A motley band of war vets celebrates the ride out on Indian motorcycles.
Photos: Ray Vine & Shasta Willson
If a man is judged by the company he keeps, then I choose to associate with riders and soldiers, the free and the loyal. This past August, those choices fused during the inaugural Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis.
Veterans Charity Ride 2015 was sparked last year by two former Arctic paratroopers. “Indian Dave” Frey and “Johnny Reno” White were riding separate paths to Sturgis when they met over mutual bike admiration, bonded over service stories, and decided to make a difference.
Johnny and Dave resolved to introduce warriors, who had seen and done things abroad you mightn’t care to hear described, to the rolling vistas of their own homeland. If two busted-up grunts could find brotherhood on a bike trip, they could scale up the concept. Dave and John know about dark times, hold fast to tradition, and understand the redemptive power of open-road riding.
They decided to pitch sponsors, integrate veteran charities, raise public awareness, and produce the ride of a lifetime for disabled military veterans. They would create the Next Great Tradition to remind Americans that broken vets aren’t rubble but building blocks.
Training ain’t where the hard part ends, and combat isn’t either. Your reward for survival is adapting to the hallucinatory reality of non-operational life—a reality never made easier by surgeries, amputations, or the demons who preach guilt.
Isolation is lethal. When brotherhood falls away, we lose more strong Americans than any enemy can take.
Thereby a baker’s dozen “Veteran Riders” found ourselves waiting in a banquet room at the Burbank Marriott, combat-loaded with road swag. Boisterous as off-leash puppies, our dinner conversation was less wary circling and more capering, wagging, and sniffing. In a fraternity never joined by accident, convenience, or deception, trust was preinstalled. Everyone present got cheerfully punked for their service affiliation, bike brand, looks, skills, and lineage.
Rider cultures varied widely. Some came from bike clubs with colors and cuts, others from independent road riding. Some were mostly dirt, and a couple had barely ridden real miles. I might have been the only rider without a nickname. Our road captain went by “Trouble,” and she looked it.
We had Wyakin Warriors. We had Purple Heart Riders. We had amputees and brain injuries, straight bikes and sidecars. We had Californians and Idahoans, Marylanders and Alaskans, Mexicans and Texicans, squids and zoomies, paratroopers and jarheads. Our motley band was bound only by the urge to ride and our unforgotten, unexpiring oath.
Robert Pandya of Indian Motorcycles explained their sponsorship. “Everything we do with this brand,” he said, “gets measured against history. We’re standing here in what’s absolutely going to be the ‘Next Great Tradition.’ We’re going to Sturgis.” Pandya paused. “We wanted to put you guys on Indians so you can find your bikes in the crowd.”
We bused out to pick up bikes the next morning to the soundtrack of a training range run as we traded monstrously offensive amputee jokes and other off-color slights. Cognitive dissonance rattled merrily between “this is truly not okay” and “these are my people!” They might not be your people, but they are your veterans. Jumpmaster Josh, who took an amputation above the knee in Afghanistan, summarized our banter with, “Any civilian overhearing this would need penicillin.” We’re not the easiest minority to tolerate.
Nosing into an industrial complex, we debarked near a steel door that rolled up to reveal a motorhead heaven so enticing that we barely noticed its proprietor until he flashed his trademark crooked grin, gesturing toward the bikes.
“These are the Indians,” Jay Leno said, “and obviously you guys are the cowboys.” Every Veteran Rider promptly volunteered to staff Leno’s security detail for no pay.
Everything Jay owns runs. He can crank up any rig in any building—except his 1940 Indian Four sidecar rig, which had a headache that day. When the big Four finally coughed to life, we followed Jay to a firehouse where full-dress firefighters, the LA Fire Hogs, Patriot Guard, and VFW Riders formed an honor guard. Hard not to feel a chill as our weaving, bobbing contingent pulled into the firehouse and heard “hand…SALUTE!”
Holding his Captain America-painted prosthesis high above Leno’s sidecar, Jumpmaster Josh silently returned their salute. Firefighters and cops and riders and service members share the kinship of risking everything for others. For the same reasons that travel is broadening and craft is deepening, there’s either shared understanding or none at all.
Barstow has ever been an oasis one travels through, not to, and an hour-long wait at In-N-Out wasn’t in our plans. Barstow was where I learned about amputees’ propensity to overheat. “Our bodies make the same amount of blood,” my passenger Gunny Glen explained, “but we don’t have the cooling area.”
Inside, Trouble marched to the front of the line, firmly explaining that a dozen disabled veterans in the parking lot needed service. Wordlessly, they passed out sacks of burgers and stacks of cups until she told them to stop. We were in ’n’ outta there in 20 minutes, burning up the highway toward Las Vegas.
