In Memory of Debbie Donahue #debraslastride – Road Trip Story by: Ken Donahue

Ken and his family have had some promises to keep lately. Enjoy this submission by one of our Ride 1 k n a day competitors who meet my challenge to write his story after winning a copy of the book: American Road Runner. Enjoy Ken’s 2,980 mile journey from San Leon Texas to Key West Florida and back again to keep a promise to his wife Debbie. Enjoy my fellows!

On Monday; April 9th, 2018

Debbie; my wife of 43 years, passed away at Clear Lake Regional Hospital in Webster, Texas. Her loss was devastating to our entire family and friends. Myself, our three kids and her Mom wanted and decided to do a final tribute to this very remarkable woman. Our oldest son Mark (a 3-time 1K’er and an Iron Butt Assn. member) led off with a 3800-mile tribute ride on his modified Dyna Street Bob; taking a portion of her ashes to Broadway–in the city she wanted to be a part of: New York City. Our Daughter was next; taking her Mom’s ashes to her favorite casino at the Coushatta Indian Resort in Kinder, Louisiana for one last round of slots. Later that fall, our youngest son and his wife took her to a land of enchantment and fantasy – the Texas Renaissance Festival; where just six years earlier (to the day) she witnessed (dressed as a beer wench) the pirate wedding of her baby boy. I was given the honor of making the final road trip to take some of her ashes back to the place of her birth: Key West, Florida. This is where the story of my ride begins.

Tuesday; April 2nd, 2019 

I received a call from Lieutenant Commander Scott Mason; Chaplin for the Naval Base in Key West, Florida. He could not have brought me any greater news – my request to spread a portion of Debbie’s ashes at the site of the old Naval Hospital had been approved! I was extremely apprehensive as to whether I would be allowed to do this, given the current state of global unrest and with the ever-present threats of potential terrorist activities. My thoughts were that base security would be tightened up to not allow such things–boy was I wrong.

Debbie loved riding motorcycles with me, but because of what should probably have been a fatal “run-in” with a 6-point buck in 1997, we hadn’t had a bike since that accident. Unfortunately, I did not acquire another bike till after her passing. Her love of riding is what sparked our family tribute to her, which was entitled #DEBRASLASTRIDE. 

MY RIDE

April 12th, three days before I was to leave, I related my intentions to my chiropractor, and in light of the MRI results and diagnosis of my degrading back condition–to say she was not in favor of me doing the ride would have been a gross understatement; but it was something I had to do; I had made a promise and I’d be damned if I was not going to keep it, regardless of what it might do to me.

April 14th, the Sunday before I was to leave for Key West, my kids and their family’s and Evonne (Debbie’s mom) came over to my house for a bar-b-que send-off. Weeks of apprehension and preparation had come to a close. There was nothing more I could do to prepare myself or my bike – all my “what if” supplies were loaded into my saddlebags, my riding leathers were standing by, repairs, maintenance and modifications to my bike were complete and my clothes and other essentials were packed and ready to go. I had been debating with Debbie’s mom for some time about her wanting me to take my truck rather than my motorcycle; then, just a few days before I was to leave on my trip, mom came to me and said that Debbie had come to her in a dream and told her to let me “Just get on the damn bike and ride”! It had come down to what had jokingly become my battle cry. 

I set out for Florida early the following morning on my 12-year-old Harley Davidson Ultra Classic motorcycle – the last leg of #DEBRASLASTRIDE, and my first long distance solo ride. Along with me were two vials of Debbie’s ashes – one to spread in Key West, and one so that she might share the ride with me. My destination for “Day 1’s” ride was Tallahassee, Florida, over seven hundred miles away. I had anticipated a 10 to 12-hour easy drive. I forgot to take into account early morning rush-hour traffic, road construction and a little electrical issue that took about an hour to fix in a rest stop along I-10. 

Well into Louisiana, I crossed a bridge that even though I hadn’t measured, had to have gone at least 20 miles over the eerie, onyx-black waters of a Louisiana swamp. The swamp had a rugged beauty to it, but it was quite apparent just how dangerous and how easily the unfamiliar could get lost in there.

