Produced in Partnership with
Four Scouts as unique as their riders explore the landscape of New Mexico.
WORDS Adam Fitzgerald IMAGES Scott G. Toepfer INSTANT FILM Darwin Longfellow
Our first order upon landing in New Mexico is to meet up with our riding crew: record-setting Nitro Circus veteran, stunt rider, and entertainer Jolene Van Vugt and her friend Lee Dawn Hershey, an actor, model, and entrepreneur. Our other two riders are Taos, New Mexico locals: Ash Loveless, an art gallery-owner, barrel racer, and rodeo rider, and her friend Darwin Longfellow, a free-spirited artist and physician's assistant. Most of our group haven't met prior to today, though the camaraderie is palpable. Maybe it's the excitement of our mission to ride these new Indians to one of the most unique places on earth, or maybe Santa Fe's 7,000-foot altitude is causing slight delirium, but the term "fast friends" seems like an understatement.
Our video and production crew, our director/photographer (and long-time friend) Scott G. Toepfer, and yours truly are on a mission with Indian Motorcycle to put the new Scout touring accessory packages to the test. Our goal is simple: document four riders from Santa Fe to Alamogordo and catch sunrise over the dunes of White Sands National Park while taking in everything New Mexico has to offer along the way. And do it in three days.
The bikes are unassigned, so the riders select the motorcycle that speaks to them. Jolene commands the alpha-oozing Indian Scout outfitted with the State Line touring package: quick-release fairing, semi-rigid saddle bags, luggage rack, highway bars and pegs, upgraded seat, muffler kit, and the Pathfinder headlight previously reserved for the Indian FTR. Darwin takes the timeless County Line Scout with leather saddle bags, quick-release windshield, and solo luggage rack. Lee jumps on the scrappy Easy Rider-equipped Scout Bobber with a slick 2-into-1 exhaust kit, upgraded intake, 10" apes, and front and rear laced wheels. Ash hops on the low-key classic Transit Special Scout Bobber with upgraded Fox suspension, 2-into-1 exhaust, Pathfinder headlight, and low-profile saddle bags.
Ash and Darwin are the impromptu guides for the first half of our trip as we hit the road. We explore Abiquiu and its namesake lake in an area just an hour northwest of Santa Fe. It's in quiet places like Abiquiu – population: 231 — where seeds of doubt are sown around the busyness of daily life. Ash and Darwin have both lived in New Mexico for most of their lives. "Constantly, you're trying to decide: Do I want to stay in this place or do I want to move on? Especially as motorcycle people, we like to move on," Darwin laughs, "but I love watching the sunsets here. I love our seasons and I love our people. I love the art heritage that we have in Taos, specifically, and the diversity of cultures."
Darwin agreed to join this trip at the last minute. She just finished school to become a physician's assistant and has only a few weeks before starting her career. Her levity is an intoxicating beacon of positivity mile after mile, juxtaposed by the fierce confidence of someone who knows exactly who they are. "Growing up I was always sitting on the back of someone else's motorcycle. I decided I don't want to be at the mercy of someone else's decisions. And if something does happen, I want it to be something that I can be responsible for." Her professional and personal stance about life is based on giving back. "I feel like the world has given me so many generous opportunities," she tells us. "I've seen such beautiful things, and I want to reciprocate that. I want to bring light and smiles into rooms and I want to share with people when I treasure them."
Ash has been barrel racing since her teenage years — a rodeo event where horse and rider compete for the fastest time around a preset pattern of water barrels. "I guess I'm just kind of a product of the American West," Ash tells us. "I feel like I was born in the wrong time period; motorcycles, cowboys, rodeo — everything is just the ideal picture of the West. For me, it came easy because my mom was a horse girl, my dad was definitely a biker man. So I guess when those two got together, out came me."
