Lore like that does not come up in your ordinary pledge drive. Talk to any of the 85,000 who've taken part in an AIDS Ride, and more often than not they'll have their own story like Luis'. Founded eight years ago as a kind of rolling fund-raiser to provide services for HIV sufferers, the AIDS Rides have become for many nothing less than a spiritual journey. Among the 10,000 riders who spend as much as a week riding and camping along the route each year, some describe the experience as a pilgrimage. "Every mile is a prayer," writes Kathy Bentham, a member of the AIDS Ride team called the "zencatz," on the group's website.
What makes the experience spiritual, like any spiritual experience, is hard to define. Yet the rides fit nearly any description of a religion. Participants describe the feeling of taking up the weight of suffering HIV has brought in the past two decades (this weekend's ride, from San Francisco to L.A., will take place almost 20 years to the day since the first diagnosis of AIDS). The rides themselves are spectacles of caring: those flagging or caught with a flat are immediately tended to. There is the rare, and eerie, time spent in silence, as the tired riders become a crowd of moving meditation.
There is above all the sheer fact of the mass physical exertion for those no longer able to. It is a celebration of life against the reality of death. The riders are remembering the past, attempting to carry it into the future; to some minds, religion can't be defined any more accurately than that.
Some who feel alienated in traditional faith settings say the AIDS Rides have become their primary spiritual activity. For others, the rides are the way they connect with friends and loved ones killed by HIV. "I've known a lot of people who passed away from AIDS," says theatrical producer Roy Gabay. "The AIDS Ride made me feel part of something bigger than myself--the bigger picture, higher power, whatever you call it. It made me realize that my little world is not what matters in the grand scheme of things."
Pallotta's personal turnaround provided a rallying point for public energy in the fight against the disease. Since 1994, when Pallotta and 471 other brave souls made the first trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles, more than 85,000 people have taken part in one of the rides, now officially known as Tanqueray's AIDSRidesUSA, after the liquor company that donates $1 million a year to the cause. Many thousands more have joined one of nine annual Breast Cancer Walks around the country, which Pallotta TeamWorks, the nonprofit that runs all the events, began in 1998.