Riding from the Ashes
A Flying KDX, Two Miles Of Mud And A Volcano
On May 18, 1980, the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in Washington state.
I remember that day well, partly because I was an eyewitness to that massive volcano blowing its top, but mostly because that same Sunday, I had one of my best-ever, and worst-ever, days of off-roading.
I rode a Kawasaki KDX175 that weekend in a two-day ISDT qualifier in northern Oregon, just south of Mount St. Helens. I wasn’t trying to qualify for the Six Days; as editor of Cycle Guide magazine at the time, I was merely conducting a real-world test of the KDX.
Saturday’s route included a deep, turbulent water crossing that knocked many of the 175-class riders out of the event. I somehow managed to navigate the raging stream without much drama, having completely missed—by pure accident, I admit—most of the crossing’s bigger, slimier rocks.
My Sunday ride was full of surprises, not least of which was first hearing and then seeing an active volcano in the distance. I was so distracted by that sight that I nearly crashed into a huge pine tree. Later, at one of the checks, a worker told me that more than 175 qualifiers had houred out, leaving me as the top rider in the class.
So, I thought Sunday was going along magnificently … until I had no rear brake. A day-and-a-half of mud, grit and frequent use had worn the brake shoes to the point that the brake arm, located behind the rear-wheel spacer, would hit the spacer when I pushed the pedal, preventing the shoes from engaging.
I was running a little late and didn’t want to stop to deal with the problem, so I forged ahead, planning to make the adjustment at the next check. When I came to a long, winding downhill, I yanked another regrettable decision out of my fanny pack of poor judgment and again chose not to stop and adjust the brake. Soon, the downhill got steeper, the trail got narrower, and the turns got sharper. Using the front brake would have put me on the ground, and downshifting the two-stroke did little to slow me.
So, it’s no wonder I didn’t make it around an off-camber, hairpin left with a sheer drop-off on the right. I flew off the edge, free-falling about 50 feet to the bottom. The area was thick with large pine trees, and I plunged through God knows how many sizable branches on the way down, somewhat cushioning my fall. When I landed, I was still on the seat, none the worse, except for an impressive collection of pine-branch scratches on my neck and chin. I looked like the second-place finisher in a two-person knife fight.
My immediate strategy was to adjust the brake, start ’er up and try to get out of the narrow valley. But when I turned the throttle before kickstarting, I felt no resistance. Only then did I see the broken throttle cable dangling down, pine branches having ripped it from the twistgrip.
Time for some on-the-trail engineering. I wrapped the broken end of the inner throttle cable around into a loop, found a small nut and bolt in my toolkit and used them to pinch the loop in place. I taped the outer throttle cable to the right side of the handlebar to hold it in place, so I could operate the throttle with my thumb, kind of like on an ATV. A bit klugey, but it worked. I fixed the brake problem, fired the engine and found a way back onto the course.
I was doing pretty well with my jury-rigged throttle until I arrived at a mud section that offered no escape on either side of the deeply rutted, gooey trail. Trying to manage steering, balancing and some semblance of directional control while paddling with my feet and working the throttle with my thumb was nearly impossible. I floundered, fell over, floundered some more, fell over some more and had to stop often due to
The muddy quagmire—along with my floundering and falling—went on for what seemed like 10 miles; it was actually less than 2. By the time I got to terra much more firma, I was completely drained and way more than an hour late.
I wearily putt-putted the final miles back to the parc fermé, and when I got there, I was too worn out to dismount. I leaned the bike against the side of my truck and stayed on the seat until I could summon enough energy to climb off.
So, quite a day, indeed. For a moment, I was the class’ top Six Days qualifier despite not having the intention—and, probably, the talent—to ride an ISDT; I saw, first-hand, the historic eruption of a massive volcano; I thought my life might end when flying off a cliff; I survived flying off a cliff; I set a personal record for tip overs; I finished the route, albeit late and slowly, despite a MacGyvered throttle cable; and I ended the ride more physically spent than ever before in my entire life.
Most fun I’d had in years.
Paul Dean, an AMA Charter Life Member, is an AMA Hall of Famer and a former AMA Board chair from Fallbrook, Calif.