By Vernon Felton
I crane my head around and glare at my brother Mike, who's lounging in the backseat.
"What?" my brother is all feigned innocence, which just makes it all that much worse.
"Well," I grate, "Either you've got a dead cat in your pants and we're all just smelling it now or you farted again for, oh, I don't know, the one-hundredth time this morning. Some of us had our mouths open, man. The least you can do is warn us. We're family, you owe us that much."
"Dude, you know I have a flatulence problem."
My brother says this as if it completely absolves him of all responsibility for his stench, as if he has a congenital condition, like a heart murmur or a sixth toe, that just can't be helped.
I am annoyed. Well, really, I'm way past annoyed. I was annoyed by his ‘condition’ two days into this road trip. Now, as his evil funk wafts over from the backseat and mingles with the scent of six days worth of soiled jerseys and socks, I am seriously pissed.
My oldest brother, Rob, simply laughs. He shakes his head as he watches the scenery blur by from his spot in the passenger seat. "Seriously, Vernon. Did you really forget? This is how it always goes."
Rob is right. Our middle brother, Mike, has always had this thing with gas. It's his version of a super power. Superman has x-ray vision. Spiderman shoots webs. My brother Mike can fart on command–which, I'll admit, is a pretty cool party trick. His "gift", however, was also the source of countless fistfights, wrestling matches and noogies during our youth. Five kids crammed into the back of the Country Squire station wagon, the air filled with Mike's reek and our screams of protest, fists flying, my dad bellowing for us to shut the hell up. That scene played itself over and over during our childhood. Those were good times. How did I forget about them?
We're not kids anymore. My older brothers are in their 50s. They wear suits to work. We haven't wrestled, or battled with nunchucks or fought over who "dealt it" since Jimmy Carter was president.
This, of course, is inevitable. We grow up. We change. Sometimes, however, we also lose things along the way. Families, to put a finer point on it, can drift apart. One of the greatest things about riding, for me at least, is that it's brought my family back together.
THINGS FALL APART
As the youngest of five children, I was always on the periphery of things. By the time I was old enough to play football or ride a bike or do anything cooler than drool and watch Sesame Street, my siblings were driving cars, perfecting their afros and doing myriad other things that made sense during the 1970s. Most of them left home when I was still in grade school. We grew apart.
I started riding bikes—in the ‘serious’ Lycra shorts and toe-clips kind of way—while I was in junior high and right about then my oldest brother returned from college with a battered Italian road bike of his own. We started road riding and mountain biking together. It was the first thing we ever really shared as equals. Sometime during the `90s, my middle brother asked if he could borrow a bike and tag along. At some point, riding became the one thing that routinely brings us together.
COMING TOGETHER AGAIN
Two weeks ago I sent my brothers an email in which I said I'd soon be traveling the Northwest, riding trails, drinking beer and eating a lot of meat … and would they like to come along for the ride? I didn't really expect them to take me up on the offer. Who really drops everything, bails on a week of work and drives across three states to accept a vague offer like that? My brothers, apparently. Two of them showed up on my doorstep seven days later, bikes in hand.
The riding, for the record, was outstanding. Every day we covered miles and miles of singletrack that snaked its way through cedar forests or wound along alpine ridges blanketed in wildflowers. There was beer. It was cold. In short, it was everything you dream of in a road trip. But what will probably stick with me most are the things I didn't anticipate: Entire days spent talking trash, heckling one another on the trail, and remembering what it was that we liked and loathed about one another. We hadn’t spent that much focused time with one another in years. Maybe you experience these moments with your family members all the time, but if my brothers and I didn't ride bikes together, I don't know how often we'd actually do those things. I'm not sure how often we'd actually act like family.
You can argue that mountain biking is all about the gear or that mountain biking is all about the rush of riding. There’s merit to both arguments, but while I appreciate both the tech and the trail, I think riding is also, at its core, a very human thing. Sure, you can pedal those miles by yourself, but riding often offers us a means of connecting with other people that can be as profound as the ride itself.
A couple of years from now I doubt I will remember all the names of the trails we rode, the miles we pedaled or the thousands of feet we climbed on our road trip. I know I won't remember which bikes we were riding. What I will remember, on the other hand, is that my brothers and I spent seven straight days laughing at one another, talking late into the night and rediscovering what it means to be brothers again. I’m grateful for that.