On Sunday, August 31, 2003, Harley-Davidson threw the ultimate birthday bash to celebrate their 100 year anniversary, and we were there to join in the celebration!
The Party, as it was called, took place in Milwaukee’s Veterans Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, and was the grand finale of everything that lead up to this event – The Open Road Tour, the Ride Home, and the four-day celebration.
On Wednesday morning, August 27th, our road trip to Milwaukee began at the intersection of Hwy. 291 and Hwy. 24 in Independence, Missouri, where my girlfriend, Margaret, and I met up with long-time riding buddies, Greg & Lisa Bartley, Terry & Goldie Arnold, Bob & Judy Caviar, Jerry Alumbaugh and Reva Weaver.
A few weeks prior to our trip, we’d decided to take a more scenic and leisurely route, rather than shooting up I-35 like many of the other riders we’d seen passing through Kansas City over the past few days. Margaret had volunteered to drive our chase vehicle, which we nicknamed the “Chuck Wagon,” and agreed to haul most of our gear so we wouldn’t have to pack down the bikes.
We had reservations that evening in Davenport, Iowa, so we knew we’d have to make good time in order to get there before dark. Terry hates riding after dark because of the deer, which seem to be attracted to him for some reason once the sun goes down. After fueling up our bikes, we headed east on Hwy. 24, and with the exception of having to stop because Bob and Judy’s duffle bag was about to fall off their touring pack (Damnit Bob!), we made relatively good time to Hannibal, Missouri.
From Hannibal, we headed north on Hwy. 61, and just before Burlington, Iowa, we decided to stop for a break at Fort Madison, which has an actual fort, located in a park on the banks of the Mississippi River. With the fort in the background, and the “Chuck Wagon” sitting nearby, I decided that if we lined up our bikes in front of the chase vehicle to resemble a stagecoach and team of horses, and if I had Margaret sit on the hood as if she was driving the team, this would make a great photo. It’s amazing, the silly things you come up with after several hours in the saddle with the sun beating down on your noggin!
After regaining our senses, we mounted up and continued north, however, just before reaching Burlington, Iowa, Jerry and Reva’s bike started making a strange engine noise. We pulled over and after everyone gave their unprofessional opinion as to the source of the problem, we decided it would be best to get out our handy H.O.G. directory to see where the closest dealership was located. To our luck, Heartland Harley-Davidson was only a few miles up the road in Burlington, but not to our luck, we were informed that their service area had just closed and wouldn’t reopen until the following morning.
Jerry decided the Road King could hobble that far on its own power, so off we went. Because we had non-refundable reservations in Davenport, Jerry and Reva decided to grab their overnight bag and a couple bottles of wine out of the Chuck Wagon and check into a hotel until the mechanic could look at their bike in the morning. After saying our goodbyes and wishing them the best of luck, the remaining five bikes, followed by the Chuck Wagon headed on to Davenport.
On Thursday morning, August 28th, we received word that Jerry and Reva’s bike was in need of some serious engine repair and wouldn’t be able to make the remainder of the trip. Not to be discouraged, although Jerry was pretty damn well discouraged as anyone would be, they decided to rent a car and would meet us at our rental house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Jerry also called his son back in Kansas City and asked him to drive up with his trailer to pick up his bike and take it back home so he could have someone in the Kansas City area do the repair work.
Before heading north, we decided to pop over to Anamosa, Iowa to check out the National Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame and the J&P Cycles retail store and museum. After following Greg and his trusty GPS through every cornfield bordered road in Iowa, we finally made our way there. You could spend an entire day just between these two locations, and is a definite must see if you’re in the area.
We arrived in Lake Geneva, a very quaint little town, and made our way to the house we had rented on the lake. The place was a little rundown compared to the photos on the Internet; however, after riding all day, the accommodations were quite acceptable. Jerry must have gotten over most of his despair at having to leave his bike back in Burlington, because when they pulled into the driveway, the top was down on their convertible and he was smiling from ear to ear, while puffing on a big fat cigar in typical Jerry style! That night, we ate at a little dockside restaurant and piano bar within walking distance of our house. The people were very friendly and the food and entertainment was good. After filling our bellies, everyone was tired, so we headed back to the house. I think someone made the comment along the way that we looked like something straight out of the movie, Night of the Living Dead.
