Thursday, 21 August 2003
The Rider’s Edge group riding class this morning was a trip and a half – the crowd was lively and thoroughly into both the topic and having fun. We really enjoyed the class, and I learned some things. We all learned – quite accidentally – a new hand signal made up on the spot: the thumb and forefinger held in a circle, while the other fingers flutter like a wing as the arm moves in an arc – the symbol for a “flying asshole!” That will be a hilariously enduring memory for everyone who was in the class! I wonder how far that hand signal will spread, as the class members carry it on with them?
We bought our first t-shirts of the trip. The dealership had done up a truly colorful design to commemorate the opening party of the Ride, “Thunder on the River.” Available in either black or white, the shirts sported a winged crawfish rising from a fleur-de-lis, draped with Mardi Gras beads. We were delighted with them, and looked forward to finding other themed shirts for each of the main stops along the Ride, although we did wonder where we’d find room to pack them all ... which turned out not to be a worry, alas. More on that later.
After the class and the shopping, we drove out to Nottoway, the largest remaining antebellum plantation mansion. The house wasn’t the most opulent or the largest ever built, but it is the most magnificent still remaining, after 144 years. The tour was marvelous, and our tour guide provided a sample of the gospel music being conserved by historians at the plantation. She had a glorious voice and a passion for the music, the history, and the house that made the tour a delight. If you want, you can stay at Nottoway: the plantation operates as a bed and breakfast.
It also has an excellent restaurant in Randolph Hall, a building separate from the house, and we had a delicious lunch there. Mom and Terry spilt a succulent prime rib, while I had a chicken breast with mushroom sauce and the chef’s special jambalaya.
We rode back to Baton Rouge and dropped in on some clients of Ruthie’s at a local clinic, bearing gifts of Arizona herbal teas – Energy, Stress, Health, and Memory. We really freaked out the place, showing up in our leathers, and everybody had a really good laugh. Linda said that they were starting to think that Ruthie – whom they always viewed as a live wire – maybe really was the sedate one in the family! Terry was quick to set her straight, that Terry – biker babe extraordinaire! – is nonetheless the quiet one. (Hmm – she lets her Harley do the talking?)
We headed off to Thunder on the River, the official party kicking off the South Central Ride Home. Just as we arrived at the Mississippi River party site downtown, it started to pour again – a rerun of yesterday’s ferocious 16:00 thunderstorm. We parked the bike by the levee and dashed for the cover of the portico of an abandoned hotel, and reached the overhang before being thoroughly soaked. We spent the next half-hour chatting with other damp refugees, watching the vicious storm sweep over. We were lucky that the portico was deep, because the wind blew savagely and kept changing direction, bringing the rain slashing in sideways. The thunder and lightning were literally right on top of us – it really was “Thunder on the River,” although not the way Harley intended!
The storm passed after about 40 minutes, and we emerged to lock our jackets in the bike and walk the party grounds. The storm had really done a number on the party: the artisans had all packed up, the band hadn’t even gotten to set up, and the vendors had lost power for their cash registers. Only cash sales were going on, because they couldn’t clear credit card charges. But the pig roast had finished before the rain hit, so we picked up wonderful free “cachon au lait” for dinner. We bought official Ride shirts styled for ladies, in grey with the four routes’ cities listed on the back (and we later learned that those shirts were available only at the official stops on the Rides – if you weren’t there, you missed them!). All of us picked up free green Mardi Gras beads with an alligator pendant, and Terry and I got temporary tattoos with the Thunder on the River symbol, the winged crawfish fleur-de-lis draped in Mardi Gras beads.
While we were on the grounds, we were approached by a poll-taker asking questions on behalf of Baton Rouge, researching doing events such as this. We had fun answering her questions, although the weather had rendered some of them problematic. She gave us temporary tattoos to take home (I’ll wear mine when I go back to work, and to the Red Cross!), and a plastic Baton Rouge pin.
