The 17-year-old motorcycle boy

Photos by Bill Wiegand.

At 20, I became a daily rider, and over the next 23 years I had ridden thousands upon thousands of virtually event-free miles. In May 2009, I had two high speed crashes 14 days apart, with both involving a collision with a deer.

I’m amazed I would have so many good years of healthy riding and then suddenly have two significant events just two weeks apart. I did not have or believe in a Higher Power at the time, and the mere thought of any Christian dogma repulsed me. Eleven months later, that attitude would begin to change.

My first collision happened while travelling in the triple digits. Though my expensive machine was badly damaged, I didn’t fall off my bike. I erroneously concluded that my riding skills were superb and I was invincible. I also remember getting drunk that night telling a drinking buddy about the collision, gasoline spraying everywhere and me not falling off the bike.

Two weeks later, at about noon, I hit another deer while riding a different bike. This time I didn’t fare so well, and the machine was completely destroyed.  The time was about noon which gives the phrase, “high noon,” new meaning. Immediately following the crash, I was unconscious and awoke in the middle of a remote country road. My quick assessment revealed chest pain, abdominal pain, trouble breathing and a heart rate too fast to count.

Supine on the road, I had a thought I might be dying. I remember seeing the sun up above looking friendly, trustworthy and inviting. I began to feel warm and remember wanting to stay like that for a long time. I also remember suddenly having no concerns at all and that after many months of my tormenting anger and depression regarding my imminent divorce, I was suddenly cradled nicely in a comfortable place. I had no physical pain during this experience. That’s a peculiar facet of what I can remember, namely, that a moment of total contentment occurred while injured and lying on an asphalt road with my $20,000 motorcycle in pieces. That big, beautiful everlasting sun up above looked so good.

For no particular reason, I remember thinking I had better try to get up and look for my cell phone among the debris. This thought made me aware of my physical pain, and I began the process of returning to reality and getting help.

At this time in my life other circumstances were bad: I was lonely, depressed, and going through a divorce with a woman I thought I truly loved. Also, a reliable master had come to reclaim me—King Alcohol. He was ever-present, and I was becoming once again, as I had in my early 20’s, a denizen of his mad realm.  I’ve done lots and lots of drinking in my lifetime, but very little drinking and riding and was completely sober during both crashes.

Included in this puzzling mix of circumstance was the fact that my father had recently had his worst motorcycle crash ever just a few months earlier. Sideswiped and hit by an 18-wheeler, he sustained a significant concussion and pelvic fracture while riding his R 1200 RT. I was riding his rebuilt RT when I hit the second deer. I know now, with better clarity than I did then, that within the spiritual fiber of the universe, the dots are all connected.

For the next 14 months I barely rode. Motorcycling wasn’t working for me anymore.  I was scared, nervous and no longer felt in tune.  Every brown mound of dirt, anthill, tree stump, and night-time reflection imparted a stress response for me, and I felt like I was hallucinating, seeing deer or another threat everywhere.

My life outside of motorcycling remained a mess, and the spiral was getting darker. I never thought I would end up divorced and not have a family. I never thought I would know depression and suicidal ideation. I never really thought I would have a bad motorcycle crash. And I never ever thought I would be considered unfit to perform my professional duties at work. My drinking problem was worsening.

Eight months after my two motorcycle crashes, my drinking and mental state took me out of my profession, and I went to a very low place. I never thought I could hate life so much.

Eventually, help came, and I began my journey down the winding road of sobriety, a road I still travel today, seven years later. I recall a moment early on this journey where I experienced complete contentment. As I did with my crashes, I found myself in a situation I did not orchestrate, choose, or want to be in. I was in extreme emotional pain, and someone nearby said something to me about God. Loathsomely, I repudiated the proffered words. To my surprise, during my vehement diatribe, an infinitely benevolent and omniscient presence came and communicated with me. I was informed that my comprehension of self, others, the universe, and God was incorrect. I believe I discovered truth and infinite love. Everything my conscious mind came in contact with looked different. Gradually and slowly, my thinking, my behavior and my personality started changing, as did my relationships with all things, living, inanimate and spiritual.

