2016 Vets Rally in Review

By Tim Anderson – Southwest Scooter News • www.scooternews.us

CCR 7292-640Like so many times before, the cool crisp mountain air along Colorado highway 67 had a slight bite to it. Not the nasty kind of bite, but the kind that reminds you you’re alive and riding a motorcycle on one of the prettiest rides in Colorado.

The road was full of bikes on this morning—August 20, 2016—all heading to the same place for the same reason: Cripple Creek, Colorado, to be part of the 24th Annual Salute To American Veterans.

The bite of the morning air at altitude and the peaceful putt up and over 10,200-foot Tenderfoot Pass washed away most of the cares and troubles that might be following riders into the cloud-shrouded valley that is home to Cripple Creek and the most unique bike rally in the country. By the time riders rolled into the old mining town, their focus was solidly on the mission of the weekend saluting and honoring United States Military veterans like happens in no other place.

“The rally has a life of its own,” said organizer Jim Wear. “ All we do is make sure all the right elements are here to make a proper rally…the people who come here year after year, and for the first time, are what make this such a great event.”

SAV-300Cripple Creek Police estimated the crowd in town at between 30,000 and 40,000 people. Better than 3,000 motorcycles rolled in as part of the miles-long 29th annual POW/MIA Recognition Ride that rolled into town at the end of the Veterans Parade. Well-wishers, area residents, and patriotic spectators filled the sides of Bennett Avenue, the main drag through tiny Cripple Creek. The crowd greeting the riders had the same feeling of excitement that has come to be an integral part of the Cripple Creek Rally experience. The hoots, hollers and cheers were enthusiastic—as if welcoming heroes. The bikes barked back with customary thunder. The town was in celebration mode as the rally kicked off in earnest.

The streets of the mountain berg were lined with bikes, and the main drag—Bennett Avenue, was filled virtually wall to wall with people milling about. Vendors were busy, other people stopped to chat with old friends, and of course, casinos saw a serious uptick in traffic through their doors. It was the busiest weekend of the year in Cripple Creek.

But it was the remembrance ceremony in City Park that was the main attraction Saturday afternoon. Lest the ceremony get too heavy, which it easily can for some in attendance, when Dave Bray performed the National Anthem, he had an unplanned accompaniment…a local dog began yipping and howling a bit as Bray delivered a fine rendition of the anthem. The canine antics were a source of stifled snickers and some irritated expressions, but hey—it’s Cripple Creek.

SAV16 Gazette-700Without a doubt, the highlight of the day was an address from the oldest living survivor of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, 103-year-old Jim Downing, who was assigned to the USS West Virginia when it was struck that day.

“We had Jim here last year and he was a little iffy about coming,” Wear said. “He had a great time, and very humbly asked if we’d have him back again this year. Naturally, we said yes. This year, Commander Downing said he wanted to take part in everything the rally had to offer…and he did. He didn’t miss anything and loved every minute.”

Before he dove into the rally though, Downing addressed the crowd in City Park. He delivered a message of vigilance and perseverance, honor and commitment. Seventy years on, he had not forgotten a single lesson of Pearl Harbor or its aftermath. He drew parallels to current events, and urged us all to do what we can to keep our nation strong…not to be complacent. The lesson was learned once he said, that was enough.

“Remember Pearl Harbor,” he said. “Keep America Strong.”

It’s hard to find a more fitting voice for that message.

Then it was time to surprise the proud Navy vet.

“We had a replica civil war naval cutlass (sword) engraved for him,” Wear said. And we asked Marine Colonel Don Davis, the ranking Marine at NORTHCOM to present it. He said he was sincerely honored to do it.”

group-300During the presentation, the NORAD/NORTHCOM Honor Guard, led by a staff Sergeant with a healthy Marine bark, formed ranks and any vet who wanted to was invited to join the formation for the presentation. While there were many vets who fell in, the Devil Dogs MC—Marines all—were specifically called out, and formed up perfectly. It was quite a sight.

After the sword presentation, CDR Downing removed the cutlass, and presented a salute to the assembled platoon, a fierce pride in his eyes, and a lone tear rolling down his cheek.

p51-250Downing spent the rest of the weekend fully involved in the rally, keeping that cutlass by his side the entire time.

As another keynote speaker and former Vietnam POW Colonel Elmo Baker, addressed the crowd, he was interrupted by the roar of a P-51 Mustang piloted by Joe Thibodeau.

“That’s the sound of freedom right there,” Baker said. “I love it!”

Other speakers included John “Tig” Tiegen, one of the survivors of the Benghazi attack, friend of the rally Colonel (Ret) Mike Kasalas, and others.

SAV16-pro  0089-900

NW-350The Northern Wind Native Dancers of the Sioux Nation, returned, performing traditional dances honoring warriors and their bravery. It was patriotic, culturally on target, well received, and very much admired and appreciated. Some of the dancers learned about dancing hard at altitude, but sucking a little wind didn’t slow them down. They had a mission, too.

Then it was time for the business of the rally to kick into high gear. While the sound of bikes echoed off the mountainsides, there were tunes-a-plenty in the beer garden, Bands 6035, Some People’s Kids, Donovan Lee, Ryan Chrys & the Rough Cuts and Ryan Weaver all kept a solid soundtrack going. All while vendors and casinos did a bang-up business.

Up at Cripple Creek High School some folks made their way to the Traveling Wall, where private moments were on display without shame. It was part of the healing, cathartic atmosphere that is rally weekend in Cripple Creek. One veteran, wishing to remain unnamed, said the rally has long helped vets in many ways, but this year it helped his wife. She lost her father, a veteran, shortly before the rally, and attending this year truly helped her with closure, he said. He then said they would be back next year.

dude-350“We hear stories like that every year. This rally has always been its own little world,” Wear said. “Over the years we’ve somehow managed to start building bridges between different groups without intentionally doing it. It just happens when the people who come to this rally get here. We just provide a path into this special little place that’s been created for a few days, and people step into it and are usually changed. And it’s always a good time.”

This is not a case of bikers “adopting” a town for a weekend. Cripple Creek—the town, the area, the people—are as much a part of the Vets Rally as anyone who rides up to take part.

And that is special. Very few communities are willing to become so integrated with an event like this.

“We’ve been saying it for years,” Wear explained. “The people who come to Cripple Creek get it—they understand what this is all about.

Everything is different about this rally…it’s a special thing. While the city has been supportive, and I know they get it, every year they show everyone they truly are a part of the special atmosphere and change that happens there every August. They really step up…they know how important this is and what it means to so many people because it means the same to them.”


Last Updated on Friday, 11 August 2017 16:29