Just a Mote of Dust Suspended in a Sunbeam

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We arose in the dark and idled out of the sleepy campground.  Our breath rose like smoke as we yawned in the crisp morning.

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Creeping along through Hayden Valley, we looked beyond our headlights at the grasslands that were barely emerging in the silver morning.  Geothermal steam rose from the lake and eddied above the surface, so that the lake looked as warm and inviting as a bath to weary bones.

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When we spotted the tiny shapes of buffalo across the horizon line, we pulled the car over.  Soon the entire hillside was populated with them.  We were so enamored with the buffalo herd, that we almost missed the hulking figure that darted across the road behind us—a quick, dark flash in the rear view mirror. 

We seized with excitement, throwing the vehicle into a U-turn in time to see the massive Grizzly bear bounding away from the road and toward the lake.  In bone, muscle, and mass he looked the part of a King in this wilderness.  His speed was astounding.  With each giant stride his shoulder bones rippled beneath his fur.  In moments he was at the water’s edge and almost out of sight around the bend. 

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There, he paused, sniffing the air, calculating his options.  He stepped gingerly into the water and then, as graceful as a ballerina, he pushed off into the lake with barely a splash.  He glided through the placid water and each time he surfaced, his head grew tinier with distance.  Then, he was out of sight. 

Far from the hustle of traveling, from the roar of machines and the cheering of fans, we witnessed in these silent moments the earth in motion, life impervious to our presence. 

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When Carl Sagan perceived the earth—a “pale blue dot,” in a grand solar system—he observed that we are merely “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” In all the solar systems, within all the galaxies, within a vast, vast universe, we are insignificant.  And yet, it is plain to see, our planet Earth is truly remarkable.

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Redbuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuud!

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At any track we witness the natural progression: empty space becomes structured, camping lots emerge and fill up, and with them, pro pits, vendor rows, media centers, and VIP zones appear.

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But Redbud takes it to a whole new level.  Their campsites have campsites.  There’s even an 18 and older lot, where the real debauchery unfolds.  Take a morning stroll past Lot B, and you will see more than a few people face down in the grass next to mountains of beer cans, music still blaring.

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But don’t get me wrong, there’s more substance to the extravaganza than can be found in a can of Bud Light.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the Fourth of July holiday or the incessant back-to-back race events (five events in three days!) or perhaps it’s simply the frantic excitement generated by the resounding, guttural cheers of, “Redbuuuuuuuuuuuuuuud” that make it such an extravaganza.  Whatever it may be, it is an event that can only be learned through experience.

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Working the podium at all four amateur events, we got to talk with the many people who come to Redbud to race.  We greeted the champions who returned to winner’s circle again and again.  We high-fived tiny kids who had just finished their first races.

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We celebrated with proud moms and dads who we knew put in all the behind-the-scenes work to make it possible for their children to compete.  We reminisced with vet riders, who were pleased that they ‘still had it’ after a good run on the track.

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Watching the fireworks exploding, showering comets of red, white, and blue over the ruts and jumps of Redbud MX Park, I decide that if Redbud owes its reputation to any one thing, it’s tradition.  Each year, the Ritchies and the rest of the Redbud staff put on the biggest, most impressive weekend of racing on the series.  And each year, fans, competitors, friends, and families return to celebrate Independence Day together, creating the memories and traditions that shape our lives.

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This year, I finally got to experience Redbud, and I must admit, it was worth the hype.

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A Brief Walk of Fame

When they asked me if I wanted to be the 30 second board girl for the pro race on the following day, I was hesitant.  “Well I’m not sure about wanting to do it,” I said, “But if it helps you guys out, certainly I am willing,” and I told them to put me down as a backup plan. 

I was aware that donning a sexy outfit and sauntering across the track doesn’t do much to help a woman establish her credibility in a man’s sport.  Wasn’t it just recently that I had read a thread on Vital MX debating whether or not all trophy girls were sluts?  An absurd assumption, of course, but that did little to assure me that this was a position I wanted to put myself in.

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When 1:00 came the following day, I was whisked off to the starting line for the 450 class race.  Standing just a few feet away from the front lines of battle, I waited for my cue.  I watched as team managers and crew chiefs prepared the gates, carving out ruts in the dirt and carefully aligning the bikes as they came in.  Malcolm Stewart leaned in and exchanged a few words with his brother; Ryan Villopoto’s gaze remained fierce and stoic as people bustled around him; a pretty girl in a pit shirt handed goggles to a privateer I didn’t recognize; and someone leaned in with an umbrella, offering some last minute shade to Ryan Dungey. 

