This is a story of several beginnings and one tragic ending. When you proclaim that motorcycling is a defining feature of your character there is a certainty that tragic endings will be a part of the sum total of your riding adventures. Such is the risk we take when we choose to live life in the open air of nature, taking what the day and the road brings to our ride. The first beginning of this story is when I stumbled down the stairs of our aged, eight room farm house Christmas morning in 1969. I had just turned 11 years old and the only thing my young mind could concentrate on was motorcycles and hot rods. Next to the Christmas tree was a brand new, homebuilt chopper mini-bike. Words failed me. I stood in awe. Dad smiled with a gleam that only a craftsman knows. It was he who built the bike and it was he who planted the seeds of motorcycle travel deep in my soul.
We would spend thousands of miles together from that point living on the road with nothing more than a motorcycle and basic survival gear. It would begin in the fields behind our house and progress to miles racked up on the back of his Yamaha SX650 and then an R60 BMW. We traveled the mountains and the cities together on his bike until I became of an age and point in my life when we traveled side by side.
I stayed in our hometown of Hartford City, Indiana but Mom and Dad moved several times before landing in the Blue Ridge foothills of North Carolina to retire. Rarely did I plan a trip that didn’t include Dad. We were riding partners, com padres of the road. More than just father and son, we sought out adventures that made our hearts soar and our souls fly. Adventures that only happen on the two-wheeled road. On May 25th, 2002 he met a tragic ending while we were riding together near Franklin, North Carolina. A young man, on the run from the law, turned left directly in front of him leaving me to carry on our tradition alone. That story is told elsewhere but, suffice to say, it became another facet of my journey through life. It was an event, as hard as I’ve tried, that I cannot remove from my history.
Dad and I had conspired to travel to California the summer of 2002 and those plans ended with a screeching halt. I would spend all of my vacation time that summer and the next traveling back and forth to North Carolina to help Mom keep up her 38 acres of property. I would eventually, and painfully, empty Dad’s shop and move the contents back to Indiana.
I had made loose plans with a dear friend, Ferris Bueller, to travel to California and bum around for a couple of weeks in 2004. It would be a ride on the healing road like the book Ghost Rider. We would complete a trip that Dad and I were to take that fateful summer. But even as 2004 approached money and time sufficient to do the trip justice seemed to elude me. Ferris would not take no for an answer and came up with an alternative plan that would fill the void. We’d meet in Fruita, Colorado and retrace some of the trails Dad and I had ridden together in 2001. I owe him a debt of gratitude beyond words for giving me the push I so badly needed.
However, my journey to meet him is missing from Ferris’s story. It was a journey and struggle of my will and my soul. I had convinced myself that I was okay and willing to ride on without Dad. I didn’t stop riding but found the bikes parked more than ridden. My wife Kim was also struggling with me leaving home into the unknown. She had doubts and fears that just would not subside. This would be a test of our marriage and a triumph over my own fears if it was a success. I had ghosts and demons lurking in the corridors of my mind that kept taunting me, making me question my own sanity. I was scoffed many times by those close to me who didn’t ride. “Wasn’t your Dad dying enough to make you sell your motorcycles?” “You must be crazy!” “What about your wife and kids?” I was feeling the gauntlet of guilt being thrown at my feet. I was an emotional wreck on the inside and began echoing their constant nay saying to myself.
I had to get out there one more time and find out. There was no other way and it was a question I was determined to answer. Good or bad outcomes had faded in importance and to “answer the question only” became paramount. Was I living a farce with my bikes hiding away in the garage? I had to know. Did I still have it?
Two nights before I was to leave I could not sleep. The bike was packed and I was ready mechanically but my spirit would not give me peace. I usually only faced this heightened anticipation the night before but it had been building for weeks and I could not shake it. Finally the day before I was to leave I told my boss that I had to go now. He conceded because my focus had drifted so far from my occupation that I wasn’t even doing an acceptable job anymore. I came home after lunch and called my wife telling her I was leaving. It was the only way to squelch the demons. I had to leave now. We said a tearful goodbye and I rolled away into the unknown to face whatever it was that was taunting me. The second beginning of this story is now underway.
