You know, I wish more of my posts were about me doing something smart, something intelligent, something brilliant…but this won’t be one of those posts. This post will be about me doing something stupid and it will be about the loss of one of my good friends. SO, I’m going to apologize and warn you early as I’m an idiot and this was hard emotionally to put this together…and if you knew Kam, this might strike your heart.
Keith has been a good friend of mine for over 20 years. He’s a man from the hills of Kentucky…and when I say the hills, I mean deep Appellation heritage with a Kentucky drawl, stories about his “kin”, and stories from the ‘coal’ country. He’s also the man that helped me turn my life over to Jesus. Our friendship runs deep. But let me get back to this story…
Keith calls me one day about a month ago with an idea. He’s got to be in Las Vegas in late July, why don’t he and I go into Vegas, spend the weekend riding motorcycles around Vegas.
This was a good idea but I had a better one.
..why don’t we ride to the California coast and ride part of the Pacific Coast Highway? The PCH was on my bucket list and was rated as one of the best drives in the world. Two days later I had a ticket, a general plan, and I had no clue of what was to come.
A couple days before departure, I had a rental Harley Davidson Street Glide on reserve in Vegas and I checked temperatures. Vegas was supposed to be over 100 and where we were staying the first night, Bakersfield, they were supposed to be 108.
On a motorcycle, over 100 is miserably hot…but I’m thinking about the dry air, the brief time I would spend in the desert, and thought, ok, I’ll plan a little bit and make sure to take some extra water. Sounds like a good plan, right? (Wrong)
I land early, get to the rental agency, pick up the Street Glide, and while still early in the morning, the temperature is approaching 100. After 20 minutes of riding in town, I realize that my plan needs to be modified a little because heat and hydration is already an issue. I stop at Target to buy a camel back hydration back pack and get it filled with water and Pedialite, an electrolyte powder for infants that helps with dehydration. I get my gear settled and get started out on the bike to kill a couple hours.
In Vegas, at about 10am, it’s already 100, but riding out to Mt Charleston the temperature drops to a perfect 80-85 degrees. Ok I thought, meet up with Keith, get started and get the hot part of the trip over with because in my finite intelligence, Vegas should be the hot spot and once we climb out of the Vegas valley, it should be cooler.
So I’m on my bike and Keith has decided to drive a car because his body will not let him ride a motorcycle.
We start out in a straight line for Bakersfield California…which skirts Death Valley, but directly goes through the Mojave desert….which one might think would be good information to research ahead of time. But I’ve already told you I’m not smart in this post…so bear with me.
An hour out of Vegas, I’m hot, like seriously hot but the time on the bike is short on this quick leg and we stop for dinner…I get a breather and cool off and we start out again. The bike and chrome are hard to touch as I hop back on. At this point the temperature has climbed again and Keith tells me the temperature according to his car gauge is around 115. We climb out of a valley where we had dinner and the temperature drops slightly….I mentally take a deep breath thinking that the worst is behind me.
What I didn’t realize….
What I didn’t realize was that on the other side of this little range of hills/mountains was the Mojave desert…and when we crested the mountains I saw that the road drop again into the depths of the desert and my heart sank.
Have you ever been cooking something in the oven…and you lean over and open the oven door at the same time? You know that blast of awful heat the hits you right in the face? I rode into that hair dryer heat at 80 miles and hour for the next two hours….struggling mentally and physically.
As I road, I could feel the temperature rise not only of the desert, but also of my body. My jeans burned against my skin and the sun cooked my long sleeve shirt. I drank more and more from the camel back, trying to pull in the liquid and the coolness it brought to my body that was struggling with the heat. I got to the point that I kept sipping on the fluid continuously…yet it wasn’t enough.
I had a GPS on the bike and I had plugged our destination of Bakersfield and I could see numbers ticking down as I struggled for the next hour…trying to hold off stopping until the approaching turn off the highway. At a mere 20 miles left, I pulled over at a gas station unable to take anymore. I was shaking, nauseous, and severely overheating. I parked the bike and crawled into Keith’s car with the AC on. I sat in the car, straining to cool and relax…stating I couldn’t hold on for the last 20 miles, as we’re almost there. Keith looked at me and a look came over his face that looked like dread.
“We’ve got 2 more hours”.
I was in shock and denial. I realized that the GPS I was watching was telling me about where the next turn was….not where our destination was. It was an awful moment to realize that what lay ahead of me was another 2 hours of hell.
