My tires crunch on the gravel, spitting out rocky shrapnel when I stand and accelerate. The path follows the Hennepin Feeder Canal out of Rock Falls, Illinois, a tiny waterway originally designed for barge traffic. The track, once worn bare by mules pulling loaded barges, has been turned over to the park district as a recreational area and buried in white sandstone to create a trail. It is the only off-road riding within range for a kid still working on a driver’s license, my first opportunity to take my new mountain bike into its element. The canal is on my left. On my right, a thin strip of trees separates my ride from the strip malls, hotels, and restaurants of Rock Falls. The illusion works; under the canopy of overhanging branches, I can convince myself that I am alone, that I no longer follow Dad’s wheel.
After a quarter mile of flat gravel riding, the real trail begins. A worn dirt path breaks away from the canal into the woods, cut by renegade motorcycles, kept open by kids on BMX bikes. I veer into the trees and climb the ridge that separates canal from city. The riding is frantic silence, rubber tires on dry earth, trees passing like telephone poles on the interstate. The branches close in, no wider than my handlebars, leaves brushing my knuckles. My pulse presses out on the foam shell of my helmet. Lines of dusty sweat creep down my cheeks. The trail begins to roll, its rise and fall like slow breathing under my tires. Each downhill slope loads my momentum, carrying me over the next rise, picking up speed with each trip across the trail’s wavelength.
My front wheel strikes the knob of a half-buried root, knocking the handlebars from my hands. For an exhilarating instant, I lose control. The wheel chatters out of its line. I grab for the bars, but the distraction is too much on such a narrow trail. A branch snags the bar and rips it from my hands. The front wheel turns sharply off the trail into the brush. I have no choice but to follow, slapped by branches. The bike finally strikes a tree, tossing me over the handlebars head first.
When I reach up to wipe the grit from my forehead, half my helmet is missing. On impact against the tree, the foam has split in a jagged arc across the top of my head. The rear stays in place, held by nylon straps, but the front swings open like a door. The helmet comes apart in my hands when I release the straps and take it off. I sit in the dirt -- dizzy, aching, with a hemisphere of helmet in each hand -- and laugh, because I am sixteen and don’t know any better.
Des Moines, IA