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Relief Through Motorcycle Adventures

“You’ll be one of our volunteers. Help with meals, clean-up, whatever is needed. And of course, you’ll be teaching off-road techniques to the group, so they’re safe on the trails.”

“No problem,” I said. I had played all of those roles before, a lifetime ago. I was happy to play them again. “I might write an article about the experience if that’s OK.”

“That’s fine,” Tom said. “We want people to know more about what we are trying to do. But anonymity is important. You can show names and photos of volunteers, but keep the identities of participants private, OK?”

Writing an article with such omissions would be challenging, I thought, but not impossible. And, I understood the need, as well as I could anyway. “No problem, I will use assumed names for participants and make sure photos do not identify them. Anything else?”

“Yes,” he said. “And this is important.” He explained the final prerequisites. I asked some more questions, and we came to an agreement. Soon I would be off to Colorado.

Adventure Riding in the Rockies is an experience without equal. The views are so stunning that it is difficult to focus on any one element of beauty. I had ridden there many times before and found the only thing more intense than the views was the weather. Comprising part of the Continental Divide, the Rockies roiled with daily bouts of rain, heat and snow. There were only a few months out of the year where trails were navigable by motorcycle; preparation for all climates and altitudes was nothing short of a necessity. There are two basic schools of thought for adventure riding in such an environment: Wear waterproof gear, which is perfect for cold and rain but miserable in the heat, or go with ventilated gear, with exceptional airflow to dissipate heat, and extra waterproof layering when the need arose (and it would). I chose the former, along with my usual survival tools (I was assured that all necessities other than riding gear would be provided for, but a good adventure rider never leaves without a medical kit and satellite communicator).

I landed in Denver and set to collecting my gear from baggage claim, then found a knot of riders waiting for pickup at a prearranged location. All of the men were strangers to one another, but had exchanged the usual pleasantries and were casually chatting as I approached. Jerry—a tall, close-cropped man I guessed to be around 50—acted as group spokesman. He introduced the others, and we shook hands. “So you’re the instructor, eh? The hardcore BMW adventure guy? I’m a street rider myself, never done a lick of dirt. You’re gonna have a helluva time training me!”

Jerry’s words were 10 decibels louder—and came with more frequency—than his counterparts. He answered every question with a story, each laced with just enough self-deprecation to keep it light and fun. I liked him instantly. “Don’t worry about this being your first time off-road,” I said. “It’s my first time, too. We’ll learn together.” The group stared back, their look of shock indicating that my joke was delivered a little too well. I smiled and gave a wave of dismissal. “So what do you all ride at home?”

Of the eight riders in our group, only one had any real time in the dirt. The rest were a mix of Harley riders, scooter jockeys, and one hardcore dude who had ridden his new 24.5 hp Royal Enfield Himalayan all the way from New England. Most would be riding an Adventure bike for the first time; none had ever been on a GS. “No problem guys,” I assured them. “Give me three hours to train you and I’ll have you rocking those bikes all over Colorado.” I hoped I was right.

We were collected by volunteers and brought to a large personal residence in the Denver foothills. Don and Kathy, the homeowners and long-time volunteers, offered warm greetings and settled us in. “There are rooms across the hall, rooms downstairs,” Don said with practiced precision. “Everyone gets a bed, any bed without luggage on it is yours.” We found the bunks and cleaned up, returning to find a mountain of snacks and refreshments. “Eat, relax, enjoy some quiet time. You have a big week ahead!”

I grabbed a beer and went to the outside deck, where the group had assembled. I sat down next to Justin, a bearded, tattoo-laden, ox of a man with a “doesn’t play well with others” sign affixed to his demeanor. “So you’re the BMW adventure guy,” he said, repeating words spoken by the others, but in a far more foreboding tone.

“Yup, that’s me I guess,” I replied with a shrug. “But I like all bikes. If it has two wheels, it’s fine by me. You went from Harley’s to a KLR, right?” Justin eyed me, his thoughts as clear as the ink on his arms. It had been my experience that some saw BMW owners as elitists, respecting only the machines with a roundel affixed. I aimed to squash that notion, one conversation at a time. “The KLR’s are epic, I’ve put alot of time on them. But they’re sure different than anything Harley makes. What made you switch?”

