Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, my dad had a paper route on his bicycle and then his scooter—perhaps discovering then his love of two wheels. I picture him as a teenager on his Vespa, sky blue with bloody clouds of rust, crackling and smoking across the bridges of Pinellas County. The evening papers, hot from the press, are rolled like warm loaves in his leather satchel. His taillight is a red ruby in the falling darkness.
Fifty-six years later, in the fall of 2017, I left my home in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Blitzen, my 1989 Harley-Davidson Sportster—a bike my dad and I had built together—bound for New Orleans. My route would take me down the old coastal highway, U.S. 17, stopping overnight at my parents’ house south of Savannah, where I grew up, before heading across the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. My longest solo ride yet.
I wasn’t even out of town before the bike gave me trouble, a slight misfire. I called my old man. We usually spoke a few times a week. I’d been riding on the back of his Harley since I was in grade school. When I was in my teens, we’d hunted the back roads of South Georgia for places to ride our dirt bikes. Now, with me in my thirties, we were becoming closer friends than we’d ever been. We’d worked side by side on Blitzen with hardly a tiff—no small feat when wrenching on a 30-year-old motorcycle. What’s more, we’d begun to share a love of riding like never before. I still remember the knowing light in his eyes when I described the feeling of my first long solo ride.
I’ll never forget the first time he let me ride his prized 90th Anniversary Harley-Davidson Wide Glide. I was 16, and we were on country roads south of the Florida line. When we stopped for gas, I pulled up next to him, overly excited, and my foot slipped in a patch of gravel. Almost in slow motion, I dropped the bike, 600 pounds of Milwaukee iron. I could see the pain and frustration in his face. But instead of lashing out, he gritted his teeth and brought his emotions to heel, even as he thumbed the new dents and scratches in his once-perfect machine.
“Happens to the best of us,” he told me. True, everyone who rides a motorcycle will drop one sooner or later. Still, how easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Rick Brown—my dad—didn’t. I believe that’s one of the great lessons I learned from him: that character often requires us to place what is right over what is easy.
Back in Wilmington, after a few minutes on the phone, we decided that Blitzen’s misfire was only a fleck of rust or debris that made it through the fuel filter—the engine was throbbing low and steady now, like a mechanical heart.
I hit the road.
On rides like these, I always avoid the interstates, just as he taught me. There’s so much more to see on the back roads and byways. The roadside produce stands and junk shops, the Pentecostal churches and mom-and-pop restaurants and gas stations that serve coffee in tiny Styrofoam cups—the best coffee in the world when you’re just off your motorcycle, rain-soaked and shivering.
For me, there’s nothing as therapeutic as a long ride on the back roads. It feels like the wind gradually blows away the nests of doubt and anxiety that gather inside us. I think on motorcycles we are uniquely vulnerable. We are, perhaps, closer to death, and that puts the lesser worries of everyday life back in their place.
After spending the night in Charleston, I took off early the next morning, riding south over the green-brown marshes and blackwater rivers, bound for Georgia. My old man met me in downtown Savannah. We ate lunch and went to a bookstore and sat at one of the hotel bars high over the water, watching the river traffic chug past. It was an unexpectedly special day. A gift.
The next night, we sat side by side at the kitchen counter while we planned the next legs of my trip. I made note cards as he traced his fingers across the worn atlases he’d used time and again. I was taking many of the same roads he’d ridden in times past, following his path across the Gulf Coast.
There are sons who want to be like their fathers and sons who don’t. I’ve never doubted which I am.
When I slung my leg over Blitzen the next morning, our note cards were safe in my front pocket, in a plastic sandwich bag to protect them from the elements. It was October 16, two days before my 35th birthday. In a photo taken that morning, I’m wearing my secondhand black leather jacket and my red backpack, and my dad’s old weatherproof duffel is tied over the back of my saddle.
The weather was foggy. I rode over the bridges and causeways of the Georgia coast, where the water looked pale beneath the mist, almost white, winding through the darkened cordgrass of the falltime marsh. I rode down Highway 17 through a string of small towns, skirting the Okefenokee Swamp and the Osceola National Forest, making my way to the Panhandle.
I still have the note cards that tell me the towns—Folkston, Macclenny, Sanderson, Lake City, Branford—along with the trip checklist my father gave me, listing such necessities as “Tire patch kit/pump” and “Duct/electrical tape” and “Cigars/lighter/cutter.”
Armando Veve for Reader’s DigestAround lunchtime, I stopped in Mayo, Florida, where I took photos of the Udder Delight ice cream shop. I texted with my old man. He’d ridden to a diner called Steffens near the Georgia-Florida border for lunch and sent me a photo of a die-cast 1940 Ford coupe sitting on a shelf there—a model like the bootlegging car from my novel Gods of Howl Mountain, which we’d “researched” together at vintage car shows and moonshine festivals.
He told me he’d checked the weather and the heavier rain was staying north of my route. He said Wakulla County, Florida—my night’s destination—was partly cloudy and 88 degrees. I didn’t reply. I was already back on the road.
When I got the call from my mom, I was at the lodge in Wakulla Springs, south of Tallahassee. I’d just arrived. I knew from the sound of her voice that something had happened, though details were scarce. There had been an accident. A concrete truck had pulled out in front of my dad on his way home from lunch, on Highway 17 just north of the Florida line—the same highway I’d ridden that morning.
I was at the local airport, about to rent a car for the drive home, when Mom called to tell me he was gone. I found myself standing in the parking lot, staring up at the sky. It was sunset, and the sky was almost the color of fire. I thought how many times Dad had ridden south to watch this same sky turn to flame.
I started out early the next morning in the rental car, leaving Blitzen under a cover in the parking lot. My sister took the red-eye from San Francisco, and I picked her up at the airport on my way home. When we got there, Mom had a big manila envelope labeled with a single word: IF. Inside were letters addressed to each of us. Here is a little of mine:
If you are reading this, something has happened to me. I assume it was sudden and I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye and for that I am truly sorry …
I know this is a difficult time but remember the good times we share—Sun & Fun, Sturgis, dirt bikes, Moonshiners’ Festival, Blitzen, Austin, and on and on. I have truly enjoyed all the time we spent together throughout your life (other than a couple of times playing golf 🙂 )…
What I want to stress in this letter is how much I love you and how proud that I am and always will be…
I don’t need to tell you that it takes a special kind of man to write letters like that. Though he shied away from speaking of it, his relationship with his own father had been fraught with difficulty and pain. How easy it would have been for him to follow that same pattern with his own children. Instead, he went against the grain.
A week after the accident, one of my closest childhood friends drove me back to Wakulla Springs. I needed to finish the ride.
I left early the next morning for New Orleans. I stopped at a gas station and realized my chain was loose. I was sitting in the parking lot trying to break the axle bolt free with an ancient crescent wrench when a man appeared. I followed him to his rusted-out Ford, and he produced a fancy Snap-on ratchet set. He went inside for breakfast, where there weren’t even any windows to make sure I didn’t run off with his tools, and told me to come find him when I was done. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.
The next day, I made it to my aunt’s in New Orleans, where my dad always stopped on his long rides, and Blitzen broke down right in her driveway, as if the machine knew just how much it meant to me to finish the ride for him.
He may have left the world too early for us, but I take some comfort in knowing he would have wanted to go too soon rather than too late. Rick Brown would have wanted to die with his boots on, and he did. He died doing what he loved, and that is rare indeed.
These days, I’m more vigilant than ever on the bike. But there’s no place I feel closer to my dad. I think of him every time I throw my leg over the saddle. I think how much I learned from him, how lucky I am to be his son.