BACK TO WHEELS

My heart stops and time freezes but the seconds melt away. Sixty seconds of
unbearable silence and agonizing suspense... the banner is up!

I'm at the start of my last race from Lucerne Valley in the Mojave Desert to the Colorado River at Parker, Arizona. My left hand hovers near the clutch lever, ready to pull it in and pop it out the instant my left foot jams the bike into gear. My right foot is poised precariously on the kick starter and my right hand grips the throttle like a vice, ready to twist it to the stop when the banner falls and my bike starts.

More than a thousand pair of eyes like mine are locked front and center on the men standing in the back of a pickup truck holding a Checkers Motorcycle Club banner up in front of us. Waiting for it to drop, I remind myself that this won't be another parade from Barstow to Vegas for anybody who can swing their leg over a dirt bike. No, this is the Check Chase, a race to the Colorado River across 238 miles of the toughest terrain in the Mojave Desert. Just finishing will take all the skill and fierce determination I can muster. Most of all, I will have to stay in touch with who I am--what I can and cannot do.

"Come on Bill," I whisper to myself. "Don't ride over your head and risk going over the bars. Read the ground in front of you but watch for clues up-trail that you're approaching something gnarly. And don't lose the trail. Stay on course --keep your eyes peeled for every piece of pink ribbon tied to a bush and every white splotch of lime tossed on the ground."

I know the other riders are giving themselves the same pep talk. But this isn't just my last River Run, it's my last desert race. When I cross that finish line in Parker, the bike goes up for sale and I move on to other adventures. I convince myself that makes me more motivated than the others to do my very best.

It's fall here in Lucerne Valley. The breeze is blowing gently--just enough to make the banner ripple with life, but not enough to make anyone cause a false start by thinking it's being dropped. When those Checkers drop their banner, we'll know it. Just as those thoughts blow across my mind, I hear "Brnggg! Brnggg!" Somewhere to my right a two-stroke engine springs to life.

Damn! Somebody got careless and pushed his lever through. I've lost track of how many times that's happened in my years of racing desert. Someone accidentally or intentionally starts his bike before the banner is dropped and everyone else starts their bike and charges off the line.

False starts can be dealt with on closed-track events like motocross and speedway but not out here. There's just no way to get more than a thousand riders racing across the desert to return to the start line. So the guys in the banner truck almost always drop the banner after a false start and, if they can, they take the plate number of the guy who caused a premature start.

Luckily, this time everyone stays put. I join the vocal and middle-finger insults tossed at the idiot with "Shut it down nerd!" He does and I watch one of the Checkers monitoring the start line walk over and give him what everyone knows is a warning ripe with four-letter words.

I put my eyes back on the men holding the banner up in front of us. The rules say they're supposed to put the banner down after a potential false start, wait a few minutes, then raise it for at least another 60 seconds before dropping it to start the race.

But they know all of us are more nervous now than we were before the guy started his bike. So I know they won't dare put the banner down, even slowly. They'll leave it up until the start line monitor is once again safely behind the start line, then they'll drop it for real.

So I keep my eyes locked on the men in the back of that truck. Some racers watch the banner, and that's one of the main reasons why every now and then we get a false start. The banner can flutter in the wind all it wants to, but it doesn't drop until the men in that pickup drop it. So I watch the men holding the banner. Almost every time, moments before they throw it down, one of them will nod, glance at the other guy or in some subtle way let me know it's imminent.

In my peripheral vision, I see the start line monitor walk away from Mister Dumb Ass and disappear behind the line. Then, in the center of my focus, I see one of the men in the truck move his lips and know he's said something like "Do it!"

Sure enough, they throw the banner down to the bed of their truck like tossing a shark into the bottom of a boat. My brain pops out of gear and my body pops into gear--legs and hands synchronized in one fluid, almost simultaneous motion. My right foot drives the start lever down. As the engine comes to life, my left hand pulls the clutch, my left foot jams the bike into gear, my left hand pops the clutch out, my right hand twists the throttle, and my bike leaps off the start line like a rocket.

That agonizing silence of waiting for the banner to drop is broken by the roar of two-stroke engines coming to life and racers charging across the desert to challenge the rocks, the cactus and each other.

