Missing dads. Multiple half and step siblings. Prison waiting rooms. Homeless shelters. Small motel rooms rented by the week. Sleeping in a garage. Sleeping in a car. Missing parents. Drugs. Alcohol. Financial problems. Suicide. Abuse.
These are the facts of life for too many. And when it’s kids who are forced to deal with these challenges through no fault of their own it’s especially tragic. Adults who find themselves in these situations are often there because of their own poor choices and lack of self control. But the kids. They did nothing. They were just born into a lifestyle of dysfunction.
It’s hard to say exactly when the idea came to us. But sometime in the 1990’s would be a safe guess. We were raising our kids in an off road environment with regular desert trips and a love of motorcycles. Friends and neighborhood kids were always welcome on our desert outings.
It was the late 1990’s when we named our dream: Thundering Trails. It would be an off road adventure for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Still living in the city at the time we didn’t know when or where we would do it. But we knew. One day Thundering Trails would become a reality.
In August of 2004 we had the awesome privilege of acquiring the desert land that would become the home of Thundering Trails and on October 24, 2005, our 31st wedding anniversary, Thundering Trails was officially declared a non-profit corporation by the State of California. Thirteen months later we held our first camp.
Meeting with an inner city ministry the administrator told us he had hundreds of kids who would love to attend. We told him we could accept about 8 boys for the first camp.
Four showed up and we were devastated at the small turnout. But 36 hours later when they went home we were exhausted and felt like they had been here 36 days. We never could have handled 8-10 kids in the beginning. It was a huge learning curve and we were to discover that an off road desert adventure with four kids who have never been out of the city and are not your own kids familiar with riding and camping — and family rules — was a whole new ballgame. Theft and vandalism and disrespect in the early days helped us to fine-tune our requirements for kids to attend camp. The goal is not to rehabilitate troublemakers, it’s to provide an awesome desert adventure for good kids who come from difficult situations.
Along with a group of dedicated volunteers we have hosted 61 weekend adventures for groups of 8-12 kids since the fall of 2006. We rent a van and provide transportation from the city and the fun starts the minute the kids arrive. Playing tag and hide-n-go-seek are camp favorites shortly after they get off the van until dinner is served. Later it’s a hayride and campfire. Saturday is packed full of fun from the moment they wake up with morning hikes to “Big Eyes” the giant binoculars sitting atop a hill, to firing off rockets, a delicious breakfast and then walking the track and suiting up for riding. While one group rides another group chooses between hiking, crafts, games, horseshoes or just hanging out watching the other kids ride.
The day also includes a giant treasure hunt and depending on the weather water gun fights and sno-cones. Brownies, cookies and milk are plentiful and we’ve gone through thousands of popsicles over the years, the kids are welcome to as many as they want. Saturday night brings a delicious dinner followed by chapel service and s’mores around the campfire. More tag and hide-n-go-seek and they’re ready to pass out. Sunday morning’s incentive to get the bunkhouse cleaned up, bags packed and loaded in the van and sponsor thank-you letters written is one more motorcycle ride before the van leaves for the city at 11 a.m. They take home a 19”x13” camp poster packed with photos and a goodie bag filled with off road stickers and other treats.
And what do we get for the thousands upon thousands of hours the guy-in-the-garage and I have invested in this adventure over the years?
Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, listening to the excited voices of all the kids talking at once as they exuberantly relate their adventures on the motorcycle track. Time and time again. Camp after camp.
It’s a wonderful exhaustion and there is no better return on an investment than knowing we’ve sent hundreds of kids home filled to the brim with marvelous memories they’ll carry in their hearts for a lifetime.
Sherri Kukla is the editor and co-publisher of S&S Off Road Magazine. She along with her husband, the guy-in-the-garage, are also the founders and directors of Thundering Trails off road camp for inner city kids in Southern California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ssorm.com