Gary Paulsen, in Pilgrimage on a Steel Ride: A Memoir about Men and Motorcycles, wrote: “It’s very strange what saves a man.” He was writing about a long and hard motorcycle trip he took after purchasing his dream bike—a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was fifty-six years old and a successful author. He had ridden bikes from his adolescence forward but, as he repeatedly points out in his bike book, “not a Harley.” He had not ridden his dream bike until after he finally purchased one in his midfifties; then he rode and rode, and then he rode it some more.
Gary’s overt impetus for finally purchasing a Harley-Davidson was that he had arrived at financial security, he had a portfolio that would provide for his wife, and his kids were fully grown and securely on their own paths. But none of that individually or collectively did it. What really drove Gary into a Harley-Davidson dealership on that fateful day, the day he signed on the dotted line, was that he had recently been diagnosed with heart disease.
Looking the Grim Reaper in the face is an unshakable experience for those who get to walk away from death, living to ponder mortality. Pondering death gets one’s undivided attention. I know. I have escaped my own demise three times: once when I was smashed between two semitrucks and again when—because of physical incapacitation—I was considering taking, as some call it, “the easy way out.” (I’ll write about the third time in just a moment.)
Look, there are two things I want to make clear: (1) I am unequivocally positive that pulling the trigger on any method chosen to escape the impositions of this life takes not only guts but brass balls to boot. (2) Long before I was exposed to Hunter S. Thompson’s words “I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any time” (which he repeated many times to his dear friend Ralph Steadman, the illustrator of his seminal book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream), I’d concluded that life would be intolerable if I could not engineer my own exit if quality of life was gone, leaving me with only quantity of life, that space wherein others have to tend to every need and bodily function. In the end, Ralph quoted Hunter’s words in Thompson’s obituary. Hunter S. Thompson, the originator of gonzo journalism, pulled the trigger of a .45-caliber handgun he had placed in his mouth. Hunter loved motorcycles . . . but he had stopped riding long before his demise. I assure you that no one who knew Hunter S. Thompson would refer to him as a coward who took the easy way out—nope, not Hunter!
The third time death made itself personally known to me was when it recently came calling with its bacterial buddies in tow: Streptococcus intermedius and Fusobacterium necrophorum. The Reaper deposited both of those bacterial strains into one of my lungs—a rare occurrence—and as a precautionary measure he then attached Fusobacterium necrophorum to my jugular vein. That battle lasted forty-six days as an inpatient, followed by seventy days as an outpatient, before my body (with the help of amazing caregivers, modern medicine, and a few dear friends) again banished death, albeit temporarily because, in the end, well, we all know that each of us has a rendezvous scheduled for a time and place unknown to us where the end will be patiently waiting.
Gary, looking in the metaphorical mirror and seeing his own fragile mortality, decided it was time to get a bike, the bike, a Harley-Davidson, and ride away on a pilgrimage. He rode his hog long and hard from his home in New Mexico up to Alaska, via Minnesota, visiting his past haunts. Then he rode his bike back home. On that bike run, with the forced solitude that riding long and hard delivers, with his mind singly focused on the road and the ride, Gary was finally free to navigate his life’s timetable—its events, its trials and tribulations, its traumas, its joys, its diagnosis of heart disease—and to become copacetic with it all. Yep, taking a long and hard bike ride saved Gary Paulsen’s life. Just as it had for me. Just as it did for Neil.
Neil Peart’s dream bike is a BMW. Like Gary, Neil also had a demon that propelled him to ride long and hard. Neil’s demon arrived via a one-two punch from life, landing direct and consecutive hits deep within his heart and soul, resulting in an emotional knockout. The first blow hit Neil in 1997 when his only daughter (at the time) was driving from her family’s rural Canadian home to Toronto to begin her freshman year of college. Selena was just nineteen when she died near Brighton in a single-car accident on a dark stretch of Ontarioan highway. Ten months later, life sucker punched Neil again when his wife, Jackie, died. The coroner listed the official cause of her death as cancer, but Neil knew it was from a broken heart and a spent spirit. Of Jackie’s demise, Neil wrote that it was “a slow suicide by apathy.” She simply could not live in a world without her daughter, Selena. Those sudden and unexpected deaths left Neil alone, all alone; alone to try to find a reason—and thereby a way—to carry on.
Before the low blows from life knocked Neil down, he had toured with Rush on its Test for Echo tour. Neil is Rush’s drummer and lyricist. He had toured with the band from the seat of his BMW motorcycle, arriving backstage on it just before showtime and leaving the very same way immediately following the encores—encores that were demanded by legions and legions of a worldwide, dedicated, and broad fan base. After death visited and then revisited Neil’s personal life, he told Geddy and Alex (Rush’s singer and guitarist, respectively), “Consider me retired.” Adulation from cheering crowds, millions of dollars from sold-out concert tours, fellowship with his bandmates, whom he had known and had collaborated with for decades—none of that could provide Neil with the resources he needed to deal with his pain.
