Scenes from the 1999 Harley-Davidson Rally in Myrtle Beach:
The Boulevard was lined with lawn chairs as the camp followers of these weekend road warriors watched the parade of chrome and leather go by. From hotel balconies and the beds of pickups trucks the spectators recorded it on camcorders. Women passengers on the big roaring Hogs carried their own camcorders to document the spectators in their lawn chairs and pickup trucks. The beachwear and T-shirt shops offered a breath-taking array of tacky biker T-shirts, the most popular bearing the message: “If You Can Read This, The Bitch Fell Off.” Anything with a Confederate flag painted, printed or stitched on it brought a premium.
Through the weekend the crowds and the noise built. Tens of thousands of Harley riders filled the hotels along the Boulevard and U.S. 17. From Pawley’s Island in the south to Brunswick County, North Carolina, they cruised up and down U.S. 17 and the 17 Bypass, by ones and twos and forties and fifties….They filled the streets with the roar of their straigh-pipe exhausts and megaphone extensions. There was no place in the city, no moment in the day or night when one could escape the noise. By the second night, I knew that I was in for something unique in my experience: nine days of uninterrupted pandamonium, without silence or privacy of thought or a good night’s sleep. Nine days of unmuffled internal combustion, coming from all directions at all times. Nine days of V-twin engines, straights-pipes and 6,500 rpm bursts.
Motorcycles are, by their nature, an antisocial technology, disrupting everything around them with their ear-splitting noise. It is not surprising that they attract an antisocial element and encourage antisocial behavior. Simply to switch on a Harley and throttle up is to violate the noise ordinance of every county and municipality in the United States, including Horry and Myrtle Beach. For most of the nine days the Harleys were in town the decible level at key intersections and vendor areas hovered between 90 and 110; keeping in mind that 90 is the level of a disco club and 120 is the threshold of human pain. Law enforcement officers did what they could, but noise control was not on their agenda….
Whether bikers are an economic boon or the spawn of Satan depends to a large degree on what kind of business you’re in. Harley riders essentially do five things in Myrtle Beach: eat, sleep, drink, ride their bikes and go to strip clubs. If you’re in one of those businesses, you can make a lot of money….On th other hand, bikers do not play miniature golf or ride merry-go-rounds. If you’re in the family amusement business…biker week is a disaster….
Harley week roared on. Several bikers spent much of Tuesday night racing around in the concrete garage adjacent to my apartment building, revving their engines; the noise reverberated off the concrete walls and rattled the windows of my building. They left for a while, then came back just before dawn.
On Wednesday, bikes cruised up and down the Boulevard through the afternoon and into the night. As the sun set, the motel verandas filled with spectators; lawn chairs lined three and four deep in the parking lots. Bikers and their momas packed the front porch of the Beach House Restaurant. Thousands of beer cans littered the adjacent alley and parking lot. Despite the lusty tone of the revelry, I could not escape the sense that something here was very wrong. It’s one thing to drive hundreds of miles to Myrtle Beach and cruise Ocean Beoulevard when you are twenty years old. But if you’re still doing it when you’re fifty, it’s time to think seriously about getting a life. And if you’re fifty years old and have nothing better to do than sit in a lawn shair and videotape other aging hell raisers cruising the Boulevard, well, it might be too late to get a life.
That night sleep was impossible, so I lay in bed and read until dawn as Harleys howled and growled on Kings Highway. I don’t know if bikers read newspapers or books or anything else. Reading for me is an act of reaching out, trying to come to terms with other views and realities. It seems to me the biker’s life is just the opposite — a shutting out of any sensation that does not exhalt the rider as the center of the universe. They surround themselves with a cacoon of noise that insulates them while it demands the attention of all around them. At traffic lights they sit revving their engines, drowning out the sound of other bikers’ machines.
Thursday night I was sipping wine with friends on a verandah two blocks from U.S. 17; the noise was so intense we had to adjourn the soiree inside. There one of our company — a vacationing pediatric nurse — suggestd that bikers were engaged in some great infantile fantasy. They remineded her, she said, of a hospital nursery: when one infant wails, the others start to cry, not out of hunger, but out of a need to drown out the others and preserved their insular, self-centered universe. I took some consolation in this image of the hairy, tattooed biker as overgrown brat. Sometimes the difference between rugged individualism and infantile self-absorption is in the eye of the beholder.
In other ways bikers display a sort of childlike innocence. They seem to have few sensibilities — aesthetic, auditory or otherwise — and are shocked and perplexed to learn that others do. This leads them into frequent conflict with neighbors, communities, and law enforcement over a host of dress, behavior and lifestyle issues. When they get their knuckles cracked, they turn to their first and last and only defense — personal freedom. Freedom is their highest principle and it is hard to argue against.
In a boardwalk bar Friday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours drinking beer and talking with David, a Harley rider and sheetmetal worker from Norfolk. He was fort-two years old, but his leathery face and graying beard added ten years to his appearance. He worked fifty to sixty hours a week to support three children and two ex-wives and he salted away what little he could for this one week each year. He had missed only one Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson Rally since he was nineteen.
There was nothing about David that I found remarkable. He had the requisite tattoos, a broken incisor and a blue kerchief over his head. Furthermore, he was a bigot and missed no opportunity to tell me how blacks and Hispanics were ruining the country and ruining his life. He hated two of his three children and both of his ex-wives, including Janet, who was hammering him for more child support. It was only when I asked him the inevitable question — Why do you ride? — that this agnry, simple-minded yeoman became a poet: “When I’m on the road, on the open road and the wind is blowing on my face and my eyes are watering and there ain’t nothing but straight road ahead of me, then I’m like Superman. I’m like God. I’m immortal.” My heart soared. I almost imagined myself on a big chrome Hog, cruising the highways with David and his friends. Then he added, “You know, it’s almost like that bitch Janet ain’t even on the planet.” The reverie shattered like plate glass….
At 5:30 Friday afternoon, a thundershower swept through the city, drenching everything, clearing the streets of bikers. For forty-five minutes silence reigned; I could not hear motorcycles for the first time in days. Then the skies cleared, the Hogs came out and the city reverberated through the night, the next day and the next night.
The party ended on Sunday, May 16, as 60,000 bikers and their 60,000 attendants and groupies headed for the city limits….
By early Sunday afternoon, the number of bikes on the street was dropping by the hour. About 3:00 p.m., I took a stroll down to the beach for the first time in a couple of weeks….It was 6:15 when I left the beach and walked back up to the Boulevard. The motorcycles were gone. The city was silent. Harley week was over.
A kind of trembling exhaustion fell over the town. People seemed giddy and dazed by the quiet, the kind of relief I suspect people feel when they come up from their cellars after an air raid. For the first time in a week I could hear pedestrians laughing and talking on the Boulevard. A number of Boulevard shops closed early that night. I turned in by 10:30 and slept eleven hours.
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