Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sarah, Queen of ATVs

If you spoke to me at all during the month of June, you know that I did not anticipate making it to July. No, I wasn't suicidal or dying of smallpox; I just had an activity on the schedule at the end of the month that I was confident would spell my death.

For two days at the end of last month, I was headed to the northern tip of New Hampshire to go ATVing.

I hate most things in this world, but if I had to pick the two things I hate the very most, they would probably be the outdoors and driving. And what is an ATV, really, but a vehicle designed for the express purpose of driving recklessly through the outdoors?

I was invited on this excursion as research for a story about the local ATV industry, a story for which I freely volunteered, so I ultimately had no one to blame but myself—but voluntary death, I thought, was still death.

After texting my goodbyes to my family and friends and reminding my coworkers they may never see me again, my photographer and I set off for the far northern town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire. At nearly 300 square miles, Pittsburg (despite its population of around 900 people) is by far the largest town in New England, because Pittsburg encompasses all the territory in New Hampshire past a certain northern point where the state founding fathers apparently said, "Eh screw it, everything from here up is one giant town."

There is no cell service in Pittsburg. There is not much of anything in Pittsburg, aside from a lot of trees, several lakes, one steakhouse, and a small army of ATVs—and, for two days in late June, ten or so journalists and bloggers with a death wish.

We opened our trip with a group dinner at the aforementioned one steakhouse, where the ATV professionals in charge of the excursion dropped a lot of, "Well, you can drive a car, can't you?," and I dropped a lot of, "Can I?"

The line, "if you can drive a car, you can drive an ATV," is central to the effort to convince first-time ATVers that the sport is easy and won't kill them. But it fails to account for people who, like me, find driving terrifying and horrible. When confronted with someone who is not put at ease by the assurance that ATVs are just like cars, ATV people basically just laugh nervously and change the subject.

Needless to say, when it came time for our half-day ride, my confidence level was through the roof.

I put on my safety gear, I signed the waiver, I dutifully watched the safety video, and then I hopped in with the guy who works for the ATV manufacturer with a plan to get behind the wheel for a maximum of five minutes.

We set off, and, strapped safely in the passenger seat with one of the few drivers on our trip who actually knew how ATVs work, I was met with a surprise.

This actually wasn't terrible.

There was a pleasant breeze. The views were bananas. And I was exploring the great outdoors without exerting a single ounce of effort!

One of the other writers in the group switched places with our driver, and I decided that ATVs are actually legit. The rental company owner had mentioned at dinner the night before that they're great for grandparents and other people who'd like to climb mountains but can't or won't, and I suddenly understood what she meant. I also understood why people look down on ATVing—"get off your dune buggy and take an actual hike, lazy!"—but, to those people, I would suggest trying laziness sometime, because laziness is fantastic.

High on my no-exercise-required adventure in the outdoors, I agreed to give driving a try. I insisted on the manufacturer rep riding shotgun to shout advice at me or grab the reins in the event that I blacked out out of terror, but still, I thought, I'd try.

And, to my shock, things were once again...pretty fun!

I drove for a half-hour or so, marveling at the fact that 35 mph could feel like 335 and finding it a little odd that we hadn't stopped to switch drivers yet, but I pressed on. Everyone was alive. All was well.

Eventually, we came to a clearing, and the lead driver stopped, got out, and came to the drivers of the next three cars in line to give them some sort of instruction.

She skipped me.

The manufacturer rep shrugged this off, positing that, since he was with me, the lead driver must have figured I wouldn't need her advice. She must have been giving them tips for the next leg of the drive, he suggested. "There's just a bit of an incline coming up."

Like when my tour guide in Hawaii told me the 760-foot volcano we'd be climbing that day was an "easy little walk," I should have known not to believe the person who'd done this before.

The "bit of an incline" the rep warned me of turned out to be a mountain. Was it Mount Everest? No. But was it a friendly little hill? OH OF COURSE NOT.

We cross a highway, line up at the start of a trail, and when I look out in front of me, what I see is a path made up entirely of miniature boulders leading pretty much straight up the side of a small mountain. I laugh one of those "nothing here is funny" laughs and tell the rep and our other passenger that I hope they are both ready to meet Jesus today. We are all wearing full-head helmets and goggles, which is good, because were we able to see the terror on one another's faces, I think we all would have jumped off the ATV and run the 40 miles back to the rental office. I shift the thing into low gear, the rep flips on the four-wheel drive switch, and we head up.

Friends, we made it.

I can't really tell you any details about my voyage up this mountain and back down it, because frankly I think I've blocked it from my mind. I can tell you that our reward for getting down the mountain was a mile and a half or so of mud pits that I only got us stuck in once. I can tell you I didn't murder the driver in front of us, despite the fact that she kept stopping to take videos while I was left dangling off the side of a mountain and therefore clearly deserved to be murdered. I can tell you I don't think that ATV rep has ever been so happy to get off an ATV in his life as he was when we eventually reached the end of our trail.

But I drove an ATV up a mountain, down a mountain, and through a whole bunch of quicksand-y mud pits, and no one died!

I am never going to be a person who hikes without being forced. I'm certainly never going to be some kind of mountain biker. But if you ever need someone to accompany you on a half-formed-Jeep ride through a forest somewhere, I'm your girl. I'll bring the goggles and riding jersey they sent me home with and a framed copy of the email where the rep said lied that he was "impressed" with my driving. You bring the rosary beads.