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Rolling Thunder 2009 May 25, 2009

Posted by dakotabiker in Events, Rides.
Tags: , ,

Am sitting in the staging area of my first Rolling Thunder ride from the Pentagon into Washington DC.  It is amazing.  It is a city of motorcycles unto itself.  I haven’t any way to fathom the number of bikes here.  The rumor mill ranges from 350,000 to 450,000 with most people agreeing that it is bigger than last year.  Wave after wave of bikes are riding in.  It is really awe-inspiring to see, hear, and feel this sense of American spirit and community.  The constant rumble of so much steel is tangibly felt in my chest as thousands slowly pass by into the staging area lots.

Rolling Thunder Staging

Rolling Thunder Staging

The day is perfect.  Sunny and cool with a slight breeze.  They are expecting scattered thunder storms later, but right now it is beautiful.  I have found a some shade next to the entrance of the lot near the Lyndon B Johnson Memorial Grove.  Bikers of all ages, races, and rides are gathered here in the grass as the cavalcade passes.  Firefighters… Police motorcades… Veterans…Club Chapters….Free Riders…


The ride in was perfect.  There was hardly a car on the road riding down to the DC beltway.  I had loosely figured my route; coming around the west side of the city to the GW Parkway.   I was surpised that not only were there few cars — but few bikes.  But I as rode down the parkway more andmore showed up and I foundmyself inadvertently leading a small pack.  Coming off the Parkway to the Pentagon lot ramp, the lines started with hundreds of bikes ahead of me and hundredsmore filling in behind.  I was immersed in the rumble that has continued since.  The lines were slow but friendly.  Thousands of people heading to the same goal.  I wonder if rush hour traffic wouldn’t be more civil and amicable if cars were banned.  On a bike, you have a connection to your neighbors – the ability to share a nod – an opportunity to build a camaraderie not afforded by the enclosure of a metal cage on wheels. 

The lines into Rolling Thunder.

The lines into Rolling Thunder.

The slow moving lines made for a very hot crawling ride in.  My right thigh was getting increasingly scorched by the heat of my exhaust.  My bike started gasping, entering “parade mode” blowing unfueled air into the rear cylinder to keep the engine cool.  After a half dozen starts and stops I was into the north lot, at the back end of about the middle line.  

I dismounted.  Took a few pictures.  Drank a little Gatorade.  Grabbed my “gear” and set out to explore.  There are a few vendors – mostly food.  It turns out the Harley Owners Group (HOG) has set of a Pin Stop here.  I didn’t bring my membership card, but fortunately they were able to look me up in the database – so I have my HOG commemorative pin for the event.  I also picked up the official Rolling Thunder XXII pin andpatch.  I walked among the bikes for a while, found my spot and started this blog…

The weather is turning overcast and cooling off.  Two hours until the start of the ride and the bikes are still pouring in… engines pulsing.  The staging lot is now full and they are directing the stream into the overflow lots. 




I walked about for a while and returned to my bike for some more Gatorade, this time meeting my neighbors.  Neal, a former member of the Rolling Thunder Color Guard, was very friendly and helpful with advice, and shared his experiences of past Rolling Thunder rides.  His passenger, Monika, had been in Rolling Thunder 3 times prior, always as a passenger, and longed to ride it on her own bike, but a recent knee surgery prevented it this year.  Julius, a Navy Vietnam Combat Veteran, was a real hoot to talk to.  This was his 13th Rolling Thunder and he possessed an incredible energy and excitement as though it was his first time.   Neal estimated that with a noon start, we’d probably get out of the parking lot by 1:30, not bad for getting there about 8:45 and MUCH better than what the folks in the overflow lots would face.  We sat around talking about bikes, rides, and Rolling Thunder.  It started getting pretty hot as the morning passed; the sky alternating between overcast and sun; the asphalt of the parking lot radiating.  One of the charity-based motorcycle clubs was giving out glasses of ice water which was much appreciated by all.    As Neal had predicted, we were mounting up at about 1:30 to embark on Rolling Thunder.

Post Ride:

Absolutely INCREDIBLE.  There are are no words for it.  It was so much more than I expected this would be.  When I had first showed up in the Pentagon lot – I was amazed by the scene.  Hundreds of thousands people, Patriots, showing their support of our POWs and MIAs.  But on the ride itself, thousands more.  Throngs of people were lining the streets cheering, waving, and displaying banners, signs and flags of support and gratitude to the troops.  It was an amazing and moving tribute to those heroes who have served our country.  That 20-minutes was unlike anything I had experienced.    And to witness it, not on TV, not from a distance, not even from the side of the road, but ON the bike IN the procession riding through all of it was amazing.  Though I was only one of 400,000 bikes out there, I felt  so very proud to be part of something so grand, and to be a catalyst to the energy of the revelers.  All ages, all races, all American… bearing such pride and indominable spirit.  Their hands reaching out to touch the procession. Veterans from Vietnam, Korea, WWII, along the route saluting the thunderous march of the bikes.  A few times we came to a stop, then starting with a few growing to all, we roared our engines, the thunder echoing in the streets of DC.  The crowd whipped into a frenzy of cheers and applause.