St Louis, Missouri was the destination for this day’s ride. I completely dumped my original plans and rode off without any save meeting Ferris a few days up the road. The interstate was packed with “Friday before Labor Day weekend traffic”. Even though I hate traffic it had the sublime effect of keeping my focus in the moment and not allowing me to drift into those corridors of fear. I made it just past St. Louis to the town of Wentzville before nightfall where I stayed in a cheap motel with the VFR pulled right up to the door. Kim was tearfully awaiting my phone call and could at last go to bed with the comfort of knowing I was off the road.
I awakened the next morning in almost the same moment I fell asleep it seemed. I was rested but pumped with anticipation. Today I’d try my hands at some long distance riding. My own personal best day prior to that was 1156 miles and while I had no intention of breaking it I’d get close. Dad and I had stayed at a Comfort Inn in Castle Rock, Colorado during our trip in 2001 and it was my target for tonight. The distance was just shy of 900 miles. I called Kim after breakfast and rolled onto the super-slab with my game face on.
I had, over the winter, equipped the VFR with Heli bars, a Corbin seat and had just purchased a Throttle Rocker in hopes it would ease the demand of a long day in the saddle. At the end of this day I would go to sleep with a numb and throbbing right hand.
Stops came at intervals of 120 to 150 miles. At each stop I’d fill the tank, take care of nature duties and call home. I had a rhythm going and except for my right hand continuously going numb everything else, the weather, the bike and the traffic was stoking my fires and beckoning me onward. Missouri and Kansas faded through the day. It felt good to be in the wind and on an adventure again. It was a drug that my soul had sorely missed. I finally tossed the Throttle Rocker after the 800 mile mark when I figured out it was causing more harm than good.
I didn’t stop for too many pictures since I was putting on the feed bag. “Puttin’ on the feedbag” was the term Dad and I used for focusing on long distance mileage and it works. It helps to block the pain and the grind of long hours in the saddle. The term originated in pioneer times when farmers would tie a sack of grain to a pole hung in front of cattle or donkeys to entice them to walk in circles for hours grinding meal. My feedbag was Castle Rock and I could taste it in the air from hundreds of miles away.
Just past of Limon, Colorado I turned west onto CO-86, the first two-lane road of the trip. I was retracing roads from the last trip with Dad. When we rolled through here in 2001 it was just days after 9/11 and the highways were lined with flags. I remembered in Elizabeth that a fire station outside of town had its parking lot covered with baskets of flowers and more flags than a person could imagine. I remembered that Dad and I talked about the way the country, for a short time, dropped all political bases and was indeed united and patriotic. An old fire truck sat out at the edge of the lot as a centerpiece to the makeshift memorial. The truck was still there but sadly by 2004 there was barely a mention of that tragic day.
Onward I rode, reliving all that had happened to Dad and I over the years while traveling together. The road therapy was working. Despite the numbness in my right hand I only felt at peace when the wheels on the Honda were at speed. I had time to think. Time to be alone. Time to recall the past. Time to live in the moment only focusing far enough ahead at times to the next hill or corner. I was getting back in that zone that I so dearly missed.
As soon as I arrived in Castle Rock I secured my room, the same room Dad and I had stayed in three years before. I unloaded my gear and headed over to the same steakhouse, adjacent to the motel, we had eaten on our last trip. When I walked inside I was disappointed to find it was now a Mexican restaurant. Not that I don’t like Mexican food, I do, but my heart was set on a big steak with all the trimmings. I got the same table we had occupied and ordered steak fajitas instead. Not all steps can be retraced. It was a decent meal but I had things to take care of on the bike. I ate quickly to utilize the fleeting moments of daylight working on the Honda.
