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15th annual Sierra Hope Ride

By Felicia Morgan

Once more ‘for the kids’

Mitchell’s Modesto H-D does it for MDA

Rolling into the overflowing street in front of Mitchell’s Harley-Davidson, I decided to get a few road shots so I casually chatted up the CHP officer who was blocking traffic with his cruiser. He helped me map out a route to get out ahead of the pack. Thinking that was actually a possibility was my second mistake.

Jamming up the freeway to avoid blocked-off roadways, I set my sights on getting to a crossroad ahead of the pack so I could shoot the sight of the patrol cars, lights flashing and sirens blaring, clearing the way for the huge pack led by Karen Davidson and her husband Scott. The black and whites escorted the miles-long pack through the gently winding roads into the Gold Rush community of Jamestown where the party would unfurl.

Zipping down the surface streets, trying to beat the 1,150 other riders as they were escorted through Modesto, I feared I might be too late and chose to cut across an unfamiliar side road. Third, final, and worst mistake of the day. Motorcycle police stopped me dead in my tracks at the intersection as they blocked the roadways for the oncoming parade. So much for the photo op. I was held in position with a firm hand signal from the moto-cop as bike after bike after two-up bike rolled right past me.

The streets were lined with well-wishers, young and old, waving, cheering, and honking as the bikers returned the greetings with their own version that included waving, revving of throaty V-Twin engines, and an occasional short burnout. Flags were waved, signs of gratitude and encouragement were displayed, and the procession crept slowly towards their destination some 50 miles away. I fell in at the tail of the pack, reminding myself that the one thing you never want to be at the Sierra Hope Ride is late.

An honor
As I rolled down the streets of the small towns along Highway 108 led by thousands of fellow riders, I was taken by a memorial that was erected in Oakdale to honor Kevin Morgan, a young man with muscular dystrophy who always attended the SHR. I’d met him a few times over the years. Kevin lost his battle with the disease last August. The reality of seeing his empty wheelchair sitting on the side of the road, with an over-sized photograph of him and his family’s personal note, sent chills up the spine and served as a somber reminder of why we all turn out for this run. It’s not about the cheers, or the waves, or the honking cagers. It’s about the victims, young, old, and in between, who are stricken with this insidious, debilitating and often fatal disease. It’s about the attempt to raise money for the MDA to assist with coping with life as a muscular dystrophy patient.

Telling the tale
In 1980, the Harley-Davidson Motor Corporation approached the MDA with an idea for fundraising. At the Jerry Lewis Telethon that same year, a check for $185,000 was presented, the first of many years’ worth of contributions collected by Harley riders’ efforts. Art and Linda Mitchell, owners of the Modesto and Jamestown Harley-Davidson dealerships, and their family have, in no small way, been a part of those efforts.

For the past 14 years, the Mitchells have worked tirelessly to host an event in the Sierra Nevada foothills to not only raise money for the MDA—a reported $155,000 for 2009 alone—but to also promote awareness of the importance of this organization.

As the festivities kicked off for year 15, Art introduced Karen Davidson, daughter of Willie G. Davidson, senior vice president and chief styling officer of Harley-Davidson. She is the great-granddaughter of William A. Davidson, one of the original founders of Harley-Davidson. After expressing her excitement over getting to attend the SHR and riding in the pack through such beautiful countryside, she presented the Mitchells with a special award in recognition for all their hard work that has gleaned a whopping $2.4 million for the coffers of MDA.

Each year a child ambassador from the MDA shares a personal story with the gathered riders, and this year, teenager Kasea Marie Neiman told of the adorable Bryan Smith, her friend and a prior MDA ambassador, who lost his life to the disease in 2007. Kasea also shared the story of the loss of her father who also had MD.

Kasea was joined by Larry McCullough who told of his own experience with MD, diagnosed late in life as he readied himself for retirement from the work force. His wife Twila took the mic and explained that Muscular Dystrophy is not just a childhood disease—it strikes all ages, just as it did her husband. She shared the hardships they’ve endured since his diagnosis and described the help provided by the MDA in closing the gap between the less-than-complete insurance coverage and the out-of-pocket expenses required for his care.

They went on to tell about the life altering effects of the disease. Larry said, “It’s one thing to be preparing yourself for a life after retirement, making all the necessary arrangements to have a day when you no longer work, but then to have a doctor tell you, “Today is your last day of work…” his voice trailed off as he just shook his head. The clearly-moved, mostly-over-40 crowd was silent as the words sunk in.

Playing with fire
The small, historic town of Jamestown was blocked off to all but motorcycles, and the sight of all that iron against the old storefronts made the scene feel like a movie set as horseback-mounted law officers strolled the main street. Some local ladies took the opportunity to dress up as saloon girls to add a little Western flavor to the event, and one gentleman wore a holstered pistol along with his sheriff’s badge. Adding a different note, Jason Pullen tore up the blacktop as he wowed the crowds with his amazing motorcycle stunts.

In his ongoing effort to provide new thrills, Jason performed a first-time stunt on a dirt bike with an iron cage mounted to it, which he called the “Jason-go-round.” Unfortunately, Pullen forgot to fasten his safety belt and ended up being tossed out of his little cage. “Click it or crash it,” he laughed later. Luckily, he was uninjured and was able to repeat the stunt successfully in the second show. Whether he gets tossed on his duff or not, Jason Pullen is an amazing performer and always leaves the crowds in awe.

Just down the alley, the Echo chainsaw-carving team was wowing crowds with their woodcarving skills as they worked away at creating sculptures to be raffled off. Thom and Honore McIlhattan, former owners of the Vallejo H-D shop, won the high bid on a beautifully carved eagle; and the top sponsors of the SHR, Dave and Vicki Colombo, were given one of the carvings as a thank-you gift.

Street performers Brandi Slater and Kevin Axtel from Mountain Mischief turned the streets into their own personal playground as they juggled a variety of objects, including knives and food, while balancing on rolling objects, throwing burning sticks at each other, and warning children not to try this at home.

Under the shade of the tree-lined park in the center of town, bands like Shelly Streeter and the Sensations and Aquanett entertained the masses in between live auctions, raffle drawings and the much-anticipated Frisbee toss. Everyone loves the part of the day when Art and his clan toss out prize-labeled Frisbees to the crowd. It always turns into a free-for-all and is as much fun to watch as it is to participate. It usually turns into a contact sport for some of the more competitive folks. If that kind of rowdiness wasn’t one’s cup of tea, there was plenty of shopping around the town’s shops and a silent auction. And this year, a car show provided some gleaming examples of four-wheeled art.

Each year the day’s festivities are ended with the raffle drawing for a new H-D motorcycle, and this year, a very excited Anna Rodrigues from Gustine, California, took home the bright red 2009 Road King. She did, however, jokingly offer her husband a ride. As a passenger.

In speaking with Thunder Press, Art Mitchell shared, “We’re really happy with this event this year, especially in this economy. People were really generous. Last night our sign-ups were down but our revenues were up almost equal to last year. That means the dollars-per-person were up. People were making larger contributions.” He added that he was pleased to see many of their friends attending, including the folks from the H-D dealership “family.” Included were Thom and Honore McIlhattan, as well as Dave Dunlap from the Livermore dealership.

Linda Mitchell exalted, “I think having Karen Davidson and her husband Scott riding with us was really great.”

When asked about the Sierra Hope Ride number 16 in 2010, Art replied, “We don’t know what the venue will be next year.” The Mitchells advised that we “stay tuned” for complete details. (www.sierrahoperide.org, www.mda.org)

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