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.
Today there are four major AIDS Rides, as well as three separate rides dedicated to raising funds to find a vaccine. In total, $153 million has been donated to causes the events support--"more money," Pallotta's website claims, "sent more quickly to AIDS and breast-cancer charities than any known private-event enterprise in U.S. history."
If that's true, it's also the case that the AIDS Rides consistently rank among the least-efficient charities. In the mid-'90s, critics complained that close to 70% of the funds raised by one of the AIDS Rides went to overhead costs. According to Pallotta's website, efficiency has improved in recent years, with an average of 60% of all money raised going to AIDS direct service or vaccine research, and to cancer treatment and research.
Defenders also point out that the overhead costs are legitimate, and obvious: Shepherding 1,500 riders down hundreds of miles requires a massive, and costly, support network. They also maintain that the experience itself--as an emotional bulwark against the AIDS crisis--counts as much as the money raised.
The forgotten possibility Pallotta refers to is visible in the "remembrance tents" set up at the campsites where riders are invited to share memories of those they've lost. And there are the stories of the rides, the heroes of which are not those who have signed up the most pledges but those who stand for a refusal to give in to death and despair.
While Alex bowed his head, Pallotta told the riders, "Today we remember spirit. We connect with the sweet spirits of the departed. Today we represent life gone by with life still miraculously here. Today we create a living breathing human monument, more beautiful than any cast in bronze or carved of granite. And our monument shouts to all who will hear, and even to those who won't: We will never give up. As long as we live, we will never give up."
Soon, the crowd is singing along with "Peace Train," Dolly Parton's remake of the old Cat Stevens song, playing on the public address system. David and Luis photographed Parton for the album cover, and for a while Luis used to dance wildly around the studio to the song. The rain starts coming down in buckets as Alex rides out. On the back of his T-shirt is Luis' motto: "Laugh like a child. Love as hard as you can. Ride your bike."