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There was a controlled, frenetic energy in the air.  We were just moments from combustion. 

Countdowns were announced.  “Three minutes!” someone called.  Another minute passed. The officials pointed at me, “You’re on in 10-9-8…”  I silently completed the countdown and started my brief walk of fame from one side of the track to the other. Image

In the subsequent two minutes, the earth trembled beneath my feet as the low grumbling of engines grew to a powerful roar.  The fans who were pressed up against the gates all around the start line let out a collective cry of anticipation.  The 40 world-class riders crouched over handlebars like predators, their sights intent upon the next thirty minutes and two laps that lay ahead of them.

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In the midst of my personal concerns, I had failed to realize how freaking cool this would be!  The gates dropped, they funneled into the first turn and through the holeshot.  In a quick blur, they were out of sight.

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When they asked later if I would be willing to fill in again, this time I responded confidently, “Absolutely.”

The Water Whispers, as it Rushes By…

But for the song of sparrows, the hum of insects, and the breeze through the trees—the site is silent.  With the late afternoon sun cascading over green fields, the place feels almost serene.  But the stories of the gruesome scenes—of the bodies that remained for months after—reign over the place like ghosts that cannot leave.  Here on September 17, 1862, twenty three thousand men perished—violent, untimely deaths—in the Civil War battle of Antietam.

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Today, the fields are covered in small flowers, delicate white blooms that blanket the grounds.  I’m not sure the name of the flowers, but I recognize them immediately.  They grew all over the fields I played in as a child during school recess.  We would pluck handfuls of them and string them together to make necklaces, crowns, and garlands; we would adorn ourselves with them, marching around regally, crowning one another Kings and Queens of the schoolyard.  How many times had I tried to preserve the flower garlands, wrapping them in cool paper towels, only to find them decaying—wilted, brown, sour—before the day was done?

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The year was 1861, and war was on everyone’s lips.  Boys donned the apparel of men and went off to fight their noble causes, ardent for glory.

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On the morning of September 17, 1862, the one-day battle of Antietam began just before sunrise.  Before the day was over, the cornfield would become a cauldron of gunfire and chaos, the bodies of the slain piling up in the ranks where they had marched; along Sunken Road, the outnumbered Confederate troops would defend their post against Union and French soldiers, but 5,500 lives would be extinguished in less than four hours, and “Bloody Lane” would be born.

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At Burnside’s Bridge, Antietam Creek would run red with blood of Americans—Union and Confederate—in ghastly Civil War.  By nightfall, those who remained began the dismal task of tending to their wounded and gathering their dead, drawing to a close the single bloodiest day in American history.

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One single day: how delicate the innocence of youth, that it can be destroyed so quickly.

I leave the bridge to meander down a path along the creek that today runs clear and pristine.  The air is warm and still.  Green moss creeps up the trunks of trees that offer up their shade along the water’s edge.  Fat black ants march along its banks.

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I close my eyes, and the place that witnessed so much death feels very much alive.  When I step into the creek, the water is cool and welcoming to my sunburned skin. I slip beneath the surface and the water whispers, as it rushes by.

The Serendipitous Tale of the Stolen Bike

This is a story about human goodness, about life’s serendipitous events.  Sometimes, the pieces fit together in just the right way…

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For the past six weeks of racing events, the bike had served as a focal point of our display.  Branded in the Lucas red, white, and blue, the CRF 250 #36 Troy Lee Designs Honda had been the backdrop for the amateur champions who posed on the podium; it had served in photo opps for the little kids who were placed on top of it, encouraged by proud parents to smile for the photo; it had been oohed and awed over by super fans and veteran racers at all the events we brought it to. 

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So when we woke up on Sunday morning to find that it had been stolen in the middle of the night, to say that we were devastated doesn’t accurately convey the dark cloud of anger and shame and sadness that moved in to hover over us.  We had lost the precious cargo that had been entrusted to our keeping. 

Filing a state police report and making announcements over the loudspeaker at Budds Creek did little to reassure me that there was any hope of finding the bike or the culprits.  Surrounded by backwoods trails, the bike could be anywhere.  Most likely, it was long gone by now.

