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Ride on for Holly Gorrell

Her death in an off-road crash rallies her family around her fledgling clothing company.


The Orange County Register


DIRT AND DUNES: Holly Gorrell is ready to ride in Glamis on Oct. 28, 2005, the day before her death in an off-road accident.


The sisters spent two radiant fall days in the desert cooped up in a booth on vendor row, selling tank tops, sun visors and beanies printed with "Damzl Inc."

Slinging shirts, they called it.

Business was brisk. It was Halloween weekend, the start of the season at Glamis, the mecca for off-road vehicle owners in the Imperial Valley. Vendor row on a holiday weekend is Glamis' swap meet, its town square and the Vegas Strip all rolled into one.

Women and girls - and men, too - stopped by the Damzl booth to check out the pink and white T-shirts or admire the customized platinum dirt bike parked nearby. Many of them hung around and listened to Holly Gorrell, 31, and her sister, Heather Birdwell, 34, describe the serious motorcycle gear for women they planned to add to their new clothing line soon.

"Once you start something, finish it," was one of their mother's rules when they were growing up. And as eager as Holly was to take a break and ride her dirt bike in the dunes, she stuck it out, slinging shirts until the crowd thinned and other vendors were shutting down.

"We're going," she said around 4. "I've gotta get just a quick fix."

Holly, who lived in Los Alamitos, collided with a four-seat dune buggy during the ride. She died almost instantly.

Family and friends say they take comfort knowing she died doing what she loved best and in the place she loved most. They're using the clothing company she started to promote motorcycle safety.

Looking at her life, it's easy to see how they've come to share that sentiment and why they want Damzl to succeed.


Laura Warshaw, Holly and Heather's mother, remembers how her younger daughter loved motion, even as a baby. She recalls an incident with a toy called a Sit 'n Spin that took place when Holly was about 4 months old.

"Heather had one, and she wanted her little sister on it. I kept saying, 'She's too little,'" Warshaw says.

One day, though, Heather got a blanket, tied Holly in the seat so she wouldn't fall out, and began to spin her baby sister around like the teacup ride at Disneyland.

"Holly was so happy. She wasn't afraid," Warshaw says.

When Holly and Heather got Big Wheels, they rode the treads off the plastic tires. They graduated to matching pink Huffys. Holly's had "Sweet Thunder 2" on its front plate. Heather's had the No. 1.

Holly worked hard to keep up with Heather, who was three years older.

"Heather was always a daredevil. She was her father's first child, and for a while, she was his son. That's what he'd call her, 'You're my son,'" she says of Patrick Gorrell.

From both parents, the girls learned they could compete with boys on the baseball diamond or on a wakeboard. They had a role model in their mother, a '70s feminist who volunteered on a rape-crisis hot line and wasn't afraid to break a fingernail playing co-ed softball or launching a speedboat.

"My girlfriend and I would load up the trailer and the boat and take all our kids down to the Marine Stadium without men," Warshaw says.

Always close, the girls grew even closer after their parents separated when Holly was 2. They began spending weekends with their father, who eventually remarried and had three more children.

From their home base at Canyon Lake in Riverside County, the Gorrells vacationed at the Colorado River, Lake Powell and other areas in the Southwest.

One of their favorite getaways was to Glamis, a 40-mile-long stretch of sand dunes running from the Salton Sea to the Mexican border. They spent Thanksgiving weekends there for 14 years, camping with other families in motor homes parked "wagon-wheel style" and sharing food and good times.

"You see the families do dumb things," says Pat Gorrell, an engineer. "You build a fire, and the wind shifts, and you have to move all your stuff. You work all day to cook a turkey, the wind kicks up, and you're eating sand with your turkey."

What drew them back year after year was the exhilaration and joy of riding four-wheeled ATVs and dirt bikes in the dunes. He says his daughters were as daring and as aggressive as any of the guys.

"It was fun watching the girls kick the guys' butts," he says. "Other kids had problems or excuses; my girls never did."

They were pioneers. Today, many female riders are as good as the best guys.

