4,500 Miles of Open Road Therapy
How a hellish cross country motorcycle ride helped this photographer make peace with the loss of his best friend and companion
Canon EOS 1V
Kodak Portra 160, Kodak Portra 400, Kodak TMAX 400
On the last day of the school year, I jumped in my truck with my dog, Duende and we headed west. It’s become a habit, and a chance for me to travel and work on my art. But last year was different. After teaching art at a public high school in upstate New York for 10 years, I decided to leave the profession behind and focus full time on photography. I would not be making the trip back east at the end of summer. Portland, Oregon would be my new home.
Sadly, Duende became very ill shortly after arriving in Portland. I was told she only had a few days left. Just shy of 14 years old, she had been healthy and strong all her life. Suddenly she was dying. We packed my truck and headed to the coast for one last weekend together. When we returned, to our new home, she passed peacefully in my arms at our apartment. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through.
She was my friend and companion for 14 years, and every day I had responsibilities in taking care of her. The lack of her presence and the daily routines that were part of our lives left a serious vacancy for me. I didn’t know what to do with myself without her. So I flew back to New York and headed upstate where my motorcycle had been waiting for an inevitable cross country ride. I always knew the trip would be a kind of therapy for me, but I didn’t know it would be for Duende.
In the past I’ve spent weeks at a time on my motorcycle. I haven't found any other activity that requires so much focus while simultaneously allows you to process the thoughts in your head. So, I headed back west, this time through Canada.
"With the border crossing came the rain."
For the first four days I was joined by good friends Adam and Todd. We rode to a motorcycle rally just south of Buffalo, NY on day one and spent the next couple riding, and drinking. From there, Todd and I headed north to Buffalo and crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada. With the border crossing came the rain.
We rode the Queen Elizabeth Highway until we found Rt. 6 to take us up to Tobermory. From there we would catch the ferry to Manitoulin Island. It rained the whole way. We stayed on 6 north of Espanola where it meets the Trans Canada Highway, and camped there one more night. The rain held up just long enough in the morning to pack up camp and say our farewells.
I was now alone with the road and my thoughts, and of course, the rain and the cold. Depression set in quickly. Adam and Todd had kept me distracted from the loss of Duende. She was a friend they too had loved. From then on my distractions were found at each stop to refuel, eat, and warm up.
And I did find some respite. Then, back on the road in the rain and cold, my mind would relapse to the loss of my best friend. I would try to remember all the good times we shared together, but I could only think of the end when she was sick.
Call it luck, good or bad, but Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta brought nothing but straight roads, cold weather, rain, and hellacious winds. In Manitoba the winds were coming from the south, hard. I rode 300 miles leaning solidly into the winds on my left with the more than occasional rag-doll wind gusts hitting me from the north. I was fighting the wind so hard I didn’t have time to think of anything else. Then Saskatchewan came with winds from the north, occupying my mind for another 400+ miles from the other direction.
The winds didn’t die down until I reached the Canadian Rockies, on the edge of Alberta and British Columbia.
With the rise of the mountains came an inclination in my mood. The winding roads were a change I desperately needed. I finally remembered the good times—and there were a lifetime of them—all mine to remember again. My sister had said to me shortly after Duende’s passing, “I think she’s been more places than I have, or will ever be. You gave her such a great life.” I hope I did, I know how much she gave me.
"Even in the bitter cold mornings while racing to catch the sunrise, my body beyond numb, and shivering to the point of danger, a smile was on my face."
I stayed in Banff, Jasper, and Whistler and saw so many beautiful places. At each location, I would get sad knowing I could never bring Duende back there with me, but I was also able appreciate all we had done together. It allowed me to focus on celebrating her life rather than mourn her passing. Even in the bitter cold mornings while racing to catch the sunrise on a lake, my body beyond numb, and shivering to the point of danger, a smile was on my face.
The end of the trip brought more rain. Making and breaking camp each day with no ease in the weather. Riding day and night soaking wet, looking through a fogged mask with low visibility. I was still cold, but had managed to find new gratitude on the open road.
When I think about my trip through Canada, it’s easy to recall the rain and cold. But I remember the lakes, mountains, and people who were so gracious to me too. And I remember Duende. We made that ride together.