On the eve of an important anniversary, Nancy Irwin looks back on a bike she’s loved, and the friends she’s lost along the way.
Casper turns 25 this June. It’s hard to believe I’ve been riding the same bike for that long, and amazing that I haven’t upgraded. There’s a story behind how and why I bought my now coveted BMW R80GS Paris Dakar and my subsequent trip around the world. It was 1987. The plague had hit. People were dropping like flies. I didn’t know how much longer I would live.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the anniversary approaches. They tried to kill us. No, they did kill us! Lack of action during the AIDS crisis resulted in the genocide of a subculture. Imagine all bikers being systematically killed, while everyone else stood by. I experienced a war of discrimination waged beneath the surface of “normal” society, and my friends were its casualties.
One such friend was John David Kruzick, who I met at a French immersion course in Thunder Bay when I was 18. David was an artist, completed grade 12 with a 98 per cent average, spoke four languages plus Latin, loved classical music and thought Wedgewood was cool. He came out at 16, and followed his own path. We became fast friends. Our parents didn’t approve, but I brought the 19-year-old home to my parents’ house for a month until he found a room to rent. He explored the underground scene and I snuck him groceries from my mother’s kitchen. He managed in Toronto for a year or so. My first long-distance trip on the freshly restored Triumph I owned at the time was to visit him in Thunder Bay. Shortly after, David moved back to Toronto, and stayed in my house until he found housing and decent employment with Christie’s auctioneers, handling crown jewels, master’s art and antiques. Of course he loved being my passenger.
At age 25, I owned a house, a small business, two British motorcycles and a very special VW pickup truck. Then my world started falling apart. A much-celebrated designer disease was infecting my community, and there was no cure. It was like something out of a horror movie. Once diagnosed, you were lucky to live two years. And the method of transmission was demonic. It hit in the pleasure centre. My best friend was diagnosed.
There are two versions to this tale. People normally hear about an epic adventure, and a coming of age story. I really didn’t get that women didn’t do that sort of thing. My mother was inspirational. She said I couldn’t, and really hoped I wouldn’t. When I told David my idea he said it wasn’t possible. He meant that I couldn’t leave him. I assured him I wouldn’t. David died of AIDS in September of 1987. I left Toronto in October, very much alone. It was a memorial ride.
I set out on an enviable, if unfathomable, trip around the world. No one I knew had done such a thing. I did it on a brand new motorcycle, with more money in my pocket than I’d ever imagined. I sold my house and on June 17, 1987 dropped nine grand on Casper, my pick of adventure bikes—though the term that had not yet been invented.
Unlike the few other enduros of the time, the BMW could carry a heavy load, and I could touch the ground, but just barely. There were BMW dealers all over the world, so parts would be accessible even if I had to use police mechanics or car dealers, which wasn’t the norm at the time. I chose big saddlebags and heated handgrips, which were rare in those days. And I thought the three-year warranty would come in handy.
When the time came I rode alone, with vague plans and no real clue what I was getting myself into. I kept an interesting record of places I changed Casper’s oil or did other repairs. I kept a logbook, took photos, and my travel tales began to appear in Canadian Biker in 1989. I did all sorts of interesting things, like ride up slate stairs to a motel in Mexico, where I parked Casper inside the room with me. I hung my hammock under a roof on a sandy beach in Costa Rica, and slept with Casper leaned against a tree. We were nearly washed out to sea when a midnight hurricane hit! (People died that night.)
I rode through sandstorms in the Sahara, and crossed hundreds of kilometres of desert where there were no roads. I lost my bike keys after climbing a stories-high sand dune that I tumbled down with childlike glee. Oops! I combed back up the sand dune with my hands until I found the keys. Casper and I have had all sorts of adventures, and lived many places. For years, I did all the maintenance with the tool kit that came with the bike. Everything I needed to live fit in the saddlebags. I couldn’t collect souvenirs, but I picked up some Spanish and German, and some lifelong friends.
I could never write this version before. But it got better once everyone was forced to look into their own sordid past and honestly consider how many times they had “done it” strictly for procreation. Now there’s even “street cred” for knowing us. I’m sad to say some outlaws have also been hit, many with hepatitis C that came from a different kind of pleasure. At least they didn’t experience the discrimination the Gay community faced, while the governments of both Canada and the US did nothing (or less) to help the sick and the dying, holding back treatment in the name of research. Never think complacency counts for action, or that you’re not guilty if you just stood around and watched.
It’s no surprise I didn’t come back to Canada for five years. And it’s no surprise I got involved with ACT UP, the political movement in New York City. By some miracle I live, as do a handful of my peers. I’m having a party to celebrate. For 25 years I’ve lived for pleasure. I am a warrior. And I haven’t forgotten. Every time I ride Casper, I am reminded. My first long ride and my last one were for you, David, my brother.