YUMA, ARIZ., Apr. 19–21—I’m a cougar. Not that kind, but rather a Felis concolor, the feline version of the lone wolf. As a female biker who enjoys solitary journeys, many have expressed concern that I travel alone. I assure them that many riders would be passing me on the way to Yuma, so I could always get help. But over the years I’ve lost so many friends to relocation, age or illness that it’s hard to use my glib answer that I travel several hundred miles to party with friends that live barely two miles from me. Not so this year.
I’m feeling a bit melancholy because my good friend Esta (who consistently wins Oldest Female Rider) has decided to skip the 52nd annual Yuma Prison Run this year, so I will not have my perennial camp buddy to fall back on for companionship. I’ve run through my mental list of who else I might see, and the list has shrunk greatly over the past 30 years. So I begin my travels looking for the familiar landmarks along my route: the metal mammoth sculpture near Riverside, the Cabazon dinosaurs and the ladder tree with lush, green foliage. Minute details begin to stand out along the barren landscape down Highway 86, like Rivera Vineyards’ meticulous rock walls along the highway with a pair of boots propped atop the fencing a half-mile apart! The Salton Sea beaches are too far off to see if there’s been any improvement to the “resort.” Last year a restaurant’s sign claimed “The Best Mexican Food in Town!” (What town?) This year the sign says “No promises: just good food!” Shredded plastic bags cling to the highway fencing, appearing as impaled ghosts in the breeze. I decided to stop at the famous deserted agricultural stop along Highway 8–just ask your elders. Reclaimed by the weeds and pigeons, I cruised through the stop thinking, “Good Riddance!”
The heat in Yuma was 104 degrees last year, but only made it to 92 for this year’s event, which is mild by desert standards. I quickly checked in and snagged a good campsite in the shade of the goat pens across from the Loners and Nuggets clubs. For those with larger tents believing they couldn’t avail themselves of this precious shade, here’s a clue: The center fencing dividing the pens can be lifted out to double the space for a big tent. Thank me next year.
With my tent erected and campsite settled, I made my annual pilgrimage to Bobby’s Territorial H-D. Bobby Erxleben, the dealership’s owner, would be returning later that night from New Orleans after receiving his sixth consecutive Bar & Shield award from The Motor Company. I stopped at the 99 Cent Store to stock up on fluids and rope (to retain my campsite parking) and found gasoline at the ARCO station for a mere $3.32 a gallon! That’s a good 45 cents cheaper than in my hometown and I couldn’t fill my tank fast, or full, enough.
Socializing at the Yuma County Fairgrounds can be split between the oh-so-popular beer garden and the bleachers surrounding the dance floor near the stage. Returning for their 12th engagement was the Sam Morrison Band, playing a great mix of rock ’n’ roll and covering the Doors, Led Zeppelin, SRV and Grand Funk—with cowbell! At the beer garden I watched a colorful sunset while visiting with friends, and the rest of the evening was spent checking out the vendors.
I didn’t see or, more importantly, hear many aircraft from the Marine base south of the fairgrounds. Perhaps the sequester curtailed the flights, but the noise is regarded as the “sound of freedom” to the locals. Since it was too dark to see much detail of the wares for sale, I headed for my campsite where, of course, someone set off bright and noisy fireworks as soon as I laid down. Next year I’m gonna invent a “camp hood” that’s light- and sound-proof for a guaranteed good night’s sleep.
Saturday morning I was up with the Arizona sun at 6:30 a.m. with birds singing and a harmonica playing off in the distance. I overheard passersby ask my camp neighbor about her beau. “He’s drunk.” He wakes and responds, “I need my beauty sleep!” The friend replies, “You need all year!”
The Yuma Youth Hockey League wrangled up a fat and tasty breakfast burrito for me at the snack bar. The free coffee (tips appreciated) was ready to go, so I grabbed a handful of dairy creamer packets and began the tedious task of emptying a measly half-teaspoon at a time into my cup. Behind me, someone asked what was taking me so long. “I’m trying to make a latte!” I replied. “Next year bring the cow!”
Fortified with caffeine I strolled over to the announcer’s booth to greet Butthead Jim, who celebrated his 80th birthday two weeks prior. I notice it’s 7:37 a.m. and he’s late with his wakeup call. He proudly points to a minibike he displayed at his Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas, for donations towards the Yuma Burn Center. With a membership of only 25 parishioners, an impressive baggie full of bills, coins and checks totaling $1,320 was ready to be added to the bike show’s “vote by money” grand total later that night. After shedding an outer layer of clothing, I stopped to joke with a woman busy grilling bacon on a portable grill. “This is supposed to be a vacation and you’re still cooking?” Her name was Diane, and she admitted to being a Yuma virgin and enjoying the run immensely, promising to return.
It was bingo time after breakfast and the masochist in me torments myself, losing by ever-shrinking numbers, every single game. But watching the winners, curiously all men, display their dancing skills—or lack thereof—atop the table is reward enough. I mention to Butthead that the dancing is rather lackluster and I’m not getting any good shots, and he dutifully informed the crowd they need to step up their dancing moves. And once again the idea of installing a stripper pole is jokingly mentioned. A humidor was auctioned off for $20 to Steve Spangler from Norco, and the final big bingo trophy was sold for $120 to Joy Mattice. Joy drove a big orange rig parked outside from Onalaska, Texas, with her bike and a load she specifically wrangled for a West Coast delivery. As the players wandered off, a measuring tape was produced to gauge the length needed from tabletop to roof for a dance pole–be here next year for the results!