While passing through Mississippi, what I thought was a dead deer on the side of the road sadly turned out to be a full-grown cougar. While it was sad to see such a beautiful animal like that dead on the side of the highway; it was also a bit unnerving to realize that they traveled that close to the highway. As I-10 curved north-east to navigate Mobile Bay, I saw some spectacular architectural work in the skyscrapers of Alabama’s Capital City, and emerging from the tunnel under Mobile Bay, I got to see the USS Alabama battleship sitting proudly at her berth. Because I was crossing the very southern tips of Mississippi and Alabama, the rides through both these states were rather short-lived. Seventeen and a half hours later; tired, cold and very sore–I pulled into my hotel in Tallahassee, Florida.

Not so “bright and early” after a rather feeble “continental breakfast” (I have no earthly idea what continent that stuff was from by the way) I checked out, loaded up the bike and threw a leg over the saddle. I was off on “Day 2”, my destination was Homestead, FL, about 550 miles away. I rode out the balance of I-10 East till I reached Jacksonville and then took I-95 South. I stopped off in Jacksonville at the local Harley-Davidson Dealership. Even though my sons referred to my bike as a “rolling recliner”, the stock seat still got a little rough on the old back and invited the “butt cramps” to return quite often. I was there to get a gel seat pad and score some “SWAG”. While there I was pursued by a cougar (this time the 2-legged kind) in the dealership who chatted me up and followed me throughout the store providing me with all kinds of “interesting”, but way too personal information (TMI!). Although I was kind of flattered by the attention, there were other, more serious intentions that dominated my thoughts.

It wasn’t until I had several miles of heavier traffic on I-95 that I actually realized the Floridians impatience on the highways. I truly felt like they thought the speed limit signs were, if I could borrow a line from Geoffrey Rush, “more of a guideline than a rule”! I had to maintain an 85-mph speed just to keep from getting run over, then to add insult to injury; while still doing that 85-mph, I get passed by a school bus! It took me traveling almost halfway down the eastern coast before I figured out what was happening. Florida is home to one of the nation’s most prestigious race tracks – Daytona. These people weren’t speeding – they were qualifying!

Now when it comes to the state of Florida, I’m sure everyone has their favorite places. From the white, sandy beaches and high society night spots where the “beautiful people” like to play; or the dangerous, and seemingly endless, raw wilderness of the Florida Everglades. I myself have two favorites: the I-10 corridor across northern Florida, where the majestic pines and old oak trees, dripping with Spanish Moss line the sides of the highway and fill in the center medians, cutting you off from the traffic traveling in the opposite direction. When isolated like this from the rest of the world, it was easy to imagine the romance of approaching a grand old plantation estate in the old antebellum South. My other favorite was the ride along A1A through the Florida Keys. One hundred twenty or so miles of roadway joining the multitude of small islands and towns from mainland Florida, terminating in Key West, Florida; my ultimate destination. From atop the many bridges that joined the islands, one could see the bottom topography of the bays and ocean through the remarkably crystal-clear waters, (something one could never find around where I live). As I traveled further south, even the small towns gave way to more natural surroundings and large stands of Mangrove trees. Visually, it was breath-taking, especially with the nearly perfectly cloudless skies above and the gentle breezes coming off the Atlantic Ocean. The breezes did provide one, “not so pleasant” experience though. When I was passing through there, the breeze carried with it the salty stench of decaying seaweed and other aquatic vegetation, spoiling what was otherwise a beautiful day’s ride.

