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.
As Appel promised on his Web site, "Four fun-filled days and nights of living the biker lifestyle. . . . it's like a feeling, a feeling you get when you leave your worries behind. . . . I think this event probably grew out of that feeling. Everybody coming here to the mountain to get away from the hassles."
Appel banned gang colors from the event and said more than once: "Zero tolerance for attitudes." Friday night was peaceful, and Saturday was shaping up that way.
Everybody was unfailingly polite and almost utopian in their outlook. Maybe it was the beer. It was like an encampment of grateful Deadheads, only with different stimulants of choice. (Maryland Natural Resources Police did arrest one biker outside the campground for alleged possession of marijuana).
Scratch a leather-faced road warrior and you'd find a sentimentalist inside, a romantic. A happily married man, a dad, a guy who has to get up Monday morning and go to work. Fat Bob.
Fat Bob is not his name. That's the name of one of his first bikes, more than 20 years ago, which he memorialized in big blue letters on his belly. Now Thomas Sinex Jr. is a 42-year-old forklift operator for Wal-Mart from Dover, Del., at East Coast Sturgis to celebrate his 21st wedding anniversary with his wife, Sherrie, 42. She sells classified ads for the Delaware State News and rode down on the back of his bike.
"Coming here was our gift to each other," Thomas Sinex said.
Strapped to the side of his bike was a spear-like pole with antlers on top from a deer he had shot. It's an artifact of his Indian heritage, he said, and his tattoos -- a bird, a black panther, an eagle, "Mom" -- are also part of his presentation.
"I've been riding for 30 years and I'm proud of who I am," he said.
Sitting around the same campfire were bikers from all over, new friends. There was Scott Herald and his girlfriend, also from Upstate New York, and Herald's father, Luther, 67, a retired truck driver who rode up from Morton, Tex.. They had planned to go to the "big" Sturgis in South Dakota but ended up not having enough time and money for the trip.
"I've been riding since before I can remember," Scott Herald said. "My dad's a biker, I'm a biker and my kids will be bikers. It's a friendship and a fellowship."
Sitting by the same fire were brothers-in-law from Ellicott City, Bill Trogler, 53, a Department of Defense employee, and Terry Felty, 46, a truck driver and rigger. They, too, had been headed to big Sturgis but changed their plans. Trogler has already made that trip once.
"To me there's nothing more relaxing than riding a motorcycle on old back roads," he said.
Campfires gleamed throughout the woods, while classic rock songs blasted from the stage. In one clearing, a tall man drinking an excellent microbrew from Vermont beckoned visitors into the golden circle of old friends and new machines.
He was Dave Blake, 46, a ski-lift technician at the Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont, and he explained his presence at East Coast Sturgis this way: "I have a new bike and I wanted to ride 572 miles one way so I could have a beer."
He rode down with Peter Davis, 47, a firefighter from near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., while their wives drove in a car with beer and other supplies. It was 90-plus degrees the whole way, and the wind in their faces felt like gusts from a furnace.
"Ninety percent of the fun is getting there," said Davis, resorting to a cliched phrase among bikers.
Even in that heat?
"No, it [stunk]," he confessed. "But the principle of it was fun."
The meaning and appeal of biking changes as you get older. Terry Rhoads, 47, a cable splicing technician with a telephone company, started riding when he was 16 because he liked the tough image, "the I-don't-give-a-[hoot] kind of thing." At East Coast Sturgis, he was shirtless, wearing devil horns glued onto his bald head and showing some tattoos.
Now he appreciates the less tangible rewards of riding. "When you're out on your motorcycle you're free, the wind in your face. . . . when you have problems and [stuff], ride, just ride. Think your problems through."
Rhoads and his friends from Essex, including Bob Ikena, 50, and Audrey Barnes, 41, were serving spaghetti to anyone who passed.
A young woman who called herself Gypsy stopped by, selling beads. If you bought a string for $5 and were interested, Gypsy would bare her breasts for you. Rhoads and Ikena bought beads and requested the display.
In a body art booth, some women had their breasts painted with Harley-Davidson logos and other designs. "It ain't a thing, it's just [breasts]," Gypsy said later.
This somehow seemed to fit with that segment of biker culture that is partial to magazine covers with chicks on bikes. But there was another feminine influence coming into its own. While some women said their place was behind their man on his bike, others highlighted that they had their own bikes and could ride just as well on their own.
"I got tired of too many bad relationships" with the guys who were driving, said Barnes, a field inspector with a public utility whose boyfriend stayed at home. So three years ago she got her own bike. She said she has successfully raised her daughter through high school and now it's mom's time to be born free, and born to be wild. She was wearing a Harley T-shirt and had a long blond ponytail.
"I wanted to be on the front, I wanted to be in control," she said. "I haven't been anywhere and this was someplace I definitely wanted to go. . . . We all have jobs, we all have responsibilities, but we all have a ton of good fun."
By late afternoon, the riders had spent hours on the midway, checking out each others' hardware, the expensive bikes with machine-tooled accessories, the antiques, the regular old runabouts, parked side-by-side with no discrimination.
Charles Reese, 49, owner of a financial services brokerage in Baltimore, was showing off his Honda Rune, a rare model, worth about $34,000 with all the extras.
"Spielberg bought one for Tom Cruise," he said.
He's planning to ride to Alaska next year for his 50th birthday.
"You think about the Old West and guys getting on a pony and kicking it cross the country," he said. "This is my pony."
Next to him was John Asher, 49, foreman for a utility contractor, owner of a humbler but still impressive Harley. He's riding to the big Sturgis next year for his 50th birthday. He started riding in the 1970s, but then gave it up when he settled down and had a family. He and his wife raised a son, 19, and a daughter, 17. A few years ago he got his Harley and he was a biker again.
"I'm going through a second childhood," he said. From the stage, between bands, the P.A. system was playing Led Zeppelin, people were dancing and watching the motorcycle competitions, new arrivals roared onto the field, the air smelled like beer and fried food.
The pony, the second childhood, the wind in your face, the sound of engines in the woods, riding in front not in back -- it was all the call of the wild to people who wanted to be.