Sometimes we are fortunate enough to meet people who enrich our lives even by casual contact. I met such a person — a remarkable man — about eight years ago at Ratliff Ferry.
Ratliff Ferry is located off the Natchez Trace north of Ridgeland and the Reservoir on the Pearl River. A small group of motorcycle riders meet there informally on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the parking lot of the country store. We talk about our passions: motorcycles, rallies and touring.
It is not unusual for more than 100 bikers to stop by Ratliff Ferry on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon. Many of today’s riders don’t even know John Lyles, but I consider him to be the grandfather of “the gathering.”
When John wasn’t on one of his many bike trips, he was always at Ratliff on the weekends. Even when winter arrived, John was there, along with a few other hardy souls. John was a storehouse of information about bikes — especially BMWs — and wonderful back roads to travel. I loved talking to John and listening to the stories of his travels and experiences.
His personalized tag was “IGOFAR” and that wasn’t an exaggeration.
Alaska, Nova Scotia, Florida Keys, Mexico and Central America were some of his destinations on his numerous bike trips. I always looked at John’s odometer to see how far he had traveled since I had last seen him. He traveled 30,000 miles or more each year on his bike.
One of his old BMW bikes had more than 300,000 miles without an engine rebuild. His bikes were plastered with bugs and a plaque on the windshield read “Don’t Disturb My Bug Collection.” John bought a KLR 650 for a trip to the remote areas of Alaska. This is an on-road, off-road, single-cylinder motorcycle. A 30-year-old would be tired after riding this bike for two hours. John rode it for 33 days. He slept on the ground for 30 of those nights. He was 70 at the time.
One of John’s friends told me that in his youth he was once banned from riding a motorcycle on an Army base because he was caught riding through the base, standing on the seat of a Harley with his hands held high in the air.
I can’t claim to be a close friend of John’s, though I would like to be able to do that. He was just a casual friend whom I talked with on many Sunday afternoons.
I do know that John lived in Lena, was a retired rural mail carrier, had owned and flown airplanes and later satisfied his adventurous spirit by flying his ultralight aircraft. John’s wife was a schoolteacher, and he owned some heavy equipment and still did a little dirt work.
John successfully battled cancer, but after four or five years it returned. After a while, he accepted the fact that he was not going to beat it this time.
One afternoon, we were sitting on a picnic tabletop, John with his soft drink and me with my beer. In a private moment John said, “I have no fear of dying, but there are just so many people and things that I will miss.”
He chuckled and added, “And I am not real sure that there are motorcycles in heaven.”
He said that he wished that he had one more long ride in him but that he didn’t. A long ride to John was 2,000 miles or more. John did get in a last ride. He rode to a BMW rally in Louisiana. I was told that his son from Texas had planned to join him at the rally. John died sleeping in his tent in the campground.
John’s zest for living and his appreciation for the beauty of this earth are unforgettable. I wish you could have heard his wistful description of the Texas Hill Country, a starry night in Colorado or a winding road in the Ozarks.
Perhaps, there is a lesson for us in the life of a man who loved living.
Looking back on those weekend afternoons when I talked with John reminds me of that line from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:” I am a part of all that I have met.
Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at email@example.com.