May 30, 2010
Every year on Memorial Day weekend, Washington D.C. hosts a massive motorcycle rally. It is called Rolling Thunder, and it is one of, if not the, biggest motorcycle rallies in the U.S. This year, I decided to take part. I wouldn’t want to live in the D.C. area and say I missed this opportunity.
My first clue to how big this thing might be was my “highly” recommended show time. The actual ride from the Pentagon through downtown Washington was supposed to start at noon. I was told to be at the Harley Davidson dealership in Fairfax by 6:30 a.m. Wow! that is awfully early. But I followed the advice and rolled out of my driveway at 6:00 a.m. sharp. I got about 3 miles from the Harley shop and saw my first traffic cop. He was motioning me and several other bikes to the right of some cones. He was motioning cars down the left side. I followed my cones and passed no less than five more officers doing their traffic dance. It looks like a disco dance…just less foot movement. Then I see a herd of Ford Mustangs in a parking lot next to ten or twelve motorcycle cops. I cruise on by and get to within 1/2 mile of the Harley place. Then I see it. A pretty big group of bikes are being herded into four rows. Some burly bikers were making sure everyone was right where they needed to be. I fell in line quickly and got off my bike. Then I see the wave of bikes filing in behind me. Within about two minutes our queue had grown to over 1/2 mile long. Wow…again! I meet up with my buddy from work and some of his riding club. We meet/greet and then start walking to the dealership, where they will have some festivities before our 9:00 a.m. departure to the Pentagon.
The Harley shop opens its doors at 7:00. We wander in and peruse the merchandise. I sit on a few bikes and think that maybe one day I would like some American steel. but they are costly, and high maintenance. I will just stick to my Suzuki. After we have had our fill of browsing, we make it back to the parking lot just in time to see the local high school band come marching in. Impressive. Then we get a group of bagpipers. I am a sucker for bagpipes. They just sound so regal. They bring chills most of the time. There is a stage setup and we get a string of speakers from the local riders group (the Patriot Riders) that are our hosts, some American Legion folks that are accepting a donation from the riders and then a recently retired army general. I am starting to see the magnitude of this “little” event. Just consider that this is merely our rallying point before getting to the “big” ride.
At 8:45, we are called to our bikes and told to “saddle up”. At 8;55 we fire up our engines. For those that may not know, the sound of what must have been thousands of motorcycles all cranking up is nearly deafening. I got even more chills. I take a quick look behind me and can not see the end of the line. It disappears over a small hill. I was told later that the line was about two miles long. The Patriot Riders start rolling out of the parking lot and then the rest of us start falling in behind them. I had not really noticed it before, but the streets had started to be lined by spectators. A Fairfax fire engine had its ladder extended over our lanes and unfurled a U.S. flag over us as we rolled through. People were cheering and waving for several miles as we made our way to Interstate 66 (one of the major arteries into/out of Washington). As we merge onto the interstate, I see that they have shut it down going eastbound into D.C. They shut down 66! That is unheard of. But we had it all to ourselves all the way in. Again, people were lined up everywhere they could. On overpasses. At on ramps. On walkways that meander through the neighborhoods along the route. Everywhere.
As we pull into Arlington and approach the Pentagon, we start to meet other large groups of riders. We are taking up every inch of road. More traffic cops and volunteers are guiding us to our designated parking lots. We are lining up in long rows once again. But this time it is 40 or 50 columns wide. I have never seen so many bikes at one time. My chills are still there, but they are now accompanied by some awe. We shut down and just turn 360 degrees, taking it all in. Everyone is walking up an embankment and we just follow along. These folks seem to know the lay of the land. As we get over the hill, we start to see and hear more people. More bikes. There is yet another parking lot full of bikes. This is the Rolling Thunder members area. There are charters all over the country. We see flags for almost every east coast state, many mid-west states, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. I heard later that there were members from all 50 states accounted for. Some were just in smaller groups and harder to identify. The bikes must be well over 100,000 so far. It is a sea of steel and chrome. Sunglasses are a must as the sun reflects off of mirrored parts in every direction. We take a lap and get some food and decide to make our way back to our lot since it is now 11:45. Fifteen minutes till take off!
When we crest our embankment again, our lot has more than doubled in occupancy. And another lot has begun filling up. This is insane. People are milling about and just admiring all the hardware. The folks at this event range from the dingiest, road-weary biker to the doctor and lawyer types that are trying way to hard to look “biker”. And everything in between. There are news crews and reporters getting interviews, helicopters floating as close to Pentagon air space as they are allowed and an unexpected B-52 bomber fly-over. This is quite a spectacle. One guy near our bikes states that he was in this same area last year and it was 2:00 p.m. before they pulled out. That is a solid two hours away. So we meet up with some friends-of-friends-of-acquaintances that have coolers of water, soda and beer…and a tent. I will stick to water. Beer and bikes is a bad, bad combo.
We hang out with this crew for about two and a half hours. We hear a few bikes start up near where we parked and pop our heads up to see what might be going on. All we see are people scrambling for bikes like fighter pilots scramble for their planes. It is go time…and we are a few hundred yards from our wheels! We just take off. Running with the pack while trying to locate our bikes in all the madness. We zero in and grab all our gear. We jump on and start up just in time for the crowd to start rolling toward some semblance of order. We slowly pull into a formation of sorts in two columns. We ride toward Arlington National Cemetery and from there will turn onto Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial.
While i was baking on a big pad of blacktop for hours, Julia was moving the girls toward Washington to meet me at the end of the ride. This was not an easy task and they got stuck on the Arlington side of the bridge. All foot traffic was stopped for the 3+ hours of motorcycles that would be coming through. She let me know where they were and said to get on the left side if I could. The photo above shows me riding by and giving Payton and Rylee a high five. This gave me my biggest chills. It really took my breath away a little. I was so happy they got to see this great tribute.
After passing the family, I followed the route across the bridge and around Lincoln. As we approached Constitution Avenue (the main drag separating the White House from the big monuments), there was a lone sergeant from the Marine Corps. He was in full service dress and stood right in the center of the street. There were roses at his feet and the boots and rifle that represent the POW/MIA soldiers. He stood there and held a salute. He held a salute for the entirety of the parade. Hours, standing still, holding vigil and paying tribute to those that we were there to honor. I guess I was just going to have chill bumps all day long. There was no way around it.
We passed the marine and followed our path to the U.S. Capitol and back around to Lincoln. This was the end of the journey. We were directed to some parking areas and we swarmed them. Roaring bikes after a long day of riding…and remembering. After all, remembering is what it was all about. You do not have to know anyone that gave their life for our freedom. You do not have to know anyone personally that is serving today, ready to give everything for our way of life. You just have to know that people have made this sacrifice. You just have to know that everyday that you wake up free, someone mourns the loss of those that protected that freedom. Every night when you go to sleep, military members are standing guard. They stand in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea hoping for the best, but training for the worst. On May 30th, over 500,000 people on more than 400,000 motorcycles helped a nation remember.