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Smedlap Learns to Ride


I lived in Arizona for over 10 years and during that time I began riding and finally racing motorcycles. It was all desert and mountain riding, and it was back in the 1970’s before mono shocks, gas-filled shocks, 4-stroke engines and all the high-tech equipment people have nowadays. We just put on our old Levis, our cleanest dirty sweatshirt, our best work boots, hopped on whatever we had for a ride, and took off into the nearby desert.  Sometimes we even wore a helmet.

I was also working for IBM at the time and the word spread pretty fast that I was not only a computer nerd, but also a desert racer. One day among the offices a co-worker mentioned he had just purchased a new Kawasaki F7. It was a 175 cc, two stroke Enduro motorcycle designed for use on and off road, and he was interested in going for a ride together to get some practice.

I forget what I originally told him but it was sort of a brush off, as I could not see taking a rookie out in the desert only to wait around all day for him to catch up. I had a 350 CC Kawasaki that was tricked out for racing, and I knew there was no way he could keep the pace. I do, however, recall mentioning something along the lines of “give me a call when you get rid of your training wheels.”

Well, old Smedlap (as we’ll call him to protect his good name) was a persistent cuss, and every couple of days he would hint at going riding. After several months of this constant harassment, I finally broke down and agreed to a Sunday ride. I gave old Smedlap a rundown of what to bring, including making sure he packed a lunch and something to drink. I was planning a loop route out and back that would allow us at least 4 hours on the bikes, with a lunch break somewhere in the middle. Every day leading up to the ride, Smedlap would update me with all his preparations, including the fact that his wife was going to pack his lunch for him. Listening to this, I knew I was in for trouble.

On Sunday morning old Smedlap appeared in my driveway with his Kaw loaded up and all his supplies. I had planned on taking my truck, but after looking at what he had loaded I figured it would be easier to load my Kaw in his truck than try and unload all his cargo. Especially after he pointed out the enormous cooler his wife had packed for lunch.

 After a brief load up period, we headed off to the desert. During the ride I casually mentioned that we should be extra careful because it was near Easter. Smedlap gave me a curious look and I explained that it was the time of year when all the rattlesnakes come out of hibernation, and that baby snakes are active after being born. I noticed him shudder slightly and his face got pale. I thought that was sort of unusual for him, as he had lived his whole life in Arizona and should be somewhat acclimated to the creatures of the desert. He didn’t say anything for a little while, so I broke the ice and said, “Snakes don’t bother you, do they?” You could have heard a pin drop. After he caught his wind he replied, “I haven’t ever seen one.” I assured him that would all change today.

We got to our riding spot, unloaded the truck, laced up our boots and right about then it dawned on Smedlap that the huge cooler he brought wouldn’t strap very easily to the back of his bike. He was forced to take his beautiful lunch that his wife had packed so carefully in a Tupperware container out of the cooler and strap it to the back of his bike.

I purposely wanted to start in a wash, because I figured if Smedlap fell down, the sand would break his fall. So I picked a small wash and we took off. Well, I did, at least. As a pretty experienced rider, I knew the importance of getting your speed up so you can stay on top of the sand. It was obviously a lesson Smedlap had not yet learned.

I had only gotten about 25 yards down the wash when I glanced over my shoulder and saw him, both feet flaying about.  His Kaw was swerving wildly as he tried to stay upright. I stopped and waited until he finally reached where I was standing. And I tried to tell him to get some speed up so the bike would plane on top of the sand and the wobble would stop. He shook his head and I thought (wrongly) that he understood. Of course he couldn’t hear because he had a helmet on and his bike was still running. But off we went again, me flying over the top of the sand and Smedlap wobbling along. Thirty minutes and a lot of instruction later, I knew he was learning, but his progress sure was slow. I should have brought some training wheels.

Getting tired of the slow moving in the sand, I searched for an easier route for Smedlap, eventually deciding to go for solid ground, when I spotted a trail going up the side of a mountain. The trail was a Jeep trail so it was fairly wide and well defined. Maybe I wouldn’t need the training wheels after all.

Wrong.

I could poke along at 20 MPH and I still only saw him in the mirrors mounted on the visor of my helmet. On the plus side, moving at half speed was still better than standing in a wash, waiting.

We climbed up the side of the mountain, navigating numerous twists and turns, and I even occasionally spotted a snake. It wasn’t until about the fifth sighting though that I recalled our conversation from the drive up. Right then, I decided to make sure Smedlap got to see a snake, and I figured I would point out the next one I spotted.

Naturally, that happened on a small stretch of the trail with a cliff on one side and a steep ravine on the other. I came around a curve and there he was: a huge five foot long rattlesnake, stretched out and sunning himself in the middle of the road. I eased over to the side of the trail near the cliff, rode around the snake about 100 feet and stopped. Then I dismounted and waited for Smedlap.  This took awhile. As he came around the curve, I started to point down at the ground, hoping he would look down and see the snake. I should have known better, as he had already proven his inability to take directions, instructions, or even praise.

With all the skills of a true novice, he slowed down and started to try and peer over the side of the trail into the ravine. He never once looked at the road. I started waving frantically, afraid he would stop on top of the snake, now stretched out full length right in his path. He just kept going slower and slower, and I kept waving harder and harder, but I couldn’t get his attention.

It was just as his front wheel got to the snake that he finally glanced down. Before he could react, he ran right over the scaly beast. I watched in slow motion as his tire struck and the snake coiled into striking position. It struck with a reflex so fast that if I had blinked I would have missed it.

Luckily its strike hit his back tire. But by now, Smedlap was in full panic mode. He flailed past the snake and stopped alongside of me, his head wobbling back and forth, searching ground for more snakes. When he finally stopped shaking and got his speech back, he mumbled something that sounded like, “That was close.” I would have described it more colorfully, but this is a family-friendly story. As the dust settled, we took a breather and I let Smedlap compose himself before we proceeded.

After all this, it seemed like a good time to stop for a bite. Remember that beautiful Tupperware that Smedlap’s wife had packed lunch? We unpacked it after stopping in a wash a way down the trail. Smedlap got off his bike and searched the ground for snakes for about 20 minutes before finally settling down on a rock. Then he proceeded to untie the Tupperware from his bike. He popped open the top and sat staring at his lunch. I held back a chortle, until I saw a small smile creep onto Smedlap’s face. He reached into his Tupperware with a laugh and pulled out his sandwich, all smooshed up and plastered around a can of Pepsi. That will happen when you put a sandwich and a soda loose in a Tupperware container and strap it to the back of your bike. The Pepsi will also probably explode all over the place when you pop the top too, just like Smedlap’s did.

Soda dripping from his hair, Smedlap would peel a piece of sandwich off the Pepsi can, eat it, take a drink from the can and repeat the process, smiling all the while. And with a sense of humor like that, I couldn’t help but want Smedlap as a riding buddy. The hell with the training wheels.

Smedlap eventually graduated to entering a race with me—the 75 mile Vulture outside of Wickenburg, AZ but that is another story.

Smedlap, thanks for being my friend.  I appreciate your friendship.