Mutha Goes Muddin'
My shoulders ache and my hands are numb. The stupid gloves I selected for this ride - suede work gloves (suede work gloves? what was I thinking?) - have soaked through. The rest of my raingear seems to be standing up to the weather, but, quite frankly, my bum has gone to sleep from all this sitting, so I could be damp down to my polypropylenes for all I know. It's raining so hard that, despite my helmet and eyeglasses, I can feel water cascading down my eyeballs. "It is raining on my eyeballs," I might remark to myself, if I weren't using all my mental and physical energies to just keep the great machine beneath me from hurtling off into the woods or flipping over.We are on our way to a place called Devil's Den, not far from the Swift River and Coos Canyon in western Maine, and, to tell the truth, I feel a bit as though I have shaken the hand of Satan.
I am riding an ATV.
Okay, let's dispense with the politics up front. There aren't many outdoor activities in Maine that fire passions like ATVing, or "wheeling," as it's also called. Accidents and deaths, destruction of property, criminal trespassing, environmental damage - all these issues frequently find their way into the headlines. This can make the work of local clubs and statewide organizations such as the Alliance of Trail Vehicles of Maine - who are trying to clean up the image and establish self-policing policies (modeled on the direction the snowmobile movement took some years back) - a challenge. Members of these groups claim it's just a few yahoos who are causing all the trouble, that's there's plenty of good being done by responsible riders, not to mention the tourism revenues being generated. Yet those opposed to the machines say even "good" use is harmful and the things should be banned - outright. One thing is certain: ATVing ranks among the fastest-growing forms of recreation in the state, and it's likely here to stay.
Politics were not the reason for my ride, however. I simply wanted to find out what kind of people own and operate these machines, what they are all about, and, foremost, to try and understand the appeal.
So, as my husband said, "Mutha was goin' muddin'."
I contacted A.T.V. Maine president Richard Barter, whose son, David, arranged for me to join him and his clubs, Winnegance Wheelers and Woolwich Wheelers, on a rainy Saturday morning to get an insider's look at the world of ATVing. When I first arrived at the Coos Canyon Camping parking lot, I had no trouble finding my party. The place was vehicle central. All I saw were trucks, trailers, and ATVs. I approached a short, solid-looking fella sporting a goatee, shaved pate, and green raingear, who turned out to be David Barter. An affable man in his mid-thirties with a dry, quick wit, he instantly struck me as the kind of reliable person you'd want watching out for you if you were embarking on your first ATV ride. After I was introduced around - lots of friendly faces and big hellos - I was presented with my machine: a lime-green Arctic Cat 400, on loan from Richard Barter. David and I took a good long time to go over the controls. My mind usually tends to wander when receiving instruction, but I was riveted, especially concerning the part about operating the brakes. "Like that?" I said. "This one? Like this?" The trickiest part to get used to, I was told, would be the throttle, which is operated with a thumb lever, not unlike the ringer on a child's bike. I wasn't so sure I liked the looks of it. I was afraid one strong sneeze and a misplaced squeeze could send me flying.
Finally, I mounted the saddle, which was surprisingly wide and comfy, and took the controls for my parking-lot trial run. After a couple of goofs with the starter, I engaged the throttle very slowly, creeping and crawling around the lot like I was on some oversized child's toy. The controls, which require quite a bit of pulling and turning, were harder to maneuver than I thought they'd be. In fact, when I later asked some of the women on our trip why they chose to ride rather than drive, they said they didn't have the upper body strength. Even on this flat terrain, I felt my muscles strain, and, I have to confess, a bit of a thrill at my prowess. With the final touch - a Darth Vader-y looking helmet festooned with yellow and orange flames - fitted firmly in place, I was deemed ready to ride.
And that is what brought me to this rain-soaked moment down a muddy trail in the middle of nowhere on an ATV with a group of twelve or so strangers, ranging from seniors to teens. Traveling in single file, we have just completed the first couple legs of our journey. While traversing straightaways was simple and fun - I got up to 25 mph a couple of times - it wasn't exactly taxing. I even felt myself thinking "Wheeeeeeee!" as I goosed my throttle. I like to go fast.
Tackling the more rugged terrain, some of which was steep and boulder-strewn, was a different matter. There is something of a game of chess involved in choosing your course. The turn you make now will dramatically affect what happens next and right after that. You need to anticipate, plot out, look ahead. In a word, you have to pay attention.
