PINEDALE -- The thunderous sound of about 100 revving motorcycles rumbled across the peaks and deep to the valley floor in Pinedale.
Those who gathered in Pinedale for the Boulder Roll Poker Run on Saturday were doing much more than just making a lot of noise, but they were trying to draw the public’s attention. They were doing it for a higher purpose that lives deep in their hearts, bringing attention to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
“I think everyone here is just as touched as I am with losing people,” said event co-organizer Nev Burt.
The Poker Run is held annually in the memory of Jim “Crash” Newman, a Pinedale motorcyclist who died by suicide in 2016.
Pinedale resident Heath Hetrick was good friends with Newman and rode Newman’s 1991 Shovelhead Harley-Davidson “Alice” in his friend’s honor Saturday.
When asked what meaning he finds in riding his old friend’s bike, he responded coyly, “a long day.” Alice isn’t nearly as comfortable as his daily driver.
“I’m sure he’s (Newman) smiling up above,” Hetrick said. “He’d probably go, ‘Ha, you’re riding my old shovel today, good luck you bastard.’”
Newman’s 1966 truck was also close by to give Alice a ride in case she broke down.
Although the bike had some trouble taking off after the first stop in Cora, it what symbolizes matters most for Hetrick.
Trish Burt, co-organizer of the Poker Run, said simply by holding the run, a network of camaraderie is established among the 125-150 attendees. That shared relationship helps combat the problem the event hopes to overcome — silence.
“After five years of doing this, we have 150 people in their phones who they can call anytime, day or night” she said. “If we don’t raise another penny, what we’ve raised in this community is the community that we’re talking about.”
Nev Burt urged the riders to talk to each other throughout the day, whether or not they chose to discuss mental health. Hetrick, the road captain for the Run, urged the riders to make a phone call to someone they care about every time they put their bike kickstands down.
“Someone you haven’t talked to, somebody say, who might need help with suicide awareness, depression,” he said. “Every time we put our kickstands on the floor, we make a phone call.
“Just reach out. Reach out in this community.”
Hetrick was met with an embrace from his daughter after giving the speech.
Every rider received a complementary purple bandana and a business card with information about Wyoming’s 988 suicide hotline.
“Put that in your wallet, keep it with you,” Nev Burt told the riders before they set off. “You never know if you need it.”
Pinedale chaplain Richard Duginski sent the riders on their way.
“Our Heavenly Father, as we gather today to ride these iron horses in support of suicide awareness and prevention, let us ask that you bless those in need and help and guidance to bring them to peace and strength rather than allowing tragic events to unfold,” he said.
Close To Home
The Poker Run has grown every year since it was first held in 2017, but the urgency behind the cause has never been more important.
Pinedale is the largest city in Sublette County, which has one of the highest suicide rates in Wyoming, a state with the highest suicide rate in the nation. Nev Burt said even a few past attendees of the Poker Run have died by suicide.
Victoria Hermansen, who was volunteering at the run, has an extremely deep connection with this cause as her husband died by suicide.
She had no clue he was dealing with internal demons that caused him to take his own life while on a work trip in Alaska.
“If my husband had 60 seconds to think about what he was doing, I guarantee he wouldn’t have done it,” she said.
By facilitating conversations and showing those who are vulnerable that there is a way out of the storm, Hermansen and Trish Burt believe the mental health and the national suicide epidemic can be properly addressed.
“It’s a national epidemic that could be prevented by opening dialogue,” Hermansen said. “There’s nothing OK about suicide. Suicide is not a crime, but it’s a crime to not talk about it.”
Conversations Build Bridges
By simply striking a conversation with someone, one can lay a bridge into their world and some of the challenges they are facing, Nev Burt said.
“What we’re really trying to do is get rid of the stigma of talking about it,” he said. “The whole, ‘Cowboy, pull your britches up and get on with it,’ doesn’t work any longer, and we know it.”
Many mental health experts say silence and lack of communication is often one of the main precursors to suicide. When problems aren’t addressed, they can fester and rarely resolve themselves.
Pinedale school bus driver and motorcyclist Dale Keating believes society needs to focus more on building bridges to those who are dealing with issues rather than waiting for those people to build their own bridges.
“The young generation, they don’t ask for help,” he said. “If you know somebody … you just ask, whether you know them or not.”
Jim Hardman is a member of the Rock Springs-based riding club The Boneyard, a philanthropy-based chapter of the Unknown Saints Motorcycle Club. He said although mental health and suicide are significant issues within the motorcycle community, it’s just a microcosm of what society is dealing with as a whole.
Hardman has battled depression throughout his life. He relies on keeping himself busy and hitting the road on his hog to keep his spirits high, a practice he calls “two-wheel therapy.”
“It’s a tough battle. A bunch of people don’t understand depression,” he said. “At times it gets tough.”
Although motorcycle riders sometimes give off a gruff and tough impression, Hardman said they shouldn’t be judged differently than anyone else. His group fights many preheld convictions by performing community service in their denim and leather biker gear.
“We’ve changed the way a lot of people think of us,” he said.
Hardman was joined by his fellow Boneyard mates Saturday. Each member of the crew has their own nickname stitched across their vests. Names like Barbie Girl, Tulip, Boo-Boo, G-Gnome and Bubbles are not exactly the monikers one might associate with a motorcycle club.
Giving even more credence to the argument that one shouldn’t judge a motorcyclist by looks alone is that Hardman is a big fan of the 1997 one-hit-wonder Aqua pop hit “Barbie Girl,” blasting the high-pitched jingle at an incessant volume while riding his hog.
What’s A Poker Run?
The riders in Saturday’s Boulder Poker Run made six stops along their tour. At each stop, the motorcyclists drew a card. At their last stop in Boulder, each rider dropped a card. The riders with the best poker hands won prizes, as did the rider with the worst hand.
All proceeds go to a Sublette County public mental health fund.
“That fund pays for mental health sessions for people who can’t otherwise afford it,” Nev Burt said.
The bikers made their first stop at The Place Restaurant and Bar, a small eatery about 15 minutes outside of Cora. Cresting a hill and seeing this small mountainside establishment infiltrated by more than 100 bikers was a stunning sight to behold.
Jackson resident Chris Schroeder was running the card spinning station at The Place. Even after one stop he was already starting to feel the impact from riding a vintage bike borrowed from Nev Burt.
“My nutsack is going to hurt by the end of the day,” he remarked to Burt, who replied that this problem doesn't worry him “because I don’t have any.”
Their Own Poker Runs
Deann Stucki runs her own poker run out of Bear Lake, Idaho, a teddy bear fundraiser called Rumble The Rockies.
She and her friends made the roughly 170-mile trip to support the cause of suicide prevention.
“If they see normal, everyday people talking about it, that opens their eyes,” Stucki said.
“It will only get bigger,” added friend Stacey Bateman.
Hardman runs his own Poker Run in Rock Springs called Kickstands Up For Summer. This event raises money for veterans, a demographic particularly impacted by mental health issues and suicide.
“It’s serving someone in the community that needs help,” he said.
Many Shapes And Forms
Mental health is an extremely complicated puzzle, with its pieces making up countless factors and forces.
Hetrick’s daughter Cat Hetrick brought up the example of the grief she experienced and continues to work through because of her uncle, who died from COVID-19.
“Grief means love first,” she said. “Anytime that hits you, that means there was love there first.”
Hetrick used to ride in the Poker Run with her uncle. On Saturday, she followed the pack in a support car, partially because of her uncle’s absence.
“It’s kind of hard to get back on,” she said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.