bardicvoice (bardicvoice) wrote,

Biking Through History: The Biker Babes Cruise the Civil War, Part One


Biking Through History: The Biker Babes Cruise the Civil War            
26 May - 9 June 2001


A Harley is the perfect vehicle for touring Civil War battlefields, and we proved it this year. Starting in the Washington, DC area of northern Virginia, my sister Terry, our Mom (who was 77 at the time), and I cruised up into Pennsylvania, and back down through Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia, following the Piedmont and Shenandoah campaigns. We got to know all the generals on both sides pretty well, but especially Confederates Stonewall Jackson and Jubal Early, because we kept cutting across their tracks everywhere we went. We made some history of our own, too, because we rode in Rolling Thunder with 250,000 other bikers remembering our vets from all wars, but especially Vietnam. That’s a ride we won’t do again (Terry hates driving in formation with other bikers who don’t know how to give enough room to a sidecar), but it was quite an experience doing it once!


Saturday, 26 May 2001 - Manassas


Mom and Terry arrived on the 25th, having ridden in rain for most of the trip from Wisconsin. As usual, the weather followed them, so our first official day on the road was a rainy one. Starting from my house in Reston, VA, we decided to make my reintroduction to riding an easy one by taking in the Bull Run battlefield at Manassas, VA, less than an hour from my house. We set out under cloudy skies in full black and orange rain gear, and we were glad of it when the rain started falling while we were on the road. Lucky for us, it stopped some time after we arrived at the park station at Manassas, just in time for us to take our own little walking tour of the main part of the battlefield. The U.S. Park Service cuts the grass in a swath that defines the route you should walk, and there are markers along the way that tell you what you’re looking at and what happened at the various places during the two separate battles that took place here, known as the First and Second Battles of Bull Run to the Union side, and First and Second Manassas to the Confederates. Most famous, perhaps, is the statue that marks the place where General “Stonewall” Jackson got his name – “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall,” another officer called, when trying to rally his men, and the inspiration worked.


At the park station, we ran into another set of bikers with whom we played tag for the rest of the day. These guys – from Indiana, if I’m remembering right – had come in for the Rolling Thunder ride, and were taking in the historical sites while they were here. The funny part about the recurring encounters was that they ignored us when we first met in the park station, but they waved at us each time we crossed paths on the road as we went from site to site on the bike around the whole battlefield, which covers a large area of land. We finally managed to chat with one of them when we found them at the Manassas Museum – which is a gem of a small community museum, with a gift shop stocked with surprising things, including very attractive and unusual jewelry – and he and Terry compared notes on the very wet ride they’d all had so far. We all laughed about the discomforts and inconveniences of living in rain gear (Hey – you have to plan your pit stops in advance, because it takes so long to get the danged gear unfastened and out of the way of doing business!!), and we teased them about having missed the tour lunch stop, because the only place we didn’t run into them was our lunch break at the local Cracker Barrel.

It rained on and off for most of the day, dripping on us as we made the rounds of the battlefield driving tour. We got into the mode that we would follow for the next two weeks: we stopped to read every notice board and marker, usually with Terry and I taking turns reading the information aloud. And this is one area where the bike definitely beats a car for battlefield touring: most places, we didn’t even have to get off the bike to read the marker information, because we could pull right up to it! If we’d been in a car, we’d have had to park and walk, and that would have been less than fun in the rain. We made good use of ziplok-type bags to protect the maps and little historical review pieces we picked up at each location; we’d fold them open, stick them in the bag, and then read the information for each site in succession without the paper getting wet. Not bad!


We got home in time to go to church at the anticipatory Mass, because we knew we’d be on the road early the next morning to join Rolling Thunder. We and the bike got a lot of looks from the congregation – my church isn’t used to being visited by Biker Babes!


Sunday, 27 May 2001 - Rolling Thunder, Washington, DC


The weather on Sunday started out fine, with the promise of being hot and sunny, but not as killer-hot as some other years. Following a quick stop at the Safeway to pick up water bottles, since we knew we’d be out in the broiling sun in the North Pentagon parking lot for hours on end, we rode out to Patriot Harley in Fairfax – my local Harley dealership – to join their “Ride of the Patriots” into the Pentagon lot. Over a thousand bikes (including the guys we’d seen in Manassas the day before!) converged on Patriot to form up into a motorcade, with police escort and all. We wound up in about the middle of the pack. We walked up and down the line while we were waiting for the 09:30 start time, looking at bikes and meeting people (the woman whose bike was right behind ours was grateful that she’d have an easy marker to use to find her bike again!), and we picked up commemorative pins and hit the portable potties that they had in the dealership’s parking lot. The ride started on time, and that was quite an experience for me; cops on motorcycles rode ahead of us to block traffic from side streets (and then went roaring past us again after the end of the line had passed, playing leapfrog with the parade to get ahead of us to be able to block for us again), and there were people lined up all along the road through Fairfax, waving hands and flags. When we got onto the Beltway, 495 heading south and east, we found that the police had shut it down entirely for us: we had a stream of motorcycles rolling two-by-two down the far left lane, with the other three eastbound traffic lanes entirely empty. Squad cars blocked each access ramp, and we saw people in the stopped cars getting out to watch us cruise on by. That’s not a sight I’ve seen before out here!