In startling contrast to a day spent broiling in the Mojave, our little motorcade of a dozen bikes and a pair of hacks was ushered down the Strip by Nevada’s finest. Parading carousel horse Indians through Vegas with a police escort felt like we’d oozed into Salvador Dali’s urban planning model. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and so did a couple of our guys, but they caught up later. Leave no hangover behind!
We gained two noobs in Vegas. Shane was a husky jarhead medevac’d from Al Anbar, Shawn a boyish 31-year-old who lost a leg and thumb to a Ramadi IED. Both were worryingly quiet.
With plenty more desert to unroll, we spent several hours or a month doing it. Holding down a drop-dead gorgeous, Willow Green and Ivory Cream Indian Chief Vintage with buckskin seat and panniers and a color-matched Champion Vintage hack, Glen and I rumbled across endless scorched acres looking like an antique parade float fired from a potato gun. For the whole trip, our Vintage burned zero drops of oil, even while pulling long grades at 80 mph in fourth gear, day after day at more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (henceforth known as “melting the ton”). I go 225 pounds in gear, and Gunny Glen—even with assorted missing parts—is bigger than me. With a couple hundred pounds of sidecar and a camel’s worth of water, our Thunder Stroke 111 twin weighed in like a sports car…and returned the mileage to prove it.
Lacking a tank upsized to her avoirdupois, “Princess Thunderjugs” became our canary in the endurance mineshaft. Three fuel stops in, Glen took charge. “Hey, brother,” he yelled to a VFW Rider, “are you going into the store?” We soon sported a 2-gallon fuel can bungeed to our luggagerack, where it loomed ominously above Glen’s razored pate.
“You cool with that?”
“No prob’m, bro.” He grinned. “I’ve been blown up before.” “Hey, me too.” We fist-bumped.
“You still got your legs.”
“Well, yeah.” I considered my next words carefully. “There was a Marine with me.”
Glen nodded. “Solid choice.”
As Princess TJ clawed into the hills, Glen made a rare tactical error by assenting to flying the car. Thenceforth I banged his butt onto the pavement every third turn or so, but the man grinned like a Spanish pirate every time our big, green vessel made steam.
No war or marriage or desert lasts forever, and we eventually landed in Hurricane for ribs-with-everything at Sonny Boy’s Barbecue. Several veteran riders were treated to helicopter rides through Zion National Park, and Glen vacated the hack to make way for Shane.
I didn’t know much about Shane, only that he’d experienced personal struggles and a number of surgeries since Iraq. Not a word did he say as we jounced along on our tricorn motorbike, just nodding silently when I yelled status updates. I worried down the road beside him, wondering what he was getting from this. That evening, Shane flew out to care for his father, hospitalized by a stroke.
Bag on shoulder, Shane uncorked. “I forgot how amazing it is,” he said, “just to get out on a bike. It’s like you can just let everything go. I sold my Harley when my injuries caught up with me. I really gotta get another bike.”
From Bryce Canyon Pines Motel, we tracked Highway 12 to Henrieville (population: 159) where we met Korea vet Norm Davis, the man responsible for installing a huge United States flag high on a red ridge to silently inspire precisely the kind of passersby we happened to be.
Jumpmaster Josh stayed in everybody’s face, smokin’ and jokin’ and carryin’ on while Glen stomped around motivating the troops, but we worried about our other silent observer. “Shawn’s not really talking,” Glen said. “Let’s get him into the sidecar.” Tasking Shawn with chairborne photography, I discovered the one-thumbed bastard shoots steadier with a smartphone from a jiggling sidecar than I manage with a Nikon on a monopod.
Continuing northeast to Crescent City along Interstate 70, we picked up another police escort up the Colorado River. At Red Cliffs Lodge, we bellied up to a cowboy supper. Afterward, Highway Patrolman Roberts borrowed a Chieftain and widened our eyes with a bar-swinging, board-banging gymkhana. Asked what he thought of our rolling stock, the former motor officer laconically replied, “Clutch is real smooth.”
Knowing you can’t properly visit Canyonlands without playing on rocks, chief sponsor Indian arranged a buggy sprint across Moab through High Point Hummer and ATV. Common sense was discarded, both by drivers and by whoever thought it wise to turn us loose in whip-quick Polaris RZR carts.
