Beautiful Mourning

This is the end

Beautiful friend

This is the end

My only friend, the end

Jim Morrison, The Doors

As far as could tell, the scheduling of second annual Memories of Dan weekend at Willville Motorcycle Campground on September 11, the third anniversary of the Day That Will Live In Infamy, The Sequel, was purely accidental. Dan Rodriguez, a fellow member of our Twin Valley Riders Motorcycle Club was killed in a freak accident in June, 2003, and this was the second gathering of the Clan to commiserate, reminisce, and console.

For many members of our Club, Willville seems like a clubhouse, given its close proximity. My ride from Blacksburg is a 60 mile trip, 50 of which are on curvy, rural Appalachian backroads. Leaving home Saturday morning with a heavy heart and a case of indigestion, I motored my venerable 1981 Honda CBX into a gorgeous day, with bright sun, warm temperatures, and lazy and indifferent clouds. Summer here is the most generous of seasons, fecund and bountiful, with explosions of green in the forests and fields. Early September is an exciting time, ripe with change in the air, gardens bursting forth with the fruits of their botanical energy, preparing for rapid demise in the brilliant final flair of color of autumn. On this day, the slightest color change was underway already in the outer branches of the maples and on the roadside shrubs. Two turkey vultures tugged at carrion alongside the road near Alum Ridge and a kestrel hovered over unsuspecting prey near Willis.

The day reminded me of the “original” September 11, that snapshot day, when four commercial airliners loaded with luggage and children, vacationers and businesspeople flew at four hundred miles an hour into skyscrapers and defense department buildings and empty fields and changed our nation forever. It was a day where everyone remembers what they were doing when they heard the first plane had struck. Here in Southwest Virginia, six hundred miles from New York and three hundred from the Pentagon, that day was magnificent, with the clearest sky I’d ever taken the time to notice. Within hours, airplanes were grounded nationwide, there was nothing in the sky, not a cloud, not a contrail; even the birds, seemingly out of respect, stayed earthbound.

I pulled into Willville just shy of noon and quickly found Donna and Tim, members of our Club. Donna had dated Dan for a time. Even when their romance faded, she still adored him. Shortly after he died, she wrote in an e-mail on the Club’s list-serve, “He was the one person I knew that if I was in China and needed help, he’d be on the next plane. There has never been anyone like him. I can’t believe he’s gone.” Tim is her new beau, but she still pays her respects each year at Memories of Dan.

A friend of Dan’s named Mike came around and asked us to join the group on the Memories of Dan processional ride. I found myself behind two sidecar rigs and I studied their motion, totally absent of the lean I find so entertaining on my motorcycles. They seemed dangerous to me, but of course motorcycling has its own risks. The evening before, I had thumbed through a new copy of Motorcycle Consumer News, the black and white no-advertisement magazine of motorcycles and gear. There was an article on risk and the factors that increase or decrease risk while riding. I took the self-test and got high scores in the use of protective gear and avoiding alcohol, but fared worse on excess speed and frequency of passing on solid yellow lines. We each can vary the risk in our lives by personal choices, but absolute security is a fiction. Was an office job on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center considered a high-risk job prior to September 11, 2001?

After thirty miles of so, I decided the sidecar rigs were going at a slower pace than I enjoy, so at Childress I peeled off and made beeline back to the Parkway at Rocky Knob. I’d brought running shoes and shorts, so I locked down my Cordura suit and helmet to the bike and took off for a run on the mountain trails, obsessed with risk.

In my limited fitness and having just entered my 5th decade, and having a pair of sore ankles, I was only able to run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills. Perhaps the morning’s indigestion was a factor as well, but I felt sluggish and heavy. For much of the way, the trail hugs the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Piedmont to the south and east. The view was grand where the summer’s haze and greenery still hung to the lowlands, but reading the fractured rock-strewn trail took all my attention. A misstep would have been hell on the ankles, so I tapped-danced the rocky sections and walked the worst areas. I turned around at the high pasture where four sagacious gentlemen sat in lawn chairs, binoculars glued to their eyes, scanning the eastern skies for signs of the upcoming annual hawk migration. On the way back, I missed my turnoff to skirt Rocky Knob itself and wound my way to the summit. There, I had a déjà vu moment at a stone shelter near the summit, where twenty five years earlier I had taken a young woman I was dating at the time for a hike. I was in my mid-twenties at the time; she a few years younger, and while her name is long forgotten, I remember vividly her attractive trusses of blond hair, her eager spirit and mischievous smile. On the descent, I tripped and almost tumbled over a ten-foot drop, catching myself. The Parkway was only 100 yards away; I could be running there. But asphalt is boring. I’d run the woods or not run at all.

I startled a young deer, white-tail waving the air as she bounded away into the woods. I thought a hunter would have taken a shot, killing her indiscriminately just because she was a deer, much as one of Osama Ben Laden’s terrorists would do to me should they find me in their crosshairs, just because I was an American.

