From dreams of being like Evel Knievel to making dreams come true for kids
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Charity Rider John L. Gurley highlights the importance of being a part of something larger than himself.
Growing up on a rural farm in eastern North Carolina, John L. Gurley learned the value of hard work at a very young age. John’s family grew tobacco, corn, wheat and beans as well as raised horses and tended 200-300 cows at a time. Every day, he had to complete odd jobs around the farm – doing a little bit of everything to help things run smoothly. John even said that he was “driving a tractor like a grown man by the time he was 11 years old.”
After a long day of work on the farm, John would find solace on two wheels with the wind in his face. He always admired the older guys who worked on the farm because they had motorcycles. “I thought they were as cool as cool could be,” said John. “And I wanted to be just like them.”
They would take John for rides during downtime on the farm and he quickly fell in love with freedom found on two wheels. He begged and begged his parents for his own bike and finally got one at age seven – a little, three-speed Chibi by Rockford. According to John, he thought “he was Evel Knievel riding that thing.” To him, Evel Knievel was as cool as Elvis Presley. “Whatever I saw Evel Knievel do, I thought I could do the same thing,” said John. “And being on the farm, we had plenty of room and stuff to make ramps and jumps out of, so I thought I was Evel Knievel and I’ve still got the scars to prove it.”
Fast forward to John’s adult life, and motorcycles still provide him with an escape from life’s stressors as well as an outlet for mindful thinking, prayer and creative ideas. In addition to this therapeutic escape, John is now able to combine his passion for riding motorcycles with his generous heart for giving back to children. “I’ve always had a love for children,” said John. “I have a real soft spot in my heart for them.”
He credits his passion for helping kids to one specific memory of a little boy he met at church: “I remember years ago, we had an outdoor walking drama at church and my job was to be a tour guide,” said John. “One night, some children who all had different handicaps came to participate in the festivities and I had a young, African-American boy – probably 12 to 14 years old – in my tour group who was both mentally and physically handicapped.” At the time, John was in his early to mid-twenties and vividly recalls the impact this boy had on his life as he pushed him around the outdoor church drama. “I just kept wondering and thinking to myself, ‘Why have I been so blessed and so lucky in my life?’ Growing up, I could play any sport and I was good at it – football, baseball, basketball, horseback riding, skiing, waterskiing, etc. – I could do anything that I wanted to,” said John. “But this kid would never get the opportunity to do the things that I was blessed to be able to do and it’s of no fault of his own.”
This experience formed a lasting impact on John’s life and inspired him to help children have life-changing experiences as much as he could. So when John was made aware of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America and its mission to send kids to Victory Junction, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to do something to help kids who deserved it most and he wanted to do something beyond himself. “I have the philosophy that there are generally two kinds of people in the world – givers and takers,” said John. “When my life is over, I would like to be looked back upon as someone that gave more than they took.”
John joined the Ride in 2014 and has continued to participate every year since. He even had a revelation on the Ride similar to the one had during his time with the young boy at the outdoor church drama. “We were riding across South Dakota in the freezing rain. I remember the wind was blowing and somehow the rainwater started going up, inside my pants, drenching my socks inside my boots. My feet were so cold,” said John. “I began to
have a pity-party in my head about how cold I was, and almost as soon as I had those negative thoughts in my head, I was slammed with the realization of how blessed I actually was. I thought about the kids that I was riding for – specifically those that are paralyzed – who just wish they could feel their feet and the cold water running down their legs.” After that thought, John’s attitude instantly changed. He was so much more grateful that he could feel those things and that he was blessed to be able to ride a motorcycle, no matter the weather – because riding in the rain fails miserably in comparison to what the kids at Victory Junction experience every day of their lives.
“Some people think that riding a motorcycle won’t change the world, and that’s true,” said John. “But for that kid that gets to go to Camp, you have changed their world.” According to John, making a difference is not reserved for the famous few. There is no rule that you must be super wealthy or a celebrity to make a difference in someone’s life. “Any one of us can make a difference in someone’s life if we really want to,” said John. “And that’s what I want to do.”
Q+A with John L. Gurley:
1. What motorcycle(s) do you currently own and ride most often?
I have a Harley-Davidson Soft Tail Custom that I ride around town and do day trips. And I have a Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited that I do bigger motorcycle trips on – it’s what I bring
on the Ride.
2. Aside from the Charity Ride, what other memorable motorcycle journeys have
I’ve had some wonderful motorcycle trips in my life. I’ve done the Pacific Coast Highway – from Washington down to Los Angeles. I’ve done Bear Tooth Pass and Yellowstone and I’ve ridden to Key West. Bear Tooth Pass might be one of my most favorite rides that I’ve done. I also love going to the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and riding around there too.
3. When you’re riding your motorcycle, what’s one thing you always take with you?
I used to always bring my bible with me physically, but now I have the bible available on my phone. So I still bring it with me, just in a digital format.
4. What do you love most about the Ride?
I am like a kid at Christmas when it comes to the Ride. I look forward to it all year long. I think about it every day and I say, “Oh man, we’re getting closer to the Ride!” or “Only 60 days until I get to leave for the Ride!” I get more excited about the Ride than anything else that happens to me in a year. And one thing I love most about the Ride and that keeps me coming back is that the people are so genuine. Another plus is simply the fact that I don’t have to make a single decision while I’m on the Ride. I make decisions all day, every day in my life as a business owner, so it’s nice to go on the Ride and just be told what to do. I’m told what time to be at breakfast, where I’m riding to, how long I’m riding for, what I’m going to eat, see and do, etc. I just have to show up and enjoy it and I love that!
5. Name something you love at Victory Junction.
There’s a statue at Camp of two kids – one is up on a tree stump and he’s reaching down pulling the other kid up, giving them a hand. I remember the first time I saw it and it spoke to me because that’s what I feel like we are on the Ride. We’re a bunch of big kids that are really, really blessed and we’re just reaching down to pull another kid up a little bit higher.