This past Memorial Day, I checked another item off my bucket list. I had the honor, privilege and luck to ride in The Rolling Thunder Run. This has been a dream of mine to show my respect to all the fallen soldiers, who have paid the ultimate price for defending the freedom and liberties of this country. Having never been in the service myself, I feel it is the least I can do to show my respect and gratitude.
Rolling Thunder is a motorcycle run and first amendment demonstration, which began in 1988 to bring awareness to the POW/MIA issue and achieve full accountability for, and the return of all service members, alive or dead, which were abandoned after the Vietnam War.
I have members of my family who have been deeply affected by the atrocities of war and it is something that both my wife and I feel very strongly about. Being on the west coast, I have never had the fortune of attending this annual event that takes place at the capital of our nation on Memorial Day weekend. Tens of thousands of bikers attend this run to show their patriotism, wear their colors and wave their flag. The event is named “Rolling Thunder” as the thousands of bikers ride across Memorial Bridge emanating the sound of rolling thunder.
My wife and I arranged to have our motorcycles shipped out to Washington, DC to arrive there in time for us to catch a cab from the airport to pick up our bikes. As soon as we walked into Dulles airport on Friday morning, you could feel this wasn’t just any old weekend. The airport was filled with people dressed in biker vests, military berets and remembrance memorabilia, for fallen family and friends. We bumped into a couple that had their bikes shipped to the same location as us, so we shared a cab to go pick up our iron horses. Even the streets were different. It’s not often you see more bikes on the road, that cars, and I immediately could feel that this would be a weekend not to be forgotten.
We picked up our bikes, which had arrived safely and securely and headed to our hotel. The Marquee of the hotel had a huge welcome sign for all Rolling Thunder Riders. The magnitude of the effect the run has on this city is beyond anything I imagined. I had read about the spirit and fever surrounding the place on this weekend, but this was above all expectation. We checked into our hotel room, and rested for a while before heading out for some dinner. As we walked out onto the street to explore our surroundings, you could feel the excitement and anticipation in the air. But this was not a party atmosphere. Even though the streets were filled with parked bikes, and the roads were filled with a constant hum of bikes riding by, the actual mood was quite solemn and serious. This was not a bike rally filled with drunken revelers and macho riders. Everyone had come to pay their respects and show solidarity. I was suitably impressed and went to sleep that night excited for what lay ahead.
Saturday morning we woke later than usual. We were on holiday after all. After a leisurely breakfast in the hotel, we headed out the Thunder Alley. This is the vendor site for the event located in Memorial Park at 22nd St and Constitution Ave. The road is blocked off and vendors set up booths. You can purchase memorabilia and food, attend speeches and meet with activists associated with the causes and issues surrounding veterans, missing soldiers and US troops around the world. They also have a stage area set up where music is played. We spent the day, exploring the booths, lazing in the park, attending some really interesting speeches, eating great food and listening to awesome music. All of the activities take place in the most amazing setting with the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool in the background. The day flew by and before we know it, the sun had set, night was upon us and we were bushed. We headed back to our hotel and packed it in relatively early, as the next day was going to be a long one.
Although the run only kicks off at noon, the line up to participate starts way before then. The bikers gather in the Pentagon parking lot starting at 7:00 am. The organization for this event is top clad. Everyone is directed to where they need to be. There is no jostling in line, vying for position or tension. Everyone is prepared to wait his or her turn and participate in the historic event. The cross culture of people attending is endless. It runs the gamut of bikers, professionals, bikes trikes, scooters, men, women, gay or straight. The wave of bikes pouring into the parking lot was constant. And the sound!!! What can I say about the sound? The endless drone of engines was truly as if it was an rolling thunder. As we crossed Memorial Bridge, the volume escalates. The bikers ride three or four astride in some places. The pace is slow and steady. The bikes are dressed in American flags and all along the ride are spectators egging the riders on, waving and spreading good cheer. The route takes us past the White House, all the Smithsonian museums , the Newseum, (where all the news archives are stored), the National Archives building and past all the Capitol’s best known landmarks. Along the way, you pass memorials and statues of fallen soldiers and war heroes. I was really taken by the outpour of emotions and community of the participants, and I myself was overcome with emotion as we drove by all of these historic landmarks of freedom and liberty. The ride ends in Potomac Park where all the riders park their bikes on the grass and spend the rest of the day lounging around what they call “the Mall”, which is really a huge park.
I have been on many bike rides, rallies, vacations and outings. This is certainly the most unique experience I have ever had. It was certainly a case of the moment being larger than the event. So many people gathered to pay tribute was a truly overwhelming experience. I can’t say I would return every year to participate, but I am extremely glad I have done it and I most certainly will do it again.