Very early into our ride, I was faced with a steep grade, mud holes, and huge and small rocks in my path. While I carefully picked my way over the rocks, I could feel the pull of the tires on the handle bars. The tires grab, grip, and hug whatever surface they encounter and cushion the blows from bump after bump. Once you have the wheels going in a direction, they seem to like to stay that way; changing course or righting yourself can take some real effort. So does making it through mud. Before we began, David explained that it is essential to keep pace and not get bogged down. That largely means accelerating when your rational mind says "brake" and reminding yourself when you buck or rear that these machines are built to remain upright. You have to trust the thing beneath you.
After our break, which I spend pointlessly mopping my glasses with my soaking bandana, we forge on. As we follow the ATV signs pointing to Devil's Den (and why do my destinations always seem to have these kinds of names - why not Milkweed Meadow or Wildflower Way?), I grow more comfortable and confident. I even begin to enjoy this steady rain, which I am told is a blessing, since "eat my dust" is a literal cliche for everyone on these rides except the lead driver. (Masks are essential.) When someone has engine trouble along the way, the whole group stops as David jumps off his machine to examine the problem. Like a small pack or herd, these people look out for each other. There's no sense of impatience, of being held up. People sip water, chat, wait. While we're sitting, I feel a bump from behind. I inch forward, thinking I'm in someone's way. It happens again, and I move forward again. When it happens a third time, I turn around to see Richard smiling. David walks by, asks if his father is butting me and when I tell him yes, he gives me a look that says I have passed muster. I feel a small flush of pride.
Just as I'm starting to get into the rhythm of the ride, I come upon a big mud slick and have to test my skills. I lean in and use all my force to keep on track. I think I might be sinking, so I give her a little juice, dig in my wheels and pull myself up and out over the crest of a small hill, where I pause to enjoy a quick ripple of exhilaration. From my vantage point, I can see yet another choice quickly needs to be made. Below is a deep wallow - a giant bowl of mud soup. To avoid it will require angling my machine over a steep ledge that looks like it could topple me. I make a split-second decision and in another split second discover it was the wrong one. My front wheels are literally swallowed into the hole. If I had my wits about me (which I clearly do not), I would've kicked it into reverse and gone the other way. Instead, I creep forward at a slug's pace until I am mired. Remembering David's earlier good counsel (just a little too late), I make another bad choice. I choose to gun it - or, as my friend Melany would say, "Give 'er the dinna." My tires spin, mud flies, the front wheels lurch, and the machine rears underneath me. I am looking at sky. My hands are still on the controls. I am afraid if I move even a breath, the thing will flip over and come back onto me. Yet before I can even finish that thought, David is off his machine and helping me off mine, and I scramble up onto a boulder. He puts the thing into reverse, pops it out of the mud, and transports the machine to safety. I have never felt so imperiled and delivered in so short a time in all my life. There's only one problem: I'm not getting back on that thing.
At least that's what my brain is screaming as I stand safely on my high boulder. Somewhere in the back of my brain I know I am holding up the whole party (the elephants wait for every member), but nothing can budge me. "This rock suits me just fine," I want to say. "You all go on and enjoy your ride. I think I'll just become a tree sprite and live out the rest of my days right here."
But then another voice in my head barks an order to get back on that horse and ride. And I do. Just like that. I get back on my machine and join my pack, and I ride on.
Not long after, we arrive at Devil's Den, a pretty gorge and river, where we have our lunch break. I'm still a little shaky, and it takes me a while to get off my machine and remove my helmet. As my feet hit gravel, I feel like I have really accomplished something - overcoming my fear like that. And at that moment I get it. I get the thrill. The rush. Within moments, I'm ready for more.
But then something happens that briefly jars me back to my original feelings about ATVs. As the group fans out to explore the gorge and environs, I pass a family - a mom, dad, and two kids with fishing poles - traipsing up the path I am descending. I'm feeling a sudden burst of friendliness and I give them a wide smile and a big hello, which is returned with cool, tight-lipped smiles. The boy doesn't even look up. I feel a stab of guilt.
