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Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly

Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly

5.0 5
by Conrad Wesselhoeft

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Seventeen year-old dirt-bike-riding daredevil Arlo Santiago catches the eye of the U.S. military with his first-place ranking on a video game featuring drone warfare, and must reconcile the work they want him to do with the emotional scars he has suffered following a violent death in his family. Adios, Nirvana author Conrad Wesselhoeft, takes


Seventeen year-old dirt-bike-riding daredevil Arlo Santiago catches the eye of the U.S. military with his first-place ranking on a video game featuring drone warfare, and must reconcile the work they want him to do with the emotional scars he has suffered following a violent death in his family. Adios, Nirvana author Conrad Wesselhoeft, takes readers from the skies over war-torn Pakistan to the dusty arroyos of New Mexico's outback in this young adult novel about daring to live in the wake of unbearable loss.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wesselhoeft follows Adios, Nirvana with the multilayered story of 17-year-old Arlo Santiago, whose extreme risk-taking, sparked by tragedy, could save (or end) his life. In recent months, Arlo's mother was killed in a convenience store holdup; his 12-year-old sister, Siouxsie, was diagnosed with Huntington's disease; and his father has begun drinking and letting the bills pile up. Arlo escapes by focusing on perfecting his dirt bike stunts and mastering the video game Drone Pilot. Out of the blue, the Air Force swoops in and—having recognized Arlo's gaming skills—offers him a healthy sum of money to fly real drones remotely in Pakistan to locate a terrorist leader. Wesselhoeft's mesmerizing descriptions of Conrad's New Mexico home ("The colors, washed, torn, and bled, the slow-burning fuse of a sky") and giddy exhilaration when he's riding his Yamaha bike ("I'm conscious of the danger, of the possibility of broken femurs and neck, but I'm not afraid. Just the opposite.... Every ache in every cell of my body stops hurting") will keep readers in the thrill of the moment. Ages 12–up. Agent: Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

* "Readers will worry, laugh and ultimately soar along with Arlo as he finds his way. Nuanced supporting characters and a vivid New Mexico landscape ground Arlo’s dilemma, creating a superbly well-balanced narrative."
—Kirkus, starred review

"A moving story about loss, love, and learning to let go."
—School Library Journal

"Wesselhoeft's mesmerizing descriptions of Conrad's New Mexico home...and giddy exhiliration when he's riding his Yamaha bike...will keep readers in the thrill of the moment."
—Publishers Weekly

"Features both a supporting cast lit up with larger-than-life characters and a protagonist who loves flying recklessly close to the edge but makes right choices in the clutch."

