Still They Ride

“So if Nick hadn’t died,” my son said as I raised his leg off the bench at Ray’s and slipped on the ankle guard, “then it would have been me, you, and him here today. But now, it’s just us.”

“That’s right,” I replied.

“But he would want us to ride here anyway.”

“Yes.”


Slightly after seven last Saturday morning, my old friend Martin pulled up in his new 340i six-speed. Seventeen years ago, he arrived here from Bolivia to race and train in Ohio. I predicted that he would never leave, and I was right. At one point or another, we’ve been roommates, training partners, and co-workers. More than that, we’ve been friends. He knew Nick and raced with him. The plan was for us to attend the funeral in Kentucky and then ride the underground BMX trails at the Mega Cavern in Louisville.

I was prepared to see Nick’s coffin but I was not prepared to see his two S&M Speedwagon bikes, the twenty-inch and the cruiser, on both sides of it. I’d given him a hard time about those bikes; I thought it was willful anachronism on his part to have a pair of custom steel frames built instead of doing something modern. Yet he won with them, right down to the last race before his death, some thirty days ago. We sat on chairs that were seemingly designed to be uncomfortable and I was angry with myself for noticing.

My ex-wife had gone to the viewing the night before; she’d told me there were hundreds of people lined up. At the service, I counted fifteen rows of twelve chairs, most of them filled half an hour before the service began, and standing room only behind. His wife, daughters, and son spoke to everyone afterwards. I thought about the sheer unbridled misery involved in that. About each and every person wanting a private, personalized conversation about your dead husband or father. About the hunger that each one of us had to be included in their moment. At that moment I felt like a vicious narcissist for having attended, for wanting a moment of my own with the family. I resolved to just stand up and walk out without bothering them — but when the time came I was just as weak-willed as everybody else. I lined up for my benediction and received it, regardless of the cost someone else paid to give it.

The misery of that receiving line. How many times can you hear that somebody was the best friend, the greatest racer, the kindest man they’d ever met? What does that do to you? What about all the private resentments and anger that you have about that person? How does that receiving line not come across as a weapons-grade repudiation of how you feel, a negation of your right to be angry? If everybody tells you that your family member was a saint? Who has the right to be angry with a saint? But wasn’t Nick too old to be training at that level, riding at that level? At what point do you owe more to the people around you than you owe to yourself?

My own dad regularly reads me the riot act about racing, about riding motorcycles on the street. “You should measure what you get out of it against what will happen if your son grows up without a father.” The only response I can ever give him is that maybe it’s worse to have a father who gave up on who he was just to be amorphously present. That if I stop doing the things that animate me then I’m just a placeholder for John. And what’s the point of being just another overweight suburban dad issuing directives from a worn-down spot in front of the television? How is that useful to my son? At that point I’m just a commodity. Millions of us in this country: lonely, useless men, marking out the end of our allotted days in the darkness of shuttered windows. Our faces lit up with the sickly LED glow. Microsoft Excel by day and Netflix by night.

At the Mega Cavern I walked up to buy the tickets and two twenty-something mountain bikers commented on the fact that I was wearing a suit. I snapped at them to the point that they both kind of wilted. Then I felt even worse. I wadded up the Super 180s Canali three-button, the delicate patterns woven monochrome and textured into background, the funeral outfit of somebody so deeply self-involved that they can’t even bear to be seen in a plain black suit. Tossed it all into the BMW. Then it was time to ride.

I hadn’t ridden trails since ’04. It wasn’t easy to get back into the swing of things, particularly on a bike I’d built from scratch the night before in a kind of fevered, distracted rush. But in the end it was Martin who bailed, trying a bigger boost on a fifteen-foot gap and landing leaned over, scraping the finish off his helmet in a three-pronged scar, embedding a rock in his elbow.

Then another kid went down hard enough to need help. Danger Girl was there and she recognized the signs of a concussion. Blood in the eyes, a cheap helmet pushed back by the impact. “I’m fine,” the kid told me, with the dead voice that typically comes from drug addicts.

