This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.
Pat Long came to West Virginia on a motorcycle. He almost left on one, too.
It was Groundhog Day 2012 and Long, who was 84 at the time, was riding his 1984 Harley-Davidson Sportster along on W.Va. 34 in Hometown.
A Corvette came up behind him. The car was following a bit too close, so Long decided to speed up in the turns and lose him.
He headed around a sharp left-hand curve when he hit a patch of gravel and the bike skidded out from under him.
When he regained consciousness, he was lying on the ground. Bystanders had removed his leather jacket and chaps and cut the rest of his clothes off.
“They thought I was dead. I didn’t wake up for 15 minutes, they said.”
Long doesn’t have a cellphone but carries a list of emergency contact numbers. Someone called an ambulance, and then his son and daughter.
He spent a few days in Charleston Area Medical Center’s General Hospital where doctors determined he broke his neck and left shoulder.
He wore his arm in a sling for a month and had a brace around his neck for four months. He was back on his motorcycle before he could take the neck brace off.
“I never have thought about quitting,” he said.
Long, now 86, still rides as much as he can.
Age has slowed him down a little — “I don’t take as many chances as I used to,” he said — but he has no desire to hang up his chaps.
His knees give him a little trouble when he’s walking, but it doesn’t impede his riding.
“They seem to feel better on the bike.”
Long prefers to stick to the back roads. He only uses interstates if he’s in a hurry.
He clocked 301 miles on a recent Sunday, driving to Rainelle, the Bluestone Dam, Princeton and Blair Mountain before making his way back to his North Charleston home
The next day he rode 168 miles through Racine and Beckley before heading home on U.S. 60 across Gauley Mountain.
Long can’t really explain why he likes motorcycles. He just knows he’s enjoyed riding from the time he got his first bike at 17 years old.
He was working at a lumber camp in Corunna, Michigan, at the time, and was on the lookout for a motorcycle.
A friend spotted a 1936 Harley-Davidson sitting on the side of the road and suggested they go take a look.
“He wanted me to buy that motorcycle so he could ride with me.”
The owner wanted $225 for the bike.
“I said man, I ain’t got that much money,” Long said.
His friend encouraged him to buy the motorcycle, however, and offered to loan him some money.
That was enough to convince Long. Since he had never ridden a motorcycle before, the owner suggested he take the bike around the block a few times to practice.
A few minutes later, he was on his way.
“It didn’t take me long to learn.”
He rode that bike until he enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1946, when he sold it to a friend.
He was honorably discharged 19 months later and bought a 1940 Harley with the money he’d saved.
That was the motorcycle that brought Long to West Virginia.
He had met Hubert “Dutch” Beck, a Dunbar native, while serving in the Marines. After they got out, Beck sent Long a letter.
“He’d got married down here and wasn’t getting along good with his wife,” he said.
Beck came to Michigan and worked for a time, but soon decided to return to the Mountain State. He borrowed Long’s Model A Ford to make the drive.
“Then he wrote me a letter and wanted me to come down.”
Long hopped on his Harley and made the trip to West Virginia.
“Then I married his sister and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Long married Dutch’s sister Clara, better known to her friends as “Tody,” in 1951.
He made a career as a crane operator for Kanawha Manufacturing and WCF Construction, riding his motorcycle to work every day until the roads turned icy.
A local bike shop used to run a safety contest, awarding a trophy to the biker who rode the most miles without an accident. Long won the competition three years in a row.
“The fourth year, I got the mumps,” he said.
Long was off work — and off his bike — for about six weeks. One of his competitors seized the opportunity, clocked some extra miles on his bike and won the competition.
“That was the only reason he beat me,” Long said.
That’s not to say Long didn’t have his share of wrecks through the years, however.
An insurance salesman once rear-ended him at a stop sign.
Another time, he was driving off the hill from Yeager Airport when he hit a patch of ice on Greenbrier Street.
“I went out into a field, end over end,” he said. “I had so many clothes on, I didn’t get hurt bad.”
The wreck broke the crash bars and mirrors on his bike and bent one of the fenders. Long was able to bend everything back in place and ride the motorcycle home.
Most of the time, however, Long is pretty good at staying between the lines.
When he was 82, Long made the trip to the Kentucky-Tennessee border to ride “Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile stretch of road with 318 sharp turns.
It’s a notoriously rough patch of road — there’s a “Tree of Shame” along the highway, covered in busted motorcycle parts — but Long made the run without a hitch.
He doesn’t think it was much of an achievement, though. While there, he met a woman whose father came from Florida to ride the “Dragon.”
“He was 92, so I didn’t have anything to brag about,” he said.
Long just hopes he’s still riding at that age.
He has three bikes in his garage now.
His main ride is a 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster he bought about two years ago.
“A preacher had it and he was afraid to ride it.”
He also has a 1995 Suzuki 800 he bought from his sister, and a 2002 Suzuki 800 he found in the classifieds.
He gave the newer Suzuki to his son, Mark. The exhaust pipes are too loud for Long’s tastes. He has preferred quiet pipes ever since he owned a Honda Goldwing.
“That spoils you,” he said. “I figured out you could ride with somebody and visit with them while you’re riding.”
Long mostly rides by himself now, however.
His wife used to go with him sometimes, but she died of cancer in 2001. Her brother Dutch, Long’s old Marine buddy, died two years later.
“Sometimes I think, man, I wish somebody else was here to see this,” he said.
So now he travels with a camera. He has albums full of photos from his travels. His motorcycles appear in almost every shot, posed in front of a landmark or with friends he met along the way.
Long isn’t in many of the pictures, but he doesn’t need to be.
The photos are for other people to see.
If Pat Long wants to see something again, he’ll just fire up his Harley and go.