Why I Choose to Ride in the 2017 Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run

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The Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run is something that has become important to me over the years. In terms of numbers, this is the biggest fundraiser run I do each year, with thousands of bikes, all riding together for a common cause, in support of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial.

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Whether you ride a motorcycle or not, if you have never visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial in Marseilles, Illinois, I urge you to do so. That wall memorial is most unusual for several reasons. For openers, this memorial was made possible not by any branch of our federal, state, or local government—believe me, if that were the case, we would still be waiting—but by the Illinois motorcycle community. That’s right. As I understand it, the concept was hatched by a couple of bikers named Tony Cutrano and Jerry Kuczera. Made possible by donations of material, labor, and funds, this memorial was dedicated on June 19th, 2004. As the result, the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial became the first of its kind, a memorial honoring our fallen, by name, while a conflict is still ongoing.

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Each year, on the third Saturday in June, members of the motorcycle community gather in numbers—think four figures minimum, sometimes five—to raise funds for the memorial wall, which unfortunately continues to grow as more names are added each year, and to show their support for the fallen as well as for their families, some of whom are also in attendance that day (these are called Gold Star Families).

I want to talk to you about these families for a moment. You’ll notice them as you approach the wall, no matter if it’s during the day of the Freedom Run or any other day. They are usually very quiet and are usually focused on one of the many names now engraved on that wall. As often as not, some are crying while others are consoling—and sometimes they are all doing both at once. You know, it’s one thing to come thundering into Marseilles with a few thousand casual acquaintances, but once the kickstands are down, the closer everyone gets to the site of that memorial, the quieter things get.

And there you are, a badass biker, standing there looking at all those names engraved in the granite. You can see and hear the Illinois River flowing just beyond the memorial site. Then you hear another sound and you look over to see a mother, a father, a wife, a brother or sister, a child… sobbing uncontrollably. You look upon a scene like that and it changes the way you think about the Wall Memorial and the event that has made it possible through the years. It changed me, anyway.

Some years ago, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the co-founders of the wall memorial, the late Tony “Greaseball” Cutrano. At the time, I had been president of the Illini Free Spirit Riders motorcycle club, and we had arranged to meet Tony at the Wall Memorial and present him with a small donation during the off-season. After we presented the check and took our pictures (I wish I had one to share with you here), we spent some time talking. Of all the things we discussed, there was one thing Tony said that made everything click with regard to the scene I described earlier. He explained that for some families, that Wall Memorial is the closest thing they will ever have to a cemetery because sometimes, there is no body to be recovered. I never felt the same way again about the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, about the Wall memorial, about the big after party, about any of this gig.

I also have never missed this event in more than ten years.

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This year we will carry on the tradition that began in 2004, but without the “festival” support of the City of Marseilles. I could speculate on the reasons, but to what end? Listen to me: Times change, people change, events change. But our cause has not changed. Get it?

This year the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run returns to its roots by renaming its after-party the Celebration of Freedom. As you will see on the flier, this part of the event will take place at Fat Daddyz in nearby Seneca. It’s a great venue, I am told, but is obviously smaller than the City of Marseilles, so if parking becomes a bit of a hassle, please exercise a bit of patience and cooperation.

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Just one last point. I know some riders are gravely disappointed in the City of Marseilles for their decision to discontinue their municipal Freedom Fest this year. Yeah, me, too. But their municipal event was NEVER the focal point of the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run! Sure, some people stayed in town and partied while the solemn ceremony took place at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial site. Now wouldn’t it be a dirty shame if those brothers and sisters didn’t participate this year because the city wasn’t hosting a party?

Yes, that would be a dirty shame. Do we really want to buckle under a bad decision made by some lame politicians? This year, just like every year before, the Freedom Run itself and the solemn ceremony at the Wall Memorial are still the collective centerpiece of our day and they are still as important and alive and vibrant as they were in 2004. So please, do come out on June 17 and show your continued support for this cause. Come June 17, let’s ride!

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A Nice Little Burger Run

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This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

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The culinary exercise I am about to describe will undoubtedly end up in my book, the working title of which is What Recipe.  It’s sort of a cookbook, but also a celebration of intuitive cooking, a collection of humorous anecdotes and more. I think you’ll like it, but right now I want to tell you about this pizza, if only because we received a lot of positive feedback when my friend Ann and I began sharing some of our photos on facebook last weekend. Neither Ann nor I had ever made pizza quite like this before, which made everything seem sort of tentative, but we laughed our way through this intuitive experiment, from start to finish and ended up with a couple of large, tasty pizzas.

