Wisconsin, 4th of July weekend... early, with morning dew dripping from impeccably manicured grass lawns, middle-aged motorcyclists wearing Harley tees, Harley vests, and Harley chaps roll out from well-kept 4 and 5 car heated garages in Mequon, Brookfield, Hartland, and Richfield heading for the Harley-Davidson Museum just south and a bit west of downtown Milwaukee ... The Middle-Aged is loose again, the Harley's Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running slow and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming up traffic at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour in the two leftmost lanes ... like Bill Murray on an iron horse, a monster steed with a flatulent anus, flat out through the eye of a beer bottle and up a camgirl's website with definitely more than a quarter given and even more asked for; show the cagers some class, give 'em a whiff of those kicks they'll never know ... Ah, these righteous dudes, they love to screw it on ... the dentist, the orthodontist, the ear/nose/throat guy, the orthopedic surgeon, the claims manager at Northwestern Mutual Life, Fat Freddy, the regional sales manager (Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois) from Walgreens, the podiatrist, the owner of the local Harley dealership, Charger Charley, and the owner of a local chain of Kia and Hyundai dealerships ... tense from riding, beards and bandanas flapping, gremlin bells, get back whips, and fully loaded Harleys flashing chrome as traffic on 94 lays trapped, nervous in their riding ability, to let the formation lead like a burst of chrome lightning.
...The run from outstate was on, "outlaws" from all over the Midwest drove their trucks and trailered hogs in packs toward Milwaukee: north from Illinois and Indiana on 94; south from Minnesota and the Dakotas on 94; and from Madison on 94. The hard core, the high spending elite, were the Harley's Angels ... wearing the Harley logo on every inch of their clothing and leaving their families behind in their suburban McMansions. They drove their full-sized trucks with autonomous cruise control, lane departure warning systems, and blind spot monitoring with a fine, unwashed arrogance, secure in their reputation as the wealthiest motorcycle owners in the whole history of christendom.
From Chicago in a separate formation came financial managers and day traders, known up behind the Cheddar Curtain as FIBs and FISH, they may not have been the kings they thought of themselves as up in America's Dairyland but they could still look down on such as the metric cruisers, sports bikes, adventure bikes, and naked bikes, refusing to wave or acknowledge any of the vastly inferior two-wheeled brands of mere transportation.
On the morning of the Harley-Davidson Museum run, 4th of July 2020, the orthopedic surgeon woke up naked and hurting all over. The night before he'd stayed in the OR late trying to hammer a new hip into an old riding buddy. "I haven't had to swing that hard since I was in med school,' he explained, "and he won't appreciate it once he's off the pain meds."
The orthopedic surgeon is five feet nine inches tall, 235 pounds heavy, with a receding hairline, a small goatee, and a timid, nervous energy not calculated to soothe the soul of any potential patient. Beyond that, he has piled up a short record with the Wisconsin Medical Association and Youtube: a couple of iffy pain med prescriptions to friends and family and a cease and desist order from Warner Records regarding a Van Halen song used without permission in a motovlog – and all this without a single criminal complaint, being officially guilty of nothing more than what any middle-aged, middle-class citizen might commit in some personal or professional moment of animalistic weakness.
"Yeah, but that script rap is all bullpuckey," he insists. "Most of the those charges are phony. I’ve never thought of myself as a criminal. I don’t work at it; I’m not greedy enough. Everything I prescribe is natural, because the patient needs it." And then, after a moment: "But I guess I’m pushin my luck, even if I’m not a criminal. Pretty soon they’ll nail me for one of these gosh darn things, and then it’s goodbye doctor, dontchaknow, for a whole lot of years. I think it’s about time I cut out the scripts. You know, I was a pretty good bass guitarist back in college, so I could fall back on that, maybe get an old studio apartment in Dinkytown at the U up in the Twin Cities. Play for cute coeds in the bars by the school. Heck, I could make it there."
On any other Saturday he might have slept until two or three in the afternoon, then gone out for his four o'clock tee time with a handful of other surgeons. But an Independence Day run is the biggest event on the Harley-Davidson calendar; it is the annual gathering of the whole Harley clan, a massive single day drunk that nearly always results in some obscene money spending action and another rude shock for the cagers. No Harley owner would miss it for any reason except for lack of spousal approval or child birthday party. The Independence Day run is the Harley owner’s answer to New Year’s Eve; it’s a time for buying more tees, reassuring old friends they made a smart two-wheeled purchase, and general full-Harley-apparel-wearing madness.
By nine o'clock that morning the orthopedic surgeon was on his feet. Post-op care for the friend with the new hip could wait. Today, the run. He very definitely didn't light a cigarette and carefully pulled on his Harley underwear and Harley pants, his Harley tee and Harley leather vest, his Harley socks and Harley riding boots, and his Harley bandana, all smelling freshly laundered with the eco-friendly, nontoxic detergent his wife buys from Costco. He drank his artisinal, Bolivian coffee while his wife cooked him a breakfast of egg whites and tofu bacon. The children had been at a sleepover the night before. It was already humid outside, and the cul de sac was losing the last wisps of morning fog to the rising sun. The bike was polished and gassed. All that remained was the gathering of credit cards and the addition of a full-sized American flag strapped to the rear luggage box, the colors clashing not at all with Harley colors.
