Bandanas shield faces and reduce the impact of particles from man-made dust storms one warm weekend in August. Rays splash against sand creating the mirage better known as the San Luis Rey River Valley in northern San Diego County, California. It is 86 degrees and even with clear skies the air fills with thunder from hundreds of v-twin engines that roar off of California State Route 76. Before the dust settles, the sounds of stretched kickstands and wailing radiators echo. Soon gravity returns the dust to where it belongs. Shadows form and attach to their tattooed hairy owners who wear vests with patches sewn tight.
To the uninitiated, a motorcycle rally can overwhelm the senses. The attendees and participants are intimidating to outsiders, but not all rallies are the same. One such rally that is known for its friendly atmosphere and prohibits outlaw motorcycle clubs from attending is the Pala Run. This year marks the 29th annual event, promising a fun-filled double overnighter, and it delivers for a modest entrance fee – $40 per couple, $30 for a single, and $20 for the Saturday pass. A portion of the funds goes to the Vietnam Veterans / Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club (VNV/LV-MC). The purpose of the VNV/LV-MC is to support its mission of the ongoing search for POWs / MIAs, but recently they added veteran suicide to their focus.
According to the 2018 VA National Suicide Report, there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016. That equates to just over 16 veteran suicides a day, not 22, as reported by many, including the Master of Ceremonies, who quotes the incorrect statistic at the Pala Run opening ceremony.*
The rally occurs on the Pala Indian Reservation right next to the casino. The area is usually occupied by reservation children during the school year. The community center in the southeast corner is a multipurpose facility but at the time of the Pala Run, it’s the command post. Unlike the stereotypes that depict motorcycle culture as lawless rebels, the organizers deserve logistical recognition. There’s designated parking with areas specifically for recreational vehicles (RVs) or campers, automobiles, and motorcycles. It is ADA accessible, sufficient and clean porta-johns, equipped with portable sinks and antibacterial soap.
A taco truck is parked next to the community center, boasting the best fish tacos in North County. There’s a row of pop-up canopies facing a performance stage, dusty dance floor and full bar. The stage has all the accoutrements – microphones, stands, drum kit, light towers, speakers and amps. There’s no evidence of trash on the floor because every thirty feet in any direction a 32-gallon trash can is available. When the trashcan nears capacity, the command post dispatches someone wearing black latex gloves like clockwork.
Independent vendors stay cool in the shade the pop-up canopies provide. T-shirts, motorcycle guardian bells, and other tchotchkes, cover up folding tables at their respective canopy’s edge.
One local resident vendor, Dan Lopez, is a leather artisan, dog trainer, and veteran from Oceanside. Dan, better known as Danger by his motorcycle club, served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2015. Danger was a Staff Sergeant in the infantry and is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He hides his face behind a beard and bushy hair. His shades rest atop his nose.
“I was in Haditha, Iraq.” He’s talking to anyone who’ll listen, as he carefully loops in shoestring leather through the holes of a knife sheath he made.
“We all know what happened in Haditha,” the smoke from the cigarette in his mouth billows.
“I lost my closest friend there when that rock and roll show happened. Those of us that made it back – guys got out. Some fucking guys lost it. Guys took their lives. Guys overdosed. We all shotgunned everywhere, man.” He finishes sewing perfectly cut leather together and shoves the blade into the sheath to check the fit. He does this a few times, until – as if scripted, the MC announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please rise for our National Anthem.” All face the flag, some salute; some take their hats off, but all pay respect from the first note to last.
Four volunteer veterans make up the Color Guard. They march off as Native Americans march in with a big drum. The drummers are led by Hercules, from the Apache tribe in New Mexico. His salt and pepper hair isn’t well hidden under his hat and shaded sunglasses. He is tall wearing a white shirt underneath a black leather vest tucked into jeans. He travels where he’s needed, from tribal ceremonies and celebrations to spiritual festivals and tribal councils. Hercules commands the beat with his mallet. The hypnotic pulse from the drum calls and everyone answers. Over three hundred folks, everyone in attendance, crowd around the drummers. The movements are purposeful and synchronized. The drum beats away any insecurity, eases anxiety, and welcomes those brave enough to experience it. This is the Pala Run.
*Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Mental Health & Suicide Prevention. Veteran Suicide Data Report, 2005–2016. September 2018. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/OMHSP_National_Suicide_Data_Report_ 2005-2016_508-compliant.pdf