Riding around in Dwayne Wood's Heroin Hearse isn't for the faint of heart. Then again, neither are fatal drug overdoses. In one American city though both are as common as air.
Inject Heroin / Reject Life
"Inject Heroin. Reject Life." No, the message isn't subtle. Then again, subtlety has no place in the overdose capital of America.
How could it? Huntington, West Virginia's overdose rate is triple the national average. Considering there are less than 50,000 people in the entire city, everybody knows somebody who's overdosed and died.
"Everyone with any common sense knows the [opioid] epidemic is here," says Dwayne Wood. "Death is part of that. You learn to accept it. You just pray and hope it's not another friend."
Hence the Heroin Hearse. Wood originally bought the old funeral coach to cart around his custom Harley Davidsons. But he wasn't even an hour out of Cincinnati before he realized the rag-tag Buick would be put to a more targeted purpose, regardless of what others may or may not think.
"People may turn their nose up at us and think our approach is inappropriate," says Wood. "Our approach is straight-out, rub the sand in your face, we’re in an epidemic. Period. This hearse is the final result."
Wood's shock-and-awe death ride may be the title of Ryan Buckley’s short documentary, Heroin Hearse, but it's Wood himself who is the star of the show. Oh, it's not like Wood is jockeying for the limelight, mind you. If anything, Buckley's short only emphasizes Wood's utter selflessness. But it is just that utter selflessness which makes the man so remarkable.
Wood is too smart to compete with something as large and as prevalent as the opioid epidemic anyway. Especially in a city the size of Huntington. Nevertheless, Wood also knows that to impact such a large epidemic, he's got to become just as prevalent.
"The ultimate answer to all this is going to come from the streets," he says, "where this epidemic thrives."
The Huntington Curse
"It started with the opiates," says Wood. "That's when people started losing what they worked for. Oxycodone and other narcotics were pretty easy to get. And the pills started flooding the streets."
"What goes wrong?," he continues. "The pill mills get shut down. So now that you're addicted to the opiates, where do you go?"
No, Huntington's story isn't much different than that of countless other cities and towns across America. Opioids came. Opioids conquered. Then heroin took their place. The difference here is Huntington's small size, as well as it's comparative lack of resources, recovery or otherwise. There's also the fact that jobs are less than scarce. And those jobs that do exist don't pay nearly enough. In fact, over 30% of Huntington residents live at or below the national poverty level.
But poor doesn't mean bad. And neither does addiction. Nor does the all too often very checkered past that comes with addiction. And Wood is determined that people know they can push past that.
"Your past is your past," he says. "But we can be more productive and help others in the future."
Making Heroin Hearse
Heroin Hearse director Ryan Buckley was born and raised in Huntington. He also still considers Appalachia to be his home. Yet these days he can hardly recognize the place.
"If you grew up where I did, you’ve undoubtedly lost friends or family to addiction" he said. "Everyone in my hometown carries this pain with them. It’s part of life."
Still, Buckley was particularly disturbed by the “unnerving nonchalance” he observed when his former fellow townsfolk discussed their deceased friends and family.
"Loss is part of the fabric of this area," he said. "And talking about it is no different to them than chatting about the weather."
This complete complacency is exactly what Wood seems to want to run over with his Heroin Hearse. It's also what undoubtedly drew Buckley to document the four-wheeling firebrand in the first place.
"He’s got the charisma of a pastor and the cachet of a Hell's Angel," Buckley said.
Wood also happens to have unbridled faith -- in himself, in his mission, and in his hometown. All three are ever present throughout Heroin Hearse.
"What's my driving force?," he asks at the end of Buckley's doc. "Preservation of life. Who holds my hand down the road? God himself. I fear going nowhere."
With a little luck, a lot of fortitude, and some serious resources, Wood's Heroin Hearse will be able to go somewhere beyond yet another grave.
Credits & Applause
Ryan Buckley's Heroin Hearse appears on The Atlantic website as part of the magazine's Atlantic Selects. Recovery Boot Camp applauds both Buckley and The Atlantic for making possible such an insightful and inspiring story. We'd also like to extend an extended applause to Dwayne Wood. May his Heroin Hearse one day need go no more.