This book came into the world much as its author did—unexpectedly but not at all unwanted.
In May 2010, I took my new Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide, black and chrome with orange flames on the fuel tank, over eight thousand miles around the continental United States from and back to the Washington, DC, area to mark the end of three decades of civil– military service inside (and sometimes outside) the US Army as a Civil Affairs officer. On my last day in the military I wanted to be whe. . .
Moving a Divided Nation Forward, Two Wheels at a Time
“Washington is not going to fix America; America is going to fix America. People here have more power to change their country than they may otherwise believe. The sooner enough of us act upon the common sense notion that we do better for ourselves when we do better for each other, the country again moves forward in meaningful way.” Welcome news in uncertain times.
You can’t reach that conclusion, retired colonel Christopher Holshek noted in a Huffington Post article, on talk shows, news programs, or social media, but only through “real, human connectivity in an alienated, narcissistic, and atomized society.” For him at least, this realization got started with a motorcycle ride.
His thirty-year career ending, the Army Civil Affairs veteran took off on his Harley-Davidson for an 8,000 mile adventure across the United States. Inspired by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, he went out to find out what it means to be an American in today’s world, soon finding himself on a mental and spiritual journey of rediscovery. “When I took at look at the country I served to mark my military retirement in 2010, I came to realize that the future of our nation constantly depends on each one of us, in every generation, taking our own journey to find out who we are, what we’re about, and what we’re willing to do to face the challenges of our times. So, after some prompting, I wrote the book.”
Far more than a motorcycle diary, Travels with Harley – Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity is a stirring memoir that retired Marine General James Mattis has called “an antidote to pessimism and a reminder of what makes life worth living.” Only through service to others, it concludes, can Americans of all ages find their identity by stepping up to national and global citizenship, starting in their own communities.
As a divided nation ponders its future and find its way in the aftermath of a pivotal election, this positive and empowering message couldn’t be better timed or more needed. Travels with Harley, former Center for a New American Security executive vice president Kristen Lord, is “a must-read for those thinking about the future direction of America and what they can do about it.”
But writing the book wasn’t enough. The native of New York’s Lower Hudson Valley is taking its timely and broad-based message on the road. The National Service Ride leverages motorcycling’s appeal to freedom, adventure, and moving forward to promote citizenship and service, starting right at home.
“When we become better citizens, we become a better country – because, when you serve your community, you serve your country," Holshek tells his audiences. “It doesn’t require a uniform.”
Funded through book sales, it is an adaptable platform for discussions at schools and other places on service learning are organized between rider clubs and service organizations in communities around the country. Interactive discussions across generational and societal lines aim to help America’s youth see the meaning and value of helping themselves best by helping others, showing them pathways to local, national, international service learning. Encouraging and empowering young people to do good work and help solve common problems, starting in their own communities, also helps them improve their qualifications for personal advancement, helping them to build leadership and teambuilding skills.
A national narrative of service that transcends differences fosters a collaborative mindset, he contends, establishing empathy for real common ground for much-needed civil dialogue on matters inexplicable in 140 characters. Service to others helps develop the internal moral GPS each us needs to navigate a complex, dynamically interconnected, and information overloaded world, discerning fact from fiction. It would also go far to make the country less vulnerable to mass media manipulation and the politics of fear and ignorance played out daily in the obsessive reality show of terrorism, distrust of police and other forms of government. Moreover, it closes numerous engagement gaps and combats a culture of fear and unfounded entitlement, narcissism, and impunity – and the isolation on many levels that goes with it.
“America cannot long remain the land of the free if it’s no longer the home of the brave,” he warns.
Beyond promoting an empowering sense of national unity, the Ride also looks to help pass the baton of generational leadership. The initiative’s locally organized events to promote ongoing dialogue between service veterans from many walks of life who are looking for ways to give back and youth looking for ways to pay it forward. At high schools, colleges, and other places, local service-oriented motorcycle clubs and community, public, and national service organizations are facilitating conversations across generational and societal lines about citizenship and service – all enhanced and extended by mass and social media.
Besides revitalizing citizenship along the lines of thinking globally and acting locally, the project helps close civil-military gaps. Each event starts with a “Mindful Moment of Gratitude,” courtesy of Armor Down, in which the audience reads the names of local veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11, in order to connect citizens with soldiers and create a more universal sense of service and sacrifice. “If civilians truly wish to honor veterans, police, firefighters, first responders and others in uniform that put their lives on the line on their behalf, then they should strive to make this a country worth the sacrifice of those they emulate much less than they admire. They need not go far, for there are myriad ways to become citizens as responsible to neighbors as to nation – patriotism being something you do and not just say.”
The reaching out goes both ways. Uniformed veterans in particular have a critical role to play. “’Our mission,’ I tell other veterans sharing a privileged place of veneration, ‘is not complete until we’ve explained to our youth what service and sacrifice has meant to us. What they do with our hard-earned wisdom is up to them, but this much at least we owe them.’”
To test and refine his concept and get the wheels rolling, Holshek has already made several appearances this past year. After appearing at schools in New York and New Jersey in the spring, he visited others in Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia, including Kennesaw State University, where he opened a discussion on building peace locally and globally co-hosted by the United Nations Association and TRENDS Global. Since then, his book has become a student text for at least two classes there. In nearby Clarkston, a major refugee resettlement hub in metropolitan Atlanta, he presented at a Career & Education Fair with Refuge Coffee and other community service initiatives. “I got to see America at its best,” he observed.
In addition to service-oriented organizations like TRENDS Global, retired General Stanley McChrystal’s Service Year Alliance, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, as well as GoodWorld, a highly acclaimed crowdfunding initiative for non-profits, the project is resourcing motorcycle clubs like the Harley Owners Group, BMW Motorcycle Owners Association, American Motorcyclists Association, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Riders Clubs – all with many military, police, and other service veterans.
For these like-minded groups, the Ride provides an informal thematic coordinating platform that enables them to more closely leverage each other on events and initiatives in their own areas independently – from the bottom up rather than the top down. It also extends their own platforms and initiatives in a unique and highly visible way – helping to boost awareness, membership, volunteerism, and fundraising.
Holshek thinks his message – and his initiative – can gain traction with most Americans regardless of political or social following. “This is going to be as big as people want it to be,” he adds. “After all, America is in and of itself a composite of individual journeys. We’ll start off in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands – and see how big a dent we can make. And help put the Unum back in e pluribus Unum.”