Connecting with vets on the Indian Motorcycle Veterans Charity Ride to the 75th Annual Sturgis Rally.

Burbank California, One Day Before the Ride
We all speak the same language, even if the dialects differ. Over dinner at the Burbank Marriott’s Daily Grill, the jokes leapt over each other like sportive otters, just the way you always do at a family reunion.

Most of us have never met, of course. At least three services are represented: army and, um… some other guys. Most everyone riding tomorrow sports a noticeable disability. Some of us have had enough of deserts; we’re riding across one to Vegas tomorrow. Some hate crowds; we’re plunging ourselves into an estimated million bikers we’ve never met, all squeezing into a town with a normal population of fewer than 7,000 souls.

None of that matters. In that room, smiles came easy and unguarded. Trust was exchanged.

Will 2015’s inaugural running of the Indian Motorcycle Veterans Charity Ride (veteranscharityride.org) connect veterans with their best pathways through life? Will it, in fact, become the Next Great Tradition? Will we cohere as a team by the time we reach Sturgis? Will we biff any of our shiny new Chieftains along the way?

Los Angeles, California – The Big Dog Garage
“Your bikes are in this warehouse,” said I don’t know who, because the next thing that happened was a roll-up door did what roll-up doors do best, revealing a fleet of completely invisible Indian motorcycles.

When the door went up, the smiling guy wearing jeans and a perfect tan was Jay Leno. He’s pretty much never invisible, but we kinda looked through him as well.

He was standing in front of Jay Leno’s garage. Let that sink in for a moment: Jay Leno’s garage. A hundred years from now, his motorized collection will still be as well-known as the man is now. Behind him were rank upon rank of fabulously collectible dream cars, most of them out of reach of most of us. All the bitching and joking that characterize any movement of military personnel stopped cold, replaced by a sound embarrassingly akin to an unfaked cargasm.

More alive than any museum, Leno’s collection reveals a perfect-pitch sense of what is fine and good in American motors. There’s a one-off, aluminum-skinned car built by a 17 year-old aspiring engineer who drove it all over CONUS and Alaska. There’s a row described by Leno as, “and these are the Duesenburgs.” There is a room devoted to steam.

Moab, Utah – Rock-Climbing
Everything runs. After good-naturedly fending off numerous applications to perform live-in site security, Jay kicked over his 1940 Indian Four to lead our happy band out on the first leg of our road to Sturgis.

You know those military recruitment commercials, the ones that always have a thumping bass line and show fit young Americans doing unbelievably cool stuff with amazing equipment in a rapid-fire, rockin’ montage? Ripping around in Polaris RZRs is a great deal more like those commercials than it is like actual military service. Imagine a day in the army with no equipment layouts, inspections, PT, formations, or physical labor — but you still get to blaze around in high-speed tactical vehicles. It was like that, except we didn’t even have to pull maintenance.

Whoopin’ and hollerin’, Glen and I clawed our way up the first slickrock spine in our borrowed RZR 1000 like a cat fleeing the veterinarian. Glen grabbed my phone and tried to take a series of pictures. “I’m good at holding these steady,” he assured me. By the time we got to the top, we were laughing so hard I had to pull off the trail to catch my breath. We reviewed our pictures: sky-rock-sky-rock-sky-rock-TREE.

The last little stunt of the day was a short climb, followed by a sharp descent along a narrow spine, then a drop to the parking lot. Placing a GoPro carefully in the middle of the path, our camera crew asked us each to drive over it, straddling the shot. We watched, snickering quietly, as three or four vehicles carefully climbed the rise, dropped over the other side and made for the parking area.

Then we gunned it hard, stooping down onto the trail like a famished desert hawk on an unattended infant, and hit that son of a gun at about 40 mph.

If you only go around once in this life, you may as well make decent speed.

Hahn’s Peak, Colorado – On the Road
Princess Thunderjugs, our pistachios ‘n’ cream 2015 Indian Chieftain with a paint-matched passenger pod lashed alongside, was in fine form today. There are two sidecars, our own dear PTJ and a red-over-red hack with a smaller, lighter car. With three rotating amputee passengers between the two rigs, we have plumbed the inky black depths of bad jokes about legroom.

Robert Pandya, dauntless Indian rep and all-around evil humorist, keeps telling me that I should try the red unit; says it handles better and steers much lighter. He doesn’t seem in any hurry to switch, though. Today, we met a news crew at the base of Colorado National Monument and rode over that wrigglesome road at what finally felt like an interesting pace. The sidecar wheel left the ground a handful of dozens of times, sometimes long enough that the car wheel slowed down and screeched like a landing aircraft on touchdown.

I’ve been not-so-secretly wishing for the pack to occasionally break into a fast group and the others, but when the two-wheelers started touching down floorboards in a few of the turns the biceps tendon I strained on day two spoke up. Working the hack like a sharecropper plough, Sean and I managed to keep up, but the physical drain was extraordinary. With my arms and back feeling like I’ve been worked over by a dominatrix with a meat hammer, I will sleep either very well or very poorly tonight.

Sturgis, South Dakota – One Long, Weird Dream
Our documentarian, Bob, describes the parking lot at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip as “one long, weird dream.” We hope he got footage. Like the submarine ride at Disneyland, cartoonish mechanized life forms irregularly materialized out of the murk to the accompaniment of unexpected noises: bottle-slingin’ Jack Daniel’s girls in camel shorts, motorized bar stools with Super Glide mills, a white horned god, and the six-foot phallus used to direct traffic from waist level.

It was well into the dark hours, still over 90 degrees, and the crowd was hot, sticky, boisterous, and carefully polite when we arrived at The Legendary Buffalo Chip. Suburban good manners were a match to the music, consisting of .38 Special literally singing their throats out, followed by country star Bradley Gilbert. In between the acts, some guys took the stage for a moment.

Indian external relations guru Robert Pandya introduced the Veteran’s Charity Ride to Sturgis and a quickly composited video of our traveling adventure played on two giant screens. Pandya asked who supported the troops and received an enormous roar of approval from the maybe 30,000 assembled revelers. Then he asked who in the crowd had served, and received some scattered applause. Hey, we’re modest, but not that modest. We’re the real One Percenters. (0.5%, actually.)

And that’s the whole point of this exercise. America believes in her veterans, but doesn’t know us. Finding ways to cross that barrier, that gulf of unshared knowledge, is critical to the ongoing health of the veterans community and to the integrity of the nation for which we fought.

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