by Johnny Killmore
Photos courtesy of Sara Liberte
The rumbling of 20 motorcycles on the open highway is a hell of a lot better than the rumble of diesel engines as you convoy through a war zone, but the sounds do bring similar emotions. You have a team of people you need to trust, because they are in formation with you and need to mind their blindspots. The enemy is unseen when on convoy, and on the road you don’t know which distracted driver will be the one to encroach on your lane. And when you’re driving through Utah in August, there’s the heat…so much heat.
But unlike convoys in Iraq, the Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis (VCR) is something to look forward to and not dread. Now in year number six, this was my fourth time piloting a sidecar for the ride photographer as we took wounded and amputee veterans out for some wind therapy to the biggest biker rally in the world. This year would be different in many ways, but the biggest change would be due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On the outset we weren’t sure how things would play out, but it turned out to be more of a blessing than a curse. The roads were less crowded, we had no mass gatherings (which can be exhausting for people with PTSD), and we even had a volunteer chef riding with us to make meals.
This had the effect of bringing the group together quickly, something that already happens quickly when you bring together war veterans who also share a love for motorcycling. Despite us all serving in different branches and different jobs, at different times and coming from different backgrounds, we all put aside differences and focused on what brings us together, with the desire to be of service to community making everyone want to lend a helping hand. As one of the riders, Darius Wallace said, “if more of us were like this, our country wouldn’t be facing the problems it’s currently facing.”
More than just a motorcycle ride, the event starts outside Moab, Utah at the Red Cliffs Lodge. On a quiet bend of the Colorado River, the veterans get a chance to meet each other and swap stories before being introduced to the 2020 Indian motorcycle they’ll be riding to Sturgis. A day of basic training lets both novice and experienced riders familiarize themselves with the weight of these touring machines while trying out the ABS and traction control on an empty training range. A familiarization ride then allows everyone to feel out the dynamics of formation riding and for some of them to fish through the Ride Command touchscreen system (no point in having a Bluetooth enabled bike if you can’t pair your smartphone and blast your favorite tunes).
Another few days in Moab let everyone do some horseback riding and rafting, while an entire day is set aside to take off road vehicles on the slick rock of Hells Revenge. Offroad racer and Dakar Rally winner Casey Currie was there again with several friends to remind us that you can still have leather interiors and AC while crawling through tough terrain. This year we also had Mike of Big Iron Tour Co. with his heavily modified “deuce-and-a-half,” an old Army truck that most veterans remember as creaking old beasts. With the right mods and some decent seats everyone had a great time, and instead of MRE’s for lunch we all stopped at Rotary Park for a homemade lunch, care of Sherry Billings.
But Sturgis was calling and we left the heat of Utah in search of Colorado’s higher altitudes. We didn’t find it right away, but eventually some storm clouds posted up beside us and blocked the sun. Craig, CO was our stop on the first day and we hung out at the local VFW post, #4265, for a dinner and a small gathering, which felt big since everyone had to be spaced out for health reasons. In the morning we headed to the Craig Memorial Hospital to drop off some PPE to the hospital staff there. We had brought several boxes of individual kits containing gloves, masks, and packets of hand sanitizer so that hospital staff could use them or give them to patients with pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to coronavirus.
From there we continued on Hwy 40 and got in some of the best riding of our adventure. Persistent storm clouds followed us but never opened up, giving perpetual shade as we followed the Poudre river on a winding path, alternating between tight canyons and panoramic views.
Finally we got some light rain but it wasn’t worth putting on rain gear, eventually turning into tiny hail pellets for a few minutes before petering out. In Ft. Collins, CO we stopped for the night, spending some time at the Veterans Memorial Park there. The people at Healing Hands provided acupuncture and massage to ease both the soreness from the road and old battle wounds that were acting up.
From there the ride moved north into the flatter land of Wyoming, where wind is plentiful and humans are scarce. It seemed like the official summertime sport of Wyoming is road construction so we encountered a fair bit of traffic, but the veterans took it all in stride and having some empty, straight stretches of road are a great way to let the mind wander and the soul lighten. That is, until a hay truck going 80mph the other way tries to blow you out of your lane. In Casper, WY we spent the night and had dinner at the Oil City Brewery. Craft beer and pizza so good it could hold its own in the most hipster-filled metro area was not what we expected, but we all ate and drank our fill before settling in for the night. Tomorrow would be our run into Sturgis.
This is the first time the VCR came into Sturgis from the west side, which gave us a chance to see Devil’s Tower and stop for lunch at the Campstool Cafe. The roads were beginning to switch from straight line to flowing, following the wandering hills that indicated we were nearing our destination. After fueling up in Spearfish, SD the group wandered into Sturgis proper. Traffic was already picking up even though the rally hadn’t officially started, but the amount of traffic on Main St. also seemed lower than years past, probably due to COVID-19; with this being an anniversary year you would expect to see things already at capacity.
After a great welcome party and dinner at Indian Motorcycle of Sturgis and an hour of roaming Main St., we motored to our cabins outside of Deadwood. This has been our Sturgis Rally base since the beginning, and it’s a perfect mix of the quiet rustling of the wind through the trees and the distant rumble of big V-twins on the highway a mile away. With no huge meetings or group rides planned the veterans were able to find their own fun, riding the Black Hills and doing the obligatory stops at Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument site, and a ride through Custer State Park to do some buffalo spotting.
The usual Black Hills weather meant things were fairly hot, but afternoon storms would come through and cool things down. Fireside chats and a few drinks were had in the evenings, small groups ventured off to check out Deadwood and Sturgis, and we quickly set into a rhythm. As a group it’s always interesting to watch veterans when they get together. As a veteran of the Iraq War myself I feel like an outsider in most groups I move through. But with veterans there is an instant connection; the coarse language and harmless ribbing makes fast friends instead of drawing sideways glances. But unlike on active duty, vets tend to be far more understanding of each other. The ability to talk about the horrors of combat and to laugh about that one time they accidentally shot a camel with a MK19 grenade launcher just can’t be replicated outside of that tight-knit circle.
Also, unlike group therapy sessions, vets can talk openly and candidly around the fireside or at gas stops while on the road. No one is guiding the conversations and no outcome is expected: you can just talk. There’s a tendency among veterans to keep quiet about what they’ve seen or done, requiring them to shoulder a lot of feelings that can weigh anyone down. Stopping to unpack that stuff can often remind us that there isn’t a need to have so much weight on our shoulders.
The ride is now over and the veterans are all back home, settled into their routines. But the group text is still alive with jokes and stories and people checking in to make sure everyone is alright. And that right there is the magic of Veterans Charity Ride. While time on the bike can untie the knots in our minds, it’s sharing stories and experiences that creates part of our sense of self. When it’s all said and done, it’s better to look back on the things we’ve done instead of the things we wished we had done.