Farmington, Conn., Aug. 18–25—“Inspiration” is a word that is repeatedly heard at the Dream Ride—from riders, sponsors, and Special Olympics athletes around whom the Dream Ride revolves. With 16 years under its belt, it can be a challenge to keep making an event bigger and better, but inspiration to meet challenges is the very core of this event. Each Special Olympics athlete and every other beneficiary of The Hometown Foundation’s supported charities faces challenges every day, so taking steps to overcome issues and grow the event are part of the Dream Ride DNA.
Michael A. Bozzuto, president and CEO of Bozzuto’s Inc., a leading grocery industry supplier, started the event as a charity ride with a few friends. Bozzuto laughs that he works harder on the Dream Ride than he does at his business. But his business is intrinsically involved and his staff works 52 weeks per year on the preparation and staging of the Dream Ride—it is part of their DNA.
A few Florida summer showers couldn’t dampen the spirits of the 43 riders and a group from Palm Beach H.O.G. who decided to join on the Florida-to-Connecticut Rally first leg. We exited PGA National Resort to the beat of a marching band, with the cheers of athletes an escort from the Palm Beach County Sheriff.
Pulling into small towns in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania en route to Connecticut is heartwarming as the cheering, sign-waving Special Olympics athletes, their coaches and families are waiting in awe as we pull in to meet them. And this is where bikers turn to mush. When we get to put a medal around their necks and get the reciprocal giant hug, tears flow, smiles get bigger and friendships that build year to year are forged. There is an emotional connection that happens in that moment, and many call it life changing. We see athletes as people with whom we can relate and they see us as their long-lost friends who are coming to celebrate them and what they have achieved.
This Dream Ride magic keeps people coming back. New Hampshire H.O.G. member Artie Desrochiers explained, “We’ve all done a lot of charity rides. You do the ride and you go home. The Dream Ride is different—you are blown away. You talk to the athletes on a personal level, you become friends with them—tears are flying.” Desrochiers related how he took an athlete on the Sunday afternoon Dream Ride through the countryside of Farmington, gave the athlete a leather vest and the athlete in turn gave him one of his gold medals. That is an honor that some of us will cherish forever—athletes sharing their hard-earned prizes with us as thanks. Artie’s athlete friend works at a grocery store and his employer said something happened to him that weekend. He wore the vest every day and he walked taller, prouder and seemed more confident. Seeing that kind of change in the athletes we meet is motivation to keep riding and supporting.
That “something” was echoed by seven members of the Ocean State H.O.G. Chapter, who all decided to do the ride after hearing Larry “LJ” Jedrey, a Boston-area cop on his third Dream Ride, speak at a H.O.G. meeting. LJ, a member of the Enforcers Motorcycle Club, had also spoken at the national Enforcers meeting where his teary account of riding for his athlete friend Bobby (who sadly passed last year) brought other members of the club to participate along the route. Bozzuto, moved by Jedrey’s story three years ago, arranged for Bobby’s travel to the Dream Ride as he does for hundreds of athletes so they can all join together to feel the Dream Ride Experience—a three-day event that includes so many parties, events, car and bike rides, shows and other entertainment, that it is easy to get lost in the blur.
The Dream Ride offers scenic routes and beautiful destinations. Florida riding in August is hot, steamy and straight, but on the second day, sweeping turns appear and Georgia pines create shaded sloping turns. Small, charming towns come into view, abloom with huge crepe myrtle trees. We know we are working our way into new territory as cloud-capped mountaintops appear.
Copperhead Lodge in Blairsville, Georgia, is our destination and it is a bikers retreat. Owner Michelle Evans rides with us for the rest of the ride, after hosting a night at her cottage resort. Each cabin is decorated in mountain décor, complete with hot tubs, grills and garages. A large rustic lodge has a stone motorcycle set over the fireplace and a welcoming bar, dining area, outside deck with fireplace, a pool and outdoor amphitheater. This is heavenly and we don’t want to leave, but dawn brings Day 3 of the Dream Ride.
From Copperhead Lodge, we head out via the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway and Blue Ridge Parkway, to Little Switzerland, a tiny village with a Swiss Alps feel. Riders meet a group of very enthusiastic athletes from several counties for the medal ceremony and settle in for dinner. The charming inn overlooks the mountains and is nearly as spectacular at dusk as sunrise over the crest, which we see during breakfast as we to get on the road to the next stop, Lynchburg, Virginia.
In Lynchburg the Craddock Terry Hotel is a favorite stop. The cobblestone streets give way to the renovated shoe factory turned top-notch boutique hotel. The decor, excellent service and food makes this place as special as its Special Olympics programs. Here, the State of Virginia shared how their programs have grown to include sports, education, health and community, thanks to the Dream Ride.
On to Smoke Hole Caverns & Log Cabin Resort in Cabins, West Virginia! Winding roads through bucolic farm country and small towns take us to Douthat State Park for a picnic lunch. The route makes this a favorite ride and destination as the Smoke Hole Resort drops off Northfork Highway in the middle of nowhere, into a circle of log cabins surrounding a big stone house. There, the athletes challenged the riders with their cheerleading talent. They went one-on-one with a group of Enforcers who followed the athletes’ lead in a hilarious cheer-off with everyone winning in the competition over laughs and hugs.
After a team bike washing, we were all cleaned up in time for a fabulous dinner, including homegrown garden vegetables from the Smoke Hole garden. The morning breakfast under cloudy skies and imminent rain led to a delayed departure. We left in rain gear, expecting the storm to pass, as it did, after just enough rain ruined our washing efforts, but not our spirits. We were on to Hazelton, Pennsylvania.
The ride to Hazelton goes through historic Gettysburg, which is worth a ride any day to experience the National Military Park, battlefields and cemeteries. Our visit could only accommodate a brief lunch at Battlefield Harley-Davidson, an impressive store with an outdoor pavilion, but we were back on the road to reach the Hazelton athletes. Over a festive pizza party at the Hampton Inn, the athlete meet-and-greet was emotional and fun with the outdoor patio offering a gorgeous view of the area.
Friday, anticipation mounts as riders ready for the final day ride into Farmington where the three-day Dream Ride Experience kicks into gear. Though mostly highway, the Connecticut State Police escort into Farmington from Danbury is impressive as the police help the caravan maneuver through traffic and road construction. As the ride pulls into its final destination at the Farmington Marriott Hotel, hundreds of athletes and fans wait with banners and signs. It makes the final stop rewarding and exciting and the start of the weekend festivities.
This year, in addition to the Saturday athletic events, Dream Cruise, Sunday bike ride, and car show, a bike show and midway were added to expand the fun. After enjoying all the vendors, raffles, shows and rides, everyone joined together for the closing award ceremonies. More gifting came as Bozzuto presented the Connecticut State Troopers with new helmets as thanks for their ongoing support.
Presenting the record total $1.5 million check at the awards ceremony is an emotional experience for Bozzuto who tearfully thanked the athletes for their efforts and inspiration. “We all learn and get so much from you!” he said with open arms. “Everyone here has a heart that is 10 times bigger than most humans’ hearts and we are so happy to keep ‘bringing the world together, one smile at a time!’”
I realized as we left each of the Dream Ride destinations, we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay longer to enjoy the experience—the “high” of riding, loving and sharing in spectacular places. Leaving the Dream Ride is the same; that is why we keep coming back for more—making dreams come true.
The Dream Ride 2017 will take place August 25–27. To be a part of the Dream, visit www.dreamride.org.