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I have made many pizzas before, most of them in the tradition taught to me by my mother.This one, however, was a little bit unique. For openers, we made the crust from scratch, using a “Tipo 00” flour imported from Italy. I had never used this extra fine flour before but had read that it was excellent for making pizza crusts. This turned out to be quite true. Double zero is a grade of Italian-milled flour that is ground very fine and is also highly refined. I believe it is lower in protein, starch, and gluten than standard flour, although what’s left in there I have no idea. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with eight locations in suburban Chicagoland, carries a few different brands of Tipo 00 flour. I selected their house brand, which is labeled as a pizza flour and it worked fabulously for us in that capacity.

We double-raised our dough before dividing and stretching it out into two pizza crusts. We didn’t use a thermometer, just a little warm water in which to proof the yeast, and a lot of room temperature water to make the dough. And salt. When I would ask how much salt I needed to use for making bread, my late mother used to tell me, “If you don’t put enough salt, your bread isn’t gonna’ taste of anything, but if you put too much, you’ll ruin it just the same.” It ultimately came down to trial and error, but a half palmful of kosher or sea salt mixed into a 2.2 lb bag of flour (roughly six cups) will put you in the ballpark.

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We used sliced fresh mozzarella, also from Caputo’s, instead of the low-moisture, part skim variety, which I usually buy pre-shredded. The cheese was so fresh, we had to dry the one-ounce slices with paper towels before using them. Otherwise, the bread crust would get wet and mushy from all the moisture. Fresh mozzarella has a creamier texture than does it’s dry counterpart, and also a very mild flavor. Ann and I had used fresh mozzarella on a Caprese-style garlic bread with stellar results, so we expected this to work okay on our pizza, too.

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The bulk mild Italian sausage that we used came from, you guessed it, Caputo’s. As good as their standard recipe is, I augmented it with some extra fennel seeds and a dash or two of red pepper flakes—not enough to make it hot, but just enough to impart some additional flavor. We formed little bite-size chunks and browned them up to add even more flavor while removing some of the fat. The result was magnificent!

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Rather than use a canned product—some of which are just fine— or even my family’s homemade jarred sauce, Ann and I opted to make a fresco pizza sauce. I went shopping for the best tomatoes I could find in late February and brought them with me. Then Ann and I proceeded to peel, seed, and dice those babies just for this occasion.

The detailed guidelines for this sauce have already been written for the book, but in a nutshell, you need hot oil, the proper seasoning, and just enough time to lose the excess moisture, which just like the water in our fresh mozzarella, would have wrecked the heavenly crust we created.

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We had been at this for a few hours. After all, double-raised homemade bread dough takes time. Let me be the first to admit, this was not fast food. A frozen pizza could have been heated up and ready to eat within 20 minutes. Ordering from a pizzeria normally yields results in 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the establishment and on what you order. Ann and I both buy frozen, from time to time, and we each have our favorite pizzerias in our respective markets, which happen to be over 100 miles apart. 

Now believe what I tell you next: What we created that day cannot be found in your grocer’s frozen food section, nor will you likely find it on the menu at your local pizzeria. What Ann and I set out to create was heads above all that. This hand-crafted pizza involved four different kinds of cheese, a fresco sauce, a sausage blend that cannot be found in any store, and a homemade crust made from triple-raised Italian milled flour. You can’t buy this! But you can make it yourself, with the right ingredients, a little time, and a bit of guidance, say from a book that describes all the ingredients and the various steps involved in bringing them all together.

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 Yeah, that’s right. We took our sweet time, debated our choices, and cooked the best pizza pies we could possibly create together—two really big rectangular ones, in fact, way more than three people could ever have eaten. So much food that I was able to take an entire pie home with me.My apologies to Ann and her son for the overage, but I produced no more food than any good Italian would have brought forth. This I learned from my mother.

And you know what? I have no regrets. None. Ann and I laughed all day while working on this, ate our fill afterward, and it was epic.The flavors and textures all came together in a way that mere words cannot fully capture. To learn more about this culinary adventure and others like it, please keep an eye out for my book, which with any luck will be out before the end of this year.

Thanks for hanging with me!

Likes to Play with Food

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I like to cook, but sometimes I can’t leave well enough alone. I like foods a certain way and seldom follow a recipe to the letter. Most of what I learned about cooking, putting certain foods together, etc., I learned by watching my mother. She seldom followed a recipe, either. I don’t go crazy yet ordinary often isn’t quite good enough. My arena, therefore, falls somewhere between the two.

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About a year ago, I began toying with the idea for an unconventional cookbook that, despite having no conventional recipes per se, explores my approach to a variety of dishes, including creative uses for the leftovers. All of this would be interspersed with anecdotes relating to the food and the people who caused them to happen, whether directly or indirectly. The working title of this book continues to be What Recipe?

During most of 2016, What Recipe? remained essentially an idea and nothing more. I developed a preliminary outline and penned a chapter or two, but that was it… until last December. Since then, thanks to the constant encouragement (okay, pestering) of a close friend, this book is actually taking shape.

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I can’t say how soon What Recipe? will become available for order, but it’s a safe bet that my online followers will be among the first to hear about it. Wish me luck, and thanks for hanging with me.

I Look for Places like This

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I grew up in Blue Island, Illinois. I went to college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I came of drinking age, which would have been 1979 in Wisconsin and 1982 in Illinois, both of these cities were dotted with neighborhood bars, taverns, pubs, saloons, or whatever you would call them. Each had a personality of its own that would be difficult to explain to one not familiar with this sort of establishment. As drinking venues go, I have always preferred those to their larger, noisier counterparts. But more than that, some of these places were special to me.

I speak of neighborhood bars, because I am by and large a city mouse, but should point out that small town bars seem to have the same flavor as these—only there aren’t nearly as many to choose from. Back when I lived and drank in Blue Island, for example, that city had a population of just over 20,000 people. Not a terribly large community by some standards, but there were many bars there, not just on the main thoroughfares, but in the residential areas—the neighborhoods—themselves. Each was a place quite unique unto itself, quite different from all the others. Many of these establishments have gone away since that time, but you get the idea.

When you find a good one, you know so, because it resonates with you somewhere deep within. Case in point, my personal favorite in the Blue Island of my day was a place called the Backstage, on the corner of Vermont Street and Hoyne Avenue. Get this, my favorite neighborhood bar wasn’t even in my neighborhood. Ha! The place was awesome. It had atmosphere. The Backstage was the kind of place where people could meet and talk and have fun, without being bothered. The owner kept a nice place, something I learned to appreciate over time. But alas, it’s long gone now. That property isn’t even a bar anymore, And truth be told, there are fewer places like this in that town… maybe elsewhere, too.

Milwaukee, circa 1983, the last year I lived there as a student at Marquette University. Back then I could walk two blocks in any direction from my apartment and hit at least one bar,  usually way more than one. The whole city seemed to be full of them. My personal favorite, that year? I had two. Very near my apartment was the Harp & Shamrock on West Wells Street. Although the place still stands, I’m sure the original proprietor Bernie Conway is now long gone. What a character he was! Bernie kept a clean place, where one would always feel safe, as long as you were not a vagrant or otherwise undesirable sort, in the owner’s estimation (let me leave it at that). He had a large bartender named Tom, who also doubled as the bouncer, and a large German Shepherd named Duke, who slept behind the bar, helping the patrons feel safe, I guess. In 1983 the Harp & Shamrock was a throwback bar, in every sense of the word, yet I loved that place. It was there that I first kissed the girl who would become my wife, despite the fact that at the time, she was already engaged to marry another—that’s a long, sordid story for another time.

My second favorite exists only as a memory now, Wimpy’s Hunt Club, way over on the east side of the city, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee’s old Oriental Theater. Now this place had class. Owned by one Wilbert “Wimpy” Kotas (I knew him only as Wimpy), a silver-haired gentleman who usually wore a crisp, white dress shirt behind the bar. Up on the wall behind him hung a beautiful painting (maybe it was a print, I no longer recall) of a classic fox hunt scene. Opposite the bar was a row of old-fashioned horseshoe booths. The jukebox was loaded with Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and such. No beer on tap, only bottled. This was a clean, quiet, classy place. I only took certain friends there and was very sad the night I returned, just a few years later, and found it gone.

