Coming of age at .2 Mach
(Drink pairing: Vodka Redbull)
He did it. It took a whole year of saving pennies — moonlighting in restaurants, food trucks, anyone willing to pay him a few bucks between his bustling university class schedule, but he did it. He was the happiest 20 year old in the world.
Why? Because he was rolling into adulthood on the back of a brand new (well, new to him), electric blue Kawasaki motorcycle. No help from Mom and Dad (he couldn’t possibly tell them he was planning to get a bike, let alone ask them to help fund his reckless endangerments). No, this was paid for, in cash, by his own sweat and blood.
He was riding on clouds as he brought his rumbling monster around town. Work, groceries, classes, every destination was now an adventure in bobbing and weaving through the streets. He felt one with the road, one with the city, even.
The noises were clearer, colors more vibrant, the smells…oh the smells! The perfume of the girls in the crosswalk in front of him would waft by as he stopped to let them pass. That never happened in a car — sealed and cut off from the raw world outside. On a bike, you smelled everything around you.
No matter how rushed he was, he always found time to stop and let ladies cross the street, catching their curious glances directed to the mysterious motorcycle rider. Those girls would’ve found him blushing red at the attention if it weren’t for his tinted helmet.
Helmet, jacket, gloves, boots, keys, liftoff.
He’d always wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. Now, his pre-riding ritual made him feel like one, donning his gear in preparation for a heroic launch.
Helmet… | Five…
Jacket… | Four…
Gloves… | Three…
Boots… | Two…
Keys… | One…
He launched through the mountains and canyons outside of town every chance he got. Between classes, he would slip away from campus to fly along winding country roads. In the mornings, he would skip breakfast just to catch the sunrise from the road — after all, the brisk, morning canyon rides filled him with a level of vibrant awakening no amount of coffee could match.
Riding brought him to life.
He would spend his weekends taking longer trips, venturing out to towns he had never heard of, plotting routes on maps hung on his tiny apartment walls. Sometimes he even skipped the map — opting to venture out for hours or days just to see where the road led him.
How fast could he go? He stopped checking at 140 mph after realizing how it felt to hit a bug at those speeds — almost .2 Mach.
Boy and machine. No, man and machine. He never felt so alive and capable. After swerving and turning through mountain passes, pushing the speed envelope, scraping boots on tight turns — after doing all that successfully without dying — anything was possible. He had the confidence of an adult after every ride. Nothing could stress or scare him.
His bike roared like a raging lion, echoing off the canyon walls.
He was a fighter jet.
He was a rocket.
He was a high speed vandal on the run and a knight on horseback charging the enemy all in one young soul.
He was a 20-foot skid mark of blood, twisted metal, and burnt flesh along a hairpin turn.
It was just another mountain ride at first. A route he did nearly every day. What he didn’t realize — what he was too inexperienced to realize — was that on this particular late fall day, the locals had put several layers of salt down on the road in anticipation of the upcoming frost.
If a motorcycle had a secret weakness, a kryptonite, it was loose material on a road.
He knew the second he leaned into the turn that something was wrong. The world slowed down as he felt the tires shift out from under him instead of keeping their grip on the road. He hit the ground and started to slide — bike on top of his leg — off the road.
He opened his eyes and found himself on the edge of a ravine. His skid was halted by a mile marker post, his body hitting the metal pole instead of continuing straight off the hairpin turn and into empty space — another victim to that deadly combination of gravity and cliffs.
His bike had not been so lucky — sliding off the road and, for a brief second, taking flight like a true rocket before crash landing on the canyon floor.
He blinked. He was conscious. That was good.
Next, he looked at his legs — which was easy considering the left half of his pants were gone — the jean material shredded to bits and sticky with blood along the path of his slide. His left leg was pockmarked with gravel and small rocks, bloody, and completely covered from hip to ankle in road rash. It seemed intact, though. Not broken.
Could he stand up? Probably, but any attempt to move his leg was met with sharp protest from his raw and crusty, inflexible skin. Sitting there helpless on the side of the road with no bike and half a pant leg, he began to feel like a child again.
Who was he kidding? He wasn’t a fearless, confident, bold adventurer. He was no astronaut, no knight charging the enemy. He was a reckless kid who had gone and broken his toys — and now he needed help to get home.
As the boy wondered what to do next, a wizard came to his aid in the form of a white-maned rider on the biggest bike he had ever seen.
The old man rounded the corner and slowed down to a stop near the boy. With an old man grunt, he dismounted his giant, old man bike and walked over with an old man’s stride. He took off his old man helmet to reveal a wizened face and kind looking eyes that surveyed the scene with a look surprise.
He stood there for several quiet moments, taking in what had happened, before he addressed the boy sitting on the ground.
“Kid.” He had a calm but booming tone. “I’ve been riding this route every week, every season, for the past 40 years.” He looked into the ravine below, seeing the mangled remains of the boy’s bike. “In those 40 years, I’ve seen people crash right here, in this spot, year after year. Men. Women. Professional riders. You name it. Everyone crashes on this turn the same way you did. But, let me tell you. You,” he pointed, “are the first person — ever — to walk away from it on your feet instead of in an ambulance.” He smiled and shook his head in disbelief.
The old man continued, pointing to the sky, “Someone up there must be — has gotta be — watching out for you.” Then he turned away to make some phone calls.
The boy, no, the young man smiled — the wizened old mountain rider’s words restored his soul like magic. You are the first person — ever — to walk away from it on your feet…someone up there must be watching out for you.
That was it. With those words, the old mountain wizard cast an invincibility spell on the young knight. He felt its power. Those words gave him more life and confidence than any of his previous rides could have ever done for him.
He could be fearless again.
He would fly again.
He did it. It took decades of grueling training, study, and practice. It was the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to this one task, leading his team to this one moment.
He reached his arm out (red stripe across his sleeve), opened the hatch, and calmly, confidently stepped through — the first human to set feet on Martian soil.
For years afterwards, people would ask him the same questions his fellow astronauts, teammates, and friends would pose amongst themselves: How did he do it? What gave him the courage? For the entire mission, he never wavered once — never balking at the daunting task before him and the team he led. Never so much as blinking at the risk.
What was the source of his fearless bravery? They would ask. What gave him the fortitude to do what no human had done before?
He would always claim he could never have done it without his team and the dozens — no, hundreds of scientists and engineers who made it possible. They were the real heroes.
Of course, that never satisfied the audiences. They knew all that, but they wanted more. What motivated him? What made the hero who he was today?
His final answer was always the same no matter who was asking or where — whether at a dinner party or at a televised conference.
He would pull up his left pant leg.
First, he would point to the constellation of jagged lines and slashes across his skin. The scars looked like a treasure map leading to the source of his strength.
“These,” he would point, “are proof of the invincibility spell an old man once cast on me,” then he’d smile with nostalgia, “That old man told me that someone up there,” now pointing from his leg to the sky, “he said someone up there was watching out for me. And that’s how it began…” he would pause,
“…I knew I had to go up there myself and thank them!”
(Originally published in Literally Literary)