Renegades

The King of Adventure Stares Down Death

A rodeo cowboy, skydiver, firefighter, ultramarathoner and motorcycle racer, Coach Stroud is a 71-year-old badass. And he’s determined to die on his own terms.

The King of Adventure Stares Down Death

“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.

In his lifetime, Stroud has been a rodeo cowboy and a skydiving instructor, a firefighter and a father. Armed with a law degree and a thirst for adventure, he’s competitively raced motorcycles and horses, flown open-cockpit airplanes, scuba dived, and led motorcycle expeditions across the globe.

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.

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.

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

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.

“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.

“It was tango,” Stroud remembers. “Old-school tango, not Hollywood tango.”

The bandonion played its airy accordion swell, and the sensual sounds of the streets of Buenos Aires drifted to meet the despair of his empty hospital room, sound waves whirling to match the snow. He lost himself in the music, eyes closing for a moment, as he remembered Argentina: the capital city, the poetry of the language, the way the milongueros moved on the dance floor, so graceful, so full of passion. He closed his eyes again. He tapped his toe.

His toe. It moved.

“That toe changed everything,” Stroud said.

Stroud vowed then that 10 years from the day of the accident, he would dance the tango in Buenos Aires. But aside from one tapping toe, he couldn’t even move his feet, let alone stand — or dance. He would have to approach the road to recovery like training for an endurance race: one step at a time.

The doctors had told Stroud that most people in his situation never walk again. He told them that he wasn’t most people. For the next four years, Stroud worked relentlessly at rehab. After a year, he could stand up from his wheelchair. In four, he could walk with two canes.

One cold day in November 2007, four years after the crash, Stroud heaved his still-healing body back onto a motorcycle, determined to finish the race that had broken his back.

“When I crashed, I had two laps left to go,” Stroud said. “I’ve never quit a race in my life.”

Stroud finished the race, his goggles fogging up with tears on the final lap, and from that moment, Stroud was no longer a man in rehab. He was, once again, an adventurer taking on the world. In the years to come, the man that doctors said would never walk summited Machu Picchu on crutches and circumnavigated the globe on a sidecar motorcycle. Wanting to pass on his hard-earned wisdom and experience, he bought a 50-acre ranch in Lyons, Oregon, and turned it into a training ground where he would coach young motorcycle racers and endurance equestrian riders, teaching them techniques that would make them champions.

Ten years to the day after the accident, Stroud walked into La Catedral, one of the most popular clubs in Buenos Aires. Mist from the pouring rain crept through the cracks in the roof. The dance floor whirled with limbs and sweat; wine flowed. And Stroud, standing on his own two feet, danced the tango deep into the Argentine night. He had endured.

Little did Stroud know, his greatest battle was yet to come.

In August 2017, doctors diagnosed Stroud with terminal cancer. They gave him 12 months to live. As of December 2018, when this article was written, Stroud is still alive and active. Yet the cancer is relentless; eventually, it will win. Stroud knows what it means to live well. Now, faced with his own mortality, he must decide what it means to die well.

“I don’t like normal,” he says. “Anybody can be normal. But what are we truly capable of? My life has been about exploring potential.”

Grit and endurance have defined his life — from finishing 100-mile races to overcoming a shattered spine. Again and again, Stroud has beaten the odds. Yet his life has also been defined by mastery: of skills, of his body, of his situation.

“I’ve left very little in my life to chance,” he says. “And if I’ve lived that way, why in the hell would I die differently?”

L to r: Stroud on his aerobatic bi-plane called Steen Skybolt, 1982; teenager Stroud at Jackpot Rodeo competition in Mesquite, Nevada, 1965; Stroud skydiving in Perris, California, with his skydiving team in the mid-1970s; Stroud shark diving with no cage off of Fiji around 2008. He was paralyzed but could still swim with his hands.

Though still grappling with a lust for life and a penchant for endurance, Stroud has opted to voluntarily end his life, made possible through Oregon’s 1997 Death with Dignity Act. It’s a lengthy process: multiple stages of formal requests to doctors, both written and verbal; affirmations that his mind is sound and that he has been given less than six months to live. Before the end, a doctor will prescribe lethal medications, and then Stroud must take the final cocktail by his own hand.

“It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll,” says Stroud, quoting from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus.” “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

To lose control of one’s fate is, to Stroud’s mind, the worst sort of hell.

He glimpsed that darkness 15 years ago, sitting in a wheelchair and watching the snow fall outside his hospital room. Better to end one’s story on your own terms, he thinks, to seize control of the typewriter and punch out the final sentence with resolute clarity and purpose. Yet what matters most to Stroud, what gives him peace, is that the story before that final sentence was a good one — a rip-roaring adventure tale, the sort that anyone would want to read.

Stroud taking care of his horse at his ranch, 2018.

Inside his home in Lyons, Stroud’s walls are decked with the relics of a storied life: a firefighter captain’s badge rests on the mantle near a pair of polished spurs, a lasso hangs from the hat rack, and rows of gleaming medals whisper tales of victory snatched from icy mountain passes and cruel desert suns.

But those were earlier chapters, and his body now bears the inevitable marks of age and disease. The man that screamed across the sand on roaring machines walks with a shuffling gait, assisted by a cane. The whites of his eyes are dulled yellow with jaundice. His limbs, once honed hard as steel, have grown weaker, betraying him to the march of time.

There are good days and bad, a slow slipping away — but his mind is sharp and he is proud. And the stories on the wall, though past, are his.

“You know, we’re only here for the blink of an eye,” he said. “Don’t waste any days. Find something that, at the end of [every] day [makes] you think: ‘That was a good day.’”

When the time comes, he’ll go back up on that grassy hill. He’ll listen one last time for the sound of the creek singing over the rocks and the trees groaning in the breeze. He’ll look out over his beloved valley and his heart will leap with the mountains toward a pale sky. He’ll soak in a last ray of sunshine, a last gulp of sweet Oregon air, and he’ll end his life on his own terms.

To some, this seems like surrender. To Stroud, it is just redefining success. A great unknown looms beyond the grave. Death, perhaps, is just another adventure.

Perhaps.

A portrait of Stroud in his stable in Oregon, 2018.