Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Jonah Street Riding School

Recently I ended up way over my head on a little motorcycle adventure in Eastern Washington. I wrote up a "ride report" of it, so if you're interested, read on...

For those who don't know, Jonah Street is an incredibly nice guy local to the Ellensburg, Washington area. He's also a former Dakar Rally competitor, which puts him in a fairly rarefied category of riding skill, endurance, and willpower. After retiring from rally competition, Jonah became the U.S. rep for one of his former sponsors, Top 1 Oil. As part of the launch of Jonah's new web site for Top 1, he ran a contest for those buying cases of oil from him: win the chance to spend three days riding with Jonah all over the hills and deserts of eastern Washington. My wife and I bought some oil, mainly to support a great guy and because hey, who doesn't need more oil? In a stroke of luck, I won one of the spots on the ride. This would turn out to be both good and bad luck, and would lead to some amazing highs, crushing lows, and a short buy unforgettable riding experience of a lifetime.
For further details on my preparations, see

The Jonah Street Riding School
"Failure, Success, and the meaning of Fun"

One of the tried-and-true hallmarks of adventure stories is the part about how cleverness, willpower, and sheer determination can overcome any obstacle, and that even a person without great skill or experience can (with a little guts) make it through to score the touchdown or climb the mountain or whatever.

This is not that type of story.

However, it's not a depressing story about failure and despair. There is some of that in here, but I hope it's not the focus. This story is about real experiences and real lessons to be learned from those experiences. I'd like to think it has a happy ending and an uplifting message you can take with you on the way through the lobby, but you'll have to be the judge of that. It was what it was, and I told it how I remember it, warts and all.

Thursday, July 12, 7:00 PM, Seattle

I went over my mental checklist one more time, certain that I'd forgotten something. The preparation for this trip started almost as soon as I had received the email from Jonah telling me I won, and it had been a long three months of worrying what I had forgotten.

I certainly hadn't started off well-prepared: I've been riding scooters and street bikes for a few years now and I try to build and improve my skills every season, but I had never set foot on an off-road bike. That childhood dirt bike everyone had when they were in their teens? I was raised in the city, and my only dirt bike was a pedal-powered Huffy. On the advice of some ADV inmates I had enrolled in the PSSOR Level 2 Dirt Bike Class, and over the course of a day received a crash course in body position, traction, braking, leaning, and riding over things. It wasn't going to equal years of off-road experience, but it would have to suffice. I had spent the rest of the time trying to line up a motorcycle for the trip, only to find out at the last second that a friend of Jonah had a bike that was ideal for the conditions we'd be facing. I didn't realize until later that this need for a very hearty bike might have been foreshadowing things to come...

Having no off-road experience, my riding gear for the trip was not what you'd call "legit": an old Scorpion street helmet, an armored mesh jacket, some armored riding pants, mesh gloves, and some Sidi riding boots. All of it was gear designed for the road, but I couldn't afford to go buy a whole bunch of new stuff, so it would have to do. I had also decided to ride my SV650 over the Ellensburg, so that my wife could have the car for the weekend. So with all my gear and a few changes of clothes strapped to the back of the bike, I took off for the two-hour ride over the Snoqualmie Pass to Ellensburg, WA. Once there I would get a cheap hotel room, wake up at 5:30 AM, and meet Jonah at the rendezvous point at 6:00 AM sharp.

Thursday, July 12, 8:30 PM, Snoqualmie Pass

Apparently the DOT occasionally shuts down the entire freeway for a few hours to mitigate avalanches or work on road construction. Guess when they shut down the freeway? Yep, about 30 minutes before I reached the pass. Doing the math in my head, I started to realize that I could either wait indefinitely for the pass to open and maybe get almost no sleep in Ellensburg, or grab a hotel room at the pass and get slightly more sleep. The down side to that plan was that I'd then have to wake up at 4:30 AM and ride an hour just to reach the rendezvous. After grinding my teeth in frustration, I paid for an overpriced room at the Pass and then lying awake stressing about the next morning.

Friday the 13th, 4:30 AM, Snoqualmie Pass

After four and a half hours of sleep, I woke up in the dead of night, put on my gear, and made the ride into Ellensburg. After a quick cup of coffee, I met up with Jonah, the other riders, and a few of Jonah's riding friends, and followed them to the secondary, super-secret rendezvous point where my loaner bike was being prepped. The loaner bike turned out to be a great-looking Honda 650 with plenty of ground clearance, nice high-traction knobby tires, and a generally confidence-inspiring stance. The only bit that worried me was a lack of electric start, but how hard could it be to kick-start a bike? After having no trouble kick starting various scooters over the years, I didn't see much of a need for concern.

