Commentary

SETH ENSLOW LIVES TO FLY FARTHER ON TWO WHEELS THAN ANYONE EVER HAS-NO MATTER WHAT

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:33 PM ET
By Chris Palmer

Hurtling toward the ramp at 80 mph, topped out in fifth gear, Seth Enslow zips past the point of no return. He can stop for nothing now-not for his own fear, which he has mastered, and not for the wind, enemy of all who sail the skies on machines not meant to fly. All Enslow worries about now is the 252 feet of desert sand lying between him and a world record. Enslow's Honda CR250 is dialed in perfectly and his approach is as clean as any he's ever had. He hits the ramp, and his heart pumps adrenaline of an octane rating that most men will never know. Seconds later, everything feels free. He's airborne, up there in that special place. A banner proclaiming SETH LIVES billows ominously below. And everything goes wrong...

Turns out the middle of nowhere is a real place after all, lying two hours east of L.A., a poker chip's toss from Vegas. It's a place called Apple Valley, where tumbleweeds travel endless slabs of faded asphalt, occasionally bouncing off Joshua trees that stand like bumpers in a vast pinball machine.

Seth Enslow crawls out of bed at 9:45 a.m., intent on jumping his motorcycle over the desert scrub farther than anyone ever has on two wheels. He rides freestyle motocross, but Enslow lives the long jump. He was supposed to be up on the bike at 8, but you are in his world now, and his sun rises whenever he gets out of bed. He stayed up late last night, knocking in the 8-ball and knocking back cold ones despite his early call.

His workplace is a ramp 20 feet tall, set up in the driveway of his buddy's parent's house, which looks as if it had been airlifted from Beverly Hills and transplanted to these dusty acres. Enslow, 25 and a dead ringer for Brett Favre, emerges from the two-car garage outfitted in a black leather jacket, race pants and boots. The high-pitched crackle of the bike's muffler breaks the crisp, morning air and brings the gathering of 50 or so people to life. Enslow checks for traces of his invisible enemy, but there is no wind. Time to jump.

"I've got a reputation as the guy who goes pretty ballsy," he says. "So this jump feels normal to me."

The Fiberglas takeoff ramp is carefully situated 150 feet from the 10-ton mound of dirt that has been shaped into a landing ramp. Enslow could jump this in his sleep. Still, he makes a few passes at 50 mph to get his timing right. On the fourth run, he hits the ramp, sails smoothly through the distance-and sticks the landing. Let the hootin' and hollerin' begin. "Seth roooocks," screams a bony 13-year-old local. And he does. But that banner with the wicked gothic letters says it better: SETH LIVES. He whacks the throttle and whips the bike into a celebratory wheelie. Even the hot blonde in the belly shirt is diggin' it. His bros surround him and pose for pictures militia-style, complete with the AK-47s they keep around for kicks. They are the kings of nowhere, and who are you to tell them otherwise?

Every half-hour, or whenever Enslow feels like it, the take off ramp is moved back 20 feet. He nails the ensuing jump every time, with mini-parties breaking out after each landing. In between, he talks on his cell phone with his sponsors and carefully checks both ramps. He's up to 230 feet when the tumbleweeds start rolling. Just after noon, a light wind picks up through the valley, raising the hair on the back of Enslow's neck. Damned wind. His day is over. "There is no point in rushing it," he says. "We'll just come out and do it again tomorrow."

To this point, Enslow's gradual assault on daredevil Doug Danger's nine-year-old record of 251 feet has been textbook. Except you can't find what Enslow knows in any book. Five years ago, he gave up the drudgery of the Southern California motocross circuit. The whole idea of intense competition and rigorous training wasn't why he started riding in the first place. Poor finishes weren't cool either. Plus, motocross is hugely expensive, even if you're pulling down a regular paycheck. Enslow wasn't.

So in the summer of 1996, when video producer Dana Nicholson approached Enslow and several other top-notch MXers, including Jeremy McGrath, about riding for a freestyle video, he, uh, jumped at the chance.

"Seth rode a junker and didn't have the most skill," says Nicholson, "but no one could match his heart." They filmed at all the SoCal hot spots- mostly out in the desert dunes-took the best footage, cued up some metal and called it Crusty Demons of Dirt. Four other videos followed, and the series sold an estimated 500,000 copies. Crusty spawned the sport of freestyle that now fills arenas and made Enslow the first motocrosser to earn a living riding that way. The highlight of the first tape is Enslow sailing off the highest peak at Dumont Dunes and crash-landing 200 feet below to a song with a chorus of "You're gonna die, you're gonna rack off." He shrugged off a broken nose and a badly bruised back and became an overnight legend. Some guys hit buzzer-beaters, others fall out of the sky.

