I leaned back in the cushioned seat of the gondola. I looked over at my close friend and mountain bike riding partner Daniel Vest. Dirt smudges ran across his face, and his clothes had a tint of brown on them. Both of our shirts were drenched with sweat.
I drummed my fingers on the seat. Outside, the wind howled at us as the gondola took us to the top of Mammoth Mountain. Daniel and I had been riding cross-country trails all day to train for our next race, and to finish the day off, we were going to ride the world-famous downhill course Kamikaze. It drops from a summit of 11,o53 feet to 8,9oo feet in about seven minutes, riding at a medium pace.
Daniel rode a Specialized Hard Rock, a 24-speed hardtail and an all-out cross-country bike. I had a Schwinn Rocket 88, a 27-speed full-suspension bike. It was also a cross-country bike. At the time, we were both saving up for downhill bikes so that we could each have one bike for downhill and free riding and one bike for cross-country; however, we couldn't wait until we had the right equipment. The Kamikaze's draw was too powerful. I looked out the window. Trees stretched out for miles and miles, and they could be seen all the way to the White Mountains.
The gondola rumbled and shook as we entered the station at the peak of Mammoth's height. The doors opened with a sound like the release of a cap on a soda bottle.
Daniel and I grabbed our glasses, stepped out of the gondola, and wheeled our bikes out of the station and down the stairs. A cold wind blew through the air and moaned in my ears. A dust devil swirled through the air, causing all of the tourists who were taking the scenic gondola ride to gape and point. I looked over the barbed-wire fence which separated the level ground from a section of Kamikaze. The wide course was windswept, and rocks littered it.
Daniel and I clipped into our pedals and rode toward the start. A wooden sign read "Kamikaze," and right next to the name of the course there was a black diamond. My stomach knotted up. Should we be doing this? It was a pro downhill course, and we were only thirteen. No, I said to myself, I can't chicken out now. I've just got to do this.
We turned and began our descent.
One minute later, we were speeding down the course side by side. Unlike the sheltered cross-country courses, trees were nowhere to be found except in the distance since the course was above the tree line. There were, however, plenty of rocks. My shocks rocketed up and down. My fingers were sore because of their position on the brakes. I had to be ready for anything. My knees moved in harmony with my shocks. The wind blew into our faces and moaned in our ears, but neither of us was daunted.
I saw a bump throw the back of Daniel's bike into the air. His back tire came down crooked, but he shifted his weight and corrected it just in time. He then began a right turn which took us into another straight downhill section. I shifted my weight toward the back tire so that I didn't lean forward too much. We leaned into another right turn. Pink flags fluttered in the wind to our left.
I sighed in relief. This was the last part of the course. We were finally done. I pushed my pedals as I tried to catch up to Daniel, my bike wobbling from the sheer speed of it all.
"Whoa!" Daniel shouted. He leaned into a hard left turn and was then out of sight. Right ahead of me lay a series of sandy ditches. That was why Daniel had turned so suddenly I, however, couldn't turn. If I turned right, I would just hit more sand. If I turned left, I would hit the metal pole that supported the pink flags. I stared ahead, frozen. A bump knocked my hand off its resting position on the back brake. I braced myself for the impact. I would have to do whatever I could to avoid injury. My front tire dug into the sand, and my bike immediately stopped. I, however, kept moving. My stomach lurched as my body threw itself over the handlebars. There was a snap as my clip-in shoes tore out of the pedals. My arms flailed as I flew through the air. My legs jutted upward. I was in the same position a swimmer is in as he dives into the water, but my hands weren't in front of my head. My head slammed into the ground. Bright lights erupted in my eyes. I kept rolling and rolling until the sand finally stopped me. I heard Daniel shout something, I couldn't tell what, as he dropped his bike and sprinted toward me. My head burned, and it felt as if it were swelling inside my helmet. I unbuckled my helmet and threw it to the ground.
"Are you OK?" Daniel asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I replied. I put my hand in my hair. Rocks littered it, and dirt was smeared all over my shirt. I sat there for about a minute.
Finally, after he asked if I was OK again, Daniel suggested that we get to the bottom. I nodded.
* * *
We sat on a bench outside of the main lodge. I looked around at all of the tourists who climbed the climbing wall and rented mountain bikes. I rubbed my head. That had been a pretty hard fall. My head still hurt, but it should since the fall was only about—how long ago was it? I thought about it. Why couldn't I remember? I had fallen on . . .
"Oh, no," I said.
"What?" Daniel turned to me.
"I . . . I don't remember where I fell, or when I fell, or anything." My voice trembled. "All I know is that I did fall."
"Do you remember riding the gondola?" Daniel asked.
"We rode the gondola? We didn't ride the gondola, did we? We just got here, right?" Everything between waking up this morning and now was nothing but empty space. I began shaking.
"We've been up here all day!" Daniel said, his voice rising.
"Where did I fall?" I asked.
"Kamikaze," Daniel answered.
"But that's a downhill course, and it's way up there," I said, pointing to the top of the mountain.
"I know," he said. "But we wanted to do it all day, so we did."
I shook my head in disbelief. All right, I thought, I need to figure out what I remember. I need to spit out facts. Just facts.
"I'm Matthew Taylor," I said. "And you're Daniel Vest. My mom is Cathy Enright. My dad is Gary Taylor. My stepdad is Greg Enright, and my stepbrother is Matt Enright. We live in Mammoth Lakes, California. My birthday . . ." I paused. When was my birthday? "My birthday is September 11." "
No, it's not," Daniel turned to me. "You're a little more than a week younger than I am, and my birthday is September 14."
"Oh, no," I said, shaking my head. What if I forget all kinds of important things? What if I forget my friends' names or things that have happened to me?
Calm down, I said to myself. So far you only forgot your birthday and most of today. It'll probably come back soon.
I saw Daniel's eyes darting around. A woman walked by. He ran up to her.
"Excuse me," he said, "do you think there's a doctor here?"
"Yeah," she said, pointing to the Adventure Center. "There's probably one in there."
* * *
The rest of the day consisted mainly of questions being asked over and over. I had to say my real birthday about fifty times, but it turned out that I had just had a mild concussion. That night as I lay in bed, still unable to believe that I had actually lost my memory for a while, I began to wonder why I mountain biked despite the obvious risks. I always heard about really hard crashes, and I had just had one. So what kept me going? I thought about it until I saw the answer. It's the thrill of going fast, the adrenaline rush of hitting a drop-off, the muscle burn of going up a hill, the technicality of the rocky, sandy, steep sections, and the passion that I feel as I push the pedals. Put simply, it's the love of the sport that keeps me going. It's the continuation after hundreds of crashes that separates the real mountain bikers who love the sport from the people who cry and put their bike away after a little scrape on the knee. Despite the hardest crashes that I will take, I have the privilege of being able to call myself a mountain biker, and because of that, I'm thirteen and still feeling lucky.