We drove home and we talked about Nick, about our memories. Made calls to Bolivia, talked to our friends. Made plans for the World Championships. Then we picked up John at his mom’s house and, after Martin left, we tucked in for the night.

Sunday we went to Ray’s MTB park in Cleveland. It’s this fascinating labyrinth, everything you could imagine, an old factory packed to the gills with obstacles both terrifying and mundane. At one point I got separated from John and DG. I was lost on the trails for fifteen minutes. Rode a long suspended skywalk that dipped two stories then a step-up jump that rattled my teeth. Finally found my way back to my son, who was winding through a series of wooden humps and slatted, banked walls.

Over three hours, as I watched my son vibrate with joy at discovering and conquering two dozen different paths and jumps, I felt the bike coming back to me. The old motions, the old understanding. It’s more than driving a car. You need the same delicacy of touch but there has to be force and strength behind it. Those qualities are sorely lacking in my modern self but I managed to jump a few hip boxes, cross-up past the seat, nose myself down. Every bone and muscle in my body hurt when I called time. John was furious.

“I want to come back right away,” he said. “We should bring Martin.”

“He’ll come next time, I promise.”

“I wish Nick could have come,” John said. I looked out the window of the Tahoe and waited for the cheerful voice, the adult voice, the one you give to children so they don’t catch the forest fire of fear from the careless spark in your own words, to arrive for me.

40 Replies to “Still They Ride”

  1. -Nate-Nate

    Too many question in your thoughts to answer them all Jack .
    .
    Nice to see John has a good attitude about life and it’s foibles .
    .
    Those who ride, will do so until they can’t, it’s as simple as that .
    .
    -Nate

  2. Carl Kolchak

    As you get older, the losses, of the human kind, accumulate. The best thing you can do is soldier on. Their story becomes part of your story. You have the “What would _____ do moments. Eventually you get to point when you think of them you smile or let out a little laugh and not a tear..most of the time.

  3. 98horn

    When I was a senior in high school, one of the bright lights of our school got into an argument with her mother about which very good college she would attend. In response to this, she walked into the garage, closed the door, turned on her honda civic and killed herself. As editor of the school newspaper and a top student, she was known to everyone, and most of my senior class attended her funeral. At the end, her father shook each of our hands and thanked us for being there. It struck me at that time that it must have been the hardest thing in the world for him. This was confirmed for me at my son’s own funeral. I understand now that you go on because life means something, that the things we do and the people we touch have value. The pain and the loss and the heartache are a part of life, but they are not the point.

  4. Ronnie Schreiber

    About each and every person wanting a private, personalized conversation about your dead husband or father. About the hunger that each one of us had to be included in their moment…

    Have you ever attended a traditional Jewish shiva? Jewish funerary practices focus on three things, it seems to me: Not denying death, treating the deceased’s body with respect, comforting the mourners. Tradition acknowledges that comforting of the mourners can be stressful for the mourners.

    A possible fourth point is getting on with the mourning, we bury people within 24 hrs of death. There’s no embalming, no public display of the body, and at the cemetary the coffin is indeed lowered into the ground, with immediate family members shoveling the first clods of dirt. If there is a singular sound in this world, it’s the sound of a shovelful of dirt hitting a wooden box.

    A rabbi that I know gets upset because the local orthodox Jewish funeral home has a small receiving room to the side of the chapel, for the family to greet visitors before the funeral service prior to the procession to the cemetary. He insists that the funeral is for the deceased, not the family, and that “sitting shiva” is for the mourners. Shiva, which means 7 in Hebrew, is the seven day mourning period immediately after burial.

    Immediate family members stay at home for seven days following the burial. Prayer quora (minyanim) are arranged to be held for the three daily prayer services so the mourners can recite the mourners’ kaddish, which ironically does not mention death. There are a variety of kaddish prayers used for various occasions but they’re all about magnifying and sanctifying God’s name. A quorum of ten Jewish men is required for some prayers, including kaddish.

    The misery of that receiving line. How many times can you hear that somebody was the best friend, the greatest racer, the kindest man they’d ever met? What does that do to you?