I met with Lieutenant Commander Scott Mason on Stock Island, the last island before Key West. After some very brief introductions we took off for the Naval Medical Facilities in Key West – the place where my Debbie was born. Although that part of the base closed at 4 pm, he was granted permission to escort me on to the base after hours in order to spread her ashes. We parked near the front of the main clinic, the building that replaced the old hospital building where Debbie was born. I found it rather ironic that Debbie’s dream was to one day perform on Broadway. Our Son Mark took her to NYC on his bike on a tour of Broadway and also found a place to spread her ashes there. Our little house in San Leon was on Broadway, and now her ashes would rest at the hospital of her birth on Douglas Circle (her father’s name was Douglas). Together, the Chaplin and I looked out over a green area and talked about where a fitting place for Debbie might be. After telling him a little about her and what I would like to do, he suggested a rather large, stately old Mangrove Tree that graced the well-manicured lawn. This tree, he told me, had weathered many hurricanes over the years, and it proudly bore the scars, giving it that much more character. It was a fighter – just like my Debbie was. He could not have suggested a more perfect spot. I scratched out a small space among its massive roots and gently dusted her ashes all around. When they were spread, I then took my fingers and mixed her into the soil then patted it firm. Her essence will be picked up by its roots and she will become one with the tree, coursing through the roots, up the trunk, and all the way to the tip of its leaves, where she will be able to look out over the base, a large stand of Mangroves overlooking the crystal clear, aquamarine waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and watch the wild Iguanas that populated and played in the area. A more perfect place could not possibly exist – everything she loved – plants, animals, the ocean all in the place that always held her heart – Key West.

After leaving the naval base, we toured Duval Street where I scored some more SWAG at the local Harley Shop. The shop owner even tossed in a few extra freebies when he found out I had ridden my old Harley all the way in from Texas, and the reason for my ride. We left that shop and headed down the street towards Jimmy Buffet’s: Margaritaville. I got to tell you; a lot can happen in a few blocks on Duval Street. As I was walking down the street a very pretty young lady gently took me by the arm and almost lovingly stroked my bicep all the while trying to entice me into coming into her bar for a drink. I knew that was her job to get customers for the bar, but I politely informed her that I do not drink when I’m up on two wheels. Surprisingly, she gave my arm a gentle squeeze and sweetly told me that was a smart move and to please be careful on my way home. I know she was just doing her job, but she was charming and for a young lady who was probably just barely a third my age – well, it still stroked the old ego a bit. Like I said earlier; a lot can happen in a few blocks on Duval Street. I hadn’t gone more than a block or so further when I was pleasantly, albeit accidentally “flashed” by a young lady on a bicycle, wearing a very, very short sundress and (I hope) at least a thong! I just blurted out “Damn!” – two gentlemen on the sidewalk near me who also witnessed it readily agreed. I continued on to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, did my shopping and headed back to my bike. I proceeded south on Duval till I found myself at the marker proclaiming “The Most Southern Point of the United States”. I was going to see if I could get a picture of me in front of the marker but, with the onslaught of “spring breakers” and early birders wanting to get a jump on the Easter weekend, the line just to get up there was about a block and a half long – I really didn’t want to be there that long because the day was getting late, so I made the block and started my 120 mile journey back to Homestead.

Somewhere around the 75 to 80-mile mark, still well within the Keys, the sun was riding low in the evening sky. I saw the reflection of an unusually magnificent golden glow at my back in the mirrors and chrome on my bike. There was something special and touching about this sunset so I pulled over (in a No Parking zone at the base of a bridge of all places), took out my camera and caught its splendor just in time. I let its golden glow wash over me till it was almost gone. Then–with tears in my eyes–I bid farewell to Key West, the Naval Base and that little bit of my darling wife that will now live on forever on that island she loved so dearly – The Most Southern Point of the United States. As the sun sank below the horizon and was no more, a warmth came over me – my heart was at peace, content in the fact that I was able to keep my promise to myself and her.

The balance of my trip back to Homestead was pretty uneventful. After all – how could one trump a day like I just had? Although my ride that day was the shortest of all rides, the events of the day left me totally drained and exhausted both physically, spiritually and emotionally. I secured my bike for the night and collapsed in my hotel room.

