Why I Ride

by Kenny Willis - Executive Producer

Kenny Willis on his Indian Roadmaster in Garberville, Ca.

Back in 1970 when you got your learners permit at age fifteen and a half, you could ride a motorcycle without a passenger. Growing up in the rural, Redwood country of Northern California, transportation was important, because if you didn’t have wheels you were confined to school and your own yard. The Southern Humboldt School district served the area from Piercy, in Northern Mendocino County, to Weott about fifty miles north. Most of my friends lived miles from me and I needed wheels. So, as soon as I turned fifteen I took a job after school washing dishes in the restaurant where my sister worked. I thought the job was beneath me but I put in four hours a night and eight hours on Saturday all winter. As soon as I passed my written drivers test I bought myself a 350 Honda Scrambler. It was gold with side pipes, and as far as I was concerned, it was the fastest and coolest bike on the road. I rode all over that summer; out to Alderpoint, up to Weott, down to Piercy. It was pure excitement and freedom. A bunch of guys had those 350 and 450 Hondas. A few guys had 750 Triumphs and BSAs. One guy had a 650 Norton. A lot of times we road together in a pack. I don’t think anybody considered us a biker gang. We were just the guys in the neighborhood doing our thing. There were girls that liked our thing too. As soon as I turned sixteen and got my drivers license so I could carry a passenger, I got a girlfriend. She was a long-legged, long-haired beauty and we were together every minute. I picked her up for school on my bike and we road around visiting friends and smoking weed and drinking beer after school. Life couldn’t be any better. Until she told me that she didn’t want to see me anymore because I drank too much. Huh? Who wanted a girl that didn’t like to drink anyway? I was pissed for sure, but I’d get over it. I tied a sleeping bag and a back pack on my bike and headed up the Oregon coast to my sister’s place in Washington. I figured a long ride would clear my head, and I was right. I spent a few weeks exploring around the Columbia Gorge with my brother-in-law's niece, who was a few years older than me, then I headed back home to Humboldt as self confident as ever. The Volkswagen Bugs were popular in those days. The gang would ride the bikes and a few people would drive the bugs with the beer, camping gear, weed, mescaline and what ever else we were digging at the time. Off we’d go, out to Fort Bragg for the weekend or over to the Ruth Rodeo. The Petrolia Fireman’s barbecue was always a good time and a good ride up over Wilder Ridge. Life was great! There was lots of work in the sawmills and logging woods. We were free. Free to work and play and fall in love and run around and just generally have a great time. Oh, of course there was heart break and there were fights. Occasionally there was an accident, and sometimes somebody died. We mourned together and comforted one another and rode in procession to the grave yard to grieve. But grief was short. The best thing for grief or heart ache or sorrow was to get out and ride! Life waits for no man. Get on board or get left behind. It must have been about 1977 that a bunch of old farts started meeting out in front of my house in Cooks Valley to put together a motorcycle “RUN”. They called themselves the Kiwanis. I didn’t know what they were about, but they’d show up with a case of beer, maybe a bottle of whiskey and a bag full of steaks. Once a week they’d cook steaks, drink beer and plan this “Redwood Run”. It sounded like fun and man did it turn out to be. There were about 300 bikes at that first run, and they were Harleys! Really cool choppers and custom painted pans and shovels. I knew I wanted one of those bad ass V-Twins. They sounded so tough, deep and throaty. They looked totally cool, with ape hangers and tear drop tanks, upsweep pipes and sissy bars. My first Harley was a 1998 Classic. Bagger. My dream bike. Black. Bone stock. It came with everything it needed. It was an eighty inch Evo with thunderhead pipes. Enough saddle bag and tour pack storage for my girlfriend to bring all of her stuff for a weekend get away to Reno or Yosemite or anywhere we wanted to venture out to. There was even enough room in those bags for me to take an extra pair of socks and underwear. Ha Ha. I rode that classic for twelve years and I loved every mile of it. Sometimes with a lady and a lot of times alone I went where I wanted and did what I wanted. I remember when my fiancée and I decided not to marry. I knew it was the right decision but it was still a huge disappointment. I headed out on a ride to Tucson to find my daughter-in- law and try to talk her into going into treatment. I figured some time away and doing something good for someone else would help me past it. It always did. If there is a speed limit in Arizona nobody knows what it is. I was rolling up the Ten at about 85 miles an hour when a semi truck flew past me! He had to be doing well over ninety. He rolled into the lane in front of me and all of a sudden, maybe fifty feet in front of me, something appeared from underneath his trailer. It was just about dark but I made out the object as a bail of hay! I got on the brakes, but I knew I was going to hit it. I was pretty sure I was going to die. I just got off the brakes and hit the throttle. Much to my amazement, when I hit the bail of hay it just flew apart and I blasted right threw it. I guess when the truck hit it the bands must have broken and loosened it up. When I came through the other side my heart was pounding so hard it made my head hurt. I started slowing down and pulling to the side of the rode. All of a sudden I just started busting up laughing. That’s when it hit me! I’m the luckiest guy in the history of human-kind and God is always smiling on me. There was no explanation why I should be alive right then, but there I was, without a scratch, laughing my ass off on the side of the road.

