By Will Grant
Dave Barr holds two Guinness World Records, has two prosthetic legs, and has ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle across every continent on Earth, save Antarctica. His story is one of commitment, perseverance, and freedom.
In the face of grave odds, he has accomplished what few men would even try. His first feat was riding his motorcycle around the world, a journey of 83,000 miles that took three and a half years. He made the trip alone, without a support crew. His second was reaching the four extreme points of Australia on his motorcycle.
“It’s a story about commitment—total and absolute commitment,” he says. “And no one’s been stupid enough to try to best either of those records.”
Barr now works and travels as a motivational speaker, earning what he can by sharing his story with others. As an inspiration to the disabled and the able-bodied alike, Barr continues he exploits. For after so many years spent on the road and at the mercy of no one but himself, he knows no other life.
But before the far-flung motorcycle trips and transcontinental exploits, Barr was a soldier in the truest sense of the word: He dedicated his life to the freedom of others.
Barr was born in Los Angeles in 1952. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as door gunner and crew chief on a gunship during the Vietnam War. He was awarded 57 air medals for his service, including a single-mission decoration for valor. When Vietnam ended he returned home to a country that was unappreciative of his service.
“I watched the cowards that were running the country take victory and replace with a resounding defeat,” he says. “And like a lot of veterans, I was bitter as hell. I had to get out.”
He bought a one-way ticket to Europe and landed with $300 in his pocket. After traveling and working his way from country to country, he ended up in Israel with $20 to his name. Not being Jewish, he was an illegal immigrant. He took some serious risks, he says, and became a member of the Israeli Parachute Brigade.
Once again, he returned to the US and tried to make a stable life for himself. But he fell back into the rut that plagued so many veterans—unemployed and drinking too much booze. So he left, and took a job on a pumping rig in the Gulf of Sinai. From the rig derricks, he watched the sun rise over the Sinai Desert and set over Egypt.
But along came the Camp David Accords, and Barr felt it “was time to get the hell out of Dodge,” as he puts it. He went to South Africa and Rhodesia in September 1979 and became a militiaman in the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Barr eventually joined the 44 Parachute Brigade, Pathfinder Company of the South African Defense Force. Barr’s Pathfinder unit was under the command of the famous Scottish soldier Peter McAleese, whom Barr to this day maintains a very high respect for.
The Pathfinder unit was making counter-insurgency excursions into Angola, blowing up culverts and bridges and the like, and generally keeping the insurgents off balance and outside of South Africa. On one of the excursions, Barr’s life would change forever.
On August 29, 1981 at 3:30 in the afternoon, Barr was standing in the back of vehicle that rolled over a Russian TM-57 anti-tank mine. Six jerry cans of fuel were in the back of the truck with him, and he was blown into the air.
“I was totally conscious through the whole thing,” he says. “My colonel pulled me out the fire. I was burning…The indestructible colonel, his face was lacerated by a machine gun butt during the explosion.”
Eleven and a half hours after the incident, Barr was finally operated on. He was moved from hospital to hospital and eventually ended up at a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa where he spent the next nine and a half months. After 20 operations, four of which were amputations, Barr was released from the hospital and left to his own devices.
Barr continued to serve in South Africa for a short while longer before returning to his home in West Covina, California. That’s when he got his old motorcycle out of storage and took it for a ride.
“The first time I rode my motorcycle, I had vision of exactly where my life would go,” he says. “It became very clear to me why God had put that landmine where it was. He had another job for me: It was for me to ride my motorcycle around the world–it was just up to me to make it happen.”
In 1983, he took the motorcycle to South Africa and began to ride around the world. He started from the southernmost tip of South Africa, where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet, and rode north to the Arctic Circle. He then shipped the motorcycle back to the US and from Baltimore, Maryland, rode north Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
From Prudhoe Bay, he turned his bike south and rode to the southernmost point in South America. His bike was then shipped to Hong Kong, and he rode into Mainland China.
“I was the first [person] to go in unescorted,” he says, “thanks to some very good contacts.”
He spent seven months in China and ended up making a documentary with the Chinese to benefit disabled children and to raise money for schools. The documentary aired twice to half a billion people.
He then left China and entered Mongolia where he crossed the Gobi Desert during the Month of Wind and Sand. From Mongolia he rode to Moscow and then north to Murmansk, where spent a night in the nuclear submarine base in Murmansk.
“That’s a highly restricted area,” he says. “It was very illegal for me to be there.”
A common theme throughout Barr’s travels is the goodwill of people he encountered along the way. Without a doubt, that’s a lot of what made his trips possible.
After reaching the Arctic Circle in Murmansk, Barr shipped the motorcycle home. He returned to the US and wrote his first book, called Riding the Edge. Subsequent media attention and speaking engagements, particularly one in Germany, lead Barr to set his sights on establishing a Guinness World Record.
From the European Atlantic coast he rode east across the continent to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast. And due to the lack of roads and vast marsh and swampland, he made the traverse in winter.
“Well, I don’t get cold get feet,” he says, “and I camped out in a tent.”
Along the way he promoted his journey through the media, sending a message to the Russian people encouraging them to follow their dreams. From the Pacific Coast he turned the bike west and returned to Murmansk, thus establishing his first Guinness World Record and the first such record on a Harley-Davidson.
The award did not recognize his disability—having two prosthetic legs—in any way, it recognized the fact that he had crossed Europe and Asia in the winter. He says that such a feat may have been harder for someone without his disability.
In 2002, he set another Guinness World Record for his “Southern Cross Journey” where he attained the four extreme points of Australia on his motorcycle. The reason no had established such a record, or even attempted it, was very plain to him: the journey was extremely difficult.
“Only one of [the extreme points] is even remotely accessible by motor vehicle,” he says.
During the arduous Australian journey, he was in three accidents and suffered broken ribs, two crushed vertebrae, and two “crushed shoulders.” And while those injuries are noteworthy, Barr’s perseverance could hardly be dimmed by such trivial discomfort.
In 2000, Barr was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He continues to share his story and help others overcome setbacks and discouragements. He’s about to embark on 6,000-mile journey for the Patriot Express to help military families who have individuals suffering long-term medical treatments.