorized use. When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.”
No mystery there. Roz and I exchanged looks.
At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature. No off-road roto-tillery was provided for Roz and me this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles and bade one another goodbye.
I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our National Forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck.
On the drive home, I reflected. I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead. She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.” I thus concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day smoke- and dust-fest was simply to increase the visibility of the Council with Colorado’s public-lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots.
Still, I couldn’t resist returning to Ed Abbey, specifically a 1984 entry in his published journal: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise [sic] takes up more space [sic] inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”
Sadly, by 2001, Ed was well into permanently “missing in action.”