In the dawn-cast shadows of the Westwitness Peaks, the short-o’-forty miles of interstate through south City of Contradictions, around Transit Point, and into north Shamton were as dull to Surtch Pherther as any ever. Though he loathed slab by bike, avoiding it when possible whatever the weather or time of day or quality of light, he took it that early morn to get there quick, to the real stuff–to sooner hit the dirt of Smuggler Road.
Just in from the teeth of Shamton Canyon, he caught it sneaking off the highway and into the brush. From there, Smuggler’s first few miles were a gravel-strewn, worn blacktop up-snake with curve-pit erosions plenty hollow to wholly swallow the wheel of a jacked pickup and thus gaping enough to single-gulp a reckless rider too. With some road-know, Surtch might have slain the steep serpentine, but as he hadn’t before been there, he carved the curves with care.
At its first fork the pavement veered right into a dead end lovers’ lot overlook while the left turned to a poof-dust and loose rock meander up a broad bench past gulch-heads and valley views along the face of the south Westwitness in the chill morn that still pledged a mild day among thickets and dry glades and hardwood groves with papery leaves all shades of flame wherein the blue and white were clouds and sky and all that was left after autumn’s slow burn.
From a high point turnout where Surtch lingered over granola bars and thermos brew and views of south Shamton and Friar Canyon’s mouth, Smuggler Road, now prickly with stones and gouged from four wheel wallowing when wet, swung around a nameless peak to tease the lips of little gullies on its wander down a thirsty dell to a T-junction with the left fork of Fetter Draw–asphalt again already after a mere sixteen miles.
Within a few sweeps at street speed, Surtch shook off the dirt-feel of peg readiness and hands happily clutch- and brake- and throttle-tired from the rough stuff and re-embraced the full body bike-hug that winding pavement promotes.
At the draw’s fork he put a foot down for a gang of wild turkeys on the trot for a hidey-spot ahead of Thanksgiving dinner and then hung a left up Fetter’s right, where–after nine-ish miles, and to his delight–the blacktop vanished before another poof-dust meander over the head of the draw and beyond, into open range and a tangle of dirt roads.
For his area-ignorance and the vagueness of his map, Surtch lost nearly an hour to probing dead ends and other wrong ways, even toppling once from a frustrated quick-stop at a bad lean in a turnout’s deep gravel. He managed to right Escape Artist just as two dudes in a beat-up pickup with windows down to let the smoke out clattered over a rise and skid-stopped nearby in the shoulder’s soft dirt.
“Hey, man. We heard that somewhere around here is a way through the hills to San Cosme Reservoir. Do ya know where it is?”
“Shit. I can tell you where it ain’t–been lookin’ for it myself. I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’s back the way you came, near that last stream crossing.”
The dudes exchanged glances, said, “Thanks. Good luck,” and resumed their shake, rattle, and roll down the road.
Morning had blossomed by the time Surtch found the way in question–a weathered two-track atop a spur a throttle-twist past a wrecked gate-for-no-good. Shortly thereafter he gained the main ridge above the water.
From there his route leapt side to side deer-like for six or so miles up through nakey quakies and past hunters here and there–more here, after Fetter Draw and in the warming day, than there, in those chill, dawn-cast shadows on Smuggler Road.
Then, at its highest point on San Cosme Ridge, it as good as took flight. Here the vague map indicated a split: a fine right leg hugging the pine-covered mound ahead to a soon union with a gravel road out of sight, and a rough left leg plunging down a zigzag ravine. Yet scan the scene as Surtch did, the right leg didn’t exist, likely never had.
Well, he thought, I could return to the overlook to hit that other road to the reservoir and lose even more time, or…
Applying theory anxiously–on pegs, ass back–and the front brakes gingerly to load the fork, Surtch engaged the ravine’s drop-in. A third of the way down, though, for its steepness or looseness or his inexperience or all, he had to lean heavy on the back brake too. Escape Artist’s rear chattered, locked, and then skidded the rest of the way, swinging out to the right all the while.
