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The Eloquent Hack: Know Fear

Wrestling With the Mind Killer


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Once upon a time, about when the phrase “no fear” was spreading like a blast wave around the world thanks to some well-timed ubiquity that sprang a moto/lifestyle apparel brand into the center stage of our collective consciousness, I found myself at a rest area somewhere in eastern Kentucky, on a Thursday afternoon in a dry county, behind the wheel of a teal-green 1965 Ford Econoline van with about 15 cases of beer stacked in the back. I’m guessing this was in 1997. Matt Nyiri and I were whiteknuckling it from California to West Virginia to race the 24 Hours of Canaan. The drive itself was its own special kind of endurance event. We booked the distance in something like 53 hours flat, taking turns sleeping, keeping the windows open to try and vent some of the pervasive fuel and exhaust fumes that were part and parcel of shitty old Econoline ownership.

About an hour beforehand, we had been fueling up at a gas station, and the attendant—a large man named Field—had noticed the beer in the van. Pointedly, he said, “What the heck are you boys thinking?” He went on to inform us that this was a dry county; alcohol was not only not available to purchase, but it was illegal to possess. And it was even more illegal to transport across county lines. And it was even more illegal than that to transport across state lines. “You can’t DO this,” he hissed, conspiratorially. Naturally, we bought his silence with a six-pack that he furtively tucked behind some Interstate batteries.

Photo: Tyler Roemer

Being as we were sponsored by a beer company, and weren’t selling any of it, it had never even occurred to me that we may be engaging in criminal activity. But now, having been abruptly enlightened, in a dry county surrounded by dry counties, raised on a diet of movies and TV that ran the gamut from “The Dukes Of Hazzard” to “Easy Rider” to “The Hills Have Eyes,” I was suddenly, deeply paranoid. So, an hour later, at that rest stop, the sight of a battered silver Monte Carlo, rusted-out rear fender wells, tinted windows, and a broad windshield sticker with the words “Know Fear” written in exactly the same font as the “No Fear” logo filled me with a sense of foreboding that I could not shake.

Nothing bad happened. We went to the race, had an incredible time, met the singlespeeding legends known as Hugh Jass, and made it back to California without asphyxiating ourselves or killing each other. But that creeping, totally irrational dread I felt from that one moment in an almost-deserted rest area just the other side of West Virginia, it stuck with me. Twenty solid years later, riding moto support for a gravel ride in North Carolina, I arrived late in the day at our campsite for the night, as the air cooled into condensation and the light faded and the grasses and trees smelled different and felt closer in than I am used to, the exact same prickling dread settled in the base of my skull. Again, nothing bad happened, but I felt a totally irrational fear that something bad could and very well might happen.

“Fear is the mind killer.” That line is from the novel “Dune,” but Frank Herbert probably lifted it from “The Art of War” or the teachings of some long dead warrior-scholar. It’s a convenient phrase to contemplate when witnessing people performing superhuman feats of physical daring in a high-consequence setting. Like say, every single Rampage run I have ever watched. Even when viewed from the safely remote vantage point of a computer screen, watching POV footage of riders dropping those knife edges to huge gaps knots my stomach and makes my scalp tingle. Fear. A giant bag of Nope. Instead of being inspired at what might be possible, I am almost paralyzed in contemplation of the risk, the consequence, the potential for damage. Fear is the mind killer.

It had never even occurred to me that we may be engaging in criminal activity. But now, having been abruptly enlightened, in a dry county surrounded by dry counties, raised on a diet of movies and TV that ran the gamut from “The Dukes Of Hazzard” to “Easy Rider” to “The Hills Have Eyes,” I was suddenly, deeply paranoid.

The thing with fear, though, is even though it is the mind killer, it manifests differently for all of us. My fear may mean nothing to my best friend. His fear—that which makes him sweat in his fever dreams—may not even register with me.

There are mountain lions where I live. The game cams on my property show them walking, sometimes solo, sometimes in a brace of three; a mature mom and her two almost-adult cubs. The mom is big, and she moves with a nonchalant muscular authority that is beautiful to behold. On more occasions than I care to admit, the cats appear on the time-stamped videos within about 10 minutes of me rolling through on my bike. Or the neighbor walking her dogs. I’m not in the least bit afraid of mountain lions, in spite of the frequent skeletal reminders that they are carnivores and that deer are not fast enough to run from them so my ability to escape a giant feline target-lock is right about zero.

But then I drop down the trail, and I am gripped with fear. Not of the cats, mind you, but of the lip to the right that leads into a stepup on the other side of the dozer track, and the step-down from that leading into another lip that compresses and launches you all twisted and sideways. A couple years ago, some incredibly talented riders who have done spectacular things at events like Rampage and Crankworx came out here and built some trails for a video they were making. They spent two weeks working right in the middle of a popular mountain lion kill zone, a place my neighbor refuses to go, has refused to go since childhood. My neighbor calls this “the killing place.” The riders describe the hand cut trails they built here as “fun little jibby stuff.”

My reflexes are not fast enough. I am not brave enough. And I experience crashing differently now than I used to. I’m not ready to hang up the meaty tires and become a graveleur, but I acknowledge that my fear of being broken is greater than it once was. I feel more brittle now at 56 than I did at 26. I can replay the worst wrecks I’ve ever had, overlay them on the potential wreck I might have if I can’t get my body English right on the step-down, and clearly visualize myself laying trailside, where nobody will find me, with my femur poking out of my leg. Then, the mountain lions find me, and then I am scared of them too. Fear is the mind killer.

No Fear? Not me, not anymore. I Know Fear, it haunts me in places both familiar and strange, reminds me that the sharp edges are not always where I imagine them to be, and makes me cautious when I once was bold.