Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Roadby Neil Peart
A bold narrative written by a man trying to stay alive by staying on the move. Within a ten-month period, Neil Peart suffered family losses so devastating that they left him a ghost physically a man but with nothing inside: no hope, meaning, faith, or desire to keep living. One year after the first tragedy, Neil was choosing between life and his own… See more details below
A bold narrative written by a man trying to stay alive by staying on the move. Within a ten-month period, Neil Peart suffered family losses so devastating that they left him a ghost physically a man but with nothing inside: no hope, meaning, faith, or desire to keep living. One year after the first tragedy, Neil was choosing between life and his own death. Finally, all he could decide was motion. He got on his BMW R1100GS motorcycle, and over the next 14 months, rode 55,000 miles, in search of a reason to live. On a journey of escape, exile, and exploration, he travelled from Quebec to Alaska, down the Canadian and American coasts and western regions, to Mexico and Belize, and finally back to Quebec. While riding "the Healing Road," Neil recorded in his journals his progress and setbacks in the grieving/healing process, and the pain of constantly reliving his losses. He also recorded with dazzling, colourful, entertaining, and moving artistry, the enormous range of his travel adventures, from the mountains to the sea, from the deserts to Arctic ice, and the dozens of memorable people, characters, friends, and relatives he met along the way, and who increasingly contributed to his healing and sense of meaning and purpose. He begins the journey with nothing, "the Ghost Rider." What he finally attains is joy, love, and indelible memories of the most extraordinary journey of his life. Ghost Rider is a bold, brilliantly written, intense, exciting, and ultimately triumphant narrative memoir from a gifted writer and musician, who started out as a man reduced to trying to stay alive by staying on the move. 2002 Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize finalist. Over 80,000 copies sold. Globe & Mail and Amazon.com bestseller.
- ECW Press
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- 6.04(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.12(d)
Read an Excerpt
Travels on the Healing Road
By Neil Peart, Paul McCarthy, Kevin Connolly
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2002 Neil Peart
All rights reserved.
You can go out, you can take a ride
And when you get out on your own
You get all smoothed out inside
And it's good to be alone
FACE UP, 1991
Outside the house by the lake the heavy rain seemed to hold down the darkness, grudging the slow fade from black, to blue, to gray. As I prepared that last breakfast at home, squeezing the oranges, boiling the eggs, smelling the toast and coffee, I looked out the kitchen window at the dim Quebec woods gradually coming into focus. Near the end of a wet summer, the spruce, birch, poplars, and cedars were densely green, glossy and dripping.
For this momentous departure I had hoped for a better omen than this cold, dark, rainy morning, but it did have a certain pathetic fallacy, a sympathy with my interior weather. In any case, the weather didn't matter; I was going. I still didn't know where (Alaska? Mexico? Patagonia?), or for how long (two months? four months? a year?), but I knew I had to go. My life depended on it.
Sipping the last cup of coffee, I wrestled into my leathers, pulled on my boots, then rinsed the cup in the sink and picked up the red helmet. I pushed it down over the thin balaclava, tightened the plastic rainsuit around my neck, and pulled on my thick waterproof gloves. I knew this was going to be a cold, wet ride, and if my brain wasn't ready for it, at least my body would be prepared. That much I could manage.
The house on the lake had been my sanctuary, the only place I still loved, the only thing I had left, and I was tearing myself away from it unwillingly, but desperately. I didn't expect to be back for a while, and one dark corner of my mind feared that I might never get back home again. This would be a perilous journey, and it might end badly. By this point in my life I knew that bad things could happen, even to me.
I had no definite plans, just a vague notion to head north along the Ottawa River, then turn west, maybe across Canada to Vancouver to visit my brother Danny and his family. Or, I might head northwest through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Alaska, where I had never travelled, then catch the ferry down the coast of British Columbia toward Vancouver. Knowing that ferry would be booked up long in advance, it was the one reservation I had dared to make, and as I prepared to set out on that dark, rainy morning of August 20th, 1998, I had two and a half weeks to get to Haines, Alaska — all the while knowing that it didn't really matter, to me or anyone else, if I kept that reservation.
