The Reluctant Wrench 17: Trading Up
He thought, without a doubt, in the old days he would’ve driven right by the brown wooden sign half-hidden by weeds that marked the Dorman Woods State Park’s entrance. But for the help of the Galactic Phone, as he called it, he would’ve sped by, for although on the trails his mind falls into comedy stand-up mode, in the car he becomes an oldies crooner. Del Shannon, The Temptations, The Ravens, The Big Bopper, nobody was safe. He was on “Blue Moon” when the phone got his attention.
There were two cars already in the lot, an old Ford F-150 with rust holes in the doors and a Fender Guitar sticker on the dented bumper, and a faded brown Isuzu Trooper with the back window covered with the stickers you might expect: RockShox, Crank Bros, DirtRag, those stupid dancing bears. Dylan was never happy to run into anyone else on the trails, but if he had to, he didn’t mind the type of folks that would drive these vintage vehicles. The Trooper even had a sun-bleached hitch rack wrapped in bike tubes and electrical tape where the original plastic coating had worn off the hooks.
These type of folks are on old hardtails, they have been in the game a long time, they respect other riders, hikers, and horse weirdos (why people stuff wild animals in tin cans, drive them on a highway, force them into unfamiliar wilderness, then accuse YOU of spooking them, he could never understand.)
He parked a few spots down from the F-150, easing close enough to the rotting wood barrier to be under some shade should the sun come out, but when he checked his phone it was already hitting the high for the day, 55 degrees, overcast with no rain. Slight breeze. Perfect for a ride on a new trail, perfect to leave the windows cracked for Frankencat.
He checked his tire pressure again, put a lot more than normal in his back tire; he didn’t want to pinch flat or have the tire boot move out of place. Opted, it being a new trail, to use his small hydration pack, sans bladder. Contents: spare tube, multi-tool, quick link, knife, bottle of water, Galactic phone, tall boy can of Ten-Fiddy, pack of American Spirits.
“Turning into my dad,” he muttered to himself when he realized he was packing beer and cigarettes to exercise. He made sure to have the windows cracked and the doors locked. Frankencat clawed her way on top of a headrest, leaving puncture marks in the upholstery. She let out a complaint, somewhere between a meow and a howl.
“Hold down the fort,” he told her, “and PLEASE use the litterbox if you go.”
The trailhead had a map on a bulletin board, protected by a small shingled roof and a yellowed plastic cover. He gave it a glance but was pretty sure he already had the three loops and their intersects in his head. He took a deep breath, tried to enjoy the anticipation of the moment and let the anxiety of the last 24 hours-thinking he had lost the cat, thinking he might get lucky, the mysterious disappearance of Tahoe-drift out with his exhalation.
Out with the bad air, in with the good. A new trail. A new life.
The ride delivered what it promised, tight flowy berms here and there, technical rock gardens, and long climbs that had steep kickers and their own loose, rocky sections. He was clambering up what he figured was probably the longest climb, having to get out of his seat but hovering close to it for more traction, which was a struggle due to the loose rocks and his over-inflated rear tire. He started to hear some movement below him, followed by a distant voice. The sounds of loose rocks getting kicked around grew closer as he struggled to get to the top of the climb. His lungs were beyond burning…he felt as if he had sriracha sauce go down the wrong pipe. He could see the crest of the climb when he heard a voice call from behind him.
“Rider up,” it announced. Him. He was the rider up, but he was almost at the top of the climb. He kept his line on the left side, where the trail was more consistent. It was two riders wide, but the right side was deeply rutted and still wet with run-off. Almost there.
“On your left,” the voice called. He chanced a glance back, and indeed the first rider would be on his wheel before the top of the climb. But there was no way to let them pass without giving up the left side of the trail and putting himself into a deep rut. Fifteen yards, that’s all he had left of the climb, when the voice called out again.
“On your left!”
“If you’re so fast, take the line at the right,” was what went through his head, but he could barely breathe. Speaking was not an option.
“C’mon! On your left!”
Five yards left in the climb, and he put himself into the rocky rut on the right side of the trail, lost traction, and stopped. He straddled his bike, struggling for air, pointing his middle finger at the rider in front, who never looked back to see it. A group of three riders were close on his tail, and by the time he walked to the top of the trail, which opened up to a clearing, he counted at least five more. Most of them had matching jerseys and shiny new POC helmets that matched their shiny new bikes. Not one of them were on a bike that sold for under five grand. Not one of them rode without a Garmin clamped to their matte carbon bars.
He walked his bike into the middle of the clearing, picked it up, and threw it into a group of small pines. It hung for a moment, suspended by branches, before clanging, unharmed, to the ground. He watched it fall and let out a laugh. Then he realized that he wasn’t the only person laughing. He turned around to find two guys sitting on a log on the other side of the clearing, their bikes leaning together against a tree, passing a joint back and forth. He got his bike, checking first for poison ivy, then walked over and leaned his bike against theirs. Took off his pack. Took a seat beside them.