We ran into Vince and his crew, doing interviews. We’d seen them at breakfast in the morning – they were staying at our same hotel. We swapped stories of the day. Vince told us that, if we were down early for breakfast again, we might see him off, since he was planning to move out around 6:30 to get to Memphis early enough to file his first live report of the trip; Fox had no live broadcast capability from Baton Rouge.
We roamed around for a while longer, and then headed back to our hotel, getting home a bit after 19:00. When we left, it looked as if things were picking up at the party, but nothing was happening on the stage yet, what with no electricity, and we always knew that we wouldn’t be around for the official fireworks show, which wasn’t scheduled to start until after 22:30, especially since we were anticipating a 394-mile haul to Memphis tomorrow. It was a little disappointing not to get to hear the official welcome from the Harley execs, but we figured we’d have other opportunities.
Friday, 22 August 2003
Today, we did almost nothing but drive on the 400-mile haul from Baton Rouge to Memphis. But the ride was fun!
We left around 7:30, about 20 minutes after Vince and the Fox 6 van pulled out. As we rode, we passed another biker in fringed leathers, who fell in behind us. Some miles down the road, a third biker fell in behind him, running in a properly staggered formation. When we pulled off at the Mississippi welcome station for a potty stop, they pulled off along with us, and we met Jim from Gainesville, FL and Mike and Mary from Atlanta, GA. They liked the pace that Terry was setting, and we rode as a group all the way to Memphis, sharing lunch and water breaks along the way. We arranged to meet again at the local dealership the next morning at 8:00, to ride together to Nashville, our next stop. We got to put our brand-new Rider’s Edge group riding training to good use really quickly after having taken the course! Jim and Mike were both great group riders – Jim kept a comfortable distance behind us, and Mike had a sixth sense about when Terry would want us to change lanes, using his 100th anni edition Ultra Glide to anchor our back door so that all three bikes could move smoothly as a group. Poetry in motion!
As we rode, we started seeing more and more bikes on the move. Sometimes when we stopped for water and gas breaks, we saw much larger groups than our breeze by, even as many as 20 bikers at a stretch, all waving at those of us off on the side. I’d not like to ride in a group that large, but it was something to see, especially knowing that all of us were part of the larger group on the road for Milwaukee.
We reached Memphis around 15:00, and went straight to the local dealer. It was a wonderful ride, bright and sunny, with mostly good roads and no real traffic until we hit a humongous backup in Memphis due to a traffic accident on the freeway we had to use. The bike was heating up, and Mike and Mary’s dresser actually did overheat and die on them, although Mike got it started after only a momentary stoppage. We were briefly separated in the traffic jam, but we came back into our customary formation before we reached the exit for the dealership.
The dealership was a bit of a zoo, with many bikers already parked and more coming in. Water, watermelon, and some other refreshments were available, but this dealer, unlike the one in Baton Rouge, had not done a unique shirt for the Ride. We were disappointed. We did have a few laughs and cheers, though, especially for the stunt rider, Bubba Blackwell, who performed in the parking lot. He did wheelies and headstands and burned rubber donuts, but the cutest trick was his tractor jump. Understand, this guy nearly died on July 4, 2001, trying to jump 22 cars. He asked the audience if they wanted to see him jump again, and the response was unanimous. He explained that it would take a little time to set up ... and his crew brought out and set up a short ramp maybe ten feet long and two feet at the high end, and then drew out a toy train of about ten linked toy tractors, little plastic John Deere models about eight to ten inches tall! He did indeed jump a Buell Blast over the little tractors, to much laughter. On a serious note, he announced that he was planning on doing a real jump again in Milwaukee on 30 August, because he wasn’t going to end his career jumping Harleys with the failed jump that had nearly killed him. Bubba Blackwell, madman.
