Onward & Upward

I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.

Coming down is the hardest thing.

—Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Learning to Fly


“Are you scared, Jack?”

“No way, Dad!”

I stood there, looking up the hill at what’s now named Straddleline ORV Park. It’s been closed off and on over the years. Back when it was new, it was just “the ORV.” The Hill – since closed for safety reasons – had a sign at the bottom reading “NO FOUR-WHEELED VEHICLES ALLOWED.”

Kicking over a DT175 isn’t nearly hard enough. To my chagrin, it started right up and doomed me to try the climb. The Hill started off with 150 yards of run-up, followed by a short mild grade that quickly transitioned to brutal – then went vertical about eight feet before the top. Fast guys could allegedly jump over the crest. No fast guys were in evidence.

The little DT and I hummed toward the hill, making 53 mph on its squared-off, uniblock tires. We scampered up the foothill, running out of power and speed as soon as the hill steepened. Downshifting to first, I managed to half-crash my way 180 degrees around to limp back down.

Dad beamed. “Try ‘er again, Jack!”

We made it two (2) feet further. Just not enough steam in the boiler. Triumphantly off the hook, I skidded to a stop near the picnic tables, where Dad was talking to a new friend. My stomach gurgled when I saw him slip the guy a twenty. Bob walked over, wheeling a ratty, 285cc-kitted RM250 with a hand-welded pipe.

“Whatcha wanna do, see, is hit the bottom doin’ eighty-fi’-ninety mile an hour,” he grinned. “Wind ‘er up to aroun’ eight-nine thousand Rs, and don’t fall off the pipe.”

It wasn’t the pipe I was worried about falling off. I fiddled with my helmet strap while looking at the bike. Then I tightened a boot lace. Then I pulled off my gloves and popped out a contact lens. My mouth was too dry to clean it.

“What do I do,” I asked, casually adjusting my gloves, “when I get to that top section?”

“Same thing you do everywhere else.” Bob smiled with one corner of his mouth. “Put yer belly on the tank and gas it!” Pretty sure he knew the top lift was unthreatened by my skill set.

At five foot-seven, I had to lean Bob’s bike on a milk crate to kick it, releasing an exhaust note like sororicide amongst the Furies. The rear sprocket was the size of a shot-up pie pan. The aftermarket tank plastic resembled an old cat litter box. I started thinking about chores I should be doing at home.

When Dad yelled “pour the coal to it!,” I took off like a gunshot. Felt like 100 mph when I hit that hill and careened almost halfway up before bouncing over-under-over the bike until we skidded to a stop on the approach grade. I picked it up – quickly, like nothing ever happened – and rolled back down. The Suzuki and I had reached an understanding: I would fear it. It would kill me.

Taking a pull on his red Solo cup, Bob eyeballed me over the rim like an entomologist reviewing his pin board. “Ya gotta rev it up higher.” He demonstrated a little 10,000-rpm throttle tuning. “And y’know you have one more gear, right?

“The key is never slow down unless you have to.”

Numbly, I nodded. I wasn’t done yet.

There is a speed on skis or dirt bikes, or in armored vehicles at night, above which nothing matters anymore. Traction is a floating negotiation, the wind screams into overwhelming white noise that drowns away the engine’s protests, and The Hill is the only thing your narrowed-down vision can see, approaching like a windshield aimed square at your grasshopper heart.

I quit worrying about what Bob might think, and shot off the bottom approach and into the climb wall so hard the compression packed down like I’d landed a jump. Two-thirds up, I stood up just a little for a downshift and looped ‘er like a racquetball ceiling shot, bouncing and rolling some fifty yards before I could skid the rest of the way down on my butt, kicking the bike ahead of me until finally I was low enough on the hill to pick it up and freewheel to the bottom. I had neatly dodged death.

“Wanna go again?,” Bob grinned. “I got more gas.” My eyes narrowed.

On my fourth run, I kissed my front wheel to the last vertical face at the top, fell off the powerband in second, and cartwheeled down for a final time. Conceding defeat, the wicked RM had spit out its clutch lever like a broken tooth and got me off the hook. Waving off Dad’s next twenty, Bob handed me a beer.

“How wazzat?”

“That was…” Unpadded knees trimmed with bloody scraps of denim and my head ringing from impact, wind, impact, engine noise, and impact, I let out a long, slow breath, stinking of adrenaline. “That was… pretty cool.”

Dad with Brammo Empulse
Last spring, Dad and I were both in better shape.

Last week, I visited Dad. My name is John, and I’m a Junior who goes by “Jack.”

