The woods I grew up near were probably only about three or four acres. The creek flowing down the center was the main artery splitting the road side from the apartment side. There was a wide trail, almost enough for a Jeep to drive through that was my main thoroughfare as a kid. There were some off shoots leading to hills or the creek that were very choppy but the main trail was smooth enough for my Huffy Thunder Road bicycle. I spent a lot of time in these woods, riding and hiking. In the winter when the creek would freeze over, we’d hike the ice all the way to town. Of course we fell through and the bread bags my mom made me wear between my socks and boots never quite did the trick to keep my feet dry but I didn’t care.
In the summer the woods were my adventure zone. There was a big hill with a rope swing, a creek full of minnows, frogs and the occasional snake. Hell, a couple of times I even found tattered issues of Playboy Magazine. I looked at them with the confused eyes of a child, not really understanding what I was seeing but just excited because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be seeing it. Barbie Benton was my first crush but I digress…
I had seen Evel Knievel’s half assed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon and even though it was a failure, I was inspired. I had a bike and the creek was calling to me. I found a bend in the creek, almost ninety degrees to the right that looked like the most promising spot. The outside of the bend had eroded from whenever the water was high and created a bank about four feet tall, which was just a couple inches below my height at the time. The inside of the bend was at water level and sandy without too many rocks. Eyeballing this spot for a while, I slowly started creating a runway by moving branches, rocks and pulling weeds. I’d work and try to stomp down a path with my size four Chuck Taylors but it never really came together. The brush and undergrowth were just too heavy. Still, I remembered the spot and thought about it as the Summer turned into Autumn and then Winter.
The next Spring, I was riding down in the woods and decided to check out the jump. I could see little traces of the previous work I had put in but old man Winter had been on my side. Since it was still early in the Spring, the undergrowth hadn’t started in earnest and I knew that I had to get it done.
With an expert eye, I stood on the high side and looked at the creek. The water was running at a good pace yet it was clear enough to see the rocks at the bottom. The bank side had about two and a half feet of water that turned into only an inch or so before the other side. I scoped out my landing spot, looking for hard packed sand and no obstructions. My path was as good as it was going to get and like Evel, I took a few run ups to check my speed. It was probably about a twelve foot jump to land safely. From launching myself down flights of four or five stairs I knew I could get the distance if I could get the speed. I turned around and went back to the starting point.
Mustering up all the courage a nine year old can find, I mashed down onto my pedals and began my approach. Handlebars rattling as the front wheel seemed to find every root and rut on the way, I pedaled with determination. I was going too fast and knew there was no holding back and in an instant I was gloriously flying off the miniature cliff and over the cold rushing water.
The glory of my launch was short lived. I was heading down. I wasn’t going to make it. The splash of my bike was explosive but nothing compared to what happened next. Somehow, I had managed to land with my sprocket over a head sized rock about half a foot below the water. The bike stopped dead. Now anyone with an understanding of momentum knows that just because the bicycle stopped, doesn’t mean I would. Crouching my legs like I would for any landing, when the bike stopped it had the effect of bouncing me as if I had landed on a trampoline. My death grip on the handlebars didn’t budge but my feet soon found themselves flying over my head. By the time I had spun three quarters of the way through a front flip my hands gave out and I drifted away from the bike, landing flat on my back into eight inches of ice cold water.
I immediately sprung up, shocked at what had just happened. I was wet and cold so I tuned and grabbed my bike, dragging it to the intended landing spot. While finally on the other side, I did what any good kid would do, inspect the bike for damages. The Thunder Road didn’t come with a traditional chain guard but a metal ring attached to the sprocket that was slightly bigger than the area covered by the chain. This ring had folded over until it was touching the chain. There would be no more pedaling until I could get if fixed. I picked up the bike and started home.
On this long walk of cold, wet defeat, I thought about what went wrong. It didn’t even occur to me that I was lucky not to be hurt (one of the blessings of being a child). When I got to the main path, I sat on the bike and pushed off the ground with my feet to roll the best I could. I got back home and quickly stashed my bike, went to my room hiding my wet clothes in the bottom of the hamper and put my sneakers upside down on the radiator, hoping Mom wouldn’t make me go back outside in my wet shoes. The fear of her finding out what I did was way worse than any hesitation I felt toward the jump.
That creek jump was the first challenge I ever really had think about and wasn’t sure if I was going to make. Looking back, I’m amazed at how calculated I was in all aspects. I thought it through but still wasn’t positive I’d make it. I did, however, want it. I gave it my best shot and came up short. I never did go back and jump that creek but it had my respect. About thirty years later I’d be riding with some friends and we joked about how we were just “hucking and hoping”. Yeah, that’s what I do.