Thrill of the Craft

I’d never heard the term “thrillcraft” until I saw it in the title of an e-mail the other morning. It arrived in a posting from an environmental listserve reviewing an anthology of essays by that name expounding upon the dangers to nature of off-road vehicles.

By thrillcraft the authors mean snowmobiles, personal watercraft, dune and swamp buggies, 4-wheelers, and dirt bikes, basically all those motorized contraptions that people tend to use for recreation in unpaved places. Hence, the thrill part.

The ecologists and environmentalists included in the book oppose the explosion in off-road vehicle use on public property, mostly wilderness areas of North America. The twenty-six writers are concerned with habitat damage, erosion, water and air pollution, loss of silence, disruption of migration patterns, destruction of archeological sites, and introduction of invasive plant species.

The anthology doesn’t oppose the use of all-terrain vehicles for practical or work purposes on private land. None of the twenty-six writers wants to see a ban on hunters hauling out venison from designated areas, or land owners doing farm work, or maintaining a fence line. What concerns them is how most “thrillcraft” are sold “for higher speed and greater encroachment into remote terrain.”

And the overall point of the collection? “It’s meant to mobilize people who are oblivious to the effect of these vehicles on ecology and other people,” David Orton, one of the essayists, explained in the review.

The morning that the review arrived by e-mail I didn’t need much mobilization. It had snowed a few inches the night before, a rare and endangered experience for the upcountry, and our local thrillcraft were out in force.

This was not a surprise to me. Five years ago when we moved onto the edge of the suburbs we soon realized that there are 4-wheelers stabled in our neighborhood and that several of the neighborhood teenagers use them to probe the edges of settlement on a regular basis. One of our first acts was to plant 4X4 posts across a trail where we own access, bringing their entry to a close.

We like the silence of a rare snowy morning, and the anthology reminds me silence might be our right-like life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. But even before I could get out Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and contemplate the silence outside our windows enveloping our “lovely, dark, and deep” woods, we heard two young thrill-seekers on 4-wheelers roaring up our snowy street bound for the territories beyond us.

There’s not much I can do about the boys riding in the flood plain. We don’t own it. I’ve accepted that big wild space will remain a sort of recreational commons behind our house. But what steams me and makes me wish I had written one of the environmental screes against 4-wheelers run amok is that our neighborhood “commons” is on the way to where they are headed, and each time it snows they swing their muddy green banshees into that grassy area and carve perfect teenage rebel donuts in the grass.

They can’t help it. It’s a little post-adolescence exclamation mark they have to leave for us on snowy mornings. We drive past later in the day on the paved road and see the gift they’ve left us once again. On those mornings it feels a little like we still live on a lawless frontier.

So where is the middle ground between the lovers of silence like us and the thrillseekers on their mad, mud-covered machines out cavorting in the fresh snow? Isn’t this issue of 4-wheelers doing donuts more one of law enforcement and not philosophy? Being an academic, I’m not so sure. I believe that issues and ideas are first contested in people’s minds, and a book such as THRILLCRAFT is one of the ways the settlement of the issue begins.

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