We woke up Friday morning, August 29th, and checked the events schedule. We quickly determined there was way too much going on all over town to try to take it all in, so we decided to head up to West Bend for the Club H.O.G activities we’d heard so much about. Although there was quite a long line on the highway and exit ramp, the traffic was well directed so it was easy to get in. What a sight! There were thousands of bikes lined up as far and as deep as the eye could see! I’d never seen so many bikes! There were several bands playing on the various stages throughout the fairgrounds, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd was playing on the main stage. There were lots of cool vendors on hand and they even had a cyber café!
Since the fairgrounds closed at 6 p.m., the city of West Bend had planned a street party. The people of West Bend were some of the nicest people we have ever met, and we were asked on numerous occasions if we were having a good time. They had a great band playing, the food was good, and after partying the evening away with the locals, we took off on a long ride back to the house. It was an even longer ride for Bob and Judy, who somehow got separated from the group (Damnit Bob!) and was lost for a while.
On Saturday morning, August 30th, the MDA Parade of Heros was scheduled to take place, so we got up extra early and rode in to Milwaukee. By the time we found a place to park and walked to the parade route, people were already stacked ten deep up and down both sides of the street. We managed to weasel our way as close to the front as possible in hopes of getting a few good photos.
The parade was led by Willie G. Davidson and other Harley-Davidson executives, along with celebrity, Jay Leno and the top MDA fundraisers. Right behind them were the Chapter Parade of Flags, in which hundreds of bikes carried flags from H.O.G. chapters across the United States and world-wide. We saw flags from as far away as Japan, Switzerland, Italy, and New Zealand. There were more than 10,000 riders in all, who joined together to form the largest motorcycle parade in history!
After the parade, we rode over to Hal’s Harley-Davidson, where Paul Teutul, Sr. and Paul Teutul, Jr. of “Orange County Choppers” and the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” were wowing the crowd with their latest creations. After shopping around the dealership and grabbing a bite to eat at one of the food tents, we hopped back on our bikes and rode over to House of Harley-Davidson. What a cool place, with tons of vendors and the Fabulous Thunderbirds playing on stage. We did some more shopping, then rode back to Lake Geneva where we had dinner at a fabulous Swedish restaurant on the waterfront, which was a great way to round out the evening.
Sunday, August 31st was the day for “The Party.” On the way there, we stopped near a lighthouse in Kenosha for photos and to grab lunch at the Marina Club restaurant. More nice people and more great food! After lunch, we were Milwaukee bound, along with everyone else and their brother.
We arrived at Veteran’s Park just as the Doobie Brothers were taking the stage. This was their second performance of the week, following The Celebration at the Summerfest Grounds. As the Doobie Brothers wrapped up their show, Harley-Davidson President, James McCaslin presented a check to the Muscular Dystrophy Association for more than $7.2 million. The check was accepted by several children on stage, who are affected by the disease. After accepting the check, the children sang “Happy Birthday” to Harley-Davidson as candles flickered on a huge birthday cake.
Dan Ackroyd, master of ceremonies, introduced the next performer, who turned out to be Tim McGraw? Well, at least he rode in on a Harley. People all around us left, but we stayed and were able to move up closer to the stage. Then, Kid Rock took the stage, and after a few songs, Tim McGraw returned to close out the set as the stage crew began preparing for the third and final “mystery act” of the night, which had remained a big secret. Who would it be?
Speculations had run wild all week, from the Rolling Stones, to The Eagles, maybe Bruce Springsteen, but when the first organ chords of “Funeral for a Friend” pierced the air, you could almost hear a pin drop, along with thousands of jaws. Elton John? What? Why? Although Elton John is legendary and a very talented performer, there is no way in hell he symbolizes rock & roll, Harley-Davidson, or even America for that matter! There was an immediate mass exodus of thousands of stunned and very irritated bikers, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Elton John as people flooded by the stage on their way to the exits. I heard there were some great fireworks at the end of his performance; just too bad there wasn’t many left to see them!
On Monday, September 1st, still bewildered from the previous night’s event, it was time to grab a bite to eat and hit the road for a cold, long, hard-butt ride home to Kansas City.
Although the final act of “The Party” was a huge disappointment, overall, the event was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we were thrilled to be a part of it!
Story and Photos by Mike Schweder & Margaret Liggett