    During shiva people start coming over early in the day, for the morning prayer service. If it’s a Sunday or as in the case of my father’s death, a national holiday (he died on July 2) there will be a big crowd all day long. Otherwise, people will return in the evening for the combined afternoon/evening prayer service, and then lots of folks will come over at night. It’s traditional to take care of mourners’ needs by sending in food for them, but there will also sometimes be some refreshments for visitors spread out.

    It can get a little tiring to have that much attention, after about four or five days I really needed some privacy, but some of my fondest, most enduring memories are the kind things people said to me about my father during shiva. “I knew your father. I loved your father.” How can you feel bad about that?

    My dad was a veterinarian. During shiva, a respected M.D., Murray Kling, a surgeon, said to me, “Your father was the best diagnostician in Detroit.” “You mean veterinary?” “No, in general. MD’s consulted him on a regular basis.”

    I’m sure that Nick’s family will treasure your presence and the things said about him at the viewing.

  5. VTNoah

    Great read Jack. Makes me really envious of all the great riding spots down south. Vermont is a wasteland when it comes to BMX trails/parks. Closest pro level spot is Rye Airfield in New Hampshire.

  6. hank chinaski

    Great piece.
    If I was your orthopod I don’t know if I’d send you hate mail for risking my hard work or a thank you for all the boat payments.

  7. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I live, therefore I ride. While I’m not, and never was, a BMX rider, I was hell on a dirt bike for 30+ years. My last “off” on one, a built to the hilt XR 600 R Honda ( around 60hp) resulted in me being laid up for 7 weeks. Physics are an irrefutable force, a motorcycle that hits a cable at 70 mph will stop, the rider, not so much. I’m told I resembled Superman as I flew thru the next 100 feet, and then caused folks to think of Gumby as I slid and flopped down the trail. I don’t recommend you try this at home.
    Anyway, the funeral I attended Saturday made me question some of my life choices over the last few years. My friend still rode dirt, and I’m now pondering a return to a dirt bike. Not some monster that can throw dirt further than a monster truck, maybe a nice little 250cc. With maybe a cam in it. And higher compression. And a pipe. Maybe some………
    Maybe I better get a 125, and live a couple more years.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Who laid the cable out? Some dickhead landowner?

      I encountered something similar many years back. Long downhill MTB trail on public property. Noticed that there was a new spur to the right. Headed that way. Saw something gleaming. Locked up the V-brakes and started yelling at the guys behind me. Strung between two trees, across the trail, at chest height, was a nice string of prison-style razor wire.

      • Dirty Dingus McGee

        Jesus Christ. Razor wire? Glad you saw it.

        For 3 years I tried to get an answer on how the cable came to be there. It was on public land, altho there were timber companies that owned nearby land. One end of the cable was wrapped around a tree, the other end locked to a 5′ tall piece of telephone pole that was also concreted into the ground about 4′ deep. Unfortunately for me, I had just came over the crest of a hill, and was in the air, when I saw it. As you might expect, your brakes are ineffective when they are not in contact with tera firma.
        DNR couldn’t/wouldn’t give me an answer, the local police were even less enthusiastic about investigating as they assumed (rightly) that I was “one of them scumbags we see out on the road”. Even tho I had pretty good insurance at that time, I was still out of pocket about $14K (and a totaled bike). I had 7 broken ribs, broken left clavicle, broken left ankle, dislocated right shoulder, knocked my left knee cap half off, broke 3 fingers on my right hand and aggravated a previous lower back injury. It was about a year before I could ride my street bike more than around town, without wanting a shot of morphine..

    • VTNoah

      Happened to my Dad in India while riding his cruiser back in the late 70’s or early 80’s. It was definitely purposeful. He was stopped by some local tough’s asking for money before he could continue on down the road, he told them to Eff off and kept riding. They radioed their friend to either pull a cable tight or knock him off the bike using something. They took everything from him, clothes, money, shoes, and called an ambulance to pick up a dead body. He woke up in a hospital a month later with barely any memory.

