As I pulled onto the highway on my Harley Davidson in the early morning fog of June 13, I had a particular David Mann painting in mind. It’s called “Ghost Rider.” It shows a lone biker rolling down a highway, his hair whipped by the wind. Running beside him is the ghost of a cowboy kicking his spurs into his horse, his hat bent back in the same wind. It captures the independence and freedom of the rider. Travelling alone to Laconia Bike Week in New Hamphire—over 1,000 kilometres away—I was feeling that exact same freedom.
Laconia is a late spring Mecca for bikers. I’d read about the annual rally there, seen photos and heard stories from the many Nova Scotia riders who make the trek each year. Laconia Bike Week is one of the world’s largest biker parties. It started in 1916 as an annual motorcycle race. Now about 400,000 people and almost as many motorcycles cram into the Weirs Beach area of Laconia to party away the final week of spring each year. Weirs Beach is smaller than Point Pleasant Park so it tends to be a loud and crowded event.
For me the fascination with Bike Week began in the late 1970s when I was still a teenager. I had pictures from the biker magazines pinned to my bedroom walls and dreams of owning a big bike and hitting the highway for New Hampshire someday. There was no sense of urgency. I had the unshakable teen confidence that I had all the time in the world to get around to my ride. But in September of last year I realized someday still wasn’t here and I wasn’t a teenager anymore.
On September 11, David Mann died. Mann was the biker’s answer to Norman Rockwell. His artwork was featured each month in Easyriders magazine. It was pinned up on my wall with the Laconia pictures. David Mann didn’t just paint scenes depicting the freedom of the biker lifestyle. He lived it. He was an outlaw biker making money off of his art. Most of the paintings are self-portraits showing Mann’s life on the road.
I went to a strict Catholic boys school and my earliest heros were the guys in the neighbourhood who flaunted the rules. A few became petty criminals and had the easy money, the cars and the girls that came with that life. I looked at those early Mann paintings on my wall and imagined being an outlaw with a pocket full of cash and a girl on the back. Later I looked at the framed Mann prints in my home office and saw someone who didn’t own or need a watch, a different kind of rebel with an even stronger appeal.
In Calais, Maine I realized you don’t have to ride alone if you’re enroute to a major bike rally. A helmetless man on another Harley fell in close behind me when I crossed the border into the US. We rode together to a gas station. We filled the bikes and introduced ourselves as I stuffed my helmet and riding jacket into the bags on the back of mine. I hadn’t planned on riding “lidless” but the other rider’s appearance in my rearview mirror made me realize I wasn’t being true to the David Mann fantasy if I was still following the rules of the road back home.
We took off down the highway for the final six hours to Laconia. It was my first time riding without a helmet and it felt strange. I felt nervous and exposed at first and then liberated as I relaxed to enjoy the ride. After a half hour or so we became comfortable with each other’s riding abilities and we began to play a little. When we hit passing lanes or wide-open sections of highway he moved to the left near the centreline and I slipped up beside him near the shoulder so we could run side-by-side.
We pushed our bikes up to 140 kilometres per hour (maybe a little higher) as the wind slapped us and the bikes roared in unison. I laughed as I realized I wasn’t thinking about a David Mann painting. I was living a David Mann moment. For the next four days I didn’t think about David Mann again, I didn’t think about anything but the moment I was living in. Riding a motorbike can do that for you with long stretches of silence and your inner dialogue lost in the sound of the wind. I’ve never had the magic last so long.
The rally was more than I expected. It’s Disneyland with debauchery, where adults get to be the kids. It’s a place where it’s not only acceptable to be 43 going on 18, it’s expected. You bring your own ride to this theme park but everything else is in place for you. If it fits the biker lifestyle it’s there. You can get pierced or tattooed if you want. Or, you can get chromed and accessorized with everything from a new high performance engine for your ride to the tiniest shiny bits that make a Harley glow.
There are vendor tents everywhere, all of them filled with trinkets for the bike nut. You could buy a complete motorcycle one piece at a time and then assemble the leathers and clothes to be sure you match it. I picked up some flashy heel rest for my front pegs to make the ride home more comfortable.
And then there’s getting your bike onto the Weirs Beach strip. It’s like driving your car to Bayers Lake on the last Saturday before Christmas, only with heavier traffic. There is one significant difference though, everyone is happy. It’s a fun traffic jam. When I finally found an open slot and slipped my bike into the line I discovered the positive attitude didn’t end. The bikes are jammed in with barely an inch to spare on each side as you back into the curb. I found a slot between a high-end chopper and an oversized touring Harley. The bike owners leaned against the fence and watched me back my bike into the opening. They looked hard-core. I was in front of a big tent with the New York City chapter of the Hell’s Angels banner flying above it. I didn’t want to knock one of those bikes over. When I stepped off my bike the two men greeted me. They noted my Nova Scotia licence plate and asked if I rode it. When I answered yes they smiled, offered handshakes and asked about the weather on the run. Some bikers have a disdain for riders who load bikes onto trailers and pull them to the major rallies. I was welcomed to Laconia as a real biker. As I moved along the strip I fell into conversations with strangers who felt like friends.
Don’t get me wrong: Bike Week is a huge money grab, a major boost to the New Hampshire economy. But it’s a place where Hell’s Angels, Christian bikers and police riders walk shoulder-to-shoulder, patch-to-patch. The ordinary rules that keep us employed and civilized are suspended for a time as groups of strangers are pulled together by a common love of bikes. Everyone smiles and pauses to listen to the thunderstorm that is the traffic jam that never ends. The roar of thousands of motorcycles soothes the nerves of those who would head to Laconia for Bike Week. For those with biker fever, a big thumping motor quickens the heart and sweetens the mood.
For me it was a soul nourishing experience. I slowed down, even when I rode fast. I stopped to look at the beautiful countryside and appreciate the scenery. I stood and watched bikes parade and shared smiles with strangers.
I returned to my David Mann fantasy on the run home. It was 12-and-a-half hours alone in the rain and drizzle, a biker’s nightmare ride. I wore rain gear, but at highway speeds rain can find a way around it. I was soaked in no time. My leather gloves turned mushy and heavy, making it hard to use the break and clutch. The cold set in after about four hours—a cold that causes jaw and body tremors—making it difficult to control a high-powered motorbike. Then there are the tractor-trailers, hundreds of them kicking up rooster tails of water and dirt to blind you and force you to twist the throttle and pass on faith. I said a silent prayer of thanks to my mechanic back at Powertrend in Halifax for insisting I get new tires in case of rain.
Mann painted several scenes about bad weather runs. I remembered “Handlebars and Rain” as I rode. The painting shows a rider running in the rain, his visibility reduced to seeing his own reflection in the chromed back side of his own headlight between the bars. At times I couldn’t even see that. Still, it was heaven. The bike roared and I rode telling myself the same lie over and over again. “I’ll ride out of this eventually.” I did, when I finally pulled into my own garage. I was cold, wet, tired and one bourbon away from a long peaceful sleep.