I'm through the gears in a heart beat and my heart is pounding as fast as the bike is flying past rocks, bushes and cactus. The three or four miles between the start line and the smoke bomb are unmarked. After the smoke bomb, the course narrows to a single, marked trail, so the "bomb" is the target of every rider when the banner comes down. Things always get tight and dangerous with everybody converging on one trail. And that makes the race to the bomb a fight for position. I'm fighting for mine right now. The guy to my right starts to cut in front of me. I veer left just enough to avoid a collision without losing sight of my trail.

Everybody has a trail to the bomb—or should if they intend to do well in a desert race. We're allowed to practice the open area between the start and the bomb, but anyone caught "practicing" the course beyond the bomb is disqualified. My practice is finding what I think will be the fastest way to the bomb for me. The race to the bomb is a helter-skelter charge across the desert, so it's safer and faster to have some route planned before the banner is dropped. My trail is to the right of the smoke bomb because the breeze is coming from the south this morning, and that means the dust will move to my left, giving me the best chance of having a reasonably dust-free race to the marked trail.

Years ago, burning tires identified the beginning of the marked course. The club hosting a race would set a pile of tires on fire so everyone knows where the course markings begin--pink ribbon tied to bushes and white lime tossed on the ground.

For environmental reasons, smoke bombs were replaced several years ago with an array of surveyor's ribbon wide enough and tall enough to be seen from the starting line. But we still call it a smoke bomb. I see it now, just minutes away.

My heart is already pounding in my chest but it quickens even more as I anticipate dozens of riders converging on the same trail. "Hey Bill!" I holler to myself. "You got a great start. Catch me if you can, suckers!"

My competitive aggression always surprises me. Where did that come from? My relatives used to say I was Vernon reincarnated. Vernon was my father's older brother. He was killed on a 1925 Harley in Long Beach when a garbage truck backed out of an alley just as he came around a corner and gassed his big hog.

When he died, Vernon was 19 and my father was 16. With his older brother gone, my father became responsible for his mother and three sisters. His father was a drunken, abusive bum, so my father booted him out of the house. I hadn't been born yet, but I imagine him saying "Hit the road, Earl, you ain't welcome here."

That's probably why my father never drank. He wouldn't even have a beer with me. Never really knew him nor found a reason why he couldn't get from father to friend, even when we were both grown men. Just couldn't make the transition, I guess. Always Father. Never Dad. Perhaps his tough childhood, the one his father and circumstances forced on him, is why we never connected.

I charge through the dust hovering around the bomb and pick up the trail to the first check. My legs and knees are pressed to the tank as if they belong to a gorilla. The bike tells me what to do, and I tell it what to do. Instantly. No discussion. No argument. Whatever the bike does, I do. Whatever I do, the bike does. We are no longer bike and rider. We are one, inseparable, harmonious blend of rubber and steel, muscle and blood.

With my body on autopilot and the chaos of the race to the bomb behind me, my mind is free to wander the landscape of my racing days. It all started with a guy named Matt at Lockheed Aerospace Corporation in Burbank, California. After my years in the U. S. Army, I forged a career in the aerospace industry, moving slowly and methodically from electronics technician to technical writer.

When I met Matt, I had been racing motocross for three years but was becoming increasingly frustrated with the short motos, dusty courses and my kids always pestering me with "Daddy, are we going home now?" The motocross race organizers were notorious for promising three 20-minute motos and moist, pea-graveled tracks but delivering only two 10-minute motos on dry, hard-packed tracks. So Matt's suggestion to try something new called Desert Racing appealed to me.

Even with three seasons of motocross under my belt, it took a while to hone the skills and develop the stamina to get up and down steep, rocky hills and keep my wheels down and my handlebars up in tight, nasty canyons. You can't win or place unless you finish, so judgment is vital. I had learned to go as fast as the terrain allowed—not faster but not slower either. You can ride a few degrees over your head some of the time, but, as we often joked with each other, finisher pins are handed out at the finish line, not at the smoke bomb.

I had met Mack in the technical writing group of the product support division. He was a good listener. One morning, after he had endured more than a few minutes of me whining about motocross, he said "You should come out to the desert and race with my club.

"Desert racing? What's that, Matt?" Matt's attempt to describe desert racing was like trying to explain what a tree is to a Martian without having one to point to. But what he said grabbed my attention, so I got up early the next Sunday, loaded my bike into my truck and followed Matt out to my first desert race.