We headed off to check into our hotel, which was the very first Hampton Inn, currently undergoing major renovation. We found a coin laundry a couple of blocks away, and rather than go to the Beale Street party (us not being party animals), we stopped for a soup and salad dinner at Ruby Tuesday and then did our laundry. At the time, I was sorry to miss Beale Street, especially since there wouldn’t be a general Harley street party in Nashville, and Beale Street would have been the only place where we might have found Memphis-exclusive merchandise. But Beale Street didn’t begin until 18:00, and our laundry wasn’t done until 20:20. In the end, however, I learned that I hadn’t missed anything in the merchandise line, because – unlike Baton Rouge – the local dealers hadn’t done anything unique.
Saturday, 23 August 2003
We rendezvoused with Jim, Mike, and Mary at the Memphis dealership in the morning, but we started later than we had intended because so many chatty people were around. Members of the Christian Motorcycling Association blessed the bike and us, and then we were finally on our way. The run to Nashville took only a few hours, and was uneventful: the weather was wonderful (after a truly vicious storm in the night that had tumbled one of our new acquaintances – in his tent – a good 30 feet from where he’d gone to sleep!), the water/gas/potty stops were congenial, and the traffic was unremarkable.
C&S Harley in Nashville looks like a 1950’s diner. They had their act together, this dealership: they had planned for the volume of traffic, had parking areas scoped out and flagmen directing, and moved people with commendable speed and efficiency. They were serving lunch, too: baked beans, chips, and pickles with a choice of either roast chicken or a pork barbecue sandwich. Yummy! They had set up tables in part of their service floor, so you could eat indoors, and the decor was pretty unique; the ceiling above our heads was part of their storage area, with bikes and parts visible through the grating. We chowed down, then wandered through the dealership’s store. Like Memphis, there was no unique t-shirt for this city on the Ride. Our best guess was that only the Rendezvous cities may have special shirts, so we started looking forward to Indianapolis and the Harley Rendezvous there.
We listened to the live band for a little while, and then headed off to find our hotel and a church. This Hampton proved to be the ritziest yet, even fancier than New Orleans (well, only maybe – New Orleans was pretty fancy ...). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to take advantage of the whirlpool and the outdoor swimming pool, because by the time we got back from church, it was already 19:00.
Still, on our way to find a church – the third cathedral of the trip, the Cathedral of the Incarnation (the first cathedral was St. John’s, in Milwaukee) – we took a brief cruise through downtown Nashville. I can’t prove it, because we didn’t stop anywhere and I couldn’t take pictures, but Nashville has an interesting skyline and an immediately recognizable character. All I can say is, this is Music City. Helps to explain all the guitar decorations on buildings.
This trip just hasn’t left us much time for touring in the places we stop on the Ride. We saw nothing at all of Memphis, and virtually nothing but a drive-through of Nashville. At least we’ll have two days in Indianapolis – not that there’s all that much to see in Indy, according to the guide books.
Sunday, 24 August 2003
We rode in to Indy in absolutely perfect weather – bright skies and wonderful temperatures. The road was good and the traffic fine, and some of the scenery was very amusing, particularly a Harley dealership at which we didn’t stop in Louisville, KY: they had a huge inflated birthday cake in their parking lot next to the highway, complete with too many candles to count. We stopped for lunch just after clearing the construction at Louisville, and pulled in to Indianapolis a little after 14:00. There was a gathering at the Southside Harley dealer, where we stopped briefly before checking in at out hotels. We met up with Mike, Mary, and Jim again at our hotel at 15:00, and headed into downtown Indy for the Harley Rendezvous in Military Park, the Circle City Pit Stop for the Ride Home. We parked on grass with a few thousand other bikes, and roved the dealer tents only to be disappointed yet again. The dealers had done a “Circle City Pit Stop” shirt for their event volunteers, playing on the racetrack theme of the city, but they hadn’t done any to sell to participants in the Ride. All we could do was shake our heads at the marketing opportunities that all these dealers were missing. Every other rider we talked to was involved in the same hunt that we were – t-shirt remembrances – and all were disappointed.
