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MISTIR, Introduction: A Lit Cleric on Sabbatical Winds Up Back in High School

Motorcyclists, at least the ones I know and ride with, don’t often talk about  one of the benefits of two wheeled, motorized travel. They’ll talk about most everything else: gear, maintenance costs, other bikes they’ve owned,  and other bikes they’d like to own. They’ll talk about road trips and places to stay and the details of a dropped bike or a crash. But it’s not often that you’ll hear those of us who ride mention one of the things that keep us on our mounts: the subtle but powerful sensation we receive when seated only inches above well-oiled pistons and cylinders, powered by thousands of tiny gas explosions. On occasions, someone makes a joke about that which we all acknowledge and appreciate, but rarely, if ever, do we discuss it. The truth is, It feels pretty damn good on the crotch to straddle a load of horsepower and power around this planet.

On an afternoon ride in the vicinity of Tombstone, Arizona, still relatively new to my motorbike ( I had acquired my first one at the age of fifty), I enjoyed short rides around the southeast Arizona. Sometimes on my own, sometimes accompanied by other riders, I appreciated that riding offered a way to relax and meet some people outside the confines of my vocation and career: the Episcopal priesthood. On one of our area’s abundant blue-sky afternoons, as 2012 approached its end, I zipped and zoomed around the longish curves of the two-lane roads surrounding Tombstone, AZ.  I enjoyed the desert’s cool air and lifted the visor of my helmet to feel the sky, risking the intrusion of a random yellow jacket. I was   particularly content with the rattle and hum of my first motorcycle for all the aforementioned reasons.

For more than seven years I’d toiled in the high-desert vineyards of the Lord, serving two small churches and doing border work on the US/MX border. Accordingly, I had earned a three-month, fully paid sabbatical, the first of my twenty year career as a priest. Some months before that afternoon, as I began to think about what I might do with the time, I asked my bishop if he had any requirements for the break. He did not. Sabbaticals for clergy often include extended study programs, a residency in a seminary, a mission-related travel adventure, and the like. My bishop did not set before me any parameters regarding my three months, nor did he offer any funding to refresh within those three months, so I decided that I was pretty much on my own and free to do what I chose with my time.

I climbed and descended, braked and throttled surrounded by blue sage and bluer sky. I knew that whatever I did for those three months, I wanted to travel and I wanted to travel on my moto. The idea came gently and caressed me, like the cool moving air filling my helmet. I would return to the Western Slope of the Rockies, to Northwest Colorado, and to a guest ranch on the Little Snake River where I worked as a teen-aged ranch hand for two of the most formative summers of my life. In the thirty plus years since I worked there, I had returned a few times for short visits. This time would be different. I would ask Grady, the ranch owner- aside from my own father, probably the most influential male in my adolescent life-if I could trade my labor for room and board  and spend time pursuing my writing. Expectant about my plan, I wandered a bit longer in the area and let the ride and the inspiration nourish me. Ready to share my excitement with my wife, I pointed the GS south toward Bisbee and the border, hopeful that my sabbatical plan would come to fruition.

About the same time of year and under the same blue sky, while making the twenty-five minute drive home –on four wheels this time- I received another inspiration that, like my sabbatical plan, I considered and then acted upon. I made the portentous decision to end my twenty-five year hiatus from marijuana. Like the sabbatical idea, the idea came to me gently, carried by the dry desert air. Plenty of Bisbee’s citizenry partook of the herb and, as I got to know folks in the community, I noticed that people seemed to manage both the marijuana and the rest of their lives okay. I wondered if the same could be true for me and moderate marijuana usage. I certainly had changed in the last quarter-century and had been through some difficult and tumultuous times and came out of it all, as we say in motorcycling, ‘two wheels up.’ Inside my truck on that Sunday afternoon, as I considered who I would reach out to help me get high, I even shared my decision with the Lord, not asking permission per se, but informing him of my plans. I trusted that God would not abandon me to the abyss if things went south. I got that much right.

I had no idea at the time that such a decision, coupled with the abandon of my sabbatical adventure, would lead to so much calamity, mystery and magic, several near arrests, three psychiatric hospitalizations, the near end of my marriage and priesthood, the actual end of my church career and the beginning of an adventure with young people that has changed me irrevocably.

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