After getting all my gear together, I looked around, realized that I was the only rider without his own bike and gear, and had a brief moment of doubt. I asked Tyler (whose bike I was borrowing) if there would be a way to retrieve my SV if it turned out that I couldn't hack it for the whole three days of the trip. Tyler made sure that I'd have a way back into the bike lock-up, but was very encouraging and told me that it probably wouldn't be necessary. After a briefing from Jonah on the riding rules and what we'd be hitting that morning, everyone hopped on their bikes to set off, and... I couldn't get mine started. After a few tries, Tyler kicked it over for me, and with a bit of embarrassment I fell in with the other bikes on the way out of the garage.

The Ride

I wish I had the time to give a turn-by-turn description of the ride, because it was incredibly memorable, but in the interests of time and my hands I'll try to summarize a bit and just hit the important points. Important point #1 was quick in coming as we soon turned off the paved roads and headed onto dirt. The road got less and less road-like, until we were riding a long a deeply rutted 4x4 road in the scrubby forest around Ellensburg. The first magic moment of the day came when the rider in front of me slowed down, and I realized it was because a herd of elk was galloping across the road in front of him, spooked by the bikes. He rode on when a big gap appeared, and I cautiously advanced as a few stragglers bolted across my path. It was straight out of a dirt bike ad, and I grinned a little as I gunned it to catch up.

I'll flash back here to remind you that my only off-road experience consisted of a one-day class.

As I got up to around 40 mph (the bike had no speedometer), I was doing all I could to keep the bike on the road. The ruts were everywhere, and I was trying to avoid crossing over any of them for fear of my tires getting caught in separate ruts. As I came around a corner I realized that a big puddle lay in front of me. Already standing, I figured the best option was to hit it straight, rather than trying to swerve across multiple ruts to avoid it. A second later as my knees and chest hit the ground, I reconsidered my choice. I hit harder than I had ever hit in a crash before, and scrambled to my feet a bit dazed as Tyler and another rider grabbed the bike and got it upright. They started it up again, I took a few deep breaths, and with some encouraging words from the guys, I was off. As I stood my right knee gave a nasty twinge of pain, but I was riding too fast to really worry about it then.

As time went on I got more used to the ruts, potholes, and other suddenly appearing hazards, and the road started to improve a bit. I was having a great time trying out my off-road riding, and felt like the mud on my gear was a sign that I was actually pushing my limits, which I always see as a positive. After a while we arrived at the "single track" section of the morning ride, and Jonah had made sure to tell me that the seven-mile stretch would be the only single-track today. Sounds good! We set off down the trail.

My second crash came at the bottom of a 45-degree descent over roots and rocks, and ended up with me scrambling to not fall onto the large rocks piled in the creek bed below. I was starting to realize that this three-day off-road trip was going to involve some serious off-roading, and was beginning to wonder if I was up for the task. I mentally reminded myself of what I had talked about with my wife in the previous months: if the trip were tougher than I had anticipated, I would give it all my energy and willpower to the very limit, and if that wasn't enough, so be it. I climbed back on the bike and headed out.

I eventually survived the seven miles of single track, and in the process learned a lot about braking, had a crash course in how to bump-start a bike, and got some encouragement and praise from some of Jonah's friends for my bike handling. Jonah had mentioned that I had very little off-road experience, so I suspect much of the praise was intended as encouragement rather than a mark of my overall ability, but it did its job and I carried on.

As the day continued on we found ourselves in an incredible variety of riding conditions, from the rutted forest and single track, to sand-choked trails in the hot summer hills about Lake Chelan, to rutted 4x4 roads overgrown by brush, with a 600 foot drop-off on the edge to the valley below. I rode on abandoned suburban roads for housing developments that had never survived past the planning stages, veered off across a field of rocks the size of my fist, passed through a herd of sheep, and then suddenly was blasting down a short stretch of highway, standing up to cool off as I sucked down some water from my backpack. It was incredible, and I was doing things on a bike I was positive were beyond my capabilities until I tried them and succeeded. I felt like I was truly pushing my limits on each new stretch of riding, and it felt awesome.

In retrospect, I think my downfall was my lack of experience. Not knowing the easy, skilled way of doing something on the bike, I was forced to do it the hard way, with lots of muscle and effort. Experienced riders expend so much less energy in their riding, and although I could achieve that on the pavement, this wasn't street riding. I was keeping up, but to do so I was burning through my personal energy supply at a pretty good clip, and my mental goal of "just survive the day" looked like it was going to be harder than I thought. Compounding the problem was that I couldn't get the hang of the kick start, and found myself kicking it over and over with my right leg until someone (usually Tyler) would come over and get the bike started again. It was embarrassing, and it was using up extra energy I couldn't afford to waste.

