Grief is a funny thing (not really). You can put a bunch of people in a room together all of whom have lost someone close to them and their experiences will all be different. There’s no magic formula for getting through losing people you love. There’s no “right” way; no set of steps you can do to “make it all better.” As I said to someone this week, it just is what it is.
Neil Peart is best known as the drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush. In 1997 following the Test for Echo tour, he lost his 19-year-old daughter (and only child at that time) to a car accident. Less than a year later he also lost his common-law wife of 23 years to cancer.
It took a few months, but Peart decided to take off on his BMW motorcycle. He had no concrete plans; just ideas of where he wanted to go. In the book he describes it as “taking care of my little baby soul.” It’s as if everything he knew about life was stripped from him and he had to rebuild who he was.
Peart wrote many of the lyrics for Rush’s songs, so it should be no surprise that his words in Ghost Rider are very expressive and descriptive. I am envious of how well he can describe the places he visits as he winds his way through Canada from Quebec to the Alaskan Highway, then through Alaska and down to Vancouver to visit his brother. From there he tours through the northwestern United States, dipping back into Canada a few times and getting those National Park stamps. He heads to southern California and the southwest U.S. as the weather gets colder, then into Mexico for the holidays as he meets his brother-in-law in Belize for Christmas.
Through it all I could feel Peart was genuine. The writings come from a journal he kept as well as letters he wrote to friends. His closest friend was supposed to meet up with him along the road and ride with him, but was busted with a considerable amount of pot and ended up in jail. Peart’s letters to him are describing what he’s missing, and it really gives a lot of detail and imagery. Most of his hotel stays are small hotels, surprisingly. He values the anonymity of the road and the few times he’s recognized he wants to get away. If you’ve ever heard the song Limelight and listened to the lyrics, you’d understand this side of him.
Before I read the book I read some of the reviews. It seems like people were looking for a book telling them what to do to deal with grief and they were disappointed. This was not the point of his writing. It’s a travelogue of sorts but not a self-help book at all. I could identify what Peart was going through due to my own experiences. I had the same inclination to hit the road after losing my mother and my daughter less than six months apart. When you are grieving that intensely, the world doesn’t seem as bright and beautiful any more. Even with being realistic about life, you have to search to find beauty because everything seems dark. I didn’t have the same types of crying jags he did, but I can remember being back at work soon after my daughter died and going in the back to let the tears flow after seeing a family traveling together the way we used to. Your soul has to heal and learn to laugh and be happy again; you have to discover who you are again. Ghost Rider is the narrative of hoe Neil Peart did that. It won’t be the same for everyone.
I thought the book was wonderful. I identified so much with what he was going through and how he felt. He describes the places he visits wonderfully. I also added a few books he mentions to my “to read” list.
The one main criticism I have was something he said a few times that really cut me to the core. I get that when people are grieving they lash out and sometimes it seems he’s doing that, especially with people traveling together. He seems to have resentment when he sees happy family or couples traveling together and where that image made me want to cry, he seems to get angry and belittle them. He repeatedly belittles people he sees traveling in groups especially calling them out for the size of their body. I’m the first to say living in a tourist town that we have a love/hate relationship with the crowds that result, but I don’t think I’ve every shamed people for how they look. As far as bus tours go, there was a time I worked at the hotel and we had a tour staying there in the fall with mostly people from the U.K. A man came to the desk in the morning and had tears in his eyes as he talked about it being a dream vacation for him and how happy it made him. I know our fall colors are beautiful and I take them for granted. This man was moved to tears calling it “the trip of a lifetime.” He came to mind while reading this – does he deserve the kind of words Peart leveled at people he saw touring with bus tour groups? I can kind of cut him a break and think it was a result of the anger that comes from grief, but it was the one thing that bothered me reading this. Yes, I’ve gained a lot of weight since losing those members of my family that year and everything I’ve gone through. Would he see me and tag me with the same labels he does others, even though we actually had more in common than he realizes?
Alas, Neil Peart was human.
I think if you’re new to grieving for someone or looking for answers, you won’t find them in this book. If you are looking for anything about Rush you’ll also be disappointed. I enjoyed it for the most part, as I’ve said, and I love traveling. I think people who have that sense of wanderlust will enjoy it as well as following a grief journey if you’ve had your own.
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