For many motorcyclists, there’s something deep within us happening while we’re riding. I can’t put my finger on it, but something drew me to this activity a long time ago. The draw had something to do with “coolness” I’m sure, but also there was a stirring of the spirit that motorcycling ignited. I’m thankful for influences like my dad telling me to take a safety course, and I’m thankful that a wrinkled, wiry instructor directly told me, “Helmet, full face, all the time; wear it, one day you will need it.” I’m thankful for BMW and the MOA for creating a culture of responsible riding and keeping me in tune with safety concerns. I am amazed that I am even a thankful person today…it’s so different than how I used to be.

In July of 2010, 14 months after my motorcycle crash and just three months after my spiritual awakening, I was worried about my grandmother’s health and wanted to get to Virginia to see her in case she died. With my new spiritual perception, I considered riding one of my bikes, though I still had extreme anxiety about travelling by motorcycle. I found myself gazing at my bike, realizing that much of what I once thought as being “right” was completely wrong. Something I once thought was hogwash was completely real. Something I once thought was hogwash was completely real. I touched my expensive, custom motorcycle seat and thought about that. I looked at the farkles. I thought about how, through the course of my life, I had over-prioritized or under-prioritized my bikes, my stuff, my wife, my job, my kids, my money and my problems. I thought about the change I was going through—is it real? I looked at the BMW roundel as I pushed the bike’s starter button and thought, “Is this a death machine? Is it for good? What is it? What does it do?”

I packed up my motorcycle and prepared for the first significant ride since my crash and my awakening. Over a three-day period, taking all secondary winding roads, I travelled to Virginia through western North Carolina, West Virginia, and western Virginia.  It was in the Shenandoah Mountains, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth through my in-helmet speakers during a robust thunderstorm with lightening magnificently illuminating the valleys and surrounding peaks, that I knew it was okay to be riding again. That particular ride is etched in my memory as being one of the greatest of all time. As the storm became quite violent, sometime after midnight I found a small motel to take shelter.  Outside of this run-down place and under an overhang by the entrance, there was an Asian woman standing and smoking a cigarette. The rain was torrential, and while I was parking the bike under the overhang, she looked at me inquisitively as I began to undo my helmet. When my helmet and gloves were off, she asked, “Do you like The Doors? You know, Jim Morrison? The band?”

What a strange question.

I said, with a pause, “Yes, I like The Doors.”

She then said, with heavy cigarette smoke all around her, “Are you trying to be a rider on the storm?”

Wow. What is this place at which I stopped? Again with a pause, and very carefully, I said partly to her, partly to myself, “Maybe I am.” It was as if time had slowed down and I was in a different place. I could write pages about the spiritual implications of her question, “Are you trying to be a rider on the storm?”

Since this memorable ride, I’m back to riding full-time again, going to rallies and commuting to work. I’ve purchased more bikes and now have six, and yep, though I’ve been inclined to own others, they’re all BMWs. I’ve joined a local BMW club centered here in Columbia, South Carolina. The folks are wonderful, and the fellowship enriches my riding experience. I’ve introduced my girlfriend to motorcycles, and she’s now a competent rider.

I’m thinking about my crashes, my riding career, how a small pneumothorax and broken ribs were the extent of my injuries despite a severe mechanism and high kinetic energy. I’m thinking about the time I was sleepy, returning from a night shift on my bike and ran a stop sign, crossing a country highway without incident. I could have been snuffed right out. I’m thinking about luck, guardian angels, God, cell phones, inattentive drivers, wet leaves, deer, pea gravel, traffic laws, asphalt, oil spills, and speed limits. I’m also thinking about good rubber, fine engineering, rider education, suspension technology, ABS brakes, all of the things that play a role in moving from one place to another on a two-wheeled machine with or without a mishap.

I’m thinking about life. Living has brought me joy beyond my wildest dreams, and it has also brought pain that I did not expect. The extent of the pain and how long it lasted was somewhat related to my degree of spiritual fitness. Motorcycling has brought joy to all motorcyclists that I know. And for some, it has come at a steep price. My cousin, who’s a swim team head coach at the University of Wisconsin, was the first person I heard say, “If you wanna play, you’ve gotta pay.”

I’m thinking about Kevin Schwantz, who said in an interview, “If you want to ride motorcycles, do it on the track. Not on the street.” He was clear and decisive with no grey zone. That is a very sane statement. I’m also thinking about Carl Edwards, who said, “We are motorcyclists, and we know the risks, and we’re all willing to accept them.”  He said that before he was involved in the crash that killed Marco Simoncelli. I remember Edwards kneeling in the infield, just after the melee; my heart had sunk. I’m thinking about my Dad’s crash, which debilitated him for months. Had he not been retired, it would have cost him thousands in lost income.