In Neil’s book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, he recounts fifty-five thousand miles over fourteen months of riding long and hard. He wrote that he needed to take his “little baby soul for a ride.” I bet he felt like an infant, vulnerable after losing his two girls in legato fashion.
Much has been written about humans and motion. How we need motion. How we are in motion from the time of conception, being carried around in the womb. How parents take babies for a ride in a car when they are unable to get the baby to sleep when it’s sedentary. How our heart rate slows down, our stress levels fall, and a sense of tranquility washes over us when we’re watching fish swim, witnessing a motion that subliminally triggers remembrances of whence we came. Just as Gary’s life was saved by the motion of a Harley-Davidson, Neil’s little baby soul was comforted by the motion of a BMW motorbike, allowing Neil to reclaim his life.
I can still clearly remember being on my bicycle as a child, going downhill so fast that the front wheel wiggled and wiggled until the bicycle was out of control. While I was scared after it was all over and my bicycle was motionless, I was fully focused when all hell was breaking loose. At that tender age, I realized that in chaos, with disaster looming just inches below me, in that moment of motion when the line was so thin between holding it together and the wheels coming off (as it were), I was fully alive, fully aware, fully focused, and completely free from the trivial matters of life. I remember thinking, I can’t wait until I can get a motorbike.
I did get a motorbike. Many in fact. Each bike holds its own special place in my life. Each bike became a saving grace. The role each would play in my life was unknown at the time of purchase. Each bike’s manifest destiny in my life came to fruition serendipitously. Each bike was just there, sitting and waiting for me when I needed it. Ready to fulfill its function when I required saving from circumstance or from myself—and at times from both. Then came a day when I found myself without a motorbike and with an identifiable and specific need that only a motorbike could fulfill, that only motion could satisfy. I rushed out to purchase a bike for a specific purpose and an immediate need. I needed to ride long and hard. I needed to save my life.
I’m sitting here at my keyboard, after dodging death for the third time and finding myself again without a motorbike. CNN is muted while I am thinking about two (out of many) long and hard motorcycle rides I have taken. One occurred in 2011. That ride’s impetus stemmed from the time I spent in a boomtown environment in North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom. I needed to clear my mind by riding long and hard in 2011, thereby shaking off the frustration experienced from working alongside thieves, cheats, and liars.
The other ride transpired during the fall of 2017. That was the ride that I had to take. In a way, that ride saved my life. It was the lifesaving ride I just wrote about; it was the one for which I rushed out to buy a bike. I had to take that ride so that I could claim it and remember it as my last ride, if in fact it was to be my last ride. You see, just weeks before the fall of 2017, I was incapable of riding a motorcycle. I could not stand because pain was flinging me to the ground. For nearly two years I had been unemployed, and bankruptcy was quickly approaching. Everything was going wrong in my life. Every decision I made seemed to be the wrong choice. The dominoes were rapidly falling. Because of extreme bursitis, I had ended up on crutches before sitting in a wheelchair. The pain caused by extreme bursitis debilitated me. I was left wondering if I would ever be able to walk again without excruciating pain, let alone if I would ever again be capable of a long and hard motorcycle ride, or even be able to momentarily function erect.
Many nights (more than I wish to remember) I had sat on my couch with a bottle of whiskey and a 9 mm pistol on the table in front of me, thinking that only two of us will survive the night. The bottle of whiskey was always the empty victim of the darkness, leaving the gun and me to face another day. It easily could have gone a different way, but I lacked the brass balls—and I had the liquid resources to deal with the pain. I can assure you that suicide is not the easy way out—that it is not a choice one makes. David L. Conroy points this out in his book Out of the Nightmare: Recovery from Depression and Suicidal Pain, wherein he writes: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain” (be it physical or psychological pain).
After the break of dawn following my soul-sacrificing nights contemplating the Bard of Avon’s words, “To be or not to be,” I would awake more than a little disappointed that I had survived the night, because I would again have to navigate through the pain of extreme bursitis while hobbling on crutches or sitting in a wheelchair. I would once more be forced to be a deft financial juggler. I would have to find yet another way to keep the wolves at bay.
Then came a day, in mid-August of 2017, that I began to walk again with diminished pain. That was the day that the worm began to turn. It continued to turn until I could walk with only major discomfort instead of debilitating pain. I began to envision being able to ride a motorcycle. The worm continued to turn while I sold a rental house I had purchased and renovated. From that sale I was financially able to purchase a dream bike, an Indian. And soon I was fit enough to ride it long and hard—I was fit enough to save my life.
As I sit here, again without a motorbike in my life, my days and nights are constantly interrupted by visions of obtaining another bike and heading out on a long and hard ride after my third brush with death. Riding a motorcycle is akin to looking death straight in the face. That’s why some ride—it’s where we find life, alive and well, while sitting above two wheels.
Postscriptum: This piece was originally written at a pit stop on my long and hard ride of 2017. It has been reworked some. It is intended as the preface for a book I need to return to writing, titled Cadillacs & Indians: A Long Hard Ride Through North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Boom. This preface turned article was originally written at the Renaissance Waterford Hotel in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on September 15, 2017.
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