“Aww…Look who’s riding a steel steed,” the closest one said. He spoke with a long, slow surfer drawl. He was tall and tan, with blonde, frizzy hair that almost touched his shoulders. He wore one of those mountain bike jerseys that were made to look like a flannel shirt. “Do you wrench, man?”
“Reluctantly, yes. My name’s Dylan,” he answered. He reached into his backpack, past his water and went straight for the tall boy. Opened it with a click. “I’m voluntarily unemployed at the moment, just driving across the country hitting some trails, looking for a place to settle.”
“I’m Jesse, and this is Neil,” he said, pointing his thumb at his friend, whose tattooed arms were exposed through a real flannel with cut-off sleeves. He had dark black hair that was matted in all directions, with black eyebrows sitting jagged above his eyes like two cartoon lightning bolts.
“Those guys,” Neil said, “at least a couple of them, I’ve seen at the shop where we work. Goddamned roadies. First they ruin cyclocross, now they are ruining mountain biking.”
“Yeah, man,” Jesse chimed in. “Always in a hurry with their Stravas, one-upping each other. It’s the new keeping up with the Jonses.”
“No offense, but I only thought I’d run into dirtballs smoking dirt weed in the middle of Nowhere, Kentucky.”
“That’s what I thought when I moved here from California,” Jesse said, chuckling, “but Louisville isn’t too far away. There’s a lot of money there.”
“And a lot of roadie douchebags,” Neil added, scratching his arm where a pin-up girl was wrapped around an anchor.
“Don’t be so negative, man,” Jesse said, poking Neil in the arm, “they write our paychecks. You can ride with us, Dylan. There’s a hidden trail that’s not marked, those guys aren’t going to take the road less travelled.”
The hidden trail was a bit overgrown, even that early in the spring, but still good. The guys were a little slower, but he was happy to follow them around and have a chill time. There was even a teeter totter made out of a real teeter totter. “We dragged that back here after they took it out of a playground by the shop,” Neil commented. “Too dangerous for the helicoptered generation.” After another hour they looped around and Dylan recognized that they were back on the feeder trail and heading for the parking lot. He started to hear a thumping sound. Not rhythmic. Not recognizable. Thump…thump…thump!
“Yo, what are you doing, girl!” he heard Jesse yell. As he reached the parking lot he saw Jesse riding up to the Subaru. There was a woman in a printed ankle length skirt and a whirlwind of long blonde hair swinging something above her head. It flew from her hand and bounced off the window of the Subaru. He and Neil caught up as Jesse stepped in front of her and stopped her from picking up what looked to be a round clay brick.
“Some fascist,” she shouted, “has a poor little cat locked up in there, suffocating and scorching! It’s torture!”
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” Jesse assured her.
“No…it’s not! And who the hell is that!?!” she asked, pointing at Dylan.
“I’m the fascist,” he answered. “But you would do better to throw bricks at any of these immaculate VW Golfs and Audis.”
Once the car started moving, Frankencat came out of her hiding place under his hoodie and perched on the armrest, looking ahead at the awkward caravan in front of them. The hippy girl, Janet, turned out to be the guys’ roommate. She had gone on a ride and had decided to meet the guys in the parking lot. She seemed like a perfect match for Jesse, but she had put her bike in the back of Neil’s F-150 and ridden with him. Despite the bad first impression she had of Dylan, he was invited to go to their house for a cookout and (he assumed, since they stopped to stock up on beer) a place to crash for the night.
They wove their way across some narrow two lane roads with no yellow lines and deep ditches on either side. Patches of woods. Soybean fields. Then they turned onto a stone driveway that ended at an old farmhouse with a decrepid barn, separated by a giant oak tree. Old and picturesque, Dylan thought. Only thing missing was a tire swing.
It didn’t take long for them to fire up the grill and crack open the beers. They had a collection of mismatched chairs on the porch arranged in a semi-circle. Dylan felt comfortable, and settled right in, like putting on a pair of old jeans. Even Frankencat took a seat on a rocking chair that was missing an arm.
“Dude,” Jesse said, twirling his finger in the air. “All this, this is where Neil grew up. Right on this property. Now the three of us own it.”
“How, if you don’t mind me asking, do you guys swing owning a house on bike mechanics’ pay?”
Jesse grinned, pulled a cigar box out from under his chair, and pulled out a joint. He pointed at it and grinned.
“What, you sell weed?”
“Is there another way for a bike mechanic to survive in the world?” Jesse asked.
“No wonder I’ve been poor for so long,” Dylan laughed.
