Dena Hankins - Author

I was a little young to live this version of a hard day in the desert.

My guts rose before the rest of me as I crested the sandy hill. Anything could be on the other side. Brush. Another 4-wheeler. A hippie gathering. A twenty-foot drop-off.

The springs of the Odyssey rang as the small vehicle’s weight came off its wheels. I launched it off the hill as fast as it would go and almost got some air. The little machine’s roll-bars and wrist straps and harness formed an exoskeleton of hard steel. I wanted to throw it against the world, knock the world around a bit.

Nothing on the other side except more trail. I could ride for hours in the Mojave around Edwards Air Force Base without seeing another person. Out in bluegrass country, I used to scream. Walk out my front door and push the stillness right out of me through my mouth. I thought it would be better after I left those slow hills and slow trees and slow crops behind.

I’m not military. I teach math to adolescents who hate me, who barely know each other with all the moving they do. Every conversation feels like déjà vu, and every kid thinks they’re unique. The odd talented one rarely catches fire with it. The future physicists and engineers are few and far between.

But just behind base housing is the Mojave.

I thought about jerking the wheel as I came up on a scrap of hardy grass the color of sand. Hitting a clump with the side of the wheel flips the little 4-wheeler right over. The wrist straps keep me from automatically putting my hand out and getting it broken. I rotated my wrists against the nylon webbing.

Instead, I set myself at the tallest hill around—a couple hundred feet. Mysterious military antennae sprouted from the top, artificially high, and a rutted dirt track speared straight up a ridge on the side. The little motor whined as I sped at the hill, determined to find a limit somewhere and thinking this could be it. I hit the abrupt incline and was tossed into the sky. I hardly touched the dirt, fat knobby tires slipping in grit. The motor struggled to maintain my momentum, but gravity defied the chugging pistons. I rocked in my harness as though I could swim through the air to the top. On such a steep grade, I might not be able to get back down without burning out the brakes or racing down so fast that I crashed in a truly violent, uncontrolled way.

I shuddered with life.

The Odyssey groaned and the smell of burning dust came from the overheating engine. I urged the machine at the last, steepest portion.

My right front tire came off the edge of the rut and the last of my momentum bounced the front end high enough that gravity switched directions. The wheels kept going, right over my head, and I steered the air in an unthinking attempt at control.

Upside down and beyond, I yelped my abandoned joy. The roll bars took the impact and the Odyssey slid, upside down, about fifty feet downhill. Dust invaded my throat and eyes, silencing and blinding me.

My lips shifted grit across my teeth and gums. My shoulders and chest ached where the harness held me tight to the seat above me. When I opened my painful eyes, my rashed wrists made a red counterpart to my white knuckles.

My head sang, thick and brilliantly red, with adrenaline and gravity-fed blood. I slipped my hands from the straps, reached over my head, and touched the ground with pulsing fingertips. Did I want down or was I exactly where I needed to be, hanging upside down on a man-made mountain in the middle of nowhere. The flashing memory of my futile attempt at control spurred me to laughter, which turned into coughing, which morphed into screams that shook with my shuddering abdomen and tore me open.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

Excerpt from “Mojave” by Dena Hankins