Without a higher power in the picture, I’m not sure I could handle the whole thing. I’m going to ride motorcycles until I’m no longer able. This means that while I am emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially able to ride, I’m going to keep riding. I like the idea that I understand the concepts of being grateful and respectful, before riding, during riding, and after riding. Though I understand these concepts, I still have an endless amount of improvement to do in the execution of these concepts.

I am aware that degradation of the flesh, and the eventual culmination to death is an irrepressible process. Motorcycling, in some particular cases, may be an accelerant of that process. I try to meditate about how things can change slowly or suddenly, with or without motorcycles. I try to meditate and to comprehend reality; I try to avoid living in fantasy or make-believe, though with motorcycles, a dream presents itself sometimes.

Sometimes with my bikes and my behaviors I have tendencies towards exactness or perfection. Regarding life, a mentor once told me, “Try to wear it more like a comfortable loose-fitting jacket, not so exactly tailored.”

Recently, I stopped at a Chinese restaurant for a meal while riding. With no other customers, the staff had time to play with their phones and joke around with each other. A young fella came over to me and asked,

“What do you ride, sir?”

“Today I’m on a touring bike, and it happens to be a BMW. I like all motorcycles.”

He lit up, and said, “Wow, my uncle used to race BMW cars.” He went on telling me a lot about his life and motorcycles, how he has ridden dirt bikes his whole life.

I asked how old he was. “Seventeen,” he said. “I got my first street bike, a 1987 Honda Shadow when I was 15. I was living with my dad at the time, but when my mom found out, she freaked, and made me sell it.” He told me his mom was an emergency room nurse and that she had seen too much of the tragic side of motorcycling to allow him to have a bike.

I said, “I remember my mom’s reaction to a motorcycle, and with you only 15 at the time, I can understand your mom’s feelings. I bet one day you’re gonna get another bike, aren’t you?”

He said yes, that he was saving up for one.

“What kind are you thinking about?” I asked.

“A CBR 1000,” he said.

That was not an answer I wanted to hear.

I mentioned to him that in my 30 years of riding and my 20-plus years in emergency medicine I had seen and heard of many things, and in general, unless that bike is strictly for track use and/or the rider has had significant training, 17 year-old males and a CBR 1000 can be a combination for lasting, if not final, consequences.

He said, “Yeah, I’ve seen a lot, too.”

He added, matter-of-factly, “I just lost my father to a motorcycle crash.”

I wasn’t expecting that.

He said, “My dad was showing-off, going about a buck forty-five on a Yamaha R1, wearing nothing. He lived through the crash, but he died a few weeks later because his brain just kept decaying.”

I looked at this kid. Maybe he knew more than I thought he did. My food was getting cold. I really didn’t know what to say. My mouth opened, and words came out.

I said, respectfully, “Don’t be like him.”

The restaurant manager called out to this young fella; he was needed in the kitchen for some to-go orders.

As I was leaving, the kid took my money at the register, and the register started to malfunction. I wrote my name and number down, told him I had several bikes, and one, my F 650, I might sell. I mentioned, “We could ride a little together if you’d like, and maybe your mom might be more comfortable if she got to know me, and she could meet me and my girlfriend, who also rides, and who also is an emergency room nurse, like your mom.”

I was thinking about the kid, a good kid who I wanted to stay alive, a kid I knew had motorcycle blood. I was thinking about his mom and her tough situation. It’s amazing what boys and men put women through, especially women who love us. I was thinking about his dead father. I wanted to do something good. I may have come on too strong and too fast offering my phone number and going riding and all of that.

Suddenly, the interest he had shown earlier seemed now to be only perfunctory. He said, “Nice to meet you,” and was gone.

I found out his name was Nick, and I often wonder what is in his future. He’s not likely to call me. Maybe I’ll go back to the restaurant to eat with my girlfriend, and I’ll be sure she’s on her own machine. It took me a few hours and a night of sleep to realize that I may not have made much difference in his life, but somehow, he helped me, and I know something put me there with that kid. I want him to have good sense, and I want him to live. I know that with motorcycles, it takes a lot more than having good sense, but it’s a good place to start and a good place to stay.

What I want for you Nick, is what I want for myself. I want to have good sense, and I want to live. Thank you, Nick. Thank you for getting me to think about things today.

All good roads lead to gratitude.