The all important colors … the uniform, as it were, the crucial identity … which the corporate headquarters at Harley Davidson has described with excruciating detail in a press release titled HOG Article 252:
Harley-Davidson parts and accessories had been on the market since 1912, and spare parts even before then. But it was around 1920 that retail parts and accessories packaging began to appear in a burnt orange colour, with black text and graphics. The use of the two colours on parts packaging expanded over the course of the 1920s, but no evidence from this time provides the exact reason for the choice.
Conversely, for decades black and orange was not the sole colour scheme for the well-established Harley-Davidson ‘bar and shield’ logo. In fact, rules for the bar and shield were broader for many years, and colour combinations, fonts and designs varied. During this same period, black and orange remained almost entirely in the domain of parts packaging, while sometimes appearing in printed marketing items and apparel.
The use of the iconic colours on Harley-Davidson apparel began in the 1930s. Caps and sweaters sometimes included the 'silver wing' embroidered patch, which presented the bar and shield logo in black and orange with silver wings spread to the sides. In some years, the sweaters themselves were offered in the two colours among many others. Black and orange began appearing regularly on Harley-Davidson apparel on jackets, jerseys and shirts in the late 1960s.
Harley-Davidson took its official logo in a different direction in 1963, with a modernised take on the original bar and shield. Sometimes informally called the ‘diamond’ logo, it was extended horizontally to better fit the shape of a motorcycle gas tank. The version used in printed marketing was often black and orange. All the while, parts packaging continued to employ black and orange.
The bar and shield as it is known today came into regular use for the 1976 model year. Since then, the design of the logo has adhered more to a standard, including the colour combination. The use of the colours became more common across apparel, advertising, communications and other branding. Today, black and orange are universally thought of as part of the Harley-Davidson identity. And it all started with Genuine Harley-Davidson Parts and Accessories.
This compact description of rancid, corporate-speak is substantially correct except for the hocus pocus about the colors. All Harley’s Angels wear these colors and all it means is that they are proud to be a part of the Harley-Davidson family ... everyone knows that black stands for elegance and orange symbolizes energy.
The orthopedic surgeon left the house around ten, taking it easy on the 1 mile run down Brookfield’s main drag, keeping the exhaust note peaked, aware of stares from passing motorists and people drinking their Bloody Marys al fresco for breakfast, barely hitting the speed limits, and accelerating thunderously and leisurely from red lights to meet up with the orthodontist, the claims manager, and Fat Freddy at Eble Park, a sprawling suburban open space containing plastic playground equipment with soft rounded corners, multiple sports fields, and an ice arena. Upon arrival he found the three of them parked in an unshaded area of the parking lot so as to not get any tree pollen or sap on their freshly washed and waxed hogs.
He wobbled to a stop, barely able to hold up the 850 pound chrome monster while getting the kickstand down. "Brothers!" he yelled, fist bumping the waiting trio. "Brother!" they harrumphed ...and having validated their Harleyness they mounted their rolling metal and made noise...booming stentorian noise ...and pulled out past children holding their hands to their ears and parents clucking their tongues in disapproval – for this is what they lived for, making the world know they were the biggest and loudest bad asses on the planet and their passage would be marked through sound of exhaust, shine of chrome, and drip of oil.
At Miller Parkway, 10 minutes from the museum, the formation was ignored by two county troopers, not causing a traffic jam at the junction of 94 and 175. Nobody stopped their cars entirely, just to watch. Others didn't slow down to ten or fifteen miles an hour. As traffic failed to pile up, there were no vapor locks, no boil-overs, and no minor collisions.
The St. Paul exit of 94 has the Harley's Angels rolling gracefully through the Menomonee Valley, a former industrial wasteland now gentrified to resemble the suburbs from whence they come -the shiny new cookie cutter professional buildings surrounded by Kentucky bluegrass sod not quite matching their superior fescue/bluegrass mix in subdivisions back home.
The Angels try to avoid trouble on the road and it's not hard to do so, SE Wisconsin is the mecca for all things Harley-Davidson ...but still even a minor legal infraction can mean a record and a record doesn't go down good with the boys from the Wisconsin Medical Association or the Wisconsin Dental Association, and these Angels have loans -very big loans- to pay on their bikes. Add in impound fees and the scratches they'd have to pay someone to buff out for them from the animals at the impound lot touching their rides and they might not be able to take that fourth vacation of the year to the Caribbean like they promised their wives- and then the real trouble would begin ...broken promises to the wives meant less riding time and less money to spend on bike upgrades ...besides, the idea, after all, is to reach the destination-not lock horns with the wives.
The Middle-Aged Cometh
The Milwaukee Journal has been reporting on the Independence Day Harley-Davidson bacchanal for years, writing an annual "Wilder Hogs" about the DUIs and fist fights – just a little posture pushing really - that've occurred. The Milwaukee Sentinel followed with a left hook titled "Wild Hogs" and by the time the dust had settled, the local news media had a guaranteed grabber on their hands. Here's how the Journal described the goings on a year ago:
A roaring swarm of tens of thousands of Harley clad bikers converged on the holy of holies: The Harley-Davidson Museum in the Menomonee River Valley. They spent oodles of dough on overpriced drinks and even more on overpriced HD merchandise from the mother ship museum herself. They halted sports bike riders and pointed and laughed uproariously mentioning "jap crap" and "not a real motorcycle" before allowing them to move on. One plucky young lad on a Kawasaki Z1000 managed to eek out a "Harley still makes motorcycles? I thought they were just a t-shirt company these days" then sped away before the inebriated HD owners could even find their keys.