Children's Literature - Elisabeth Greenberg
Arlo Santiago wakes up to his cell phone ringing and a Major Keith Anderson on the phone. Seventeen-year-old Arlo has life timed to the second. He has two minutes to get to school and has to listen to congratulations on being world champion in a video game Drone Pilot. What kind of a joke is this, anyway? But, it’s not a prank call from Uncle Sal. Soon Arlo is competing with licensed pilots to fly investigative drones into Pakistan. The Drone Zone, where Arlo risks his life with split-second timing and incredible motor skills on motorcycle or video game, is how Arlo deals with his daily life—his mother’s murder, his father’s drinking, his sister’s illness. Arlo’s buddies and the adults in his life both encourage his risk-taking and watch out for him as he balances the rewards of going after terrorists in Pakistan, including the option of taking one out for the government, and performing an incredible dare-devil motorcycle trick for a reality TV show. This book requires a definite suspension of disbelief, but Arlo faces real life issues in a wild adventure in New Mexico. As Arlo sorts out his life values, he and his family and friends rebuild their lives and honor his mother’s death. Reviewer: Elisabeth Greenberg; Ages 8 to 12.
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Arlo Santiago, 17, is a lover of all things extreme, from racing his dirt bike through the New Mexican landscape to competing for the highest score on the video game Drone Pilot. However, it may all be just a cover for dealing with the darkness in his life: his mother's death was all-too sudden, his father drinks too much, and his sister is slowly deteriorating from Huntington's disease. In a plot point that borders a bit on the unbelievable, Arlo's life takes a sudden turn when he is recruited by the United States Air Force to fly a real military drone in an effort to catch the leader of a terrorist group hiding in the mountains of Pakistan. On top of that, his talent for dirt bike racing fuels various dangerous stunts throughout the novel. This sophomore effort from Wesselhoeft feels like a combination of poetry and adrenaline, with sometimes mixed, unfocused results. Fortunately, Arlo is a lyrical wordsmith, and at times, readers can feel transported right into his struggle to deal with his emotions. Other times, however, there's so much action that teens will have to hold on desperately for the ride. Still, it makes for a moving story about loss, love, and learning to let go. Give this to fans of similarly amped-up fiction by Chris Lynch and Carl Deuker.—Kimberly Castle-Alberts, Hudson Library & Historical Society, OH
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-03-17
There is a place where Arlo goes to break free—free from his mother's recent murder, his father's grief, his sister's progressing Huntington's disease. In this place, the Drone Zone, it all falls away and there is just the moment. Arlo's two mechanisms for reaching the Zone are pulling stunts on his dirt bike and playing "Drone Pilot," a video game that simulates drone flight and at which he is currently the best in the world. With these tools, Arlo is able to fly, and for his incredible skill with each, he begins to attract attention. A reality TV show that specializes in capturing daredevil stunts wants to pay him to risk his life for entertainment. The military also takes notice, wanting Arlo to work for them secretly, flying drones and gathering reconnaissance that could lead to the capture, or death, of the world's most notorious terrorist. Both options offer to provide his family with financial resources they direly need. Which, if either, is worth the risk is what Arlo must decide. Readers will worry, laugh and ultimately soar along with Arlo as he finds his way. Nuanced supporting characters and a vivid New Mexico landscape ground Arlo's dilemma, creating a superbly well-balanced narrative. As complex as life itself, this novel addresses serious topics without taking itself too seriously. (Fiction. 14-18)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Sold by:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Kenya Man  explodes out of my phone:

   L.A. . . . L.A. . . . L.A. Gonna get my junk in play
   At the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

   I jerk out of REM sleep, level nine. Scramble and find my phone wedged under El Guapo’s ass, punch in.
   “Dude,” I rasp, “be right out.”
   But instead of Cam or Lobo on the other end, it’s some space cowboy.
   “Hello, is this Arlo Santiago?”
   Everything about the voice sounds like a jail door clanging shut.
   “Am I speaking with Arlo Spencer Santiago?” “Uhhhhhhhmm . . .”
   El Guapo—“The Handsome One”—arches his back and starts to hump me, his way of saying good morning. I shove him, and he tumbles ass-over-floppy-ears onto the floor. Then he pops up and grins at me.
   He’s always grinning. Humping and grinning. He’s the grin- ningest, humpingest dog in the world. Probably the only stan- dard poodle in all northeast New Mexico.
   “Guess so,” I say.
   “Good morning, Arlo. I’m Major Keith Anderson, United States Air Force. How are you today?”
   I glance at the clock—6:55 a.m. Damn, just what I need, a recruiter calling me at this hour. Messing with my routine.
   I’ve polished my mornings to perfection. On the one hand, I give myself Maximum Sleep (MS)—sleep to the very last mil- lisecond. On the other hand, once Kenya Man starts rapping, I’m up, moving fast. In five seconds, I’ve accelerated to Maximum Efficiency (ME). Not to say I’m totally awake; I’m not. But my body knows all the moves, how to cut the corners.
   On a blackboard, you can write it this way:

   MS + ME = success

. . . with success being getting to school before the 7:29 a.m. bell.
   I have exactly two minutes and twenty-seven seconds to piss, slap water on my face, get dressed, and eat breakfast.
   But first I’ve got to deal with this tool.
   “It’s an honor to speak with a world champion,” the man says. I rub sleep off my face. “Hey, who is this again?”
   “Nice job yesterday on Drone Pilot,” he says. “You finally beat him.”
   “Beat who?” “SergeiTashkent, of course.’” Now he has my attention.
   “What are you,” I ask, “the CIA or something?”
   The jail door laughs. “No, Arlo. Merely the United States Air Force.”
   “Listen, dude . . . Major . . . whoever you are . . .” I roll out of bed and whip a T-shirt off the floor. “I’m running late for school.”
   “Sure, I’ll get to the point. We want you to fly with us.” “No thanks. I’m only seventeen. Call me in a year.”
   El Guapo leaps onto the bed and thrusts his shaggy hips at me. Hump and grin, hump and grin—only God knows the mind of a high desert poodle.
   “Arlo, we’ve been following you on the leaderboards for some time,” the man says. “Last night, we watched you knock Sergei out of the number one position on Drone Pilot. Sergei’s a superb UAV pilot, technically the best we’ve ever seen. And you beat him. That was extremely smart flying.”
   I clamp my hand on El Guapo’s snout. He freezes mid-hump.
   “Look,” I say, glancing around for my jeans. “I don’t want to join the air force.”
   “Arlo, I’m not a recruiter.”
   “Well, who are you, man?”
   “I’d like to invite you to join us for war games this Saturday at White Sands.”
   “War games?”
   I glance at the clock—6:57 a.m. Damn!
   “You’ll get to test your skills against real pilots—some of our very best.”
   “Hold up! If you mean fly real planes, uh-uh, no way. I have no idea how to fly a plane.”
   “Not a plane, Arlo, a drone. You definitely know how to fly one of those. We know that very well. It’s just like your game Drone Pilot. The difference is, we make it real.”
   “Dude,” I say, “this is way too much information. And I’m late for school.”
   “Sure, Arlo, I’ll check in later. Start thinking about Saturday.”
   “Yeah,” I say, tossing my phone. “Peace to you too.”
   Then it hits me—it’s Lobo’s Uncle Sal again—our local joker and genius entrepreneur. Owner of the best coffee shop in town, and my sky-diving instructor for the past three years.
   Uncle Sal has a gift for faking voices. For some reason, I’m one of his favorite targets. Last time, he wanted me to enter a Rocky Mountain oyster eating contest sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
   Lobo would’ve told him about my win yesterday. About se- riously kicking SergeiTashkent’s butt, knocking him to number two on the Drone Pilot leaderboard, which I’ve been trying to do all year.
   I am now the number one drone combat pilot in the world—the virtual world, that is—until somebody kicks my butt.
   In video games, when you reach number one, your butt is out there, cheeks flapping in the wind, for anybody to kick—Sergei- Tashkent, ToshiOshi, IpanemaGirl, anybody.
   There are seven billion anybodies in the world.
