I'm not quite sure when the urge first hit me. Best I can figure was sometime in the fall of 1998. I could hear the rumble in the distance, and then over the hill they came. It's like an orchestrated dance when a group of Harley's pull into a gas station. Being a non-rider at the time, it looked like pure chaos. At first, I was a bit nervous but deep down in my gut I had to know where they were from and where they were going. As I drove off from that station in my cage I never knew how that chance encounter would make a difference in my life.
I bought my first bike (and only bike) in May of 1999. I can remember the day I went to pick it up at the dealership. There she sat right out of the box, a 99 Wide Glide. I still can remember what it felt like when I started it for the first time- the rumble that engulfed my whole body. I turned forty that day but felt like a kid all over again. At that time I had no idea how that Harley would change my life as well as the life of many others.
After ten years of riding mostly around town with a few ventures across country to various rallysand such, I felt that same urge coming back over as when I turned 40. You only turn a half a century old once so it needed to be an adventure that would pay tribute to my first 50 years. I also knew it had to include my Harley. Some would say at ten years old it had lived half of its life, too. So it was an easy decision, me and my Harley conquer the “50” states. Also since I was born on the 21st, why not do it in 21 days. After some common sense kicked in I came up with the plan of 48 states 21 days but still completely on my own. Yep, you tend to lose your mind at 50. Feeling a little guilty about skipping out on my own 50th surprise birthday party, the thought of how could I share “my” trip and possibly help raise a little money for a great cause came to mind. In turn, I stay in good graces with everyone, and still get the road trip I craved.
Okay so how exactly do you share a road trip you plan to take alone? I connected a SPOT™ GPS to my bike so folks back home could see my progress via satellite. With the help of a bunch of really smart office guru’s, we created a blog where I could send back pictures and daily journals of my journey. In the 21 days it took to ride through the lower 48 states, several thousand people visited the blog. Many left notes of encouragement – and some said how much they wished they could go on a similar trip.
I will never forget when I got back into town the feeling that came over me when I saw the hundreds of people that were there to greet me. I think the ride touched something in people –so many people would love to be able to take the time and see the country. In the weeks after the ride, strangers would stop me on the street and comment, “Hey you are the motorcycle man who rode across the 48 states. Man, I’d love to do something like that.”
I planned for the trip to be a “once in a lifetime” adventure but not long after finally gotten the last of the bugs out of my teeth, the county SheriffMike Jolleytold me I was totally crazy to do such a ride alone(as so many others loved to mention) but he was the first who talked of wanting to go with me on next year’s ride. There was no next year’s ride –or at least not until more and more asked about joining me next year. From the start, I had no idea the ride would go in the direction that it has. I guess that just goes to show that it’s best to follow your heart and not the GPS.
Now five years later, with the support of so many friends and family, the ride has grown into something so unique and special much like the life of a child. Each year on the first Friday of May, over a double handful of guys join me on this journey. So far, a brotherhood of 25 has made the trip, together owning over 99 Harleys. Each year, there are always a couple of rookies who decide they are crazy enough to log 21 back-to-back 450-mile days.