Two people on that route will be locked my memory.  First and foremost – The Marine, Staff Sergent Tim Chambers.  On lone Marine in the median near the start of route standing solidly but mournfully in a salute before a make-shift shrine:  a small table set for a homecoming dinner.  Standing unwavering, holding the salute for four or five hours as the Thunder Rolls past.  Seeing that stolid form honoring those Missing In Action, the look of sorrow and respect on his face – the image was incredibly moving. 

The other person that stands out in my mind was an older woman who looked to be in her 80’s.  She was alone near the end of the route standing way into the road to be close the procession.  Dressed simply in a white shirt and blue skirt, looking like a retired sundayschool teacher, she stood with one hand raised high waving at the bikes.  On her face, the biggest, most sincere, beaming smile.

The ride ended in a soccer field in Potomac Park.  Getting my stuff together I made my way toward the crowds nearing the Lincoln Memorial.  The skies were starting to look dark andominous as I headed toward a bandstand set up at the end of the West Reflecting Pool.  I detoured up the steps and into the Lincoln Memorial.  After reading his 2nd inaugural address on the north wall and the Gettysburg address on the south, I stood pondering the enormity of the his statue and the elegance of his words.  I contemplated the time of his administration, not the highlights in the history books, but what his day-to-day governmental affairs were like in contrast to what we experience today.  I wondered if his citizenry recognized the greatness that we bestow upon him nearly a hundred and fifty years later.  

Walking back out toward the bandstand I found a patch of grass, sat, and set up my laptop and continued this blog as I listened to the inspirational speakers describing the life of service our Vets have given in defense of our freedoms, and speaking of the continuing sacrifices of those missing in action and the families, friends, and compatriots who miss them.  As the US Army band began, I went for a walk along the reflecting pool toward the WWII memorial.   It started to rain; a cool light steady rain that felt good on my sunburned skin.  I walked about the WWII memorial in awe.  It is relatively new, completed in 2004.  And though it is only a mile and a half off my commute, I had never seen it. 

Nancy Sinatra at Rolling Thunder

Nancy Sinatra at Rolling Thunder

Heading back the rain stopped and as I approached the bandstand I heard a familiar song, These Boots are Made for Walking, being sung by Nancy Sinatra herself.  I arrived in time to see the end of her show.  As she made her way off stage, I headed back toward Potomac Park to find my bike, when I heard my name from a nearby concession stand.  Neal and Monika had made the surprising discovery that the stand actually sold beer and were cooling off after the eventful day.  I joined them for a beer and we sat talking about the ride: how grand the event is;  how moving it was to see The Marine; how it feels to ride through the energy of the crowds.  We meandered back to our bikes, exchanged emails, and I headed home.

After a couple of wrong turns getting out of the park, I found an old commute route and rode out of the city.  Stopping by normal after-work watering holes, BWB (Buffalo Wings and Beer), I met a very sunburnt couple.  Noticing the bikes parked out front, I asked if they too were coming from Rolling Thunder.  It turns out they weren’t; they had ridden out to Harpers Ferry.  But the guy had ridden in Rolling Thunder in past years.  I was still pretty fired up about my ride, andI dove into the stories of the day.  As I spoke I could see the guy get a little animated with his own memories of the rides past.  He asked about The Marine and began to tell his experience of seeing that disciplined mournful salute.  As he become visibly choked up from the memory alone, in a way I clearly understood, it was pretty evident that the image of  The Marine will be burned into my mind as I had guessed.



1. Christin Jones Kardos - May 30, 2009

This is a really great blog entry. Thank you.

My father, a Vietnam veteran (USAF) rode this year as he has in the past. He was with my stepmother and a group of 20-30 so folks from their Harley Owner’s Group in NC. Because my husband, an active duty Marine, is working at Quantico this summer, I flew down from our current residence in MN to spend this Memorial Day weekend with him as well as my father. I have always wanted to be there for this event and I was privileged to witness it this year.

We took the metro from Springfield, VA into DC. It just so happened that 23rd and Constitution was the closest vantage point from where we got off the train. I’m so glad that chance brought us there so that we could see what SSgt Chambers was doing. We arrived about an hour or so into the demonstration and had only planned to stay for an hour… but we couldn’t leave. We stayed to watch SSgt Chambers and all of you who were riding. My husband, just having gone over 13 years of active duty in the Marine Corps, needed to shake SSgt Chambers’ hand. As you said, it was very moving.

I had to explain to my sister who was there with us that it wasn’t you all that the Staff Sergeant was saluting. It was his fallen and missing brothers. And that he, along with all of you who rode that day, was showing that he is appreciative and will never forget.

Even though I have never served and am merely the wife and daughter of veterans, I will never forget, either, and will always be thankful for what has been provided for me by brave Americans. And Rolling Thunder’s annual demonstration is a reminder to those who may not be paying attention that not all have made it home. Thank you for being part of this.

Thanks also for this blog entry. You’ve done a great job of conveying the events and feelings of that Sunday and I hope you don’t mind if I pass this along.

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