Crossing over to the tarmac for the bike games, I passed the barbecue grills filled with two pallets’ worth of mesquite charcoal for the night’s dinner. By my reckoning, that’s 1,600 pounds of charcoal! After 30 years I’m surprised to find new bike games in addition to the classic Wienie Bite and Slow Race. Added this year were the Ball Drop, Shoot Your Balls Off and the Bike Wash. First place in the Slow Race went to Jack Barnes, while Toby Lovato and Antonio Rios took second and third, respectively. Brad and Patty Peyree took top honors in Shoot Your Balls Off, with Toby and Carmen taking second, and Jim and Raven Fisher nabbing third place. The only name I got for the winning team in the Wienie Bite was “Rick,” but Tony and Shawnia Daniels took second place, and Jim and Raven Fisher took third.
The revitalized Victor McLaglen Motor Corps (with their friends, family and assorted dogs) gathered together for their first show of the season—and their 50th here at Yuma. Fans were offered a glimpse into the future as Benjamin Sevilla received pointers on the minibike from his grandfather, Guillermo Sevilla. After a year of recruiting, VMMC has returned with 20 members (some new and several returning from the ’80s–’90s rosters) and double the bikes from last year. After the usual showcase of bike stunts comes the trademark pyramid, which is always a crowd pleaser. After the show, Guillermo and his family—representing four generations—sat atop a line of black and white VMMC Shovels (and one Pan!). After many years of anticipation, a video documentary of the VMMC’s history is finally available for purchase at events and on their website at www.thevmmc.com. Check it out!
As the bike procession gathered at the west gate for the parade to the prison, I visited with a 4-month-old pit bull puppy named Kyro and his mom, a truck-drivin’ Marine stationed here at the Yuma Proving Ground. It’s always exciting to watch the bike parade led by the VMMC rumble into the Yuma Territorial Prison parking lot as it winds up the road past the prison cemetery. Many choose to enter the museum and climb up to the watchtower with its incredible views of the grounds and distant geographical landmarks. After a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center located at the quartermaster’s park, I hightailed it back to photograph the rarest of anthropologic images–the beginning of the food line!
I was eighth in line and, though it was only 3:00 p.m., I was betting they’d begin serving early and my wait—and all others—would only be 45 minutes at the most. The Yuma Youth Hockey League is always prepared to feed 2,000 hungry bikers. I rhetorically asked, “Yuma has ice?” Turns out I spotted the answer in their logo and no, they don’t. The YYHL plays on roller blades!
The afternoon band, Tommy & the Drifters, was greatly underappreciated with only a meandering crowd to enjoy their great blues and rock sets. One gentleman invited me to witness all 25 members of his family riding to Laughlin. He didn’t know me very well, but I assured him if they all ride to Yuma next year, I will definitely be interested! At the beer garden, Nugget Wooster treated me to a Red Apple Ale and we caught up on news. The rest of the afternoon was open until the dance tonight at 7:00 and the awards at 8:00.
Drawn in by the return of the Sam Morrison Band, the crowd began to gravitate back towards the stage. Promptly at 8:00 that evening, a young boy named Jason was called upon to pull the 50/50 raffle ticket and was rewarded with a $200 finder’s fee by the winner. Trophies were presented to the bike game winners and to the Oldest Female Rider, Doris Metler, age 71, and Oldest Male Rider Jim Brown, 84. Oldest Bike went to Stanley Martin’s 1988 (unidentified) bike, which brought hoots from the crowd. Hell, I have tires older than that! The crowd was then reminded that you must sign up at the registration table to be considered. Continuing the awards, Long Distance Female was Karen from New York, and Male to Nigel Hawkins, last year’s winner who generously handed the award to second-place Ed Holiday. Largest Club (again) with 56 members was won by the Big Belly Hawgs. The first-place dance trophy went—appropriately enough—to a woman named Dancer!
Turning to the serious reasons for which this event was created, the monies raised at this run are not only matched, but also doubled and tripled by the Norwalk Centaurs (NCMC). As the largest single donor to the Yuma Burn Center, NCMC Treasurer Mark Spector presented a check for $9,780 to Paul Evancho. (Butthead Jim came up to hand him the baggie from his church, as well.) He also told of an anonymous donation of 10 $100 bills to be given to the bike with the least amount of votes in the bike show. And speaking of the Bike Show, Victor Garcia took first place and $1,072 with his ’47 Indian Chief, Russ Farmer claimed second place and $1,054 with his custom trike, third-place honors and $439 went to Steve Jones for his H-D Ultra Classic, and fourth place and $225 went to Devin Halverson for his H-D Dyna Wide Glide.
It’s always a treat to see Patty Garcia and her vivacious son Victor onstage as she relays how donated funds enable Arc of Yuma to provide summer programs including a water park and horseback riding. She gratefully received a check for $5,000 from the NCMC. Likewise, another $5,000 was donated to Amberly’s Place and received by Trevor Umphress, who in turn gave the club a lovely statuette and plaque in appreciation for their contributions over the years. Spector then made a surprise announcement that the club decided to clean out their Rainy Day Fund by giving additional checks of $10,000 each to Paul, Patty and Trevor. What a magnanimous gesture!
With that, the members of the club lined up onstage for a round of applause from the crowd. Now they can relax—for the time being—until planning begins for next year. And each spring, for over half a century, 2,400 riders look forward to the Yuma Prison Run as the first overnighter to officially launch the new riding season. Each year creates, renews and solidifies friendships. I arrived feeling a bit down, but had my spirits uplifted knowing this event continues to refresh, rejuvenate and inspire everyone who attends.