How do you put into words what this trip is? Sure it’s a bunch of guys out doing what they love but it goes much deeper than that. The planning starts months in advance, with the number one question that each of us has to ask our self. Are you up for the challenge? Sure it sounds like fun and how hard can it be. The veterans try to tell the new guys as we try to convince our self that we are up for it again. The photo shoots, the interviews, trying on coats and hats, going to civic functions, all seem fun at first. All of this starts in February so by the time the first week in May rolls around we are just ready to get on the road. We all have one important thing to do before we leave. About two weeks out from departure date, we make our way to one more news conference. This one is a special one, not only do we introduce all of the riders; we make a trip up to the Pediatric floor and the NICU. Now it hits home. This is what we are here for. This is also the first time I feel the entire guys bond. It becomes more than just a ride. I’m not sure what goes thru each of their minds, but you can tell things change. For me it has always and will always be about making a difference in that one life. I don’t know if I will even be able to tell if and when that happens. Just knowing that I’m trying gives me a peace about myself. You can feel it as you ride and watch the scenery go by. Still to this day, the number one question I get is which part of the country I like the best. I have always said in the past I can’t pick one, I love them all. It has and will be about the people I meet on the road I enjoy the most. For me I feel like my job is now to tell the story of the road and why we ride. I’m not sure why I feel that way, but if I can talk with one person and share the story I feel like I have done my job. Most of our stories are happy ones, but as in life things don’t always work out the way we want. Tyler will be one of those stories. For 93 days, he put up one heck of a fight but it was just not meant to be. No one has an answer for why things happen to such small kids, we can only have faith in whatever we believe, and celebrate their short lives and hope we live our lives to the fullest because we are lucky enough to sit and watch that sunset. That will be the story I will tell twenty five years from now as I sit with some of the graduates from the NICU.
When we’re on the road, every rider has a job. Mike Langford is our “route guy,” and he starts months before the ride figuring out where we’re supposed to go. He will always have a perfect route put together each year for us that Mike so kindly lets us destroy. As Mike says, “It’s not a hard job, figuring out a route to hit all the 48 states until the questions start.” It is the “special needs” of the bunch of guys where the route gets complicated. Once we start talking about dropping in on relatives along the way, or taking a 75-mile detour to visit some great wonder our country has to offer. Most all the changes have given us something special and helped in creating a memory and brotherhood that you get only while on a Harley. To try, I should mention a special spot like Joplin, Mo. that was never on the original route but now for the past three years, we’ve made sure to stop. Brad Hansen joined the ride in 2011, and the soccer field at Missouri Southern State University is a special place for him. Hansen’s son, Jonathan, was a student at the university and a soccer standout, when at the age of 22 he died unexpectedly on an intramural basketball court, the victim of an undiagnosed heart condition. The school retired Jonathan’s number and raised a plaque in his honor near the soccer scoreboard. It’s these shared moments that make the brotherhood stronger. When we returned this past 2013, it seemed the entire town turned out to welcome us: the streets were lined with members of the local HOG chapter from Hideout Harley Davidson, members of the MSSU women’s soccer team, and many more. We got a tour of the reconstruction that was still in progress from the F5 tornados that hit just after we left last year and destroyed the area, then they fed us Missouri barbecue.
And then there are the times the route changes on the fly. Like the time we stopped at a light, and I asked Mike if we were going the right way. My GPS said to go left; his said to go right. So we split the difference and went straight, and got back on course once the GPS figured out where we were, and how to get where we wanted to go. It’s become kind of a running joke that I get lost so often. Some of the guys use CB radios to talk while we roll down the highway, but I prefer the sound of my bike’s pipes. So even when one of the other guys notices that we might be off track, we just keep riding until we stop for gas. Sometimes we have to backtrack but I still say some of the best countryside we witnessed was while we were “a little” lost. And once, we almost missed Ohio. But, as Langford says, “GPS problems aside, we have been in all 48 lower states every year. We’ve ridden across mountains, through deserts, alongside farms, rivers and forests. We’ve seen big cities and small towns.” This is a big, beautiful country we live in, and it’s full of great people, no matter where you go.
Sometimes the stops aren’t really planned at all. Rick Stinson joined the ride in 2013, and one of his favorite memories “just happened.” “We were outside Toledo, rolling down the interstate, when we came up on a traffic jam,” Stinson says. “Cars and trucks were stopped for as far as we could see ahead, so we stopped the bikes and put the kickstands down. Of course, 12 guys on road-weary Harley Davidson motorcycles draw a certain amount of attention, and the guys aren’t exactly shy.” So while we waited for the accident ahead of us to clear, we started talking to the people around us. The next thing we know, we’ve drawn a crowd. One little girl’s parents took her bicycle off the carrier, and she parked next to us for a picture. “There we are, out in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, and we discovered that we’d made a whole group of new friends,” Stinson says.
