Coos Bay, Ore., June 19–20—There is no doubt in my mind that we here in the Northwest are privy to one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. One rarely needs to ride for more than 30 minutes from any city in the state before your eyes feast upon a plethora of natural wonders. Iconic mountains, sweeping deserts and rugged expansive coastline call out for exploration via miles of small twisting highways. Capitalizing on the natural beauty found in their own backyard, each June Highway 101 Harley-Davidson invites folks to their small Southern Oregon town to play a high stakes poker game. Hearing about this run for years as a “must do,” I admit it always seemed too far away to travel for just a poker run. However, I was recently 600 miles from home and a friend asked me if I was going. “Going where?” I replied. She remarked that she was going to The Lighthouse Run because folks in her riding group stated this event was not to be missed. She had the time and was going to travel north to check out the celebrated run. I figured if she was going to ride 600 miles, there must be something to this event. Honestly, I was hooked at the mere mention of a lighthouse—admit it—who doesn’t love Oregon’s sentinels carefully watching over the ships returning from far away seas. The lore alone piques one’s curiosity, but I knew there must be something more happening here to keep this poker run going for more than a decade. Soon the weekend arrived, and with giddy anticipation, the rain gear and cameras were stowed safely in my bags. It was time to head south to see what the buzz was all about for the 15th annual Lighthouse Run in Coos Bay, Oregon.
Four hours later, I pulled into run headquarters located at the Mill Casino in North Bend. Mill Casino and Hotel has been hosting this event since the run’s maiden voyage in 2000. Ample easy access parking was set aside for the more than 350 bikes expected at the run. A quick scan of the lot showed that folks had traveled from near and far, spying Montana, Idaho and even a Canadian plate in the lot. Riders ambled into the casino where Highway 101 H-D staff cheerfully moved the throngs of people quickly through the registration process. The large conference room was the destination party with live music, tasty nosh and beer sampling from local breweries. Coos Bay H.O.G. chapter members manned the raffle table as folks vied for what was sure to be a very hefty 50/50 prize for the night. Outside more than a dozen gleaming bikes lined the lot, competing for bragging rights for best in show. Ride participants slowly moved through the herd of ponies examining the impressive array of custom paint, pipes and oodles of chrome gleaming in the warm summer light. Clearly, it was going to be a tough call choosing just one bike as the category winner. As the welcoming event wound down, Rick Jackel’s name was called out as the big winner for the 50/50 on opening night. Nothing like 1,250 smackers to make his party night a success, and it was clear this was only the beginning of everyone’s fun.
The Lighthouse Run consists of 10 stops dotting the southern coastline, covering more than 350 miles if one travels up and down Highway 101. For serious poker players, this meant rising with the chickens to hit the road and all stops before the 4:00 p.m. cutoff. These were high stake gamers, because with each stop you improved your chance to win the top prize—a brand new bike. For the first time in the run’s history, dealership owners Karen and Al Pettit guaranteed one lucky poker player would be riding off into the sunset on Harley’s most popular bike, a 2015 Street Glide. Plenty of boasts were made that morning as the hardcore riders left on their long mile adventure.
For those less concerned with hitting all 10 stops, the event kicked off with a group ride. Engines roared to life promptly 9:00 a.m. kicking off a day filled with one iconic Oregon site after another. First up, just a mile into the ride, the group headed north over the 1936 McCullough Memorial Bridge. The bridge serves as a handsome example of Oregon’s engineering dotting the state’s waterways. It was the largest truss bridge of its kind back in the day. On this warm and sunny morning the view from atop the bridge was nothing short of stunning as dozens of bikes roared down the highway heading for the first card. First up, the Umpqua River Lighthouse, a sentinel that was the first lighthouse of its kind on our coast, dating back to 1857. The lighthouse that stands today is the second version for the Umpqua River and is placed slightly inland creating ample flat parking for the never-ending stream of bikes. Cards were selected, photos taken and soon players were on to their next destination. From this point on, the ride was self-paced. One could head as far north as Newport or stay as close as Florence to obtain the minimum five stops required to play a full hand. Heading east, we stopped at the Reedsport Elk Preserve and then went on to find the small but picturesque Loon Lake. To enjoy the view, you really were best pulling off the road. Signs warned of 15 mph curves, no joking here because the nine-mile road required constant focus to manage the never ending curves. Worth it in the end, this stop at the Loon Lake Lodge provided a perfect refuge from the tight twisties. Friendly staff doled out giant cones and cold malt beverages to reinvigorate weary riders. Cards were secured and bikes rode off, seeking out the perfect hand.