Back in camp, I found a rapidly filling field of nylon tents and shiny motorcycles. Many members of our Twin Valley Riders Club were there, including my friend and frequent riding partner Mike and his wife Angie. Hank and Pat were there with their vintage BMW sidecar rig. Dan M. and Kim arrived, Kim on her exquisite new Moto Guzzi. Sidecar Bill was there, and Beemer John, Guzzi Bill and Guzzi Rob and Kiwi Sam, and Bonnie with her Yamaha. I talked for a long time with Roger from Highland County, Virginia’s highest and least populous. He also had a sidecar. “I’m a one-percenter of one-percenters. I figure one percent of the drivers in America drive a motorcycle and one percent of them drive a sidecar rig,” he boasted.

Roger was Dan’s brother in law, his wife and Dan’s ex-wife being sisters. He talked about terrorism, and reasoned that while our war in Afghanistan seemed reasonable and justified, he wondered whether the war in Iraq was justifiable. He said his dad was the consummate conservative, so their vote in the upcoming election would likely cancel each other. He told me he was helping Dan’s young adult daughter to sell Dan’s motorcycles. “A year ago, she wasn’t ready to part with them. I convinced her that now was the time and that having them in the hands of Dan’s friends would be most fitting.”

Then I met Richie Czyzyk, a boyhood friend of Dan’s on Long Island in New York. We talked briefly about his childhood with Dan, with memories of fun and mischief and always many motorcycles. “His loss still hurts,” he told me. “Both my wife and I had tattoos of bright suns needled on us as memories of Dan.”

A huge pot of beef stew sat over an open fire and filled the gullets of riders arriving in twos and threes throughout the evening. Friends and friends-to-be strolled the campground and asked about bikes and rides and travels. The earth gently swiveled away from the sun and the sky filled with stars; the Milky Way hung overhead. I slept with the sounds of crickets and a nearby gurgling brook.

The next morning, I could barely stand, my Achilles tendons tighter than a five-string bluegrass banjo. I limped over to the undraped CBX where dew wetted it as heavily as any rainstorm. A praying mantis sat on the left grip, its odd triangular head in leaden motion atop a distended body, the entirety of this Ayatollah of the small, seemingly entranced in insect hyperspace. It made furtive movements to fly, and then toppled helplessly to the ground, perhaps having recently been spent in a procreative frenzy.

At breakfast I reacquainted myself with Ron, Dan’s older brother, who had ridden his Gold Wing from Long Island, New York. Ron had spent much of the previous day stranded fifty miles away having inadvertently locked his ignition key in his top trunk. It took three locksmiths and a couple hundred dollars to get it open and allow him to complete his journey to Willville. Ron bears a striking resemblance to my cousin, Allen, who grew up not ten miles away from Ron, so I felt an instant familiarity.

“Dan was staying at my mom’s house,” Ron told me about the day Dan died. “Dan and his daughter Liz had come a few days early for my 50th birthday celebration. On the evening of the party, there were fifteen bikes parked out front. Dan and I always had motorcycles. I was older and had built my first bike at age eleven. I was always racing around on it, riding abandoned roads and angering the cops. Once, one followed me home, but I left the bike in the front yard and ran before he saw me. He went to the door and accused Dan of doing the misbehavior I’d done. Dan steadfastly denied everything, but the cop showed him the hot motor and insisted he must be guilty. Dan finally convinced him it had to have been me.

“But I digress. Jason, Dan’s God-son had come by on his new Harley Davidson Springer. Dan decided to take a ride. Dan’s always been entirely safety conscious, but this time, completely out of character, he left with only a t-shirt, sneakers, and shorts. One of us shoved a half-shell helmet on his head. When fifteen minutes went by and he hadn’t returned, we knew something must be wrong. By the time I arrived on the accident scene, which was only a half-mile away, the ambulance was already there. He slid a hundred and twenty feet into a telephone pole. He never regained consciousness and two hours later was dead. There were no witnesses. It was a total freak accident; it just defies explanation.”

He got teary eyed at that point, so I stopped pressing for a minute. He said, “I know what we do is hazardous and even the best go down, but it wasn’t fair. I was buzzing my old Triumph up and down the street at eighty miles an hour earlier in the day. I was the stupid one! I was a total jackass. But I didn’t die, Danny did.”

He continued, “I tried to pursue a legal case against the manufacturer and the dealer, but after spending a thousand dollars, the lawyer called me one day and said, ‘we don’t think we have a case, so we’ve dropped it.’ After that, I didn’t have the heart to continue to pursue it further.”

And then, “I’m sure there’s a lesson her somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.”

But he really did know, as he told me in response to my question about how things had changed for him since then. He said, “I’m a lot nicer to my Mom now. I’m not in such a hurry with my life any more. I’m more willing to step back, to listen more carefully to people now, the way Dan did. I find that more people have a story to tell.”