The lifestyle of a freestyle rider swallows Enslow whole. With the day ruined by wind, the action shifts from the ramps to the front yard. In a mosh pit of oversized Chevy Suburbans and Ford F-250 pickups, Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba" tangles with early Ice Cube, leaving just enough airspace for the strains of Cypress Hill's anthem for the psychotically challenged, "Insane in the Brain." You know the one. "Insane in the membraaaaane, insane in the brain ... "

Seems like appropriate musical accompaniment for a guy who has a permanent restraining order against gravity. Sure, it seems insane to turn mountains of sand into personal launch pads, a little wacko to ride straight off a 50-foot cliff. Outsiders would dismiss Enslow as suicidal. But they don't realize that jumping is his life. It's the reason he and his boy Ronnie were able to buy that killer pad in Corona, the one with the carburetors in the kitchen and burnout marks on the living room floor. Those guys with the tattoos and chain wallets bobbin' their heads and scarfing down pizza understand. It's why he rides six days a week. Freedom is sailing a funky, two-wheeled spaceship just below the heavens. Nobody damn sure can tell Enslow what to do up there. Shoot, up there is where it's at. No bill collectors, no parents arguing, no speeding tickets, no dirty looks. The guys understand Sethro, and he understands them. Yeah. They are freestyle motocrossers too.

"My bros are real," says Enslow. "There is a mutual respect we all have for each other that we can only get from people who do it full time. You either live it or you don't."

The bond between riders is as tight as their pants are baggy. The faction gathered to watch Enslow assault the sky is made up of the coolest kids in class-and the ones who never bothered to show. They express love by ripping each other mercilessly. But it is love. And they are cool. They're not all in your face shouting, "To the extreme!" like in some soda commercial. Fellow 'styler Mike Cinqmars, who lives here, the one who jumped over this very house on MTV , busts wheelies in a borrowed wheelchair, while others sit on bumpers or max in lawn chairs, rehashing jumps gone wrong. And dreaming of bigness to come. Smashed Big Gulp cups and empty Marlboro packs litter the ground. Bass thumps, the wind blows and Enslow just sits there taking it all in.

When Enslow throws a leg over his bike, it's as if a V-chip for fear clicks on in his head. Once at Richie Canyon, he went full-tilt up a 40-foot ravine that might as well have been a wall. At Dumont, he crash-landed on a group of riders taking a breather. Then there's the ramp they built to jump over parttime rider, full-time rocker Tommy Lee's house. Yes, Enslow seems fearless. But fearlessness is a front. In Sethro's world, there is no such thing as No Fear, no matter how many pretenders wear the shirts.

"I'm afraid of the same things everyone else is," says Enslow. "It's all about managing fear. The better you contain it, the bigger you go. Why ride if you can't go huge?" Overcoming fear is the single biggest difference between the ones who try and the ones who fly. But fear is always there. He is afraid of never having kids. He is afraid of being paralyzed. He is afraid to die. But he's also not afraid to make a living. ("Hey, we turned something we did for fun into something we can get paid for," he says.) For a top-name rider like Enslow, videos, tours and sponsors can stack him $100,000 annually. His talents have taken him to South Africa, Australia and Japan. He's ridden through a pack of zebras, around a giraffe and away (full-throttle) from a pride of lions.

Moto-X has taken Enslow a long way from the upstate New York burg of Massena, where he grew up playing youth hockey. ("I got hat tricks, like, every game.") He worked wherever there were Help Wanted signs-stores, construction sites, farms-to get enough cash to buy his first bike. But the truth was, Enslow hated New York. Young Seth longed for a place where the women were as beautiful as the weather; a place you could "snowboard, surf and ride all in the same day." So at 16, when his parents split, he did the same for California. With $100 in his pocket, no map and a beat-up, spray-painted '84 Ford Ranger, Enslow set out to find his freedom. Forty-eight hours and a few roadside naps later he arrived in paradise. For a while, it was living-day-today- in-cheap-motels-along-the-L.A.-beaches paradise, but it was paradise nonetheless.

These days, open air is paradise. But on that first jump of the second day, Enslow knows, mid-flight, that all is lost. "I knew I was in trouble at the peak of the jump," he would say later. "I felt the wind carry the bike up, past where I needed to land. That was the last thing I remember." Well beyond the safety of his sloped landing point, Enslow and the bike slam into the ground. His helmet, skull paint job and all, smashes into the handlebars so violently that he is knocked unconscious, and his body is sent sprawling down the dirt road at 50 mph. Before the on-site ambulances can even start their engines, the guys who understand Sethro sprint to his mangled body and crouch around him in a prayer circle. Finally, he comes to. His first mumbled words: "How far?"

Then, pain. Enslow has broken his collarbone and, more seriously, crushed the sinus cavity above his nose. He struggles to breathe and falls in and out of consciousness. A medical chopper has already been dispatched as emergency personnel prepare the gurney. His boys watch in disbelief as the Life Flight rises up and shrieks away, taking Enslow back into the air, no longer a special place. Seth lives-for now.

It takes four surgeons four hours to put him back together. To access Enslow's sinuses, an incision is made from ear to ear above his hairline so doctors can peel his face down past his eyes. After two permanent titanium plates are inserted to protect the damaged area should this happen again, his scalp is reconnected with 55 stainless steel staples. Three days later, he's home for Christmas. Doctors order him to stay off the bike for eight to 10 weeks.

In case you've forgotten, you're still in Seth's world. So are the doctors. Exactly 30 days after the crash, Enslow clears seven monster trucks at a truck pull in Houston. He still doesn't own the distance record, so there is no time to rest. In a couple of weeks he'll make another run at Danger. This time 270 feet. After that, even bigger. "I won't change anything, except I'll just be better prepared," he says. "Whatever it is, I do it my way. Usually big."

Seth lives.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine