Several weeks ago I wrote in this column about Cris and Pat Simmons. They were about to take part once again in the Motorcycle Cannonball, a wildly ambitious coast to coast rally that this year featured bikes which all had to be at least 100 years old.
Along with about 100 other riders, Cris (an accomplished motorcycle rider, writer and historian) and her husband Pat (also a cycle enthusiast as well as a founding member of the Doobie Brothers), were to leave from New Jersey and arrive in Southern California about three weeks later. The Simmons we're also riding to raise funds for the group Stand Up to Cancer. Several years ago, their son had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. He's doing great today and Pat and Cris dedicated their ride to their son, his wife and their new baby; their first grandchild.
After we spoke several weeks ago, I thought it would be fun to meet them down in Carlsbad when they arrived, to hear about the trip. Little did I know what to expect.
On a warm and sunny day, a large crowd, several hundred thick, enthusiastically greeted the antique motorcycles as they arrived right on schedule. Rather than exhilaration on most of the riders' faces, it looked as if they had been to war. Such are the challenges when wrestling 100+ year old bikes across the United States. Gritty, grizzled and exhausted, one by one they arrived to cheers, hugs and even some tears.
When I found Cris and Pat, I learned what had happened to them. On day five, Pat's bike developed some inoperable repairs. Understand, every night in a hotel parking lot, bikes were repaired, serviced and most likely prayed over. But they can't all make it and Pat knew that his vintage Harley was done for this trip. But he didn't pack it in. Instead, he became part of his wife's crew and would ride ahead each day and wait for her at the hotel, ready to get to work on the bike and give her a little bit of rest.
Digging deep into her rider's soul, for the next 11 days, Cris rode essentially by herself, traversing the country by following the arcane set of daily directions provided to each rider. Through wild desert monsoons near the Grand Canyon, through hail and over mountains, she persevered. Of course, riding a 1914 motorcycle is nothing like riding a new bike today. They rattle and rumble in ways that are hard to imagine. They test your strength and they test your mettle. You don't own them, rather it's the other way around.
Exhausted yet smiling, in the crowded parking lot, Cris told me that as tough as the ride was, (and this is her third Cannonball), it was all worth it when she entered the area around Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms in the picturesque California desert near Palm Springs. A lone speck in the quiet and beautiful desolation, where those mythical Joshua trees knot and gnarl their way toward the heavens, she found her personal peace with the road. "That was the best part," she told me. "As rough a ride as this was, riding through Joshua Tree was worth it all. All of a sudden I felt like it was 100 years ago and my motorcycle wasn't old at all."
That night, at a banquet with all of the riders and their collective crews, one could easily see just how magical this event is, and just what compels riders to put themselves through the rigorous challenges of this rally.
There were some awards and speeches and good-natured joking about the trip. There was a lot of emotion whenever the event founder, Lonnie Isam Jr. was mentioned. He was at the start of the race this year, but a grave illness he has been suffering from sent him home after that.
But that doesn't mean he wasn't in the room.
Honored by the riders who shared personal anecdotes, his spirit was right in the thick of it. And in that room, with Cris and Pat and almost 100 other riders, the meaning and purpose of the event revealed itself. It's not even so much about motorcycles as it is about hope and faith and teamwork. It's about camaraderie and expertise, adventure and the unknown. It's a pushing to the limit of every sense and sensibility. Somehow, they all made it cross country. Men and women, married to historic machines, trusting each other.
Cris posted a couple of days after getting back; in part it read: "Cannonball 2016. Effie (Cris' bike, named for the pioneering motorcyclist Effie Hotchkiss) and I rode 3,203 miles out of the 3,306 total possible. 103 miles short of a perfect score. We ended up in 22nd place and that's okay with me. Had a problem with a too loose primary chain. I didn't want to risk ruining my motor for that elusive perfect score. She means more to me than that... Jason Sims, the Director of the Cannonball told me I am probably the only woman to ride over the 11,000-foot summit of Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado on a 101-year-old motorcycle. We made history! Effie is now officially retired and soon on loan to the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Go see her, she's a champion. I'm ready to start a new chapter and be the best grandmother I can be."
I had never heard about the Motorcycle Cannonball before I spoke with Cris and Pat Simmons several weeks ago. After watching all of these incredible people celebrate each other, and especially after listening to how Cris's dedication, sheer talent and force of will earned her an impressive 22nd place, I will never forget it.
To everyone that rode this year and took part in this unique event, and to Lonnie, we humbly salute you. You are all the heart and soul of the road. You are the riders in the wind. You are winners, one and all.