I'm not against the proposed Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. I see its potential to draw off-roaders and adventure-seekers to add much needed revenue to our economically deprived county.

Off-roaders need supplies, fuel and places to sleep, and that means money for local businesses and jobs for local people.

I just feel left out.

You see, I fall into the "riff-raff" crowd, a term painting all local riders as beer-swilling, fight-starting, trash-throwing idiots who drive wild and destroy land on which they're riding illegally. We're supposedly the ones with an attitude for everyone and a swear word and corresponding hand gesture for every conversation about the AOAA.

We're apparently bad news.

And while locals almost always have a cooler strapped to their machines (what else are you going to offer the guy who pulls you out of the mud?), we're not all jerks. In fact, the locals I know are passionate about off-roading and spending time with family and friends doing something that teaches important skills and fulfills the need for adventure.

Awesome playground

Most local riders start out as backyard mechanics who spend their free time in the garage building and fixing stuff. And where better to test drive these machines (and earn bragging rights) than on the mountains of the coal region? That's why 110 people drove thousands of miles to participate in last week's Coal Mountain Jeep Jamboree USA: We have an awesome playground and everyone wants to play.

The event - which was open to JJUSA members first - sold out in 15 hours and JJUSA had to turn away many of its own, it was that popular. Not that it matters to locals: At $450 per family, few folks around here could afford it anyway.

But it's just one more nail in the coffin that buries a decades-old hobby for the local gearhead. Every trail out there - every hill climb, every mudhole, every rock garden - was conquered by locals first. No one knows those hills better than the gearhead in the garage.

So why are we left out?

Tell us what's up

I spoke with Jeff Nye, a Shamokin Area grad and local garage owner who was one of the trail guides for the JJUSA event. He's a local rider and has been involved in the AOAA since the beginning. He said he's talked to a lot of locals, and some have gotten involved. But others, he said, are mad and don't want to commit.

I believe the reason is two-fold: first, locals don't know what's going on and when, and that breeds problem two: why should we trust a government-owned entity that doesn't tell us anything? Sure, we could protest and demand this be more local-centric, but we know very well this park is going to happen with or without us. Why bother? The general consensus is to pack up the machines and beer coolers and head for other hills. The little guy is all too familiar with being stepped on by the government.

Even Jeff doesn't know how to fix it.

"If you have an idea, I'd love to hear it," he said.

Events with locals

The News-Item's Facebook page was alive with comments about the JJUSA, and much of it wasn't supportive. But one person, Rich Fowler, asked, "Why not hold events to involve the locals and advertise around here? Bringing in folks from other areas is OK, but that should not be the only thing that happens. You will only alienate the locals more, and lose whatever support you might have had."

Rich, you hit the nail on the head. If people felt more connected to this park, they'd embrace it and perhaps even defend it. But they can't do that if they don't know. As it stands, locals are more than welcome to get involved, but they must make the first move.

It's been argued that locals won't pay to do what we've been doing for free for decades. Beyond the access fee, there will also be a list of regulations to follow and we'll have to sign a waiver anyway. AOAA has been billed as a safer alternative to what's already going on, but I don't buy it. Off-roading will always be a risky sport, and it's a risk locals take knowingly.

Locals know where to go and what they can handle. What outsiders see as wild and unorganized is quite controlled. The guy launching his machine off the top of the hill at Smurf Pond is a daredevil, but he knows what's up there (he already walked up or talked to someone who did) and he knows how to control his machine. And if he rolls it, there are plenty of folks around to help him out. The News-Item reports dozens of off-road accidents each summer, but we never hear about the dozens more crises averted.

In fact, learning to off-road the right way can be a lifesaver. I learned to drive on these hills in a 1974 Ford Bronco affectionately named "Blue Boy." Everything I know about driving I learned in that shoebox, and those skills helped keep me alive in Iraq. I was very comfortable zipping through narrow, debris riddled streets. Traffic jams didn't bother me, piles of trash and crowds didn't frighten me because I learned to negotiate obstacles on the best course in the world. I think I even hollered "No brakes!" on a few occasions, much to the concern of my CO.

And that's what you get from local riders: the right kind of fearlessness and driving skills not learned at the DMV.

Embrace what we know

So-called riff-raff are compassionate and intelligent and we take exception to implication that we're lawless troublemakers. We don't like being told how to do what we've been doing for years, not because we want to keep riding illegally, but because it feels like this whole park is coming together because of us, but without us.

Embrace what we know and how we do things, and the AOAA will earn loyal local support.

(Julie Nicolov, an assistant editor at The News-Item, writes "Don't Get Me Started" for each Friday edition. Contact her at julie_n@newsitem.com.)