Road to Rampage

The bicycle and rider perched singularly on the spine of the rugged ridge above us. Even with the new zoom lens we bought specifically for this event, the image was so distant it appeared sketched-in against the cloudless sky. The small crowd assembled below seemed to be holding its collective breath, including my teenage son who stood beside me. A countdown on a hidden loudspeaker thundered, as if the mountains themselves were speaking: “Three, two, one…” then the image above us became animated, moving across the ridge. Suddenly the bike catapulted high into the air, executed a perfect backflip, and landed softly on the hard edge where land meets sky.

In that moment, I got it.

An unlikely observer at the Red Bull Rampage, I was the antithesis of the typical extreme sports fan: a middle-aged woman with no athletic inclinations or abilities. But I was there on a mission—to discover why my son, who had been so like me in the first fifteen years of his life (serious, reserved, thoughtful), was inexplicably drawn to the crazy sport of freestyle mountain biking, where young men willingly fling themselves off cliffs. I was a parent undertaking the quintessential quest of simultaneously trying to understand my child and validating my own importance in his life. Extreme sports pale in comparison.

By the time we set out for Virgin, Utah, a seven-hour road trip from our home in Colorado, the trip had grown to epic proportions in my mind. Only weeks earlier he had suffered a mild concussion from taking a fall on his bike at the local pump track. We were constantly warring about it, with me insisting on safety and precaution versus him riding a rising tide of independence and fearlessness. What he didn’t perceive was the generations’ worth of maternal apprehension that I brought to the equation.

My own mother, and hers before that, were consummate worriers. Standing out in a lightning storm, swimming after eating, driving after dark, walking anywhere alonedoing anything alone—all were tangible threats to be avoided at all costs. A bookworm of a child, I had no real daredevil aspirations, but as I entered adolescence, I became thoroughly infatuated with traveling to the many places I’d read about, especially those in a city. Unknown and scary territory for my small-town mother, who of course objected.

As the worrywart mother I vowed I wouldn’t become, I recall with irony the risky behavior and just plain stupid chances I took as a young woman, on my own in New York City.  Walking down the middle of a deserted street in the East Village at 3 am, feeling safe in my own fearlessness; stepping out of my studio apartment in the middle of the night to give some money to a homeless person because when he called to tell me he had found my lost ATM card, he sounded like a decent person; meeting one despairing but sweet denizen after another in coffee shops, nightclubs and Laundromats, then staying up all night with them to discuss the meaning of life—whether I had a guardian angel at my side or I had learned to trust my burgeoning intuition, these were all youthful escapades from which I landed with both feet on the ground, my head and heart intact.

I think perhaps they were not such stupid choices after all.

At dinner on New Year’s Day at my parents’ house, a story emerged from my mother’s youth that I had never heard before, making me think twice about what we do with those choices. When my mother was sixteen, she and her best friend went on a small plane ride offered at the county fair without their parents’ permission. The experience of flying over their rural township was exhilarating, my mother confessed—until my grandmother found out. With a terrified look on her face, she kept saying to my mother, “What if the plane would have crashed?” That imagined scenario is what my mother carried forward: for as long as I can remember, she was always afraid of flying.

I carry my time alone in the city as the strongest and truest part of me, not because I did anything especially courageous or noteworthy, but as a testament to the need to believe in things that were bigger than myself and my own experiences. It was a time in my life remarkably free of “what if” anxieties, allowing me to venture out beyond the safety and security—and yes, even the love—of my upbringing to partake in those primal experiences that concurrently depend on and hone instincts we perhaps don’t even know we have.

It’s an experience as breathtaking as an earthbound metal structure lurching impossibly into the sky above a desert vista, only to land as it is meant to, intact, on the soft sand beneath it. Or a small bi-plane at a county fair, landing safely to allow two giddy teenage girls to disembark. In that moment in Utah, I understood that for every “what if” disaster our minds can fool us into thinking might exist, there is also a beautiful landing waiting to happen. I see the choices that I owned back in my youth, and my mother’s before that, in the extreme sports my son is drawn to, and I realize it’s the same raw poetry that strums the heart incessantly, equal parts audacity and fortuity, calling us to do things bigger than ourselves and our experiences.

Gretchen Hayduk Wroblewski

gret and teddy

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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

It’s just too delicious to pass up. Wide open spaces, 21st-century pioneering, a veritable zoo out the kitchen window…yes, these are certainly attributes of life on a ranch, but nothing thrills the former city-writer in me more than being able to title a blog with that sixty-year-old movie quotation.

