I flew into Milwaukee for a little work, a bit of riding and a lot of hanging out with biker folk I love and respect. I’d planned to meet a few new people and there would be parties and gatherings with everything based on riding. Needless to say, I was pretty jazzed about the whole trip. One of the things I love about Milwaukee, besides the fact that the town is the world’s motorcycle Mecca and steeped in vibrant history, is the fact that bike events and politics are at the forefront of most every conversation. Whether it’s about the upcoming fun at the H-D museum, runs, current biker rights battles, pending legislation or discussions about groups like BOLT, ABATE, MMA, and MRF, the topics always seem to circle back to keeping our dwindling freedoms intact. Bikers are not a minority in Milwaukee and since 1978, riders have had the freedom of choice on helmets for those over 21.
My hosts were friends Tony “Pan” Sanfelipo and his wife Vicki, two of the most politically involved and active motorcyclists I know. Tony has spent his entire adult life fighting for bikers’ rights on every level, but particularly against helmet laws. He was the very first Freedom Fighter inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum’s Hall of Fame and I never tire of hearing his myriad tales of skirmishes from back in the day.
His diminutive lady Vicki, a.k.a. “Spitfire,” is known worldwide as the proactive biker nurse who started classes for first responders to motorcycle accidents. Her list of accomplishments and contributions to the riding community are long. With 34 years of experience as an RN/EMT working in hospitals from intensive care and float pool to surgery, she is a force of nature. An educator at heart, Vicki wrote a program called, “A Crash Course for the Motorcyclist,” and founded the largest motorcycle trauma training organization in the world, Accident Scene Management/Road Guardians. Consequentially, I took pause before I asked if they had a helmet they could loan me as we planned our rides.
I’m sure you can understand why I wasn’t quite sure what kind of response I might get over the whole helmet issue, but steeled myself for the possibility of a lecture. But I got no grief whatsoever. Instead, I was simply directed to the helmet den downstairs and told to pick whatever I wanted. Vicki explained that Tony himself wears a helmet on occasion, usually during cold weather. His battle with legislation is simply that it should be our choice, that we should not be governed into submission. Vicki’s stance mirrors his and her focus, which, of course, is safety. After trudging down to grab a bucket, I was surprised to find an entire rack of any type of helmet you could imagine. Still, it didn’t take long to make a decision: I grabbed the cool old-skool skid lid that looked like a football helmet, complete with chin guard and glittery graphics, despite the fact that it was about two sizes too big. The style, dating back to the ’70s, made my heart go pitter-pat. With an interior that was still original and lining that was crumbling from age, I was reminded of a helmet I wore when I first started riding in my teens, when helmets were still our choice. It was perfect and I loved it instantly. Traipsing upstairs with my score, Tony busted out in a grin. “Wow, you picked my favorite!” he shared. “I never wear it anymore; it’s pretty old. Are you sure it fits?” he asked. I assured him it was perfect. I cheerfully strapped on the gold metal-flaked brain bucket and off we went.
We put on a few hundred miles over the course of the week as we cruised the back roads and Pan was an excellent guide for a small gaggle of us out-of-towners from Alabama and California. We stopped by popular watering holes and visited with friends. Eventually he took us up to the scenic and revered Holy Hill Cathedral.
As far back as the 1700s, maybe earlier, Native Americans considered Holy Hill a sacred place. Built in 1926, more than 500,000 people from around the world visit the cathedral each year and the reverence of the area was humbling. We climbed the steep 178 steps to the top of the basilica’s tower to view the beautiful Wisconsin landscape as Pan, raised a devout Catholic, told about his childhood days as an altar boy when the priests had him running up and down the hills, barefooted, to do their bidding. He regaled us with stories of the area that included facts, folklore and myths. I’m convinced Pan would make a killing if he started a tour company since his wealth of information and storytelling skills are absolutely spellbinding.
As always, time spent with loved ones zips by too fast. I found myself dreading the goodbyes while gathering up luggage when, quite unexpectedly, Pan gifted me the helmet. “It suits you,” he said. I know it’s crazy, but that thing just makes me smile. It reminds me of miles shared with loved ones along beautiful Wisconsin back roads and gives me a warm fuzzy glow. So if you guys know of a company that refurbishes helmets, let me know. It just needs lining for a better fit. Oh, and maybe one of those dumb DOT stickers.