In his 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell put his finger thus on a hard-won truth: "At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view." I no longer believe there are any chances that may not yet present themselves, either, because last week, at my age (whatever that is), I got the opportunity to redress an omission in my life. After decades of wishing to, I finally went trail riding.
Without Woodstock itself, this old dream might never have been realized. It is the kind of place--unique, perhaps, except for certain crunchy outposts in sun-addled California--where a diehard motorcyclist like Ed, major domo of the local riders, would live across from the real estate holdings of super-rich weekenders from the city who rarely visit their fiefdoms. Says Ed with the gentlest of sneers, "Aw, they come up on Friday, have a barbecue on Saturday, and go home on Sunday. They don't even go into the woods. Probably afraid." These are people--like the Russian who owns the mountaintop across from Ed--who simply like the feeling that their names are inked on deeds filed away in some county office, affixed to a map of some mysterious hundred acres. This (and not a visit to the woods themselves) is a source of great comfort.
Also to the people who like to go riding there.
So Ed, collector and fixer of bikes, can get on his Bultaco, or his Super Sherpa, or one of a few others, and head up a gravel road opposite the Mill Stream. Up, and then to the right and to the left he passes masterpieces of modernist architecture, expansive wood and steel domiciles secreted in the deep woods, homes for people who have too many homes. In other places, it's the abject poor who hide among the shadows of trees in mountainous cloves; in Woodstock, it's people who have made it big in media.
There, back beyond the type of houses I have ached for all my life, is heaven for the guerrilla trail rider. (Heaven, because in this well-to-do wilderness there's little chance that an Upper West Side music producer will dispense shotgun justice at the property line.) So, with me on the reliable and light Super Sherpa, and Ed on the two-stroke Bultaco (which will soon complain of thirst and quit running, needing to be rolled back down the hill and exchanged for something with a clear fuel line), I followed the leader off the road and into the woods.
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what the bike would be doing, either. I could only extrapolate from the fact that Ed did not keel over sideways when his tire glanced off a rock or went over branches, though whether that was solely due to his experience and skill I could not guess. I just kept that throttle on (yeah, in first gear). When the bottom third of his wheels disappeared into the water of a spring freshet, I put on the brakes. "Uh, Ed!" I called. He turned and looked, and there was I, shaking my head. My fears were inchoate enough--did I imagine I would hit and awaken some submerged miniature Loch Ness monster, or was it simply the clothed-human urge not to suddenly find oneself sodden up to the neck?--but they were furiously roiling my insides. Ed dismounted and crossed back to me, riding the Kawasaki over for me.
Onward over the narrow trail we went, too much passing continuously under the wheels to identify: rocks were gone over, boulders skirted, ends of logs grazed. It was both fun and as scary as anything I'd ever done, and maybe the two are not separable here. It could not have been fun if it did not scare me, and if it did not scare me, it wouldn't have been all that much fun. Suddenly I was aware I was gripping the throttle as if it were something I had to kill.
Up ahead now was another small stream, this one wider. It was only my shame that would not let me beg this time too. Ed's shouted wisdom was unassailable: "Just ride through it!" "Just through it? Are you sure?" the small girl asked. "Yes, I'm sure. Just ride through it."
Nothing happened. Except that I rode through it.
Onward over the narrow trail we went.
But then into sight came a steep hill. That is where I stopped and decided nothing would make me go up it. Because after you go up, you have to come back down. This time my shaking head had nothing of the question about it. "Had enough? Well, another time you might want to do it. You just have to cut the engine on the way down. Here, watch me." And up, revved high, he went. A minute later he was rolling back down. It looked like so much fun. Like a big, huge room of fun, in which you could get lost for a long time. As long as the trail itself.
I think I got it. Why you'd want to throw yourself around all day, sweat, slew sideways, fall down, get up, hurt like hell the next day. My natural timidity did not allow me to go all the way, but at least I left the road for a bit. To search out a second chance, up in the hills around Woodstock, the place I now find myself.