We had an uncommonly good time. RZRs have advantages over dirt bikes. One is they carry more water than camels. Another is that damaged drivers can operate them with gleeful abandon. Glen and I jumped into a two-seater, gunning up the first “quit or go” spine with terrible joy. Although we never quite biffed, every piece of video we shot looks like sky, rock, sky, rock, dirt, sky, TREE! Transformed from cold-eyed professionals to harmless delinquents, we sported down arroyos like otters and over cliff ledges like lemmings. When I get too old or too broken for motorcycles, I’m getting an RZR so I can load up my grandkids and terrify their parents.
Over dessert following barbecued steak on Red Cliffs Lodge’s huge patio overlooking the oxbow, the bravest man I’ve ever met gave a humble, clear-eyed address. Gunny Glen described stepping on a 20-pound shaped charge that took his leg, penis, and testicles and tore him open to the sternum—then he gave equal weight to the long, dark tunnel of invisible wounds. Glen emphasized the lifesaving value of human connection. He talked about how veterans need to have each other’s backs. He talked about staying in the world, not in your room.
With the Pentagon considering adoption of his suicide-prevention program, this isn’t new ground for Glen, but that speech is courageous every time. I already knew what his injuries were and still winced, but Glen flinches at nothing. As he described the duties of fraternity, though, Trouble silently left the table with her eyes overflowing. When it’s your brothers who wounded you, it’s hard to find answers in brotherhood.
I couldn’t wait to fire up Princess T-jugs the next day and wind through the Colorado National Monument with Shawn mounted sidesaddle. Somewhere along the road, he’d transformed from introvert to poster boy and now, perched jauntily on the lip of a sidecar, Shawn granted a Steve McQueen-style interview to the TV reporter who rode a short way with us.
“In the past, you read a lot about Vietnam guys who never got a lot of support,” Shawn said, reminding the reporter (and all of us) how far this society has progressed. “It’s good that people care and support what we went through. It says a lot about the country.”
We then returned to enjoying said country. The ensuing few miles unrolled like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I slewed lefts like an autocrossing shopping cart, winding around 270-degree right-handers with Shawn’s sidecar loitering overhead like a Warthog on station, but no such shenanigans ever fazed my monkey. Shawn’s way past being scared of anything that doesn’t echo out of his own head. Like all of us, his head got straighter as the road got more crooked.
An afternoon break in Craig, Colorado (population: 9,464) lured platoons of citizens to VFW Post 4265, where they’d laid on snacks and cold drinks and a pumper truck for us to climb around on with the kids. Whether a small town confines or embraces depends entirely on who you run into. We encountered the best of America and were deeply pleased to find they thought the same of us. Chatting with the leggy sister of a post member, I mentioned we’d all only met a few days previous. She watched us grinning and laughing, slapping backs and dunking bandanas, Cycle Gear cooling vests, and our salty heads into the ice trough and said, “You’ve gotta be kidding. You guys act like family.”
During supper up the road, a folk rock duo played lively background to free-drinking, free-thinking women who looked just the way you’d expect midsummer Coloradans to look, but logistics at Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse were shaky. Glen ended up one-legging it a quarter mile back across a potholed field, while Shawn and Jumpmaster Josh shared a cabin with a ladder loft. Josh glanced down at his T-shirt reading, “Jiu-jitsu makes us all equal,” then tossed up his artificial leg and swarmed after it like a jack-tar up ratlines.
Tucked quietly into ridgetop Wyoming forest, our next overnight offered the chance either to loop through Laramie traffic or save 65 miles by nipping up a 9-mile dirt road. Locals advised going through town. Naturally, we chose gravel busting. About to experience his baptism of dirt on 900 pounds of corporate-fleet Roadmaster, DI Doober looked a little nervous.
“Don’t worry about it,” Indian Dave said. “Just go slow, stay off your front brake, and countersteer.”
“Countersteer?” Doob asked. “Even in the dirt?”
“Especially in the dirt.”
War face screwed on, Doober called on 0311 resourcefulness and made that road his checkpoint. Our cutoff road cacophony included belt squeaks and suspension bottoming but no bent bikes or bitching. Any rider struggles along the way were mitigated by a quiet tip, an encouraging word, or the weapons-grade sunburst of Doober’s newly discovered peace grin.
It felt good to raise a few goosebumps on our first chilly morning, motoring back toward interstate travel under cautionary Wyoming reader boards blinking: “LOOK TWICE—SAVE A LIFE—MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE.” So are vets, I thought, but most never get a chance to purge their tanks like this.
I wondered what I’d do about that. I wonder, also, what you’ll do about that.
