The Brotherhood of Thunder

“Took a look down a westbound road,
Right away I made my choice
Headed out to my big two-wheeler,
I was tired of my own voice
Took a bead on the northern plains
And just rolled that power on…”

Bob Seger, “Roll Me Away” (1982)

THE RITES OF Spring mean different things to different people. For some folks, it’s a time to clean the house, garden, or do home repairs or improvements. For others, it’s a time to ply the waters with rod and reel — or the fairways and greens with clubs and little white balls. Of course, the arrival of spring can mean many other things, or a combination of things…

And although I await springtime’s warmth and greening for a variety of reasons — fishing, golfing, hunting wild turkeys, and even cleaning house (a little), spring does not truly arrive for me until one particular moment: the instant my motorcycle sputters to life for the first time of the season.

Every year since I was 16, that joyful ritual has happened at some point in March or April with whatever bike I happened to be riding at the time (I’ve had 13 of them). But never were those moments so sweet as they’ve been since I got my first Harley-Davidson. For five consecutive springs now, I’ve had the visceral pleasure of coaxing to life all 1200 cc’s and 64 horsepower of my sleek orange and black Sportster, then rolling on the power and popping the clutch on my first ride of the year — the first 50 yards of it usually on the rear wheel alone, much to the chagrin of my neighbors…

It happened this year just last Friday, and it was glorious.

And not to be self-indulgent with this week’s Whiskey & Gunpowder, but I just have to share something with you. It’s not an essay, exactly — more like a journal entry. I wrote it not long after I bought my Harley-Davidson, and I’ve always wanted to get it into print somehow. Guess you’re the lucky ones. Of course, I’ll relate it all back to some things that are pertinent to the world we live in and all that stuff I usually do…

But for now, I just want you to feel what I feel when I ride, and to know what it means to me — especially now. If you ride a Harley, you’ll identify with this, body and soul. If you don’t, and want to know a little about what it’s like, keep reading.

Joining the Brotherhood (2002)

“Screw you, Harley snobs!” I used to say to myself as I motored past on whatever Yamaha or Honda I was riding at the time, my eager wave drawing none in return from the mysterious men astride those chrome-dipped rumblers. I used to flip them off and ride on by, pretending not to care. But still I’d stew inside my helmet, wounded at their rejection of me. Wasn’t my 20 years of riding worth anything to them? And weren’t we all brothers anyway, united by the wind, the road, and our own wanderlust? What right did they have to snub me like that? What right?

Deep down, I knew the reason, but I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

So in return for their cold shoulder, I ridiculed their mounts, deriding them as underpowered, overpriced anachronisms. To anyone who’d listen, I pointed out every flaw in the Harley-Davidson design. That antiquated V-twin that shook a rider’s fillings loose, the deafening bark of those obscene chrome pipes, the miniscule suspension travel, needless excess weight, awkward ergonomics, and on and on and on. From my soapbox I shouted that Harleys weren’t motorcycles, but dinosaurs — a dying breed.

There was just one problem: Something in the menacing stance and guttural growl of those low-slung, smoky beasts spoke to me in a language I didn’t know I knew…

But that didn’t stop me from bashing Harley riders anyway. After all, I’m old enough to remember the biker image of the late ’60s and ’70s; the lawlessness, the Stones concert at Altamont. And I’d read Hunter S. Thompson’s expose of the Hell’s Angels — the one that made him a wanted man in the eyes of many bikers. But I also remembered Easy Rider, with Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson; the way they looked at life, sought adventure and meaning on the open road, and the way they played by their own rules.

I was, in a word, torn.

Yes, I knew a little about Harley riders, but I didn’t understand them, not by a long shot. And as humans, what we don’t understand, we fear; what we fear, we persecute. I feared them, these pioneer outcasts, these rebel iron-horsemen, because I didn’t know how to relate to them — and feared that they wouldn’t relate to me. But worse than that was the deep-down notion that maybe I couldn’t relate, that I lacked what it took. And this realization made me want to be one of those men. To feel what they felt, to know what they knew, to see the world as they saw it.

I envied them the way an asthmatic envies a smoker; the way a Sunday School virgin envies the town tramp.