Damn, thought Surtch in a lull at the base, if I wasn’t committed before, I sure as hell am now. I couldn’t buck and chuck back up that thing if I wanted to.
From the ravine’s sheer walls, thick-trunked pines stretched out and up with their limbs entwined and their prickly needles meshed, straining sunlight. Though morning was well-on, this place was dim and cool, and pungent from moss and constant damp, from soil–a place to keep all that throughout the summer, though the sun would peak and the surrounding ‘scape go dry.
Among random boulders, through patches of shifty, streambed stones, and over terra-folds and surfaced roots all greasy, Surtch worried and weaved Escape Artist, a capable machine somehow tackling an earthbound pitch and roll with an inept captain at the controls. Though a mere fragment of a mile long, the ravine was as good as endless to new-to-dirt Surtch, who was surprised to finally return–he and Escape Artist, unscathed–to the candor of the mid-morning sunlight, a gravel road in sight.
After a short stretch off the saddle to calm his jello-jiggly limbs and to consult that map of lies once more, Surtch was back astride his ride and hard-throttling steep, washboard curves toward the next fork and fairly familiar roads–those he’d fooled ‘n’ tooled around on a month and a half back over a family weekend at San Cosme Reservoir, back when the aspens still held all their li’l, green tremblers and lush was the undergrowth of tender grasses and wildflowers and small ferns.
Indeed, at higher altitudes, season shift is swift. Surtch had seen it when a younger self and his brother and his sister and their dad once backpacked their typical twenty-odd miles deep into the Cairn Mountains Wilderness and camped there eight days straight.
At the usual eleven, twelve, thirteen thousand feet and then some, they’d climbed rock pile passes and peaks, tromped through marshes and meadows and woods, weathered downpours and dodged hailstones and lightning bolts, fire-gazed after nightfall, and they’d witnessed the wildscape’s dash from summer to fall’s foreboding doorstep. It barely was late July.
As for this small fall adventure, Surtch had embarked for reasons typical and not: to catch and snap some autumn leaves before they all took the short flight to that long decay on the forest floor; to reduce pavement to mere stepping stones between the real stuff; to nudge the dirt closer to home, and his riding horizons farther out; to forge links from the sensational to the divine; and to further explore and finally begin to embrace dual-sporting.
Sadly, the seed planted by that once-upon-a-time, Vespa trip to Lake Mackenzie and the next year’s rerun with his brother at his side, to merge into a master passion his lifelong love for camping and his fresh obsession for riding, had been neglected–nay, ignored–for too long: For two years he’d had Escape Artist, and he had yet to put it through its paces. Though Surtch certainly had been put through his.
Sure, there’d been challenges inherent in lover-swapping a short, smooth Italian for a seriously tall German–he had expected a learning curve. But what a blind corner that shred of time had been, and oh, the motley hazards that had lurked around the bend: a swift smackdown by an early misadventure in the remoteness; continued abuse by folks he’d generously served for too damn long; loved ones’ deaths and, ugh, the closeted skeletons that started a-clackin’; plunging and twisting of countless other knives; and a seemingly calculated strike by a mindquake out of the blue–and all at once. None could have foreseen that.
Of course, there’s always “pick yourself up, and dust yourself off” and “every cloud has a silver lining” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn”, but cliches and simulated sympathy never aid when one’s been broadsided by circumstance and the absurd.
Surtch had instead seized upon “this too shall pass”, a balanced mantra that can humble the haughty and render hope to the hopeless.
But enough! Enough of that–that way-back-when. Now?… Now his sights were set on spring and his family’s yearly, first of the season retreat to a remote spot amid sand and rocks–a new chance to put Escape Artist through its paces after all, to shoot for a sense of accomplishment, and to stalk that master passion.
Yeah, on this small, fall adventure, Surtch had embarked for a reason and with a plan: to know, before burdening his bike and perchance encumbering others, if his new-to-dirt skills could deliver; and for some peace of mind in the face of the tough terrain he required, to ride light. Well, save for petrol aplenty.