And it wasn’t just this incident. It was my whole life. To be born in Humboldt County in 1955 and to have grown up with the coolest cars, the best music, the most fun culture, best friends and family. To have found my niche and lived my life happy and free. Why me Lord? I don’t know, but thanks. You keep smiling on me and I’ll keep smiling back. I pulled in the clutch and kicked 'er into gear and headed on to Tucson. The daughter-in-law did go into rehab. I could have bought a new bike for what it cost but it was well worth it. Besides, I had the bike of my dreams. It was close to ten years later that I bought Santa Rosa V-Twin. Don, the guy I bought it from had retired from the phone company and started a custom shop. He built some really nice bikes over the years. There was never a Harley Dealership available for sale so Don was the dealer for every other V-Twin Bike company that ever came and went. He was the Saxon dealer, he was the California Motorcycle dealer, he was the Big Dog dealer. He was even one of the principle investors in the Gilroy Indian Motorcycle Company. He probably sold more Indian Motorcycles out of that shop in Santa Rosa than any other shop in America. I loved those Gilroy Indians, but alas like all the other V-Twin brands they went broke and out of business too. There was word that Polaris Industries had bought the Indian name and was in the process of engineering an all new Indian motorcycle. They were already making the Victory, and Don was the dealer. My cherished Harley-Davidson Classic went to my daughter and son-in-law and I became a Victory Cross Country rider. The color was called Anti-Freeze. The bike performed like nothing I had ever owned with a hundred horse power 106 inch V-Twin and a six speed. Don had always ridden on Sunday with as many bikes that wanted to join him. Sonoma County has miles of great riding roads; Out to Bodega Bay, over to Calistoga, up to Cloverdale and out to Gualala. I missed my friends up in Humboldt, in fact I traveled back home at least once a month, but I had a great life in Santa Rosa. One year a bunch of my buddy’s from up in Humboldt were headed for Laughlin. I had never been to the Laughlin Run and I had always wanted to go. My son, who was now riding possibly one of the nicest Street Glides in Humboldt County, was going and I decided to ride along. My girlfriend didn’t want to go so I threw a couple of changes of close and a shaving bag in the saddle bags and hit the road. There’s something about riding with a group of ten or fifteen bikes. Most are always your buddies, some are a few that you kind of know, and some you’ve just met, but it’s always something familiar and yet something new. To ride with a pack somehow makes you feel like you're a part of something bigger than yourself. The fun and laughter at the piss stops, and ya, even the bickering bullshit that frequently happens along the way...just to see the way that the group comes to a decision about where to eat, which path to take or what bar to stop at. That’s what it is to be part of something. And if you want to peel off on your own for a bit and meet up later, no one gets butt-hurt, that’s just part of the deal. We are individuals, loners, but we are a part of... we belong. Saturday morning at Laughlin everybody decided to ride up to Kingman and back through Oatman. The new Indian Demo truck was set up down in the parking lot of the Colorado Bell and I wanted to check it out, so I decided to meet up with them for lunch in Oatman. When I got to the demo truck I realized I had left my helmet up in the room, so I bought one of those novelty scull caps. I got to ride them all, the Scout, the Chief and the Roadmaster. I decide that I would have one of those Roadmasters with the new Polaris engineered 111 Thunder Stroke and all of the rest of the new technology including heated seats and hand grips, but all of the classic Indian sheet metal. It was a real beauty. After the test ride I headed out to Oatman on my Cross Country. The helmet law only applies in Nevada. As soon as you cross the bridge into Arizona there is no helmet law. I figured I would stop and stick that little skull cap in my saddle bag and let my hair blow in the breeze like I had done when I was a kid, before the helmet law went into effect in California. Just a few miles up the road on the Arizona side, when I came through Fort Mohave, I was cruising along in the left lane of a two lane road, when I saw a cop at the stop sign to my right. I glanced down at my speedometer to make sure I wasn’t exceeding the forty-five mile an hour speed limit. When I looked back up at the road, to my surprise and complete amazement, the cop had pulled right out in front of me in his Ford Expedition. I got on the front and rear brakes! I had never been so grateful to feel the anti-locks kick in, keeping me from going into a skid, but still I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to stop. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder how bad this is going to be?’ The next few seconds are forever etched in my mind like a series of snapshots in a slide show. I leaned the bike to the right to see if I could get around behind him, but there was no hope. The distance between us had closed in way too quickly. I felt my front tire hit his drivers side door, throwing me sideways. Our eyes made contact for just a moment and I could see the absolute horror in his face. I felt like he would have changed seats with me right then. He knew what an awful mistake he had just made. I felt my knee being crushed between that V-Twin and his car door as the crash bar collapsed.

