Friday, October 2, 2009

My MS Story Chapter 11 – I lost something in the frozen wilderness of Maine

Driving my snowmobile down a freshly-groomed trail on a cold, crisp morning is the closest experience I’ve ever had to flying. I don’t mean flying like a plane. I mean flying like a bird.

When a Northern Cardinal maneuvers through the air he leans into the corners to induce elegant and dramatic changes in direction, always in complete control. When conditions are perfect, a snowmobile cornering through a meandering trail with gentle elevation changes cuts a similar path.

When you are in that zone, crafting seamless turns at the maximum speed that just barely allows you to stay on your side of the trail, there is nothing like it. Puttering along at a slower pace and taking in the scenery is nice too, but it’s not such an intense experience. The best riding is at once sublime and exhilarating. It’s like reading poetry while hanging on the edge of a cliff…eating crème brûlée in a hurricane.

My friends and I owned the most powerful, high performance snowmobiles that money could buy. We rode all over Maine, and it was not unusual for us to cover 200 or 300 miles in a single day. Quite often we would string a couple of these rides together and spend the night at a hotel in some remote town in Northern Maine. We also went on more leisurely family or large group rides. Although we preferred the high speed stuff we could dial it up or dial it down. We just loved to be on snowmobiles. It was more than simply a pastime. It was a culture.

Mark and Marco were two of the most skilled riders I knew. The three of us planned what we hoped would be a memorable trip in late February of 2004, just a few months after I had started my new job.

We covered a respectable 270 miles that day, but for the first time MS affected my riding performance. Mark and Marco were well out in front of me the entire time and I was a physical wreck by the end of the day. I simply didn't have the leg strength to shift my weight from side to side on the seat in the way that you need to in order to maintain speed while cornering. I also didn’t have the leg strength to absorb the shock of going over moguls at a high rate of speed, and I had to slow down when the trail became bumpy. Slowing down was not in our flight plan. I left a little piece of who I was in the frozen wilderness of Maine that day, so in that sense it was indeed a memorable trip. This ride marked the beginning of my steady decline as a snowmobiler, which continued until I could no longer ride at all by 2008.

So how have I dealt with the loss of this great passion of mine? Well it’s not easy, but there were two mitigating factors at play. First, although I absolutely loved the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, and the adventure of snowmobiling, when you rode you always ended up cold and tired, and deep down inside I'm a person who doesn't like to be cold and tired. If my favorite thing to do was to drive my snowmobile, then my next favorite thing to do was to not drive my snowmobile. For example, I would anxiously anticipate an upcoming ride for weeks, but if for whatever reason it was canceled then my reaction would typically be, "Oh well, now I can just take it easy this weekend anyway. That won't be so bad."

The second factor that has made it easier to accept this loss has to do with self preservation. Riding snowmobiles at a high rate of speed was like a drug for us. We were addicted to going fast even though we knew that we could be seriously injured or even killed. Now that I can’t snowmobile anymore I know with certainty I won't be dragged out of the woods on a stretcher with broken bones, or worse yet wrap myself around a tree and leave my wife husbandless and my children fatherless. The natural high that came with living on the edge always managed to muffle the little voice in my head telling me that I was being selfish and irresponsible. Although I rarely heeded that little voice, it did haunt me at times. It doesn’t haunt me anymore.

A person with MS, as a matter of survival, develops a thick skin when it comes to dealing with losses like this. I very much wish I could still snowmobile, but I can’t expend too much emotional energy lamenting this loss. I’ve accepted it, and I’m moving on. I may need that energy later.

There’s one story that perhaps best demonstrates our passion for the sport. My friend Mark, my wife Kim, and I were riding near Moosehead Lake sometime in the late 1990’s. Kim was the best female rider I ever saw. She could keep up with the boys, no problem. The three of us were making our way through a relatively slow, wooded area - a section with such tight corners that we could only go 25 or 30 miles per hour. This was pretty low speed, leisurely stuff for us. No adrenalin rush here.

We turned a corner and noticed a group of riders pulled off to the side of the trail up ahead, and one of the snowmobiles was tipped on its side. A member of that group walked up to us. I asked him if everybody was okay, never anticipating the response that I got.

“No. That guy over there is dead. His son is with him. He just missed the turn and hit that tree head-on. He was wearing a helmet, but it didn't make any difference.”

When we determined that there was nothing more we could do to help, we made our way past the dead guy and his son. Kokadjo Trading Post was only a mile down the trail, so we decided to stop there and collect ourselves. The three of us ordered breakfast and tried to talk through what we had just seen. We didn’t want to end up like that guy. We were shaken. The mood was somber.

Given what we had just been through, when we resumed our ride we did so a bit more cautiously than usual. After maybe 5 minutes of riding we came upon a flat, wide-open stretch of trail where we would typically run our snowmobiles up to their maximum speed and really get the adrenaline flowing, sometimes hitting 100 mph or more. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Riding conditions were perfect. Life is short. Fuck it. We opened up our snowmobiles just like we always did and never looked back. That's how passionate we were about snowmobiling. Our first-hand encounter with death on the trails had tempered our aggressive riding style for a grand total of 5 minutes.

A few more snowmobiling pics of mine (click to enlarge):



  1. the wind in your face--out in nature--definitely enjoying the ride--reminds me of my segway! is the ibot even a contender? I think maybe...

  2. I like the way you've been able to make peace with what you lost in Maine and I hope you'll never again in life be haunted by that little voice on self preservation. But from what I can tell from your blogs, your life is still being lived to the fullest, a life that now (through your gifted writing ability) allows you to bring knowledge, encouragement, optimism and hope to so many people living with or without MS, enabling us to enjoy the ride with you. For that, I thank you! Those pics are truly stunning. Till next time, be well and be safe...

  3. Mitch, I think you're some cool shit. Rock on with your bad self!

  4. Meredy, does the iBOT compare to snowmobiling? I'm afraid not. My iBOT maxes out at 6.8 mph, whereas my snowmobile maxed out at about 106.8 mph. But, my snowmobile couldn't climb stairs! Or did you mean does my iBOT compare to your Segway? Well, as you know they were both developed by Dean Kamen. I once came upon a mall cop in his Segway, and challenged him to a race. I think he had more raw speed than I did, but I was a little crazier, so I left him in the dust.

    Centenniel, yes, I feel that I am still living a full and contented life, and this blog is one of the many, or at least several, ways I stay engaged. Glad you like it.

    Sandy, in my mind's eye I am still a wicked bad ass!