I stayed in the car for the next half hour as Keith and I made a plan to stop every 30 minutes if needed until we got to the other side….the temperature was 120 and I wasn’t sure I had the inner strength to step back into the heat and complete my journey through this hell.
But I didn’t have a choice…and I got going.
About an hour later, the road climbed a little and the extreme heat dissipated slightly. I stopped again at a rest stop to soak my shirt with water, put more sunscreen on, and stretch. It turns out it was 110 (I knew it had cooled off!) You know it’s bad when you are relieved that the temperature is a mere 110 instead of 120. That 10 degrees is huge though.
So…I almost died… which is becoming not unusual in my adventures with Keith.
(I am using poetic license in exaggerating my near death experience because I can now use it as blackmail against Keith…it’s what he and I do to each other)
The next morning in Bakersfield, CA we woke, got breakfast and headed out, we were a couple hours from the coast.
It was hot, but not brutal. As we approached a mountain chain, the sand and rocks turned to brown scrub… and scrub turned to a brown scrub with some green…then to a yellow grass, and then, out of nowhere, it turned to groves of almonds trees and tomatoes and fruit trees.
There was a moment when Keith’s red Camaro was ahead of me in a fruit grove and the moon was still visible just over the mountain range ahead of us….I pulled out the camera and took a shot from the bike.
In that moment, I saw that I had a text. Paige had sent me a text to call her immediately…I knew that meant something bad.
I pulled to the edge of the road and called Paige. She had some shocking news that struck me to the core…one of my close buddies had passed away from a heart attack earlier that morning. Kam Tarkington, a good friend to me and so many others was gone…1 week before his 42 birthday.
I wept for a moment over the gas tank of my bike. It’s one of those moments that you know you will never forget….the moment a great friend ceases to be someone you know, to someone you knew. Something deep in your heart breaks at that moment and you know the world, and the world of your friends, will never be the same and a Kam shaped hole is punched in your heart forever.
I wept for a moment and Keith and I stopped for a while so I could get myself together so that we could continue. Kam’s journey had ended but mine had to continue.
As we left the groves, we headed into the mountains that turned and challenged us with dangerous curves and beauty that I have never seen before. A distance just north of LA, we emerged from the mountains to turn onto the Pacific Coast Highway. I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced the beauty of the coast like this before. To engage with the environment, the sea, the sky, the crashing waves, the different blue colors, the butt pucker of riding along cliffs high above the ocean, and the cool merciful drop of the the temperature from 110 to 75 that takes place within a couple miles of the coast….words and pictures cannot express the beauty and breath of life to your soul that comes from such a ride that is heightened by the hell you just came through. It was soul filling and heart breaking at the same time as emotions crashed against my heart, soul, and spirit.
The parallel of what was happening to me struck me with the strong but gentle way as God overlaid His will and vision over a painful situation almost immediately.
As I was struggling to pass through the desert, as I was dying in the heat, the oppression, the exhaustion…fighting through pain and struggle…my friend had struggled through this life like we all do. As I had passed through my valley of death to the ocean of life…
….Kam passed through his.
In this emotional storm, there was also a peace about it.
The bible says that the mind has not seen, nor mind can comprehend what lies ahead for those who serve Christ. Similar to my journey, we go through the desert, not understanding how things will look, how our world will change once we come out of the valley. While we suffocate in the desert, we cannot comprehend the beauty and refreshment of standing on the shore of the ocean with the merciful coolness soothing our mind. The sun that we thought was unrelenting or unkind in the desert….is actually majestically beautiful and warming as it sets in the ocean.
I don’t know what happens when we cross over, but I caught a mental glimpse of it…and I know that he’s standing on the edge of the ocean far away from our desert, and I’m ok with that. Where he is standing there is no more heartache, no more pain…no more loneliness or depression. No more struggling with the brokenness of this world.
I am still in the desert…still in this world with it’s ‘heat’ and struggle and war…and I want my buddy to be here with me. He was a comfort, he was a brother, he lived beside me in the trenches of spiritual warfare, he encouraged me, he lifted me up, he rode with me, he broke bread with me, worked beside me, he constantly prayed for me, for my wife…he spent vacations and weekends and motorcycle trips and work details and Man Camps with me….and he will join me no more in any of this…he will not join us anymore, but we will go to where he is and join him.
In the desert here, we will miss him.
But Kam has stepped into eternity…his days in the desert are over.
I will be at peace with that.