After servicing the chain, checking the oil and tire pressure I retired to my room and called home. Kim and I had talked upon my arrival but now I could take the time and have a lengthy chat. She had been watching the Weather Channel and informed me that snow and ice were predicted for the higher elevations of the Rockies the next day. Her unsettled voice said she was worried. After the call I turned on the TV and turned back the covers on the other bed for Dad. Kind of like pilots do in a missing man formation. I watched the weather for first time and became worried too. Sleep eluded me that night. It was restless sleep at best.
Finally at 4:00 am I could stand it no longer and got ready for the day. By a quarter-till-five I was on the phone with Kim and saying our morning “good-byes”. Soon I would be on my ascent over the Rockies and know for sure whether the predictions of snow were right. She made me promise I’d wait out any bad weather. At five I rolled out of Castle Rock with my right hand still numb and my wrist throbbing.
My focus this day would be Fruita, Colorado and hooking up with my old pal Ferris Bueller. The trip up I-25 to I-470 was relatively quick but there was a chill in the air. Temperatures in the area had been scorching dating all the way back to spring but today a change in season was making its presence known. The first traffic information sign on I-470 said that truckers heading west on I-70 should be prepared for ice and snow. Great. The VFR was well mannered in the rain but from experience it was a bastard on snow and deadly on ice. At that point the ambient temperature reading on the Honda was hovering around the fifty degree mark.
The first information sign on I-70 stated that truckers heading west should be prepared to put chains on or turn around. Still it was just over fifty degrees so I rode onward. I didn’t want to fathom the thought of having to ride back east and south to find another route over the mountains. That would surely cause another night on the road to Fruita. The alternative routes were no less than four or five hundred miles out of the way.
I rode to my first gas stop of the day near Empire, Colorado. I filled up and then ate breakfast at the McDonalds next door. I had no cell phone signal and the payphone in the gas station was out of order. I was betwixt and between. I knew I needed to call Kim but it would have to be further up the road. When I returned to the bike an eastbound pickup had parked next to me. The first thing that struck me was the layer of crusted snow that covered it completely. I made the decision to suit up for colder temperatures and rain, maybe even snow. I opted to leave the rain jacket off until I hit rain. It was a decision that probably saved the day.
As I was getting ready to mount up and leave two Harley riders pulled in the parking lot next to me. They were from Florida and were traveling to California to see an old friend. They looked at me as if I’d lost my mind because of the layers I had on. They asked if I thought it was going to get bad ahead. They had seen the warnings too, but as the sun got higher it was now close to sixty degrees. I only had to point at the truck parked on the other side when they realized what might lie ahead. The looks on their faces said it all. I’m not sure what they were carrying in all that luggage space on their Tour Glides but it obviously wasn’t gear to cope with the changing conditions. “Sorry boys, I’m outta here.”
I pulled back onto the interstate and passed another information sign but this one read that trucks without chains “must” turn around at the next exit. In just a few miles of climbing in elevation the temperatures dropped back down to the fifty degree mark. Just a few miles up the road I hit rain and the next exit. I decided not to pull off the exit since I had tucked everything away into waterproof locations except the jacket of my rain suit. Instead I pulled to the side, left the bike running in neutral and donned the jacket. As I checked for a safe re-entry to the highway I noticed a FedEx truck coming down the on ramp. Call it fate or divine intervention but my decisions to that point placed me there to pick up his tail.
The wind had increased. Sometimes the rain came straight down and sometimes it was completely horizontal. I had pulled into the view of the driver’s mirror several times to let him know I was following close behind. The temperatures kept dropping, first into the forties and within miles it was down to the upper thirties. It hovered there for another twenty miles when it started dropping to the magical mark of freezing.