Both the Journal and the Sentinel compared last years "invasion" of the Menomonee Valley with a film called Wild Hogs, based on a dream that John Travolta could act, and starring John C. Mcginley as an overly enthusiastic highway patrolman ... which one reviewer or another probably called a "slice-of-escapism picture about a pack of middle-aged men going through a mid-life motorcylce crisis called the Wild Hogs." But Wild Hogs passed quickly into oblivion, said the possible reviewer, because "the characters were too overdrawn and the despondency they wrought was too unrelieved to engage the credulity of the audience."
Who, after all, could believe that a gang of two-wheeled geezers might fight off an entire biker gang? Not that one possible reviewer. At least not in 2007, when the picture was first released; and not the next year when it happened to tens of thousands of middle-aged men again; and not even ten years later, when the same thing supposedly happened again. But today, thirteen years after the first so-called biker comedy movie in America, that potential reviewer came to grips with the story, had they been an actual person. The mid-life biker crisis was real! The Harley's Angels had been holed up somewhere for eighteen years, polishing their motorcycles and buffing their HD boots. The fantasy reviewer probably would have written two columns of supercharged hokum for the local section of the local rag: 'Last week it [Wild Hogs] was back-and in real life!"
The article would continue in a high-pitched, chattering whine, with a list of phony statistics: "More and more join every year, the "club" now numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Their logbook of kicks runs from buying anything orange and black to beer and poker runs as long as the weather's nice and the temperature's comfy. Among them they boast 14 tons of polished chrome, $1 billion dollars worth of tees, over a dozen miles ridden a couple of times a year on the bike itself, and not a single helmet."
The significant thing about the fake reviewer's view of the Angels was not its crabwise approach to reality, but its impact. At the beginning Harley's Angels were virtually nonexistent. Their headcount was low and the price of HD motorcycles made it impossible for them to even afford a real bike. This made up person wrote a headline that said: THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY DID NOT CONQUER. But over the years, as the younger got older and more established in their professions, they suddenly found they had more lucre with which to play, daydreaming their way through another carpal tunnel procedure, tooth filling, or fiscal regional rehash- wondering how they could completely distance themselves from their beige offices and ORs, not to mention, occasionally, their families, then like a ray of sunshine on a stormy day they remember fondly the movie that would inspire some of Ray Liotta's best work -and once one of the newly minted Harley's Angels went, others were sure to follow. The cost of entry? Minimum $35k ...the cost of HD apparel, HD upgrades and HD bike.
With all the crime and economic worries of our times, it's hard to see how it would make any difference to anybody at all what a couple upper-middle class men bought with their not-so-hard-earned money but it was the awesome power of the local free press that brought change. If the rise of the Harley in middle America proved any one thing it was the awesome power of advertising.
Harley Davidson took notice and went full on balls to the wall marketing forthwith. Freedom with a side of Americana for the low low price of a couple ten thou. You're not a boring orthodontist, you're an outlaw who happens to practice dental surgery. You're not a guy who lusts after his unattainable young secretary while discussing P/E ratios, return on equity, and cash flow statements in boardrooms- you're an outlaw with a get back whip who happens to be a titan of the financial sector. In other words, you're not you, you're a better you -the best you you could be when you buy a Harley.
Freedom. Is there any word more American...oozing red, white, and blue, when the word freedom casts a shadow it's a bald eagle haloed by the letters U, S, and A all wrapped up in the stars and stripes. So when Harley started advertising to the middle-aged suburbanites and the press printed the human interest stories of mean looking men drinking microbrews and partying it was the one-two punch that knocked baby boomers flat on their padded tuchuses. They never stood a chance. Show a boring, quiet dentist an image of himself as a man's man wearing outlaw rags in front of an American flag and all he sees is his own manifest destiny- the right to be the man he believes he already is somewhere down deep inside... perhaps buried deep – but not irretrievably so – under 2.5 kids and the wife and the mortgage payments on the 5 bed colonial with the white picket fence.
The irony, of course, is that if it weren't for the boring, professional gig and strict adherence to financial responsibility, Harley's Angels wouldn't be able to float the pink on a new shiny chrome two-wheeler in the first place.
Another dose of reality for the Angels- partying hard and riding harder is work. Partying at the campfire til 3 in the morning shotgunning cans of warm beer while staying conscious enough to carouse then waking up at the crack of noon having slept rough on god knows what next to god knows who for god knows how long ... riding your bike to the next couple hundred miles then repeating isn't for someone used to 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and Posture Royalpedic Doublesoft SleepEZ mattresses.
There's a reason bikes are trailered to one or two rallies a year in trucks bigger than apartments, far more handsomely equipped – massaged, heated, and cooled seats; sound system set optimally for BTO and the Eagles – suspension set to not feel the road or the climate rushing by at 80mph. There's no hundreds of miles of smelly tarmac with the sun beating down – or worse the rain...each raindrop hitting you at highways speeds, big ass needles penetrating each square inch of skin not covered by HD protective gear, no stink of skunk or deer carcass, and swarms of gnats and mosquitos and no-see-ims die quickly and unannoyingly on the windshield instead of shooting into the eyes or nose.
When the hotel, optimally set within a five to ten mile radius of the event, is settled and the bikes unstrapped the partying and spending begins.
