Reconverted - H-D's 100th Anniversary Party

"I bathed in the exhaust and drank the grease."

28-31 August 2003: On Labor Day weekend Harley-Davidson threw a little party in celebration of their 100th year of making motorcycles. On the order of a quarter million bikers descended on the city of Milwaukee. There were block parties all over the city for four nights. Milwaukee's SummerFest grounds were packed with bands for three nights. Harley-Davidson had a 10,000 bike parade, demo rides, factory tours and what must have been four million t-shirts for sale. Motorcyles blanketed the city. Every open curb or sidewalk was fair game. On the final day 150,000 folks packed an outdoor stage without knowing who would perform. The mystery headliners turned out to be Tim McGraw, Kid Rock and Elton John. It was an event.

As far as the eye can see Those are the sterile facts, but they say nothing of what it was like to live through this particular weekend in Milwaukee. Fact is there is no way to adequately describe it. All I can offer is my experience and a few pictures. Let me start by coming clean. Harley-Davidson is why I ride. My earliest consciousness of motorcycling is embodied in the 1977 Low Rider. For years I bowed and worshipped at the heavy metal altar of Milwaukee iron. I bathed in the exhaust and drank the grease. I read the history then started living my own biker life. Then came the late 90s and like perhaps many, my devotion began to wane.


Not because of the new bikes or The Motor Company. I love the glacial pace of development and can live with the nostalgia overdose. No it wasn't any of that. It was the people. The new "riders." You know to whom I refer... The absurdly cocky, forty-something, more-money-than-passion-or-sense, new breed of Harley owners. I can't stand them and worse, I can't stand to be associated with them. They don't respect moto history, other riders or other makes. All they seem to understand are their chrome-boat Softails.

Juneau Avenue on the 100th That is what made Harley's 100th anniversary weekend so special. It re-ignited my passion for the all things H-D. It wasn't the new models, the bands, the burnouts, public drinking, or parking on sidewalks. It wasn't even Elton John. No, none of that. It was the people that I met. Everywhere I parked. Everytime I sat down. At every restaurant. In every bar. To the last they were friendly, fun loving, interesting and interested. It wasn't Harley-Davidson that made them that way, but it was Harley-Davidson that brought us all together.

Which set me to thinking. Why does this sort of event bring out the best in people? Shared effervescence? The idea of similarly minded folks feeling good about getting together for the same purpose, speaking the same language, and reveling in the same passion. Yes I think there is something to that notion, but that doesn't explain it altogether. For me it has more to do with the temporary lowering of social norms, those artificial barriers that develop between all of us in our day-to-day lives. When they are removed something special happens.

Monster German customs"Camaraderie transcends trivialities."We have all felt it. It happens on island vacations. That carefree attitude you can never hope to carry back home. You become more open, more friendly, more accepting, more human. Now capture that emotion. Bottle it. And apply it to 250,000 bikers. It's wonderful. The moment each one of them threw a their leg over their bike and started heading for the party, the feeling washed over them. One by one. They were free. Transformed from a respectable, everyday stressed-out worker, into the person they wish they could be all the time.

Late Saturday night It first manifests itself in the most subtle of ways. Mouths start to open. It's a radical concept. People actually start to talk to folks they do not know. Acknowledging each other's presence beyond forced formalities. In the real world we scarcely make eye contact with the people around us. An "Excuse me." here or an expecting-no-conversation "How ya do'in?" there, but that is it. Sad really. At the 100th Anniversary you couldn't park your bike without falling into a conversation with a few fellow riders. And I'm not talking about a "nice weather we are having..." conversation.

Heard on the streets...

 "You rode from Nevada on a Sportster? Are you insane?"

"An '81 Sturgis in mint condition. Nice. I just saw a '91 Sturgis."

"I've been looking for my bike for seventeen hours. Have you seen it?"

   "Your plate says you're from New South Wales. How the hell did you get here from Australia?"

"Do you always get your bike washed by chicks in bikinis in the middle of the street?"

"I DO NOT want to hear 'Tiny Dancer'!"

 The mornings after Five or ten minutes of actual two-way conversation. In some cases two or three hours, dinner and a dozen drinks. Amazing. After three days of this, my slow brain finally made the connection. This was the magic. Everyone rides for different reasons. Everyone has their own opinions about politics and society. But all that gets swept away as inconsequential. The camaraderie transcends the trivialities.

The vast majority of Harley riders are fun-loving folks. Their bikes are their passion, their release from everyday life. Stick a few thousand of them together and you have yourself a good time. The overly seen, overly heard minority of a*hole Harley riders, that we all hate, are not the norm. They are the exception, not the rule. Why have I exiled myself from the real riders? Just stupid I guess...

At least one moto journo figured out the mystery headlinerNo longer. Count me reconverted. Harley-Davidson got me riding and has now once again shown me the magic. The trick will be trying to bring some of the magic back to everyday life - or at least everyday riding. This will require waving at passing riders. Stopping for down bikers. Not snickering at the neon yellow, stretched choppers. That's the tough one: how not to get cynical again. Keeping that mind open. It is going to be tough. I think I'll start by opening my mouth.

As for trying to explain what the weekend was like for everyone else I'll let the pictures do the talking. There are just no words to describe a quarter million bikers, 100 block parties, a 100 bands, a city and police force ready and willing to let the mood wash over their town. You had to live it to understand it.

You're welcome.

Get in your Inbox