Though the quietest of the group, Ash has an intimidating presence that is further confirmed when she tells us how, lately, she's been trying to rope wild deer from the back of a horse. But Ash is also the co-owner of the Robert L. Parsons Fine Art gallery, and her entire persona changes when she tells the story of Marjorie Eaton and Juan Mirabal, two artists from Taos whose love story was tragically cut short. Ash gave their story the ending it deserved by curating an exhibit of Eaton's works at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, where she serves on the board of directors. It's easy to stereotype Ash: a rodeo- and chopper-riding country girl who knows life on the farm and nothing else. But time spent with her is a fast lesson against stereotypes.
En route to Albuquerque, our riders use all of the Scouts' 1200cc's to jockey for position along the vacant mountain roads. Jolene’s natural tendency is to move at high speed, and even at the clip we're moving, the pace is not fast enough for her. Jolene has been riding motorcycles since she was 11. "Growing up, I just always thought, how can I ride motorcycles for the rest of my life?" She pursued that passion by competitively riding motocross, supercross, and endurocross; in 2005, Jolene met Travis Pastrana of Nitro Circus fame. Pastrana had been looking for a female rider who could learn how to back flip on a dirt bike. "With my stubbornness, my determination, commitment levels, and just really listening to what Travis told me, I was able to become the first woman to land a backflip." From that day forward, she became the first female of the official Nitro Circus crew. "I worked hard. I worked twice as hard a lot of the time, just because I didn't want to be the 'best' and I didn't want to be the 'best girl.' I just wanted to be part of the group."
Jolene continued to pursue action sports and also found a natural calling as a stunt woman in Hollywood, appearing in films such as The Dark Knight, where she rode the Batpod motorcycle as Catwoman's stunt double. She reflects on her time in Nitro Circus fondly, but in 2015, while training for a new performance, Jolene was launched off the side of a ramp at over 30 mph. She crashed violently into nearby scaffolding, shattering her forehead, nose, orbital socket, right arm, and jaw. Through several reconstructive surgeries, a plate, 17 screws in her right arm, rehabilitation, and her natural stubbornness, Jolene recovered to continue riding and performing. She has since heavily shifted her focus into a career in Hollywood.
"I really want to focus," she tells us, "especially since I had a really bad accident that almost took everything that I loved from me: motorcycles, the stunt industry, the possibility of walking down a set of stairs ever again. I've been very selective in doing stuff that makes me genuinely happy, and motorcycles do that for me."
Our time in Albuquerque is abrupt, stopping just for sleep and waking early with the goal of getting to White Sands by the mid-afternoon. We want to see the sun rise over the dunes, but typically the park is off-limits to the public during that time. After pulling some strings, our request is granted, but in order to make it happen, we are told we have to be at Alamogordo by 3 p.m. — not a minute later.
Every passing mile begs us to stop and take it in. The landscape of New Mexico is like stepping into a Sergio Leone western. But with a schedule in mind, we are relegated to preserving swaths of the massive landscape in our memory. We settle on making one stop for food and to stretch our legs in the town of Carrizozo. It's another place where simplicity has triumphed over the complicated lives we are used to. With a population of just over 900, the quiet main street has only a couple places to get a bite and a drink. Several people we meet mention that the coffee shop here was featured in the movie The Book of Eli, and from time to time, Carrizozo is used to shoot films. The barista's accent spurs a conversation about how he left England to move here for his wife; he couldn't be happier. On our way out, he makes sure to mention the bell on the door is the same one featured in The Book of Eli.
Down the street, Darwin and Lee find an empty playground and take to it like pent-up kids. Lee exudes energy, with a spirit of determination to become a successful actor and entrepreneur, and talks openly about growing up on a farm in Texas and the trials of being gender fluid — identifying as both male and female, but not one more than the other. Riding a 50cc motorcycle was one of Lee's biggest goals as a child. "I remember this moment my dad said, 'You know, if you can get it up against the house, and you can crank it and you can ride it, go for it. But once you lay it over, I'm not going to be there to pick it up. So you better find a tree.' And in that moment, it wasn't the fact that I was a boy or a girl. It was always a way for me to bond with my dad without him having to say, 'I have a daughter' or 'I have a son.'"