Dad goes by “Smilin’ Jack.”

It was the first time since summer that I’ve shown up somewhere in riding gear that I’d worn over an hour at a stretch. When I hit a real bump now, my ribs stab and my stomach flips. I miss shifts, and lots of ’em. When I get close to intersections, I paddle like a geezer. Not one of these embarrassments hurts as much as not riding, though.

As of last month, my Dad doesn’t finish sentences anymore. Like his walking or my riding, he starts out and gets a little way, then drifts to a stop. Not enough steam left in the boiler but then, he already rode his Wing over blue highways across the U.S., Canada, Australia, Wales, England, and the U.S.S.R.; already set Fédération Aéronautique Internationale speed records; already rescued hunters, slew caribou, and flew tonnage of salmon from Alaska.

“You rode…?”

“The bike today, yeah.”

“Are you…?”

“Doin’ okay, yeah. Good day to ride.” Outside, the Skykomish River overflowed with flood rains. In his hospital room, Dad’s eyes shone.

“Good.” The man who taught me how to shake hands in the world of men reached for my paw, gripping it like an infant. “Good.” He smiled at me.


“Give up, nope.”

He considered that, nodded. “Yes.” Which meant no.

Dad frames most questions with his eyes now. He hasn’t lost his questing look, the same one I remember from the bottom of The Hill. The look that reminds me the only way over is straight up the front.

Are you scared, Jack?

Grinning like y’do, I squeezed his fingers back. “No way, Dad!”

I guess I’ll never stop lying to him.


There’s no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can’t keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I…

—Pink Floyd, Learning to Fly


  1. Michael Pierce says

    Beautiful. There is something about how you tell these stories that is pure magic.

    I’ll be thinking about you and Jack Sr.


  2. Every now and then you’ll write something that grabs my imagination and heartstrings and PULLS.

    Thanks, Jack, for baring your soul yet again.


  3. Beautifully written, as always, Jack. I wish my dad was still here. Enjoy your visits while ye may. Keep up the good work.

  4. This sort of writing is what drew me to your words, years ago. Hart strings have no chance with you, sir. Thanks for sharing all you do with us, the wanting readers.

  5. “The key is never slow down unless you have to.”

    There’s a keeper.

    If my Dad was still around, if smoking hadn’t killed him, he’d be 92. I wonder what he’d have been like. Probably still driving, but leaving the log splitting to others. He’d be happy for me. He’d love my sons and my fiancé. We lost him way too soon. But it always seems too soon.

    Heartstrings, indeed. Thanks, Jack!

  6. Dave Gomes says

    May I have your permission sir to post a quote, “…the only way over is straight up the front…” attributed to “Smilin’ Jack Lewis” as part of the words to live by on my office wall? Embodying the words beats saying them, any time I figure. And teaching them beats even that.

    I’d do this not only to make myself a better person, but so others would ask about it and give me a chance to share you and Smilin’ Jack with them.

    Standing on a wall is one thing. Personally embracing and protecting those behind it is something else. Thank you for all you have done, and all you still do for us all.

    • Certainly, Dave! As long as I have your permission to tell Dad that people are still finding meaning in his words.

      Thanks for the inspiration, sir. Always a good reminder to watch my Ps and Qs.



      • Dave Gomes says

        Deal, brother. Don’t change too much. Coffee’s gettin’ cold, mind if I finish that one of yours?

        All the best,


  7. Jim Jacobs says

    Great story Jack. We were lucky to have father’s that
    showed us the way up that hill.

  8. Dave Gomes says

    Hey Buddy,
    I hope these are still finding you. Saw a re-titled version of this story would be included in Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s “Motorcycles Are Magic” anthology. Peter Jones recommended the book to me & so glad he did. You and he are the stars of it brother. Your “contributors” bio at the end is spot on, “….all he writes are love stories.” Couldn’t have said it better.

    Best wishes my friend,

  9. Lyle Gunderson says

    As soon as I slipped the note under the car’s wiper, the car’s owner, a guy even older than me, asked me “What’s the note for?” as he approached it, his Walmart shopping done.

    “Let me read it to you,” says I. “Awesome license plate!”

    Which read “KPTRYING”

    • Nah, “KPTRYNG”

      • That, we should all do. And on that note, it’s time to button up the Willys, bleed her brakes, and see if she’ll make the pull up “Motorcycle Hill” (our local suburban pitch, not the ORV that’s a hundred miles south).

        And then to construct a power cage, and start putting this body back together… again.

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