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The symbolic standoff over ATVs presents our columnist with a precious chance to tear it up.

Free wheelin' 

Seventeen years old and Wonder-Bread white, Jeremy sits on his all-terrain vehicle like Roy Rogers with bad skin. His hands are huge and calloused, but he still has the loose-hung joints and draped indolence of a teenager. He wears a limp NASCAR T-shirt. Jeremy and his girlfriend, Dawn, have been out riding all morning; they are mud-flecked and giddy from the heat. The day is sprigged with wild roses, the air so thick with honeysuckle and ligustrum that even the blue jays, ordinarily brisk and officious, manage only a wilted tirade.

In the midst of all this beauty, the ATV is pack-mule ugly: squat and muscular and vaguely amphibious and plastered with Orange County mud. Its idle makes a languorous farting noise that competes with the choral force of 10,000 tree frogs. Sitting easy in the saddle, Jeremy leans back to see me better. He has the confounded look kids get whenever manners clash with good sense. Not five minutes ago, I drove up the dirt road where he and his girlfriend had been riding, got out of my car and started asking questions about his ATV. Jeremy knows he should answer politely, but the way he figures it my presence cannot bode well. He's taking a mental inventory of possible infractions when I tell him I'm just a journalist, writing about ATVs.

Dawn laughs and jumps off the back. "Lord!" she says, "I thought you were going to kick us off the property!" Then, handing me her helmet and slapping at a horsefly, she tells Jeremy to let me have a ride.

"Say what?"

"Go on!"

Dawn is in touch with the hilarity of the situation, the goofiness of my presence on this dirt road, in these woods. Jeremy is still unsure. He leans over and appears to check something in the engine.

"Oooooh, I'm chigger bait!" Dawn squeals, frantically scratching an ankle. She's wearing a baby-doll tank top and short shorts that show two moon-white crescents of bottom. A speck of red clay makes a beauty mark beneath her left eye. "I'm going on back to the house."

Jeremy watches her walk down the gravel road, then revs the engine and jerks his chin over his shoulder several times like he's trying to spit. I realize he's telling me to climb on.

"We can take the road or the trail depending on what you're of a mind," he hollers over the engine. "The trail's pretty steep and muddy and you have to watch your head with the trees and stuff."

I holler back let's take the trail and he says, "Well all right then. Let's tear it up."

I decided to ride an ATV the day the Tupperware exploded in my car. I didn't tell my editor this. I told him that ATV enthusiasts in Wake County had requested a park be built especially for them. I told him the request had been treated coolly by county officials who cited noise, pollution, environmental damage and liability problems. I told him it was an important story about the changing face of the Triangle, a symbolically crucial standoff between natives and newcomers, between rollerblades and the Quadsport 80.

All of which is true, but it was the changing face of my own life that made me want to ride. For one thing, I live in a part of rural Orange County where ATVs are de rigeur, and I've grown especially fond of this one little boy who's maybe 8, who rides hell-for-leather in a packed-dirt circle around the dog house in his front yard. There's not a blade of grass in the whole yard, and the dog is wigged, but the kid always has this look on his face, a kind of stunned happiness that life can be so wonderful.

For another, I've been staying home this winter and spring to take care of a new baby and my 3-year-old son and there have been few occasions for adrenalin, unless you count the time the baby nearly choked on her brother's Happy Meal toy. About two weeks ago I was driving the children home on I-85. Burl Ives was singing Mr. Froggy Went A'Courtin on the tape player and there was dried baby snot in my hair. A Buzz Lightyear action figure with flashing wing attachments was wedged under the hand brake. We'd had several days of sub-tropical heat, and a container of rice-cereal mush forgotten under the driver's seat had been slowly fermenting. It exploded while I was passing an 18-wheeler moseying in the left lane.

My 3-year-old, who adores guns and who knows how his mama feels about trucks that hog the left lane, stopped trying to lasso his sister's head and sat up hopefully in his booster seat. Did mama shoot that truck driver, he wanted to know. Then, answering his own question, "No, that's silly. Mama's not a cowboy; Mama's a mommy."

Burl crooned, Buzz flashed and mush dripped down my ankles. It was time to live dangerously.