Bright and early the next morning I downed my two allotted cups of hotel room coffee, grabbed a breakfast pastry and a bottle of Starbucks from the hotel vending machine, and began preparations for my trip back to Tallahassee. I unwrapped, unlocked and loaded up the bike and after checking out, started my trek back to Tallahassee.

Because my Homestead hotel was slightly off my route to Key West, I relied a lot on cell phone navigation (Google Maps). I’m guessing this particular morning “Maps” had a particularly mischievous streak going–because instead of a direct route back to the main highway–I got the grand tour of the agricultural areas of Southern Florida. Although the ride was scenic and enjoyable, it did add nearly an extra hour to my travel time.

Back on I-95 I headed towards my next “challenge”, negotiating Miami traffic. As I said earlier, Floridians are very impatient drivers. While driving through the heart of Miami, an “entitled lady” (and I’m using the term “lady” loosely to keep thing “PG”) in her Mercedes runs me completely out of my lane, off to the curb, and never gives me a second glance or even looked up from her cell phone! I really wanted to knock off her side mirror since she obviously doesn’t use them. Not too much farther up the road a Jeep almost cut me off as well, but at least he was courteous enough to catch himself and apologize to me for not seeing me. I finally got out of the Miami area and traffic on I-95 thinned out and people got back up to their “qualifying speeds”. I found it quite humorous to see these folks so intent on racing towards their destinations. My second “adding insult to injury” came when I was passed by a “little old lady” in a Prius while doing 85 mph on I-95. (I thought a Prius’ couldn’t pass anything!)

The entire trip–short of the purpose of the ride–was grueling and sometimes painful, but enjoyable and at times; even humorous. I saw some beautiful scenery and some heart-breaking scenery too. The Friday I was supposed to start my return trip from Tallahassee–on the advice of my family–I hunkered down at my hotel for an extra day to allow a very nasty storm front to work its way east. While I was checking out my bike that Friday morning, I was talking to a gentleman who was in a cycling club from California. They were cycling their way to Ft. Lauderdale. I was advising him of the weather report my son had passed on to me, and one rather obnoxious Californian cyclist nearby told me she didn’t think Marks weather prediction was right and they were going forward with their ride. It wasn’t an hour later that all hell broke loose and the animals started pairing off. I couldn’t help but grin to myself, mentally picturing the old lady in the tornado on The Wizard of Oz, thinking how this bitch had got her “just rewards”.

When I set out for home the next day (Saturday) along I-10 there were signs where several tornadoes had touched down. Patches of forest land were laid to waste. Forty to fifty-foot-tall pine trees snapped like matchsticks – highway signs–the “I” beams that once supported them–twisted like tin foil, and the most dis-heartening of all; someone’s mobile home, crushed and literally chopped in half by a giant fallen pine tree. And this was just what I could see from the highway. I am glad to have had family and friends who were watching out for me, because most likely I would have found myself in the middle of all that bad weather.

Although this was the last physical leg of the family’s #DEBRASLASTRIDE tribute, one of my original intentions was to complete a #Ride1kInADay challenge (1000+ miles in less than 24 hours), but being it was heralded as “The honeymoon we never had” I opted to postpone that challenge ride till a later date. Not only did we spend the week together riding over 2900 miles on my bike, we went back to the very place where she was born, where I was allowed to spread a portion of her ashes at the base of that majestic old tree that highlights the green space in front of the naval medical center in Key West, FL where she was born. 

I made it home late that Saturday night a little before 9 pm. Fifteen hours of nearly non-stop, hard and fast driving from Tallahassee, FL back to home base in San Leon, TX. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t too bad around the big cities except when I was about 10 miles from my home where there was a wreck on top of the Kemah Bridge on my side of the road; go figure. All along my trip I would call Deb’s Mom at each gas stop, and I would also talk to my kids when they saw I had stopped along my route and they wanted to check up on me to make sure I was OK. I told them how I was pushing myself and my bike to make it home and joked about “running the tires off my bike”. When I got home, we looked and saw the exposed cords on my rear tire – we could “almost see the air in the tire” it was worn so thin. I really did run the tires off my bike!

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