“Well,” Jesse grinned, “I know Janet looks like one of those girls that makes oatmeal soap and sells it at the Farmer’s Market, but she’s actually a sales rep for medical equipment. Totally makes bank.”
The screen door rattled and Janet came out with a plate of veggie burgers and sweet potatoes to put on the grill. Neil followed with a separate plate in one hand, a guitar in the other. He propped the guitar in an empty chair and ran over to the grill. He turned his plate over and dumped its contents on the far corner of the grate.
“She wouldn’t let my real burger be on the same plate,” he explained as he sat down. “So Dylan, you been wrenching for awhile?”
“Forever,” he answered. “Started in junior high. Worked through high school. Worked through college. Moved all over the country, through booms and busts. Still freaking doing it.” Just that short explanation made him exhausted. He held his head in his hands. “I absolutely hate it.”
“No,” Jesse replied, “there must be something about it you like, or you would do something else.”
“Now you sound like a customer,” Neil injected. His jagged eyebrows became animated as he spoke: “I feel you Dylan. The job sucks. The people suck. They are selfish awful sniveling jerks that can’t wait one day even though they have three backup bikes at home. And now there are no other jobs a step up. Everything but service jobs got sent overseas. It’s bike shop or 7-11.”
“It’s not just the long hours, low pay and rude customers,” Dylan said. He finished his beer and opened another. “Perfect example: A couple of months ago, I was putting a new bike together-a custom build. Everything goes together fine. But I take it on the test ride, and this crap frame was so flexy the front derailleur overshifts. I catch it, don’t even get through half a revolution of the crank, but the chain manages to scratch the crank arm a little. But you know how roadies are. So my feeling on this is that you tell the boss and the customer before they notice it, so they don’t think you are trying to sneak it past them. If the customer is upset about a scratch on a part that is going to show wear after a few rides anyway, I take the hit. Buy them a new crank, sell the new but scratched one on eBay to get my money back, and everyone is happy. In fact, in my experience, the customer respects you even more for not trying to get one past them…but not my boss. Not only does he let the guy roll the bike out the door, hoping that he will blame himself for the scratch if he doesn’t notice it right away, he then gives me the retail price lecture.”
“The retail price lecture?” Jesse asks, leaning closer.
“Yeah, you know, ‘Oh, this is a $350 mistake, this scratch.’ No, it’s not a $350 mistake, the crank actually costs us $175, and I had offered to cover it, it was my mistake. But the boss would rather lie to the customer and be able to give me a lecture about how my mistake might cost him $350. It’s capitalism, man. The profit chase. It turns people into liars and breakers of the golden rule…” With that off his chest, Dylan’s glare went out over the farm fields and soared above the horizon. The sun was setting. He felt a pang of worry for Tahoe.
“Dude, I thought Neil here was burnt out, but he’s just an angry man. You, my friend, are completely toasted.”
“Yeah,” Dylan admitted. “I don’t even have fun on my own bike anymore.”
Jesse got up to flip the burgers and see if Janet needed help. Neil, sensing a need to lighten things up, picked up his guitar and started playing. Dylan recognized the song as an early Social Distortion.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to play,” Dylan said. “That or the bass. I’ve always wanted to learn the bass.”
“I have a bass and practice amp inside but I never play it,” Neil said. Their eyes met. “And I’ve always wanted a Karate Monkey,” he said, grinning ear to ear.
He smelled coffee and woke up early the next morning. Frankencat was asleep on his chest and didn’t want to move. Janet brought him a steaming mug and set it down on the nightstand next to the bed. Her hair was up and she was wearing black pants, a white dress shirt and gray cashmere sweater. He barely recognized her.
“The guys said you were hitting the road? I just want to say again that I’m sorry about throwing bricks at your car.”
“It’s ok,” he joked. “usually the bricks come directly at me.”
“Well, I’m getting an early start, too,” she said. “I imagine the guys will get up just in time to get to the shop by ten.”
“Yeah, we said our goodbyes last night. Thanks again for everything. This is a great house.”
“Well, you and Funkycat, or whatever you call that thing, can visit anytime.”
He gathered his things, loaded up the litterbox, the cat, and his bag of clothes. Went back in to do a final check. Neil’s old bass guitar was propped up against the amplifier next to the front door.
“Your choice,” Neil had told him the night before. “No pressure.”
He went back to the Subaru and pulled out his bike. Took it inside. Leaned it against the wall. He thought he might be hesitant, but he had no doubt. He loaded up the guitar and amp.
Janet was sitting at the end of the drive getting ready to turn onto the road, checking something on her phone. He pulled up beside her.
She rolled down her window and motioned for him to do the same.
“Where are you going next?” she asked.
He truly hadn’t thought of that. No need to go to the next trail, that was for sure.
“Memphis,” he heard himself say. He gave a short wave and pulled slowly out onto the road, being careful not to kick up too much dust.