I wander down and join Richard Barter by a green pool, and I listen to him talk about the challenges his group is facing, but more importantly the good he feels they can do when wheelers band together. (On a subsequent ride I made a month later, for example, approximately five hundred people - including riders, drivers, and supporters, ages four to ninety - congregated at a private farm just north of Skowhegan in Cambridge for a pig roast and a night ride to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Despite the rain - I was jokingly accused of bringing the bad weather with me - 242 ATVs took part, winding through cow barns and corn fields, and raised the necessary five thousand dollars for a child's wish - not to the mention the attention of several dozen bovines.)
A.T.V. Maine is working closely with the state, including the Department of Conservation, to resolve issues such as licensing, laws, safety classes, and improved access. Still, there's the bad rap these machines have to overcome. Richard Barter is tireless in his zeal to get things right. He explains that he's been a Maine outdoorsman all his life but because he now suffers from asbestosis, he can no longer do the things he used to - even climbing stairs is a challenge. ATVing is the one outdoor recreational activity left for him, he says, and he loves it with a passion.
Same with Peg Robinson, the only other female driver on our trip. A moonfaced woman of forty-five with a warm smile and graying hair, Robinson wears a look of sheer bliss as she talks about what ATVing has done for her. "Six years ago, I was going through a divorce, my kids were getting older, and I was wondering what was I going to do with myself," she says with a look that implies the obvious - that was not a good time in her life. "A friend who had a wheeler invited me to go out with him to do some trail maintenance." From that moment on, she says, she was hooked. Busy working full time and raising her kids, Robinson says she never had much time to spend outdoors. Wheeling opened up the natural world for her. As we stand by this gorge, Robinson is awed. "Who knew that just four hundred yards from the road there'd be all this beauty?" she says, gazing around. But it goes beyond that for her. Her club is her family. She says if she ever broke down or needed money, they'd be the first she'd call. She has tested that faith in the past, and it hasn't disappointed. "I never feel alone," she says. "And I will always ride my wheeler." She gives a bit of a mischievous grin. "I've always been a rebel."
More than just a pastime, ATVing is clearly a passion for some. And who are any of us, after all, to say there's a right way and a wrong way to enjoy the outdoors? Except, when was the last time a snowshoer spoiled a snowmobiler's time in the woods or a canoeist ruined a pond for someone on a Jet Ski? Even when these machines are used responsibly, they create a ripple effect that can't be disregarded.
Still, I get myself back into the spirit of our outing. The rest of the day is spent in and out of muck holes, crawling over boulders, and zipping down logging roads. At one point I find myself - literally - between a rock and a hard place and just freeze. My heart and head are pounding. I inch my wheels forward and then stop, terrified of repeating my earlier mishap. That's when I hear a voice from behind me - Richard's - saying, "That's right. That way'll work." And all at once I understand what Peg Robinson meant. I truly feel looked after, and safe.
So when we all roll back into the parking lot, and I throw my fists up in the air in victory (I'm in one piece!), I truly understand what brings these riders out. I understand the thrill and the rush and the challenge. I get their community - the traveling and camping and meeting up all around the state - and the way they look out for one another. And I understand the work they are doing in Augusta. These are good, civic-minded people who are willing to negotiate and compromise so that they might enjoy their share of the great Maine outdoors. I understand the way these people feel about wheeling. I really do.
And yet, and yet. . . .
Some months later, I am out walking on an ATV trail in the Cathedral Pines of Eustis, right after a light flurry. It is closed to ATV traffic for the season, and once I get away from the road the only sound is the squeak of my boots in the snow. I take in the sharp air and the jagged line of green-black pines and spruce against the bright blue sky. I catch sight of a golden-crowned kinglet foraging for food and a red-breasted nuthatch worming in and out of a hole in the top of a dead tree. Meandering deer prints weave along the path that is crisscrossed with bunny tracks. I think about the spring and the roaring mud bowl this trail will become. I think of the wheelers that will be out here tearing it up and having a great time. Yes, it will be fun. But then I flash back to the faces of that family at Devil's Den. We had roared up on our machines and spoiled their time. The boy wouldn't even look at me. We spoiled their time, and so they left.
As I stand on my snowy, solitary trail this afternoon, the utter stillness seems at the moment something exquisitely rare and precious that is slipping from our grasp. Everyone wants access. With more and more roads, development, trails, and vehicular traffic - recreational and otherwise - where will we go when we truly want to get away in Maine? Will there be any "away" left?
I hold my face up to the silence, drink it in, and then turn on my heels to follow my boot tracks home.