It’s funny how this all happened in slow motion in my mind and I can remember every little detail.

I felt my arm slamming against the door and felt the impact crush my ribs on the left side. Then that little scull cap of a helmet that I hadn’t stopped to pull off yet, smashed the glass out of his drivers side door window. That’s the last thing I remember, the sound of that glass shattering. I woke lying in the middle of the street, with a woman kneeling above me looking down into my face, with her hands on both sides of my head, holding it steady. “You're going to be O.K. You’ve been in an accident but you're going to be O.K.” she was saying, but she sounded so far away. I was trying to lift my head to look around and see what was going on but she held me steady and still. “Don’t try to move. The ambulance is on the way.” I could feel someone holding my legs steady. It turned out to be her husband, who was an EMT. They were in the car behind the cop when he pulled away from the stop sign and out in front of me. They had seen the whole thing. I had a compound fracture on my left leg and he was holding it so the bone wouldn’t grind against my flesh. Somehow the lady found my cell phone in my shirt pocket and opened it and redialed the last number I had dialed. Of course it was my girlfriend, who was back in Santa Rosa. I heard her say “No ma’am, it’s not Kenny. Kenny’s been in an accident, but he is going to be alright. Do you want to talk to him?" I remember the relief I felt that she hadn’t been on the bike with me. We always rode together. Everywhere. But this time she hadn’t wanted to go. And I was so glad. I couldn’t have bared hurting her this bad! After forty-two years of riding without a scratch, there I was lying in the middle of the road busted up so bad I would never completely heal from it. I had gotten slowed down to probably 25 miles an hour before I hit that police car, but I can tell you that human bodies are just not made to take that kind of impact. It would be two months before I was able to walk on crutches and eight months before I could walk with out them. My right shoulder hurt for at least two years after the accident from where it had been jammed when I my bike bounced off the expedition and I slammed into the ground. The surgeon that put me back together at Sunrise Trauma center, where I was air lifted to in Las Vegas, said when he opened my knee up he just had to vacuum out the bone shards. He screwed a piece of cadaver bone on the cup that my knee bone rides in. It felt like I went from being a healthy, active, mature male to being an old man in the split second it took my bike to collide with that police Expedition. In spite of all the pain and all the long months of physical therapy and the scars and steel the doctor left behind in my knee, eight months later, as soon as I could throw my leg over the seat of the Victory Eight Ball I had sitting on my showroom floor, I was trying to balance it off of it’s kick stand to see if I could hold it up. And as soon as I could hold it up, I took it for a ride downtown. