Why a Motorcycle Pilgrimage?

So why the 50faiths50states.com motorcycle pilgrimage? Why visit 50 different religious communities across the USA on a motorcycle and blog about it? Why try to start an interfaith social movement to inspire others to visit communities, take an interfaith adventure, go on a religious pilgrimage, and tell their story?

It may seem like an odd combination: religion and motorcycles.  But, it’s been done before.  Think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries isn’t as much a combination of religion and motorcycles, but it’s definitely one of the greatest motorcycle pilgrimages of all time, as Che seeks self-discovery and justice for Latin America.

But this is the first time it has been done in the interfaith arena (that I’m aware of).  My religious pilgrimage, upon my 2008 KTM Adventure 990, seeks understanding in our multifaith world of the 21st century.  As a deeply religious person, I have tremendous inspiration to explore other faith traditions, learn stories from different communities, and wrestle with my discoveries as it relate to my own faith.  I can then pass along this new wisdom to my own faith community.  Only when I am doing this, am I really living faithfully, I have found.

And I do it to reduce prejudice, misunderstandings, and injustice perpetuated by the lack of awarenes of our country’s religious diversity.  And I do it to tell the stories that aren’t told.  And I do it for spiritual transformation.

So where did I get the idea for this interfaith motorcycle pilgrimage?  Well, I guess you could say I grew up with it.  Or better yet, I was born into it.

Beginning at age five, basically as far back as I can remember, up until I was around 13 years old, I, with my mom, dad, and bro, went on a religious motorcycle pilgrimage every year.  It was one of the most transformative ways I experienced God and expressed my spirituality in these developmental years.

My parents, Ray and Mary Lou, were big motorcycle riders throughout their lives.  They raced pro and amateur motocross, hare scrambles, enduro, ice racing, trials, side-car, you name it, they raced it. They even won the amateur national championship in sidecar ice racing in Salina, Kansas. I can just imagine my mom, as the monkey, leaning way out over the sidehack, with her head all but scraping on the ice.

So naturally, when our local Presbyterian Church camp, Geneva Hills in Lancaster, Ohio, created a weeklong motorcycle trip as the final summer offering of the camp season, my parents didn’t hesitate to sign up the whole family.  My parents probably thought, “Combining the adventure of motorcycle riding with instilling good religious values for my children?  We are there!” Who wouldn’t love that?

So I was five and my brother was two the first year.  Mom threw me on the back of her Low Rider Harley and Dad threw my two year bro, Kyle, in the side car of his BMW boxer.  It was difficult getting Kyle in there at first, but when my dad put his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines in the the seat with him, Kyle turned into a most laidback motorcycle passenger, often falling asleep in the bottom of the car.

So we made the 40 minute ride to Geneva Hills.  As we turned into the gravel drive that began winding back into the wooded hills of Southern Ohio, we noticed several other bikes behind us.  We pulled up to the lodge and saw about 12 bikes total. All different makes: BMWs, Hondas, Kawasakis, Triumphs, Harleys, and Suzukis. Some of the riders were pastors, some were lay people, some were beginners, some were experts, some were retired, all were Christian–though many of us different kinds.

Later on, during the trip, as we all stopped at a scenic view pull-off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a passerby came up to talk to us.  If you know anything about motorcycle culture, almost always when there is a group of riders, they ride the same type of bike.  Harley riders ride together.  BMW riders ride together.  Honda riders ride together.  So this stranger approached us, and he noticed that we were all together, but all riding different brands of motorcycles.  He said, “You all must be Christian…because that’s the only way that a Harley rider would be caught dead with BMW and a Honda rider!” We all laughed, realizing the stereotyped truth behind his comment.  And that’s the first time I realized, something deeper than brand loyalty brought us together.  We were Christian. We cared about religion and spirituality.  Sure, we rode for the fun, the comradery, and the adventure.  But there was a deeper reason.  We were on a religious pilgrimage.

I remembering vividly that first night around a big table with a fire near by in the main lodge where everyone gathers for camp.  John and Fay Bachelder, were the directors of Geneva Hills, and big motorcycle riders themselves.  They gave an orientation for the week ahead: we were going to ride our motorcycle from Ohio down to North Carolina and back in a week.  And along the way we were going to stop at a different church camp or religious community at night.  They told us we participate inevening worship, lead prayers, and sing songs (Fay was an excellent guitar player). And that the point of the trip was to deepen our relationship with God, with each other, with the communities we visit, and with nature. The motorcycle was just the vehicle to achieve this more important end.

So that began 8 or 9 years of religious pilgrimages on a motorcycle.  And that began, at the age of five, the formation of the foundation of my spiritual essence–adventure (on a motorcycle). Our misfit motorcycle gang dubbed ourselves ‘Hills Angels,’ a less-than-comical combination of Geneva Hills Church Camp and the legendary Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang.  We rode from church camp to church camp, to religious community to retreat center.  We stopped, visited, and shared meals with Mormons in Ohio, Mennonites in Kentucky, and Methodists North Carolina.  We stayed at camps run by Seventh-Day Adventists New York, Presbyterians in Michigan, and Non-denoms in Iowa.  We even visited a Jewish camp in Pennsylvania  and a secular community in Virginia.  We saw the peaks of the Appalachian, the beaches of the Atlantic, the fury of Niagra Falls, and the towering dunes of Lake Michigan.

We met so many different people, heard so many inspiring faith stories, and saw so many new parts of God’s creation. We built lasting relationships and became family.  I learned to experience God through adventure.

It changed us and we were never the same.  That’s why I do my Christianity, my spirituality on a motorcycle. Because it’s in my bones.

That’s why I’m doing this 50 Faiths 50 States motorcycle pilgrimage.  I want adventure to change me…again.  And maybe, just maybe, if you let it, adventure could change you.


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