The party was fun, though. We saw a lot of uniquely customized bikes (the iridescent purple-blue eagle paint job with the eagle claw kickstand was particularly notable), took in a display of historic machines, listened to the bands, drank lemonade, and heard a few Harley execs speak, along with city officials who welcomed us to Indy. That was pretty much it for the day.
Monday, 25 August 2003
What a day! Perfect weather yet again, a cool museum – the Hall of Fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and two laps around the Brickyard track, topped off with a delicious buffet dinner on pit road and photos taken on the finish line. Mike and Mary didn’t attend this one, but we had Jim for a companion, and we enjoyed every minute. This was a special event totally worth the price, and a ride we’ll all long remember. Terry will certainly never forget the strain and challenge of holding the car and bike steady on that banked race track, and I won’t forget juggling Jim’s professional Nikon and my little APS, taking pictures facing both forward and aft during the track laps. One of the Indianapolis police riders, staying on the bottom strip, rode standing up on his bike’s seat for long stretches, even into the turns! Sometimes he had his hand on his hips, sometimes he waved at the bikers and the many photo-takers. What a hoot!
There was also a true nut of a biker in a kilt and sporran with a voice sounding more Aussie than Scotland, but whatever his origin, he was a trip! Another biker came costumed as a late-stage Elvis in gold-trimmed white jumpsuit and cape, riding a bike to match.
If anything got said officially there, we didn’t hear it, but we did meet some Harley execs courtesy of Jim, who recognized them and pointed them out to us. While we were waiting in the queue for them to open the gates into the track, Terry got to talk to one of them about the oil dipstick problems she’s had – oh, yeah, the day began with the breakage of the third temperature sensor dipstick, and a quick visit to the local Harley dealership to get the stuck piece pulled free and to buy and install a replacement. She also got to talk to the fellow who now heads up the fiberglass works at Tomahawk about the desire often expressed by other sidecar enthusiasts for a bumper package like the chrome on Terry’s bike (which is a European trim not available in the States), as well as her problem with a stripped screw on the sidecar windscreen and with speckling appearing on the vinyl fairing on top of the bike’s dash. It was fun to see these execs poring over the bike and taking suggestions. I’ll be really tickled if I hear that Terry’s sidecar trim package is being made available in the States sometime.
There was a dealer party starting that day, but apart from a pretty impressive collection of bikes, a truly hilarious balloon in the shape of the headlight, gas tank, and handlebars of a bike, and food we didn’t eat (except for ice cream) because of concern about spoiling our dinner, nothing at the party tripped our triggers.
There was one cool thing, though: the dealership prominently displays a family photograph of the owner’s family, all on Harleys, from grandma and grandpa with a sidehack down through kids and grandkids. Great picture! Terry and I met the patriarch himself in the buffet line at Indy, and complimented him on the picture.
You meet the nicest people on Harleys. A young couple – Hugo and Laura – who had ridden up from Monterey, Mexico, shared our table and their story of their ride, which had been the first long motorcycle trip for them.
This was the best of days. Tomorrow we’ll make our last stop, in Rockford, IL.
Tuesday, 26 August 2003
We had another wonderful day of driving, with fine weather that got a bit hot by midday. We stopped in Minock for lunch, and afterward, Mike couldn’t get his 7-month-old Ultra Glide to start; it cranked, but the engine wasn’t getting any gas. Mike, Jim, Terry, and a few Harley bystanders pored over the bike, but in the end, the best they could figure was that it needed work only a dealer could do. Terry pulled out her HOG book and located a dealer only a few miles away, and Mike wound up calling them for a tow. With help on the way, Mike and Mary told the rest of us to ride on, and not to wait for them.