Every time we stopped for fuel I asked Tyler and Jonah if they felt I was holding the group back, since I didn't want my lack of experience to impact the enjoyment of the rest of the group. They were quick to tell me that the whole point of the trip was to have fun, and that I shouldn't worry about it. Jonah's other couple friends who were along for the ride were equally encouraging, and I think those guys would have stuck with me and supported me for as long as I was willing and able to climb on the bike and struggle onward. I was willing, but was getting closer and closer to "unable".

The Beginning of the End

The breaking point came at the lunch break, after about five or six hours of riding. As I hopped off the bike I could feel a lot of pain in my right leg where I had landed on it earlier in the day, and I limped over to the yard to lay down and catch my breath. Time passed, and as we were wrapping up our break, I realized three things that started to feel like very bad omens:

  1. My right leg hurt pretty damn bad, and I was having trouble bending it or putting much weight on it.
  2. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. Even after a 20-30 minute break, I was still breathing heavy.
  3. I didn't seem to have any saliva left. My mouth was really dry, and eating was hard because swallowing was almost impossible.

After talking it over with Jonah and Tyler, I told them that I might have to drop out. I just didn't have any energy left, and was only going to crash more and more if I kept going. I had already racked up close to a half dozen big and small crashes, and the number was slowly increasing the farther I rode. They gave me directions to the rendezvous point that night, and encouraged me to take the highway to the stop for the night and meet them there. I didn't have the energy to disagree, but I had already decided in my head that my trip was done. I hadn't mentioned my hurt leg or the whole "short of breath" thing, mainly to keep them from stressing about it. I figured the best plan was to send them on their way, and then quietly slip back to Ellensburg and send Jonah a text explaining the situation. That way they could continue the trip without me slowing them down, and I wouldn't have to expend any energy convincing them to let me drop out.

I still wonder if that was the right or the wrong decision. At the time my decision was clouded by heat stroke and exhaustion, plus the embarrassment of coming so far just to wear out so soon. I wonder though if I should have taken their advice and met them that night to commiserate, have a drink or two and enjoy the evening. I think I'm always going to second-guess that decision to go back to Ellensburg...

I hopped on the bike, waved goodbye as they took off on the next leg of the ride, and then I headed down into Lake Chelan. My plan was to top off the massive expedition tanks on the bike and head south, back to Ellensburg and my waiting street bike. I pulled into the gas station, filled up the tanks, and then sat down a second to catch my breath and get a hold of my thirst. I hurt everywhere, my right knee was miserable, and my right foot was hurting in a way that made me decide not to take off the riding boot for fear of not getting it back on.

I called my wife to let her know what was up, and her normally calm response to almost everything was replaced by a lot of fearful concern and orders to drink lots of water, eat something, and get some salt in me. Through my exhausted haze I began to realize that i must be in pretty rough shape to have her sounding that worried, and I followed her advice to the letter. It took me over an hour and more than a liter of water to get my breathing back to normal and my saliva back to functioning, so I guess she was right!

The Kick

Finally I was rested and hydrated enough to start figuring out a plan to get to Ellensburg. My energy reserves were almost non-existent and my leg still hurt like hell, but I'm pretty good at tuning out my body's complaints if something has to get done, and there was no real way out of this mess other than to ride out. I got my gear ready, refilled the water supply in my backpack, and hopped on the bike. Time to go. I carefully folded out the kick start lever, found top dead center like Tyler had told me, and ignoring my protesting leg, I gave it a mighty stomp.

Flash forward 45 minutes. I'm standing in an alley near the gas station, the terminus of a failed attempt to bump-start the bike. My right leg is now in absolute agony, I've burned up the last of my energy reserves, and I'm soaked in sweat that I can't really afford to be sweating. With no energy left for tears, speech, or any awareness of my surroundings, I've been reduced to jumping on the kick start a few times, then waiting two or three minutes to gather enough energy to try it again. Rinse. Repeat. Kick. Rest. Kick. Rest. Kick.

It starts. Finally, finally, it fucking starts. I almost weep, before realizing that the next time I can allow that engine to stop firing is over a hundred miles away in front of a garage in Ellensburg. After a minute or two to get my breathing back under control, I mount the bike, take a deep jagged breath, and put it in gear.

The End

I limped into the hotel lobby and one of the other guests in line literally stepped back from me in shock. I looked like a mess, covered in mud, dirt and insect corpses, my face coated in grime and my mouth hanging open because I had no energy to keep it shut. I had made it back to Tyler's garage in Ellensburg, retrieved my SV, and locked up his Honda safe and sound. Getting on and off a motorcycle was pure agony on my right leg, so it was fortunate that I hadn't climbed off the Honda at any point between Lake Chelan and Tyler's garage. I got a room at a hotel in downtown Ellensburg, made one last trip on the bike to eat a huge dinner, and then returned to the room and slept for eleven hours.

