“Thank You For Coming”

Having come from another race in northern California the previous Sunday, we picked up our new rig in Phoenix, drove eighteen hours to the heart of Texas, made a quick stop to pick up groceries, and ambled down a dirt road that seemed to lead to nowhere, before we arrived at the world-class national track of Freestone County Raceway Texas Motocross.

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Exhausted and exhilarated, we watched the sun rise over the track, skies melting from midnight blue to pink to gold creating a brilliant backdrop for the eighty foot tall flags—one for Texas, one for America—that rippled in the dawn breeze. “This feels like pro motocross,” I whispered. The track was eerily quiet, the calm before the storm. You could feel all around you that Freestone was ready for it.

We hadn’t been alone in our mad dash to get here. We heard more stories from other families who had pulled their sons and daughters out of school, hopped in their motorhomes and driven through the night across country for the chance to earn AMA titles at the James Stewart Freestone Spring Championship. They came from Florida, California, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and all over the country. We even met people from New Zealand!

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Over the course of the day, once more as before we encountered that strange sensation of seeing familiar faces thousands of miles away from the last place we had seen them, this time in the midst of the backroads, family farms, and cow pastures of rural Texas. “I call them the traveling circus!” the announcer, Don Collings, said with a laugh, and we nodded, because the label fit.

The sun brought with it the day’s action and promise of glory. For every child who stepped proudly onto the podium before the flashing of cameras and cheering of fans, a dozen more trudged away from the track disappointed, even crushed, but with the hope that the next moto would yield better results. “The highs and the lows,” we always say to ourselves. Because in every corner of this wild circus, from the people who race to the people who support them—parents, families, mechanics, sponsors, fans, promoters, and track owners—there are the highs and the lows that lead to this strange moto addiction that simply cannot be explained.

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By the end of the day, still sleep deprived from the drive and running on fumes we began packing up our booth and debating what to cook for dinner. Something quick and easy, we decided. Almost as if we had summoned him, some unknown individual pulled up on a quad and said, pointing in a general direction, “We’re barbequing ribs. Come on by, we’ve got plenty of food.”

We followed our noses to the barbeque, pausing sheepishly on the outskirts of their pit, scanning the scene for a familiar face. “I don’t think we know anyone here,” I mumbled, but someone on the inside caught our hesitance and summoned us over, offered us a plate, and encouraged us to “Eat up! This is real Texas barbeque!” So we did, and those ribs were so melt-in-your-mouth delicious I can proclaim with honesty they were the best I had ever tasted. We loaded our plates with chicken and sausage, macaroni & cheese and salad and we ate until there was no room for more. We mingled through the group, shaking hands, trying to figure out who to thank for the food, but it seemed that everybody was host, and yet nobody was host. Maybe it was Jimmy, maybe it was Paul, but they were all from Texas, and they were all proud to say, “Thank you for coming.”

 

Sixteen Thousand Miles

16,000 miles driven; 2,130 gallons of fuel; 313 hours of driving; 298 cups of coffee consumed; 105 days living in a trailer; 45 truck stops slept in; 30 races worked; 8 National Parks visited; 5 tires blown out; 3 people (and a dog); 1 cross-country adventure.

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Fifteen weeks later we rounded the corner of a familiar street, and we arrived: Home.

People ask, “How was your trip?” and you might try to convey in a word or a sentence the experience, but it is near impossible to do so…

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On the northernmost outskirts of the United States, we felt the impact of 2,800 tonnes of water per second as it plummeted over Niagra Falls.  In Butte, Montana, we placed a toy motorcycle on Evel Knievel’s grave.  In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we helped an Amish man push a downed tree out of the road after being ambushed by a flash flood.  In Morgantown, West Virginia, we ate baguettes and aged Provolone in the Racer X boat on Lake Cheat.  In Omaha, Nebraska, we caught bullfrogs and trout that we threw back into a little stream.  

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In New York City, we gaped at the magnitude of man’s creations—giant sky scrapers reaching to the clouds. In Ottawa, Illinois, we spent hours sipping Yuengling watching fireflies dance around a cornfield. In Park City, Utah, we wandered through a street fair, eating crepes and buying necessities, like a hand-made wooden crossbow. In Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, we ate steaming bowls of spicy jambalaya at a campsite, surrounded by strangers who treated us like family.  And between all of these experiences, we drove and drove and drove.

Every week we arrived at a new destination—a world class track—where the best motocross racers in the world would duel it out for our entertainment.

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We came to know most members of the track crew by name, and they laughed with us as we regaled stories of the latest breakdowns and blow-outs encountered on the drive there. We backed in, set up, cleaned up, as we moved a million moving parts, to create our booth.  We slogged through rain and mud, persisted through sweat and muggy heat, buckled down as thunder shook the earth, and squinted through wind and dust storms.  

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Each Saturday, we addressed crowds of 20,000 plus, hearing our words ring out over the loudspeakers.  We reminisced with fans, listening to stories about Hangtown in the 70’s, about 40 years of racing at Southwick, about meeting Bob “Hurricane” Hannah and the GOAT.  We trekked around the track taking photographs, cursing our cable providers as we tried to post some epic shot of the day to Instagram.  We pushed our way through crowds to the podium, to be there for that brief moment when the champagne would fly.

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Then, after the gladiators had battled and crashed and triumphed—Villopoto, Tomac, Dungey, Barcia, Stewart, Canard, Roczen, Musquin—after they had spoken their thank you’s on the podium and returned to their hotels, we lounged around in the mess, high fiving and sharing beers with the show masters, procrastinating cleanup, so that by the time we trudged toward bed, we were exhausted, but content.

Each week we left the track, having learned at least a dozen new things. And then? More road. More truck stops.

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Now that we’re here, at the end, we ask ourselves what was gained. We stumble with words because how does one express the experience as a whole, when it is made up of so many tiny moments?  We can only say that we ventured, that we discovered the soul of motocross, and along the way, we felt life pulsing through the veins of America.

 

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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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.