RICHMOND, VA., SEPT. 26–29—Any event with a title containing the words “battle cry” that starts in Richmond, Virginia, travels to Appomattox, offers free tours of the Museum of the Confederacy and even features live cannon fire—in an election year, to boot—well, you might think it was an attempt to stir up political partisan rancor. Instead, the Battle Cry Touring Rally was just the latest touring excursion by H.O.G. for its members.
It’s not news that the legacy of the Civil War still resonates in the South, and nowhere more so than in Richmond. Amid such surroundings, it’s easy to remember the resentment caused a few years ago when Harley-Davidson Motor Company banned the Confederate flag—the Stars and Bars—from dealer T-shirts. It was a mighty blow against racism, and it was a courageous stand against the wishes of a significant part of Harley’s customer base. Some of us were quite proud of corporate Harley, but the decision did not go down easily with others. Nevertheless, bygones are long gone, and the world has moved ahead.
No such battle cry marred the start of the Battle Cry Touring Rally held in late September. While the leaves were turning gold and brown in northern climes, the weather in the capital of the Lost Cause was a balmy 75 degrees. Riders from the Northeast and Midwest arrived in leathers and gloves, which they quickly shed. It was not T-shirts-and-sandals weather, but it was pleasant enough to extend the riding season for one last foray.
The registration process at Richmond Harley-Davidson on day one produced a jarring novelty. Missing were familiar faces from national H.O.G., which has experienced reorganization. Instead, British accents complemented Southern drawls. H.O.G. hired a European firm, GlobalEnduro, to handle all aspects of Battle Cry. GlobalEnduro bills itself as an adventure travel agency. They have conducted many European motorcycle tours, including a few with Harley-Davidson in London. Matt King, from Harley-Davidson Communications (and editor of H.O.G. magazine), said, “We are partnering with select Harley-Davidson-authorized tour operators to provide some of the back-end logistics for our touring rallies. These operators work hand in hand with H.O.G. staffers and volunteers.”
The premise of Battle Cry was simple: Meet in Richmond, ride to Roanoke, then Salisbury, North Carolina, and then finally end up near Knoxville in Maryville, Tennessee—all over a four-day period. Along the way, the 325 registrants gathered in the evenings at Harley dealerships for food, music and nice merchandise discounts. During all this gaiety, H.O.G. members forged new friendships with strangers to ride planned routes prepared by the organizers. Registrants were free to extemporize their own routes, and many did. No one got lost, thanks to the GPS.
The schedule wasn’t difficult for longtime H.O.G. members. From Richmond to Roanoke is 202 miles; day two was 171 miles, day three 323 miles and day four was 167 miles. Most members have longer chapter rides. However, this wasn’t your usual Sunday ride to an ice cream parlor. Much of the traveling was on back roads—think Deliverance—and some was on roads you won’t find in your neighborhood: The Blue Ridge Parkway, the Tail of the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway, to name a few.
Any gathering of H.O.G. members brings out the best and the unusual. For instance, one had to sympathize with Guy Smoot of the Manassas H.O.G. chapter in Virginia. His 2003 Ultra broke down in Roanoke and, as luck would have it, the broken part was a part that was never supposed to break. So the part was not in stock, and none of the surrounding Harley dealers had it, either. It looked like the end for Guy. Undaunted, the 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army bit the bullet, negotiated a trade-in price with the Harley dealer, and caught up with the group in North Carolina, riding a new 2013 Ultra. Guy comes from a motorcycling background. His father rode with the D.C. Ramblers, and his mother raced with the Powder Puff racers. Guy sports a Ranger tab and Combat Infantryman’s badge for his service in Iraq, two of the most coveted decorations an infantryman can attain.
I almost tripped over Rick Weber and Danny Oney in a darkened motel parking lot in Salisbury. They were sitting on a curb, oblivious to the comings and goings of motorcycles. They were strangers to each other, but they had one thing in common: They both liked cigars. It was a sight—two grown men sitting in a cloud of blue smoke, getting to know one another. It used to be that Harley riders were excluded from polite company, but now it’s smokers. Rick and Danny accepted the situation good-naturedly. If not for the prohibition against smoking in the motel, they might never have met.
