If you’ve stacked enough years in Humboldt County, at some point you’ve likely been drawn into that epic and ridiculous challenge of cheesy champions that is the Kinetic Sculpture Race.
I know because it happened to me.
Likely through a unique and ruinously lopsided alignment of planets, including the much-abused Pluto, several special seconds of an otherwise unremarkable day offered us the freakish leprechaun loot of a granted wish.
Unaware of the providential opportunity that presented itself, as well as its sticky and onerous ramifications, we apparently wasted our wish by desiring, at an inopportune time, to compete in Humboldt County’s pre-eminent pedaling scrum.
As far as I can tell, that is the only explanation that fits all the variables. This is Humboldt County, after all. Stranger things have happened.
Once our big wish was filed and itineraries issued, the Universe manifested itself as paunchy Dave, a recovering Hippie turned Republican tradesman, and his lawn.
Raking his nails along the underside of his gut, giddy with the satisfaction of a scratch well-delivered, he felt suddenly dizzy as a strange urge to mow the wilderness off his back deck struck him like a bong rip.
Hours — and buckets of sweat — later, the once luxuriant lawn was shorn into many haphazard lanes of stubble, one of which revealed (remember the planets?) the sun-bleached skeleton of a contraption whose best days were long gone.
He’d parked it there himself two years ago, then promptly forgot that it had ever existed. Mowing the lawn had shaken both the memory and the machine free from their respective prisons.
Now, another memory scratched at the door.
He’d earlier heard one or the other of us drunkenly declare an abiding interest in someday completing the Great Arcata to Ferndale World Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race. As a result. Dave (AKA the Universe) offered his aluminum carcass to us as a means toward that end.
It seemed perfect. The machine had raced several times before, performing admirably, and, while dirty, it was structurally sound and mostly complete. It would be a slight rebuild, the rehabilitation of a stalwart kinetic champion, and we’d be able therefore to focus on the aesthetics, on the theme that marks each race rig as an individual work of art on wheels.
Looking back, even that abbreviated task list proved almost insurmountable for our tender hearts and egos.
Our team had two pilots, Josh Edgar and myself, and we’d been chums since Seventh Grade. At the time Josh was fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corps, strong as an axe-hefting lumberjack and thoroughly in the throes of civilian reprogramming.
I, on the other, hand had no excuse. I was just an arrogant asshole, smug as a thug in a jug, thoroughly assured and willing to bet I was smarter than just about everyone.
Our friendship was complicated.
Since the last year of junior high, I had functioned as Josh’s foil, and he mine. At Eureka High School, we’d both rated our social potential by comparing ourselves to the other. Thanks to our overweening egos and lack of self-awareness, we’d both believed ourselves superior enough to appreciate the other’s presence in our collective social circles as a favorable point of comparison.
As a result, we often found ourselves in conflict over insignificant details when neither of us would accept the other’s ideas or leadership, nor acknowledge their momentary superiority.
For us, this new project seemed fated.
We’d actually cemented our friendship during the race some years prior. The first time I’d seen Josh outside of school, he was frantically pedaling his 20-inch bike behind the fourth incarnation of the Rabid Aqua Bat, a rig piloted in part by his stepdad, and had stopped momentarily near my house in Manila to regale us with tales of human-powered high adventure, and to catch his missing breath.
The race at the time was a source of wonder, and joy. My family had lived in Humboldt County for less than a year, and suddenly emerging from the dunes that surrounded our trailer across from Manila Market was this strange and wonderful parade of slow-moving, brightly colored, human-fueled monsters of locomotion.
That first sighting of those surreal shadows planted a seed in my manure pile. So, decades later, when the opportunity presented itself, that long latent seed shucked its straight jacket and like its magic cousins of beanstalk fame, fucked everything up until it made everything better.
Over the next six months, we took what was a decrepit maze of aluminum tubes and sprockets and creatively assembled a somewhat less confused labyrinth of the same. Never mind that we’d vastly underestimated the time and energy necessary to build our machine. By the time we realized it amounted to a full-time job for each of us that would last several weeks at least, it was too late to back out.
Gremlins were legion.
Scraped knuckles, meddling tweakers, ballooning expenses, jealous girlfriends, and real-world everyday responsibilities all strived at various times to sabotage the effort. In the end, though, whenever one team member flagged another would conveniently catch the racing bug all over again, long enough to wipe another chore off the to-do list and hide the leftover parts. Josh and I, as well as our partners and cohorts Chad Kingston and Sean Day, managed between us to keep enough enthusiasm in play that progress continued despite temporarily flagging spirits.
My wife Amy was as much a part of the team as anybody else, and without her deft touch the body of our horse wouldn’t have shown itself to be as durable and visually appealing as it turned out to be.
All hands were certainly on deck.
