There was a line to see the man in charge.
“Artie,” people called.
“Artie, did you see?”
“Artie,” they said. “You got to do something.”
It was the Sunday before Memorial Day, and in Washington, that has long meant that one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies was in town. Every year since 1988, riders have roared into the District for Rolling Thunder, a demonstration in support of veterans, prisoners of war and service members who went missing in action. But this year, the organization’s leader, Artie Muller, had announced that the financial and logistical burden of making the rally happen had become too much; after 2019, the event in the nation’s capital would be no more.
The news inspired hundreds of thousands of bikers, possibly a record number, to flock to the Pentagon parking lot Sunday morning, ready for their final ride into the city and around the Mall.
And then word started spreading: President Trump had just tweeted that Rolling Thunder was not going to end after all.
“The Great Patriots of Rolling Thunder WILL be coming back to Washington, D.C. next year, & hopefully for many years to come,” he wrote. “It is where they want to be, & where they should be.”
Rolling Thunder devotees gathered around Muller, believing the event had been saved.
But all around him, the organizers behind Rolling Thunder were shaking their heads. They had not received a call from the White House. The Pentagon had not been in touch. The rally would still cost around $200,000 — far too much of which, the organizers believe, goes to parking lot rental and security. The hassle of dealing with the Pentagon’s security demands, they said, was no longer worth it.
“Effective preparation for an event the size and scale of a Rolling Thunder ride is a complicated and lengthy process,” a Pentagon spokesperson said Saturday.
After the tweet from Trump — who is in Japan on a state visit — the Pentagon referred reporters to the White House. A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Unless the venue started costing Rolling Thunder less, its organizers said, nothing was going to change. Instead of having one ride in Washington, local chapters will put on smaller rallies across the country next year. Spokeswoman Nancy Regg repeated to reporters who called her Sunday: “If we are invited to the White House, we’ll go, but as of right now, this is our final ride.”
Around her, the parking lot was packed with motorcycles, lined edge to edge with just a foot of space between them. They had started rumbling in at dawn, six hours before the ride was set to start.
In came Bob Bradford, a 79-year-old from Maryland, his oxygen machine strapped onto a Harley Trike, its tubes slipped beneath his helmet so he could breathe through all the fumes.
In rode 49-year-old Randy Day, and his passenger Mitzi, an 8-year-old Cheweenie (part Chihuahua, part dachshund). They had traveled 370 miles from Charlotte. Mitzi wore a leather helmet and hot-pink goggles to protect her eyes from the wind.
On another bike was Harjot Pannu, a 51-year-old from New Jersey who always orders his helmets one size too big so he can still wear his crisp white turban underneath. The back of his leather vest read, “Sikh Motorcycle Club.” He had long ago grown used to the looks his headwear and his long salt-and-pepper beard attracts at events like these.
“It’s not easy to fit in. People keep their distance,” he said. “But I don’t have to change myself. That’s what America is about.”
Nearby, another leather-vested man was holding court on what he believes America is all about: “People talk about what’s going on today and call it a divided country? I say, you have no idea,” said veteran Myke Shelby, recalling the divisions after his return from Vietnam. He rode his Harley from New York to witness the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The next year, on Memorial Day, he made the trip again.
The journey became a ritual for him and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans, and in 1988, he learned that someone was going to make the annual meetup official, with something called Rolling Thunder.
“I was like, what the hell are you doing man? Why are you trying to commercialize something so grass roots?” said Shelby, who owns a Harley dealership in San Diego.
He changed his mind when he saw so many veterans turn out, as well as the changes the organization was able to advocate for, including the display of the POW/MIA flag on government buildings.
As Shelby spoke, he was interrupted by a small girl wearing her own patch-covered leather vest, aviators and a bandanna slipped over her braid.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “Are you a veteran?”
He knew who she was: Sawyer Hendrickson, a 10-year-old from Michigan, a junior Rolling Thunder member and a quasi-celebrity here. She’d come to hand out rocks hand-painted with the word “hero” on them to every veteran she met. Her mom was behind her, lugging all the rocks in a Michael Kors backpack.
Shelby already had one, so Sawyer handed the rock to someone else.
“Thank you for your service,” she said with a firm handshake.
This, Sawyer said, was so much better than the fourth grade.
“I do like some subjects, like lunch,” she explained. Then she headed into the crowd, where the collectible T-shirts were selling out and people were still wondering whether they would be back next year.
“The thing to do is work it out,” a man was telling Muller.
“We’re going see what happens,” Muller replied, repeating what he had to say so many times that morning.
He retreated into his car for a moment, needing the air conditioning and the quiet. To him, a tweet didn’t mean much of anything.
“They would have to do a lot before we would agree to come back next year,” he said.
He was tired, and hot, and 74 years old. His signature expletives had been flying all day. But the truth was, he didn’t want Rolling Thunder to end. That’s why he thought the smaller rallies in cities across the country would be better. Get the message out, without the hassle. But now, he was looking at the biggest crowd he’d ever seen.
“You know,” he said, starting to choke up, “it really gets to you. Because it shows you there are people who do care about others,” when too many people care “about nobody but themselves.”
All he could do now was treat this ride like it was his last. His sleek black Harley was waiting at the front of the procession. He traded his hat for a helmet. “Proud to be American,” it read across the front.
“Come on,” he said to his 11-year-old grandson, Gavin. The boy climbed into the seat behind him. Muller looked up at the Washington Monument and his engine roared to life.