   Just the thought of Uncle Sal . . . I start to laugh. In fact, I laugh so hard I trip putting on my jeans. Damn, I’m late.
   Dad walks in, all frayed, scratching, and barely employed. He taps his watch.
   “Ass in gear, Arlo.”
   “Can I have five bucks for lunch?”
   He winces, opens his wallet—puffy with poverty—and holds out three faded ones. Says his daily mantra: “Spend it wisely.”
   “Always do,” I say, and snatch the money.
   “Don’t forget,” he says. “Snack Shack tomorrow night.”
   Dad runs the concession stand at Rio Loco Field. It’s a huge comedown after running a newspaper, but, hey, it pays a few bills.
   “Who we playing?” I ask. “Jeopardy,” he says.
   “Yeah!” I say, and smack a fist into my palm.
   Jeopardy is one of the highlights of the football season. The halftime show is ten times better than the game itself.
   I dig two unmatched socks from under my bed and sniff them. It’s been five months since I’ve found clean, folded, matching socks in my top drawer. That’s one little difference in not having a mom anymore.
   There are many—many!—little differences.
   “And I want to get up to Burro Mesa again,” Dad says.
   “Not me,” I say. “You know where I stand on that, philosophi- cally and spiritually and all.”
   “Overruled,” Dad says.
   I jam on my Old Gringos. Stomp ’em in place. Great boots, like great art, get better with time.
   “She wouldn’t’ve wanted a damn tombstone anyway.”
   “Not a tombstone, Arlo. A monument. Get your nomenclature right.”
   Five months ago—on May fifteenth, at two-fifty in the after- noon—Mom walked into the EZ Stop on South Main to buy a bottle of grape Gatorade and never walked out.
   Siouxsie, waiting in the car, heard the shots and saw the holdup guy run.
   Siouxsie’s thirst for grape Gatorade—and Mom’s swinging through that door to buy a bottle—changed day to night.
   No sunset, twilight, or dusk in between. Just—whomp!—night.
   Dad and I have a standing disagreement over whether to build a “monument” to Mom on Burro Mesa. He’s already sketched it out, bought the sand. Ordered a chunk of Bandelier stone “yay high by yay wide.” Written the epitaph, or inscription, or what- ever you call it, a hundred times.
   It gets longer and longer. Then shorter and shorter. He’s never satisfied.
   Dad was a journalist for eighteen years, but he can’t seem to write that damn epitaph. It’s beyond all his powers of creation. How can he ever expect to finish a novel if he can’t write a frickin’ epitaph?
   Me? I believe the sky is Mom’s monument, and the grass and wind her epitaph. Burro Mesa is perfect the way it is, untouched by manmade shit. To the north, you can see deep into Colorado, all the way to Pike’s Peak. Look south, and you can see halfway to Mexico. Up there, it’s all space, space, space. Green, blue, and forever. The air just shines.
   Last summer, we spread Mom’s ashes along the rim rocks, mixed them in with the lilies, Indian paintbrush, and shooting stars. I ride up there sometimes with El Guapo. Watch him run amok and hump the herd while I sit and ponder. A monument would desecrate everything—like building a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
   Kenya Man raps out of my phone.

