Officer Don Lockwood was an imposing slab of a man. His ruddy complexion shone a malevolent reddish pink, offsetting the jet black of his uniform and snug-fitting cap. His appearance and demeanor telegraphed a tortured soul perpetually on the brink of violence, and whether or not that was true, there was enough gossip and innuendo among my teenage cadre of friends that we all made sure to keep as much distance between ourselves and the sole upholder of vehicular justice in our hometown.
Distance, at this particular moment, was not a luxury I was afforded. He sat in the passenger seat of my family's Austin Maxi, face expressionless, filling the vehicle with a weighty silence. I had just reversed into a parallel parking spot on a steep hill, the final hurdle in what had been a grueling hour-long driving test, and Officer Lockwood held my as-yet-undetermined future as a driver in his hands. Seconds stretched into what felt like hours before he finally spoke: "It seems, Mister Ferrentino, that you have grasped the fundamentals of driving a car adequately enough. So, in spite of my personal reservations about your judgement, I am going to grant you your driver's license. But remember this—I am granting you the privilege of driving. It's not a right. It's a privilege; one that can be revoked at any time."
His personal reservations were well-founded. I was 17. The year before, he had chased me along the road to Whangamata as I wrung out a Kawasaki 500 triple at speeds that were well beyond the realm of sensibility or legality. The year before that, at 15, when most of my friends were eagerly getting their driver's licenses, I had flipped the Austin Maxi in a moment of "Dukes-of-Hazzard"-inspired dipshittery, destroying my neighbor's hedge and throwing my aunt out the back window in the process. My father had calmly told me then that, "It might be a while" before I was allowed to drive any of his cars again.
Officer Lockwood's words stayed with me. I was reminded of them when the privilege of driving was revoked twice in the following decade as I followed through on the ritual stupidity that consumes a certain percentage of young adult males when they are allowed access to anything with wheels and engines. They were uttered almost word for word by a State Park ranger who caught me spinning donuts on a beach south of Half Moon Bay in an old post office jeep that I had scored for $200. And they were repeated again, verbatim, by a Santa Clara County Sheriff, who encountered me attempting to dis-impale my $140 1971 Ford Thunderbird (suicide rear doors, skull and crossbones on the sides and a snazzy WWII-fighter-inspired snarling shark mouth painted around the grille) from the cyclone fence that I had landed on/in while getting a little too rad at a construction site. And they have come unbidden into my consciousness in the many long years that followed, after I stopped doing stupid shit in cars in favor of doing stupid shit on mountain bikes, whenever I would roll up to a 'No Trespassing' sign: "Right to pass by permission and subject to control of owner."
On mountain bikes, I have been an inveterate and unapologetic poacher. I have quietly snuck into state and national parks where bikes are explicitly forbidden, left tire tracks on private estates and through easements that have been clearly signed as closed to the public and have pedaled through more than a few Wilderness areas. I did this for years, always with a chip on my shoulder. It was civil disobedience, and I was exercising my rights as a citizen to protest the status quo. At least that was what I told myself. That line of reasoning was pure bullshit. I was poaching because I didn't want to obey the law and because I didn't really care what impact my actions might have on anyone else.
It has been a very long time since I have donned the mantle of 'Self-Righteous Citizen Warrior Trail Poacher.' Over the past couple decades, my perception of personal rights and privilege has shifted. I began to view not just riding but everything I do in life through the lens of privilege. It is a privilege to be alive, not a right. It is a privilege to have millions of acres of public land to enjoy, and I am thankful those acres exist. It is a privilege to be healthy enough to explore the trails on those lands by bike, and to have the time and resources to afford that exploration.
These days, I am increasingly thankful for things I have previously taken for granted. Life, health, time—three very big, very precious parts of existence I used to count on without thought. In much the same way that a teenager might think it's a good idea to see how sideways he can get a front-wheel-drive station wagon around a decreasing radius gravel corner with his aunt in the passenger seat singing the "Dukes of Hazzard" theme song, the older version of that teen, noting a much higher odometer reading, might be more inclined to ease off the gas well before corner entry.
The trail poacher in me is dead now. I don't want to feel the vibe from pissed off hikers, and I don't want to add to the karmic juju of how mountain bikers are perceived within the broader community. I can't undo my past actions, but I prefer these days not to generate any fresh negative weight. And with each passing year, I shed some righteousness and gain some gratitude. I have no right to life, health, bikes or access. All of this, from my own breath to the trails I ride, exists in a state of privilege. I am lucky, we are all lucky, that we get to do this. I understand you now, Don. Finally.