A Cowboys Toughest Ride

updated 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS HE LAY IN THE BACK SEAT OF A pickup truck during the 40-mile ride home from his doctor's office in Houston, Clay Walker struggled to keep from shaking. His wife, Lori, drove steadily through the soft April night, their 3-month-old daughter MaClay asleep in her car seat. The comfort of their ranch was less than an hour away, but the handsome country star, now 28, couldn't calm his body or his mind. Not after getting a brain scan and an emergency spinal tap and hearing the news that he had one of three potential illnesses. Two could be fatal, one in the next 24 hours. The third, multiple sclerosis, has no cure.

Walker, who has seen six of his songs reach No. 1 on Billboard's country chart, had first learned something was wrong a few weeks earlier. Performing in Calgary in 1996, the clean-cut cowboy singer heard that his younger sister Mandy's husband, Mark Cole, had died in a motorcycle crash. To work off stress from that horrible news, he shot hoops with the guys in the band. Suddenly, he remembers, "I lost my balance and fell. I couldn't move my right arm or leg. My hand tingled, my vision blurred. A spasm pulled my face into a grimace, like in a horror movie."

The symptoms lessened and he managed to perform that night. "Thank God I was off for a few weeks after that," he says. The break in the tour gave him time to go to a doctor. The day after the medical tests in Houston, Walker learned that, like about 350,000 other Americans, he had multiple sclerosis, an often debilitating disease of the nervous system. People with MS suffer bouts of inflammation that can last weeks or months. While MS is not fatal or necessarily disabling, up to 25 percent of sufferers end up in wheelchairs.

Walker and Lori, 34, were thrilled at the news that he would live to see baby MaClay, their first child, grow up. But Walker says that he also felt raging fear. "Clay told me he never wanted to reach the point where he was unable to do things with his daughter," Lori says. MaClay, now 21 months, had been born to the sound of Walker reciting the Lord's Prayer. "She opened her eyes and looked at me. It was like blinders had been taken off, and I knew what was important."

Walker has had success in his career as well as his life. In 1993, a year after he and Lori were married, his first single, "What's It to You," topped the charts. His most recent album, Rumor Has It, reached No. 4 on Billboard's country chart earlier this year. Their 500-acre ranch near the tiny Texas town of Hempstead is a haven where they raise horses, cattle and Border collies. Soon construction will begin on a 10,000-square-foot house; meanwhile, home is a double-wide trailer. "We've always lived frugally," says Walker.

In 1996, Walker had a hit with a song called "A Cowboy's Toughest Ride." After his diagnosis, he says, he learned what real determination meant and vowed to do everything he could to lead as normal a life as possible. "I'm very fortunate," he says. "I've never asked God for material things. I've wanted wisdom and understanding." As singer Tracy Lawrence notes, "Instead of asking, 'Why me?' Clay is helping others with MS understand the disease."

Dr. Angelo Sermas, Walker's neurologist, found the singer's attitude impressive. He was "full of high energy, he had this aura about him." One reason, Walker concedes, is that MS has forced him to live healthy. Giving up his former diet of hamburgers, chocolate shakes and french fries ("I could eat a washtub of lard and never gain weight"), the performer now eats lots of fish—although he admits to steak once a week and an occasional glass of wine with Lori.

The son of Ernest Clayton Walker Sr., 48, and Danna Bush, 44 (they divorced when he was 4½), Walker grew up on a small ranch in cow-town Beaumont, Texas (also home to big-time country stars George Jones and Tex Ritter). "It was down a seashell road so small the school bus couldn't turn around," he says. "One of my aunts had to cram 13 of us cousins into the car to drive us to school. We raised vegetables, ran the rice paddies barefoot, picked berries, slaughtered hogs and at night listened to the wolves howling." After high school, Walker worked at the local Goodyear plant to finance a battered pickup. A year later, the determined 19-year-old was on the road, playing clubs in the U.S. and Canada.

Walker went back on the road after the initial shock and learning about the necessary drugs and therapy. "For the first few shows I wasn't sure if my leg would give out, but now I'm more active than ever," he says. Lori and the baby went along the first few weeks. Doctor friend Larry Dillaha, 34, helped with the steroids Walker needed at first to reduce inflammation; he hid the catheter under Walker's well-creased western shirt.

Walker didn't want to hide his condition from his fans, and he announced it in an interview with Billboard magazine in May 1996. "Country music fans are like a family," he says. Well-wishers have deluged him with letters and cards; so have his peers. "The greatest thing you can do for someone," Wynonna Judd says, "is lift them up in prayer. I believe in Clay's healing." Most weeks Walker spends five days on the road and two at home and says he feels good most of the time. The day Lori gives him his painful weekly injection of the drug Avonex, which helps prevent further attacks, is tough, though. "It's like having a bad case of the flu for a day," says Walker, "but it keeps me sharp for my fans." The rest of the time he gets to be close to the land he loves. "There's a special time each day when the sun comes across the meadow and the whole place is bathed in a golden glow. It lasts only about three minutes, but I love it," he says.

Wearing an old baseball cap instead of his trademark black cowboy hat, the rancher has just finished mowing the lawn in front of the trailer. "Daddy! Daddy!" shouts MaClay, who bursts through the front door and runs to him. Lori appears at his side with a sweating glass of iced tea. Together they gaze at the meadow. Soon the golden glow will appear, then disappear for another day. Walker knows nothing is permanent, but he plans to see that light again tomorrow.

BOB STEWART in Hempstead

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