We were about thirty miles from the Vail area when the first snow started falling. I figured that I might get lucky and get over these mountains without seeing conditions unsafe to ride in. We climbed higher and snow was coming down harder but I assumed since we were approaching 10,000 feet that the worst was nearly over. I didn’t calculate the system was moving west to east or I might have stopped.
Within twenty miles of Vail the snow started sticking to the pavement and where there had been traffic in the opposite direction it was now just the FedEx driver and me tiptoeing up the mountain at thirty miles and hour. The good thing was the road still held warmth from a summer in the sun and even though it was now a white snake winding up ahead of us the truck was cutting a clean swath down to wet, black pavement.
By the time we hit Vail there was a buildup on the road of nearly four inches and we had slowed to less than 15 mph. I was in a situation where I had to go wherever the truck went. I couldn’t even turn out of the wheel track or I’d be down in an instant. I would have to follow him even if he got off at the next exit simply because the bike would not be controllable cutting its own path. My focus had turned to only surviving this stretch of road. I was truly captured in the moment.
When we crossed the highest peak at almost 11,000 feet I again assumed the worst was over but it had just begun. The next thirty miles were almost a complete white-out. The wind blown snow came from all directions and tried in earnest to push me out of the tracks. I kept thinking, “What have I got myself into? What the hell was I thinking?” The FedEx driver was fighting the wind and often changed lanes by force and not by choice. I had to follow. The only alternative would have been to stop in the track, push the bike to the side and wait it out. It was option that seemed more like a cop-out than a resolve. We were now on the descent but heading straight into the storm. At one point I looked at the ambient temperature gauge and it had climbed to thirty-four degrees. The conditions soon began unwinding in the same order as they had greeted us. The miles ticked away.
Roughly fifty miles west of Vail I could see stretches of pavement that were somewhat clear. The driver had his speed back up to 40 mph and the wind was subsiding. After another ten miles the road returned to blessed, wet black pavement. I was elated! I pounded the tankbag with my fist in triumph. When our speed reached 55 mph I pulled into the passing lane along side the FedEx driver. He had a look of shock on his face. He may have counted me out miles back up the mountain but after his initial reaction he gave me a big thumbs-up and a smile. I returned the gesture saying thanks to him and God for the lead they had provided.
At the next exit I pulled over to rid myself of the rain jacket. I was starting to boil in the mid-day heat. The very next thing I did was to call home. Kim was beside herself crying and on the other line with the Colorado State Police. They were telling her that the interstate had been shut down and they wouldn’t know anything until the system passed. She was near breakdown having not talked to me since early that morning. I spent the next thirty minutes and a full charge on the cell phone trying to calm her nerves. I convinced her it hadn’t been that bad. She couldn’t get over how happy I was. I couldn’t explain it either. I told her the phone was nearly dead and that I’d only be able to call once more between here and Fruita. It broke my heart not to be home to hold her. I knew the situation had tested her more than the conditions had tested me.
I filled up with gas and removed the rest of my rainsuit and the thermal shirt I had put on back in Empire. I ate couple of donuts and gulped down hot coffee while checking the bike over. I was proud of the patina that had dried on everything. When my thoughts were collected and feeling returned to my right hand I mounted up for the next leg of the journey. In less than twenty-five miles up the road I short-stopped for gas and another phone call home. My calculations said this last stop would take me all the way into Fruita.
Glenwood Canyon lay ahead I wanted to pass through here without stopping. I remembered from previous trips that this particular section was an absolute blast to ride. It was one of the most twisted sections of interstate in the country. After winding for miles it dumps out along the Colorado River and unwinds into long stretches in the miles just before the Grand Junction area. Along the way it passes canyons, small towns, ranches, orchards, bean fields and the vastness that the west is known for. My senses and my receptors were open full wide to receive this beauty and smells of the land that lay ahead.