Out in the driveway, the red motorcycle sat on its centerstand, beaded with raindrops and gleaming from my careful preparation. The motor was warming on fast idle, a plume of white vapor jetting out behind, its steady hum muffled by my earplugs and helmet.
I locked the door without looking back. Standing by the bike, I checked the load one more time, adjusting the rain covers and shock cords. The proverbial deep breath gave me the illusion of commitment, to the day and to the journey, and I put my left boot onto the footpeg, swung my right leg high over the heavily laden bike, and settled into the familiar saddle.
My well-travelled BMW R1100GS (the "adventure-touring" model) was packed with everything I might need for a trip of unknown duration, to unknown destinations. Two hard-shell luggage cases flanked the rear wheel, while behind the saddle I had stacked a duffel bag, tent, sleeping bag, inflatable foam pad, groundsheet, tool kit, and a small red plastic gas can. I wanted to be prepared for anything, anywhere.
Because I sometimes liked to travel faster than the posted speed limits, especially on the wide open roads of the west — where it was safe in terms of visible risks, but dangerous in terms of hidden enforcement — I had decided to try using a small radar detector, which I tucked into my jacket pocket, with its earpiece inside the helmet.
A few other necessities, additional tools, and my little beltpack filled the tankbag in front of me, and a roadmap faced up from a clear plastic cover on top. The rest of the baggage I would carry away with me that morning had less bulk, but more weight — the invisible burdens that had driven me to depart into what already seemed like a kind of exile.
But at that moment, before I'd turned a wheel or even pushed off the centerstand, I reaped the first reward of this journey, when my thoughts and energies contracted and narrowed their focus to riding the machine. My right hand gently rolled on the throttle a little more, left hand wiped away the raindrops already collecting on my clear faceshield, then pulled in the clutch lever. My left foot toed the shifter down into first gear, and I moved slowly up the lane between the wet trees. At the top I paused to lock the gate behind me, wiped off my faceshield again, and rode out onto the muddy gravel road, away from all that.
Just over a year before that morning, on the night of August 10,1997, a police car had driven down that same driveway to bring us news of the first tragedy. That morning my wife Jackie and I had kissed and hugged our nineteen-year-old daughter, Selena, as she set out to drive back to Toronto, ready to start university that September. As night came on, the hour passed when we should have heard from her, and Jackie became increasingly worried. An incorrigible optimist (back then, at least), I still didn't believe in the possibility of anything bad happening to Selena, or to any of us, and I was sure it was just teenage thoughtlessness. She would call; there'd be some excuse.
When I saw headlights coming down the driveway to where the house lights showed the markings of a police car, I remembered the previous summer when the provincial police came to ask about a robbery down the road, and I thought it must be something like that. A mother has a certain built-in radar detector, however, and the moment I announced that it was the police, I saw Jackie's eyes go wide and her face turn white; she knew.
Instinctively, I took her hand as we went out to the driveway to face the local police chief, Ernie Woods. He led us inside and showed us the fax he had received from the Ontario Provincial Police, and we tried to take in his words: "bad news," "maybe you'd better sit down." Then we tried to read the black lines on the paper, tried to make sense of the incomprehensible, to believe the unacceptable. My mind was reeling in a hopeless struggle to absorb those words. "Single car accident," "apparently lost control," "dead at the scene."
"No," Jackie breathed, then louder, "NO," again and again, as she collapsed to the floor in the front hall. At first I just stood there, paralyzed with horror and shock, and it was only when I saw Jackie start to get up that I felt afraid of what she might do, and I fell down beside her and held her. She struggled against me and told me to let her go, but I wouldn't. Our big white Samoyed, Nicky, was frightened and confused by all this, and he barked frantically and tried to push between us. Chief Ernie was afraid to touch the dog, I wouldn't let go of Jackie, and Nicky was trying to protect somebody, to make us stop this, so it was pandemonium as the two of us kicked and yelled at him while his shrill barks echoed through the house.
