I was 23 years old when I first saw someone die. He had been riding a motorcycle in the opposite direction I had been riding on Highway 522 in Woodinville, behaving much the same as I had. Riding fast, doing the occasional wheelie, etc. The difference was that he lost control, hit a guardrail and fell 20 feet onto a rocky median. The force of the accident had torn his shoes from his feet. His red CBR finally came to rest almost a quarter mile down the highway. I saw people surrounding someone on the side of the road and, being trained by Boy Scouts to help any time I could, I stopped. I remember standing 20 feet from this person so remarkably similar to myself, unable to bring myself to face the reality that he was dying until another Good Samaritan told me he didn’t think the guy was going to live long enough for the paramedics to show up.
I remember feeling completely deflated. “There but for the grace of god go I”, I thought. As a fire truck arrived I left. There was nothing I could do for this guy, and I would only get in the way of the firefighters and paramedics. Riding away I felt a great deal of regret, knowing in the darkest parts of my mind that this wasn’t going to change how I rode. Knowing that this rider’s family was going to mourn, his friends would cry, and ultimately he’d be largely forgotten in twenty years… Nothing in me changed.
It’s been said that experiences like this are supposed to make you face your mortality, to reassess your priorities and values. In other people that may be true. Not in me. I’m no tough guy, I get misty at the end of Saving Private Ryan, I’ve cried as an adult, and I genuinely feel bad whenever people around me are upset. In this case, though, I wrapped myself in my sense of invincibility and rationalized it. “There but for the grace of god go I” only applies if my skill set wasn’t superior to his. I made it home, he didn’t. We were doing the same things, but I didn’t hit a guardrail. I was better at it than he was, and because of that I was able to go home and have a few beers with a friend that night.
The next year my cousin wrecked his Ninja 650R in Moses Lake and had to be airlifted to Harborview. When I got word that he was being airlifted I figured it was as a precaution. I assumed I’d arrive to him sitting up in a bed happy to talk to someone from his family. Cary was essentially an uncle to me. Certainly closer to me than my actual uncles.. He had been a Marine during Vietnam. He’d overcome addiction. Cary was tough and was gonna be fine.
When I arrived at the hospital I was met by about a dozen family members and I realized it was more serious than that. He was unconscious. He wasn’t in great shape. I still assumed the doctors at such a good hospital would be able to fix him up.
I spent many nights over the next month bringing bags of Dick’s burgers to his sons as they waited in a tiny waiting room, hoping for Cary to pull through. It sucked. I didn’t own a car, so every time I showed up to give any support I could I walked in wearing a motorcycle jacket and carrying a helmet. My sense of invincibility wasn’t as strong now. Watching his grown sons cry, desperate for their father to be home and healthy again led to many late nights for me. Certainly more for them.
Ultimately Cary was taken off of life support. All I could say to this man that I had immense respect for on his deathbed was “I’ll take it to the track”. I’ll never forget the desperation in his son’s eyes as he sat next to his father, just wanting any response…
I did. About a month later I went to Portland International Raceway and sped legally for the first time.
I didn’t change my habits that day, but it was definitely the turning point.