But it was amateur race day, and there was work to be done.  The boss at home urged us to move forward–make the best of the day–so we lugged our supplies through the hot morning drizzle that was all around us like a suffocating bog, and got back to work.

Once our booth and podium display had been erected, the amateur riders who had stuck around to race, along with their families, the track staff, the promoters, and the vendors, began to trickle in to our booth. 

They commiserated with us over the loss of the bike.  They offered their own stories of lost and stolen property.  They cursed the thieves and summoned karma.  “They’ll get theirs,” they said, shaking their heads in solemn disgust.  They searched for solutions and directed us towards nearby trails to search.  

Thirteen year old AJ, who knew the area well, even hopped on his ryno and rode through miles of backwoods to search for the bike, in hopes that it had been stashed somewhere while his dad fed us lunch.

When it was time for winners to be crowned, the mood lifted.  Pint-sized kids on their 50’s showed up to claim their trophies and prizes and stand on the podium, as mom called out “Smile!” and dad added, “Hold up your trophy, son.”  They all beamed with pride.

We snapped photos, shook hands, gave out bags of prizes, offered congratulations, and gradually, in the midst of the excitement, the gloom of the morning burned off.  It’s hard to feel down when everyone around you is so happy, so appreciative, so empathetic.

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When Bryce Mauldin, who took first in both his races, realized we were taking photos of all the winners, he went back to his campsite for his racing boots.  He didn’t want to be photographed in his tennis shoes. 

In the meantime, we got to talking to his parents, Shelly and Vance, and the story of the bike unfolded.  We described in detail the events of the morning.  They wished that there was something they could do.

As the afternoon drew to a close and the evening brought some coolness to the muggy day, we said our goodbyes to the Mauldins, along with the others who, just yesterday, had been strangers.

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A few miles away, Frank Wood turned off the main road to stop at his property. He parked and got out of his truck.  His eye caught on something out of place–down a ravine, in a half-concealed ditch, something red, white and blue peeked through the dense foliage.  When he trudged down to investigate, he found a dirt bike.

Having had his own bike stolen in the past, he knew that thieves in the area would steal bikes from the track, stash their finds in the woods, and come back with pickup trucks during the night to take off with them.  So he called the police.

The police officers checked police report records for a stolen bike, but found nothing.  They called a tow truck to haul it off to impound.

Meanwhile, Vance and Shelly Mauldin were on their way to the grocery store, but they missed their turn.  Just as they were turning back around, they spotted a red, white, and blue dirt bike strapped onto a tow truck on the side of the road.

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They pulled over excitedly, explaining that they knew the bike’s owner, and then lead the police offices back to the track with the runaway bike in tow.

When Bryce and his friend Joey raced up to us on their bikes breathless from pedaling to tell us that the bike had been found, we were incredulous.  But that is just how we found it—strapped to the back of the tow truck, surrounded by a buzz of excited people, everyone chiming in to tell their part of the story. 

Carrie Coombs-Russell, the front-woman of MX sports, smiled serenely, sipping on a Coors Light, and said, “I told you it would turn up.” 

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[Photo: Frank Wood]

“If Frank hadn’t stopped at his property,” we mused, “they would have come back for it tonight.”

“If we hadn’t missed our turn,” Shelly realized, “we wouldn’t have seen them to identify the bike.”

“If I hadn’t gone back for my boots, we never would have gotten the story,” Bryce observed.

“If we had given up on the day, and flaked out on running the podium…” I said to Jason, and he nodded knowingly. 

We hugged and cheered and stared long and wild-eyed at the prized bike before us.  We couldn’t believe our great luck, and looking around, we couldn’t believe we had so many new friends with whom to share the triumph.

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[Photo: Vance Mauldin, Shelly Mauldin, Joey Farrell, Bryce Mauldin]

Much Yet to be Written…

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“This,” she says, holding up a figurine, “Is an Evel Knievel collector’s item.” Her lips curl into a mischievous smile. “Dave was a big fan.”  She goes on to tell a story of one particular road trip, when he went on a quest to meet Knievel. 

My eyes wander across the rows of signed jerseys—everyone from Carmichael to Villopoto; medals bearing almost four decades of pro motocross series insignia hang from various hooks.

“First edition Redbull can,” she laughs, and sets a stout gold can back on the shelf.   