You just simply never know where the best memories will pop up while on the road. Ronnie Wilson is one of the guys who have been on the ride several times and for our group has provided much need laughter always at the right time. You see as the “safety officer,” it’s his job to keep try to help keep us out of harm’s way. He sounds the air horn when it’s time for kick stands up, and watches the weather and the road for us so we can get to the next stop safely. There are some things even he can’t prevent, though – like the thunderstorm in the mountains, and the lightning that struck so close to him that earned him the nickname “Flash.” It was last year that the nickname was cemented to him forever at a gas stop in Illinois. Some extra gas splashed down the tank and onto the engine of his 2008 Street Glide. “I knew that I needed to let the fumes evaporate,” Wilson says, “so I waited a couple of minutes before I started the bike. I didn’t know that the gas had made a puddle on my engine case, right next to my starter.” He didn’t notice that his bike was on fire until his leg started to get hot. Ronnie had to make the split-second decision: kickstand down, or get off the bike? He laid his beautiful bike down and grabbed the bucket of windshield cleaner – which didn’t do much good. Fortunately, the attendant inside the gas station saw the fire, and ran to Ronnie’s rescue with a fire extinguisher. “I thought my bike might be done for,” Wilson says. “But after assessing the situation and reconnecting the loose wire on my starter, the hog roared to life, and we continued our journey.” While she was completely covered in white foamy powder and took a beating my street glide never deserved, she never missed a rumble.”
Usually while on the road it is over a great meal where you get to share the stories of the day. Whether it’s the Clam Box in Ipswitch, burgers at Effie’s Tavern in Lewiston, Idaho , or the Chuck Wagon Restaurant in White River, South Dakota. One to make sure you stop at if ever in Reed Point Montana is the Waterhole Saloon. It is truly an authentic Wild West saloon! The place was built and opened by the owner Diane and her husband. “Diane was a great sport putting up with the 12 of us this past year. She was by herself and was fantastic in getting all of us ordered and fed. It only takes a few 500 mile days before the good meals and words of encouragement from the people you meet are what are keeping you going. It also takes the hoorays we send each other’s way every opportunity we get along the way. James Cole our oldest rider, 74, portrays best how helpful this can be with this blog from our second year. Satire at its best thru the words of James Cole while on the ride…
As we travel this country we see some beautiful and interesting places. Not to mention the little cafes that somehow just pops up around lunchtime. Mentioning lunch reminds me of a little Mexican fruit stand that stopped at just yesterday. They had all the Mexican fixing that you would want at this type of venue. We all belled up to the window, placed our order to the pretty little senorita and sat down on the patio benches and waited for our order.
My ole buddy Mike Langford is fond of Mexican food and his fare was burritos, tomalleys, recooked beans, yuk-o-moly, chinki-chinki on the side and of course tacos and a big orange drink. After lunch we hit the trail. I’m thinking, that sure was a lot of food for the money. Mike is always looking for good deals. He sure got one today.
But by evening my ole buddy Mike didn’t look so swift. I ask him could I do anything for him, as he was looking sorta peeked. I’m thinking maybe I’ll get him some of that pepto stuff, the pink kind. That is supposed to check you up pretty good. Next morning, we hit the trail bright and early and maybe ole Mike is feeling better today.
As we go barreling across hill and dale, I need to find out how my ole buddy Mike is doing. So I’ll just ring him up. We are talking on these telephones that has no wires hooked them and when you talk your talk goes everywhere. Like when you say something you can’t take it back. It’s gone.
So I’m giving ole Mike a call to see how he’s doing.
KDB 1040-Miko Taco Kid………You got your ears clean…open…..on…whatever…come back.
Yeah James I hear you…….What you need?
Well I was just wondering how you was feeling and all……..to see if that pink stuff worked or not…..over
If you don’t mind, I don’t feel like discussing how I feel right now………….
