Okay, my biceps are average. But I can admire a place where being buff and studly is a civic virtue: a town that celebrates big motorcycles and bigger humans, where all the souvenir T-shirts come in XXXL.
York, Pa., briefly an 18th-century U.S. capital, is now a genteel county seat just over the Maryland state line. The Articles of Confederation were signed here. But these days, a bigger tourist draw is found on its northern edge. Near a strip mall stretch of Route 30 stand the muscle-flexing power of two macho monuments: the Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations and Tour Center and the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame at the York Barbell Co.
Is this any place for a lady? Hey, it's the 21st century. And the tours are free.
I'm not much of a threat -- no knives, no camera -- but I still have to pass through the metal detector and open my purse to be searched. But the crew at Harley-Davidson takes their responsibilities, and their heritage, very seriously.
"If you're going to take down an American icon . . . well, Harley-Davidson is certainly it," explains my smiling tour guide, Bill Sechrist.
I have no intention of taking it down. I'm just taking it in. The glossy tour center opened in May, with enough chrome to require sunglasses. It features touring bikes you're allowed to sit on, a Kids' Rally play space and a gift shop with souvenirs ranging from Harley-Davidson Yahtzee to "Southern Road Songs" CDs. It's a halogen-lit shrine, right down to the gleaming chopper strategically parked in the lot outside.
Counterculture icons with Establishment price tags, Harleys have become a symbol of open roads and unfettered individuality -- even for those whose other vehicle is a minivan. Sixty thousand visitors toured the facility in 2002, a draw two times bigger than York's Colonial district.
First, you get a quick, prideful history of the company's centennial, delivered in a zippy video at the Vaughn L. Beals Visitors Center theater. Beals brought the company's sputtering fortunes roaring back to life in the 1980s; it now operates plants in Milwaukee, Kansas City and York.
The confident voice-over and full-throttle rock soundtrack set the tone. This is where the best people make the best bikes in the world. There's the Special Edition 9/11 Firefighter, sold only to active or retired firefighters. The Heritage Springer, with its retro chrome-exposed spring suspension. The Night Train, with footrests that shove you back to 45 degrees. The aluminum V-Rod. The 100th Anniversary Ultra Classic Electra Glide with Sidecar, in Vivid Black.
I've never straddled any of them (though I'm partial to the sidecar idea). Still, I join two couples -- one retired, one twentysomething -- for an hour's stroll through the assembly line. Sechrist, a former professor, outfits us with safety glasses and headsets. As we step into the plant, it's very warm, with a tolerable buzz like a hive. We can hear the guide easily through our earphones.
Twenty-eight hundred men and women work three shifts a day here, along five miles of conveyor tracks.
"Isn't it amazing?" says Sechrist. It is, especially to someone who should be prohibited from operating heavy machinery. Ignoring us, a technician slathers thick lubricant on steel with a paint roller. Robotic welders and polishers hum inside rooms with plexiglass windows.
"They don't talk back to the boss," jokes Sechrist.
Bikes produced here are worth considerably more than the car I arrived in. They start around $14,000 but can rev up to a cool $28,000 for your average Screaming Eagle Road King. Burnished to what Sechrist terms "paint perfection," they'll leave here for garages all over the world.
Some leather-clad easy rider in Japan has been waiting a year for the Softail Deuce in gun-metal pearl that's inching toward us; Sechrist knows that by the printout dangling behind the seat. The color-coded orders -- green for Great Britain, gold for Australia, yellow for Japan -- list the factory options each customer lusts for, right down to onboard CD players and laced wheels. This year, Harley will make more than a quarter-million motorcycles, compared with the three it produced a century ago.
Sechrist tells us about the workers as well as the hardware: They're members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, pulling down annual salaries of $16,000 to $23,000. More important to Harley enthusiasts, though, is the fact that they get 20 percent off list price.
Could that be why employee turnover is less than 1 percent a year?
Actually, any one of them could get on his or her Hog and roar five minutes up I-83 to view a celebration of a different kind of power.
There, a larger-than-life weightlifter jerks his barbells high over the highway, five minutes from the Harley factory. He's never tired. He's never cold. A latter-day Atlas, he lunges forward, doing a continuous 360 above the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame at the York Barbell Co.
The hall chronicles strength as sport from ancient Greece through its late-19th-century heyday, when celebrity strongmen toured the world. The entryway is crowned with a giant Calder-style mobile dangling models of the company's products. Inside, displays cover current heroes, past Olympians and a history of the world's bulkiest men.
Really strong guys, it turns out, have always been popular. If you ever wondered why fashion-forward mesomorphs favor leopard-skin leotards and handlebar mustaches, you'll find the answer here: Eugen Sandow and Louis Cyr, the trendsetters whose exhibitions stunned Victorian fairgoers. But the exhibit continues right through to the well-oiled era of Schwarzenegger and Steenrod (as in Vicki, a contemporary Hall of Famer).
Modestly mounted in cinder-block rooms, the hall of fame features heroes like Joseph Greenstein, a k a "The Mighty Atom." In his youth, the Atom once pulled 28 tons -- with his hair. Good teeth, too: At age 82, at the York County Fairgrounds, he bit through an iron nail (both chunks are on display).
In those days, feats of strength were a hot-ticket entertainment, accompanied by music, costumes and, in one case, 16 derrieres. An old tintype from 1900 shows George Rolandow, supine on the ground, balancing 16 men seated on a plank on the soles of his feet. Dr. G.B. Winship's dead-weight "health lift" from 1857 is also illustrated here. I can only describe it as looking extremely painful.
Most of the collection was acquired by York Barbell's founder, the steely-eyed Bob Hoffman. Hoffman advocated weight training, health foods and isometrics for athletes. Practicing what he preached, he lived to the age of 87.
Though York County bills itself as "The Factory Tour Capital of the World" (Pfaltzgraff pottery, Snyders of Hanover, the robotic milking operation at Hope Acres Farm), York Barbell does not, in fact, open its foundry doors to the public. Like Harley, though, it offers some employee perks: free workouts at the company strength-training facility (just follow the sound of clanking metal and agonized yells). The factory outlet store next to the exhibit hall sells dumbbells, barbells and benches, along with the famous yellow T-shirts and leather belts worn by most fashionable lifters.
But women's medium? Alas, on these shelves, nowhere to be found.
Christine O'Toole last wrote for Travel on England's Blenheim Palace.