It took only one look at hundreds of motorcycles lined up on the starting line that Sunday morning in Red Mountain to capture my enthusiasm. It was like a camping trip with motorcycles and racing. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. This sport would fit like a glove.

I rode my bike to the start line and waited for the banner to drop. When it did, I blew off the line flying high on enthusiasm and more than a few ounces of adrenalin fired by a desire to beat everyone to the finish. I didn't beat everyone to the finish, but only 20 or so were in front of me. After the race, I cleaned myself up behind my truck. Damn, these desert races are dusty!

Matt belonged to the Rams Motorcycle Club and I soon discovered that clubs are the heart of desert racing. They organize and sponsor all the races, battle big government to keep the desert open to competitive events, expose beginners to valuable experience and give the riders and their families a comradeship unequaled by motorcycle competitors anywhere.

Sharing a common enthusiasm for motorcycles in general and desert racing in particular builds understanding, respect and friendship. If you break down, your buddies will come and get you. But you better have a good reason why you couldn't fix the problem yourself and ride it in!

My connection with two wheels began on a JC Higgins bicycle from Sears. My parents walked me out to the sidewalk and steadied it as I got on. They started to walk along with me, but I just peddled away as if I had been riding for years.

In the late 40's, my father moved us to Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley. I rode the JC Higgins to school for a few months, then my father bought me a three-speed Schwinn. It was 6 miles to school and even with that Schwinn it seemed like it was uphill both ways. After school, I delivered the Valley Times newspaper to neighborhoods along Balboa Blvd from Rinaldi to Sepulveda. A few years later, I delivered them on a Vespa motor scooter. I took to it like duck takes to water. Maybe I really am Vernon reincarnated.

My eyes pull my head out of its nostalgic chatter. "First check coming up. Gotta do this right!" I begin looking for an aggressive checker. The skilled ones eye ball each rider as he comes into the check and rapidly point at you and then at themselves, a wordless gesture meaning "You're mine. Pull in right here!"

I spot one pointing at me with his index finger then pointing at himself with his thumb. I shift down, pull the clutch and move back to make room for him to reach in and mark my tank card.

Some checkpoint workers dig their crayon into the tank card with too much force and rip the card or tear it completely off the tank. I don't want that to happen to mine. It's my ticket to a finisher's pin, proof I have not cut the course.

This guy knows what he's doing. He makes the smooth move, and I pop the clutch, twist the throttle and blow out of the check like I'm being chased by the devil. I am—more than a thousand of them—all trying to get to Parker before me.

And some of them will get to the finish before I do. I'm not the fastest guy out here. But I might be the fastest in my class. Every desert race is more than 40 races taking place at the same time on the same course. Four skill levels, four engine-size divisions and six age groups. We all have number plates on our bikes with a colored strip to tell everybody whether we were a beginner (white) a novice (green), an amateur (yellow) or an expert (red).

Mine is red, and I have worked hard to get it. I will never forget the thrill of opening the mail in those early months of racing and reading that the steward for my division had transferred me to the next level. Nor will I forget the joy of removing the green, novice plate from my bike and replacing it with a yellow number plate. And then a year later, replacing yellow with red.

My day dreaming ends as I spot banners of every color and pattern fluttering on the horizon a mile or so ahead. The first gas stop. Minutes away. In a desert race, bikes need to stop and refuel every 40 miles or so. Both sides of that section of the course are lined with pit crews—people pouring gas into bikes and water into riders. I had been a member of the Desert Knights, but the club had disbanded several years ago, so instead of looking for their club banner among all the others, I'd have to find my wife waving frantically to attract my attention.

We both know she'll see me before I see her. I also know she'll jump onto the course itself when she does. That worries me, but I'm out here risking life and limb for something I love and she'll risk life and limb for someone she loves: me.

We had agreed she would setup our gas pit on the left side of the course so I wouldn't have to scour both sides as I came blasting into the pits. Even with our agreement in place, it won't be easy to find her with pit crews standing precariously close to the trail shouting and waving at their racers, and with explosions of dirt and dust obscuring my vision as other riders pull into and out of their pit.

