At the top of a hill in the desert near Borrego Springs, just off the side of the barely paved road, stood a gorilla.
The gorilla is the title attraction of the so-called “Gorilla Hill”, waving to bikers, making monkey noises, and entertaining anyone who stops for a picture. He’s there to help and share a smile with the 5th graders and their families, encouraging them to persevere through the Ride Across California (RAC).
In his sixth and final year volunteering on the RAC, PJ Wetherell (12) had the privilege of playing the titular role of the gorilla standing on the hill.
Knowing he may never get to play the role of the gorilla again, this year, Wetherell put a new and different twist on the otherwise typical role, entertaining bikers by playing a dissonant tune on an accordion.
Trying to put a smile on the faces of passersby, Wetherell bounced and danced in his gorilla suit as the 5th graders and their parents rode their bikes past his unique concert and dancing moves.
The RAC is an annual spring break bike ride and camping adventure and experience for fifth-graders and their families that begins along the Arizona-California border at the Colorado River and ends at Moonlight Beach and the Pacific Ocean.
Wetherell has been volunteering and continuing to ride the route with the group ever since he fell in love with the RAC eight years ago. This year was his final journey, and final opportunity to take part in the bike ride that he’s cherished for so long.
“After I rode [on the RAC] for the first time in fifth grade, I thought it was such a special program,” Wetherell said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it and I wanted to keep coming back, and now that I’ve done it for five years, I wish I could continue [volunteering].”
From rider to counselor to gorilla, Wetherell has played many different roles while participating in the RAC. And he has played all those roles largely without anyone in his family coming with him to help him. He gets to ride and volunteer for his own personal enjoyment.
“I did the RAC with my parents this year, the very first year, and when my brother went,” Wetherell said. “Otherwise, I did the whole thing on my own. We had to do a lot of training rides to keep us in shape and prepare us, and I met riding buddies on my own. On the RAC itself, I got to ride and camp with friends I made along the way. You’re never really alone on the RAC because there’s always people riding around you and with you. It’s always such a rewarding experience to be able to help the struggling fifth-graders that ride alongside me.”
Wetherell has had many unique experiences over the course of his tenure as a volunteer on the RAC, and he’s made so many memories with the people he’s ridden with throughout the years.
“Of course I’m going to remember standing in a gorilla costume on that hill in Borrego, playing my heart out on the accordion, even though I have no idea how an accordion is supposed to be played,” Wetherell said. “But I’m also going to remember and cherish making friends along the way and I don’t think there’s anything more touching than knowing that you made a difference in the life of a fifth-grader and helped them through a struggle.”
Because of his college commitment, this was Wetherell’s last ride for the foreseeable future, but he wants to try to come back after college or later in his life to ride even just one more time.
“It’s not practical that I could come back during college to keep volunteering, and I know that I’m going to miss it so much,” Wetherell said. “I want to try to get back to volunteering and riding on the RAC as soon as possible, but I don’t know how soon that will be. But I know that I’m going to try to return at some point. It’s just such a unique and powerful experience, I want to keep volunteering.”
Wetherell has many memories from his years of biking and helping others.
One special moment in particular really stood out to him, Wetherell said.
“I remember one year when I rode with a fifth-grader named Jason,” Wetherell said. “He was a bit of a slower rider, and one of the harder days I was riding with him to keep him company. It was one of those days where the winds get worse and worse throughout the day, and he was struggling a lot. And when I tried to strike up a conversation to keep him going, the only thing he wanted to talk about was Rolls-Royces. So, for two or three hours all we talked about was Rolls-Royces and he never once stopped. I knew nothing at all about Rolls-Royces, and I was just there for him to talk to, and he was able to power through. It’s nothing extravagant, but I was proud to have made a difference, and I learned more about Rolls-Royces than I could have ever imagined.”
Wetherell received one final send-off from the directors of the program, and he was sad to see his years of riding across California come to an end.
He wants to continue volunteering with other organizations, but he doubts that he’ll find a program as special or as unique as the RAC. He was happy to have been a part of the RAC for so long, but was ultimately disappointed to leave it behind.
“They gathered everyone together before we started riding up the biggest hill on the entire trip and did a small ceremony to celebrate me volunteering with the RAC for so many years,” Wetherell said. “It was very small but it meant a lot to just be recognized. And I don’t think any organization that I volunteer with in the future will give me an experience close to the RAC. I want to keep volunteering for sure, but [the RAC] was just such a unique idea and experience that I don’t think can be replicated.”