Some additional years after that, while having dinner in Chicago, I learned from a business acquaintance who had lived above that very bar when he was first married (small world indeed) that Wimpy had been murdered one morning after closing up the bar. While walking home, he encountered two men fighting. I’m sure Wimpy’s barkeeper instincts kicked in, he moved in to stop the fight, and was stabbed to death. This apparently happened in 1984, just one year after I had graduated and left Milwaukee. As happy as I had been to meet somebody who had known Wimpy’s Hunt Club, I was stunned by this news.

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Now fast forward to 2016. Bars like I just described are somewhat hard to come by in the sprawl of exurbia, where I live. Sports bars are a dime a dozen out here—they open and disappear with predictable regularity out my way, because let’s face it, how many large, noisy sports bars can any community support. But I found a place this year. I found a place that rivals the kind of establishments I just described to you.

I don’t know if Lemont, Illinois is big enough to have neighborhoods, but I’ll tell you this: Lemont has a hell of a bar. Let me tell you about Nick’s Tavern. I’ve only been there twice, so far, but I can already tell you one thing: I like this place. It has everything I look for in a drinking establishment.

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Here you will not find dozens of tappers, nor a ten-page menu, nor giant TV screens glaring at you from every direction. And that’s okay by me. If I want any of that, I’ll go to a mega sports bar, the kind I can find in just about every city and village within the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area. They’re all alike and on most days, as far as I’m concerned, you can have them. Just give me a place like Nick’s.

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Give me a place with a bit of history, and maybe some good stories to go along with that history. A place where I am made to feel welcome the minute I step through that door. Nick’s Tavern is that kind of place. The wood paneling and somewhat weathered-looking wooden bar give the place a warm atmosphere. Certain touches, like the old cash register on display in one corner and the stamped metal tile ceiling, tell you that this place has been around for a while. The bartenders greet people as they arrive and seem genuinely glad to see everyone, even me. The regulars are greeted by name.

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People are eating, drinking, talking, laughing… and it just makes me smile to see and hear all this. The first time I went there, I brought my wife and we both liked it. The second time, I brought a friend who had grown up with me in Blue Island, and who had also drank quite heavily with me back in the day. The following day he texted me, “If Nick’s was in between our houses, I would make that our our usual meeting place. I like that place.”

To which I could only reply, “Me, too!” I invited my friend Ed to come out and see Nick’s because I had already known he was going to like it there. When you drink together for as long as Ed and I have been drinking together, you get to know each others preferences.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the food. They make a very good burger at Nick’s, but come hungry. The full-on Nickburger is a one-pounder and the smaller Little Nickburger, which I get, is still half a pound of ground beef. Believe me, it’s fresh and tasty. They also do Italian beef, chicken sandwiches and more, but so far I haven’t gotten past the burger. No fries here, only chips.

I should also mention that Nick’s is a a cash-only proposition. What can I tell you, it’s a classic small bar.

But you know what? That’s just the way I like it. You’ll find Nick’s Tavern right on Main Street in downtown Lemont. Check it out. And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs

In 2016 astronomical fall began on September 22, with the autumnal equinox, while meteorological fall began, as it does every year, on October 1. In the minds of many, though, the fall season pretty much gets underway the day after Labor Day. When I was a kid, shortly after the mastodons died out, my school years generally began either right before or right after Labor Day weekend, which is probably why to this day my mind turns to fall on that first Tuesday in September of every year, even though the astronomers and meteorologists see otherwise.

As an avid motorcyclist, I see both good news and bad news in the arrival of fall. On one hand, here in the Midwest, the first part of fall offers nearly ideal riding conditions. Temperatures are cooler, but not yet cold, so that one may comfortably wear gear when riding. The countryside gradually becomes painted in fall colors. There’s a sense of abundance in the air as farmers are harvesting crops, wineries are making wine, etc.

On the other hand, it won’t last. I have long likened motorcyclists to bees and wasps. Both become more active in the fall because they can sense that the end is near. Days become shorter. Wet or dry, fallen leaves on the pavement present their own hazards. Bees and wasps really are more prevalent, and they sometimes get sucked behind one’s windshield, into one’s shirt, or up one’s pants leg (don’t ask), where they may become agitated. Whether gradually or suddenly, even the daytime temperatures become less conducive to riding. And then there is the matter of snow and ice.