I merged back onto the interstate into light traffic. Within a few miles my speed was up to 85 mph on the straights and as fast as I dare go through the corners. I picked up a couple driving a Mazda RX7 at one of the on-ramps. The driver hung in my mirror for a short while then pulled along side. He and his girl gave me the thumbs-up and passed. Pretty soon he slowed to the speed limit and I passed but as soon as I cleared him he caught back up. We began playing a very friendly but respectable game of cat and mouse.
For the entire distance to Fruita we traded the lead and exceeded the speed limit by double digits. We were having an absolute blast. I’d let him pass on the straight sections and then pass him back in the corners. In less than two hours I had went from racing head long into a wintry storm to racing a cager in a little sports car. I was having the time of my life and forgetting all the demons that had haunted me over the last two years. My soul was alive, my spirit was flying. I tested the very edge of my tires and the very edge of my fears. Again I pounded the tankbag with my fist. Life is sweet on the very edge.
Too soon the signs said Fruita was just ahead so I intentionally slowed to below the speed limit and flipped the blinker on well before the exit. The couple in the Mazda pulled along side once again and we stayed in formation for the last mile. The passenger rolled her window down and the driver was leaning across shouting out the window and thanking me for the friendly race. I could barely hear him over the wind and the bike but their smiles and mine said it all without words. We waved and parted never to see each other again. It was a moment in life’s journey for three people that we no doubt would always remember.
It was the middle of the afternoon when I checked into the room at the Comfort Inn in Fruita. It was the same room Dad and I had occupied three years earlier. I called Kim and she was relieved again that I was off the road, or at least the interstate, for another day. She was also relieved to know that from this point on I’d be riding with a partner. Ferris hadn’t arrived yet and wouldn’t for at least another hour. I spent that time pacing the room, reflecting on the day and reflecting on past trips with Dad.
I had made it. Somewhere in that snowstorm and the race down the mountain I had shed my demons. I had reclaimed the prize that only surviving on the road can bring. New adventures lay ahead with Ferris. We would be living life in the open air of nature, taking what the day and the road would bring us. I could hardly wait. I couldn’t even sit down long enough to relax. I said a prayer of thanks to God for delivering me from the day and things that I couldn’t even put a finger on. I thanked God for Dad and the guidance he’d given me, the lessons he’d taught me, the friendship that only motorcycling can bring. I thanked God for a wife like Kim who dealt with her own demons alone while I traveled the country miles away from home. I thanked God for friends like Ferris who cared enough to push me out the door and coax me back into the saddle of adventure.
Ferris and I would ride the Colorado National Monument and collect our first Federal Traffic Violation before this day was over. We’d have much to talk about while catching up on each other’s lives and the journey we had getting to our meeting place. It would be a trip of epic proportions that I doubt could ever be repeated. It was an adventure that left us both out of words.
I waited in the room for a little longer remembering that when Dad and I were here last we walked outside at sunset and witnessed the most beautiful double rainbow we’d ever seen after riding in thunderstorms all day. I remembered stumbling down the stairs Christmas morning in 1969 to find my first mini-bike parked next to the tree. I’m back Dad. No one will ever take this gift you gave to me again. This is what I live for. Thank you Dad.
Hey, Ferris just pulled up. It’s time to get this adventure back on the road!
To read Ferris’ recounting of his and our journey click on the link below. “Out of Words”
Ride Safe Always, JB2
Author’s Update: Shortly after losing Dad I stumbled across the music of Tom Russell and Mary McCaslin. As soon as I heard the lyrics to “Prairie in the Sky” it reminded me of motorcycling and Dad. There’s much in common with cowboys of the Great Plains and motorcyclists. In life we both search out the ultimate ride. Dad and I had taken such a ride down Route 141 in Colorado the summer of 2001. At the end of the day he exclaimed that it had been one of the most perfect bits of riding he had ever done. In death I believe that cowboys and motorcycylists both hope for that eternal, ultimate ride and this song expresses that sentiment better than any other I’ve heard. Many thanks to Mary McCaslin and Folklore Music for allowing us to use it on BikeNutz. JB2