   L.A . . . L.A. . . . L.A.

   Me, I live in C.A . . . C.A. . . . C.A.—Clay Allison, New Mex- ico, located just south of Butt Crack, Nowhere, at the intersection of mesa dust and tractor rust.
   This time it’s Cam. “Dude! What the —?” “Be out in a minute,” I say. “Kick it for me.”
   I grab a sausage off the stove, bite it, toss the rest to El Guapo, and shoulder my backpack.
   “Mornin’, Texas Slim.”
   Siouxsie—my twelve-year-old sister—sits at the kitchen table. Her hearing aids look like tiny fortune cookies beside her cereal bowl.
   “Put those in your ears,” I say.
   She doesn’t move. Maybe she doesn’t hear me. Maybe she does.
   I’m never exactly sure.
   I raise my voice. “And don’t forget to feed the mares. Remem- ber, one and a half quarts of oats, not two. Always feed Big Z first. She’s the alpha.”
   Siouxsie rolls her eyes. “Have faith, Texas Slim. I won’t forget.” “Yeah, right,” I say. “You can’t hear a damn word I’m saying.” “You said feed ’em five and a half gallons.”
   She stirs me away with her spoon.
   “And do NOT bring any of those barn kittens into the house again,” I say. “Guapo’ll catch fleas.”
   She clamps her hands over her ears. “Can’t hear a damn word you’re sayin’, Texas Slim.”
   Siouxsie’s got Mom’s go-your-own-way gene and nickel-hard stubbornness. Plus, she’s got another gene—some trait that’s popped up in Chromosome 4.
   At first, the doctors didn’t know what to call it. They hemmed and hawed, scratched and twitched, then gave it a name: Hun- tington’s disease. Basically, HD creeps like a glacier, neuro-de- generatively crushing a few cells at a time. Siouxsie’s main symp- toms, so far, are stiffness, some loss of coordination, and some hearing loss.
   Dad doesn’t open the medical bills anymore. Just stuffs them in the drawer beneath the microwave.
   I grab my helmet and bang outside.
   Cam and Lobo are out by the barn. Cam’s revving my bike—my green Yamaha 250 four-stroke. Super-strong frame, which I’ve tricked out with heavy-duty shocks.
   I bought my Yam 250 in Santa Fe using my chunk of the life insurance money. It’s a little banged up and scarred, but a great bike. Mega-fast acceleration. Profound off-road and scramble ca- pability. Able to handle all my abuse. Never wiped out or spilled any tools.
   Not yet, anyway.
   I mount up, pull on my helmet. Adjust my shades. Grind the throttle. Listen like a doctor to the thump-thump-thump of the engine. Dirt bikes congest the way people do—they wake up 
coughing and hacking. Grinding acts like a decongestant, but the best decongestant is the open road.
   Two of the mares—Queen Zenobia and Blue Dancer—stare at me from the corral. When I rev again, they flatten back their ears. They disapprove of my grinding Yamaha, and they disap- prove of Lobo and Cam.
   Cam throws a leg over his Kawasaki KLX.
   Lobo, decked out in his “Ride Naked” T-shirt, is saddled on his Bandit 350.
   “Top of the mornin’,” he says over the throbbing engines. “Hey, I just talked to your Uncle Sal,” I say. “He wants me to join the air force. The dude is crazy.”
   Lobo nods. “All us Focazios are batshit.”
   The screen door slaps. “Good morning, Homo sapiens!” Siouxsie shouts from the porch.
   She wraps an arm around the post. Without her hearing aids, she probably can’t hear us talking, but she can definitely hear us revving—even the dead can hear us revving.
   Lobo lifts his voice. “Hey, how’s the prettiest girl in all Orphan County today?”
   “Hey, Lobo,” Siouxsie says. “Ride careful—and take care of Texas Slim.”
   “Oh, yeah, we always do,” Lobo says. “Don’t we, Texas Slim?”
   El Guapo barks, and we’re gone.

Meet the Author

Conrad Wesselhoeft lives with his three children and a big, grinning poodle named Django, in West Seattle.

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Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I recomend it to evrey one very high flyen action pacted
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was both engaged and moved by the story. The inside view of an adolescent boy's life and mind....a world of navigating personal loss, change, video games and dirt bike/motorcycles. The set up does actually have its roots in reality and is not totally a figment of fiction. Rural New Mexico made a great back drop and I enjoyed the writing style as well. Good read for both adults and younger adults, M or F.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who would ever believe that video gaming and dirt biking could be so interesting. This is a wonderful look into both endeavors. It is technically a boy's young adult book. Good writing and an inquiring look into a young mind make this a very intriguing book and a fun read for the young  at heart either male or female. Some great descriptions and characters that stay with you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Seventeen-year-old Arlo Santiago lives in a dusty corner of New Mexico where his two passions are extreme dirt-bike riding and playing a video game called "Drone Pilot." He's so good at the game that the U.S. government hires him to fly real drones over Pakistan. However, Arlo is still reeling emotionally from a violent death in his family. Will he take the big paycheck and commit violence against a terrorist leader half a world away, or find another solution to his troubles? He's got a lot of them, including an unemployed father who drinks, a sister with Huntington's Disease, and a girlfriend who won’t let him run from his past. The joy of this book is watching Arlo rally his talents and skills to deal with his ever-mounting problems. It's a gritty, funny, tragic, soaring novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Aston & peyton have their own bikes and most of the time thats all they talk about