But as the saying goes, we must make hay while the sun shines and get some riding in while the riding is still good. That’s pretty much what Ann and I have been doing since we got back from our Labor Day weekend run to Dubuque, which I still considered to be a summer trip. There is a direct, bittersweet relationship between the hours of daylight and the duration of our rides together as the fall season plays out. Those autumn rides can be so pleasant, so beautiful, I find myself wishing they didn’t have to end so soon. Inevitably the days and the rides become shorter, but we make the most of what we are given.

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We were blessed with some fantastic weather on September 18, so I ran up to Ann’s place early that morning and, after a bit of breakfast, we headed to Holy Hill, home of The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians. I love this place and I’ve written about it before, right here on the MGD Time blog site. Indeed the very first time I carried Ann on my motorcycle was in the fall of 2014, at Holy Hill.

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My 2014 article as it appeared in Thunder Roads magazine.

She had agreed to meet me there and take some photos for me to use in an article I was writing for the now-defunct Wisconsin and Northern Illinois edition of Thunder Roads magazine. I was nervous as heck about carrying Ann. Lord only knows why. After walking the grounds at Holy Hill, I took her to lunch up the road at The Fox and Hounds—the round trip couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen miles—and Ann, having been a motorcyclist herself, proved to be a most competent pillion passenger. She also took some stunning photos, which the magazine printed with my article. So nervous as I may have been at the onset, by the time I headed for home that afternoon, I was already thinking about how cool it might be to take Ann riding again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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So it all started at Holy Hill, you see, and it seemed fitting that eventually we would return. There was no magazine article being written this time, no official reason to be there, other than to revisit this beautiful place and enjoy each others company. We had plenty of company this time, as apparently a lot of other people had the same destination in mind on this beautiful Sunday. Once we parked, we did something that I had never done at Holy Hill before, despite having been stopping there periodically for well over thirty years: We went to mass together.

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Doing mass at Holy Hill  together proved to be a pretty cool experience, actually. I came away feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long. Then we walked the grounds for a while, taking in the majestic views and natural beauty all around us.The last time we visited, we had climbed the scenic tower in one of the twin spires, where both the view and the climb are quite breathtaking. But the tower was closed this time, so we opted to move on and enjoy a late lunch.

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Ann had suggested the lunch stop in advance of our trip, a place called MJ Stevens, located outside of Hartford, along Interstate 41. What a delightful spot! This is a place that Ann’s mother enjoys and now I understand why. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is very good, and the entire staff seems warm and friendly. Ann and I opted for sandwiches off the menu that day, but from all appearances, the Sunday brunch is also a worthwhile choice. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this establishment to friends.

We rode around for a while after lunch, but the high point of this run had been our time at Holy Hill. I enjoyed going back there and attending mass at the basilica with Ann. She took most of the photos and all of the video clips you see here. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, if not for Ann, I wouldn’t have nearly as much cool stuff to show you from all these excursions.

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Our next run was on the weekend of October 9, down by me in Illinois, and it was a big one: the 30th Anniversary DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy and Food Run. Ann had come down last year for the 29th annual event and we had so much fun together, I invited her back. This year was a little different, though, in that Ann played an active role in helping me promote the event. This was my third year assisting the DuKane Chapter with PR and publicity for their flagship charity event, but this year—with no small amount of creative assistance from my dear friend—I was able to do a better job before, during, and after.

Given the hours that would be involved that day, Ann drove down the night before and stayed over with my wife Karen and me. As Karen is not physically able to ride much, we arranged for her to meet us on the event grounds, where the motorcycle parade portion of the Toy and Food Run terminates and where a full day of music, food and fun begins. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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After rising early and going to 7:30 mass at my church, we headed out to Fox River Harley Davidson in St. Charles, a remote registration point for the Toy and Food Run and a darned good one at that. After registering for the run and dropping off our toy and food donations, Ann and I (along with all the other attendees) were treated to a hot breakfast. Then after perusing the dealership and checking out all the bikes parked outside, we assembled for a group ride to Elburn, which was the main staging area for the Toy and Food Run parade.

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There were motorcycles parked everywhere when our group arrived. We were directed to a parking lot about a block away from the pre-run festivities held outside of Knuckleheads Tavern on North Avenue. More and more bikes poured in as we walked the area, listening to live music, greeting people we know, looking at bikes, and otherwise being a part of the scene—just me, Ann, and a couple of thousand casual acquaintances. At the appointed time, everyone returned to their machines and prepared to roll out. When that many motorcycles fire up together, the word “thunder” is a very appropriate term that describes not only the sound, but the vibration that fills the very air around us.

