Just after I gave birth to my son, a mommy friend said something that has stuck with me for a decade: It's up to us to raise our boys into the men we'd like them to be.
It's a simple concept that's a lot easier said than done. Much as I think I'm raising a child who is kindhearted, enterprising, self-reliant, imaginative and respectful, I've recently had my doubts.
At some point during fifth grade, my son's Lego obsession waned, as did his interest in skateboarding or "reading" anything other than audiobooks. After football season ended, my usual ploys of luring him outside to go bicycling or to turn off the TV and play Monopoly - even the millions-at-stake, electronic-banking version - had lost luster, replaced by the scourge of Minecraft and other lazy-making video games.
My distress over this situation is epic. Surely, it was time to introduce something new to his life that would require undivided focus on the task at hand. No screens. No couches. No excuses.
Dirt bikes seemed like just the ticket. Not only would it channel his vehicular inclinations and interest in how things work, it would challenge him to learn new skills and engage the entirety of his mind and body - not just his gamer thumbs. And it would do so in the great outdoors, far from the hustle and bustle of the city.
There was only one problem. I don't own any dirt bikes. Nor do I have a truck to haul them even if I did. Despite a successful foray to dirt bike school with my son last spring, I hadn't pulled the trigger on any of the infrastructure because it involves several thousand dollars of investment and I was too unsure of my son's dedication. So when a pair of industry veterans invited us to hone our not-that-great-to-begin-with off-roading skills and go trail riding, I couldn't refuse.
Over winter break earlier this month, I yanked my son from the cozy confines of his bunk bed early one Thursday morning and packed him into the car en route to the Hungry Valley State Vehicle Recreation Area in Gorman, north of L.A. One hour of reverse commuting, and we were there. Another half-hour of gearing up in the safety equipment that made us look like moon men, and we were saddled up on the pair of Hondas our off-road hosts had arranged for us and ushered into the grit.
I've been riding motorcycles for 22 years. My son has ridden them exactly twice, so clutch and throttle control were a work in progress for him. But with a refresher from one of the men who had invited us and an admonition to let the clutch out slowly, his jackrabbit starts began to gain finesse. He didn't stall and remained upright.
We were led by Jun Villegas, an off-road vehicle instructor who modeled proper riding position while offering hand signals to indicate the proper speed and gear for whatever lay in our path. My son was second in our line of five riders. I was the proud mama bear in third position, watching my boy maintain control on long straightaways over hard-packed dirt dusted with loose gravel, then trickier terrain, such as deep sand, which had our tires struggling to find purchase despite their knobby treads.
It was an "easy trail," according to the map, on wide, gently curving paths that cut a swath through the chaparral as we ascended to 6,000 feet from valley to hill to mountain with nothing but our nerves and some nylon dressing to keep us warm in the 42-degree air.
There were no guardrails to prevent us from plummeting over the side. Sure, it was unsettling to realize a simple miscalculation of a turn or an over-rev of the throttle could send my son careening over the berm and somersaulting down through the scrub. But I pushed those thoughts from my mind.
My goals were as lofty as the sand was deep. I want my son to participate in life instead of passively receiving today's plethora of produced entertainment. I want to encourage his inherent appreciation of vehicle design and dynamics - to understand why things are built the way they are and do the things they do.
Two-thirds of the way into our 21-mile ride, our leader took a turn onto Cow Trail - marked with a blue square indicating a more difficult path from the easy green we'd been riding thus far. I didn't know what, exactly, made a blue square more difficult, but I soon found out: even deeper sand, a narrower track, steeper inclines and tighter turns.
Sure enough, it was on Cow Trail that my son took his first spill while navigating a right turn and getting pinned under the bike. The first lesson he learned was when he got up unharmed: Safety gear is important, and it works. The second lesson he learned: Stick-to-it-ive-ness. When the going gets tough, you have no choice but to persevere. No one else is going to ride your bike for you back to base camp. You've got to pick it up and do it yourself.
As a middle-class parent in modern, technologically enabled times, I'm appalled at our culture's instant gratification. If you're too lazy to do laundry, you can order new clothes online and have them delivered by the end of the day. If you want to see a new movie, you just press the remote control and it's screened on your home TV.
Instant gratification just doesn't set a good example for what it takes to succeed, which, in my experience, involves a lot of hard work, patience and luck. Dirt bikes, like anything else that's worth doing, have a learning curve. The more you do it, the better you get. As a mom, I was bursting with love and joy for my kid as I watched him tackle such tough terrain and triumph.
My son dumped the bike two more times ï¿½ both during turns in deep sand. I wiped out twice.
By 3 p.m., we were both tired, saddle sore and wind burned, but when I asked my son his first thoughts about what he had just done, he said, "Awesome," with his dimpled smile. "When can we do this again?"
At the time, I didn't have an answer, but my son's birthday is this weekend. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but his present has two wheels.