I held onto Jackie until she was overcome by the numbing protection of shock, and asked Chief Ernie to call our local doctor. Time was all meaningless now, but at some point Nicky crept away to hide somewhere and Dr. Spunt came and tried to say comforting things, but we were unreceptive. Sometime later, Chief Ernie left, then Dr. Spunt too, and for the rest of the night I walked endlessly around the living-room carpet (what I learned later is called the "search mode," in which I was unconsciously "trying to find the lost one," just as some animals and birds do), while Jackie sat and stared into space, neither of us saying anything. In the gray twilight of morning we put the downcast Nicky in the car and headed for Toronto, driving through the rain to face the end of the world.
Just before those headlights came down the driveway to turn our relatively pleasant and tranquil lives into a waking nightmare, Jackie had been fretting on the porch while I blithely watched a TV documentary about the Mormon trek west in 1847. It quoted a woman who had survived the ordeal about the terrible hardships they had endured, and the last words I remember were, "The only reason I am alive is because I could not die." That terrible phrase would come back to haunt me in the months that followed. It soon became apparent that Jackie's world was completely shattered forever; she had fallen to pieces, and she never came back together again.
And neither did the two of us, really, though I tried to do everything I could for her. As my life suddenly forced me to learn more than anyone ever wanted to know about grief and bereavement, I learned the sad fact that most couples do not stay together after losing a child. Outrageous! So wrong, so unfair, so cruel, to heap more pain and injustice on those who had suffered so much already. In my blissful ignorance, I would have imagined the opposite — that those who most shared the loss would cling to each other. But no.
Maybe it's because the mutually bereaved represent a constant reminder to each other, almost a reproach, or it might run as deep as the "selfish genes" rejecting an unsuccessful effort at reproduction. Whatever it was, it was harsh to think that Jackie and I had survived 22 years of common-law marriage; had managed to stay together through bad times and good (with only a couple of "temporary estrangements"); through poverty and wealth, failure and success, crises of youth and midlife and middle age (she was 42; I was 45); through all the stages of Selena's childhood and adolescence; and even my frequent absences, both as a touring musician and an inveterate traveller. We had made it through all that, and now the loss of what we each treasured most would drive us apart.
During those first awful weeks in Toronto our friends and family filled the House of Mourning day and night, trying to distract us and help us deal with this unbearable reality as best they could, but Jackie remained inconsolable, pining and withering visibly into a fragile, suffering wraith. One time she shook her head and looked up at me, "Don't be hurt, but I always knew this was the one thing I just couldn't handle."
She wouldn't let me comfort her, and didn't want anything to do with me really. It was as though she knew she needed me, but her tortured heart had no place in it for me, or anybody. If she couldn't have Selena, she no longer wanted anything — she just wanted to die. She had to be coaxed into eating anything at all, and talked of suicide constantly. I had to keep a close watch on her sedatives and sleeping pills, and make sure she was never left alone. When she did surrender to a drugged sleep, she held a framed picture of Selena in her arms.
After a couple of weeks I took Jackie away to London, England, accompanied by our friends Brad and Rita. I had known Brad since childhood, and in the early '70s he and I had shared a flat in London, where he had met Rita, a refugee from the Shah's Iran, and brought her back to Canada. Brad and Rita had known great tragedy in their own lives, so they were a good choice to help Jackie and me begin our exile. After they went home, other friends came to stay with us for a week or two at a time, and eventually we moved into a small flat near Hyde Park, where we stayed for six months. We started seeing a grief counsellor, "Dr. Deborah," several times a week at the Traumatic Stress Clinic, which seemed to help a little, and at least got us outside occasionally. It was hard for me to try to force Jackie even to take a walk, for she was tortured by everything she saw — by advertisements for back-to-school clothes (Selena!), children playing in the park (Selena!), young girls on horseback taking riding lessons (Selena!), pretty young women in the full pride of youth (Selena!). These same triggers stabbed me too, of course, and I also felt bleak and morose and often tearful, but it seemed I was already building a wall against things which were too painful for me to deal with, wearing mental blinkers when I was outside in the busy streets of London. I would just flinch and turn away from such associations, but Jackie remained raw and vulnerable, unable to protect herself from the horror of memory.