The Harley-Davidson Museum Independence Day bash kicked into into gear around 11am. Tables and tents full of orange and black merchandise from Harley-Davidson... red, white, and blue from everyone else allowed to set up in the shadow of the nerve center of HD's empire. Big sweaty men and women roamed the stalls looking for an Edge something that would show greater loyalty to HD than their riding buddies and if you couldn't find quality you went with quantity...more than one Angel would be going home with luggage filled with new HD geegaws gizmos doodads and clothing- those with a longer drive home consider themselves fortunate to have more time to come up with an excuse for all the new gear, find the proper words to chant to spouses to stave of the verbal lashing yang to their purchasing yin.
Even before high noon hits the drinking starts- buxom gals in skimpy outfits, 1000 watt smiles, gazes filled with the perfidious promise of things just this side of proper serve up Great Lakes' worth of beer in plastic cups and plastic bottles. Nothing's finer than wearing the gear and hanging with those who wear the gear... cold brew in one hand and a cheesy beer brat in the other. Middle-Aged biker Nirvana provided by bewitching gals, cold beer, and grub from the grill.
In Wisconsin, once the drinking begins it doesn't stop. The state has one of the highest rates of binge drinking in the country and its cities perpetually take up a dozen or so slots from myriad 20 Drunkest Cities lists pumped out by the national press - if kids want to tie a couple on it's entirely legal for them to do so in a bar as long as parent or legal guardian is with them, not that there are many kids at the HD Museum this Saturday...hard to cosplay outlaw biker with the rugrats in tow. Wisconsin also has the strange subversion of the grocery store to bar ratio. Look at a map that shows states with more grocery stores per capita in green and more bars per capita in yellow and you'll find a state shaped exactly like Wisconsin in bar cheese yellow surrounded by a nation of green grocery stores.
Most of the Angels have careers paying six figures. They have 401ks and 403bs and stock portfolios and mutual fund accounts. They have financial advisers and lawyers. They had to go to school for not just the first twelve years, or the next four, but the next two or four or six or eight- what all this means is that while they rake in the dough they are mortgaged and loaned up to their ears -money in money out - student loans, mortgages, car notes, second car notes, teen kid car notes, minivan notes, bike notes, multiple monthly credit card bills, college tuitions, orthodontia, multiple vacations, wives, girlfriends...money flows like the tide coming in then heading right back out.
So there is more to their stance than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made but continue paying for. Their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are stuck playing the ballgame and they know it. Unlike blue collar working class folk, who with a minimum of effort will emerge from their struggle without the myriad debt, the Harley Angel views the future with the baleful eye of a man with ever increasing need for upward mobility and more profit. In a world increasingly geared for men like them they feel the need for things like being their own man, freedom, and to somehow enjoy the fruits of their labor, the Harley's Angels are obvious losers and it bugs them. But they submit quietly to their collective fate and make spending money on freedom a couple hours a week their social vendetta.
If one drawback to being an upper middle class figure was the inability to be an outlaw with freedom, another was the disappointment in discovering that money can come without respect. Shortly after becoming doctors and financial gurus they began talking about "getting respect from it all" and their fear of being nobodies soon gave way to brooding resentment for being somebody who didn't inspire anything in others but a feeble kind of acknowledgment.
None of them realized what an empty bag they were holding. The Angels weren't quick to see the trend because they were doing what they had always been told to do. But one day the realized they never really thought for themselves and the game was all over. They were still talking about freedom and respect , but the talk would soon go sour. Cash was all around but they couldn't get their hands on much of it. What they needed was something different but different in a world where everything was the same was dangerous. They needed danger without the danger.
The Angels were extremely proud of their accomplishments- the multiple diplomas and sets of letters after their signatures. The trophy wife and house in the right subdivision in the right part of town in the right suburb. The right private golf course membership and right chamber of commerce, Shriner, or Freemason membership. Yet all these memberships and "right things" further highlighted their entrapment in their colorless world and soon every new professional peak, every new big purchase, every new societal membership produced outbursts of bitterness.
Enter the local news coverage of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle owner.
It's here that the Middle-Aged, upper-middle class, well educated males stopped worrying and starting plotting. In the Journal and the Sentinel the tone of the coverage of outlaw motorcyclists was changing. Whereas HD bikers were previously angry outlaws part of 1% gangs who paralyzed entire cities crazy with fear, the press now stated that bikers were patriotic outlaws possessed of a sense of freedom, fitness, and realism that is lacking elsewhere in the American psyche. An orthopedic surgeon can't be a 1% and expect to keep their job and house and wife, but they can be a patriot, keep all that, and throw in a big bucket o' pride on top of it.
Whatever else might be said about the Angels, nobody ever accused them of modesty, and this new press was a balm to their long-abused egos. For the price of a new car they could get confirmation of what they always suspected: they were rare, fascinating creatures. It was a shock of recognition, long overdue, and although they never understood the timing, they were generally pleased with the result. At the same time the press revised their traditional view of bikers, The Middle-Aged discovered they could afford the buy-in of HD bikes.
The Wisconsin climate is not perfect for bikes...or surfboards or convertibles, yet abulia abounds- freeze your tongles off in the winter, boil 'em in the humidity of summer. Most bikers are harmless weekend types, no more dangerous than skiers or skin divers. But ever since trickle down economics, the third coast has been plagued by these gangs of innocuous weekend types, roaming the weekend highways in groups of ten to fifty ...stopping whenever there's a poker chip to be had, to suck up some beer and to make some noise.
