If anyone understands the challenges of starting over, it’s Krystal Hess.
In 2011, Krystal left an abusive marriage. She dreamed of reinventing herself by moving from Canada to the sunny southwestern United States and learning to ride motorcycles.
“I didn’t ever have bikes on my radar until I got divorced in Canada,” she said. “It was going to be my way of starting over, doing something cool.”
Krystal met a guy who built custom motorcycles and moved to Austin, Texas to be with him. Within a year of her move, however, her new boyfriend attempted suicide, involving Krystal in a traumatic way.
Once again, Krystal found herself picking up the pieces of her life — and the pieces of a motorcycle they had planned to rebuild together.
“I had this big problem on my hands,” she said. “I had a motorcycle that I owned that was in a million pieces.”
Rebuilding that motorcycle changed her life, and made her a true believer in the transformative power of two-wheeled machines.
“I compare it to [the healing process] all the time,” said Krystal.
Every part I put on the bike, I put back together a part of myself.”
Since then, Krystal has rebuilt several motorcycles, started a successful powder coating business, and founded Motorcycle Missions, a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans with PTSD heal through motorcycles.
“It was a passion of mine”
Krystal’s enthusiasm for custom vehicles goes back to her teenage years. Her first car was an iridescent purple-and-blue Ford Probe, which she still has a soft spot for.
“It just had those beautiful curves and the lights flipped up,” she said. “I was in heaven.”
Krystal wanted to learn more about cars, so she went to her two local auto stores and asked if she could work there for free. Unfortunately, neither of the shops took her up on the offer.
“I volunteered to do it for free so I could learn,” she said. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but it was a passion of mine.”
Years later, her passion resurfaced when she started dating a custom motorcycle builder in Texas. Together, they started their own project bike — a bright orange Hayabusa.
Working on the project, Krystal learned how to powder coat. They powder coated the rims, frame, and airbox, trading the orange plastics for a cool candy blue with chrome accents.
They got as far as reassembling the frame, engine and wheels when her boyfriend’s bipolar disorder struck. During a traumatic suicide attempt, he dismantled their project.
Krystal found herself with a storage unit packed with expensive parts and tools she owned, most of which she didn’t know how to use, and her project motorcycle in pieces. And she still didn’t know how to ride.
“I was just so messed up over everything that I didn’t know what I wanted,” said Krystal.
Learning to heal, one step at a time
Because Krystal had sunk a good deal of her own money into the project, she found herself in a financial bind, on top of her emotional trauma.
She began to try to recoup her losses, selling everything she had for whatever she could get. “I was losing money left, right, and center,” Krystal said.
One of the items she sold was a tire machine. The mechanic who bought it asked about her Hayabusa project, which was also for sale, and she ended up telling him the entire story.
He was like, ‘Well, what if you brought it here and I taught you how to put it back together, and then we could sell it, split the difference?’”
“That wasn’t really on my radar,” said Krystal. “I kind of wanted to sell it and get the fuck out of Texas.” But she needed to get her money back, and she was running out of options. So she agreed.
Krystal spent a summer rebuilding the Hayabusa at the mechanic’s dealership, where she started learning the process of rebuilding a motorcycle.
“I just wanted to jump in and put a whole bunch of shit on, but there’s things you have to do first,” she said. “You can’t just slap the plastics on and the seat on before you’ve done the wheels and the spacers.”
Krystal was ready to be done with the bike, but she also found that following the build process was changing her. It was helping her heal.
It was very tough to do, but I noticed that as time went by and the bike was getting put together, I was very much putting myself back together.”
By the time Krystal got the Hayabusa back to where it had been before her boyfriend’s suicide attempt, she realized she was starting to feel better.
“When the bike was put on a lift, and the wheels were put on, and it had the blue wheels and the blue frame with the motor… I was like, that’s a motorcycle,” she said. “Getting to that point was just a sigh of relief.”
Eventually, Krystal finished the motorcycle and sold it, and nearly made her money back. She had learned to ride by then, but she didn’t really care to ride the Hayabusa.
“I didn’t have any desire [to ride it], and honestly I don’t know that I would now either,” she said.
But she definitely wanted to build more motorcycles.
Finding a new path
Krystal got a desk job at the dealership, and they gave her some shop space to work on her own projects. She did six bikes her first year there, primarily Ryca kit bikes, and learned fabrication and powder coating.
From that job, she launched her powder coating business and became involved with the Austin motorcycle community. And she kept building bikes — like her award-winning Indian build, “The Girl Scout.”
However, while Krystal enjoyed her powder coating business, she knew she didn’t want to do it forever. At bike nights, she made friends with veterans who were struggling with PTSD, and she realized she had an opportunity to help them.
“I’m a nurse first,” she said. “My job is to heal people… I just thought, motorcycles helped me so much, it would be really cool if we could do a bike project together.”
From that idea, Motorcycle Missions was born. The nonprofit revealed their first team build at the 2017 Republic of Texas rally, and it immediately grabbed the motorcycle community’s attention.
“It just took off, and then we were doing another build and then another… I didn’t think we’d be doing this many builds so soon,” said Krystal. “The first build was an experiment and it worked.”
The healing power of motorcycles
Now, Motorcycle Missions is on their ninth team build, with dozens of alumni, and Krystal has seen, time and time again, the power of motorcycles to transform lives.
“It’s a reward to hear that they’re doing well, and that they’re loving life more and that they’re coping better… that’s what it’s all about for me,” she said.
According to Krystal, motorcycles are a good tool for healing because they’re a unique combination of many things. Building or even riding motorcycles is a goal-oriented task that requires focus and responsibility, there’s a “cool factor” that makes riding and building an aspirational goal, and there’s a strong feeling of community.
Especially for veterans, the goal-directed component is key to healing after coming home.
“On the battlefield, they’re taught to move, shoot, and communicate,” said Krystal. “When they come home they don’t have that focus, they don’t have that mission anymore.”
Working on build teams and riding motorcycles helps veterans recapture that focus, camaraderie, and achievement. And once the builds are done, “they get the same feelings and emotions I did,” said Krystal. “They get a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
They’ve accomplished a mission, and they’ve done it with brothers and sisters, just like on the battlefield.”
Learning to heal by facing fears
Krystal isn’t one to shy away from talking about her fears. When I asked her about how she learned to ride, she was quick to tell me how afraid she was when she first started out.
“[Learning to ride] took seat time and practice and facing my fears… because it was a fear of mine,” she said.
It wasn’t something that I was super excited to do, it was more like facing a challenge, getting out of my comfort zone — a ‘learning something new today’-type feeling.”
Yet, Krystal’s story is one of tenacity and resilience. One of her most striking qualities is an unapologetic courageousness, apparent in everything from Motorcycle Missions to her hot pink Suzuki Savage.
Reflecting on my conversation with Krystal, I’m reminded of a famous quote, which has many versions, but my favorite is from Mark Twain:
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”
Krystal’s story shows that conquering challenges and making a difference in the world isn’t always about being fearless. It’s about having the strength to follow your dreams, despite your fear.
Motorcycle Missions is an entirely donation- and volunteer-based 501c3 nonprofit. To support their mission, learn more about their events, or seek help, head over to their website, motorcycle-missions.org.
You can also follow Krystal’s adventures on her Instagram, @krystal.hess.