Near the end of September, North Face athlete Mike Hopkins spent three weeks with filmmakers Andre Nutini and Liam Mullany of Absolute Zero on a road trip exploring America's West.
There’s a certain eeriness as you walk up to the newly-deserted Rampage venue. The day before, the surrounding ridges and hills had been occupied with screaming fans and the relentless media frenzy, which exists only to feed off the adrenaline and carnage that is surely the backbone of such an event. As the three of us then stood, just over 24 hours since the madness had been in full swing, we were met with a strange combination of stillness and silence that fittingly resembled the ringing hangover of a rock concert.
For Hopkins, the hangover probably resounded much louder throughout his body than ours, as he had just walked away from most likely the hardest crash in his riding career. After miscalculating the speed over a last-minute pump in his run-in, Mike found himself soaring a conservative 20 feet beyond the already massive 70 foot step-down gap which he had been mentally wrestling with for the week leading up to the main event. The result was a high-impact combination of dust, man and machine, which sent paramedics scrambling in from all sides. After some tense moments of compulsory scans, Hopkins simply stood up and walked away.
As we stood a day later in the hot sun, there were no crowds, no television cameras and no helicopters pounding overhead. A wind was slowly picking up over the ridges, and thickening clouds on the horizon over the adjacent mesa indicated the first sign of rain in the two weeks we had been in the desert. Mike hiked his Norco Aurum past the now smoldering remains of what was, a day ago, the Oakley Icon Sender drop and up the spine of his contest run. After a few laps on the fast-paced and poppy ridgeline, it was clear Hopkins hadn’t left the previous day’s wreck completely unscathed. Straddling metal tubing between his legs upon impact had evidently left a mark on certain masculine regions, and after an hour or so of sessioning a hip near the top of the Rampage course, the wincing and keeling over after each landing indicated that it was time to pack up and begin the two-week journey through America’s West and up the Oregon Coast back home to British Columbia.
One of the only buildings in the small town of Virgin is a store called the Trading Post. Although the old Wild West themed shop clearly attracts the tourists, it’s unclear whether this is merely by accident and we were just stumbling into an establishment frozen in the early 1900s. One of the more interesting people we met on the entire trip was a self proclaimed “Alabama Redneck” who worked at the Trading Post and went by the name of “TL.” A big fan of motorcycles, guns and rock n’ roll, TL had toured in a rock band in the 1980s. As we spent some time talking with him, TL told us the story of how he, when touring up in Seattle, had made the impulse decision to drive up to Vancouver because he “heard y’all got orca whales up there.” Apparently, when the border guards saw the longhaired and bearded drummer, they immediately pulled him into the inspection line on suspicion of drugs. Of course, TL had no drugs on him or in the truck, but being a born and raised Alabama man, he travelled everywhere with a loaded shotgun behind his seat, a few boxes of ammunition underneath and a casual 20-30 ninja throwing stars he had cut himself out of sheet metal. Now, as cowardly pacifist gun-fearing Canadians, we could only feign sympathy as he frustratingly recalled how the border guards had stripped his truck down and confiscated all his weapons and turned him back into the States. Transporting illegal weapons across international borders was apparently low on the radar for TL, and he unfortunately has never since returned to see the orca whales.
After sharing a few more stories and spending some time with the llamas that hang around outside the store, we pointed the RV through Zion National Park and began to play tourist. The slick red rock looked like a mountain climbers dream and somehow, herds of goats sprinted up and down what seemed to be shear cliffs around us. By the time we had navigated out of the Utah mountains, through Bryce Canyon and back into Salt Lake City a few days later to return our RV, it became evident that we had drained the budget for our trip. We made the executive decision to abandon motels, showers and legitimate restaurants to try and get back to Canada while opening the wallet as few times as possible.
The one navigational item we had with us was a GPS phone app, which, besides trying to take us on an unnecessary safari through eastern Oregon, was proving to be more or less reliable. For three days since Salt Lake, our GPS had been directing us straight to the California coast- a resilient beacon of light through the desolation and nothingness of Utah and Nevada’s empty deserts. As trees began to appear and hills began to take shape, the three of us began to prepare for the next few days of surfing on the warm Pacific, relaxing in the sun and mingling in the coastal surf bars. We had blindly plugged in Eureka, California into the navigator back in Utah, as it was directly west, coastal and seemed to be the access point to the famous redwood forests. As we excitedly descended out of the coastal mountain forests and into the fresh sea air, our expectations slowly began to change.
