Words and photos by Harry LaClair
I’ve crashed a lot, but my worst crash was when I wasn’t even moving, and I had a witness.
May 1996. I was trail riding with my wife in the mountains north of Butte, Montana. It was a beautiful Montana spring morning. I was plonking along on my 1983 Husqvarna XC500E, waiting for my wife, who was coming along slowly up the rutted logging trail, on her 1978 IT175. I stopped at the side of the trail, reveling at the beauty of this morning. On my left was a five foot high bank, about ten feet away. On my right, about four feet down, was a soft marshy place, bordered by a gurgling creek. In the soft marshy spot, doing its best to hide from me in the early spring grass, was a just about new-born elk calf. The sun was shining on it, and I could see its big brown eyes, the tiny black nostrils flaring as it breathed, its flanks quivering with fear. I mazed at the beauty of this scene, as the calf lay no more then ten to twelve feet away from me. I recall thinking “I must remember the beauty of this” and then wondered what the calf thought of me, astride my snorting Swedish Desert Princess.
I remember a sensation not unlike falling from a great height. My face was cold, my chest was cold, and my back was numb. I was lying on my left arm. I realized that vital life support subsystems were turning themselves back on. Sense of feeling? Partially there. Taste? Yep, water, cold water, was in my mouth. Vision? Yes, but there was something strange about what I was seeing. There was mud and grass and water in my very near vision. Hearing? Cathedrals are loud compared to what I was hearing. Where was the beloved muffled ringing of my XC500E?
I felt pressure on my back….a hand on my back. I hear my wife’s gentle voice, a bit concerned, asking me “Are you all right? Can you breathe? Don’t move, OK?” I became extremely concerned, and suddenly remembered to breathe. I started with a little puppy breath, and graduated to huge gulps. Inhaling large amounts of ice-cold muddy spring runoff must have triggered a biological reaction.
Instantly, my body produced the “fight or flee” instinct, and dumped a year’s worth of adrenaline into my circulatory system. Anyone who has stared death in the eye knows exactly what I am describing. I scrambled to my knees, hands, feet, running, scratching, fleeing for safety. I had no idea where I was, but knew I was going somewhere. A small part of my consciousness realized that I was picking myself up from a marsh, and asked the very unimportant question: “How did I get here?”
Yes, I was a bit confused. After my wife caught me and brought me back to the road, I sat down, head between my knees, trying to puke. All the things which are normal coming off an entirely unanticipated adrenaline high. I began to notice all the things that were where they were supposed to be, yet something still wasn’t. Ah yes, the desert princess, laying handlebar down, wheels up, dead, in the marsh. Clarity. I needed answers, but fast.
Once my wife determined that I wasn’t severely injured, she told me what happened. As she turned the corner, she saw me stopped in the trail, about fifty yards ahead, staring off to my right. Then from my left, she saw a cow elk “charge right through” me and take me and the desert princess into the marsh. The cow came off the bank and caught me right about mid back with her brisket, and when I let go of the clutch, I still had hold of the throttle, and the princess came up and over with me and the cow to the right, shrieking with joy as she normally does when on one wheel. As we disappeared off the road, my wife’s field of view was restricted by trees and brush. She later said that she wasn’t quite sure if she had really seen the cow or not; it happened that quickly. She pulled up to where I had been moments before, and sure enough, there was the Husky, upside down, dying. I was laying face down, crunched into the mud and grass and water. It appeared to her that I might be dead. The cow had already collected her calf, and the pair were rapidly disappearing through the Douglas firs.
I really didn’t feel like riding any further, so after a bit we turned around and headed back in the way we came in. The princess was in good shape. Some oil had leaked from her cases into the airbox, and the front brake lever was bent out into a wicked “L”, but she got me home safe. The odometer on the IT175 read 46 miles. That’s how far we had already ridden that day, and that’s how far I had to ride home after being knocked from the saddle by a 500lb cow elk.
So yes, that’s about one of the worst dirt bike crashes I’ve ever had, standing still no less, and certainly the most memorable.
Harry LaClair with his 1983 Husqvarna XC500E