An abandoned coal mine stood within riding distance of my house as a kid. It was a huge trench thirty feet deep, fifty feet wide, and about two hundred feet long. The sides were steep with trails that ran between adolescent maple and oak trees, re-growth from clear cutting done decades before. Along the trench floor rusted steel relics of the coal industry jutted from the dirt here and there in tribute to forgotten endeavors. Motorcycle riders would drop in one side of the trench, fly down the trails to the bottom, then climb the other side. With enough momentum, they would launch off the lip of the exiting side jumping ten or fifteen feet in the air.
The entire mine was like this except one end, where the trench floor opened to a wide and gentle grade into the surrounding woods. Near this opening resided Fritchie’s Run, the biggest and meanest of all the hills. It was forty feet tall – four stories of a building – with the last fifteen feet being perfectly vertical. The top was a small plateau barren of anything except a lone pine tree standing sentinel in the dead center. The tree was never of any significance until the day came when one kid’s opinion forced me to take notice.
“How the hell do you climb that?” the kid asked as four of us sat on our bikes looking at the monstrous hill.
The question was not for the reasons one would expect. Fritchie’s was indeed huge, but climbing a hill its size was within the ability of a good motocross bike. What made the hill seemingly insurmountable was a complete lack of a runway to get up speed. At the base there was only fifteen feet of solid, dry ground. Beyond that a quagmire of muck that persisted year round, since it was the lowest point and collected all the mine’s rainfall. Beyond that an impenetrable thicket of trees and bramble. The only way to climb Fritchie’s was to ride in at ninety degrees to the hill, turn quickly on the tiny bit of dry ground, then hammer the throttle and hope for the best. It was nuts.
“It can be done. Someone’s had to have gotten up,” I returned.
“Come on! Are you talking about that guy from the north side?”
Urban myth told of an older, hotshot kid in his twenties who had climbed Fritchie’s. He lived somewhere on “the north side of the county,” just beyond the reach of young teenagers who did not drive.
“I mean one of us. We can do it,” I said.
“It can’t be done.”
“But we’ve never even tried.”
“Because it’s suicide!”
“One of us can do it,” I persisted. “Maybe we should stop talking and just try.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Look at yourself. Your engine will explode.”
He had a point. Professional motocross riders, like horse jockeys, are small so their bike can get them moving quickly. Every extra pound is just more weight for the engine to pull. Being a soft gorilla, my bike really had to work hard to get me anywhere, especially up a monster hill.
But I ignored the facts and fought. “Screw you.”
“You wouldn’t make it half way up, fatty.”
“Says me! You’ll never climb Fritchie’s.”
That was all it took. Kicking my bike to life, I prepared to confront the most notorious hill in south central Pennsylvania. A few seconds later my bike sat idling fifty yards from Fritchie’s. From the oblique angle to the hill face all that could be seen was the soupy mess and brambles at the bottom and the lone pine tree at the top. There was no time to think; more time sitting meant more chance of realizing the sheer stupidity of the coming attempt. With a deep breath and release of the clutch, the whining engine released its power into the ground. My bike sped past the other kids in a flash as second gear screamed. Approaching Fritchie’s my wheels ran close to the quagmire, leaving as much room as possible to build speed before the climb. Once there, I slammed the bike into a hard right turn with the throttle pinned. The ascension began.
Actually being on Fritchie’s Run was like a mild out-of-body experience: otherworldly and removed. I was an merely an observer as my hands operated the controls on their own accord. The beginning went quickly and soon sky dominated my view as the motorcycle angled back on the steepening hill. The bike quickly began loosing momentum under its large payload. The rear wheel spun wildly as the vertical part of the hill arrived, throwing dirt in a long rooster tail. The top was right there. Just a bit more. The front wheel cleared. Then the back. I did it! I had climbed Fritchie’s Run! The bike was on the plateau with its front raised in a wheelie as if also in celebration.
Then I saw it. That damn tree.
During periods of great fear, time seems to slow. A scientist once studied if people truly sense time differently during horrifying events by scaring the hell out of the them. He did this by making them jump backwards without knowing what was below them or how far they would fall. All they were allowed to do during freefall was watch a large digital clock attached to their wrist. He found that folks do not actually perceive time any differently during frightening events. Rather our brain turns into a supercomputer, observing and recording double the usual amount of information. The amygdala – our brain’s center for emotional reactions – becomes overactive, archiving its own set of memories that are grafted onto the ones recorded by the rest of our grey matter. This excess of stored information makes the moments seems slow relative to our normal operation.
This was just what happened as my front wheel hit the lone pine tree’s trunk dead center. The knobby tire bulged at the edges, paused, then ricocheted back in a lazy arc. With the wheel stationary in my view of the world, a series of images slowly unfolded. First came the underside of the tree. It’s branches were dark and evenly spaced with clusters of deep green needles. Each limb was decorated at the tip with the lighter, new growth of spring. The tree tapering to the top giving it the romanticized triangular form drawn by every child. The sky then came into view. It was lovely: an unobstructed panorama marred only by the contrail of a passing jet in the stratosphere. A hawk soared in lazy, wide circles on updrafts of hot air. Maple and oak trees emerged, but oddly these were upside down. Their leaves swayed in the gently breeze. Taller pines poked through the deciduous ones; different trees living happily together. The pool of water at the foot of the hill appeared. Distance and angle gave it a quiet elegance as the sun reflected from its surface through floating leaves. The red clay soil at the foot of Fritchie’s came into view just long enough to reveal the fresh path my bike had forged just seconds earlier.
Time returned to normal as the ground smashed violently into my back. The bike landed on my chest and together we tumbling down the hill, coming to rest finally at the bottom. My head rang; vision wobbled. The pain was pervasive. I laid motionless until the silence was broken by a voice in the distance.
“Nice try, Grape Ape. But you failed.”
As a child I was severely hyperactive. It landed me in the principles office routinely for a myriad of dumb things. Over time the school became convinced that I was mentally challenged, and rather than deal with it they simply dumped me into special education. It was intolerably boring and after two months I asked to leave. They refused. A month later I asked again. The guidance councilor delivered his message with a smug confidence possible only from a person incapable of free thought: a boy like me could not possibly perform in regular classes. It was beyond me. I would fail. As he stared dolefully at me from behind his desk with his hands tented before his mouth, I decided nobody would ever again tell me what I can and can not do. One week later I returned to regular classes.
Pushing the bike off me, I got back on. No pine tree was going to stand in my way of proving the crappy opinion of a narrow-minded kid wrong. Returning to the same starting point and following the same path, my run was identical. But this time I went up Fritchie’s just two feet to the left, and at the top my motorcycle cleared the pine tree.
Dropping the bike, I threw off my helmet and turned to my friends below. They were celebrating wildly. Once they calmed down I bellowed to the doubter, “Got anything else you wanna tell me I can’t do?”
“Yeah. You can’t buy us lunch.”
* * *
In time, each of us tried and conquered Fritchie’s Run. And with each successful climb it seemed a little smaller and a little less intimidating until one day we just rode on it without thinking. It melded into the surrounding landscape, becoming just another hill in another abandoned coal mine.
And come December of that year, I brought home one hell of a Christmas tree.