  8. -Nate-Nate

    “It was about a year before I could ride my street bike more than around town, without wanting a shot of morphine..”.
    .
    Yet still we ride .
    .
    Skip the morphine ~ I hated that stuff and had to threaten to kill my Nurse before they’d stop pumping it into me after my (near) fatal Moto collision .
    .
    Nick will live on in the hearts and minds of all those lucky enough to have known him .
    .
    -Nate

    • Dirty Dingus McGee

      I’m not a morphine fan, nor a Percocet, Oxywhatever or even Loratab. I am however even less a fan of pain. Not “ouch I pinched my finger pain”, but the injuries that makes even your hair hurt. I didn’t threaten the nurse, I just didn’t take a pill until I was cross-eyed from the pain. By the time I left the hospital, 17 days, I had quit narcotic pain killers and was relying on 4-6 ibuprofen a day.
      It didn’t seem to harm me much. And it didn’t seem to harm me much. It didn’t seem to…………
      Never mind. 🙂

      • -Nate-Nate

        Spinal / Cervical pain is a whole ‘nother ball game, as you said, it was like my hair hurt .
        .
        However, morphine , hillbilly heroin and so on , all make it so I talk to people who died forty years ago ~ I hate that, being loopy .
        .
        Every morning the nurse would come in and ask me how I was feeling then without listening, ask if I wanted more dope ~ as I tried to say ” ! NO GODAMMIT ! ” zoop ~ off I’d go into LaLa Land again as she shot me up again .
        .

        I finally waited for her and the instant she hove into view I said ” if you give me one more morphine shot, as soon as I can get out of this bed I’m going to squeeze your neck until your head pops like a tomato ”
        .
        She ran off and shortly the Doctor came and asked me why i wanted to kill my nurse……
        .
        I explained it to him and he said ‘ but you’re in pain..’ DUH .I’ll _ASK_ for dope when I need it like after my Cervical Surgery and fusion . other wise, no thanx .
        .
        They gave me bottles of hillbilly heroin (oxycodone) most of it I flushed .
        .
        Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen both attack your liver and kidneys if you take more than about 800 Mg / 24 hours so watch it as that’s a horrible, pain full way to die .
        .
        -Nate

        • 98horn

          A doctor friend of mine tells that NSAIDs are by far the most dangerous drug for your health.

        • Mental

          I have been blessed enough, despite many of the same poor decisions, to never be really laid up. But for a hernia surgery 10 years back and wisdom teeth 10 year before that I was given percocet. I took one pill with the teeth and never again. A dull grinding pain is much better than an inability to grasp reality. For both surgeries I have a bad reaction to anesthesia. Not allergic mind you, but I wake up angry because my brain does not like having time pass with being aware.

          My Dad had intestinal surgery a number of years back and asked for the morphine drip to be disconnected. He did not like the effects and hallucinations and told the Dr he would rather “just hurt.” So I might get it naturally.

        • Dirty Dingus McGee

          Being as I probably use 10-12 200mg ibuprofen a year these days, I’m betting the dollop of rum I allow myself at times are more dangerous to my liver.
          Over the years I’ve developed a pretty high pain tolerance, to the point where coworkers will point out that I’m “leaking”. Didn’t even realize I had scuffed myself, until they point it out. And as I’m pushing 60 (pushing REAL hard), I have more things that hurt, than don’t. If I can still motivate under my own power in 10 years, assuming I’m still processing oxygen, I’ll be a happy camper.

          • -Nate-Nate

            I don’t know what ‘ NAIDS ‘ drugs are .
            .
            I’ve had multiple neft and right inguinal hernias, ruptures, surgeries and recurrences ~ apparently you can be genetically prone to hernias, Pops had seven IIRC .
            .
            The first one was done by Kaiser and they didn’t do the mesh thing then, my Doctor never showed up and I was on the table so the Intern had a go, it ripped loose in Post Op and I bled all over the floor .
            .
            I too often get asked ‘ why are you leaking now ? ‘ and don’t realize I’m bleeding all over the place .
            .
            Hopefully my mediocre coagulation means I won’t get strokes…..(?) mini strokes are what did in my Mother in the end .
            .
            The Social Secretary for the V.J.L.A. Motocycle Club of whom I’m a core member, rode into his 80’s , I hope to match that even if on my old Honda 90 Moto .
            .
            If not, screw it ~ I’ve had more life squeezed in so far than most ever do so I’m ready to go if not in any hurry .
            .
            I’m pretty sure my pain tolerance lever is low like it was when I was 6 Y.O. ~ I hate it , I just hate the dope more .
            .
            -Nate

