In my memories of the house, the retaining wall is always around three feet high. But after three decades and a little Googling, I now realize there’s no way it was taller than 21 inches. Still, when I was seven and a half years old, it was a big deal.
I had a black and gold Huffy Thunder 50 dirt bike that, in retrospect, I realize was a vehicle for many life lessons, not the least of which was learning how to get up a hill, courtesy of my mom, who would not let me stop pedaling and walk my bike up it on the way back to our house after Little League practice; instead, we’d just ride circles around a flat spot until my legs stopped screaming, and then we’d finish pedaling up the last two blocks to the house. That was a noble lesson in persistence, which continued to pay dividends in many areas of my life in the decades afterward.
The other lesson learned on my Thunder 50 was about physics. Mostly gravity. That retaining wall along the driveway of our house—three railroad ties stacked on top of each other—kept the neighbors’ front yard from rolling into our driveway, which was just wide enough for two cars. If you were playing basketball, the wall was almost enough for a high school regulation three-point line: 19 feet 9 inches from the hoop, or just past the edge of the driveway and in the dirt of the front yard, under the branches of the big sugar maple tree. You could get off a shot without hitting the branches if you stood right in front of where the three-point line would be.
I had seen my brother Chad, who is a year and a half older than me and naturally more relaxed and athletic in every sport we tried as kids, ride his BMX bike off the retaining wall with no hesitation or real effort, landing on both wheels in the driveway and then steering out to the right onto Cherry Street. I’m sure I assumed I would try it someday myself—it was just a matter of working up the nerve. I have since wondered why I chose the night before my first day of third grade, and I have no explanation other than kids who are seven are kind of dumb shits. (We continue to be dumb shits in many ways throughout life but hopefully recognize this fact early on and spend significant effort trying to become less of a dumb shit every year we are alive. Of course there are pivotal moments, and this was one of mine.)
I pedaled around the driveway, then up the neighbors’ driveway, checking out the launch point but chickening out several times. I probably spent a few thousand hours in the driveway of that house, mostly playing basketball by myself, and in my memory, the scene of this particular August day is always lit with the golden light just before dusk, when I finally got together the nerve for my attempt. Nobody else was around, no friends peer-pressuring me into it, no one wanting me to hurry up so they could take a turn. It was just me, trying stuff by myself.
Biking through the grass and up to the top of the retaining wall, I expected I would just float off as I had seen my brother do, landing on the pavement and rolling away, a small triumph. Instead: I didn’t pull up on the handlebars hard enough (or at all?), I might have been going too slowly, and I rolled off the retaining wall, plummeting down onto my front wheel, toppling over the handlebars, and catching most of the brunt of the fall with my face. It had less the grace of a bicycle stunt a third-grader imagines and more the grace of a load of dirt sliding from the back of a dump truck as the driver tilts the bed up and back and the tailgate swings open.
My family moved from that house in southwest Iowa across the state a few years later, so I haven’t been back to the scene of the crash since I was 13, but thanks to Google Street View, I can revisit it online and see where it happened. The house has been painted a different color, and the basketball hoop has changed, but everything else looks the same.
And like a lot of things from my earlier years, including not getting sent to detention in high school (just keep your mouth shut about 75 percent more often) and dating (also keep your mouth shut about 75 percent more often), doing it better seems so simple in retrospect: pedal hard, pull up. As the saying goes: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t pedal harder or pull up, so after I peeled myself and my bicycle off the pavement, I went into the house with blood starting to trickle down my face and my upper lip starting to swell. The first day of school started in about 13 hours, and I don’t remember exactly what I wore that next day, but when I was growing up, you wore nice clothes the first day of school, so I probably did, maybe even a new shirt. But also: two giant scabs on my face.
Eight years later, I went to high school on the opposite side of the state and befriended a classmate named Dan, who had a smile that took up half his face. He loved to laugh, and so did I, but his laugh was so loud and bright that whenever I made him laugh in class, or in the hallway, or anywhere, I felt like I was doing everyone else a favor. And at some point, I told Dan the story of riding my bike off the edge of the retaining wall, landing on my face like a pile of dirt falling out of the back of a dump truck, and he loved the story. Specifically when I remembered that there were two women walking down the street at the time, who had probably seen the whole thing from about 150 feet away, which struck Dan as probably the funniest part, and once he started laughing at it, I agreed with him. Dan probably made me retell him that story seven or eight times in high school, in the lunchroom, in the football locker room, in the back of someone’s car when we were drinking Busch Light driving down a gravel road somewhere in Chickasaw County.
When you’re really young, you get ideas from some rather ridiculous places about what you want to be when you grow up. You want to play in the NBA, be a rapper, or have a job that literally only exists in movies, like a hero cop who doesn’t play by the rules but always saves the day, or a writer who can afford to live in Manhattan. Lots of us, at one point or another, want to be good at flying off things on skateboards, skis, and/or bikes, and some people do become good at it and maybe make a living at it. I didn’t give up riding my bike off things that day in the driveway—I learned to ride wheelies, went off a few small trailside ski jumps, and later mountain biked proficiently enough to enjoy both of my tires leaving the ground for up to three-quarters of a second at a time. But I’m sure somewhere in my seven-and-a-half-year-old brain, I started to think maybe big air wasn’t going to be a thing for me.
By the time I turned 25, I really wanted to be an adventure writer, following in the footsteps of climbing writers like Mark Jenkins, Jon Krakauer, and Daniel Duane. For a long time, I felt like I should write stories about strong, courageous deeds, survival in near impossible situations, the sort of heroism we find in classic adventure tales. Thankfully, there’s room for other types of tales, not just the capital-A Adventure stuff I was first inspired by, and I’ve been able to make somewhat of a living from telling stories about the outdoors. Every once in a while, someone will ask me how I got started doing what I do, writing about the human-powered things we do for fun, and fun in the mountains and on trails. Usually I tell them about the first mountain-climbing story I ever had published, for $ 40 back in 2004. But now that I think about it, that’s not true at all. It was probably dumping my bike off a knee-high jump in a driveway in a small town in southwest Iowa, landing on my face, and practicing telling and retelling that story to my giggling friend Dan, hoping to get it just right so everyone would hear him laughing three rows of lockers away.