I Believe the (Disobedient) Children Are Our Future
The Hill’s Hill bike park project is approved. It’s the thrilling denouement of a story about kids riding bikes in the woods, even if it’s not the conclusion, the part where the kids actually get to ride. I’m way ahead of myself though. This story started a long time ago.
So, behind the middle school in our town, there is a small patch of woods. Maybe it’s two acres. In the morning, kids come streaming through those woods on their way to school. People walk their dogs there. It is cris-crossed with trails. Has been for a long time.
Eventually some kids brought some shovels and started to build jumps. This has been happening since bikes and kids both existed. Then two more things happened. First, some neighbors of this small lot went in and destroyed the kids’ work, knocking down the jumps, blocking off trails, etc. Then, one of the kids, I think he was 13 or 14 at the time, decided to go to the town and engage the official process of getting permission to set up trails there.
Predictably, some neighbors came out to say that kids shouldn’t be playing in those woods, that it was dangerous, disruptive, and that the animal life there would be disturbed. After a bunch of local government meetings, during which the kid spearheading this process did a ton of work to rally support, not to mention stepping through the governmental hoops, the project got shut down.
Not deterred, the kid and his friends identified another small parcel of town property, adjacent to the skating rink, Hill’s Hill. It had some trails in it, but also a lot of litter. Older kids were going there to drink and vape and do low level vandalism. It was full of dog crap. This patch was isolated between a major road and the bike path that bisects town.
In they went with their shovels. I rode it. It was fun.
Then the process started over. Neighbors suddenly concerned. Kids petitioning through the proper channels. Yard signs printed. Proposals submitted. Hearings held. Petitions. Misinformation. A lot of local folk suddenly concerned about the environmental impact there, despite never setting foot in it, despite having no clue that it was little more than a trash patch.
By this time the kid leading the way is 16 or 17. He’s graduating next year, 2024. If he’s lucky, he might see officially sanctioned shovels hit dirt before he leaves for college. The Hill’s Hill project is approved, but it is not yet a bike park. It’s still just 0.65 acres of pine tree and dog crap.
In parallel with this goat parade of grown-ups ruining everything, another kid set up a pump track and jump line on his own property. This is one town over. The kid’s family has some money, and they have extra land, and they encourage the kids to build what turns out to be a pretty amazing little facility. This family is generous, and they suggest to their town that they actually donate the property for all the kids to use in this way, on bikes.
The town not only turns down their offer. They also send a cease-and-desist letter, because for most of the kids to reach the trails there, they have to cross a very short (10-20 feet) stretch of town property, and there is objection to the “damage” that has caused, tamping down the grass.
So what have we taught our kids? We don’t want them just going in the woods and hacking out trails and building dangerous jumps, but what we’ve taught them is that they might as well do whatever they want. The official channels are useless. Doing things the right way takes literal years. And ok, the kids don’t always help themselves. They do things kids do, like light small fires or leave ugly messes.
But how do you tell a 13 year old that he should devote hours and hours of his time because the NEXT generation of 13-year-olds will enjoy a tiny patch of officially sanctioned trails? You don’t.
So when you wonder why kids spend so much time on screens, when you wonder why they won’t engage with adults, when you wonder why they have so little hope for their futures, you just have to ask yourself, “Well, what did we teach them?” We taught them that the trash patch at Hill’s Hill is a bureaucratic battleground, and that no matter how many times someone comes and ruins your pump track, you’re best off just building it back over and over again, because grown-ups will never, ever learn the errors of their ways.