Rodger Dodger that Mike Taco Kid………….I was just concerned that you might be in some serious concern before the day is over………over
I’ll be fine if you don’t keep bugging me aboutit. It’s all I can do to keep this bike up so let’s just nip it OK……………
I copy that Taco Kid…………..but you’ve got to get it off your mind……….think of something else….look at the scenery or something………hey Mike there’s a river coming up…is that the Snake river and look at those rapids….over
Don’t mention water to me. Besides my butt is gone, my arms are sore and my kidneys are working just fine……I don’t want to hear about water no more.
I heard that Taco Kid but look over in yon pasture grazing…..a cow….over
I don’t want to hear about no river…..no rapids…..and I certainly don’t to talk about no %@*& cow……What I need is a bath room.
Well Taco Kid you know those exits are far and few between out here……but look….here here comes a sign…..next exit 10 miles……Hey Mike Taco did you see the…………
I saw I saw………….
Mike begins to speed up I try to keep up. When I get to the exit Mike is already there. I begin to pick belongings dropped along the parking lot. Inside the building I follow the trail to the bathroom at the far end of the building. Mike Taco is bee-lining it to that door………and then……….. and then an abrupt stop. I catch up. My ole buddy Taco Kid standing there…..his eyes fixed. I saw his face, sweat pouring from his brow, his jaw dropped like an anvil….His eyes …fixed on a closed door. I followed his gaze to the sign on the door………OUT OF ORDER Over and Out
By the time you hit that 3rd corner of the country and head south, even a bunch of Harley guys tend to get a little home sick. The one who tells the emotions the riders have on this stretch is best told by Brian Brock. You see, Brian is one of the only riders I sought out to join us on our ventures. For years, as I rode my path to work I would always see a motorcycle parked in front of a local business. It was there no matter the weather that day. I had to meet the guy behind this bike. I told him my story and asked him to join. He seemed very interested but said he would have to get permission from his wife. Thank you Linda for letting him go. I knew not much else about Brian, other than he was a dedicated Harley rider and seemed to be a nice guy. Brian shared this blog for us all to learn from this past year.
Home, the final stop, and Columbus has never looked so good. We left Grainger in Greenville SC and we were on our way to the Harley dealership in Macon. We would be met there by other riders that came over to ride back with us. More importantly we would be met by our wives and significant others. I have been to the dealership in Macon; I knew where it’s located. But we were coming in from the other side of town. Each traffic light seemed like 10 minutes. Around every corner I would look to see the big H-D sign…..COME ON ALREADY!!!!! And there it was, people all over in the parking lot, but I didn’t see who I wanted to see, and of course I didn’t want to drop my bike now, so I couldn’t look too much. We made a big circle and parked. People are all over the place, and then I saw her. I did get my helmet off and then got the biggest best hug ever (or so I thought). I wear mirrored UV protection sun glasses. They protect my eyes from road debris, and you really can’t see my eyes when I have them on. You also couldn’t see the waterfall that was flowing. This was tough. Being away for so long. Being with the same 11 guys. Suffering the elements, wet, dry, hot, cold, windy. Twenty different beds, with twenty different pillows. Twenty times of packing and unpacking, strap it down, hope it doesn’t blow off. All of this just peels layers of protection away. Small things start to REALLY irritate you. The bugs don’t taste as good, I don’t think I can choke down another Snicker for breakfast. Each day the cumulative effect grows. Your neck hurts you back hurts, you wonder if you’ll ever get the feeling back in your…..well you know your rear end. All of this leads to the complete and pure raw emotion that you feel when you finally get to see your wife for the first time in a month.