The Harley's Angels of the twenties are not keenly interested in their origins or spiritual ancestors. "Those guys aren't around anymore," the orthodontist told me. But some were – although in 2020 it wasn't easy to locate them. Some were dead, others were on vacation, and those who'd given up the bike were inclined to avoid publicity. One of the few I managed to locate was Dirk Wagner. I found him on a Saturday afternoon at McKinley Marina getting his forty-foot sloop in shape for a two-way cruise to Mackinac Island. His crew for the trip, he said, would be his two teenage sons from his second marriage, two seaworthy Harley's Angels, and his third wife who was stretched out on the deck in a blue bikini. Wagner's name is mentioned with reverence among the local Angels. Dirk has class, and he made more money out of the 2008 financial crisis than any other financier in a thousand miles. All during his biker years he held that finance gig, but he needed more action than advanced math and spreadsheets could provide. For this he had the Angels, a vehicle for his humor and fantasies, a sop for any drunkenness and an occasional chance to bust out of the workday murk like some kind of saber-rattling golem and lay at least a small jolt on people he had no other way of reaching. Dirk was so completely hip that he bought the leather skullcap worn by William H Macy in Wild Hogs. Dirk wore it ragged, and not only for runs and parties. When he felt the cops weren't playing fair with the guys during poker runs he would make an appearance at the police chief's office, wearing his leather skullcap and demanding justice. If that didn't get results, he would go to the ACLU. Dirk had a wry sense of humor and a very sophisticated instinct for self-preservation - he was never arrested and never had drank more than he could handle.
After a long stint at Stronger Capital Management he stumbled on angel investing, but Bill Stronger, the eponymous CEO of Stronger Capital Management, thought he deserved part of the action. Dirk told him he'd rather play it straight and ended up obtaining Stronger Capital Management in a hostile takeover then firing Bill.
Dirk Wagner is a study in something, but I was never sure what to call it. He is a walking monument to everything any Harley's Angel would like to be, but which few of them do. Wagner is the Compleat Middle-Ager, and he somehow makes it work. He was a motorcyclist long before he was a Harley's Angel. He'd stop off at any bar that had a number of expensive, shiny Harleys out front to say hello and soon after was a part of a loosely knit group of riders. He drifted around from River Hills to Cudahy and noticed the "big shinys" as he called them, everywhere. Then, in early 2007, Wild Hogs came to town, and things changed. "We went out to the Oriental Theater on Farwell," Wagner said. "There were about fifty of us, with our black leather Harley-Davidson jackets ... we sat up in the balcony and drank our beer purchased from the concession stand and cheered like bastards. We could all see ourselves right there on the screen. We were all Tim Allen. I guess I must have seen it four or five times."
One humorous incident connected with the Harley-Davidson logo and Dirk Wagner is still a source of amusement to the hard buying bikers today. Dirk was talking to the CEO of one financial firm or other about their ROIs in frozen concentrated orange juice futures. Since it was a Sunday and he'd been out riding all day he was proudly displaying his Harley gear. "Take that off," the CEO said.
Dirk stripped off his Harley jacket, exposing another Harley logo on his Harley vest. "Take that off, too," the irate CEO ordered. And under the Harley vest was a plaid flannel Harley shirt in orange and black. "Off with it," the CEO grunted angrily. Under the shirt was a Harley tee. The CEO threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. But Wagner had the last laugh. He was prepared to go all the way. His trousers, shorts, boots and socks were also emblazoned with the HD logo.
"He was a way-out mother," Dirk's friends agree.
Many of the stories in Wild Hogs comes from a kernel of truth about the Wisconsin Harley's Angels. It was the Angels who defended the mom and pop ginseng businesses in Marathon County Wisconsin, which produces 98% of America's ginseng, from the hostile takeovers of multinational corporations.
Marathon County at the time had a population of roughly 125,000 souls, a farming county three hours ride from Milwaukee. Three hours is a long ride from the greater Milwaukee area, for most of the Angels it would mean doubling the amount of miles put on their bikes in a year, but when it came to pass that the ginseng farms up north were under attack they took the call. On the weekend when potential buyers had came in from overseas to examine the farm holdings, the boys in orange and black polished and buffed everything to a fine shine and made their way up, sounding like the deadly tax attorneys, investment brokers, and real estate experts there were.
"In the movie, of course, they had to change overseas investors to a drunken biker gang, there were really more like a hundred of us, not just four, and the only fighting we did was with phrases like asset allocation, capital gains rebalancing, offshore escrow account, adversarial proceeding, and amicus curiae...not fisticuffs, but we know that movie was really based on what did up there," suggested the Walgreens' Regional DM.
The truth is that Wild Hogs - despite an admittedly exaggerated treatment – was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge, in the style of Time, it told a story that was only beginning to happen and was inevitably influenced by what I hesitate to call a film. It gave the Middle-Aged bikers a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselvee, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find in a mirror, and it quickly became the bike rider's answer to The Sun Also Rises. The image is not valid, but its wide acceptance can hardly be blamed on the movie. Wild Hogs was careful to distinguish between "wannabe outlaws" and "bad outlaws," but the people who were most influenced chose to identify more with Martin Lawrence than with Ray Liotta whose role as the villain was a lot more true to life than Lawrence's portrayal of the confused hero. They saw themselves as modern Robin Hoods... virila, articulate brutes- captains of industry whose good instincts got warped somewhere in the struggle for conformity and getalongedness and who spent the rest of their lives seeking an accord with the world that done them wrong when they were young and defenseless.
