"That's it," Stroud told me, gesturing to the place he planned to die. It was a good spot — the crest of a grassy hill, surrounded by an ancient forest of towering trees, with a clear view of the wooded valley rolling beyond. Nearby, a creek sang over the moss and rocks, and the mountains rose green and silent in the Oregon sky.
"You know, there's a beginning, a middle, and an end," he mused, looking out over the valley. "And if you live the middle part right, the end is not so tragic."
Over the course of his 71 years, Ramey "Coach" Stroud has striven to live the middle part right.
He's one of those characters that seems plucked straight out of an adventure novel, his story a collection of madcap escapades, whirlwind romances, and feats of derring-do. Looming large in Stroud's childhood memories is his Uncle Roy, a lanky desert cowboy — quiet, except when he had something to say. He wore a big hat and boots and had a slow way of talking.
"Ramey," Uncle Roy would say, "you want to get along in this life, you gotta learn to do three things: Jump high, fart loud, and fear nothing."
They were words Stroud would live by.
Ramey "Coach" Stroud roaming around his ranch in Oregon, 2018 | (Amanda Loman/Courtesy Narratively)
In the late 1970s, Stroud showed up to a 100-mile equestrian endurance race, only to find that his horse had been injured en route. Rather than withdraw, he decided to run the 100 miles on foot, despite having never run anything longer than a marathon in his life. The feat nearly killed him, but he finished — kicking off a habit of running 50- to 100-mile backcountry races alongside the horses, in an age before ultramarathons were common.
Stroud walking in front of his horse during the 100-mile equestrian endurance race in the late 1970s | (Amanda Loman/Courtesy Narratively)
He's a renaissance man and an old-school adventurer, a larger-than-life character made of flesh and bone and grit in a world of cardboard cutouts and pandemic mediocrity.
Then, one fateful day, Stroud's life of high-octane adventure came to a screeching halt.
In November 2003, Stroud lined up at the starting gates of an indoor Supercross motorcycle race at the fairgrounds in Salem, Oregon. It was his second race of the day. He had lost the first by a hair. This time, he was determined to win.
"The guy who beat me was my target," Stroud says. "I didn't care about anything else."
The bikes lined up to start, the metal gates dropped and the engines roared, and Stroud, then 56 years old, shot ahead like a cork from a bottle. But the other rider was faster, just one breath ahead.
Stroud stayed right on his tail. Jump after jump, obstacle after obstacle, he kept looking for an opportunity to pass his man.
Stroud at the Nevada 2000 Best in the Desert Off-Road Race, a 2,000-mile race where he won his class championship at 54 years old | (Amanda Loman/Courtesy Narratively)
"The further I went, the more aggressive I got," Stroud confesses. "But it just ain't happening."
Sliding around a turn in a churn of dust, they reached a part of the track where there were four jumps in succession. Most riders took them two at a time, a "double double." And there, Stroud saw his chance. He would do a "quad," clearing all four jumps in a single go and passing his opponent in the air — his only chance to win.
Stroud was pushing the envelope, but he felt good. The adrenaline pulsed in his veins and he cranked back on the throttle and the bike shot off the first jump, arcing up and edging into first place.
No one had thought anything of the cable hanging from the ceiling. After all, who would jump that high in an indoor race? Midair, Stroud glimpsed the snaking steel — too late. It knocked him off balance and sent him and his machine plummeting to the ground.
He hit the dirt with a crunch.
Outside the hospital, a snowstorm whirled white through the air — corkscrews of crystal cold settling on trees, windshields, curbs. Inside, Stroud sat in his wheelchair, facing the window, and watched the snow.
"What would a life like this be worth?" Stroud asked himself. He didn't see much promise.
It had been months since the crash. His back was broken in three places, his lung punctured, his brain rattled, his limbs useless. He woke up unable to move, trapped in a body he no longer recognized.
One day, a nurse pulled back the sheet that covered him, and he saw a blob where his athletic core had been. His abdomen had lost all muscle tone, gone flaccid.
"No, that's not me," Stroud said to himself. "I'm tired of this. I'm getting out of here."
He tried to swing his legs over and get out of bed to leave the hospital. But nothing happened. His legs would not obey his mind's command. He was paralyzed, powerless.
"The biggest shock was to go from being self-sufficient to being totally dependent on others," Stroud says. "I mean sure, the injuries were bad, but having to depend on other people to feed me or wipe my butt, put a catheter in my penis, that was really shocking."
Eventually, Stroud was moved from the ICU to the main hospital, then into rehab, a purgatory where nurses threw his limbs about like limp fish. As the months passed, he eventually regained control of his upper body, but he still couldn't feel his legs, control his bladder, or stand up "like a man."
Winter came, and Stroud contemplated suicide, running scenarios in his head while snowflakes fell. In the background, a mix CD played songs from across the globe — collections from his world travels. And then a song began that transported Stroud to a different hemisphere.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.