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I was following my dad on my younger brother’s four-wheeler; my dad was on his own all-terrain vehicle.

The tall grass and thick woods covering the rolling hills and surrounding the small pond and narrow creek provided the perfect course for cornering, jumps, and spin outs. My dad, along with my sisters, and brother and their spouses, ride regularly, capturing dramatic mud sprays with their cell phone cameras and finding new detours when the worn path becomes impassable.

I came because it was Father’s Day, and we had gathered to ride and eat and be together. After my sister took me on my first ride ever, my legs straddled around her and my hands wrapped tight through the back railing, I had gone for a gentle ride through the grass by myself, and then another with my husband gripping the back rails.

Now, my siblings had talked me into following my dad on the course through the woods.

I had already decided against riding with any of the more experienced drivers, convinced they would drive too fast up steep hills and along narrow ledges. At least that’s how my sister-in-law had described the terrain. But when one of the vehicles was sitting empty, and my dad, who rides on the more conservative side, had announced he was heading for the woods, my brother and sister-in-law convinced me to go on a vehicle of my own.

“You can do it. It’s not that hard,” my brother reasoned.

So I assumed there was a hard course and an easy course and that I was going on the easy course. Turns out, I was wrong.

I followed my dad down the grassy hill and toward the tree line. As he approached the woods, I saw his four-wheeler drop straight down a 90 degree bank into the creek then up another 90 degree bank and onto the side of the hill. He looked back waiting for me; this was how the course started.

I hit the brakes and shook my helmet-less head. Just 30 minutes earlier I had commented to my husband that we should probably be wearing helmets. Now my head felt as vulnerable as a latex balloon as I watched my dad dip into the creek and back out, water splashing and the ATV nearly flipping over backwards.

“I can’t do that,” I yelled. “I don’t want to do that!”

“You can do it,” he said over the twin motors. “Don’t be afraid. Just ride your brakes down and then gun it.”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to do it,” I said, my head still shaking involuntarily.

“It’s not that bad,” my dad said, convincing me.

I took a deep breath, and with my pulse racing, I inched toward the bank. As Dad predicted, the ride down wasn’t bad, the hand brake keeping the low-pressure tires rolling slowly with only minimal splash as I landed in the creek.

Once in the water, I revved the accelerator preparing to climb the other bank, but something went wrong. The wheels were spinning, and I was stuck at nearly 90 degrees vertical. If I leaned back, I feared the weight of my body would pull the machine on top of me, but no amount of accelerating and leaning forward propelled me up. I began to panic.

My dad, recognizing what was happening, yelled down, “Let it roll back!”

I let off the accelerator, and more gently than I could have imagined, I rolled back into the creek bed. I was preparing to get off, walk back to the car, and let someone else take it from there, when my dad instructed me to back up, head more to the left, and try again.

“Really?” I asked.

“You can do it,” he said, backing up his own vehicle to clear the path.

I put the machine in reverse, backed as far as I could go to get a running start, and then gunned it again. This time, the ATV groaned and sprayed and bounced, but eventually climbed up the hill with me still on it. I sighed.

“Ok, now follow me and watch what I do,” my dad said, after a few seconds of maneuvering his own 4-wheeler out of a ditch.

Up and down the hills, around sharp corners and under heavy branches, my dad went first, then yelled back instructions.

“Go slow and rock over the log.”

“Ride both brakes down the hill.”

“Take this one slowly.”

And eventually, we crested the last hill and emerged through the trees for the edge of a wheat field. “That’s the end of the hard part,” my dad said, and I nearly giggled with relief.

I continued to follow my dad around the winding edges of that field, hugging the tree line, but never going back into the woods. Eventually, we crossed the mowed yard of my in-laws house, descended the driveway, and opened the throttle for a hundred yards or so along the gravel road before rejoining the others.

My nephew was waiting for my dad to take him down to the pond, and my sister and brother-in-law were just heading out again on another of the vehicles. My husband was sitting with other family members on cloth camping chairs, empty pizza boxes and soda bottles lying around. Everything was just was we had left it.

“Well, that was just about the last thing I did,” I said, feeling the fear and the drama all over again. I described the steep bank, and the threat of the vehicle on top of me. I told them about the hills and the logs, and about each of my dad’s instructions.

“I never would have been able to do it if I weren’t following my dad,” I concluded.

As we headed home later in the day, I thought about Father’s Day and my relationship with my dad and all we had been through over the years. I have been following him for a long time, I realized. And what was true out in the woods was true of most of my life.

I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it if he hadn’t gone first and showed me the way.

Photo by crmaykish, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.