The concept of the midlife crisis was as uniquely American as jazz. Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways they appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of Reaganomics. Yet in other ways they were as new as the internet. There was absolutely no precedent, in the years after Reagan was in office, for large groups of old guys on Harleys, reveling in spending, worshiping the American way and thinking nothing of trailering their bikes five hundred miles on a weekend ... to whoop it up in Sturgis or the Hell's Canyon Rally or Laconia Bike week or Daytona Bike Week with lawyers and accountants and dentists and surgeons just like them in some gaudy parade of wealth and chrome.
For a lot of reasons that are often contradictory, the sight and sound of a man on a motorcycle has an unpleasant effect on the vast majority of Americans who drive cars. At one point, a Journal reporter did a long article on the motorcycle scene and decided that in the course of his research that "there is something about the sight of a passing motorcyclist that tempts many automobile drivers to commit murder."
Nearly everyone who has ridden a bike for any length of time will agree. The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong done to them by man, beast, or fate. The only thing that keeps them in line is their own fear of death, jail, and lawsuits (lawsuits are the most likely option of the Harley's Angels given the propensity toward white collar gigs these days, natch)... which are much less likely if they can find a motorcycle to challenge instead of another two-thousand-pound car or a concrete abutment. A motoryclist has to drive as if everybody else on the road is out to kill him. A few of them are, and many of those who aren't are just as dangerous-because the only thing that can alter their careless, ingrained driving habits is a threat of punishment, either legal or physical, and there is nothing abut a motorcycle to threaten any man in a car. A bike is totally vulnerable; its only defense is maneuverability, and every accident situation is potentially fatal-especially on a freeway, where there is no room to fall without being run over almost instantly.
And of all their habits and predilections, the Middle-Aged disregard for the time-honored concept of an eye for an eye is the one that frightens cagers the most. The Harley's Angels do not try to do anything halfway, and these monied riders are bound to cause trouble, whether they mean to or not. This, along with a belief in total retaliation for any accident or insult, is what makes them such a problem for police and the courts. Their claim that they don't start trouble is probably true more often than not, but their idea of provocation is dangerously broad, and one of the main difficulties is that almost nobody seems to understand it. Yet they have a very simple rule of thumb; in any argument a fellow Angel is always right. To cross a Harley's Angel is to be wrong- and to persist in being wrong is an opening for a lawsuit.
When Joe Shmoe is driving down the highway after a long day's work, thoughts of hanging at the bar later to catch the Packer game pinging in his brain, his mind inevitably wanders, as does the vehicle he drives. Should the vehicle wander into the path of a Harley's Angel it will be but a brief interaction as long as no contact is made. Joe probably barely registers the mid-course correction he makes to his Ford Taurus before going on with his evening. The Angel, however, shakes his head in disgust...he has cameras and a long memory of similar occurrences. The footage is shared on Youtube where all his subscribers see it and egg him on. The footage is given to his lawyer friends -fellow Angels- where plans are hatched around what degree of infraction Joe is guilty of and, more importantly, how much Joe can be taken for -this amount tends to be measured, for some absurd reason, in the current price of Harley-Davidson Garden Gnomes.
Say Joe really crossed the lane marker fast and hard before correcting, causing the Middle-Aged to swerve precariously out of danger before resuming course. In a case like this, a lawyer working for a brother Angel could expect to get maybe one hundred HD Garden Gnomes out of the deal – at thirty bucks a pop that comes out to three large...lawyer friend gets half, leaving enough for the wronged Angel to buy himself a new farkle for the bike and a dozen roses for the wife. And Joe? Joe gets to mumble and grumble as his insurance rates -probably determined by a Harley's Angel whose an actuary for the insurance company- go up yet again.
One of the Milwaukee Angels explained it without any frills, "Our motto, man, is 'All on one and one on all.' You mess with an Angel and you've got twenty-five of them on your neck. I mean, they'll break your piggy bank but good, baby."
A mass of Harley's Angels on the road is a sight that no one who ever sees it will forget. Their arrival at a gas station causes a panic. There is simply no way to cope with a caravan of wobbling, duck walking riders rolling in, each coming perilously close to riding into parked cars and their fellow motorcyclists. One Saturday morning near Appleton I pulled into a gas station on Highway 41 and was talking amiably with a fellow filler-upper about the humidity and general perfidy of machinery ... when the station suddenly filled up with middle-aged motorcyclists gunning their engines, trying to keep their 800 pound bikes upright. "Holy Jesus!" said my fellow conversationalist. "That guy almost hit the pumps...and that guy...and that guy...and that guy, too!" They pumped their own gas and rummaged through the racks for bottled water and beef jerky. The five or six motorists at the pumps simply sat in their cars and watched, they figured they had the best shot of staying alive if there were a couple tons of metal between them and the behemoth bikes swaying back and forth like Great lakes merchant marines on shore leave between the pumps. The other customers moved around cautiously, hoping that none of the bikers would inadvertently careen into them or their parked cars. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Angels in a mass will agree that this is one of the worst aspects: at what point do you start protesting the little dings and scrapes caused by well-lawyered men riding 800 pound hogs...at the risk of starting a lawsuit that might end up in an increase in insurance rates? Is it cheaper to let a middle-aged rider get off with a little scratch to your eight year old sedan – or should a man risk his time and his sanity by insisting the bikers' insurance company pay, to the last penny, for all the damage they cause? The age old question of being brave or being apathetic.