It also reminds me how fragile these allusions are…and how important it is to keep them alive and relevant. In the freshman-level college Composition classes I teach, I’m forever checking to make sure that my wide-ranging references (from 70s cultural phenomena like “All in the Family” to anything written by Salinger to Plato to Rilke to Sylvia Plath) are recognized by my students.  Even taking into account the omnipresent generation gap, I receive far too many blank stares.

The heart of my “real” education (that is, the literary and cultural knowledge which came not from the classroom but rather by immersing myself in an amalgamation of modern and traditional classics) surfaced from a stream of unlikely references: I learned from one great of another.  I first picked up Anna Karenina and The Way of the Pilgrim after reading about them in Franny and Zooey; Robert Smith introduced me to Baudelaire and Natalie Merchant to Jack Kerouac; the philosophical and religious references in Van Gogh’s letters to his brother far outnumber the artistic references; and most recently, after reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I was struck almost palpably by the number of cross-references in our two worlds.  The more you follow the lead so lovingly dropped by someone whose sensibilities you already share, the more you realize you are delving into something quite the opposite of name-dropping. As you grasp the slack line and wind your way back from whence it came, a sense of emergence swells inside you: you have not only been here before, but you have been that which you are now discovering.

A bookworm of a child, I was always most at home in the company of the fictional characters in my books, not because of some social deficiency (I now realize), but because, as Madeleine L’Engle put it, “Story is true and takes us beyond the facts into something far more real.”  This kind of a realist I could aspire to be, the kind who gratefully rides on the coattails of a traveling poet, gathering every bit of truth strewn in our path–only to toss it back again, a little further down the road.

By Gretchen Hayduk Wroblewski

I Write Because

Writers' Ranch Ruminations

Stories reveal what life seldom divulges. When I write, I garner a glimpse of what I might have otherwise missed: The beach was empty, even of shells—except for the pale blond woman stretched out long on the sand and two brown children playing next to her.

I write for that woman, for what she sees and what she doesn’t see: A tall white figure fluttered onto the horizon.  She squinted at it with no real interest, as the sun and sea behind it blurred its edges until it resembled a hazy soft-focus photograph.  She looked away as if it hurt her eyes to take in so much white.

I write to marvel at unheralded serendipity: It was a young man, with blond hair nearly as white as his clothing and skin tanned so brown it looked painful around the edges.  As he got closer to the woman, an expression of…

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The Photo Opp Not Taken

The Photo Opp Not Taken

In the era of snapping a shot anytime, anyplace, with whatever device is on hand, it occurs to me that the most poignant memories from my childhood do not have accompanying pictures. Yes, we did have cameras way back then, but the act of capturing moments was largely reserved for holidays, vacations and school portraits. Everyday places and events were, for the most part, uncaptured. Too mundane, too inconsequential or just too ugly to photograph, those memories remain exclusively in my mind, a private movie surprisingly sweet, vivid and (I assume) accurate. The backyard with the huge apple tree and stacked flagstone patio which served as a stage for our many productions; the glamorous beach-towel evening gowns we designed and modeled next to the rubber raft swimming pool; the dingy green “haunted” house next door, with ragged gray curtains blowing eerily in paneless windows–these are the images that come to mind when I look back, though not a single one exists in any photo album.

My son would hardly believe that we could have horses and not photograph them even once when he begs me to take pictures of him daily with his horse. (We have more photos of his mare than my entire childhood put together.) Our humble paperboard barn, back then, was hardly picture-worthy, and our horses, Blitz and Spooky, were undoubtedly prettier in memory than in reality. The Barn, as we called it (all of our favorite places seemed to have titles), was a rural haven fifteen minutes from our in-town house, where we daily played Little House on the Prairie, jumped in hay piles, waded in the creek, and rode our saddleless ponies. All without a single picture. If it weren’t for the corroboration of my sister and dad, I might have dreamt the whole thing up.

Life now is a series of one skilled shot after another, showcasing one accomplishment or another, posted on one social media platform or another. If it’s not out there for all the world to see, it might as well not exist. So why do my pictureless memories seem somehow more real? Is it possible that this is precisely where magic dwells, in the intangible, timeless Neverland of memory, with images far too vivid to be merely dreams, where past meets present, and meaning is intrinsically attached to the pictures in our minds?

I wouldn’t trade those photo opps not taken for all the Facebook tags in the world.

By Gretchen Hayduk-Wroblewski