Sure, he could have run the numbers from charts and specs, but Surtch was all thumbs with math like that. Besides, he’d always reckoned that fuel off road was like water in the desert: have for every day and then some–in case of a breakdown, in case of a delay, in case of a fellow traveler in need.
The lashed-on cans were a mere security blanket–because Surtch was still learning the ropes and shaking down his bike; because the road ahead might be more than he could chew, and he didn’t wanna bite; because he was riding by a proven map of lies; and then…
After sixty miles since the last asphalt in Fetter Draw–sixty miles of that hour lost to seeking the way and then toppling in a turnout’s deep gravel, leaping side to side deer-like up San Cosme Ridge and then plunging down that zigzag ravine, re-riding roads he’d fooled ‘n’ tooled around on a month and a half back, and being astride Escape Artist for seven-ish hours already–Surtch arrived for the second time that year at the T-junction of Ourantah Ridge Road and the rural highway between Trapper and Portcullis.
Ahead?… Well, south by ninety-odd miles of blacktop through small towns and a tiresome shot across a clayscape waste flanked by the Bucksaw Cliffs lay Blakesville, where Surtch would overnight in a cheap motel. Doubtless countless dirt roads also lay between, but they’d have to wait, to remain hearsay for now, rumor roads–routes of rides to come.
And behind?… Well, behind was a good day of nudging the dirt closer to home and reducing pavement to mere stepping stones, of catching and snapping autumn leaves and further exploring dual-sporting, of forging links from the sensational to the divine.
Indeed, behind?… Behind was a great day of the real stuff.
A few miles out from little Amalgam town, where he would stop for fuel and–in lieu of a late lunch–trail mix and a cold Coke, Surtch was approaching the junction at Portcullis when he spotted a cemetery just off the highway.
Though he’d driven this stretch once before, it was an after dark detour for a wreck in Friar Canyon. Nevertheless, he knew what this place was about.
At the turn of the century, in the town of Snowbound, near Friar Canyon’s summit, a coal mine exploded. Over 200 men were killed.
At the time, Surtch’s great grandfather and great, great grandfather were living in Portcullis and working its mine. They left shortly thereafter for somewhat safer lives as farmers, shepherds, lumberers, teamsters, you name it.
A few years later, in the Portcullis Mine, three explosions in quick succession destroyed the surface operations, hurled utility poles and a coal car almost a mile across the canyon, embedding that wreckage in the talus, and killed nearly 200 men between the ages of 15 and 73. All were immigrants from Greece, Italy, England, Scotland, Wales, Japan, and Slovenia.
Between the explosion at Snowbound and those at Portcullis, several hundred wives were widowed and many hundreds of children were left fatherless.
Now, except for a low hum from the coal-fired power plant at the nearby junction, and highway noise from occasional, passing vehicles, the Portcullis town site was quiet.
No structures were left: Such company towns had commonly moved those from boom to boom. Scattered masonry walls, well-built by proud, Italian immigrants, and weathered headstones bearing exotic names and cryptic characters were all that remained.
Through his mother and her father and his father and his father, Surtch was linked to those laid to rest in this melting pot cemetery, the men and boys put here by the great equalizer. With them, his ancestors had toiled and rested and sipped coffee and eaten and smoked. Perhaps they’d rejoiced and lamented together, maybe even worshiped.
To them, through them, with them, Surtch was connected, as through humanity’s beautiful, dreadful, and fascinating past we all are connected.
Oh, the mutual respect that such a fathomless, shared history should afford…
poof-dust (poof dust) n.
1 especially fine and light, dirt road or gravel road dust that becomes airborne easily and settles onto and into anything and everything
Thank you, Bill Bass, for introducing “poof-dust” to my vocabulary. Bill is a fellow dual-sporter I met in the middle of nowhere in September 2015 and with whom I lunched and shared great conversation for over an hour at an equally middle of nowhere truck stop. Though it’s been said a thousand times, it bears repeating: You meet the nicest people on motorcycles.