By no means should this be confused with a book review. I have no intention of doing that.
For one thing, the book in question is nearly 20 years old. Timeliness has pretty much gone out the window. Secondly, I haven’t finished it yet. But the book has made enough of an impact that I had to stop halfway through to say a couple of things.
The book I’m reading is Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. It was written by Rush drummer Neil Peart, who passed away earlier this year. His death was one of many unexpected and devastating blows we have been forced to absorb in 2020, a year many of us wish we could start anew by hitting a giant “reset” button. But that’s neither here nor there. Then again, maybe it isn’t.
On August 10, 1997, Peart learned his 19-year-old daughter Salena had been killed in a single-car accident on her way to college. The very thought of getting such news about my teenage daughter (even as she currently drives me utterly insane) sends me into the fetal position. It is the kind of news one prays to never receive. As if that wasn’t devastating enough, Peart lost his wife Jackie to cancer some ten months later. It is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemies.
Peart found himself completely hollowed out, adrift, and without any sense of purpose. And who could blame him? His entire world had been torn asunder. How could anyone expect him to simply bounce back, get behind a drum kit, and carry on as if nothing mattered? Even for the most hardened of personalities, this is far too much to ask. Peart found himself wondering how to carry on, or if he should bother carrying on at all. He realized that he had to get away. He had to get away from everything. Fortunately, he had an outlet.
A little over a year after Salena’s death, Peart made the necessary arrangements, then climbed aboard his red BMW R1100GS motorcycle. His only goal: to ride and (hopefully) to heal. Fourteen months and 55,000 miles later, Peart found his way back. In the process, he documented his journey. That documentation became this book.
I was encouraged to read this work by my friend Mark Quinn, who loved it so much he read it three times. That’s my kind of endorsement. Mark begged me to order the book while we sat in the guitar shop where he works. So there, in front of him, I took out my phone and went directly to Amazon. Two days later, the book was at my front door. My initial plan was to read Peart’s work while simultaneously enjoying books from David Byrne and Willie Mays. But it didn’t take long to realize only one book would hold my attention and had to be read from cover to cover with no interference.
My reading pace has been painfully slow, primarily because I have a book of my own to write, and there is a deadline connected to it. Ghost Rider has been read five to ten pages at a time, here and there, for the past few weeks. I got the most reading done on a train ride from St. Louis to Chicago. With another ride coming in a few days, I expect to get another chunk read. I’ll be finished when I’m finished. There’s no hurry.
So why write about it now? I suppose it’s just to make note of a couple of things that may or may not encourage others to take this journey as well. After all, it is a trip well worth taking. Or maybe it’s because I found a couple of things Peart experienced paralleling my own life’s journey, even if I haven’t experienced personal tragedies on his level. It doesn’t really matter.
Funny thing about this book: there are no photos. The cover shot is simply Peart’s bike standing in the middle of a lonely desert highway. It more than accurately sums up the book’s title. There is a (much smaller) photo of Peart standing next to his bike on the back cover, but no other pictures. None. Peart rode, hiked, and adventured throughout this journey. He saw sights few of us will ever get to see up close. He even admitted to taking photos of these sights. But he shared none of them. Initially, I found this odd. But then I understood: this journey was about healing, not sightseeing. To spend time picking out photos for what was really a journey inward would defeat the purpose. It was up to the reader to conjure up their own images. What Peart saw was, in its own way, private. I have nothing but respect for that approach.
Let me also say that Neil Peart was an extraordinary writer! Drummers get a (mostly jokingly) bad reputation for not being the most cerebral people. But Peart was a voracious reader with a gift for words and phrases. He was Rush’s primary lyricist, after all! It only makes sense that such a literary gift would transfer to a book of his own. You don’t really need photos to enjoy this book, because Peart did a great job of painting the pictures for you.
I don’t own a motorcycle. I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. And I haven’t been to most of the places Peart’s journey took him. But there was one notable exception: Highway 50. In 1995, my then-girlfriend and I took a drive from her home in northern California to mine in Missouri. As we left Reno, Nevada, we were introduced to Highway 50. We took that highway to the Utah border, headed east. I remember this highway (and always have) because it struck me as “the middle of nowhere,” which is how I described it to friends. There is nothing to be seen during that stretch. NOTHING.
I remember counting two other cars and four buildings during the entire journey! I also remember the anxiety that came with that highway, because I had NO IDEA what I would do if our car broke down! This was before everyone and his brother had a cell phone. We were just out there, on our own. I’ve never driven so frightened in my life.
Peart traveled the same highway, in the opposite direction. As he started his journey on Highway 50, he noted a sign reading, “the loneliest road in America.” He saw just as little as I did. Although he appears to have handled it a bit better than I did. To this day, I have no desire to see that stretch of road ever again, unless I’m flying over it. And even then … maybe.
Peart’s journey also speaks volumes toward whom and what we deem important, as he was able to go almost completely unrecognized. There were a couple of small exceptions, but he was drawn into conversations about his bike or wherever he was visiting far more often than about the legendary band of which he made up one-third. Granted, he employed a couple of small tricks to mask his identity, but still … nobody noticed? It could be that not nearly as many people know Rush the way fans like me do. I mean, if Neil Peart had sauntered up to me asking for a motel room or looking for dinner in my little cafe, I would have noticed. Then again, who looks for Neil Peart in a bargain motel or tiny diner?
Speaking of the band, Peart hardly ever says anything about Rush. And when he does, it’s only by way of how the band aided his bicycle — and later motorcylce — rides. There is next to no talk about the band’s albums or songs, save for quoting Peart’s own lyrics at the beginning of each chapter and maybe a couple of times in the narrative. This isn’t a book about Rush any more than it’s a book about sightseeing.
I retired from my career a few months back. I’ve been dealing with some family issues, some of which are quite hurtful. My experience is in no way identical to that of Neil Peart. But I do understand the need to find something to fill the void and help you move on. I’m sure my buying a mountain bike has a little something to do with that, along with all the other things I’ve been buying and doing to keep myself occupied and re-attain some form of personal structure. Yes, our circumstances are different, but I do get where Peart is coming from. I completely get it.
And that is what allows me to recommend a book I’m just halfway through. We all know the saying, “It’s not the destination, but the journey.” Never has that been more true than in Ghost Rider, if only because there was no planned destination. Only healing.
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.