Story By Denice Patterson
Photography By Keith Ketchum

The open road stretched for miles in front of Tom Hunter. His 2003 Harley Electra Glide offered little protection from the 107-degree desert air that came at him like a blast furnace, but he was not deterred. He was in the greatest challenge of his life, so he gave it a full throttle.

In August, Hunter, a 70-year-old retired homicide investigator from Ocean Isle Beach, participated in the 2012 Hoka Hey Challenge. This time-limited, cross-country motorcycle event raises money and attention for the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. For Hunter, this challenge was much more. In addition to helping raise money to benefit the Hope Harbor Home Domestic Violence Shelter in Brunswick County, Hunter was able to prove to his youngest daughter that he is not too old.

Hunter learned about the Hoka Hey Challenge in The Carolinas Full Throttle magazine. When he told his grandson that it might be fun to enter, his daughter said that he was too old.

“I signed up the next day,” Hunter says with a laugh.

He has been riding motorcycles since he was 15 years old. He bought his first motorcycle, a 1947 Indian, at an auction for $25. “I wish I had it now,” he says fondly.

Hunter considers himself a long-distance rider and has logged more than 150,000 miles to date. He often attends the famous Harley rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. He is a charter member of the Harley Owners Group at Beach House Harley-Davidson in Shallotte and is grateful for the support of the folks there, especially the mechanics who tuned his bike and offered tips for the grueling Hoka Hey ride.

“The advice those guys gave me was really valuable,” Hunter says.

A native of Freeport, Maine, Hunter first came to the Carolinas in the 1950s while serving in the Marines. He returned in 1982 and began working as a detective for the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department. His wife, Marie, owns Mar Coupe Hair Designs in Shallotte, and many of her clients donated to Hope Harbor on behalf of Hunter’s ride. The Hunters have five children, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild. One of their granddaughters has her own bike and has ridden beside Hunter to Sturgis on three trips.

When Hunter left the Sheriff’s Department, he joined the District Attorney’s office as an investigator for the Domestic Violence Unit.

“We called it the Homicide Prevention Unit,” Hunter says.

In 1996 he joined the board of Hope Harbor Home Domestic Violence Shelter and has been involved ever since. Riding in the Hoka Hey was a way to take a hobby he loves and put it to good use.

“When Tom approached us about riding in the Hoka Hey Challenge, we were all really excited,” says Hope Harbor Executive Director Lynne Carlson, who has known Hunter for nearly two decades. “I had no doubt whatsoever that Tom would complete the course on time.”

2012 was the third year for the Hoka Hey. Ninety-one riders left the starting line in Las Vegas to begin the eight-day journey that wound across the central United States down to New Orleans, across the South and up through the Smokies and the Appalachians. The route is designed to ride through as many Indian reservations and national parks as possible. The finish line was located in the heart of Seneca Nation at Wolf’s Run in western New York. On day eight, riders were given a 14-hour window to cross the finish line. Only 31 riders finished in the allotted time, and Hunter was among this group, finishing within the last four hours of the window.

“He called me from New York and said he made it – we were all really proud of him,” says Tommy Griffin, Hope Harbor program director. “At 70 years old, that is an awesome accomplishment and a real reflection on his character.”

The Hoka Hey is a long and hard ride. Challengers rode up to 20 hours per day to make the finish. They stopped only to sleep or gas up. They didn’t stop for meals.

“We ate beef jerky and protein bars as we rode,” Hunter says.

Hunter wore a flashlight around his neck to see the route directions that he taped to his gas tank. He even rigged a plywood brace to hold him on his bike so he could sleep reclined on the seat for a few hours at a time when he stopped.

Two things kept Hunter moving forward: “I knew that people were following the race online, and I knew that Hope Harbor was counting on me.”

Since 1986 Hope Harbor Home has been a safe haven for domestic violence victims in Brunswick County. The shelter houses an average of 250 women and children per year and provides other domestic violence services to more than 1,000. Clients receive counseling, job training assistance and transportation to work if needed, while children participate in play therapy and other activities aimed at helping them recover from trauma. Male domestic violence victims are also served by the shelter; although they are housed offsite at a hotel or private accommodations, the men receive the same services as women.

The shelter is funded mainly through grants, an annual golf fund-raiser and money generated from its four thrift stores in Holden Beach, Leland, Oak Island and Bolivia. The private, nonprofit agency is a tax-exempt 501(c) 3 corporation. Donations to Hope Harbor for Hunter’s ride in the Hoka Hey Challenge have been a much-needed blessing this year. He has raised $1,000 and counting as the money continues to come in.

Aside from being an incredible challenge, for Hunter the event was a stunning experience.

“The view from a motorcycle is like none other,” Hunter says. “You can feel it, you can hear it, you can smell it — like a field that was just cut or even a dairy farm.”

Out on the open road, Hunter encountered an amazing variety of wildlife as well.

“I saw armadillo, rabbit, coyote, deer and raccoon and thought I might have hit a small gator in Louisiana,” he says. “But that could have just been a bump in the road.”

He also saw an elk running along beside his motorcycle.

That experience didn’t compare to the final hours of his trip near the Allegheny National Forest in western Pennsylvania, when he needed a pit stop. Just as he got off his bike, a baby black bear approached. Alone and with only a motorcycle for protection, Tom hit the road quickly, knowing the mother bear was somewhere nearby.

Hunter was so exhausted when he hit the finish line in New York that he couldn’t put his own kickstand down. That’s when a group of riders came over to help him off the bike.

When Hunter finally got off his bike, one of the riders handed him a cell phone and said, “Call your daughter!”

“The veteran riders were really wonderful,” Hunter says. “It becomes a brotherhood.”

Hunter learned that he was the oldest rider and the only great-grandfather to complete the challenge to date.

In June 2013 the Hoka Hey Challenge will enter its fourth and last year. The number four is sacred to the Lakota – it represents the fulfillment of a dream.

When asked if he plans to compete in the last challenge, Tom gives it a bit of thought. He rode from Ocean Isle Beach to Las Vegas, completed the Hoka Hey Challenge, and then rode from Western New York back to Ocean Isle Beach, logging 9,802 miles within three weeks.

With a great big Irish smile Hunter says, “Ask me again in six months.”

For more information about the Hoka Hey Challenge, visit www.HokaHeyChallenge.com . To make a tax deductible donation to Hope Harbor Home, call (910) 754-5726.