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Doc Hendley: Moto Man on a Mission

Turning Wine Into Water

By J. Joshua Placa with photos by Jeff Holt and Doc Hendley

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Some may see us as modern-day rebel cavalry, galloping about town and countryside searching for a cause and the next cold beer. Others think of us as little more than animal-hide wearing rejects from some surviving Neanderthal clan. Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, motorcyclists are aware and enlightened people for the most part; sometimes behaving with the best of human nature. And once in a while on rare and courageous occasion, they become true American heroes.

Just a few years ago, Dickson “Doc” Hendley was just one of us, rolling from place to place on his ’95 Heritage Nostalgia with no particular direction or purpose except finding a good time. The then 24-year-old took classes at North Carolina State, mostly to reassure himself he wasn’t squandering each one of his brain cells to the biker lifestyle. He was an underachieving bartender slinging drinks out of a dive near Sanford, NC, throwing down shots of misspent youth like a fraternity pledge. Just five years later, he earned a coveted spot on the 2009 CNN Heroes list.

Something happened to change his course. The sobering advice of a close friend and his own moral compass sent him down a different road. Hendley was haunted by a clawing need to do something worthwhile with his life. There were many charitable causes to consider, but Hendley felt driven by a calling he cannot explain. Ignored or unknown to much of the western world, a staggering number of people in undeveloped nations experience deadly shortages of clean drinking water, causing more than 3.5 million fatalities per year from contamination and thirst, according to the World Health Organization. Said Hendley, “Some 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide is related to dirty water. It kills more children than war, malaria, HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents combined.”

In 2004, Hendley, now 33, married and the father of two young boys, founded Wine To Water (, a nonprofit organization working to provide pure water for people in need around the world. His book, Wine To Water (A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World) recently hit bookstores. It chronicles the life and death struggle to help countless villagers outside of Darfur, Sudan.

At present count, Hendley estimated 100,000 people have been saved, but there are millions to go. The brutal politics of water in underdeveloped nations, such as Sudan, Haiti, Uganda, and Cambodia, is the story of tribal warfare, genocide, poisoned wells, valiant villagers, and government-sponsored militia, basically sanctioned henchmen who freely operate outside the law.

This once itinerant biker, whose biggest worry was missing the next bar bash, has lived the desperate life of the people he has saved. Hendley has built or repaired wells for civilians caught in war zones, providing clean water where there was none. He’s had AK-47s pointed at his head, been shot at and seen comrades die. Hendley learned being a humanitarian aid worker does not make you bulletproof; if anything it puts a target on your back. He has found at least some of his courage, he said, through motorcycling.

Hendley, affable with an easy laugh, looks like he just walked off an episode of “Sons of Anarchy.” He bought his first Harley-Davidson at 17, quickly becoming a poster boy for the lifestyle, spending, he said, most of his youth “just trying to be John Wayne on a Harley.” He took three months rolling around the West and Northwest on his Heritage, camping on the side of the road or accepting the hospitality of local bikers. This journey, as long rides tend to do, changed him.

“Honestly, I was on a destructive path,” said Hendley, “I had a lot of issues to deal with and didn’t know how to do it in a healthy way. Jumping on a bike and getting away really helped me heal. I needed the freedom of the open road. I didn’t really care about getting back to NC State; I didn’t have to get to no one or nothing, I had no clear destination.”

Turns out, Hendley’s destination rode with him the whole time, taking a long, cathartic ride that led back to the only place it could—himself. “My mom was worried I would not come back, ending up dead or in prison. She thought the trip would make me even more crazy, but instead I came back, never feeling more calm and focused.”

The man who would risk life and limb to bring clean water to people he didn’t know on a continent he’s never been, experienced a gradual epiphany. “Everything I was doing was controlled by someone else. I was told for years what to do and when, but the trip proved I could enjoy and appreciate life on my own, break free and be my own man. It gave me a different perspective; I felt liberated, and was able to work out my anger and issues.”

Buried just beneath the surface like an underground spring, Hendley had a cause inside him. Like most who are somehow driven by an inner calling, they cannot rest until the cause is complete. “Wine to Water was able to come out of me from that new sense of freedom,” said Hendley, "On a bike, you can experience the country in such a unique way it changes you. When so much of you is involved in the ride, you are completely engaged; there is no multitasking, only heightened senses and instincts. It keeps you sane and for me, it feels like a spiritual experience.”

Hendley was done honing his “mysterious loner-guy-on-a-Harley image,” and getting a passing grade now-and-then at college. Soon after his odyssey, he hosted a series of wine tasting events to benefit clean water projects, creating an entirely new charity. Unknown to Hendley at the time, the real ride had just begun.

What gave this young motorcyclist the courage and grit to travel half way around the world and straight into the jaws of such extreme civil strife? “I think there is something all die-hard bikers have in common. It’s something that gets in our blood long before we ride our first motorcycle. It’s a passion, a taste for adventure and freedom; it’s a calling,” said Hendley.

“I was always a trouble maker growing up, especially in school,” he added through a distinctive Southern accent, “Not so much because I was a mean kid or anything, but because I couldn't stand the suffocating structure that came with the educational system. I skipped school as much as I could, and did just enough work to get by. I also spent a lot of my childhood roaming the woods and camping out alone, so being by myself and craving independence and the open road was something I reckon I was born with. When you take a guy like me and put a Harley between his legs you open up whole new world of possibilities.

“So I guess to answer your question, yes, I think being a true biker prepared me for a lot of crazy things. To me, Darfur was more than just a crazy war zone where millions were fleeing a government sponsored genocide; it was a new adventure and a chance for me to help someone else all at the same time. You'll notice as well a lot of bikers carry the attributes of being confident, rowdy, and rough around the edges, as well as having big ‘ole hearts all at the same time. You probably won't find many riding clubs out there, even the 1%ers, who don't coordinate rides for children's charities or raise money to help people in their communities.”

Hendley’s daily ride is a 2006 Road King Classic FLHRCI, which he uses whenever possible to attend Wine to Water fundraisers and speak to university audiences around the country. Some 50,000 bike-miles later, he is planning annual Wine to Water rides to raise awareness and cash for the cause.

This missionary man is now busy working on a fundraising ride from Argentina through Ecuador and up to Panama, raising awareness of the countless South and Central American men, women and children in desperate need of clean drinking water. “If each mile can raise money to help us help these people, then I will ride as far and hard as I can,” he said. Sponsors and supplies are badly needed.

Hendley’s organization is working in Haiti, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Guatemala, Peru, Columbia, and Syria while setting its sights on Jordan. “Africa is tougher because of the weather, the droughts are getting worse and lasting longer. If the populations keep growing and the climate gets worse, one day we’ll have to figure something else out. We hope to provide drinking water to more than one million people within the next two years. And I hope along the way to accomplishing that goal, I can still put a ton of miles on that Road King.”

Hendley eventually received a BA in Communications from NC State. He lives in the Appalachian town of Boone, NC, a little under two hours from Charlotte, but a short putt to his favorite ride, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For more information and donations, contact Doc Hendley, President/Founder:
Wine To Water
P.O. Box 2567
Boone NC, 28607

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