Every time I ran into Mike Gunn at a party, he would tell me about his latest exotic adventure, dirt biking the back roads of some exotic country. It sounded like a great bucket list item.
When I was a kid, maybe 13 or so, I had a dirt bike. It was a four stroke Honda XL 100. I loved that motorcycle and spent days riding around the undeveloped land surrounding Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas.
It was the perfect dirt bike spot, felicitously located adjacent to my neighborhood in the middle of Houston. It had mounds, ruts, curves and dirt tracks for miles in either direction. It was an adolescent dirt biker’s dream come true.
I worked hard to buy that Honda XL100. I waxed cars, mowed lawns and sold roses on busy street corners. I’m sure I caused many a wife to forgive her husband.
I’ll never forget the moment when I walked down the stairs early one Christmas morning and saw that motorcycle glittering in the soft dark glow of the Christmas tree lights. I felt a wave of joy that I’ve spent the rest of my life searching to regain.
“I’ve got a trip planned for Cambodia,” Mike said. “Are you in?”
How could I say no? I dirt biked for years and got quite accomplished in the sport, even racing a few times. What could be more exciting than touring the back roads and jungle trails of Cambodia? Of course I was in.
Northsiders may remember Mike Gunn. He represented us in the state senate some 30 years ago until he was redistricted out of a job. A true-blue conservative maverick, he never towed the party line enough to make a career in politics. Timing is everything. After anguished soul searching, Gunn went into flipping residential real estate at precisely the right time and made a small fortune. Now he dirt bikes all over the world for fun.
After 60 years of life on earth, I am not a complete idiot, thank you Lord God. “Hey Mike,” I said. “Before I commit to this trip, maybe let’s you and me go biking and you can kinda check out my skill set and see if I’m up for such a trip.” He agreed and we set a date to head to one of his three biking venues in Meridian, the Meridian Offroad Motorcycle Park.
I am fascinated by how many different hobbies humans engage in. How is it some people love fishing while others guitar playing or ballroom dancing or tailgating or golf, etc? The variety of human interests is truly a gift from God.
I had no idea how many motorcycle parks dot our state or how many people love to dirt bike. It was an eye opener.
Meanwhile, I researched Cambodia. It’s still littered with landmines from the Vietnam War, especially in remote areas.
Dirt biking in the land-mine infested remote jungles of Cambodia when I haven’t ridden a motorcycle in 50 years. What could possibly go wrong? Hey, hold my beer and watch this.
I mentioned it to my wife Ginny and she was all for it. “Hey, baby, go for it,” she said. Hmmm?? Maybe it was a bad idea telling her that I was over insured.
Despite it all, I was brimming with confidence when Mike picked me up in his truck with two beautiful dirt bikes in the back. It’s like riding a bike, literally. Once you learn, you never forget. And I was pretty darn good way back when.
My first danger signal came when Mike pulled off his street shirt in preparation for putting on his biking gear. Man, he was ripped. And it didn’t look gym ripped. It looked like battling the wilds of the jungle ripped.
As he donned his gear, I kept asking why all these layers were necessary. “The ankle protectors are in case you make a turn and a stump or something catches your foot. If I had been wearing these two years ago, I wouldn’t have broken my foot.” I was starting to get nervous.
“Like, how good a dirt biker are you,” I asked.
“I do compete a lot,” he said. “Last year I was number two in the nation in my age group. This year, I plan to enter a few more events and claim the number one spot.” My throat made a big dry gulp.
“Hop on this bike and take it for a spin around these paths right here and get the feel for it,” Mike suggested.
“Is it one down, four up?” I asked. I was proud to know some lingo, but wondered if that was hopelessly out of date. I mean, as far as I knew, dirt bikes now had automatic transmission.
“Yup, that’s it,” he said.
I hopped on the bike and felt right at home. The machine felt completely under my control as I puttered around. The old man’s still got it, I thought to myself.
“Ready,” Mike asked?
“Ready,” I said. And off we went on some trail.
I was immediately surprised by three things: 1) The speed at which he was biking; 2) The curviness and narrowness of the trails. One tiny mistake and you would hit a tree; 3) The fact that I was keeping up.
When we finished the first trail, my legs were already starting to cramp. I realized that I still had the technical memory, imprinted from childhood, of how to maneuver the bike. But I was lacking the muscular conditioning. The muscles can’t do what you tell them to do if they are out of gas.
Mike turned to me. “I’m impressed. I really am. Follow me.”
I then realized that the first trail was just the beginner trail. By trail number four, my legs had turned to mush. Muscles I didn’t even know I had were cramping.
We came to a huge mound with ruts in it. Mike carefully picked his way around the side. I decided that with enough speed, I could go straight up, ruts or no ruts.
This did not turn out well and I ended up underneath a 250 pound dirt bike. My right thumb felt sprained.
It was at that moment, my Creator looked down and took pity on me. He lifted the veil from my eyes and I saw the future clearly: Me with a busted knee in some remote Cambodian jungle. No health care. In pain from an injury that would ruin tennis, golf, walking the dog and general happiness for the rest of my earthly existence.
Mike looked down at me, trapped under the bike, and grinned. “Back in the saddle, Wyatt.”
My boyish enthusiasm suddenly was replaced with adult maturity. “I’m not going to Cambodia, Mike. I’m too old. It’s been too long.”
P. S. Upon reflection, I wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just a setup. Surely, Mike knew after 50 years, there was no way I could be up for his kind of trip. I was envisioning just gently tooling around on flat trails and roads and watching the scenery, not competition-level high-speed tears through rocky, windy, ruddy jungle paths.
Mike went on the trip. He had a great time. One of the guys busted his knee and kept on biking for nine days. I hope his surgery back home went well.
I have learned a valuable lesson about aging gracefully. Kinda sad to look Father Time in the mirror, but it beats the alternative.
Wyatt Emmerich is publisher of the Northside Sun in Jackson, Mississippi.