Contrary to what Google would later tell us, the city of Eureka seemed to be some form of giant, experimental correctional facility. As we pushed through the thick evening fog into what we initially perceived as a quaint fishing village, the first sign of life was the unmistakable face and figure of a lady of the night, apparently sent as an ambassador to welcome us into the city. After we had instinctively unloaded every bike, bag and piece of equipment from our truck into our motel room, we took a walk through the hazy downtown streets. As the three of us navigated block after block of abandoned streets, I began to wonder if some unseen guards had rounded up the inmates for the night and we were now completely alone in the vacated prison yard. After eventually finding a place to eat, Mike decided he wanted to immediately return to the hotel, but Andre and myself figured that it was Saturday night and we should at least try and see if there was something to do. We eventually walked around enough to find what looked like a bar, but after surveying the characters loitering outside the entrance, we decided this might be a good place to get stabbed, so we called it a night as well.
The next day we were pleased to discover that Sunday mornings at Denny's restaurant were not a place to be in this town either. As the three of us were sitting in our booth waiting for our "Moon's Over My Hammy's" to arrive, a man with tattoos covering his face and skull walked through the front door, saw somebody he apparently knew and immediately proceeded to walk over and begin a brawl in front of the restaurant. It's not often you get a meal and show for 10 bucks, let alone an opportunity to be involved, but sadly we had to leave Eureka, California, behind and make our way north to the giant redwoods.
It had been two days since we left the hot dry air of Utah and Nevada, and the climate had changed immediately and drastically after we crossed the California mountains and entered coastal territory. There was no more sun, only countless shades of grey regulated by the sporadic pummeling of rainfall which always seemed to be following us. The reality which we had been avoiding in the desert now came back to us and we were on winter's doorstep. The redwood forest, however, would completely make up for this sudden change of season.
All three of us, being born and raised in British Columbia, have seen our fair share of trees- and fairly sizeable ones at that- but nothing like this. The giant sequoia trees are the largest organisms on the planet, and it's really difficult to convey a sense of just how large they truly are. We only arrived in the forest park just after the sun had set, so we didn't have much time to explore, but just sitting in silence amongst the trees that may have begun growing over 2,000 years ago was awe-inspiring. I don't think myself or Andre had ever seen Hopkins giddier than he was that evening. At one point as we were packing up our gear, Mike just took off running down the road, ecstatic to just be encompassed by the titanic pillars which stretched up and blocked out the remaining twilight. If the hourglass wasn't running low, I think we would have all gladly spent another full day exploring the super-sized Californian forest, but the North was calling, and our next destination was the legendary Black Rock trail system just outside of Oregon's Falls City.
For some reason, the pouring rain that had been following us from California and up the Oregon Coast backed off when it learned we wanted to do some actual riding. Sun is usually a bad thing when filming in the trees, but at the same time it was refreshing to hike up the access road without being thoroughly soaked. When we actually started doing some riding and shooting, it was clear that Black Rock has become famous for a reason. Every trail is meticulously groomed and features progressive levels of difficulty for any visitor. The entire first day while filming, both Andre and I were both visibly itching to put down the camera gear and start pushing laps on the magnificently bermed and sculpted dirt.
After almost being run over by a parade of logging trucks at 3am that night, we were able to do one more day of riding at Black Rock before it was finally time to put the crosshairs on British Columbia and make it back just in time for the first snowfall of the year.
In total, we had traveled more than 7,000 kilometers (4,400 miles), processed inconceivable quantities of roadside cheeseburgers, slept under the Nevada stars on the roof of the truck, poached multiple campsite showers, accidentally drove the wrong way on a 6-lane highway in a full-sized RV, slept in the crater of a volcano, lost a camera to the torrential rains and gone from summer to winter all in the span of just over three weeks.
Video: Absolute Zero - Liam Mullany/Andre Nutini Words: Liam Mullany Photos: Liam Mullany and Mike Hopkins