The Things That Nearly Didn’t Happen

I almost didn’t go. I’m ashamed to admit this now but it’s true. I had never attended the Midwest Motorcycle Rally by myself and as I am not a great alone person, I hadn’t found the thought of going alone particularly appealing. My son, who hasn’t attended with me since 2015, had really wanted to go this year but he ran into an unfortunate combination of circumstances that made going impossible for him. The best pillion companion/friend I could possibly ever hope for hasn’t initiated an actual conversation with me in a couple of years now and my invitation to her was simply disregarded. We hadn’t attended since 2019. The pandemic had nixed the 2020 rally, although some people still went to hang out at the hotel. Then last year, I canceled early on after my own circumstances had given me a viable excuse to not go. But the reality was, I just wasn’t sure I could face seeing one reminder after another of all the good times I’d had with my previous traveling partners over the years. I wasn’t entirely certain anybody would really miss me, anyway. It turns out I had been dead wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Parking lot at the Settle Inn of La Crosse, WI, July 18, 2014 — my first MMR experience

Let me tell you about a series of catalysts that caused me to go this year. First and foremost, last September, a dear lady who had befriended my son and me on our very first day at the 2014 MMR, and with whom I had been friends ever since, passed away suddenly. That rocked my world because I had always assumed I would see her again sometime. There had been talk of possibly doing a memorial ride for her at this year’s rally, so there was that.

Then in the dead of winter, one of my better MMR buddies had begun petitioning me to attend this year. I still remember telling him, “that might mean going alone,” but that hadn’t deterred him and I really don’t enjoy saying no to my friends. At that time, my son was not yet out of the running so I reasoned that it would be easier to reserve a couple of rooms early and cancel later than to try making reservations after everything was booked — which happens every year now at this event. So ever the optimist, I reserved two rooms.

July was almost upon us when my son had to face facts that there was no way he would be able to make the trip this year, but in arriving at that conclusion, he made me promise that I would still go and that I would participate in the memorial ride for our friend. I had seen on the official MMR website that “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride” had been listed on the schedule of guided tours, a prominent feature of this Rally. Somehow, my being on that ride had become super important to my son, perhaps because I would in effect be participating for both of us. So I agreed and began putting the word out to my MMR friends that I would be coming out, most likely alone. Once again, the “alone” part phased nobody. All I got were words of encouragement and a few invitations from friends asking me to hang out with them during the evening gatherings. There was no turning back now.

A new pair of red leather riding gloves quickly began releasing excess dye

On the morning of Wednesday, July 13, I left hours later than I had originally planned, but that’s the beautiful thing about going to this event on Wednesday: nothing is happening that day. So no matter how late you arrive, you’re still a day early. The ride from my home in Plainfield, IL up to Winona, MN is well over 300 miles, no matter which route you take, so the general plan was to spend five or more hours alone with my thoughts, enjoying the scenery, which is plentiful once you get clear of the metro areas. Have you ever ridden through a particularly beautiful stretch of country, taking slow, measured breaths and realizing that all the trees, shrubs, grass, and wildlife are also breathing? That’s like a Zen moment for me, to become present in the moment and breathe with all the other living things as I contemplate them.

My rolling meditation was temporarily disrupted when I pulled into Janesville for a meal and some gasoline for Miss Scarlett, my bike. Why do they make Cracker Barrel restaurants so difficult to get into, anyway? As I peeled off my new leather riding gloves for the first time in hours, it became immediately apparent that an abundance of excess red dye had been leaching out of the leather and onto my hands over the past few hours. Anybody who has had this happen knows that the dye, regardless of color, will take longer to get out of your skin than it took to get in there in the first place. Ah, well, my lunch was good and fuel prices in Wisconsin are substantially lower than they are in northern Illinois. Besides, I was on vacation!

Miss Scarlett basking in the Winona sun after a job well done

Some time later, I was in Minnesota and approaching my destination as the sun had begun its descent, just reaching that annoying, blinding point in the sky as I made my final approach to the Plaza Hotel & Suites. I raised a gloved hand to block the sun while I was still about a half mile out, scanning the road ahead for my turn, when I heard a loud TAP and felt something bounce soundly off my palm. Eh, just a bug, I thought to myself as I continued scanning. Moments later, a searing, pulsating wave of pain on the inside of my right thigh clued me in that it had not been just any bug but a startled and angry wasp that I had taken out of the sky. I brushed at my leg as I continued riding, but it was too late. Fortunately, I had brought some hydrocortisone and Benedryl along. Eh, no matter, I had arrived!

I got checked in and cleaned up, addressed the sting site as best I could, and meandered out to see who I might see. I was moved by what proceeded to happen that evening. Old friends and acquaintances would see me, get this look of recognition in their eyes, and embrace me. Words of welcome, gratefulness, and affection were exchanged each time, removing any doubt as to whether I had made the right decision. It eventually reached a point where if one more person hugged me, I was gonna get choked up. But oh, what a feeling. And make no mistake, I was grinning ear to ear, every bit as happy to see each of them as they were to see me.

