Melody was at my cabin door at 7 am just like the morning before. We enjoyed another great breakfast with her parents and their guests at the trout fishing lodge. When I told her I’d better get back to Spearfish City Campground before the renegades sent out search parties, she asked to go with me. I looked over at her dad. He approved with a shrug and a nod, just like the day before.
The ride to Spearfish was gorgeous, with a bright sun glistening off every pond, lake, and creek. My BMW R90S was purring like a kitten and everything seemed right with the world. The sign at the outskirts of the city appeared all too soon.
The streets were still relatively quiet, as was the campground, but there was something missing from my campsite. There were no renegades. There was an old guy sitting at one of the two picnic tables on my site. He was making some coffee on a backpacking stove. Nearby was his tent and a well-used Gold Wing.
“You must be Montana,” he said; “Candy asked me to tell you that your group left yesterday. She wanted me to give you this.” He held out a piece of paper.
We got off my bike and walked to the picnic table.
“You want some coffee?” he asked. “Sure do,” Melody responded. We sat down and read Candy’s note.
“Dear Montana, Mr. Thurston asked if he could park in your site, and as we were packing up anyway, we said OK. He’s a very nice man so I hope you don’t mind. We had to leave for Des Moines to attend Red’s funeral. He has an aunt there. We’ll only be there for a day, then we’re heading home to Minneapolis. Chip wants you to come visit and stay at his house. Please say yes?”
Mr. Thurston handed us both a cup of coffee and proceeded to make some oatmeal. “I’ve got extra,” he offered, but we declined as we were still stuffed with the breakfast Melody’s parents had provided.
“Where are you from, Mr. Thurston?” I asked.
“Please, call me Bert. I’m originally from Seattle, where I started a commercial packaging business.”
“So how long have you been on the road?”
We must have responded with a puzzled look.
“Let me explain. A couple of years after my wife died, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. That brought me to my knees. First my wife and now this? My son knew that I’d always wanted to ride coast to coast on a motorcycle and he convinced me that now was the time. So I put him in charge of my business, bought this Gold Wing, and took off. That was six years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since except for the winter months, which I spend at my place in Palm Springs.”
“You look pretty darn healthy for a guy with cancer,” Melody commented. “What happened to the six-month prognosis?”
“That’s what I wondered,” Bert responded, “So, last summer I went back to Seattle to see my oncologist. He thought he was seeing a ghost. I’ve never seen a doctor so bewildered. He repeated all the tests and told me I was cancer-free!”
“Maybe he got the tests wrong the first time?” Melody suggested.
“First thing he did was check his files, and he told me he got nothing wrong. He said I must have had a spontaneous remission. Apparently this is very rare, but it happens. Go figure!”
“There’s got to be more to it than that, Mr. Thurston; there’s something else at play here.” I ventured.
“I thought so too, “Bert responded, “so I spent much of last winter doing research in Palm Springs.
I learned that the most common precursor to illness is not genetics or lifestyle, it’s loneliness and alienation. But I was always too busy for that, so it had to be something else.
The second most common precursor is stress. I had lots of that. Running a factory will stress anyone out. My days were consumed with worry about deadlines, cash flow, employee morale, customer dissatisfaction, supply chains, and lawsuits. I’d wake up each morning in fear of what could go wrong.
But since I’ve retired, I don’t worry about anything. I’m loving life. I never know where I’ll end up today and couldn’t care less. And I have all day to chat with nice folks like you.”
“That’s a big change in lifestyle,” Melody remarked; “maybe that’s why the illness went away?”
“I’m quite sure it is my dear. I’ve learned that once the stress was gone, so were the stress hormones that triggered the cancer. That gave my body the opportunity to heal itself. I want to read you a quote that I carry with me all the time.”
He fumbled for a card in his wallet. “OK, it’s by Steve Cole, an epigeneticist at UCLA’s School of Medicine. ‘A cell is a machine for turning experience into biology.’
When my primary experience was stress, my body’s cells were constantly on full alert for the flight or fight response. Now that the stress is gone, they use that energy for renewal and regeneration. As a result, I feel happy, healthy, and wake up exhilarated.”
“That’s brilliant, Mr. Thurston; I’d never thought of illness that way,” Melody said. “If you don’t mind, how old are you now?”
“Please, Montana, call me Bert. I’m 72 and partying in the Black Hills with a bunch of people half my age. I’ve put 190,000 miles on my bike and seen almost every part of the continental US. Next summer, I’m riding to Alaska.”
“Wow, I’ve been there, that’ll be quite a challenge!” I remarked.
“I can hardly wait!” he exclaimed.
We chatted for a long time. Bert was excited to tell us about his travels. We were pleased to listen.
One incident I remember was about a flat tire he got on Highway 2 in Idaho. It’s a lonely road, and near dark, a passing rancher offered help. He loaded the Gold Wing onto the forks of his tractor and Bert sat on the fender. Bert spent the night with the man’s family, and the next day, they loaded his bike unto a pickup truck. The rancher’s son drove it to a dealer in Spokane, Washington, where Bert had a fresh tire installed. He took the kid out to lunch, but he refused to take any money. So Bert mailed the family a check.
When it became apparent that Melody was getting antsy, Bert declared, “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get ready to watch the flat track races in Sturgis.”
As Bert wandered off to wash his dishes, Melody and I talked about the day’s plans.
“Well,” she said, “You can spend the day on the freeway trying to catch up with your group, or we can enjoy one of the most magical experiences that you’ll ever have.
“I thought we did that in the Badlands yesterday.”
“You be the navigator?” I said.
We gassed up on the outskirts of Spearfish and Melody directed me west on I-90, then north towards Belle Fourche in the direction of the swimming hole the renegades had taken me to the week prior. A few miles shy of that, we turned left onto a farm road. It was a dusty ride past a mile of corn fields. I assumed we’d pull into the driveway of a Victorian farmhouse on the right, but Melody waved me on.
Judging by the row of trees, I knew we were getting near the river. We turned left into a dusty parking lot. An Airstream trailer was parked near the water. Several cars were parked nearby. There was no-one in sight, and I wondered what the hell we were doing.
“Park here,” Melody ordered, “and take off your clothes.”
“Just strip,” she responded as she removed her own clothes. “I want you to meet someone.” We stuffed the clothes into my saddlebags, she grabbed her satchel, and we were off.
We pranced like pixies down a narrow, twisting trail through the huge boulders and the trees. I was praying we wouldn’t come across any Sunday school kids. “Who are we visiting?” I asked.
“He’s a religious studies professor at my school. We call him The Bhagwan. Keep going!”
When we got to a clearing in the trees, I saw a dozen naked college-age kids sitting cross-legged in a semicircle facing a gangly guy about twice their age. He had long, graying yellow hair and a scraggly beard.
No-one looked up at us as we approached, though they must have heard us coming.