          • 98horn

            NSAID (non-steroid anti-inflamatory drug) are acetominophin, asprin, ibroprofen. Danger is stomach bleed and liver damage. Be careful man!

  9. ltcftc

    About each and every person wanting a private, personalized conversation about your dead husband or father. About the hunger that each one of us had to be included in their moment…

    For my father’s funeral, I remember going through the motions of this, trying to do my duty out of respect for my parents while trying to make it easier for the mourners to go through their part. There is very little material out there to teach the wider population on how to mourn, and I’d feel for people as they’d say the most awkward or inappropriate things while trying to remain graceful. It was only about a week later, once everyone had resumed life as normal and the house seemed strangely quiet, that what I realised what I’d been through.

    Jack, if you want to do something for Nick’s wife and children, consider reaching out to them in a few days time and let them know that you haven’t forgotten him nor them. Just the fact that somebody else is thinking about him and what he meant to them will help them feel less lonely.

  10. Gene

    Another reason I find myself trying to read everything you write. Damn I want to buy you a beer sometime.

  11. Andy W

    “And what’s the point of being just another overweight suburban dad issuing directives from a worn-down spot in front of the television? How is that useful to my son? At that point I’m just a commodity. Millions of us in this country: lonely, useless men, marking out the end of our allotted days in the darkness of shuttered windows. Our faces lit up with the sickly LED glow. Microsoft Excel by day and Netflix by night. ”

    Great writing.

  12. Mental

    My Dad was a hellion of sorts in his day. None of these stories come from him, all from his friends, my mother and long departed relatives. He road old school enduros. He would drive all night with my godfather to some god forsaken Carolina swamp, drink a case of beer, sleep in the van and the next day fail to finish one of those brutal events. Limp back to the van and drive all night to get home.

    Before I moved in with him all of the bikes were sold after my step-brother demolished 1/2 his face running from the cops on a non street legal Honda 80 (he is fine). So my Dad became “another overweight suburban dad issuing directives from a worn-down spot in front of the television.”

    In 1997 he came to visit me in Nebraska and saw my Kawi LTD, mentioning he was thinking about getting another bike himself. It was an awful Suzuki 125, but he rode it. Eventually he bought my old Yamaha V-Star and he really did ride, a lot for the next 10 years. In 2015 I took him to Sturgis, checking that off his bucket list.

    His eyesight is going now and he is hinting the bike will end up in may garage soon. He puts up a front but I know he hates it. Since he started riding again he doesn’t question my riding, or racing. I know his time here is limited, too much of our conversations these days center on his various Dr appointments. But seeing him at both ends of the spectrum, just reaffirms where I want to be.

  13. DirtRoads

    Great story Jack, thanks for writing it.

    Not surprised to see that you ALSO have lime green tires on that fugly lime green bike lol.

    (you know I love ya)

  14. galactagog

    That was a profound article

    What a great gesture for a fallen friend

    I had no idea there were such good indoor riding facilities around. and underground!

  15. Georgeann Pearson

    At the funeral, all I wanted to hear was how great people thought my husband was. I needed to see that other people knew the loss I was feeling. I could listen and tell stories about the amazing person I called my husband for hours on end. Of course, I always felt like we totally appreciated the time we had together because we were inseperable for 31 years, but a lifetime just isn’t enough. I needed to see and talk to each person, I am so glad people came and his service was amazingly him. It was almost as if he guided me and the kids in putting together the video, bikes, helmets, gloves, his special t-shirts and pictures. Very proud of the man I loved for more than 3/4 of my life. Feel free to send me a story about him anytime.

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