T he bottom line is freedom. That’s what 60-year-old Jeff Brown says as he pivots on his
heels and takes a long look at
American Dream and Soaring Eagle.
Both three-wheeled “motorcycle cars” are crafted from his imagination and junkyard Volkswagens.
American Dream came first, and she was just that. He rode her big red stripes to every single state, then returned to base camp in Burke County to build her a patriotic sister, Soaring Eagle.
When Jeff wasn’t transforming salvaged parts into sleek custom trikes, the highway was screaming his name.
But a decade and 50 states later, his great ride of freedom has ended.
The cancer that started in Jeff’s pancreas has seeped into his lungs and bones.
He settles back into the trike’s leather seat and hopes he’ll live through the week.
The Connecticut native found his way to Burke County a dozen years ago when he met Rusty Eskew and decided to stop off at Graystone Ranch for a night or two.
Before he knew it, two years had passed and he was tinkering with plans for American Dream.
“I didn’t have the money to buy a bike, and I wanted to build something that I could sleep in and get out of the rain,” Jeff says, gesturing to the Bug’s reworked cab where he curls up like a cat when the weather turns bad. “There’s always Mother Nature, and Mother Nature doesn’t always want to treat you right.”
The cab is plastered with front page stories and photographs of a Jeff who’d not yet met cancer.
Lean-limbed and bright-eyed, he smiles for shots with old men, Hooter’s girls and freckle-faced kids.
“All I had to do is park, and people would come running over,” he says, proclaiming Wal-Mart his favorite stop.
They’d walk circles around American Dream, whistling at the cleverness of her creation and poking their heads into her chamber. Most would push a dollar bill into the donation jar and ask about his journey.
“I drove all the way across America because people I didn’t know helped me one dollar at a time,” Jeff proclaims. “I broke down 35 times, and every time somebody came out with a part or an idea to keep me going. There’s way more good out there than bad … it’s just that the good doesn’t get talked about.”
Every four or five months, Jeff straggled back to Graystone all windblown and road weary. But he’d rest right up and set off again in search of America’s pulse.
And he didn’t always like what he found.
“This is the greatest country on earth, and people don’t even know it because they’re so hung up on material things,” he says, pulling on a tuft of beard dyed blue to match the flag. “Houses, cars, boats, motorcycles … once we get headed in that direction, there’s no turning back.”
It was an infirmity of soul he glimpsed in so many people – and it was feeding on making and spending.
“We all know we’re going to die, but too many people forget their dreams … or never even ask themselves what they want out of life,” Jeff says as the old frustration rises in his belly. “They’re so caught up in getting through the week, they can’t look beyond that.”
Some folks that gathered around American Dream couldn’t fathom Jeff’s free fall through life, but they’d throw out scraps of some nearly forgotten dream like surfing Santa Cruz or climbing Mt. McKinley.
Jeff kept a running list of those people and their unanswered quests, and months or years later, a photograph of American Dream would show up in a mailbox here or there. Behind her stars and stripes would be the spot they’d imagined visiting.
“Everybody has a dream,” Rusty Eskew says as he lays a hand on Soaring Eagle and makes arrangements to stay with his friend until his last hour. “I guess he was living dreams for a lot of people.”
Jeff insists he just wanted to see people smile, but he knows that answer is way too easy.
“Everybody seems to think they’re going to retire and then do all the things they’ve always wanted to do. But the bottom line is that when you retire, you’re old,” he says. “I’ve been telling people to live every day as if it’s their last … little did I realize mine would be so soon.”
The wind sends a shiver through Jeff, and he heads for the heat of the ranch office.
He draws out stories like tools from a knapsack, each one worn just right.
He talks of turtles dotting the warm California highway and how he’d stopped again and again to usher them to the grass. Eleven times, he says, before he realized the hills were speckled with hundreds.
He remembers September snow flakes clinging to his beard in downtown Anchorage and how people there rallied around him and raised enough money to ferry American Dream to Hawaii, his 50th state.
“I’d be riding down the road and people would be holding ten dollar bills out of their car windows,” he muses.
And then, in 2007, there was the journey’s end – a long rest steeped in the soft heat of Honolulu and the satisfaction of a finished job.
Jeff stares into nothingness as if the beach breeze is with him again. Then his focus returns – and along with it, his finality.
The story of dying comes as it should. He turns it over and over in his calloused hands, but can’t quite absorb the feel of it.
“Am I scared?” Jeff repeats, tipping his water bottle back and forth as if weighing the question. “I’m past the fear. But I wasn’t done. I had so much more to give and to do.”
A wedge of sunlight sweeps across the office floor as his hospice nurse swings open the front door. The morphine coats the sharp edges of Jeff’s pain, but nearly at once the spines of his cancer dig into him again.
As the nurse records his vital signs, Jeff pushes his fingertips into his temples as if driving it back.
The phone lines burn back and forth between Burke County and Honolulu. A doctor. A hospital room. A last wish. Airline tickets for him and Rusty. Certainty hangs like a dark curtain.
Jeff springs from the table and lopes through the winter brown grass toward the steel and rubber that were his life.
He slides into the seat of Soaring Eagle, and she roars to life. The deep rumble revives him.
Her trio of silver horns bellows like an oncoming train, and Jeff tips back his head and grins.
He kills the bike’s engine and all is silent, save the bleat of a goat that stretches his neck over the fence to watch.
“Hawaii?” he ponders aloud.
Jeff says he wants to look out over the ocean before he dies … to hear the crash of waterfalls and the afternoon rain patting the sand.
He gathers himself together and looks up with a face as sure as the steel bolts that fasten his dream machines together.
“There’s a rainbow there every day.”
JUST JEFF Before the journey: Jeff was a jack of all trades, making his living as a carpenter, plumber, painter and welder. He sewed seats for his trikes drawing on skills he picked as a teenager in a reupholstering shop.
Parting words: “Rich is in your heart … it’s whatever makes you happy. Don’t be scared to give, and never, ever judge.”
More: Too see photos of Jeff and his trikes, visit our gallery at www.thetruecitizen.com. To watch his videos and read his blog, go to www.worldfamoustrike.com.
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