NOV 1996


Therapists Talk 
Shrink Rap 


    Michael E. Holtby, LCSW, BCD

Spirt Pony & the Death Shaman

First published in Colorado's AIDS Newsletter, Resolute! , November 1996

Not to be reproducted or reprinted without the permission of the author.

After a visit from a Native American friend, Curt Gartrell was first given the name, the Death Shaman. He had long been called the Leather Shaman because of his spiritual beliefs, and his in-fluence upon the City Bikers and other friends. He became the Death Shaman in the last year or so of his life when he set about preparing in earnest. It wasn't that he was without fear, but Curt did what he could to face his death and get ready.

Spirit Pony was his 1988 Harley Davidson Softail, a beautiful bike, which is the most popular among Harley fans. If you wanted to buy one new, you'd be on a two year waiting list. Spirit Pony was Curt's greatest joy, and one of the things than kept him going.

His last ride on Spirit Pony was when a friend was in from out of town whom he promised to take for a spin. It took him three hours to get ready because he was so weak and underweight. His friends John and Stewart were there anxiously trying to help, and convinced he'd never be able to do it. Curt rode the 650 pound bike out of its shed, and fell over. He nearly fell on a rusty metal rod that grazed his side. If the bolt had been an inch closer it would have stabbed through his frail body and probably killed him. Shaken, John and Stewart helped him and Spirit Pony up. But Curt insisted, "I have to take one last ride." After cleaning up the cut from the rod, he came out and jumped on the bike again. Without his out-of-town friend on the back Curt took off. It seemed to those waiting that the ride took forever, and all they could think of was how Curt was on so much dilodid than he would nod off sitting in a chair. But after a two block trip Curt came back, roaring to a stop by his friends.

"That was difficult," Curt said, "Now I can say goodbye, and let go." After a brief little ceremony Curt kissed Spirit Pony's gas tank and went inside to lay down. Two days later he put an ad in the paper to sell his beloved Harley, intending to give the money to his parents.

A young man came by to look at Spirit Pony, but said he couldn't stay. He'd be back after he took his wife to work. He did come back later that day, and climbed onto the bike to take it for a test ride. He handed Curt a fat wallet and set of keys to hold as collateral, and took off. After half an hour Curt opened up the wallet only to find it stuffed with newspaper cut to the size of dollar bills. His beloved bike was stolen out from under him.

Curt died two weeks later, in August of 1993. His friends were angered, horrified, and dismayed. "How could anyone be so evil they would prey on a man who was so visibly ill?" His closest friend, John Foery commented that as a PWA he felt a hundred times more vulnerable, since the experience had blown any illusion that one could expect compassion.

But this is not the full story. The Death Shaman reacted quite differently than those around him. He was too busy with his dying process to get into a victimized state. "This is just perfect," Curt reacted, "Its just as its supposed to be." He actually felt compassion for the thief. "Think of what he has to live with, and the Karma he's carrying around," Curt said. Anyway, Curt had let go of his beloved Spirit Pony two days earlier with the last ride. He didn't put conditions on how his bike would leave him, and his parents were reimbursed by insurance. Curt was very aware of the relative meaninglessness of physical possessions. As his friend, John Boone reflected that the lesson from Curt was, "These mountains of things we put so much into, really in the end mean nothing compared to our friendships, our loves, our life experiences." As several of his friends told me, Curt was a great model for how to live, and die. John Foery added, "I have been dancing the dance of the Death Shaman for the last couple of years, with the knowledge my own may be near at hand. Even if I don't die of this disease, it has been an enlightening experience that has enhanced the way I live." John saw Curt's dying so soon after losing his Harley, not as dying from a broken heart. Rather his relationship with his cycle was a metaphor to his relationship to his body. Both no longer served him, so he could leave them behind.



Last messed with November 15, 2001

Copyright(c) 2001 Michael E. Holtby, LCSW. All rights reserved.