No one ever musters the words to do the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Black Hills Classic justice, but our group’s welcome to this annual biker Brigadoon (non-rally population: 6,627) rivaled Times Square on VE Day. For a town one-tenth the size of the Alamodome, suddenly overrun by Sunday bikers with $20 million burning a hole in their pockets, it was shockingly civil. Open pipes, tat cuffs, and slogans of prepackaged rebellion belied the gracious gentility of a topless retirement community.
Situated cheekily astride Harley-Davidson Way, our sponsor’s plaza exhibited new Indians, antiques, Victory bikes, and Slingshot three-wheeled sports cars. They had hill climbers and bikini models, co-branded Jack Daniels bars, patch booths, performance clinics, and the obligatory numberless varieties of swag. We collapsed into our sponsor’s embrace like a tired hit team stumbling into the chow hall, while all around us Sturgis cranked and wheezed like the Devil’s own steam calliope.
Prearranged VIP access transformed the high-capacity thunderdome of The Legendary Buffalo Chip into a true promised land of wristbands and lanyards; drink tickets and gimme caps; and wriggling, snuggling, dazzling girls ad-wrapped in tiny bikinis and wide, bright smiles. Campsites were patrolled by supercharged V-twin bar stools, cartloads of wobbling flesh, and a GoProbolted into shaven skull inserts.
Despite complaining that his hips weren’t as loose as they used to be, Jumpmaster Josh danced better on one leg than I manage on two, charming a succession of ladies at the Full Throttle Saloon who laughed, bought him drinks, and whispered in his ear. I’m not claiming Josh’s savoir faire or his admirers’ hotness actually caused it, but the Full Throttle burned to ashes shortly after our visit.
Indian Dave had improved our transport logistics by liberating a 4×4 Polaris Ranger from the official Buffalo Chip fleet. That afternoon, I dropped copies of my book Head Check at the Indian dealer on foot, pillioned out to The Legendary Buffalo Chip to pick up our Ranger, and then settled into their air-conditioned, snack-rich, Wi-Fi-enabled, open-bar press lounge.
You think you’ve done Sturgis? You ain’t done Sturgis ’til you’ve rode bitch down Main before rock-starring it in the mojo lounge.
Now a designated driver, I rangered Josh and the boys back to the ranch well after midnight, making precisely 44 governed mph northward up the highway shoulder. Sporting Liberty wraparound shades in lieu of a windshield, without taillights or turn signals, hooting like gibbons and flashing random gang signs at confused bikers, we fit snugly into the ambient weirdness.
Teamwork is inimical to secrecy and vice versa. Although Jumpmaster Josh defiantly raised his kilt to the world, there weren’t any surprises there. To the soldiers and Marines in our room that night, drunk, tired, and in pain, he shared the only secret that mattered.
“You know I love you guys.”
Gunny Glen answered him first, not in his parade ground voice or a joking tone. “Love you too, brother.” Inter-service rivalry at its finest.
Opiates are nightcaps. Our morning prescription was Batdorf & Bronson coffee. Back in rowdy character by breakfast, our Jumpmaster slurped down quarts of it while he planned a thunder run through downtown bars.
“Looked like you were feeling no pain last night,” Trouble said. But Josh wasn’t feeling no pain. He never isn’t. Raunchy jokes and MMA sparring, dancing, fighting, and airborne jumps: It’s all him, but it’s all a facade too. In line units, that’s the suit you wear to work, and Josh remains active duty, running on pure attitude, unstoppable as Voyager 1.
Nights at the Black Hills Classic mandate epic levels of abandon. Our group was no exception, wading headlong into the unquestioned delights of sinuous bartenders, cage fights, impulse tattoos, massages, and live music ranging from grindbar to Social Distortion’s “Ring of Fire” to John Fogerty live on the Wolfman Jack stage.
Warm raindrops sheeted over the crowd as Fogerty slashed out his full-throated rendition of “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” I looked and I saw that under the rain, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and dance happeneth to us all. Josh’s face blazed under the kliegs, Glen perched a Coke and a Midwest buffy on his upturned prosthesis, and Doob’s grin blazed back at the stage like the world’s happiest return fire.
That was the first time I saw an untroubled smile on our road captain. She threw up her arms and raised her face to the sky, trading her tears for rain and her memories for comradeship. We’re her brothers now.
We weren’t done. There were more things in heaven and Sturgis than are dreamed of in bike rags, from throttling our big road Indians around the local flat track to horseback barbecues to marshaling the Buffalo Chip Freedom Celebration Ride. We stood rounds in rotation, vouchsafed our stories, and signed each other’s helmets. Two of our guys won all-expense-paid bike trips, another pair completed an IBA Saddle Sore, and I scored a dance with Pandya’s earthy sweetheart, Elnora.
By then, though, we’d already found what we came for.