The next morning the pain wasn't quite as bad in my leg, but getting on and off the bike was still no picnic. and none of my other muscles seemed to want to work right. After a quick breakfast and a top-off of the SV's tank, I decided again to minimize the leg pain and didn't climb off the bike again until I was home in Seattle. Even now, days later, I'm still not back to 100%.

Failure or Success?

Is this a ride report about failure, or success? Was my experience one of regret, or accomplishment? Or is it about both?

When we were sitting in the grass during lunch, Jonah asked me if I was having fun. I struggled a bit, and after gathering some energy to speak, I think I said something like this: "That's a difficult question. It's definitely been a rough day, but on the other hand, I've done things today that I was certain were impossible. So in that sense of doing what I didn't think I could, yes, I guess I'm having fun."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this report is about failure and success.

Let's face it, I didn't survive the three-day trip with Jonah and crew. Hell, I didn't survive one day! In the general scheme of measurable goals, I absolutely failed to achieve that one. IF you want to go by bare-bones objectives, you can stop reading now. This trip was a failure.

On the other hand, until I hopped on Tyler's bike I had a total of six hours of "off-road" experience, most of that on a 250cc dirt bike in a relatively flat field. Riding in ruts? Power sliding in turns? Sand? Gravel? Single-track? That might have been in the Level 3 Class, but it certainly wasn't covered in the stuff I took. Maybe that sounds like looking for excuses, or trying to justify my lack of making it three days. Maybe it is an excuse. I don't think so, but what the hell do I know?

All that aside though, here's why I don't consider the experience a failure, nor do I feel like a failure in attempting it: for a little while there, I followed one of the best riders in the world on the trails and tracks he loves to ride, and I managed to do okay. I was confronted with scenarios way beyond my riding ability, and I tackled them without hesitation. When I crashed hard, I got up again and kept going. When I occasionally wanted to quit, I didn't. I ignored the pain and the self-doubt and gave 100% for as long as I possibly could, and when I couldn't give any more, I had used up so much of my energy that I could barely function. I didn't back down when I was tired and I didn't back down when I was exhausted. I used all my skill, all of my energy and all my endurance, and when I rolled that dirt bike into the garage in Ellensburg I was running on willpower, momentum, and nothing else.

The trip beat me down physically farther than I've been beaten down in years, and emotionally I wasn't much better by the end of those 45 minutes of kicking. I hurt worse than I've hurt in a long time, and had moments where I felt like I had failed more absolutely than I had ever thought possible. Some of that might have been the heat stroke talking, but it felt pretty damn bad at the time.

But did I have fun? Yes. Hell yes. I feel like I confronted the challenges in front of me without flinching and didn't back down until I was knocked down. In the process I pushed my riding skills farther than I though possible, and realized that although my endurance and skill might not survive a full day of riding with Jonah Street, my willpower at least was enough to get me home alive. Maybe that doesn't sound like fun to some people, but to a certain type of rider, I suspect it sounds like a damn good time.

The Credits

  • I want to thank all the folks at ADV who helped me get prepped for the trip with advice and encouragement. You guys had no idea what I was getting into, but your advice helped me survive as long as I did.
  • I want to thank Tyler for the use of his bike. With the exception of the kick start lever, I loved every other piece of that amazing machine, and you were one of the most motivational guys I've ever had the pleasure to learn from.
  • I want to thank Jonah's friends whom I have completely forgotten by name. I hope you'll forgive me for that, because you were all incredible and supportive and the best instructors a newbie could dream of.
  • I want to thank my lovely wife, who probably saved my ass with her timely medical advice, and who convinced me that my horrible physical disrepair at the time of my call was proof that I had in no way wussed out on the ride. I love you.

  • Above all others though, I want to thank Jonah Street for giving a guy with almost no off-road experience a chance to come along for the ride. You pushed my riding skills to the breaking point and beyond, but the whole time you lived up to your reputation as a genuinely nice guy. You and your friends provided nothing but encouragement, support, and help with my riding, and I feel like I learned a huge amount from the experience. You said at the start that your goal was for all of us to have fun, and although I'm battered and bruised, I want to thank you for a hell of a lot of fun.


  1. Fantastic report John. Good on you for going out there completely out of your comfort zone and giving it everything you had.

  2. I don't even know where to begin. As I read this to your dad it was hard to keep back the tears -- not the "feeling sorry for you" kind of tears but the "proud of you" tears. You have always been willing to take on a challenge and it makes life quite interesting for all those around you. With my tiny bit of motorcycle experience (a tiny bit off road, as you know) I physically ached for you. As a mom I don't like to see my gets hurting. But also as a mom (and dad) we are bursting with pride at your determination and willingness to try new things. We love you. P.S. from dad -- you have always had guts and determination. I've always been proud of you, Jon, for always putting in 100% to everything you do and always enjoying life to the hilt.