Riding possum-style, I grab a fistful of Jeremy's T-shirt, bunching up Dale Earnhardt's chin. The ATV moves like a peppy little tank, roaring up the dirt road toward the trail turnoff. The muffler, a decorative item, is three feet from my head; yelling over it, I tell Jeremy I have a history of distrusting internal combustion, particularly if it is attached to anything smaller than a full-sized sedan. Reckless mood or not, I am wary of jet skis, small planes, motor boats, machines that are prone to torquing out and making mincemeat of the humans attached to them.

Jeremy laughs. He yells back that he's been riding all his life go-carts, dirt bikes, mopeds. There's a photo, he says, of him in his first go-cart, his stuffed bunny lashed to the roll bar. As it happens, the ATV we're riding now belongs to Jeremy's cousin, Mark, who was relieved of it after he accidently parked his stepdaddy's Lexus in the Haw River. Jeremy's been working on the machine like it's his, though, replacing the oversized tires (which were draining horsepower) and patching the saddle. He talks filters, gaskets, seal kits, compares the 2-stroke engine with the 4-stroke. He tells me he's saving up to buy an ATV of his own; he likes the Warrior and the Bombadier and especially the Honda FourTrax, which has a wide wheel base and clutches good of the corners.

We ride awhile longer. Jeremy picks up speed and steers into the rutted-out parts of the road, and once or twice down into the ditches, just to show me how she handles. The machine chews up clumps of wild daisies and bucks up out of the grooves like a pony. I shriek a little and Jeremy whoops and yells, "Yeah, bub!"

Hoping to restore calm, I ask him if he's heard about the move to build an ATV park in Wake County. He says no but it doesn't surprise him. He used to ride in some woods out near the Alamance County border, he says, but somebody put in a subdivision. If you ride out there now, he says, somebody'll call the sheriff and say you're disturbing the peace.

"My friend Terry moved to Raleigh because his mom got a job there," Jeremy says. "Terry took his ATV out one day, just out on the road where they lived, and the next day there was practically a petition to make them move. So he had to get rid of it. And do you know what his mom got him instead?"

"What?"

"A son-of-a-bitch golf cart!" Jeremy shakes his head silently. Sometimes, outrage has no words.

Last month, I went to the Southern States garden supply store in North Raleigh. The nursery was stocked with hanging baskets, wrought-iron trellises and wind chimes. A woman came in and asked did they sell chickens, she was low. Her question was handled with retail composure, but there was a split second when the clerks looked at each other with horrified amusement.

Much is written about the suburbanization of the Triangle, about the amoeba-spread of asphalt and shrinking countryside. The most interesting stories, though, occur when a pocket of the rural subculture wakes up one day to find itself in violation of one or more zoning ordinances. When a handful of people rear up and demand a neighborhood firing range, or want to put their cars up on blocks in the front yard and tinker in peace.

I remember living in Cambridge, Mass., and walking up the street to my apartment one fall day, carrying a bag of take-out Burmese food. Halfway home I looked up and saw a gutted doe hanging from the porch rafters of a salmon-colored triplex. Beside her stood a grizzled old guy in camouflage who you could tell was in no mood to hear any of my Bambi angst.

About ATVs I'm not saying one way or another. Are they loud and dangerous and hell on the local geology? Yes. Would their abolition be a death knoll for a lingering vestige of freedom? Would it put one more nail in the coffin of our pioneer past? Yeah, bub.

Jeremy hesitates at the lip of the trail, then guns it, letting loose with a tree0top shriek. The trail is easily 6 feet wide, but the tree canopy is decapitatingly heavy. Branches lash our helmets and shoulders. The machine snaps saplings off at the roots, spins around the curves, takes bark off a hickory. We slide into one final turn and skid sideways into a creek, where the wheels spin and throw mud for a moment before the engine dies. There's a second of silence before the tree frogs start back up, victorious.

Jeremy pulls off his helmet and makes the diagnosis. "She can't take the extra weight," he says.

I jump off and together we try to pull the machine out of the mud, but she's stuck fast. Jeremy cusses for a few minutes, then climbs back on and tries to start it up. There are some tortured metal sounds and an ominous insectile whine before he gives up. We'll have to walk back, he says. I wait for another round of cussing, but Jeremy shrugs. "Well," he says, "at least it's a pretty day." Then he breaks into a smile, the first since I met him. It is a grin big enough to hold the beauty of a spring day, the thought of Dawn waiting for him and the consolation that this busted, mud-plastered machine stuck in the mud is, at very least, not a son-of-a-bitch golf cart. EndBlock

  • The symbolic standoff over ATVs presents our columnist with a precious chance to tear it up.

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