Ultimately the Heceta Head, Cape Argo, the tiny Coquille beacon and the most southern gem of all, the Cape Blanco Lighthouses, rounded up our hand for the day. Heading home to the Mill Casino, happy bikers gathered for their final hand in the main conference room. At the final stop it became immediately clear, this event was busting at the seams. The crowd swelled and a long line quickly formed as folks snaked through the room towards the betting tables. There was some grumbling over concerns that players might not make it to the table in time for the final hand. Fears were quickly quashed as Al took the stage, announcing to all that no player would be left behind. With his quick reassurances, the crowd resumed the playful banter of guessing who had the winning hand. With a record breaking 565 participants this year, it was clear the crowd was serious about winning that Harley.
This event is a bit spendy when you think of it simply as a poker run. However, the run is actually so much more, it’s a two-day party with hundreds of miles of awesome riding all wrapped into one great weekend. Friday night had live music and dancing to get the group in the party mood. Saturday night proved to be a perfect round two. While folks were waiting for their final hand, a full course dinner was served by the attentive Mill Hotel staff. Keeping the fun vibe going Seattle-based comedian Brad Upton had the crowd in hysterics with his tight and witty set. Soon after, Al and Karen took to the stage to dole out top-notch swag to the lucky raffle winners. Then 41 lucky folks, despite being a little saddle sore, ambled up to the stage to claim their Iron Ass award for hitting all 10 stops in the allotted time for the day. Proudly raising their classy horse butt statues, these select few were the envy of the entire crowd.
Finally the moment arrived; it was time to win that sweet ride. The owners of the three high and three low hands were called to the stage. Each of these six lucky folks were given the chance to select one of the gift bags before them, hoping their prize was the key that would fire up the Street Glide. Once the bags were selected, owner Al offered each potential winner 10k in cold hard cash. Waving that fat envelope of cash was not enough to convince even one poker player to give up their potentially winning bike key. So, one by one, they tentatively stepped up to the bike. First player—nothing. Then the second, third and fourth tried—to no avail. With just two players left, the crowd was on their toes. Who would it be? The fifth contestant was a modest-looking gentleman who seemed a little shell-shocked before he even placed his key in the ignition. He mustered through and the key was properly placed. Then, as he made the turn of the switch, the distinctive sound of the ignition arming itself to fire was heard by all. The crowd went crazy and with a roar, Ron Blount fired up his brand new Street Glide. To this writer, he looked stunned. He quickly recovered as his entourage exploded onto the stage giving him high fives. In the end, Ron was grinning wide as he took in the features of his sweet new ride.
As the weekend drew to a close and it was time to pack my pony for the ride home, I, too, was singing the praises of the Lighthouse Run. Al, Karen, and their tireless staff ran a smooth, efficient and fun event, despite the larger than anticipated crowds. For some, it seemed, the high point was that gleaming Street Glide. However, in traveling the route it was clear everyone was having a great time riding and exploring the hidden gems of the southern coastline. This event has sold out for more than five years in a row—so be sure to mark your calendars for spring 2016. Based on the turnout this year, you might want to get in early, securing your spot in the 16th annual run. If it’s anything like 2015, this is an event you won’t want to miss and maybe, just maybe, you might have the lucky winning hand.