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What a blast. After we rolled onto the grounds of the Batavia VFW, located right on the banks of the Fox River, we were treated to hours of live music, provided by six different bands. As A.B.A.T.E. is a motorcycle rights organization (actually a sizable lobby), there were numerous politicians in attendance, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself a motorcyclist and active member of A.B.A.T.E. There were many, many product vendors and food vendors, too. A very touching flag ceremony took place early on. We filled a couple of flatbed semi trailers with toy and food donations that were picked up the same day by numerous local charities.

It felt so great to have been a part of this and we had such a good time again. Believe it or not, Ann and I are already talking about possible promos for next year.

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October 16 started out wet for me, but fortunately not cold. By the time I got to Ann’s place, the rain had moved on. We waited a while for the pavement to dry off, and then took a ride up into the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. At one point during our ride, on a whim, I turned in at a sign I saw for the Ice Age Visitor Center, which turned out to be a nice little find. We took one of the trails and ended up at a scenic vista overlooking some of the prettiest fall color we saw that day. There was also a large observation deck out behind the visitor center itself, but as the sign warned, there were many bees, wasps and hornets nesting and flying about, so we didn’t linger there. When touring on a motorcycle, sometimes the best places are those we find by accident. This was one of those times.

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Our last run of the season, so far, was again rather local. I left home in the dark and ambient temps were still in the 40’s when I arrived at Ann’s. Remember, motorcycling inherently involves its own wind chill factor. I hadn’t opted to wear longies and was rather cold when I arrived. But it warmed up quickly after the sun rose and we did manage to get a nice ride in, albeit a short one. We revisited a place called Nature Hill, that Ann had taken me to see last spring, before the riding season had even gotten underway. We got a good walk in that day and I think I did a little better climbing that hill this time.

I stayed long enough to partake in some crock pot beef stew that Ann had prepared before we headed out that morning. It was delicious! Still, the days have been getting shorter all season long and it was already dark when I headed for home early that evening.

Although we have no more rides scheduled, I doubt very much that we are done for the year, not just yet. Conditions are such that we can no longer plan well in advance, but I assure you that on very short notice, if conditions and schedules permit, Ann and I will ride again.

And of course you’ll read about it here. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

Now In Their 4th Year: DuKane Santa Girls Promote Annual Toy & Food Run

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What began on a whim as a novel way to promote the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois’ annual Toy & Food Run has snowballed into an entity unto itself. The DuKane Santa Girls are now a staple of the motorcycling community in northern Illinois and points beyond. How did this come to be? We put this question to Sara Elliott, the group’s Coordinator and a founding member of the Santa Girls.
“It all started about four years ago,” reminisces Elliott. “Three of us had gone out together and were just kidding around, thinking of ways to promote the Toy & Food Run. Next thing you know, we went over to a local party supply store and picked up some female ‘Santa’s helper’ costumes.”
“We began showing up at events, handing out Toy & Food Run fliers. Before long people began asking if they could take pictures with us!” That’s when the Santa Girls began to take on a life of their own. “At first people weren’t sure whether the Santa Girls would be, you know, family-appropriate. But once people got to know us and what we’re about, we began to get requests for appearances.”
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The DuKane Santa Girls make appearances year-round, at a variety of events, most of which are motorcycle-oriented, but they have never lost sight of their original mission—to actively promote the annual Toy & Food Run, which always takes place on the second Sunday in October. There are currently ten Santa Girls who rotate in groups of two-to-four, depending on the size and duration of the event. They range in age from teenagers to forty-somethings. “We have no age restrictions,” assures Sara. “All we  require is a friendly demeanor, a positive attitude and a genuine desire to promote the Toy & Food Run. This is what we are all about.”
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The 30th Annual DuKane ABATE Toy & Food Run will take place Sunday, October 9 at the Batavia VFW in Batavia, Illinois. The DuKane Chapter also maintains a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/groups/DuKaneABATE, with several sub pages, where the most current information and event updates are provided.
Fans and followers of the DuKane Santa Girls  can stay up to date on their appearances and promotions via their Facebook page (see https://www.facebook.com/DuKane-Santa-Girls-701322956613714/).