The rules specify a 15 mph speed limit in the pits. Some racers obey it and some don't. Every now and then, riders who disobey the rule get caught and disqualified. Yeah, every second counts in a race, especially if you're going for first place in your division. And that's goal—get to Parker before everyone else in my division. But it's wiser to lose a few seconds by staying near 15 mph than to get disqualified, or to lose several minutes by going so fast that you miss your pit and have to fight incoming riders to go back and look for it.

So I roll my throttle back a notch and keep my eyes peeled for my gal who is keeping her eyes peeled for me. Sure enough, she sees me first and leaps in front of a guy from the pit next to ours to wave me down. I lock the rear wheel up, slide into her spot, snap my gas cap open and help her direct the nozzle on the can into my tank.

She glances up and smiles. I smile back. She wipes the dust off my goggles and hands me a water bottle. "You're 20th overall and I haven't seen anybody in your class!"

Most clubs use crayons to mark each rider's tank card. So I had made a duct-tape "dam" between the card and my gas tank cap to keep gas from spilling onto my tank card. That had happened a few times in the early days of my racing, and the gas had turned the crayon marks into one big, colorful glob, making it almost impossible for the sponsoring club to verify that I had made every check.

My wife had never spilled a drop on my tank card, and she doesn't spill any this time. She pulls the nozzle out of my tank and gives me a kiss. Through the noise of pit crews yelling at their riders and two-stroke motorcycles pulling in and out of their pits, I yell "See you at the next check!" I kick my bike into gear, look back to check traffic and charge onto the course, excited that I'm not only well up in the front overall but leading everyone in my division.

Behind every desert racer stands a good mechanic, hours of practice and a loyal wife or girlfriend. She was mine. Her job finances my racing and its expenses. She cooks the meals, helps in the pits to give me that racer's edge and waits anxiously for me at the finish. I know she'll be at the next pit and every pit after that with gas, water and a kiss.

With the chaos and stress of stopping for gas behind me, my thoughts turn to women like mine who support their man and his passion for two wheels in the desert. What would we do without them? Who would find our boots, work the pits and be at the finish line with a cold beer, a warm hug and a thank-god-you-made-it kiss? The only reason we're not dead, broke or in jail... the only reason we had a bike to race or ride... the only reason we wanted to be better men, and did. More than sixteen years with mine. What a ride!

A few miles from the finish, I go down hard in a tight turn in a sand wash, get up, clear my goggles and my head, walk over to the bike and notice the front tire is flat. Probably why I crashed. "Those damn rocks up on that ridge just after check number 4." I tell myself to relax. It's the front tire. Stay in your lower gears and roll the throttle up a notch to keep your front end light and you'll get to the finish OK.

I pick the bike up off the ground, give the lever a kick, then smile as I hear it come to life. Every desert racer has his or her favorite motorcycle and mine is Yamaha. It's just a saying but for me the "Y" in Yamaha has always stood for YES. I stab the gear shift and take off, glad that nobody has passed me while I was down.

Racing through the chaparral just east of the sand wash, I see the finish line ahead. With the finish line in sight, I know I've made this Race to the River my best ever. As I roll into the finish chute, the guy working the finish line crayons "16" on my tank card, then a woman hands me a finisher pin and says, "Congratulations! You've finished the River Run."

Sitting there waiting for the finish chute to clear, a peace settles over me. Check after check I found the guy with that smooth move and fast crayon. Mile after mile, I found the strength and determination to stay on my game, to push myself and that Yamaha as fast as I could without becoming arrogantly foolish. Pit after pit, that woman of mine gave me that racer's edge.

If I had failed to finish because of a mechanical failure or something beyond my control, like another racer bashing into me, I'd have been disappointed. If I had failed to finish or had finished poorly because I had failed to ride within my limits, or had been unwilling to tap into my courage and abilities, I would have been angry with myself, always wondering which part of me had betrayed the others.

An arm slides around my shoulders. "You made it! First 250 Expert in your class!" I turn and see that face I love. Mine is covered with dirt and dust but she kisses it anyway. Her hugs and kisses had always been my favorite finisher pins. But she'd never have to kiss that dirty face again—my racing days were over. My memories of them, however, would never be over. Desert racing had been a kind of home where people accepted me as one of them. Whether sitting around a campfire with my buddies or trying to catch one of them in a sand wash, I'd been home. And that home would remain in my heart, urging me to live the rest of my life with all the guts and gusto I had learned from racing motorcycles in the desert.