As a 20-year veteran rider and one-time AMA racer, I thought I knew motorcycling. But I was wrong. It wasn’t until I finally gave in to my long-repressed envy and bought a Harley-Davidson that I found out what motorcycling is really all about. Now I know what all those riders, men and women alike, are feeling. Now I know what those old ad slogans, lines like, “Things are different on a Harley” and “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand,” are talking about. The funny thing is that I’d secretly known all along — I just didn’t admit it to myself until that fateful moment when I slung a leg over my new hog for the first time and rode off into the rest of my life.

And the irony of it all is this: Even as I now know why I ride a Harley, I can no more explain it than I could deny it. To me, the allure of a Harley-Davidson cannot be put into words. Oh, I suppose I could force some conclusion about it, something like Harleys being a metaphor for the indomitable American spirit — proud, brash, fearless, and flawed, all at the same time…

But it would only sell it short. To even try to define this feeling is to show a profound lack of understanding about it, because in this life there are two kinds of knowing: There’s knowing of the mind, and there’s knowing of the heart. One of these kinds of knowledge is common, the other as rare as a unicorn. So I guess all I can say on the subject is this:

Things really are different on a Harley. And only the heart knows why.

It took me less than a mile in the saddle to discover this. Less than a mile to make up for years of lost time — time I spent riding, but not knowing exactly why. It happened in an instant, as I pulled my shiny new Sportster out of the dealership parking lot…

Approaching in the opposite lane was a lone rider in leather. He was clearly a Harley rider from the way his hands were perched wide on high-rise bars and his knees spread apart to clear the trademark bulbous right-side air cleaner. As I accelerated by, savoring the first deep, throaty growls of my shiny new machine, he casually dropped his left hand down below the handlebar and knighted me with a knowing, three-fingered wave. The wave of brotherhood.

A few miles later, when another motorcyclist approached, I began to lift my hand to him reflexively. But, not hearing the now-familiar V-twin roar, I hesitated. Looking closer, I discovered that he was not my brother, and so I clenched my hand back on the grip, smoothly downshifting and throttling up, leaving him — and my old self — behind in a glorious rising crescendo of exhaust and wind; the music of the awesome fraternity of iron which I had at last joined.

Long May They (We) Ride

What I came to know, once I got my hog, was that the vast majority of Harley riders are decent, hard-working folks anyone would be proud and happy to know. By and large, despite their portrayal in the mainstream media, the rank and file Harley owner isn’t an outlaw or a hooligan. He’s more like the prototypical American cowboy — a no-BS man (or woman) who favors the simple, straightforward work-hard, play-hard life this nation used to be known for.

That may not have been the case 20 and 30 years ago, but it is nowadays. One need only look at Harley-Davidson’s 10-year stock price, market share data, and demographic info to realize this. Hogs are no longer niche products for gang members — they’re downright mainstream. And today’s “biker” isn’t an outlaw, but a tradesman, a lawyer, a doctor (don’t laugh — I know one), a teacher, or even a political commentator…

I mention all this because some recent news items — namely, a gang-related mass murder just north of the border and a road-rage shooting incident in New England that left one biker dead and another injured — have brought the seedier side of motorcycling into the limelight. And I want to do everything I can to make sure this perception doesn’t take hold once again.

America NEEDS Harley-Davidsons — and the people that ride them. They remind us of what it means to be free, proud, and resilient against adversity and the curves life throws at us. They remind us that we used to be pioneers that made our own destinies and lived by our own wits and choices instead of being slaves to the climate-controlled, blameless “nanny state” we’re increasingly living in these days…

And they and their machines remind us that Americans can still manufacture something the right way — something heavy and hard and durable. Something that’s the ultimate example of its craft the rest of the world can only produce a pale imitation of…

Something made of metal and rubber and leather and sweat instead of talk, advertising, packaging, and promises.

“Roll, roll me away,
I’m gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep ridin’,
Keep searchin’ till I find what’s right…”

Always riding — never hiding,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
April 17, 2006

P.S.In my next shot of Whiskey, I’ll expose to you the REAL reason behind one of the most annoying and plainly un-American affectations of the nanny state: seat belt and helmet laws. (Hint: It’s not about saving lives.)