Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gathering of the clan

Willy takes a spiritual ride to the Harley homeland

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We roll out of Harley-Davidson Winnipeg on a sunny Tuesday morning in a cavalcade of chrome, 20 bikes deep.

Old men with grey beards and tattoos older than dirt ride alongside young men who question whether they have the fortitude to keep up. Later that day, under a hot afternoon sun, the traffic parts like the Red Sea as we roll through small towns. Our American brethren, young and old, wave and jump for joy at the spectacle that we've become. Smiling ladies at roadside gas stations and diners ask if they can chuck it all and come along for the ride.

Amid the cheers of triumph, a rumbling V-twin engine roars between my legs and reminds me that I'm lucky to be here.

Yep, I drank the Harley-Davidson Kool-Aid, and it's the sweetest elixir I've ever sipped. Every wound, every scar, every pain that has ever dragged me down is magically eradicated from mind and body as I roll toward the Mecca that is Milwaukee.

2013 marks the 110th anniversary of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and, to commemorate the event, the city of Milwaukee rolled out the red carpet on the Labour Day long weekend for tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who came from across the U.S., Canada, Europe and even as far away as China, India and Russia to join in the festivities.

Located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. Milwaukee is the largest city in the state of Wisconsin, home to almost 600,000 people. The first Europeans to pass through the area were French Catholic missionaries and fur traders. In 1818, French-Canadian explorer Solomon Juneau settled in the area, and in 1846 Juneau's town combined with two neighboring towns to incorporate as the City of Milwaukee.

Large numbers of other immigrants soon followed, including Germans, who brought with them brewing traditions that have made Milwaukee famous for its beer to this day.

Rest assured, we tried the beer. But the real reason for our journey was to pay tribute to the storied company that has not only moved our bodies, but also moved our souls.

The Harley-Davidson Museum is ground-zero for all things Harley. Opened in 2008 to commemorate the company's 105th anniversary, a small sign loaded with the following powerful words greets visitors:

When childhood friends Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson began experimenting with gasoline-powered engines at the dawn of the 20th century, they could not have foreseen all that would follow. Indeed, barely a dozen years after they built their first vehicle, an article in the Milwaukee Journal began with this introduction:

"Nowhere in the world of romance can there be found a more fascinating tale than that which tells of the beginning and the subsequent phenomenal growth of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. This, our country, is indeed the land of opportunity -- the history of the Harley-Davidson Company proves that; only ambition, enterprise and perseverance are needed for any young man to accomplish what the Harley-Davidson young men have accomplished."

The company these young men founded, along with Arthur's brothers Walter and William, would experience many ups and downs over the decades that followed, and what a story this museum tells. A stunning example of their 1903 motorcycle/bicycle is proudly displayed near the entrance, the first of hundreds of beautifully preserved machines displayed alongside tributes to those who have ridden and revered Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

While the museum is packed with people, it's eerily quiet as fans from around the world gazed at the machines that had captured them in mind, body and spirit.

It's nearing midnight on Wednesday, and I'm holding court in front of my new home for the weekend, The Calderone Club, an Italian restaurant and bar near our downtown hotel where they treat me like a king. Out of the darkness emerges a familiar figure on a shiny black and chrome Harley-Davidson Road King. It's my big brother, Allen.

Big Al is a superintendent with the RCMP and also a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast. He's ridden more than 1,100 kilometres, in one day, to be with me here in Milwaukee. He looks weathered and weary after a long ride through rain, fog and bugs -- lots of bugs. But when he spots me, his smile lights up the Milwaukee skyline.

For the next four days my brother and I take in everything that Milwaukee and Harley-Davidson have to offer. We spend the daylight hours checking out all the sights and sounds that come with an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 bikers. As night falls, we muster at the Calderone Club for the finest pizza and pasta in the land before riding off into the night to explore block parties accentuated with the acrid smell of tire smoke and enough bling to make a jeweller jealous. We rock with Kid Rock and we roll with the tide of bikers who line the streets of Milwaukee like a non-stop parade for three straight days and nights.

It's over too soon. As I'm riding home through the Michigan fog, now alone because I've opted to spend an extra day with my brother before we part ways, it suddenly occurs to me that I'm the luckiest man alive.

Sure, thanks to this Road King I'm riding and the lifestyle I've embraced, I've got hundreds, even thousands, of brothers. They all mean so much to me -- but not as much as Big Al. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a brother like mine, and I have Harley and Davidson to thank for bringing us together for one magical weekend that will forever live on in our memories.

The words from the museum resonate as I ride home. "Only ambition, enterprise and perseverance are needed for any young man to accomplish what the Harley-Davidson young men have accomplished." For a couple of Metis kids from the wrong side of the tracks, like Big Al and I, truer words have never been written.

Cold and alone on the surface, but warm and surrounded with love inside, I ride, and ride, and ride.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2013 F2

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