Harley Tracks: A spiritual journey — with a handful of throttle — to honor our fallen veterans
Words and photos by Mike Rinowski
In January 1997, I moved to Asia for work and adventure. I have an expired passport that resembles a ragged old phone book; the cover worn, but too tough to shred. It’s stuffed with stacks of extra pages covered with visas and customs stamps from ten years of living in Asia.
But in June 2008, I turned a new page and landed in Vietnam with a three-year contract to build golf courses. From my apartment, I looked down on Hanoi, a city we had bombed to rubble. I had joined the Army in 1971 and during the gung-ho craze of training, I requested combat duty. Instead, they sent me to Germany. Nevertheless, I wondered how they would react to an American, but as I strolled through neighborhoods, I quickly learned the war was a distant memory. (I must confess that I’d become preoccupied with my life and the war was distant to me, also.) The people were thrilled to meet me and excited when I told them I liked their country.
People celebrated daily life and evenings were a festive affair. While drinks flowed and tastes of the world were enjoyed in restaurants and pubs, laughter and music spilled out onto the sidewalks, where vendors strutted through the clamor of guests perched on little plastic chairs around little plastic tables. Waiters scurried around with buckets of ice to refresh everyone’s glass of beer.
Vietnam had recently joined the World Trade Organization, which opened doors for a variety of imports, but how to get a Harley-Davidson into Hanoi remained unclear. Their system was not yet set up for smooth transactions. However, I was fortunate to meet a guy who knew a customs agent I could bribe to avoid tax. My 2008 Fat Boy delivery was as easy as ordering a pizza!
I looked forward to my new job and rides on my time off. I was nowhere near the age of retirement and neither was my savings account, but strange things happen when a motorcycle becomes part of the equation. What happened over the next four-and-a-half years could not have been planned as I became consumed by a wild, free-spirited journey that covered 41,000 miles across this ancient country on a Harley.
Riding in Vietnam was surreal as the 21st century overlapped with a developing nation. The country had risen from destitution to dynamic development fueled by joint ventures and foreign investments. At times, I felt I rode alone in the twilight zone, and I was the anomaly. But a few miles away from the congestion of Hanoi, I was back in time as I passed hamlets surrounded by rice fields tended to as they have been for generations. Machines weren’t made to sculpt, plant, and harvest those magnificently terraced mountainsides.
When I met other riders from Hanoi, Australia, Canada, and Bulgaria on Harleys, Hondas, Triumphs, and an Aprilia, they warned me that nobody rode alone around there. For one thing, people don’t like to get involved with an accident. I had seen many accidents with motos and bodies strewn across the roads, so I understood their concerns. But I never shied from a solo ride and soon my new friends joined me, showing me their favorite trails, too.
One of my friends told me about a new highway that nobody used; he talked of robberies, scams to fix flat tires and too few gas stations. The next Sunday I rode out alone and found that new highway, and I became nobody!
Despite ten glorious months in the wind, battles on the work front eventually caused my contract to crumble. My network for another job likely crossed borders the Fat Boy could not follow. I’d have to sell the bike or ship it home … but in the meantime, I’d ride blissfully to the bitter end.
On my first road trip to a short-term job in the coastal town of Nha Trang, I met Doc and Bao Anh on their wedding day in Dong Hoi. Their home was in Nha Trang, so we’d see each other often. I met quite a few veterans who returned for various reasons. Doc reluctantly returned decades after the war to commission one of his paintings at a clinic in Chu Lai, named after Sharon Lane, a nurse killed by enemy fire. however, another calling kept him there. He and Bao Anh formed the Orange Carer Campaign to bring international aid and awareness to the suffering and loss of life from Agent Orange. That deadly dioxin sprayed during the war still rages through the population, as it does through our veterans and their families.