We exited at the Pentagon and just kept following the line of bikers into our parking spot, awaiting the real Rolling Thunder ride slated to begin at noon. We were almost exactly in the middle of the North parking lot at the Pentagon, which put us in the middle of the total pack of 250,000 motorcycles. I know I’ve never been around that many bikes before. Trying to mark your position in order to be able to find your bike again was a real trip, even with a sidecar to help; imagine a sea of bikes, over half of them Harleys, parked nose-to-tail and side-to-side over acres and acres of asphalt with only infrequent light poles to provide landmarks. Yipes! Fortunately, everybody was very friendly and happy to be there, so the atmosphere was positive all around. We picked up pins to commemorate the ride from a vendor in a tent at the side of the parking lot.


The only thing that wasn’t positive was the staggeringly paltry number of portable johns available for use by this crowd of over 400,000 people. On the side of the parking lot closest to us – which was the eastern side, by Colombia Island (bet you didn’t know there’s an island in the Potomac next to the Pentagon, hey?) – there were a total of three, count them, THREE whole portajohns!! These people seriously need to take a lesson from the folks at EAA on how to set up for the comfort of a massive influx of people! I understand that there were a lot more potties elsewhere on the field, but they weren’t anywhere that my area could see. We followed the advice of a friendly cop who told us that the marina on Columbia Island had restroom facilities, if we could last long enough to walk that far, so we got our basic needs seen to in nicer surroundings than a portable potty.


The potty situation gave rise to the funniest moment of the day. When it was getting close to time for us to join the main ride, Mom decided that another visit to the potty might not be a bad idea, at least if the line was shorter than it had been earlier – she knew we didn’t have time to walk all the way back to the facilities on the island. Well, she and I walked back to the three potties, where the line seemed to be as long as it had been before. One of the bicycle cops who was working security on the grounds looked at the line, which was about half male and half female, queued up along the wooden eastern fence along the steep slope down toward the river and the island, looked at the three whole potties available for use, and said casually, “You know, my boss won’t be passing by again for a few minutes at least, and if I were to turn my back for a bit, I wouldn’t notice at all if anyone in serious need of relief was to make use of that very convenient fence right there.” He winked, ostentatiously turned his back, and pedaled a few feet away – and most of the guys in the line exchanged looks and then made a mad dash for the fence, where they promptly lined up, unzipped, and let fly. If I’d have taken pictures I might have gotten busted by the morals squad when they were developed: there must have been at least thirty guys all in a row with their equipment dangling in the breeze! Everybody in the vicinity was practically rolling with laughter, and the line for the potties suddenly got a lot shorter. Not three minutes later, the cop’s supervisor came by, noticed the amazing attrition in the line, and asked what was up, clearly knowing the answer; the bicycle cop piously reported that he hadn’t seen a thing. What a scam!


Even with that help, though, the line still wasn’t short enough to guarantee Mom would be through before our bike had to join the parade; she decided that she wasn’t in that great a need, and we scouted our way back to the bike. It was fortunate that I had triangulated the bike’s position using the light poles and the marked lanes, though, because the tents that had been pitched by the vendors were being taken down, and other folk who had keyed off the tents were suddenly clueless about where their bikes were!


To give you an idea of how BIG this ride is, the parade of bikes into DC from the Pentagon started at the stroke of noon. We were near the middle of the pack, but on the forward side of the middle, and by 13:00, we hadn’t even started our engine! We cranked it up at about 13:30, and maybe ten minutes later, followed the bike ahead of us out from our spot and into the ride. The ride goes from Pentagon North across the Potomac River on the Memorial Bridge, east up Constitution Avenue to just before the Capitol building, then south across the Mall and back west down Independence Avenue. The ride concludes down at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, with speeches and a concert, but many riders elect to curve to the left instead of the right and go back out of DC across the 14th Street Bridge. That’s what we did. It was bright and sunny, the thunder of the engines really was rolling across the city, and the people were out in force lining the Mall to wave at the riders going by. It was the first (and, I’m betting, the last!) time in my life that I was part of a formal parade through the nation’s capitol! Ever done the “Miss America wave” in black leather gloves from the back of a Harley??


When we went back across the river and headed out toward home, we went right past the Pentagon parking lot, and it was still half full of motorcycles waiting to join the parade! It takes a solid three hours for the full group to pass any point along the way, so they were still filing across the bridge by the time we got home to my place.


We definitely made the right choice in leaving when we did. We stopped at the Burger King near my house for a drink and a potty stop (both absolutely vital!), and just as we left there for home, it started to rain – a passing thunderstorm was heading on its way east into town. When the rain shower passed, we went to dinner at the Outback Steakhouse in Herndon, and then came home again just before the rain started one more time. We were really picking good timing!


