Middle-of-the-Road Hogs

Billie Jo and Billy Welch, both of Manassas, take in the sights, sounds and beverages of Little Orleans campground at the East Coast Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Billie Jo and Billy Welch, both of Manassas, take in the sights, sounds and beverages of Little Orleans campground at the East Coast Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

LITTLE ORLEANS, Md. -- The hills and hollows of western Maryland were too quiet. So about midnight Friday, a shirtless man with "Fat Bob" tattooed on his stomach and his newfound friend from outside Buffalo charged into a grove of trees where their motorcycles were parked and fired up the big machine. The woods thrummed with the gas-prices-be-damned staccato of glorious internal combustion.

It was the call of the post-industrial wild, a midlife medley of freedom and joy. Hundreds of other encamped bikers sitting around nearby campfires heard the sound of men and their machines baying for the sheer helluvit, and it was good.

"This is a bike rally, ain't it?" yelled Scott Herald, 37, an insurance adjuster from Cambria, N.Y., near Buffalo. Fat Bob just laughed. After a few loud minutes they cut their engines and got another beer.

Yes, it was a bike rally -- but perhaps not the kind you were expecting if you had watched too many movies about outlaw bikers or seen too much marketing about the new, upscale motorcyclists. Something else was going on here.

By yesterday morning, as thousands of riders thundered onto the campground in this tiny hillside town between Hancock and Cumberland, and more emerged blinking from their tents and campers where they had spent the past two days, it sure looked like a bike rally.

Chrome gleamed in the pitiless sun on the midway field where the big machines were parked in long, kickstand-tilted ranks. Fenders hawked leather accessories, tattoos, jewelry, knives, spare parts and T-shirts with naughty slogans. Bands played rock-and-roll from two stages. Men were as proud of their beer bellies as not a few women were of their uncovered breasts, and both admired one another's tattoos. Beer was $2 to raise money for the Orleans Volunteer Fire Department, or you could bring your own. The two-wheeled parade was laden with coolers and ice bags stacked like pillows.

This was the second annual East Coast Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, music festival, campout and four-day party. It is when Little Orleans loses its identity to a much more famous small town: Sturgis, S.D. The annual summer Sturgis Motorcycle Rally draws hundreds of thousands of bikers to that gorgeous western riding country near Deadwood and Mount Rushmore. It is a biker's mecca, and most make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime.

But since Sturgis is too far for some East Coast riders to make the trip regularly, a bike event promoter named Ken Appel, 45, decided he'd bring Sturgis here. He owns the campground on Apple Mountain. He charged bikers $45 for four days, $35 if you could make only Friday through Sunday. Last year, the first year, Little Orleans wasn't sure what to make of so many bikers descending on the community, and local merchants may have been nervous, according to volunteer fire chief Dave Yonker. But the crowd turned out to be so mellow and polite -- and so willing to spend money -- that this year Little Orleans was looking forward to it, Yonker said.

Appel estimated 5,000 or more would attend by weekend. In addition to spending untold dollars on gas and supplies, the bikers will raise an estimated $3,500 for the fire department in beer purchases, Yonker said, and they raised $1,000 for the local Little League via a charity ride Friday, Appel said.

There were biking competitions scheduled for yesterday, including a slow ride -- the last person across the finish ride wins, but you lose if you go so slow you have to put your foot down. A demolition derby was to be held late in the day, using surplus Hondas from the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division that still bore the agency's insignia.

So, yes, it was a bike rally, with all its attendant iconography of skulls and leather and pierced and painted flesh and grim-looking road warriors, lean dudes in leather vests, wraparound shades, heavy boots and black helmets trailing long, almost delicately braided ponytails. That was one extreme. And there was the other extreme, as well, the marketer's fantasy of prosperous looking men in polo shirts and pre-faded jeans riding BMWs or other top-of-the-line models costing $25,000 and up.

But the extremes are not where biking is at now. In fact, in America, does anything really dwell at the extremes, except in advertising and image? East Coast Sturgis was the vast middle -- middle-aged people with middle-class jobs and a median number of kids who might even grow up to be bikers, too. They were here to enjoy the cocoon of not being extreme, of existing in a crowd where everyone shared the same passion.

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