Justin softened, then went on to reason out his purchase. “I loved my Harleys. Put in a lot of time on them. But I kept seeing dirt roads shooting off from the asphalt, and I wondered where they went. So, I switched it up. Lost a lot of Harley friends when I went to the Kawasaki, but who needs em’ anyway?”

The conversation remained light through dinner. Without being told, the group set to cleaning up the table and washing dishes, a discipline I wished my kids would emulate. We moved to the living room, where chairs had been arranged in a lazy circle. The group went to sit, and I followed suit, taking a chair next to Tom and the other volunteers. Tom straightened in his chair, and the group fell silent. “You all know why you are here,” he said, his words soft but formal. “You have applied, been interviewed, and were accepted into this program because, out of hundreds of applicants, you were the ones who we determined would receive the most benefit from what we do.” He held up a laminated sheet of paper. “Now it’s time to introduce yourself to the group. This is a guide to follow, so you remember what your introduction should include. I’ll pass this around so you can use as a guide in telling us about yourself.” Tom put on reading glasses and recited each question on the page, answering them with his own details. The group listened and nodded silently. “So that’s me, now we’ll each take turns introducing ourselves.”

He passed the page to Jerry, who took it and cleared his throat with comical excess. But there was something in his manner that did not fit. His boisterous demeanor was faltering, replaced with a facade of nonchalance. “Well, I’m Jerry as you know,” he said loudly. “Let’s see… I live in South Carolina. I’m a pilot, I’m divorced, I’ve got two kids.” He read on, reciting the next question listed before answering. “What is my military history…I flew Harriers for the Marines and went to Iraq and Afghanistan. Saw some pretty crazy stuff there. Let’s see…” He lingered on the next question. “Why am I here…I’m here because…because—“ Jerry went silent. For a long moment, he stared at the page, his eyes unfixed as if scanning a moment in history. He looked up, his jaw quivering. He was crying. “I’m here because I need help,” he said in words torn by anguish and pain. “I need help, and I am hoping I can find it here. Because I don’t know where else to turn.”

The group listened and nodded silently. After several moments of quiet reflection, Jerry passed the page on. The introductions continued in a similar tone, each member reciting his personal details and reasons for attending. Some cried, most did not. Everyone demonstrated a vulnerability rarely seen in hard men, among strangers.

The page passed to me. I recited the questions and answered obligingly. “Military history…I am not a military man, though I have family members that are. I was asked to come here so that I could lend my expertise in preparing you for adventure riding. But when I agreed to volunteer, it was with the understanding that I would be willing to share my own struggles with this group. That is hard for me. I have struggles, some of them too big for me to deal with on my own. And this whole program is designed to help people deal with their personal challenges. But I am intimidated by this group, if I’m being honest. You have seen things in war that I have been spared, and I worry that my struggles are silly by comparison. But I will try to share if you will indulge me.”

The group listened and nodded silently.

This was the start of my experience with the Motorcycle Relief Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping military veterans and first responders find the tools—and the courage—to contend with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Applicants are offered a chance to ride an adventure motorcycle for several days with a group of fellow veterans, all without cost to them (other than getting themselves to and from the event site). Each applicant is interviewed and chosen based on perceived need and willingness to better themselves through daily therapy sessions. And, each event comes complete with a volunteer team, including an off-road riding instructor to help new dirt riders learn to tackle unfamiliar terrain. That was me.

The mood was somber as our first exchange concluded. We chatted a little, but it wasn’t long before we were all in our bunks and resting. I sat in bed, thinking about the words that had been shared. Help for PTSD and depression was not hard to find, I was surprised to learn. Nearly every member of our gathering were active participants in their own local support groups. “The problem isn’t availability,” another participant had explained. “The problem is fear. We’re all out of the military and have regular jobs. Some of our work is sensitive. If our employers found out we suffered from PTSD or depression, we might lose our jobs. We don’t want to risk it, so we don’t share our problems.” I thought about Jerry and his career as an airline pilot. Would having PTSD cause him to lose his flight credentials? Should it? The questions were too big for me to answer.