At home, we did some reading on Philadelphia, our next stop, from the tour book, so we’d be ready. That set the tone for the rest of the trip; we would do our homework on the route the night before. Philly isn’t really a big stop on a Civil War tour, but we thought we’d take a slight detour into the Revolutionary War, since it was so close.


Monday, 28 May 2001 - Philadelphia


We left home at 05:00, and pulled into our motel – the Holiday Inn, Cherry Hill, NJ, just across the bridge from Philly – at 08:40. Rather than taking the bike into town, we decided to scope it out first by taking a cab in to the National Park Information Center in the historic district. What a beautiful place! We walked around outside, becoming both audience and part of the show when a troupe of costumed actors put on a street play about the city’s reaction to the passage of the Stamp Act. Lunch was at the City Tavern, a place we highly recommend, which serves traditional colonial American cuisine in historic surroundings with appropriately garbed staff. Where else can you get braised rabbit with squash, zucchini, red cabbage, and mushrooms on egg noodles? It’s worth taking a walk through all the various rooms just to see the building and the artifacts it contains.


We went on to tour Independence Hall, Congress Hall (the Senate met on the second floor, and the House on the first), the Liberty Bell, and then – jumping from the past into the present – the U.S. Mint. The presses weren’t running, since it was the Memorial Day holiday, but we read all the display information and got a good look around. I found out that my bronze and silver medals from EPA were all struck here at the Mint; in addition to coins, the Philadelphia Mint does all of the government-issue medals and awards on truly massive presses.


Something about the Liberty Bell, by the way: the obvious separation that most people think is the famous crack, isn’t – it’s the mending job from an earlier crack in the bell. The second crack that ended its ringing career is hard to see, but extends upward from the mend. A cracked bell is mended by opening a finger-width slot along the entire area where the crack formed, so that the edges of the crack don’t continue to vibrate together and spread the damage along with a soured note. Learn something new every day! We closed out our first tour day with a buggy ride around the historic area of the city. Terry made friends with McTavish, our horse, even though she wasn’t carrying any carrots in her pockets. We caught a cab back out to the motel, and closed out the day with a swim.


Tuesday, 29 May 2001 - Philadelphia


Having scoped out the territory the day before, and knowing the location of a parking garage, we rode the bike into town in the morning and found a place for breakfast after locking all our goodies in the bike. We decided to head over to the Mint to see the coin presses actually running, and that was neat! They were pressing quarters, pennies, and golden dollars while we were there, and you can look down from the observation windows and see the whole process. It’s well worth a visit. The one really funny thing, though, was that you couldn’t get golden dollars in the Mint gift shop unless you bought them in jewelry: they didn’t even have them to provide as change for a purchase. We asked the gift shop clerk how the Mint could expect anybody to use the golden dollars if even the place that made them didn’t use them; they didn’t have an answer for that one, and I had to wait on actually using a golden dollar until I got back to Reston and specifically asked my grocery store for them!


We revisited the Liberty Bell for some pictures, because there was no one around it except for the Park Rangers in the early morning. As we left the building, though, the busses began to arrive, one after the other, all queuing up to disgorge their cargos of school kids. We spent the day leapfrogging around bunches of kids and their chaperones, while we visited the Betsy Ross house and Franklin Court. The Court is the site of Ben Franklin’s home, which no longer exists, but the Court still includes the original tenant’s house and the book binding and print shops, which are operated as architectural and archaeological museums, along with a post office and a lovely garden. The spot where Franklin’s house stood is enclosed in a skeleton steel framework outlining what the room and roof structure looked like, with carved markers in the ground displaying excerpts from the letters Ben exchanged with his wife describing all the details of the construction, since he was abroad while it was being built. A museum dedicated to Franklin is located underground, and is well worth a visit.

We walked further to Elfrith’s Alley, a two-block long, perfectly restored pedestrian street that still looks as it did in colonial times – well, except that there are contemporary child’s strollers in some of the yards, and the houses all have electricity! Two of the homes are a museum, while the rest are all private property. One was for sale – we wondered about the price while simultaneously concurring that we would not like to live in a steady tourist attraction!


We did lunch at Old City Pizza, and can heartily recommend the veggie stromboli with cannoli for dessert. From there, we went on to Declaration House, the place where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence – that was a favorite of mine – and then walked through the Rose Garden and the Magnolia Garden. We passed the Todd House, with its magnificent garden yard, on the way back past the City Tavern and toward the garage with the bike. We got to the garage just as the sunny day dissolved into rain and started pouring onto the city. We stood in the garage and watched it pour for about fifteen minutes; then the storm passed, we put on our leathers and helmets, and rode back to the hotel for a swim. We did our evening reading, because we planned to leave early the next morning for Gettysburg, going by way of York and the Harley Davidson plant.

Read Part Two

Tags: harley, motorcycle diaries, real life, travelogue

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