For those who frequently head up Payson Canyon during the morning hours, they’ll likely see a man riding his bike and with a grin on his face. Going up or down, it doesn’t matter — he’s always smiling.
That man is 74-year-old Jim Taylor, who for the past 30 years has started his morning on two wheels.
However, life for the Payson resident hasn’t always been joyful. Like many men his age, Taylor is a Vietnam War veteran; he began his service in 1968 at the age of 21.
When Taylor talks about his time in Vietnam, his lip quivers and tears well up. When thanked for his service, he responds with a humble, yet truthful, “I wasn’t given a choice. My country needed me to serve, and I did.”
Taylor acknowledged that his story is not unique. In fact, 2.2 million American troops were drafted between 1964 and 1973. This was a way of life for young men at the time. Even so, his time on the battlefield in Vietnam left a mark on him that would last the rest of his life.
“I was drafted along with my friends,” he said. “It was either you enlisted or you were drafted. It was expected, and we were willing to serve our country, but I’ll never forget the things that happened out there.”
Reluctant to say much, and respectfully so, Taylor recalled walking out of his first firefight and never being more afraid in his life. He then told about a time when he lost a friend.
“I was walking with a friend one night to our bunkers, and he stepped on a land mine,” he recalled. “It was very well hidden. Nobody even saw it, but one second he was there, and the next, he wasn’t. He didn’t just die. He was gone. That really affected me. So many men lost their lives, but we knew that if we survived the Vietnam War, that we would come back to a country that was free and secure.”
When Taylor returned to his home in Salem, it was safe and secure, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Unlike the hero’s welcome that soldiers are accustomed to nowadays, he was met with hostility and opposition.
“One of the worst things was to come back and be treated so poorly,” he said. “We were called baby killers, people spat on us, and there were picketers everywhere protesting the war. It was a troublesome time for this country to be in a war we couldn’t get out of. It was an unwinnable war.”
But experiencing war firsthand and being hated back home for willingly serving wasn’t the worst of it. The worst came several years later when the flashbacks started coming.
“I began having flashbacks — what I recognize now as post-traumatic stress disorder,” Taylor said. “At that time, when you’d get down or depressed, people would just tell you to ‘buck up.’ There wasn’t much help, and I got depressed. Really depressed.
“I remember thinking back on the time when my friend stepped in that land mine and thinking, ‘You lucky bugger.’ He had no pain or suffering like I was having.”
It was during his darkest time when Taylor thought back to one of the things that made him the most happy as a child — riding his bike.
“When I was a child, I grew up riding bikes with my siblings. We’d ride from Salem to Payson to swim at the pool, and ride back home,” he said. “Of course, we would have to walk our bikes up Goosenest Drive, but it was still fun. We’d ride around Salem Pond. It was a happy and simpler time. I loved riding my bike, so I started riding again to see if it would make me feel better, and it did.
“When I first started, I rode with my daughters, and I couldn’t go very far. I would see if I could make it to the tree and back, then up to Kiwanis Park in Payson Canyon. Now, I can make it up to Maple Bench Campground before turning back for home.”
The 18-mile ride includes 1,100 feet of elevation climb in the first nine miles. Taylor often rides with his younger sister, LuAnn Stones. Once they reach the camp, they eat an apple before heading back down. The combination of extreme uphill, downhill and good company has been pivotal in helping Taylor combat PTSD, he said.
“It is so fun to zip around those turns on the way down, but there are so many things to see going up at a slower pace,” he said. “I see deer, wild turkeys, horses, trees and the Peeteenteet River running down. It is hard to get up in the morning. In fact, it’s the last thing I want to do when I wake up, but I am so happy when I do. The farther into the ride I go, my thinking gets better. It just brightens me up, and I am happier.”
Taylor acknowledges that there are still bad days, but attributes much of his success in handling those days with his time on his bike, and his wife encouraging him to get out every morning. He also encourages others to follow suit.
“I want to tell anyone who is suffering with depression, whether war related or not, to give exercise a try,” he said. “What do you have to lose?”