I awoke from a restless sleep and prepared for the day. We ate breakfast and were shuttled to the MRP facility, where our bikes were waiting. The air was filled with excitement as riders found their machines, each immaculately cleaned and labeled with a name. We engaged in a thorough ride briefing and headed for the mountains. As expected, the weather changed wildly from hot and sunny to cold and wet and back again. We kept a comfortable pace, riding asphalt roads through the backcountry. It was absolutely beautiful.

We finished the day at a large, secluded mountain cabin, with plenty of beds and a stunning view of Pikes Peak. The group went to work unloading and stowing food and other supplies, then claimed beds and relaxed before convening for food prep. We enjoyed a lavish, casual meal at a large dinner table, cleaned up and retired to the living room, where a fireplace burned near an informal circle of chairs. We sat and got comfortable as Tom cleared his throat and focused our attention. “Each night, we will sit in this circle and have a series of discussions. Each of these discussions will be based on a theme. Tonight’s theme is “resistance.” We will talk about the internal force inside of us that tries to dissuade us from doing what we want, or need, or would generally be good for us. “We were each given copies of the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, and asked to read certain passages. After each passage, the group was encouraged to talk about what the excerpt meant to them. The group engaged wholly, offering introspective feedback and encouraging one another. Tom added final thoughts at the conclusion of our session. “Resistance comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s logical, sometimes, emotional. We tell ourselves we are weak, or undeserving, or otherwise unable to better ourselves. This week will be about a lot of things, we will take many steps; You have taken the hardest step by being here; now we will focus on getting past our own resistance for the betterment of ourselves and each other.”

Another restless night. What the heck had I signed up for?

The mood was surprisingly light as we spent the next morning preparing for our ride. We hopped on the bikes and cruised, traversing mountain highways and passing through old boom towns. We stopped at a large pea gravel parking lot, where I would be teaching some off-road riding skills. Quickly I scouted the terrain, grabbed a collection of small cones, and put together a training course. Then I walked the group through a long-rehearsed speech about what we were going to do, what they would learn, and the terrain they could expect to traverse with their shiny new off-road skills. “In three hours, you will have enough off-road riding knowledge to tackle the dirt roads we will find ourselves on. If we come across anything that we have not trained for, we will sort it out on the trails, OK? Let’s get to it!”

The training went on at a fast pace, with only a few tip-overs and loads of enthusiasm. Soon riders were skidding and sliding and having a blast with their new skills. We finished up, enjoyed a quick lunch and headed out on a series of mountain trails. I scanned the group as we rode, occasionally signaling a rider to imitate my form. With a few tweaks and adjustments, everyone was riding safely and having fun. “This is the most fun I’ve had in years!” Jerry proclaimed in his booming voice. The others agreed with enthusiasm. I smiled, thinking of the many, many times I had enjoyed hearing those words over the years. Adventure riding was a truly wonderful way to build confidence and bring people together.

That afternoon we completed our ride and headed to the lodge, repeating our routine of food prep, casual conversation and bonding. We cleaned up and found our places in the lazy circle of chairs, where Tom led the next in our series of sessions. This continued through the week; we rode, we bonded, we shared. We talked about mindfulness, the process of becoming objectively aware of our own thoughts and feelings. We discussed PTSD, what it is and how it affects us. We spoke of Moral Injury; how we struggle—especially in war, or through the pain and suffering we witness, inflict or that is inflicted upon us—to reconcile these against our own sense of right and wrong. Throughout the talks, we revealed ourselves and supported one another.

For me, the process was as difficult as it was healing. I had not volunteered for the Motorcycle Relief Project with the intention of digging into my own personal struggles. But through the strength and courage of other participants, I found my voice. And, I forged solid bonds with the men in that group, the sort of special connections that are all too rare. “This is why we do this,” Tom told me at the conclusion of our ride. “What you saw here is what we experience during every gathering. People want to heal, to better themselves. Each group is unique, but they each also share a sense of growth and achievement that you witnessed here this week.”

“There are people out there who need this,” I said in reply, “need what this program offers. I will do my part to make sure people know.”

The Motorcycle Relief Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Veterans and First Responders who suffer from depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you are in need, know someone who is, or would like to contribute to the cause, you can find out more by visiting