With Jim still in our rearview mirrors, we rode on to Kegel’s, the dealership in Rockford hosting the party. As we got close, we started seeing groups of people on bridges over the highway, watching and waving at the arrival of all the bikes coming in. We learned that they were expecting 25-30,000 bikes to arrive during the day. Kegel’s was a madhouse, loaded with bikes. The cops were out in force to direct traffic, but the congestion was still major. In the dealership, Jim found that they’d already sold out of dealer pins and their dealership’s 100th anniversary shirt, even though it was only 15:30. Once again, no special Ride shirt was available. We walked the rest of the grounds, which had tents with food and crafts. We each took chances on a classic Limited Edition Corvette, beautifully restored. We laughed to see a fellow from Sturgis who had his bike done up as a bison, complete with hide and horns, and we also saw our hilarious Scottish friend from the racetrack at Indy.
When we were ready to leave the dealership for our hotel, we said farewell to Jim, since he was heading up to the Riders Ranch campsite outside Milwaukee. We’ll miss him.
Wednesday, 27 August 2003
Well, today we finished the official Ride to Milwaukee in true Harley fashion, by taking the long way home getting our passports stamped at dealerships across southern and central Wisconsin. The weather stayed perfect. It felt odd to be riding with no other motorcycles holding formation in our rearview mirrors, but it was a great ride, and we were far from alone; every time we neared a dealership, the number of motorcycles on the road increased.
But the most amazing thing were the crowds not on motorcycles. All along the highways heading toward Milwaukee, from all directions, there were impromptu gatherings of people on overpasses and beside exit ramps, waving at all the motorcycles going by. Many had large signs: “Welcome Home, Milwaukee Iron!” said one, and there were others with “Happy Birthday, Harley!” or “Happy 100th!” or “Welcome, Bikers! (or Harley Riders!)” Most common of all, though, were the ones that simply said, “Welcome Home!”
And that’s really what it felt like. All of Wisconsin put out the welcome mat for Milwaukee’s most famous noisy children, who came home from all over the world, and it wasn’t just the organized events; it was the ordinary people who, on their own, decided to stop by the nearest highway and watch the steady stream of arrivals, and wave and cheer. Imagine a parade of ordinary people that wound its way all across the state, gathering crowds everywhere; that was today, and the next several days that followed. It was extraordinary.
And I knew that I’d come home to Wisconsin when I saw the first sign that said, “Buy with ease – we’ll SHIP your cheese!”
For days on end, both at home in Milwaukee, and up north at the HOG XX Rally, we saw literally hundreds of thousands of bikes parked at every Harley venue through the end of August. The line of parked bikes extended for miles along Lakeshore Drive, the Lake Michigan coastline. At the block party at House of Harley, home base for Terry’s Baby, main drag Layton Avenue was closed for five blocks, which were given over to vendors and displays. Every time we approached an intersection, we saw bikes at all cardinal points. Biker etiquette says that you acknowledge other bikers when you cross paths – which explains why you see hand signals and small waves exchanged between passing bikers – but there were so many bikers on the roads that you’d have had to have left your hand permanently in the “wave” position to swap the customary greeting! Folk gave up on hands and contented themselves with small nods – which meant that we saw a lot of living “bobblehead” toys with nodding helmets!
On Sunday, the parade of 10,000 Harleys rode down Wisconsin Avenue, stopping all activity in the city that wasn’t Harley. What made this truly unique was the parade of HOG chapter flags, because the flags celebrated chapters from all over the world and were carried by riders who had come incredible distances to be part of the Ride Home. It was also a bit of celebration for us, because we saw our road comrades Mike and Mary in the parade – our first opportunity to learn that they had overcome the difficulties that had incapacitated their bike and had made it to the Party.
What can I say? It was all good: the huge gatherings at the Summerfest grounds and the lakefront Veteran’s Park; the special motorcycle art display at the splendid Milwaukee art gallery (which posted its largest-ever attendance records during the Party); the massive HOG XX rally; the monster Reunion Bash out at State Fair Park – wall-to-wall fun with people from everywhere in the world sharing the joy of the biggest, longest party I’ve ever seen in my life.
Believe me: It’s not true that you can’t go home again. Not when home is Milwaukee, and the way that you get there is Ride.