A Harley's Angel on foot can look pretty foolish. Their sloppy histrionics and inane conversations about finance and management techniques can be interesting for twenty minutes or so, but beyond the initial strangeness, their everyday scene is as tedious and depressing as a costume ball for demented children. There is something pathetic about a bunch of men dressing up in similar clothing, taking themselves very seriously in their HD gear, with nothing to look forward to but the chance to make noise and drink beer.
And there is something pathetic about the sight of an Angel on his bike. The whole – man and machine together – is far goofier than the sum of its parts. His motorcycle is too big, too under-powered, and too over-chromed. It's too expensive. He pampers it the same way a busty Hollywood starlet pampers her body. Without it he is no better than an office intern working for a multinational. And he knows it. The Angels are not demonstrative about many things, but they bring a lover's inspiration to the subject of their bike. The insurance actuary, a man not given to sentimental rambling, once defined the word "love" as "the feeling you get when you like something as much as your HD motorcycle and HD motorcycle gear."
The fact that many Middle-aged have virtually created their bikes out of overpriced, mass manufactured parts only half explains the attachment they have for them. The other half? The overpriced, mass manufactured tees. Watching an Angel try to straddle his hog is like watching a thirsty man find water. His face changes; his whole bearing radiates confidence and authority. He sits there for a moment with the big machine rumbling between his legs and then he wobbles off with a roaring that belies the lack of quick acceleration. Each Angel is a mirror in the mutual admiration society. They reflect and reassure each other, in strength and weakness, folly and triumph.
Whether the Harley's Angels are real motorcycle artists or not is not difficult to say. Without exception, they are barred from all sanctioned competition, so there are no performance charts to go on. Their bikes are entirely different from racing and scrambles machines, and even from other road bikes. The Angels may not get there fast, but when they do arrive they will do so with a smug superiority driven by the cost of their bikes, farkles, and gear.
So the drinking had begun this Fourth of July ... drinking in earnest ... drinking like a fish ... drinking like there was no tomorrow. Drinking like only folk from Wisconsin can drink. In accordance with being Wisconsites they booze with a zeal that seems hardly human. As drinkers, they are binge-oriented. I began to introduce myself around and drew a dead blank. The hostility was obvious but muted. For most of the year these guys are quiet. Around home, on their own turf, they blend in. Professionally and personally they make few waves and no trouble. These are the guys wearing Dockers and low-tier Armani suits- boring ties, commuting to work in silver Toyotas and Audis. They aren't used to the spotlight and weren't sure they wanted it shining full on while they were drinking hard and spending money their wives might miss.
Soon enough, though, after I'd bought some rounds, they seemed to embrace me – sometimes literally, with the occasional piece of Harley-Davidson gear thrown somewhere on my person – an HD bandana here, a three inch leather HD bracelet there, an HD gimme cap up top, and the piece de resistance, a leather HD vest -for a while I was their Harley doll and I needed to be dressed up in order to be accepted. And once in, as long as you're wearing the HD colors – orange and black – and flashing the HD ID - green - you're always in.
The Harley's Angels are very definitely an upper-middle-class phenomenon. Most of the Middle-Aged are the sons of the people who run the local chamber of commerce and the Lion's Club. They're family folk. Wife stays home to raise the kids kinda folk. Golden Labrador Retriever kinda folk. I've never met a Harley's Angel who didn't claim to have a home town...they've got roots, sometimes generations deep. You wonder who throws the pancake breakfasts? The ones who organize the five hundred dollar scholarships for two worthy high school seniors? This is them.
They come from towns where half the population are related- cousins and aunts and uncles...looking in the phone book shows pages and pages with the same last name. The dentist and the car dealer owner and the local ice cream shoppe- always shoppe, never shop- owner and the GP doc. Norman Rockwell painted them. Think bourgeois. Think kitsch. Think the great American Middle. Rockwell said, "Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed." And these were the guys you never noticed. That's why they embraced the biggest, chromiest, noisiest machines they could -they might have been okay with not being noticed for most of their lives, but every man has the desire to break out...break free...once in a while and HD motorcycles is how they chose to do it- all the bark of American motorcycles with none of the bite of actual outlaws...the outlaw look at a Rolex price point.
At least half the Angels are ex-military- primarily National Guard...the weekend warriors...two days a month two weeks a year. Sure, there are some ROTC guys in there, but mostly there's more money to be made outside the military than in. The Guard is good for serving your country and networking...yeah weekend warrior is fun and gets you out of the house – until you can afford that brand new Harley anyway- but it's those connections you make with people who think just like you that last a lifetime. Serve your country and serve yourself. Can I get an Amen?
Once evening hit, the rest of the Harley-Davidson Museum Independence Day party went much as expected- more drinking, more spending, more noise...the women wore less and the men tipped more...the music got louder and the Angels got sloppier... it became an inebriation festival of brotherly love. There's not much anger or hate when the Middle-Aged meet and get drunk so there's not much fighting ... not that there was ever much fighting even when they were younger...these were respectable folk, pillars of the community, they saved their fists for behind the closed doors of their suburban homes...nope...tonight the Angels just have a kind of glassy-eyed zen that all is right with the world. They have good jobs and good families and get to cut loose in leather and chrome once or twice a year.
