Zen Motorcyclist : In Memory of a Friend
I had other ideas for this column, but today I find myself unable to write a single word about anything other than the loss of my dear friend Bob Walden, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident in August in Virginia.
Bob and I met through RoadRUNNER after his complimentary letter about one of my columns was published on the magazine’s feedback page. I was touched and noticed that he lived in Lambertville, NJ, which isn’t far from my home. I reached out to thank him and suggested we go for a ride sometime. Years later we had ridden all over Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia together.
Bob was an accomplished man, more so than he ever let on, even over countless hours of talking through our helmets as we rode. I knew he was a Marine helicopter pilot, but I never knew he flew combat missions in Kuwait, Iraq, Monrovia, Liberia, and more during a career that spanned 21 years. He shared many humorous stories of his time in the service but never once boasted of his achievements. He also never mentioned having earned a master’s degree in education. Accomplished people are often like that—modest, not boastful—and that was certainly true of my friend.
When I met Bob, he rode a Harley Street Glide and loved it, but after a 2,000-mile week and a 13-hour ride home from Tennessee one year, he traded it for an R 1200 GS and became a BMW devotee (although he still wore a Harley cap and mesh jacket). On that ride, which was to be a 10-hour ride home, we decided to take a side trip to see Burke’s Garden, in Virginia. He mentioned having been there before and wanted me to see it, never mind that it meant adding three hours to our trip (I, naturally, agreed). On the ride home, to keep ourselves entertained and focused we took turns creatively flipping each other off as we rode and telling every joke we could think of as well as some we made up.
All friendships are unique; ours was one that consisted largely of motorcycles and humor. Bob teased me about the fact that I didn’t own a BMW. In fact, during one of our last conversations on his last ride he explained that my rear vision would be far better if I had “BMW mirrors.”
The loss of my friend is hard to make sense of. I was there when he died, having circled back to see what had happened to him, why he had gone silent, and what the odd sound was that I heard in my helmet, one I’d never heard before. I expected for once to have the upper hand, to pick him up, dust him off, and bust on him about having to trailer his BMW off the mountain. I didn’t get that chance, and the knot in my stomach turned out to be there for a reason. I saw Bob’s bike, and then I saw him. I’m ill-equipped to process what I saw and still see today: my friend, so very alive at lunch minutes before and along the ride, so very sadly gone in front of me.
Bob and I rode thousands of miles together and kept each other safe by pointing out traffic, wildlife, and road conditions. We talked about his and Toni’s land in North Carolina where they planned to retire, and about our kids, our journeys in life, and, of course, motorcycles.
On our last ride he gave me a history of the area we were riding through, having lived there years ago. We were wingmen when we rode together. He was easy to be around, always got the joke and offered one. I loved the man because there are few like him, so obviously accomplished, brave, humble, talented, witty, and friendly. If you had met him you would quickly have discovered some commonalities to share, be it military service, family, motorcycles, or cars (Bob owned and loved Porsches). It’s what kind, loving people do and what he seemed to be a natural at.
Bob Walden was a combat Marine helicopter pilot, a father of five, a grandfather, a husband, a brother, and a friend to everyone he met. He was my friend and riding partner. He is gone, and I do not approve. And I am not resigned. It will never make sense to me that he died that day, but I am the better for having known him. If you were fortunate enough to have met him, I’m sure you would agree.
My friend and fellow RoadRUNNER motojournalist John Flores wrote recently: “There is no sense to be made of it, though, and all that we can do is let the currents of time pull us toward a different future than the one we had imagined. May the road rise to meet you, Bob.”
“A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew, A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.”
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Dirge Without Music