In an effort to keep her eating nutritiously, I even learned to cook simple meals in our little kitchenette (thanks to the food hall in the Marks and Spencer store on Oxford Street, which offered cooking instructions with every item, even fresh fish and vegetables), calling myself "Chef Ellwood," after my unfortunate middle name. But none of it was enough. As I tried to look after Jackie in every way I could, only ever leaving her alone for a fast afternoon walk around the park or through the London streets (with the pills locked in the safe), or to buy the day's groceries, it was like witnessing a suicide brought on by total apathy. She just didn't care.
The following January, when we were finally thinking about returning from London to try to find some kind of life back in Canada, Jackie began to suffer from severe back pain and nocturnal coughing. She refused to let me get a doctor, saying, "They'll just say it's stress," but Dr. Deborah finally prevailed on me to make an executive decision and get a doctor anyway. On the eve of our departure, Jackie was diagnosed with terminal cancer (the doctors called it cancer, but of course it was a broken heart), and a second nightmare began.
Jackie's brother Steven met us in Toronto and soon took over the household, controlling the number of visitors (who called him "The Gatekeeper"), and supervising Jackie's care as I felt myself slipping into a kind of "protective insanity," a numb refuge of alcohol and drugs.
Jackie, however, received the news almost gratefully — as though this was the only acceptable fate for her, the only price she could pay. After months of misery, despair, and anger (often directed at me, as the handiest "object"), she never uttered a harsh word after that diagnosis, and rarely even cried. To her, the illness was a terrible kind of justice. To me, however, it was simply terrible. And unbearable.
After two months of dissipation in Toronto, I pulled myself together, and we fulfilled Jackie's wish to go to Barbados. Two years previously we had enjoyed a memorable family vacation in that pleasant island-nation, and it offered sufficient medical services to allow us to continue providing home care for Jackie, even when she began to decline sharply, needing oxygen most of the time, slipping away both mentally and physically, until a series of strokes brought a relatively merciful end.
Exhausted and desolated, I flew back to Toronto, staying there just long enough to organize the house and put it on the market, with more help from family and friends, then got away to the house on the lake, still not knowing what I was going to do. Before she died, Jackie had given me a clue, saying, "Oh, you'll just go travelling on your motorcycle," but at that time I couldn't even imagine doing that. But as the long, empty days and nights of that dark summer slowly passed, it began to seem like the only thing to do.
I didn't really have a reason to carry on; I had no interest in life, work, or the world beyond, but unlike Jackie, who had surely willed her death, I seemed to be armored with some kind of survival instinct, some inner reflex that held to the conviction that "something will come up." Because of some strength (or flaw) of character, I never seemed to question "why" I should survive, but only "how" — though that was certainly a big enough question to deal with at the time.
I remember thinking, "How does anyone survive something like this? And if they do, what kind of person comes out the other end?" I didn't know, but throughout that dark time of grief, sorrow, desolation, and complete despair, something in me seemed determined to carry on. Something would come up.
Or maybe it was more like the Mormon woman's statement, "The only reason I am alive is because I could not die."
In any case, I was now setting out on my motorcycle to try to figure out what kind of person I was going to be, and what kind of world I was going to live in. Throughout that first day on the road, as I traced the rain-slick highway north across the rocky face of Quebec, my shaky resolve would be tested a few times. Tense and shivering, peering through the turbulent wash of spray behind a lumber truck for a chance to pass, more than once I thought about packing it in. "Who needs this? I'm really not having fun, and I don't think I'm strong enough to deal with this right now. Why not turn around and go back to the house by the lake, hide there a little longer?"
But no. That too would be a perilous road.
Excerpted from Ghost Rider by Neil Peart, Paul McCarthy, Kevin Connolly. Copyright © 2002 Neil Peart. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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