Saturday morning we awakened to a constant rumble of motorcycles that has become quite normal around Milwaukee since mid-week, when riders began rolling into town. It's hard to explain how the rumble sounds, because bike engines are sometimes close enough to the house to clearly hear them, yet most of the time they sound more like a collage of bike engines that blurs into a hum. The rumble is pretty loud too... even down in our basement we could hear the constant hum quite clearly.
August 30th was the big day when 10,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles paraded across town in celebration of the company's 100th anniversary. Since we didn't live far from the parade route, we decided it'd be a fun experience to walk down and see the parade as a family. So, we had breakfast and dressed for the occasion in our Harley-Davidson t-shirts.
Nathan was sporting a home-made shirt with Harley-Davidson logos ink-jet printed and ironed on Friday night. The front of his shirt had a 100th anniverdary logo while back had "Harley Lovin' Half-Pint Hog" encircling a Harley-Davidson logo.
Gail and I wore t-shirts from a Swedish Harley-Davidson dealership we visited in 1998, on the outskirts of Uppsala, north of Stockholm. It was great fun meeting the owner of he store, Kjell, especially when we mentioned we came from Milwaukee. We chatted with him a while, talked about the upcoming 95th anniversary celebration taking place in the summer of '98 and bought two dealer t-shirts (he even gave us a Milwaukee discount!). As a small thank you, we gathered 95th anniversary items and sent a care package to Kjell, which he really loved.
Once we were packed up, we headed off to see the show. Milwaukeeans were already streaming toward the start of the parade at the Milwaukee Zoo. As we approached the exit point of the Zoo parking lot, we could already hear bikes rumbling past us, but couldn't see a thing because the crowd was about 8 to 10 people deep! We kept walking east, until we were able to find an opening in the line of spectators.
The crowds in general were amazing! From the reports I heard, spectators filled the entire 7.5 mile parade route 8-10 people deep and 15-20 people deep at intersections and corners on the route. One rider in the parade interviewed on TV said "I don't think anyone in Milwaukee is home today!"
Our spot was pretty good, but because of the crowds and the narrowness of the road, it was very difficult to see bikers coming more than a few feet ahead. I was looking in particular for international riders and flags they might have mounted on their bikes. Fortunately, many of the flags were large enough to see above the heads and shoulders of the crowd. I saw quite a variety too: Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, Wales, Honduras, Sweden, Germany, France, Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, South Africa and there were probably some I missed. This for me was the coolest part -- seeing visitors from around the world coming to Milwaukee with their Harley-Davidsons and being welcomed so warmly.
The riders cruised down Bluemound road two abreast, and at a reasonable speed so that we could see them as they passed by. Many in the crowd cheered, waved or gave thumbs up signs to passing riders while others held signs like "Welcome Home" and "Come as Visitors, Leave as Friends" which the riders would wave, beep at or cheer to.
On occasion, a backup would occur ahead of our position and the group of riders would bunch up and come to a stop. When this happened, riders would rev their engines to the cheers of the crowds.
Gail knew a work colleague who lived a bit further east of our first stake-out spot, so we decided to continue east and look for him. It actually turned out to be a much better location for viewing the parade, as the crowd was much less compressed. We spotted Gail's work colleague across the street but couldn't yell loud enough to get his attention. A reunion would have to wait until after the parade.
Meanwhile, bikers just kept coming and coming and coming... At one point I saw a huge blue and yellow Swedish flag coming towards us and pointed it out to Gail. The parade slowed down and the Swedish rider and his wife came to a stop right in front of us. Thinking quickly, Gail jumped into the road and turned her back to them both, pointing at the 'Uppsala, Sweden' on the back of her Swedish Harley shirt. After a moment of reading and realization, the Swedish rider's eyes lit up, a big grin spread across his face and and he screamed "UPPSALA!!!" His wife yelled "Yea!" Gail and I just smiled and waved. The parade of bikers began moving again and the Swedish riders were off with big smiles and a great story for their friends back home. For us, that moment was the highlight of the parade. :-)
As a designer, I was impressed with the variations of bikes we saw. Each Harley seemed a uniquely customized bike. I suppose a few riders may keep their bikes stock, but the vast majority seem to modify them with accessories or paint. We saw nearly every model Harley represented, including classic Fat Boys (like the one Arnold Schwartzenegger rode in Terminator 2) to the new high performance V-Rod, which I think looks very cool. Some of the bikes had gorgeous custom paint jobs while others sported flags. One bike from Oregon was covered with animal skins. Eewww.
We were a little concerned about Nathan and his reaction to the noise, because he didn't do well at the July 4th parade this year with fire engines' sirens. However, he did just great! As long as we were nearby, he was enjoying the rumbling bikes. In fact, near the end of the parade, he became overloaded with all of the people and action, and fell asleep in his stroller. Pretty amazing.
Nearly 2 hours later, all 10,000 bikes had rolled past. Three Harley-Davidson semi trucks finished off the parade, beeping their air horns as they lumbered past us. What an amazing sight. We crossed the street and visited with the friends we'd spotted earlier and then began the walk back home as spectators and bikers alike, packed it up for the 100th parade.
On the way home I thought about how cool it would have been to ride in the parade. Just imagine, you're a regular person who's chosen to ride a Harley-Davidson. You've come to Milwaukee with your bike, an entire city welcomes you for the 100th celebration of your cycle's company and cheers as you ride through town. Man, that must have been an amazing, emotional feeling for the riders to experience.
Overall, I think the 100th celebration went very well. I've heard of no problems in the city and that the events were all well organized and attended. Bikers and residents of the city seemed to have high respect for each other, with many business offering special deals and freebies to visiting riders. This is probably the biggest event ever to occur here in Milwaukee, and I'm really proud to have been part of it.
If you happen to be a Harley-Davidson rider who was here in August 2003: thanks for coming! We'll see you again in 2008 for the 105th! :-)