While he was talking about annual pilgrimages to Willville, I met Abe, a friend from New York City, who had been along for several past trips. Abe was wiry but fit, with a dark complexion and a Michael Jordan moustache and “hairstyle.” Amazingly, Abe was a professional paramedic for the city of New York, who worked in one of the buildings destroyed by Ben Laden’s assholes. “The day the planes struck, I was here at Willville on vacation!” he exclaimed. “I was in the campground and Will yelled for me at the top of his lungs. I knew something must be wrong. I was watching Will’s television when the second plane hit. It was awful. Dan was here and he comforted me in a way nobody else could. Dan said, ‘let’s go for a ride, that’s what we’re here for.’ So we did. With Dan, it was always about the ride. Danny had no clock in his life. It could be around dinnertime after a long day of riding and I’d be ready for dinner. Danny would say, ‘You’ll have plenty of dinners, but you may never be back to ride this road again.’ He was right. My trips to this area are always magical. The people are good and the countryside is beautiful. Danny loved it here.”

Ron said, “On the way home (a few days afterward, to Long Island), I rode through the City. From fifty miles away, I could see the smoke and smell the smell. It was the smell of death.”

It seemed to me that Abe, being a professional paramedic, would have dealt with the very unhappiest situations. “As horrible as the World Trade Center bombing was, I’ve never been as devastated as by the loss of one ten-year old girl,” Abe told me. “We got the call that a girl was having an asthma attack. We were in her door in two minutes. I worked on her for sixty seconds before I knew I couldn’t help her. I carried her to the bus – we call our vehicle the bus – within seconds and within two minutes she was in the emergency room of the nearest hospital. Ten minutes later she was dead. I never knew her, never saw her smile or laugh, but she was ten and she was dead. I sat outside on the stairs and bawled.”

Clearly Abe was a pensive, stoic man, but even he had been affected by the trauma of Dan’s loss. “Dan taught me a lot without ever talking about it. I have three kids and I don’t take the simple things for granted any more. Any hug is meaningful and I appreciate every one of them. That’s what Danny was about. He didn’t get uptight. He was appreciative of people, thoughtful. He kept it simple; fresh air, camaraderie, adventure, motorcycles. He raised a beautiful daughter in Liz, his finest accomplishment.”

He paused for a moment, looking towards the beautiful pavilion and memorial plaque erected in Dan’s honor. “Look at what Dan meant to people. There have been many rich, famous people who have nothing like this built for them. It’s a fitting memorial. In New York, we’re still struggling with what is fitting for the World Trade Center site. Is it hallowed ground to be cherished or do we rebuild and move one? There was a spirit of togetherness and profound empathy after 9/11. It seems we’ve already reverted back to the old ethic of money and power politics. It’s a shame.”

We talked some about the newly planned “Freedom Tower,” the development planned for the Trade Center site. We agreed that it seemed foolhardy to temp Ben Laden’s followers again. “They tried to bring down the towers in 1993 and failed. They tried again in 2001 and they succeeded. The only thing that prevents an attack much worse is logistics, because they want to do us as much harm as possible” he said. One of the credible threats of today is a suitcase sized nuclear bomb placed in a container ship bound for one of our ports. Imagine if today as we talked, a bomb was being unloaded at the Port Of Newark, just across the bay from New York. If three million died in the blast instead of the three thousand at the 2001 attack, how would our nation react? Where and how would we retaliate? What would become of the freedoms that for two centuries have made our country special? Al Qaeda’s ranks are thought to number well over ten thousand worldwide. They will strike again.

After another hour of dallying around the campground, I finally packed the grey CBX and set a course for home. I found a new route for the first thirty miles and noticed that while its scenery resembled so many others nearby, it still had its own identity and character. I had one sphincter-tightening moment when a squirrel ran in front of me while I was keeled over in a tight right-hander, but I recovered skillfully. I practiced smoothness for awhile, consciously watching my transitions from right to left, acceleration to deceleration. After awhile, automaticity set in and movements became unconscious, a magical blending of man and machine.

I passed a country store in Copper Valley where four men in bib-overalls and “John Deere” hats stood around outside chatting in a scene replayed in countless rural communities for decades, tobacco juice and cigarette butts littering the parking lot.

Nearing home, I passed the childhood residence of a life-long friend. She still lives nearby and I see her often. She’s of the soccer mom, seat-belted, floss-after-every-meal type who is always aflutter over my motorcycling, hang-gliding, and mountain climbing exploits. Her risk factors are way below mine, but that’s no guarantee. Life is a terminal disease; none of us will emerge alive. But this day I had. Dan was given forty eight years. Today, I had the privilege of one more day of sentient life, amongst friends and fine machinery, in this beautiful, tiny slice of the solar system’s most appealing and nurturing planet.