In a scattershot fashion, battling inexperience and exhaustion at every turn, we managed to be ready on Race Day. Mostly, that is.
It was a weekend of fabricated phantasms on wheels and go-cart grinding. Under the muted glow of a waxing moon, for instance, the mechanical critters seemed to hunch of their own accord over their pilots’ tents, discussing in their bike-chain dialect plans for the next day’s journey while practicing pick-up lines for whichever June Moxon rig was on the course this year.
For three days, fantasy and fun were one.
Yet sometime between sand and salt, amid the wind and buckling peninsula pavement, sometime after we hit the high seas and before we proudly rolled over the Ferndale finish, real stuff occurred atop the absurdity.
First, in the wilderness all the irritation I’d long felt toward my co-pilot vanished. We were engaged in a task that did truly challenge our physical and emotional capabilities, but the sense of peace between him and I was more than that.
It took place aboard the U.S.S. Horse’s Ass. A design flaw, along with my large hind end, conspired to keep our vessel cockeyed in the water.
Our horse’s derriere, along with the propeller that hung roughly where Mr. Ed’s gonads would have dangled, was sunk nice and deep in the cold water of Humboldt Bay. Fortunately, the cold had no effect.
If only that was the singular challenge. Unfortunately, because we were overloaded on the back end, the front wheel (which functioned as our rutter) merely skimmed the water’s surface.
We had power but no steering. We initially hit the water hard and pedaled valiantly to get as far off the launch as possible. We felt our propeller as it churned the water beneath our seats, and our confidence surged.
Yet the further we drew away from the boat ramp, the clearer it became that something was amiss. The harder we dug in, the more power we provided, the more we seemed to careen aimlessly out into the bay, wet and wandering far from our South Spit destination and the last leg of the race. For several minutes, we splashed around in wide circles, dodging half-submerged condoms and rusted beer cans, convinced that we’d flail about thusly until the U.S. Coast Guard felt sorry enough for us that they’d finally relent and toss us a lifeline to haul our drowned equine back to Field’s Landing.
Yet the Marine in my Josh would have none of it.
Leaving me to power on through the water, Josh clambered out onto the front of the rig and used his weight as ballast. With the proper positioning, he was just heavy enough to sink our rutter deep enough underwater to allow for some primitive steering.
I’d pedal and he’d steer a straighter course until we lined up tight with the particular section of South Spit where we were to land. Then he’d climb back into his seat and we’d pedal on even harder together for as long as we could until the horse strayed yet again.
Then we’d repeat the process. By the time we felt our tires gain purchase in bay mud and were able to haul our shivering asses up and out of the water, exhaustion dimmed the edge of our vision and kept our legs quivering even as we forced ourselves onward, for the glory.
Then God, or the Universe, again intervened. That is, if God is a happy half-drunk redneck on a four-wheeler who towed us for miles over the fine, shifting jetty sand.
That night, we slept soundly in our tents at Crab Park. We were satisfied with ourselves, with our team, our machines, and most of all, with each other.
That next day, we sped across the finish line, arms outstretched as if embracing the whole of Cream City, delirious to finally be done with a mission that had dominated our lives for almost half a year.
We eagerly awaited the results, believing our own anecdotal observations that we’d finish somewhere in the Top Five. After slurping down a rather bland dish at the Portuguese Hall, we held our breath and crossed our fingers as the results were at last revealed.
We hadn’t made the Top Five. Nor the Top Ten. Hell, we hadn’t cracked the Top 30, and there were only 38 racers participating. Over the next few days, we examined the results closely to figure out how we’d slipped so far down the list.
Once the times for each day of the race were revealed, the issue was readily apparent. On Day 1, we were tallied as the Horse of Course. On Day 2, however, the horse was a no-show. In its place, an interloper by the name “Action News 6” — one of our sponsors, prominently displayed across the shell of our machine — received our time for the day and scuttled our official results. On Day 3, as if nothing had happened, our feisty stallion was once again back on the track to file yet another decent mark for the day.
We did the math ourselves, and if all three days had been properly attributed, we’d have finished in fourth place by speed. But by the time we’d figured all this out, chicken scratch staining the back of several old envelopes, those results had ceased to have any meaning at all.
Meaning, on the other hand, came from being proud of a good friend, and being proud of myself. It came from a stranger’s high-five after we’d survived Dead Man’s Drop. It came from my son’s wide smile when we rode him around Ferndale in a giant mechanical horse who ass end by this time had almost entirely disintegrated.
Meaning came from having more fun than should be legal, from seeing a project through despite your initial urge to quit and run for the hills where bike tires won’t get you anywhere, much less over unpaved countryside, across Humboldt Bay, and ultimately on top of the world for what now ranks as one of the best spent weekends of this life.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at email@example.com.