Bikes roar and emotions soar
Washington, D.C., May 25–27—For many, Memorial Day weekend is a time for barbe-ques, family vacations or just a long weekend away from work. In the motorcycling community, it’s an opportunity to honor our veterans and missing in action by attending The Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom in Washington, D.C., now in its 31st year.
We packed the bikes and hit the road a day early on one of the first dry days we had in months to cut through Pennsylvania to Gettysburg. While there, we toured the battlefields and Gettysburg National Cemetery with many other bikers on their way to Washington who obviously had the same idea. Friday morning, we made our way to Patriot Harley-Davidson to meet friends and begin a weekend of non-stop events. The parking lot swelled with bikes as Southern Persuasion banged out tunes onstage. The store, vendors and food trucks all had long lines of people soaking up the experience. Next, we rode to Washington National Cathedral for the fifth annual Blessing of the Bikes. Although it’s one of the more somber events, the beautiful ceremony was well attended by thousands of motorcyclists. Our group took a moment to remember our fellow rider and friend Jack Stimax, a Vietnam veteran who passed away this year from the long-term effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
After dinner, we made our way back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the Candlelight Vigil. Again, thousands of bikes lined the street and makeshift parking areas on the lawn. The stunning service, complete with “Taps” being played on the bagpipe, brought many tears and emotions from all those attending. Honoring our Gold Star Families at the darkened wall with such a large presence from the motorcycle community is something I’ll not soon forget.
Saturday, we started the day at Thunder Alley, the official vendor site of the rally, at 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. The crowd already started to pack in by 10:00 a.m. with the line for official T-shirts, patches and pins four deep. As in our past trips, there were a lot of heart-felt hugs and handshakes as many veterans meet at the venue each year. We got the group back together, led by our own Grant Bourne, who’s touring the country raising awareness for suicide prevention, something that plagues our vets, and headed to Harley-Davidson of Washington, D.C., for the rally’s official Open House. A vendor alley was set up around the building with dozens of vendors and food trucks. Back by the service bays, the Rockie Lynn Band was on stage wowing the crowd under the tent while in front of the building a DJ kept everyone involved in the festivities. Inside was a meet-and-greet with Tim Chambers, the Saluting Marine. Tim, a soft-spoken retired Marine Staff Sergeant, has been holding a four-plus hour salute in full uniform to the riders of Rolling Thunder since 2002.
We got back on the road and headed to Old Glory Harley-Davidson in Laurel, Maryland. The Hogs and Heroes Foundation was hosting East Coast Thunder, a fundraiser, in conjunction with the weekend. We caught one of three bands, the Tim McGee Band, who had the crowded parking lot rocking. There were also vendors, a juried car and bike show, an in-house poker run, and some delicious food from Giggy’s BBQ. We caught up with Andrew “Devildoc” Mutchler, the national president of Hogs and Heroes. Founded in 2007 and boasting over 800 members, Devildoc explained that the foundation is a group of motorcycle riders that has chapters all along the East Coast to the Canadian border. They support police, firefighters and emergency medical workers, the U.S. military and wounded warriors, as well as performing honor rides, funeral missions, and participating in community events. They invited us to join them the next day in presenting a plaque to Artie Muller, the guiding force of Rolling Thunder since 1992. We said our goodbyes as the sky blackened with another series of severe thunderstorms.
Sunday morning was hot and sunny, the perfect backdrop for ride day. We headed out to the Pentagon staging area early, picking up some stray bikers along the way and making the north lot by 8:00 a.m. We were quickly surrounded by a sea of bikes, and before long the south parking lot was opened to accommodating the never-ending line of patriots who came to support our military. There was so much activity and things to check out the time passed quickly. We met our Hogs and Heroes friends for the presentation to Artie, then tried to find some shade as the temps passed 95 degrees.
At noon, the roar from thousands of bikes firing up to hit the road made the earth shake. Soon, the estimated 400,000-plus bikers made their way from the Pentagon through the streets of Washington. The experience overloads the senses—the riders around you, the crowd cheering, waving flags, the Saluting Marine, the White House, Capitol, Lincoln and Washington Memorials. And the air swirling around you filled with nothing but patriotism, love of country and honor for our military that leaves you with teary eyes and a lump in your throat. Hopefully the thunder from the bikers is heard around the country. Hopefully our government hears it loudest and fulfills its debt to America’s heroes.