Each day was as good or better than the one before. Historically, the MMR begins on Thursday evening but every year, a group of people, mostly regulars, would show up a day or more early and take unofficial rides. The organizers eventually began listing the early excursions on the website. I went on the “Early Arrivals” tour, led by a couple of whom I have come to grow very fond. They used to live one town over from my own, but I first met them in La Crosse at the 2015 MMR. Anyway, the “Early Arrivals” promised a relaxed pace (trikes welcome), which suited me fine because my annual bike miles had been in a steady decline since 2019 and I wasn’t looking to be challenged. Our group had an awesome day on the bikes, I got to catch up with my friends over lunch, and as if that weren’t enough, we enjoyed fresh pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan. I returned to the hotel pleased with how well the day had gone. Moments later, I was making plans to join some friends for supper, which turned out to be a hoot in itself, and then our Thursday evening, like every evening at the MMR, concluded with much camaraderie and laughter down in the parking lot.

On Friday, I opted to go on “The Grand Tour,” led at both ends (ride captain and tail gunner) by another couple of whom I have become extremely fond. This may very well have been the first ride of theirs that I have done and in very short order, I felt terrible for having waited so long. Their level of expertise, attention to detail, and genuine care for their group made their tour that much more enjoyable. After having been delayed for a couple of hours due to inclement weather (erring on the side of safety), we went riding in Iowa as well as Minnesota and never saw another raindrop for the rest of the day. I even got to rescue a damsel in distress whose posterior had grown sorely fatigued by our ride captain’s scant pillion. She proved to be a most pleasant passenger to carry and even tolerated the “uncommon variance” of my music collection.

Friday evening unfolded with more and more riders returning from their tours and laughter once again filled the air, as friends old and new milled about the MMR parking area sharing hugs, toasting the day, and just basking in the whole experience. Friday night is outdoor movie night at the rally and this year, after the sun went down, we were treated to a screening of The Road to Paloma, a low-budget ($250,000) film that debuted in 2014, the same year my son and I debuted at the MMR. It was co-written and directed by Jason Momoa, who also stars in the film. It’s definitely not a “feel good” movie but was well-made, I think.

Then Saturday came, the last full day of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, and of course I went out on “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride,” which was being guided front and rear by Diane’s son Ken and her grandson Ritchie. Having spent years living in the area, Ken is intimately familiar with all the good roads and backroads, some of which look like narrow ribbons of asphalt winding through the hills. The riding was good, the stops significant in that each of them had been a favorite of Diane’s. I had only been to one of them prior to that day, Soldiers Walk Memorial Park in Arcadia, but each place we stopped at was wonderful and it was easy to understand what Diane had loved about them. At Elmaro Vineyard, a lovely winery outside of Trempealeau, Ken and I drank a toast to his mom as we looked out over the acres of grape vines. The first time my son and I met Diane, she asked us if we wanted to follow her group to a pizza farm. I had never even heard that term used before. We opted to stay closer to the hotel, but I never forgot that invitation from that most friendly stranger, who quickly became my friend. Our last stop of the day was to Suncrest Gardens, that pizza farm, where we dined on wood-fired pizza in an alfresco setting, telling stories and laughing ourselves silly. Life is good, especially when moments like this are shared.

Biker Games!

Saturday night at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally is all about the Biker Games, sponsored and hosted by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA. With events such as loudest bike, slow race, weenie bite, and balloon toss, this is a perennial favorite. The games conclude with a limbo contest, open to anyone willing to don a plastic grass skirt. It’s all good clean fun, of course. As I watched the games with friends, talking and laughing the whole time, I thought about the true nature of the MMR. This isn’t about badass bikers or extraordinary attendance numbers. This is more like a family reunion with motorcycles of all sizes, makes, and models. And you either love it and become a part of it or you don’t. I do love it so.

Sunday morning at the MMR is a bittersweet one for me every year. There are hugs and much talk of next year but it’s also goodbye for now. Many people had already left by the time I got my tired old self packed up and ready to roll. Still, I had no regrets and much to look forward to next year.

As luck would have it an extraordinary thing happened as soon as I got within a quarter to a half mile down the road from the hotel. I was riding along when all of a sudden I heard a PING as an inch-long black and yellow wasp bounced off my bike’s windshield and landed square in the center of my faceshield, right in front of my nose! Before I could ascertain which side of my faceshiled that bastard was on, it hopped off and I never saw it again. Still, for that brief instant, my heart froze. I mean, what are the odds? Surely there must be a nest of them somewhere near that point on US 14/61.

The ride home was uneventful, save for finding myself accompanied for a few miles in Wisconsin by an MMR buddy who happened to be going the same way as me. I stopped for lunch at an old A&W restaurant in Boscobel that still had an old table telephone ordering system in use. By early evening, I was home again.

You know, I talked about my MMR friends welcoming me back and hugging me and all when they first saw me, which was both wonderful and humbling, and it didn’t stop there, either. People also went out of their way to make sure I understood that my past riding companions would also be welcome with the same open arms if I were to them back again. Even my son, who hasn’t been seen there for seven years, they still remember him and how he took to the MMR just as as I did. I was grateful to know that my companions are loved there, just as I am. Of course, whether either of them returns or not is their choice. Me, I will keep on inviting them every year and I will continue to attend this wonderful little rally for as long as I am able. That’s my choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.