By Mark Donham
The following is an excerpt from Mark Donham’s chapter in The Moment Collectors: Twenty Travellers’ Tales From Around the World. It has been adapted for the purposes of the ALZWA Blog. Mark is a long-time Alzheimer’s advocate and is currently a board member for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter.
I was riding and exploring the dusty gravel roads of six countries as I traveled south along the length of the Andes from Colombia, aiming eventually for the dramatic landscapes of Patagonia. Trying to stay off the beaten path as much as possible, every day was full of the surprises and fascinations I’d hoped to find on my journey. I had surprised myself with the realization of just how much I could achieve. But South America isn’t where this story begins. First I need to take you back to my pre-trip home in Portland, Ore.
Living a suburban life in the United States was very good. My wife, Chris, and I had good careers and a home life that we loved. Our days were full of work, lots of my stepsons’ school activities, socializing with friends and family and many annual holiday trips. But then life changed forever.
Chris started developing the hallmark signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. With that diagnosis, our lives were forced to change. She was in her mid-40s, and with a family history, we knew how this disease was going to progress. I left my job to care for her full time; this was going to be a journey we’d make together. After eight years of the best and worst parts of life, Chris, with a steady and heartbreaking decline, died of this awful disease. The process of losing her was heart-wrenching; a painful journey for everyone that knew and loved her.
My passion for motorcycling had started many years before, but as is the way for so many, other parts of life had taken over and I’d let riding ease into the background for a while. Once Chris had been diagnosed, the decision to spend all our time together meant that we were able to share some amazing two-up rides to see family and friends around the United States. I’m forever grateful for the fun of those adventures. We put on more than 40,000 miles across the States together. After a while, she was no longer able to join me, but getting out for a ride was healthy for me mentally and Chris understood this. Riding was my way of getting a much-needed break from caregiving, clear my head and renew my body, mind and soul.
Alzheimer’s disease, as it devastated Chris’s abilities, meant that I’d been losing much of her way before her actual death. I had been processing, reading and attending a grief support group along the way, and during the final months of her life, I started to dream of riding a motorcycle around the world. I’d traveled with a backpack throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand in my late teens and early twenties, and loved exploring other places. These trips had taught me not to travel for travel’s sake, nor for just beautiful scenery or vistas, but very much for the people, culture and foods, too.
You’ll imagine that the six months after Chris passed away were a period in life that I’d never want to repeat. But the dream niggled at me and the thought of it gave a vital streak of positivity to hang on to. I knew I had to make this vision come alive. I was on the rollercoaster of grief from the loss of my wife, and reeling from the huge changes that lay in front of me, but it was a “wake-up” moment: life is very short sometimes. The plan was not to try to run away from what had happened with Chris. I was going out into the world to visit the places I’d not been, but wanted to see.
I clearly remember telling people of my plans, and that so many had keenly told me all the reasons that I should not do it. Obstacles such as, “What about your house? Your career?” or warnings like, “You are going to die in Mexico, it’s too dangerous.” These comments always made me smile. My mind was made up, I was going, and I knew that the journey would unfold for me as it was supposed to. It was crystal clear to me that I wasn’t running from death but that I was embracing the life ahead of me. I knew that the hurtling ups and downs of grief were something that would be with me at times forever, but now it was important to reset my life.
I ended up spending two-and-a-half years on the road, traveling through 26 countries across six continents.
One of the key beauties of travel for me turned out to be the connections; the meetings and sharing of friendship between both the local people along the way, and other travelers. Chance meetings can turn into lifetime friendships. It’s almost as if the connections between kindred spirits are made so much more possible by being out on a journey such as ours. We are all out there to experience and to learn, yet perhaps the most important thing we learn is the value of all that is involved with friendship.
My life journey has been improved greatly by travel; this motorcycle trip was due to the ending of one chapter of my life, but it was the beginning of a new life. All I experienced over the years travelling on my trusty motorcycle made me grow, and in so many ways it brought new horizons and possibilities into my world.