Between jobs, I laid tracks on that new highway—a fantastic stretch of asphalt and concrete known as the Ho Chi Minh Road. The trail has ancient roots, but in the 1960s it was recognized as a military engineering marvel. The first 600 miles south of Hanoi cut through the most diverse topography I’d ever rode through, and to lay first tracks in the solitude of remote jungle was a powerful sensation. The climate was the most entertaining with monsoons equally powerful. Towns and traffic were sparse, and the robberies and scams were old stories. The only place I carried gas was on the Western Branch; 150 miles through remote jungle north of Khe Sanh.
My friends in Hanoi and the guys from HOG of Saigon told me I rode around Vietnam like nobody ever had.
At the end of the other main highway, National Highway #1, beyond a small town few people knew about, I stood beside my bike and looked across the water. I thought I’d completed the ride of my life. Then, a strange deja-vu like sensation crept over my shoulders, like the adventure had chosen me—and it wasn’t over.
That was really weird because I looked forward to a phone call about a job in a new country.
I returned to Nha Trang a few days later; still no call. The Tet holiday approached, which would be an unusual time to start a project, and that sensation crept back over my shoulders and I had strange visions of riding back across Vietnam to honor our fallen veterans. It struck me as an obligation to ride for them with a spirit of freedom across the land they saw last.
But before I packed, I got that phone call and was in Laos within the week. My quest was delayed almost two years, but the adventures continued.
Eventually, I put my work aside and returned to the trails to complete my mission honoring the fallen. Combat was beyond my imagination, but in the solitude of the jungles along the Ho Chi Minh trail, I mused over the turmoil a combat veteran must have experienced. Those thoughts messed with my emotions. I felt anger, then humility, compassion and empathy. At times I broke down in sorrow for the fallen and their families.
My quest absorbed the depths of my being and I crossed a threshold and bonded with the spirits of the fallen. I lived vicariously for them and I didn’t want our ride to be a hateful or somber affair. I wanted to celebrate freedom for them on a Harley-Davidson, so I rode with a playful vengeance.
Tropical sunshine burned layers of skin from my arms and face, I shivered in wet near freezing temperatures and I was baptized in monsoon rains. I rode away from every painful and damaging encounter as the luckiest rider in Vietnam.
Children cheered with me and those who remembered the wrath of American firepower treated me with kindness. There were times and places I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I felt freedom like never before. I felt like an American like never before, and at times I felt the presence of those soldiers and their families I rode for. It was the ride of lifetime for those who never had the chance to have one. Once again, I thought my quest was complete and I felt an obligation to share my story by writing a book. I also had a greater awareness to the essence of the American character—free-spirited and patriotic. People around the world envy that nature. I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it.
Three months before I left Vietnam, I met a veteran at the Texas BBQ joint in Nha Trang. Mike Swinscoe was a biker from Arizona. In 1968-69, Mike was a combat radio operator assigned to MACV 1st Vietnamese Ranger Group near Da Nang. As the drinks and stories flowed, he told me that I should join with the National Veterans Awareness Ride that his friend led across America each May. He said they pass through Des Moines. Then he said, “Hell, I’ll meet you there and we’ll ride together!” I thought that’s 10,000 miles away, six months from now, and we’re both drunk.
The next day, I had a headache and foggy vision. I returned to the BBQ that night and waited. Sure enough, he walked in and sat down and we had drinks and made a plan. Had I not met Mike, my quest would have been incomplete and I wouldn’t have known it. With him, it rolled to an emotional fulfillment on a ride across America in 2013.
Veterans think of Vietnam every day and memories of the war return to too many every night. We have an obligation to all who sacrificed for freedom and that is to live with the dreams and excitement they cherished in life. Their sacrifice must not be in vain.
My ride with the Fat Boy continues. And one day it will be titled to the National Park Service as a donation to the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, aka The Wall.
When I look back at my journey and over 6,000 hours of writing about it, I wonder if I was being guided by a higher power, fate or desire. I jest that maybe a priest, monk or a shrink could help me answer that, because luck alone can’t explain it.
My book, Harley Tracks: Across Vietnam to The Wall, is available on my website: www.harleytracks.com
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