UFC champ Evan Tanner's final test.
Credit: Courtesy Evan Tanner

Evan Tanner figured he could survive the walk back to civilization. Just seven miles, the sign said. Seven miles to the nearest small town, The Dalles, here at the far end of the Oregon Trail.

So he kicked the stand from under his Harley-Davidson and heaved the bike forward. He was one of the fittest men around, a world champion fighter, but he was pushing 700 pounds of motorcycle and gear, and he was exhausted from riding 1,200 miles in three days. But he took one step, then another, bending his mind against the distance and the weight.

His mind had caused this trouble, as he saw it. He had known that little fuel remained in the bike's tank, and there were no gas stations on this remote road near Oregon's Columbia River. A few minutes earlier, riding along, he had mentally shrugged when he saw the sign noting the miles ahead. "Seven miles," he thought. "I could push it seven miles." That's when the bike sputtered to a stop.

He saw meaning in everything, and his bike conking out was no different. "It was a challenge," he would say later. "I had unintentionally thrown it out there at myself." Now, trudging along the road, he considered calling the friends he had been traveling to see. But midnight approached, and he didn't want to inconvenience them.

"It's not going to be so bad," he thought at first. But the road led slightly uphill from the river, and within a few minutes sweat dripped from his forehead. His massive shoulders burned, and his legs shook. Three hundred ninety-nine.... Four hundred.... he thought, measuring his steps between rests. Four hundred steps, rest. Three hundred, rest. Two hundred. One hundred.

Throughout his life Tanner had faced challenges – he called them "adventures," others called them demons – and triumphed in remarkable ways. He lived with extraordinary purpose, rising from the dust of Amarillo, Texas, into the glow of Las Vegas, and along the way he helped build an empire called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). But he differed from his peers in significant ways; he studied philosophy, for one, and he felt he had a message to share with the world, something bigger than himself, bigger than men fighting for sport.

First, though, he needed to reach the next small town on this misbegotten road. He pushed the Harley for hours, interrupted only by long-haul trucks that blew past in the darkness, missing him by inches. Finally he saw a light ahead: an all-night gas station. He had survived the journey unbeaten. But along the way he had conceived his next adventure: a motorcycle trip of even more epic proportions. He would ride deep into the mountainous California desert near the Mexican border, into forgotten places where his footprints would overlap those of forgotten Spanish conquistadores.

Another journey. A new adventure. A challenge that would allow him, in the end, to chase his demons back into the lake of fire itself.