Farewell, good friend
On March 22, we lost the most gracious, humble, visionary man I’ve ever known. My friend, Arlen Ness. Anyone who knew him will understand why I say he was the epitome of a gentleman. His love for his family, friends, and Hamster brotherhood was something all families crave, but few ever experience. Still in love with his high school sweetheart, Bev, after 59 years of marriage, and raising a family that would make any man proud. He was an inspiration to me, and countless others, and was known and loved worldwide. Even those who didn’t care for Arlen’s style of motorcycle can never fault his vision, his imagination and his attention to detail. The first time I interviewed Arlen officially, I asked him what he would do differently in his life if he could, and if there was a disaster looming and he could only save one non-human thing, what would it be? He thought for a minute, then answered, “Not a thing.” He then said, “That would have to be my Knucklehead; it’s the one that started it all.” (He allegedly used his profits as a semi-pro bowler to buy the Knuck.)
My meeting Arlen is like one of those tales that begins with “Once upon a time,” and has left me with many friends from all over the world that I’ve met through him, including most of the top builders in the motorcycle world. As with most things in my life, it wasn’t planned.
Back in the late 1990s, my camping spot for the world-famous Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County Frog Jumps closed, and I was on the lookout for a new home base for that countywide party that’s always held the third week in May. A referral led me to Sherrie Lockhart’s The Avery Hotel, an 1840s structure converted into a hotel with five or six rooms. Out back, Sherrie had set up a shady spot with chairs called A-Town for Arlen and friends. As I pulled in on my ol’ Shovelhead, there was a fellow standing out back by his beautiful custom. He introduced himself as Arnie Araujo, and after talking a while, I asked him if he knew if I could camp in the adjoining woods. He said, “One of our group didn’t show up again this year, so maybe I can get you a room.” I knew that all the rooms were reserved for Arlen and his friends every year, so I didn’t hold out much hope, but he introduced me to Sherrie and got me a room that I kept for over a decade until she was forced to close that magical place. He then led me to the bar, where he introduced me to his childhood friend, Arlen Ness.
Hanging out at The Avery, Arnie became a dear friend, as did Arlen. I was invited to dinner with the Hamsters every year, and made to feel like a brother, hanging out on the rock wall in front of the Murphys Hotel, and riding the foothill roads with them. “The Wall” was built in the 1840s, and is the center of the action at Frog Jumps, with thousands of bikes and riders passing over the long weekend, stopping to say hello, and admiring the bikes parked in front. As Arnie said today, “The Wall will never be the same.”
At dinner one evening, there were about a dozen of us at a quiet corner table, and we’d just gotten our food when several riders and their ladies stopped outside the window next to Arlen to wave and say hello. He left the table and spent about 20 minutes outside, talking and signing autographs while his food got cold. I once asked him after watching him shake hands with a continuous line of admirers for several hours how he managed to keep his smile, and exchange a few words with each individual. His answer was, “They made me who I am, and I’ll never turn my back on them!”
In 2012, Reggie and I were invited to ride to Sturgis with Arlen and the West Coast Hamsters. It was a trip unlike any other before or since. Everything but booze was arranged and paid for in advance, so all we had to do was ride, eat, ride, drink, ride, and enjoy. The trip takes a different route every year, with a party at every stop. We met in Mammoth Mountain, California, then rode to Ketchum, Idaho, for a couple of days, then a couple of stops in Montana, and a stop in Sundance, Wyoming, before arriving in Spearfish. The next afternoon, a block party closed off Hamster Hill, a neighborhood of condos owned by the Hamsters, and Arlen brought his newest build out for us to check out before the unveiling. The escorted ride from Spearfish to Sturgis with several hundred bikes was quite a thrill, and we were all treated like royalty. It was truly the trip of a lifetime for us.
I know Arlen was proud of his title as “The King of Custom Motorcycles,” his membership in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and all of his other accomplishments, but he was prouder of his family. His daughter, Sherri, and Cory, Zach and Max, his sons and grandsons, the young folks he raised to take over his legacy and run it as he did, with humility, class and an appreciation for their friends and customers.
Ride in Paradise, my friend, and save me a spot at the bar…