Can the Middle-Aged ask for anything more?
As they head home it's hard to tell if the wobble in their bike is from lack of skill or surplus of drink. They don't worry about crashing- even without a helmet- for this is Wisconsin, and in Wisconsin drunk driving is something that happens to other people. The Angels leave HD HQ feeling kingly...designers of their own destiny...makers of the fortunes of folk everywhere. Come morning, the hangovers and disapproving looks from their wives will prove otherwise, but for tonight it is true enough. They return home, strip the HD merch from their sweaty, shaky bodies and head straight to the guest bedroom to pass out.
I'm one of the last to leave, waiting for anything of interest to happen to make up for the infinite parade of blissfully blotto'd bikers exiting the festivities. As I hop on my Victory Boardwalk- no Harley for me, no middle-manager salary have I- I think on my years of squid motorcycle conditioning...how nurture kicks the crap out of nature in that particular debate when it comes to two wheels -living near Milwaukee means riding cruisers and riding cruisers means jeans and a t-shirt and whatever footwear is closest at hand and, if I'm feeling particularly safety conscious, some kind of eye wear...and there's no need to take 10 minutes to grab your gear and throw it on and make sure it's all tucked and zipped and fitted and situated properly...all ya gotta do is grab the keys, kiss the wife, and ride.
Then riding down the highway at 75mph with no windshield and no gear while fighting all the forces against you - the wind and the noise and the speed - that are trying their damnedest to yank you from the bike and each moment is a struggle that makes the inner you grin and roar against those forces until you roar louder and live better than at almost any other time in your life.
And flying past all the people in their safe, comfortable, climate controlled cages and it does feel exactly like you're flying and you don't need a plane to do it...in fact a plane would be worse because then you'd be in a cockpit or an airline seat with tons of metal and safety glass between you and this utter and complete feeling of raw exhilaration. You ride into the rain going 60mph on a back country road and each drop hits you so you feel each individual raindrop like the biggest needle you've ever seen puncturing your skin over and over and again and again and you realize that it's the most pain you felt in years and that pain means you're alive and life isn't all about trying to find the most comfortable path but rather the most interesting and exciting one and that sometimes this means pain and discomfort and challenge. Through it all, if you're lucky, you'll begin to realize that life is absurd and riding motorcycles is absurd and riding without gear is absurd and what other people consider safe is absurd and that other people are absurd and you damned well for sure are absurd and all this absurdity just means that you better get to living the kind of life you want to live because this absurd life is over absurdly quickly and the ultimate absurdity in life would be to try and play it safe. And then you crash your motorcycle and the broken wrists and hands and fingers and ankle and that oh so intimate feeling of asphalt tearing flesh from your skin at highway speeds leads to that oh so intimate feeling of your home health nurse having to wipe your ass for weeks on end leads to a reassessment of the beliefs of your upbringing and what motorcycling has meant to you for decades.
But you hop back on the bike eventually- still without gear...cuz you're looking for that same rush you always get. There it is, just ahead, and you pour on more speed to catch it. And if the next crash is to be your last, you know you'll end up in Moto Valhalla, a majestic, enormous hall located in Asgard, ruled over by the gods of motorcycles..chosen by the motorcycle god with one eye. Half of the dead travel to Moto Valhalla, led by Honda Valkyries, while the other half go to the god and goddess’ field, Fólkvangr. In Moto Valhalla, the motorcyclists join the masses of those who have died while riding – those who are now kings, queens, and minor deities themselves – and prepare to aid the motorcycle gods during the events of Ragnarök, which will be a stupendous group ride and poker run causing the world to be born anew, the roads to be resurfaced, and the world to be repopulated by motorcycle lovers.
On Labor Day 2020, I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly sued by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them.
None of those who sued me were among the group I considered my friends-but they were Angels, and that was enough to cause many of the others to participate after one of their brethren subpoenaed me. The first service was launched with no hint of warning and I thought for a moment that it was just one of those drunken accidents that a man has to live with in this league. But within days I was deposed by an Angel I was talking to just the week before. Then I was swarmed in a general flail. At my first court date I caught glimpse of the orthodontist, sitting at the back of the courtroom. His was the only familiar face I could see. I yelled to him for help- but more out of desperation than hope.
Yet it was the orthodontist who pulled me from the lawsuit circle before the others managed to bleed me dry in lawyer and court fees. Even while the judge was pounding her gavel I could hear the orthodontist somewhere behind me, saying, "Come on, come on, that's enough." I suppose he helped more than I realized, but if he had done nothing else I owe him a huge favor for preventing the Middle-Aged from destroying my bank account. The orthodontist kept them mercifully out of range...and then, during a lull in the suing action, he pulled me aside and told me to run.
Nobody followed. The lawsuits ended with the same inexplicable suddenness with which they had begun. There was no vocal aftermath, then or later. I didn't expect one - no more than I'd expect a pack of sharks to explain their feeding frenzy.
It had been a bad trip...almost fast and wild in some moments, slow and excruciating in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer. On my way back home, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of ex-Fed Chairman, Mistah Ben Bernake's words at a talk at Princeton: "A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others."