The room is a treasure chest of motocross history.  Each piece resonates memories, but judging from the far-off glow I see in Rita Coombs’ eyes, I imagine that it’s only through experience that one appreciates the true value of these treasures.

“And this,” she cackles, “Someone sent us their application on a boot!” She holds up an old Scott motocross boot made of red plastic.  It’s covered in a handwritten resume.  I’m not sure whether or not the guy got the job, but his application made the memorabilia room, which is, in itself, a great accomplishment.

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Later we meet Davey Coombs, editor-n-chief of Racer X Productions.  When we tell him we’re planning to hit some of the Civil War sites on our way up to Budds Creek, he begins to map out an itinerary of places to see, starting with Antietam.  “23,000 killed—more deaths during the 12 hour battle at Antietam than any other single day of battle on American soil!” he exclaims.

“So you’re a history buff?” I observe. 

“I was going to be a history teacher,” he says, smiling. 

“You didn’t plan on working the family business?”

“Not at all,” he reflects.  “I went to college.  Got degrees in English and history.”  I raise my eyebrows in surprise.  One would assume Davey would have simply fallen in line with his father, Dave Coombs Sr.—founder of MX Sports, father of professional motocross, the man who invented off road moto as we know it today, who knocked on Loretta Lynn’s front door and asked if he could host a national amateur motocross race on her ranch (and she said yes!). 

“Carrie Jo too,” Davey continues.  “She went off to law school.  She’d been practicing law for a little while when I graduated, and she gave me a call.  Told me she’d spent some time out there.  Told me it wasn’t that great,” and we laugh because we’ve all spent enough time working in the ‘real world’ to know that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. “I was a journalist and a photographer, and I grew up racing motocross, so I came back here and started a newspaper.”

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He pulls out a browned newspaper entitled The Racing Paper, dated March 1990.  We pause for a moment to marvel at it as the reality of just how far they’ve come, sets in.  It seems Dave Sr. wasn’t the only visionary in the family.

Davey’s nonchalance belies his accomplishments: The Racing Paper evolved into what is now Racer X Illustrated and Racer X Online—the world’s top source of motocross and supercross news, videos, features, and photos.  Racer X is the source I turned to a year ago—when I left my classroom and my books and my students—to follow a sport I didn’t know much about, to nurture the fledgling business that Jason and I had created. 

During the five days we spend camped out in the Racer X parking lot, they offer up not only their office and Internet, but their hot shower, their cabin by the lake, and their boat.  We’re astounded by their generosity.

When we reluctantly return to the road, I sit down at my computer as the Racer X building fades into the distance.  The page before me is blank.  But I know there is much yet to be written. 

‘L’ is for Lucas

We match the address in our hand to the one posted on the brick pillars before us. The pillars are met by neat, green hedges. The gate is already open. Meandering up the driveway we survey it all, gulping in the freshness of the air, registering the sound of babbling water and singing birds. We gape at the acres of lawn, at the criss-cross patterns from the mower that line the knolls.

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We pull up to the mansion, the palace built of bricks. We giggle and guffaw, eyes wide, like children encountering Candyland. Like Richie Rich. Like that movie Blank Check. All of these metaphors we use to try to express the whole scene. The ‘L’ on the front drive exudes greatness.

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“Like Gatsby,” someone adds another metaphor as we stare and awe.

“Talk about new money,” I exclaim, and this realization makes me laugh.

In Fitzgerald’s time, the term ‘new money’ would have been used as an insult, wielded by someone who was born into money; someone who’s smooth hands had never been sullied by toil.

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I imagine a young man with an Indiana drawl, a farmer’s son, behind the wheel of a semi; stopping at truck stops much like the ones we stay at; waiting for the voice over the intercom to announce his turn for a shower; buying coffee from a convenience store. I imagine him tinkering in his garage, combining oils, analyzing viscosity with homespun methods, hitting the road, testing his concoctions, sealing small accounts with a smile and shaking hands with truck stop clerks. Could he ever have imagined the life he was carving?

Well done, Mr. Lucas I say to myself. Well done. Then a sun-tanned woman with smiling eyes emerges from the house and says, “Well y’all coming in or what?” and we follow her inside.

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When we leave a day and a half later, having soaked in as much of the estate as our bones could handle, we return to our shoebox-sized trailer to resume our journey. The forecast warns of a storm approaching. We smile, buckle down, and drive headlong into it.