Two of the better riders on the tour were Debbie and Jo. Debbie, from Crab Orchard, Kentucky, is distantly related to the Hatfield clan of the Hatfield vs. McCoy feud that is at the heart of country lore. It’s not surprising that Debbie rides so well; she’s done the Tail of the Dragon a few times, and operates a 2010 Street Glide. Her partner Jo is a retired, 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, where she was a medic and Army recruiter. Jo is from North Carolina, so she was on home territory for part of the ride. Debbie and Jo rode with another gay couple, and the four of them put their bikes through the paces.
Other riders on the tour that you could meet were a pride of Harley executives who were along (literally) for the ride. There was Peggy Wenzel from Event Marketing; Mike McCann, director of Core Customer Marketing; Paul James, director of Consumer Events; Christine Kutsch, Consumer Events; Matt King, Communications; Todd Robinson, H.O.G. regional manager; Steve Pruett, Marketing Field Team; Willie Wills, H-D Security; and Alexia Harmon, H-D Europe, Middle East and Africa. For the record, all of these folks were, of course, working.
Can any rider resist the Tail of the Dragon? Properly, the Dragon is an 11-mile section of Route 129 in east Tennessee. It is a challenging stretch, comprising 300-plus curves. But equally difficult is a shorter section of Route 28 in North Carolina, which butts up against the famed Dragon. I was lured into the twisties by an unknowing grocery clerk who warned me against taking Route 28. “There’s too many of those danged curves on that road,” she cautioned. I just smiled, got on the bike and started the ride. As I snaked back and forth and in and out of the treacherous bends, I came up on another bagger, which was being ridden by Greg Eads. I followed his lead, which made it easier for me. Greg was an aggressive rider but not reckless. He expertly leaned the bike into the curves and pulled out of them powerfully. When we reached Route 129, we took off our helmets, introduced ourselves and passed the time with conversation. Greg is chapter director of the Jacksonville, Florida, chapter. In his other life, he is director of Florida Blue, part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield network.
The Dragon has become commercialized to a grotesque level. There is a Deals Gap motel for motorcyclists where they sell every imaginable souvenir from coffee cups to T-shirts and postcards. One roadside entrepreneur was exacting $12 to sew on a Dragon patch the size of your thumb. But the enjoyment comes from the ride. It’s free, like many of the best things in life.
Another major attraction on the Battle Cry ride included in the registration fee was the Wheels Through Time museum run by Dale Walksler, a dynamo of a man with an encyclopedic recall of gears, parts, tires and all other things that make up a motorcycle. Located in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, just five miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Wheels Through Time comprises over 300 motorcycles representing 24 marques. If you’re lucky enough to be at the museum when Dale is working, be prepared for a show-and-tell presentation that you won’t forget. Dale loves to talk about his work. In North Carolina, nothing could be finer.
A rarity in the museum was one of the first scroll “maps” which was used before there were folded maps. Essentially, it’s a scroll attached to the handlebars, with directions that resemble MapQuest. While you rode, you read the scroll that told you where to turn. At the end of the roll, you inserted another scroll. There were scrolls that would take you from New York to Santa Monica, turn by turn. It’s no wonder that Jay Leno called Wheels Through Time one of the best museums in the country.
I’ve long believed that there’s no better place for a H.O.G. rally than the South. I’ve been to a dozen rallies there, and the South always entertains. Like most places in America, the South has its regional quirks. It’s a colorful and eccentric place, but it works for those who live there and they usually welcome visitors. I even like the kudzu, which grows ceaselessly. It climbs telephone poles, and you dare not leave your bike parked for more than a day or so; the kudzu would consume it. Only the valiant efforts of highway workers keep the South from being smothered in this weed.
I also like the food in the South. You won’t find shrimp with grits anywhere else. One morning at breakfast, I ladled out what I thought was oatmeal. It turned out to be gravy, so I grabbed a biscuit.
Mostly, though, I like the Southern hospitality. I saw a billboard with a message that enticed me: “Second Home? First Choice. North Carolina.” I’m thinking; I’m thinking. I just have to get past the shrimp and grits.