Photo courtesy of Red Ribbon Ride
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” -Alan Watts
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but without the best of times part. Just a generation ago, an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence, and that sentence was always punctuated with an exclamation point. Doctors and loved ones watched helplessly, uselessly, as patients promenaded into a final, starless night. It was a time when all polite folk and most impolite folk simply wanted to la-la-la wish away this new virus, along with everyone infected by it.
In 1991, a handful of artists had something to say about that collective wish. Inspired by the yellow ribbons honoring Gulf War combatants, they created the now-famous folded ribbon design to raise awareness of the toll the AIDS epidemic was taking on their community. The color red was chosen to symbolize blood, love…and anger.
But the times changed.
Since then, life-saving treatments have been developed, and the red ribbon has become a symbol meant to support all people living with HIV/AIDS and their caretakers…as well as people who still die from AIDS-related causes. That symbol has transcended jacket lapels and dress straps. And every summer, that symbol manifests in a big way here in the Land of the Sky-Tinted Waters.
The Red Ribbon Ride has very nearly become a Minnesota institution unto itself, having begun in 2003. For all of the subsequent years, it purposefully wended its way through the rustic parts of the Lake State, its riders dutifully raising much-needed awareness even as they raised much-needed funds.
But the times changed.
In 2020, a second virus, COVID-19, de-rided the riders, the awareness, and the funds. But the Red Ribbon Ride is back this year, and its purpose isn’t just to fight the disease that has ended so many lives; its purpose is to end HIV itself.
The Red Ribbon Ride currently self-identifies as “a fully supported, two-day, 100+ mile bike ride through the wilderness of Minnesota.” It will begin on August 20 and end on August 22. The first day will be dedicated to travel and orientation; the second two will constitute the Ride itself. The route delivers participants from Camp Heartland in Willow River, Minnesota, to Duluth—and back again.
Motivations for participation may vary. Promises the Ride’s website (https://redribbonride.org/), “Whether you are a first time rider, experienced veteran, looking for a physical challenge, want to experience the beauty of Minnesota on a bicycle, or have a connection to the cause, the Red Ribbon Ride is for you.” Riders can join a team, form a team, or roll solo.
Riders are asked to find donors who’ll subsidize their benevolent efforts. Money raised will be split among three benefiting charities: the Aliveness Project, One Heartland, and the Rural AIDS Action Network.
The Aliveness Project offers free HIV tests to the public, because, as they put it, “Knowledge is power—the power to manage your health.” This organization provides people in need with access to nutrition programs, integrative therapies, and case management, among other services.
One Heartland is determined to “improve the lives of children, youth, and families facing significant health challenges and social isolation.” At Camp Heartland, HIV-positive outdoorsboys and outdoorsgirls are provided a stigma-free environment of perfect acceptance, something they often find lamentably lacking in their daily, away-from-the-woods lives. Here they’re allowed to grow and learn in a stress-free environment.
Rural AIDS Action Network is a charity that focuses on the oft-under-served (and sometimes flat-out ignored) Greater Minnesota, providing advocacy and awareness, as well prevention and preemption. These services manifest as medical case management, nutrition programs, transportation assistance, and support groups, among others.
“We need riders!” proclaims Angie Skelly, veteran Red Ribbon Ride volunteer. Skelly first began her relationship with the Red Ribbon Ride in 2007, abetting the riders that year and joining them the next year. “I rode in 2008 and 2018,” she recalls. “I’m not very athletic, though, so I also found other ways to help.” One of these ways is working on the support staff along the route, simply referred to as “crew” (which is both a noun and verb, as it turns out).
After the combination of bike tires and spandex-swathed circle-gams, the crew is the most important factor in keeping the bicyclers bicycling. Crew members organize the route, run pit stops, and provide general care for the athletes, creating what Ride vets call the Traveling Love Bubble. Possessing the best name of anything ever, this collective entity is, like the Ride’s army of cyclists, composed of fund-raising volunteers. Further volunteer opportunities exist for the less ambulatory, focusing on the Ride’s starting line. These intrepid souls help with set-up, check-in, and check-out, providing the Ride’s story its beginning and its end.
While the above has been true of all previous events, the 2021 Ride presents an invisible obstacle uniquely its own. “We will be closely monitoring CDC guidelines and Minnesota state guidelines to ensure a safe and healthy event,” the Red Ribbon Ride assures. “In order to keep socially distant, we have a limited capacity for in-person riders and crew to join us at Camp One Heartland.”
This promise is more than mere lip service. “We have the capacity for fifty riders and thirty crew to stay at One Heartland in order to socially distance and be as safe as possible,” the Red Ribbon Ride continues. “This will, of course, change depending on how the pandemic is being resolved.”
2021 marks yet another change, another opportunity for the Red Ribbon Ride—one can participate virtually. Two-tired benefactors who are still a little squeamish about pedal-pumping through a pandemic can opt for an individualized (but entirely un-virtual) route. “Virtual riders do put in some miles,” affirms Skelly. “We ask them to take photos of their locales and tag us on social media.” This effort goes a long way to raising awareness, as well.
In the end, the changes in the Red Ribbon Ride only matter to the extent they transform good intentions into good work, and, in assessing that, Skelly enjoys a unique vantage point: she recently took the position of Development and Communications Associate for the Aliveness Project. That means that this year she’ll not only help with raising money, she’ll watch it, in some measure, change the world. Supposes she, “I look forward to seeing the raised fund put to use improving people’s lives.”
Red Ribbon Ride
4457 3rd Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55419
The Aliveness Project
3808 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55409
26001 Heinz Rd.
Willow River, MN 55795
(See website for locations in Duluth, Mankato, and Moorhead)