You know that movie scene where a straight-laced guy walks into a grungy bar, and tough-looking, muscled men with tattoos and leather jackets stop and stare? The jukebox suddenly freezes, billiards balls knock together as the players hover over the table, everyone dons that intimidating smirk and one thing is absolutely clear: The newcomer is unwelcome.
This is the stereotypical representation of motorcyclists and how I grew up thinking of them: Rough, gritty and mean. But as I have stepped further into that world, I’ve realized that none of those adjectives really apply. In my experience, motorcyclists – leather-clad and tattooed as they are – usually have the heartiest laughs and the biggest hearts of anyone around.
This past Sunday, I got to ride alongside hundreds of these motorcyclists in the Kruise for St. Jude, a group ride created by 95 KSJ that cruises from the Eastern Shore Center all the way to the Flora-Bama, raising funds and awareness for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. My boyfriend and I were excited: We always enjoy hopping on his motorcycle and taking a leisurely weekend ride to the beach or just around town when the weather feels nice. And with all the recent rain and cold temps, those trips have been few and far between. So of course, we signed up.
Sunday morning dawned chilly but bright, and as we surveyed the conditions for the ride, our goosebumps betrayed our excitement. As soon as I strapped on my helmet – which always makes me feel pretty cool – I got little butterflies in my stomach. We had never ridden in a group with other people, and other than our occasional Thursday nights playing pool at Bumpers, I had never interacted heavily with other motorcyclists. The aforementioned societal stereotypes filled my mind.
We arrived to the starting line two hours before we were to set off, and as we walked around and admired the other bikes, I felt all my anxieties and preconceived notions disappear. Though my pilot and I were definitely in the minority – with no leather or tattoos – we were welcomed with handshakes, smiles and neighborly conversation. We exchanged stories about previous rides, talked about each other’s bikes and experiences and generally just got to know all of the people around us. By the time the kickstands came up and the engines roared, we felt at home.
The nearly two-hour trip to the Flora-Bama kept me focused and alert in a way I never am in a car for that amount of time. Something about the thrum of a hundred engines in your ears and nature’s aromas surrounding you must have that affect. I recall looking out and watching as we passed beautiful homes, wild wisteria growing on the roadside, open pastures, calm lakes. Our police escort (one of the many improvements that the KSJ Kruise has grown into over the last decade and a half) stopped oncoming traffic. I watched people standing on their porches, smiling and waving, or at the ends of their driveways. People in the stopped cars along the road held camera phones aloft as what must have been a mile or more of motorcycles rumbled past. Even the horses stood motionless, watching with what seemed like awe as we rolled along.
In that engine-induced trance, I meditated on why we were there: St. Jude. I played old TV commercials through my head, thought about a high school friend who had benefited from St. Jude’s care, remembered family friends who had passed through the hospital’s doors. Donating to St. Jude means more than just funding research: It means easing the financial burden on families paying for treatment.
I pondered all this and so much more, thinking about what it means to truly empathize and care for others, to be thankful for the lot I’ve been doled, to take every second of your life and make it worth living, whatever that means to each person. And I don’t know that I came to any magnificent conclusion: I didn’t crack any universal mysteries or stumble upon the answer to everything that ever was. But asking yourself these questions and listening to your own answers is important: It’s what keeps you thinking and caring, what keeps you open-minded.
We arrived at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club just before 3 p.m., and for the next four hours had some good, relaxing fun. 95 KSJ booked two great musical gigs and walked about the crowd selling raffles and talking about why St. Jude rocks. It was a day of sunshine and laughs and good-natured mingling. My usually shy self chatted easily with the people around me. When we climbed back on the bike for the two-hour trek home, I felt like my day had been worth something.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why the Kruise for St. Jude struck me the way it did. Perhaps it was the mission of the organization or maybe the people around me were simply exceptional. But what I think really did it? The community around Mobile area motorcyclists. Riding side by side with hundreds of men and women who love the feeling of rushing air on their face and the roar of an engine in their ears and who feel passionately about this cause invigorated me in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. Motorcycle gangs aren’t scary, or mean, or really even gritty. They’re people. And for as many different kinds of motorcycles out there (and there are tons), there’s a driver. No two are the same, and that’s what makes them so amazing.
I encourage you to click the link below and consider donating to St. Jude. Anything at all. The Kruise may be over, but the fight is not. My thanks to Bill Black with 95 KSJ for helping me better understand the mission of the Kruise. Thank you also to the rest of the 95 KSJ team for their dedication in keeping this event going for 14 years, for ensuring that people are safe in the midst of their fun (there hasn’t been a single injury or fatality in the Kruise’s history), and for giving people a unique opportunity to contribute to our community, in Mobile and beyond.
Text and photos by Chelsea Wallace