Taillights and memories

What are we all here for anyway?

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Grandfather Mountain, NC

I’d never even heard his name before. I was sixteen years old and starting my first “real” job. I’d be doing odd jobs at a golf course. Mowing, raking leaves, “whipping” the greens every morning, oh, and dodging golf balls. Greg was at least fifteen years older than I. He rode a motorcycle. He smoked (not just tobacco, either) and did pretty much any other substance he could get his hands on. He was almost certainly the most intellectually eager human being I had ever met.

I grew up in a mountain town of about five hundred souls. Deep history. But not a whole lot of intellectual curiosity. There were plenty of smart people around. They regularly kicked my ass academically. But there just wasn’t much passion for the unknown. I’m kind of a big question guy. I don’t so much care what the answer is, I just want new questions. Preferably questions nobody has ever before answered to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Greg was my very first introduction to philosophy (my wife would become my ultimate partner in those endeavors).

But here, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I found someone who spent their time thinking the same kinds of thoughts I had always entertained. Thoughts that went beyond “how do I fix this carburetor?” or “will I have a date on Saturday night?”. Here was someone with adventure woven into his soul.

He’d left home right after high school. Spent the last two years of the Vietnam war on an army base in Germany. When he returned to the states he took diving lessons and worked for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico doing underwater welding. He traveled all over the country taking on jobs that made him just enough money to get by while he tried to figure out what life was all about. At one point, he found himself in Wyoming working as a roughneck on an oil rig. When that tour ended, he hopped on his Yamaha SR500 and made a beeline for home. Over twenty hours of riding, stopping for nothing but fuel. He was around forty years old and had spent most of the last twenty years on the road. He had a lot of stories to tell and I sat in rapt attention listening to him.

Greg was a student. Not a formal academic, but rather someone who had never stopped learning. He could spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Eastern religion or with a flip of the subject, the mechanics of rebuilding a motorcycle transmission. He defined “Renaissance Man” to me. He knew something about almost everything and was one of those “most interesting men in the world” types.

But life in what Western culture had become bored Greg silly. Like most people with half a brain, a bit of compassion, and a taste for adventure, capitalism represented subjugation and exploitation. It just wasn’t a game he wanted to play. He’d grown up with money and saw the single-minded pursuit of it as something of a moral failing. The fact that all of Western culture had become enslaved to its pursuit had left him more than a little distressed and depressed.

My friend died young. Not in a noble way either. He didn’t kill himself. The end was as forlorn as his view of the world had become. He was run over by a car in whiteout conditions on a cold winter’s night in his hometown. The driver of the car never saw him and his family declined to press charges. It was simply an accident that nobody could have foreseen.

I met my wife about a year after Greg was killed. And to be honest, he didn’t cross my mind much over the years. Like so many of our early relationships, we had just sort of drifted apart. Twenty four years later though, on one of the darkest nights my soul has ever known, this man came to me in a dream.

It was a late December night, about a month after Liz had died. I hadn’t really gotten a decent night’s sleep in about three years. There was something otherworldly about everything since my universe had come to an end on the Monday before Thanksgiving. This particular night I had already been visited by my father (who had passed away twenty-two years previously).

Here, in the pre-dawn hours, I found myself straddling a motorcycle on an empty road. I looked to my right and Greg sat there, on the very SR500 Yamaha he had ridden all those years before. He wore the same blanket lined denim jacket and Marlboro Man mustache he had always sported. He grinned at me, laughed out loud, gunned the engine and took off. I chased him, across the flats and up over the hill. The last thing I saw before I woke up was the taillight of that Yamaha going around the bend in front of me. I was strangely comforted by this visit from a nearly forgotten specter of my past. He hadn’t said a word and yet he told me all I needed to hear.

Thank you for reading.