"You definitely see more equality in the skill of the riders," says Lloyd Misner, president of the Orange County ATV Association. "This is one of the sports in which gender is not an advantage. The advantage men usually have is that they're physically stronger, but this is much more an endurance sport."

Over the years, old-timers like Misner and Pat Gorrell saw changes at Glamis. It grew more crowded. The ATVs got bigger, more powerful, faster and more expensive. The motor homes got flashier and the camaraderie faded.

It also became more dangerous. Last year during the season that runs from Halloween to Easter, nine people died at Glamis. This season, 12 people have died.

Warshaw, who remarried and stayed on good terms with her ex-husband, went on a few of the desert trips.

"Anytime you can see your kids have fun, it was a pleasure," she says.

She says she worried constantly about the risk of riding dirt bikes. At the same time, she understood the thrill.

"Any sport where you get that exhilaration, that E-ticket feeling, that adrenaline rush, well, it's not going to be from playing softball or from bowling," she says. "They are extreme sports, the ones where you are taking control of an out-of-control situation. Or you think you are."


By the time Eric Vilander met Holly in 2003, Pat Gorrell's business success had enabled the family to vacation in Key West, Fla.; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Barbados; and the Virgin Islands. But they still returned to the desert to ride.

Early in their relationship, Holly invited Eric on an outing to Ocotillo Wells so he could meet Pat Gorrell.

"I showed up, and she's this diminutive girl rolling out this monster motorcycle," Eric says. "I was like, 'Wow, that's impressive. You ride this thing?'"

Around that time, Holly, a student at the Interior Design Institute in Newport Beach, and Heather, who had some experience in fashion, began planning to manufacture the kind of motorcycle gear they dreamed of wearing.

They got the business off the ground quickly once they came up with the name, Damzl, a play on "damsel in distress." Holly provided the company motto, "Feminize the machine," meant to convey the idea of a sisterhood of freestyle motorcycle riders. Heather drew on her fashion experience to produce T-shirts and other goods with a girly-tough logo featuring a crown and motorcycle gear.

Damzl Inc. made a splashy debut in early October at an off-road expo in Pomona.

"There was so much female camaraderie. We felt we were moving forward strongly," Heather says.

Half-sister Bonnie Gorrell, 23, helped out. "It felt like we were hanging out having a good time. We didn't have to sell. People just wanted to be around our energy," she says.

Glamis was the big test.

Holly had taken Eric to the area once before during a quiet weekend in the spring.

"There are these mountainous dunes, these giant piles of sand. It was beautiful. I finally understood why she was so passionate about it," he says.

But Glamis on a holiday weekend is another story. As many as 200,000 people flood into the area, mainly to ride dirt bikes, four-wheeled motorbikes called quads and even larger vehicles.

"What happens is when you go out there, everybody is in vacation mode," Misner says. "When you're on vacation, your mindset changes just a little bit and you're not paying as close attention as you should."

That's apparently what happened to Holly. When the accident happened, the sun was setting and she was leading a line of five riders, with Eric in the middle, on a trail to the dunes. She was riding at a fast clip, and she didn't see or hear the dune buggy approaching on an intersecting trail. She was hit broadside, and badly crushed.

Eric, who didn't see the collision, ran to her side and was with her as she slipped away.


Since then, her family has struggled to come to terms with her death.

"Some people see her death as tragic. In reality, it was poetic," Pat Gorrell says. "She died quickly. She died in Eric's arms. She was dressed in pink and leading a pack of aggressive riders. That was her dream."

They've rallied around Damzl.

With help from her extended family, Heather will begin selling high-performance jerseys and off-road pants to motorcycle stores and online this month. Casual wear is already for sale on the Damzl Web site.

She'll show the whole line at the Extreme Motor Sports Show at the Orange County Fairgrounds in May.

She's also using the company to promote motorcycle safety. She hands out pamphlets with safety tips from the American Sand Association, and posted a letter her father wrote about Holly and the accident on the Web site.

"More than anything, I feel close to Holly through working on Damzl," she says. "Her influence is strong. It's kept the machine going."

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