"Being able to be so fluid is really helping me bond with my father again. Because when I came out, I lost a lot of family," Lee chokes up. "I lost friends. Motorcycles have always been our main way of bonding. And it's crazy because it's a fucking machine, you know? And I'm not anybody else but myself, and who I am supposed to be on those two wheels. Nothing else matters when I am just cranking that throttle and going, and it makes me feel whole. I don't feel like I'm different than anybody else. I feel like I'm living in that moment, you know?"
Scott and I are in tears; It's an emotional moment we share on this trip. Who Lee is today is a culmination of incredibly harrowing moments; Lee is currently in the process of turning a particularly dark period of their life in Texas into catharsis through a film project titled Hi Pretty. "And that's where I find my drive and reason to do exactly what I'm doing and why I'm here right now; to be a light for someone that doesn't have these opportunities, but to know that they could have these opportunities if they tried. And to stop putting themselves in a box. 'Cause that's what we do too much. And you can't be in a box and on a motorcycle," Lee laughs.
We've lost track of time in Carrizozo, and a furious dash ensues to get to Alamogordo for our meeting with the park ranger. We're just miles away and we can hear the fighter jets before we even see them. A sign ahead reads: WARNING: Entering active test range. Areas potentially contaminated with explosive devices. Stay on the roads. Do not disturb any items. If items are found, call police.
After Pearl Harbor, the military established the White Sands Proving Grounds and the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. Today, they are respectively known as the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base. The Manhattan Project was developed here and the first test of the atomic bomb happened only 65 miles north. Regular missile tests cause the park to shut down weekly. It's an odd juxtaposition to the beauty and peace of White Sands when the neighbors are burning 130 octane jet fuel at mach speed and testing weapons of mass destruction.
We arrive with barely a second to spare. Veteran park ranger Kathy Denton is militaristic until she begins to warm up to us. She has a mother bear personality and White Sands is her baby. If we disobey one rule while we're shooting videos and photos tomorrow, we are out. White Sands, while appearing desert-like, is actually a quite delicate ecosystem of wildlife, cyanobacteria, and moving dunes. Kathy takes us on a park tour and allows us to walk the dunes and explore the area. The powder-soft gypsum sand dunes look like massive mounds of bright white snow, but the blazing sun indicates otherwise. It is the largest gypsum dune field in the world, formed over millions of years. We all lose ourselves a bit in this place. We've been inseparable for the better part of 72 hours, and the fast friendships make us like a bunch of crazed kids just let loose for recess. Darwin sleds down the edge of the dunes face-first while Jolene make sand angels. Lee gets a mouthful of sand when Jolene slides in to photo bomb a group shot; the laughter never stops.
Our final morning kicks off at 4 a.m. en route back to White Sands. Sunrise over the dunes is at 6:34 a.m. The white mounds of sand are more convincingly snow-like today, as it's a balmy 35 degrees out while we wait for the sun to warm our faces. It’s 6:02 a.m. and we’re grasping lukewarm cups of coffee for heat. Even with the cold, there's an air of excitement for what we've come to see, counting down the minutes until the sun rises on our final day.
Then discontentment floods in. Once we've completed this trip, these fast friends will part ways — possibly forever. As sure as the sun will rise, a reunion is no guarantee, no matter how much we convince each other we’ll make it happen. Standing in a place millions of years in the making, there’s some fleeting notion about the proverbial sands of time that is poignant ... if not a little too on-the-nose for my taste. This singular moment — one sunrise with fast friends — is a blip on the timeline of this place. Discontent shifts to gratitude as a thin sliver of gold crests the mountains, keeping this moment from slipping away like all too many other trips around the sun.