On the night of August 10th, 1997, a police car drove down the laneway to Neil Peart's house. He lived in a secluded lakeside in Quebec with his wife of twenty years. The night before, they had said good-bye to their 19-year-old daughter as she drove off to university. The police officer brought devastating news. "Single car accident," he reported, "Dead at the scene." Both parents were deeply affected, but Jackie more so. She wanted to die. And within a year, she did. Cancer struck, and Neil found himself alone. He was a famous musician (the drummer and lyricist for Rush), he had success and possessions, but his life was changed forever in the short span of ten months.
Ghost Rider is a record of the next two years, as Peart went on a search for his future and dealt with the memories and heartbreak of his past. He climbed onto his BMW R1100GS motorcycle and set off down the road... to look for meaning, to look for peace, to look for a reason to live.
The open road holds no particular allure for me. A road is a line between two points. If you want to get THERE you travel this way, from HERE. But for Neil Peart, the road was much more. The book is subtitled Travels On the Healing Road, and as Peart goes farther on down the road, one begins to see hope in his words. He first traveled across Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway, and then up to Inuvik, and to Alaska. His journey was a solitary one, his only connection to his bike and the spirits who accompanied him. He stopped at hotels and restaurants and sat alone as a watcher of life, from the sidelines. After awhile you can see him slowly unwinding, being drawn out of his shell and into interaction with the other travelers he met on his way. Nature spoke to him, in her beauty, and in the raw and violent way she has with men who would challenge her power. A man on two wheels is no match for her!
As he traveled he wrote, both in a journal and in a series of letters to friends. His band mates, who wondered whether Rush would ever play again, were readying a Live album, and awaited news. His friends and family wondered if he would succumb to the overwhelming weight of his loss. His letters are thoughtful, newsy, and hopeful.
Peart had written a previous book, The Masked Rider: Cycling In West Africa, and it wasn't long into this trip before he thought it might be possible to derive a second book. A project was what the doctor ordered. The writing helped. As he moved, and dealt with current problems (motorcycle maintenance, selling property by long distance, and the arrest of his best friend), the weight of personal tragedy was slightly lightened. Distance, time, and replacement by new situations will do that. When he reached Los Angeles and met with the expatriate Canadian contingency there, he was ready to talk to a woman. Not to date, but to be interacting with humanity again. The slow curve of his restoration to health is a triumph of the human spirit.
He had to leave the BMW in Mexico and return to his home in Quebec for the winter. The account of his homecoming is moving, and his re-entry into his old life is a challenge. The next spring he set out again, visiting Mexico to pick up the BMW, and then changing bikes for a run to the East Coast. All the while reading and learning, bird watching, studying people and the environment, and dealing with his demons.
This is a triumphant book. Sometimes sad, often funny, never dull, and always engrossing. Neil Peart, along with his band mates, have recently released a new CD (the songs are also touched by Peart's experiences) but his most lasting achievement is his return to life, his victory over tragedy, and this marvelous record which allows us to share this unforgettable journey.
Rush's Web site is here.