(concluded from: The Messed-Up Day: And Benjamin Waited)
My work completed and both of us fed, I headed off with Benjamin. Finally we would take that Arbor Hills trip I had promised him since the first day he rode without training wheels. Lest anyone start figuring that since he’s seven, I must be awfully neglectful, I would like to point out that he learned in November, and our weekends have been full of family trips or inclement weather ever since. Plus, he needed to become a fairly strong, confident rider before trying the steep, often densely populated paths and offroad trails that awaited.
And to survive his first involuntary flight. (click pic to enlarge)
He had spent time earlier that day, as I perched over my laptop, getting acclimated to offroad riding. There were a few bumps and tufts of grass on the short trails near the parking lot, and he had done fine.
We rode through the parking lot to the primary mountain-biking trailhead. Despite the chilly air, I was warmed by the sight of my son easily maneuvering around pedestrians and saying, “Excuse me,” before breezing past. I couldn’t imagine feeling more glad to be with him than that moment.
The trails all start at a common point in a flat, narrow meadow, then branch off downhill at various directions into dense forest. With me in front, we took the first spur on the left and immediately hit our first bumps.
Tree roots desperate for moisture ran close to and often broke the surface, and made no exceptions for the trail. Sometimes they presented like speed bumps, sometimes more like uneven stairsteps with a raised lip at the edge.
As I approached the first such tricky spot, I turned my head back to Benjamin. “Watch out up here, kiddo,” I said, almost certain he would crash.
He cruised over it with ease and without so much as a wrinkle in his brow. “Great job, Benjamin. Okay, here comes another.”
Again and again he conquered the rough spots as easily as I did, perhaps occasionally after watching me first. He took on the tight turns and squeezed through the narrowest passages offered up by the trees.
After a short trip back to the meadow, we again turned left into the woods. “Hey, Dad, let me go in front now,” Benjamin said.
The trail ahead descended sharply and was washed out by erosion, but there was room to ride, and he had earned a chance to take the lead. “Sure, go ahead,” I said and gave him room to walk his bike around me.
He slipped a bit on the loose dirt when trying to swing his leg back over the bike. “Daddy, I’m scared,” he said. His feet couldn’t get a grip.
“You’re fine. Here, I’ll hold the bike steady while you get on.” He did and continued down the hill.
The moment I got both feet back on the pedals to start my descent, Benjamin shouted, “Daddy! I’m going too fast!”
I looked ahead and saw that the trail took a sharp, steep, and tight right, down to a small opening in the forest. Benjamin hadn’t quite reached it yet, but he knew it was coming.
“Use your brake!” I shouted, still having to watch ahead of me so I didn’t crash in the ruts.
Benjamin cried out “I can’t!” and took the corner too wide. His front tire struck a small tree on the left side of the bad spot.
He shrieked as his rear wheel left the ground and he flew into the air. He landed at the bottom of the hill and the bike bounced to rest a few feet behind him. In either a stunning moment of clarity or a complete luck-out, he had let go of the grips — a move that, in that particular crash, kept the bike from hurting him.
Without using any of the physics wizardy I had learned in school, I calculated that his sudden acceleration followed by his sudden stop was going to equal an injury. I’m trying to joke about it now, but at the time I was horrified. I had sent my son down a dangerous hill along a trail that already had proven itself treacherous.
I sped down the hill and barely managed to stop before I hit the spot that, frankly, I’m not sure I could have navigated successfully on the first try. Huge roots crossed the trail, some of them forming spindly bridges over washed-out spots. To the right ran a worn area barely wide enough for a bicycle tire, and even it required bumping over some nasty spots.
I dropped my bike and combined careful footwork with a few handholds on trees. Benjamin was wailing, but sitting up. I looked at his arms, his legs, his fingers — nothing was sticking out where it shouldn’t be. Besides the sobbing, his face showed no signs of an impact.
“Are you okay? What hurts?” I said.
He quieted enough to hear me and pointed to an area roughly below his left knee. I pushed up his pant leg. No broken skin, no sign of swelling.
“Can you walk on it?”
He took a few steps, just fine except for a slight limp. I breathed a little easier as it became evident that he had survived his first major bike crash without injury.
Then I made a lame attempt at humor, as I am wont to do. “I wish you could have seen that, because that was a cool crash. You really flew through the air.” I laughed a bit to lighten the mood.
He laughed once or twice between the crying, then reconsidered. “It’s not funny, Dad.” He wiped his face.
“I know, son. I didn’t mean to laugh at you. It scared me, too. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
We heard voices. At the top of the hill was another father-son biking duo we had seen earlier. “Let’s get out of the way, kiddo,” I said.
As we shuffled into the grass, Benjamin turned to call up to them, “There’s a really bad spot right down here. My back wheel went one foot off the ground and I crashed.”
I laughed. “Oh, no, your back wheel went up a lot higher than that.”
The father led the way, and took the only safe path around the bad spot. He stopped near us and looked back to his son, whose age I put at about 12 or 13. “Now, just like I told you,” he said.
The boy took the hill slowly and almost stopped before turning down the last stretch. He jumped off the bike and let it fall before he reached the worst of it.
In way I was glad Benjamin had gone first, because he would have had a hard time dragging me out of there. As it went, his limber joints and young bones just bounced and he got back on his bike within five minutes of crash landing.
The next two hours were injury-free and occasionally we set down our bikes to explore some of our usual Arbor Hills haunts. He had hung in there all day while I worked, and didn’t even consider quitting when he got hurt. I dropped him off at his local grandparents’ home, both of us sporting a huge smile.