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be nervous or gun shy. I wanted to make sure I was still going to be able to ride. It took me years to settle the lawsuit with Mohave County, but my insurance at the shop paid off on my bike right away. The new Indians came out in 2015 and Dons friend Ray down at Hollister Motor Sports, who had been one of his partners in Gilroy Indian, made me an excellent deal on a Ruby Red Roadmaster. Even before I got the Indian, the year after the accident, while I was still on crutches, still pretty wobbly, I went up to the Redwood Run. Everybody was so happy to see me, especially the guys that had ridden down to Laughlin with my son and I. Those guys that had circled up at the strip club next door to the hospital because only family members were able to visit me in the emergency room. They enjoyed the sympathy lap dances they got from the girls and they had paraded them all outside to wave a big send off to me in the helicopter as I was being flown off to Vegas. But now I was finally home, back at the Redwood Run, our own hometown run that had been started in my front yard in Cooks Valley, now making its home at the Riverview Ranch in Piercy, a few miles down the road. The Run had become an annual pilgrimage over the past forty years for some five thousand bikers, with headliners like George Thorogood whaling out Bad to the Bone, Bad Company, Thirty Eight Special, Joan Jett and the Doobie Brothers. I had made it! While a little worse for the wear I lived to ride again. To be part of something bigger than myself. To enjoy life and freedom, fun and camaraderie. People ask me now, mostly people that don’t ride, “Kenny, why? Why after such a terrible accident would you get back on a bike? Why Kenny, why do you ride?” I ride because I want to. I ride because I can. I ride for the love of riding. I ride for romance and excitement. I ride to be free. I ride to clear my head and cleanse my soul. I ride to heal my broken heart and get on with my life. I ride to be with friends and have fun. I ride to meet new people and make new friends. I ride for the feeling of power and the sound of a V-Twin roaring down a long and winding road. I ride to remind me of my place in this world. I ride for the smell of nature and feel of wind in my hair. I ride to feel alive and free, because while I’m alive I want to live life to it’s fullest or die trying. My son K.C. And I, along with a group of wonderful, dedicated volunteers have been given the great honor by the Kiwanis of the Redwoods to produce the historic Redwood Run. If you relate to why I ride, if you are part of the heritage of this two-wheeled pilgrimage or if you yearn to be a part of something bigger than yourself, if you love fun and great music, or if you just want to clear your head and cleanse your soul, or heal your broken heart, then join us this year at the 42nd annual Redwood Run. Let’s continue the tradition and build new memories.

If you are a part of that younger generation, like my son, that hold the hope of the future, grab your old man and your old lady and join us. The Redwood Run is coming back to Southern Humboldt this year. We’ll be at the Richardson Grove Campground next door to the world famous Richardson’s Grove State Park, in the heart of the Redwoods. We’re back where it all began. This year, after many years of struggle and strife the world-renown Redwood Run is on the Road Home. It promises to be a great weekend of fun and excitement with friends old and new. Whether there’s three hundred of us or five thousand we’re going to show the world why we ride, why we come together in a spirit of unity and respect and enjoy our freedom and have one hell of a good time. I’ll see you there.

Get out and ride!

Kenny W on a pit stop during a group ride.

#redwoodrun #getoutandride #whyIride #RespectUnityFreedomAndOneHellOfAGoodTime #TheRoadHome #traditions


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