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Off-road rage

A friend recently informed me he is getting a four-wheeler – “for huckleberryin’ and mushroomin’ and such,” he said. He was appropriately apologetic, for he knows how I feel about such things.

“Seems like cheating,” I said sadly. “What happened to the boot leather and sweat that used to get you there?”

“I’m not getting any younger,” he countered.

“I’ve got some terrible news for you,” I told him. “Getting old is part of the deal. But the sooner you give into it by getting a four-wheeler so you can pick huckleberries, the closer you are to the nursing home.”

I’m not fond of snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and four-wheelers. Yes, I realize that puts me at odds with half the population of Washington and Idaho. If I tell you what I think of Jet Skis, I’ll alienate the other half.

Yes, I have ridden them all; I could even afford one or two if I wanted. No, I did not have a bad experience. Despite what I said to my friend, what I really dislike is the ability of these machines to go harshly to places man has no business going – and the careless disregard many riders have for the land they ride on.

The artist, Andy Warhol, said, “I think that having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.” I wish I had said that.

I especially wish I had said it to the children of my neighbor recently while they were tearing up my lower pasture with their four-wheelers. Essentially, they were cutting brodies in my new clover just to see the mud fly. What I said to them, delivered on a dead run, was a rather unfriendly version of “GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE!”

My neighbor is a very nice man – a good husband and father, I’m sure – probably better than I. He came quickly from his house to see what the bellowing was about, and he apologized profusely for his children. “I’ll make sure they stay on our property,” he said.

In theory, if my neighbor wishes to let his children tear up his own land, that’s none of my business. The reality, however, was that the ground was soft and the four-wheelers were scarring it horribly. Ruts, erosion, and mud for 15 minutes of noisy thrills. The disturbance will show for a long time. Even if it was on his property, I’d see it from my front porch. And even if I couldn’t see it, I’d still be diminished knowing it was there – another rip on nature’s canvas.

I wonder about people who ride four-wheelers willy-nilly throughout the countryside, not only on their land but also on public lands where wildlife is trying to make a living. Not just kids – their parents, too. I think something has gone terribly haywire that they’d want to. These individuals are more informed, more sophisticated, more affluent. They understand gigabytes and iPods and video games, but they are terribly out of touch with the natural world. I don’t understand why they move to the country.

Another neighbor has built a dirt-bike track on his property, complete with jumps. When he and his children go afield, they are not probing the silence for coyote tracks and turkey feathers and soaring red tail hawks and whitetail sheds, as I do. Amid the dust and the confusion, they do not even see the mallard hen they have scared from her nest on the creek. They do not realize they are destroying winter pheasant habitat. Furthermore, when I mention this, the neighbor looks at me as if I’d just admitted to a fondness for arsonists. He does not seem to understand that everything in nature is attached to everything else.

When it snows, his children crank up their snowmobiles and drive them in mindless ovals across the pasture and creek, into the forest, and back again. They do not go fast, so the adrenaline rush of speed is not their motivation. They can’t expect to see anything new, as the wildlife has long ago fled. What, then? Noise for the sake of noise?

In the spring, the grass grows short where it was packed down, and the deer will have to move farther down the valley to bed. I’ll yell at these children too, if they come onto my land, but they are really very nice kids, and their mother made me cookies at Christmas.

Sometimes I wonder if it is I who is the most out of touch.