I thought the crowd in Macon was great, but I had NO idea what it would be like downtown. Amazing. Off the bike up to the stage, fight through the crowd. We’re all up there feeling good about our accomplishment, thanking those who made it possible. We got our patches, vests and other goodies. Then the big announcement, how much did we raise? It was a big number, and when it was announced we were really pumped. Then let’s show the huge crowd the whole 60 second commercial we filmed. (It took over 4 hours to film by the way) Then let’s show a video from the entire ride. This was awesome, it was on a big screen, even though I was on the ride I didn’t get to see all the videos, and what I did see was on my phone, so I really wanted to see it. It was set to music like all the other videos. From the very first guitar lick, I knew the song; the song was Sweet Child O’ Mine. That is when everything hit me. I didn’t have my sunglasses, I’m up on a stage in front of a huge crowd and there was no hiding it, I tried to turn my back so people couldn’t see me, but the guys on stage saw me. I could not stop the raw emotion from flowing, and it chose my eyes to flow from. I still have not seen the video. When it was over and we were leaving the stage I saw my daughter Katie, she was flowing some raw emotion too. That is where I got my biggest and best hug yet. A memory I’ll never forget.
To understand this emotion I must also share with you the following blog that Brian shared with us just the day before coming home while on that last stretch where emotions are at their peak. Also remember I asked Brian to join us on the ride, and knew very little about the man I asked to join us on our journey.
April 1st 1996 was a normal spring day, sunny, warm. I was working from home, my wife Linda and daughter Laine were home that day. My son John and daughter Katie were at school. Sometime during the afternoon Laine started to feel ill. Linda took her to the doctor. Dehydration is nothing to mess with in children. We had Little League practice that night as well. Typical family stuff. The next day Laine still was not feeling well and just stayed on the couch watching Barney. As Tuesday night wore on there was no improvement, she just couldn’t keep anything down. Linda slept on the couch with her. At about 3:00 AM we decided it was time to take her to the emergency room. Linda got in the car and took Laine to the hospital; I stayed with John and Katie. A few hours later Linda called and told me to come to the hospital. Why? I’ve got to get the kids ready for school, and I’m not too good at that. She had already called and had a friend coming over. We decided to let them sleep and skip school. I got to the hospital and found my way to the waiting room. I didn’t know that there were two waiting rooms. There’s the regular one and then a separate one for families with more critical issues. I didn’t know that then. There were a couple of other families in there. I just sat with Linda wondering what was going on. She told me Laine was having seizures and they were working on her.
And then it happened. It went just like on TV. The doctor busted through the door came straight to us and said “I’m sorry, we did all we could do”. It went kind of fuzzy after that. The room cleared out. I walked into that hospital a complete father. That morning walking out of the hospital on a sunny warm April day was the most difficult thing I have ever done, part of me was gone. Laine was not coming home with us.
People always say “I can’t imagine how it feels”. You’re right, you can’t, so don’t try. I’m part of a club I didn’t ask to join. My good friend on this ride Brad Hansen and his wife Jan are in the club. My Little League friends Perry and Tracy Pate are in the club. When I saw Perry after his son Drew died he asked me “what do I do?” There is nothing but time. It never goes away. And to be honest, you really don’t want it to. It doesn’t matter the age of the child, one day, 5 years or 20 years, it’s your child, and it hurts .I’ve never told this story in such a public setting. I’m sure some of my family is not aware of the details.
Why am I sharing this now? Because I have an opportunity to make a difference. If I can just help one doctor NOT have to bust through those doors and utter those words, then all that I have endured will be worth it, ten times over.
So now again think of those words from Axl Rose that were played the night we returned on stage:
She’s got a smile it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry
Sitting on your Harley at the end of the day with your kickstands down, it is stories like these that will live on through the brotherhood of those who ride Harleys. I have no idea where life’s journey will take me next, but what I do know is that we are only here for a very short time and I plan on making the most of it. Live your life and do the things that you dream about – even if people say that you are crazy. Give just for the sake of giving. You will be surprised at what you get in return. The people in this world are good. Go out on a limb and meet someone new – even if they dress funny and they have a bad hair day like me. You might be surprised at who you might meet and what you might learn. Ever watch a dog in a car? The next time you are in your cage – roll your windows down. Yes… all of them – let the wind blow through your hair. (Who cares how you look in the end?) Feel the life around you… smell the smells of the road… let the rain hit you in the face… and if you are lucky, maybe a bug or two. Only on a Harley…..