Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part 23

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part 23

Written by B. Jan Montana


“Willie G. Davidson will be at the local Harley shop today, Montana, wanna come with us to meet him?” Chip asked over breakfast.

“Not sure about that Chip, don’t know how I’ll be received.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve never met him, have you?”

“Actually, I have, and I’m worried he might remember me.”

“Oh this sounds good,” Candy piped up. “What did you do?”

“Well, in 1981 a friend named Trey, who rides a Gold Wing, asked me to ride to Ruidoso, New Mexico with him to attend the Aspencade Rally. This was the annual, national rally of the Gold Wing Road Riders Association. I understand they’ve moved it to New York since then and they call it the Americade now, but at that time, thousands of Gold Wing riders converged on the little mountain town of Ruidoso to enjoy the roads, the scenery, and the camaraderie.

So we packed our gear and made the long ride through the endless deserts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, across the White Sands Missile Range, into the Sierra Blanca mountain range, and finally the little town of Ruidoso.

As we rode into town, I was surprised to see a large number of Harleys at a factory-sponsored tent. I learned later that an investment group and some of the company executives who’d sold Harley to American Machine and Foundry several years prior had just bought the company back. AMF had modernized the factory at great expense, but knew nothing about selling motorcycles, so this this venture had been an expensive disaster for them.

The new/old owners were eager to prove that they could compete with the Japanese manufacturers, so they immediately came out with a Harley featuring a new development, a rubber-mounted engine. As you know, too much vibration had been a huge buying objection to Harleys, which was largely responsible for the success of the much smoother Gold Wing.”

“That’s a good plan,” Chip admitted; “those old Knucklehead engines could almost rattle the fillings out of your teeth.”

“Right, so Harley brought 50 dressers, bikes with saddlebags, a top bag, and a fairing, to Ruidoso to attract Gold Wing riders with demo rides. All you had to do was sign up.”

“So that’s what you did, right?” Candy asked.

“I did, and we booked in for the next day at 1 PM.”

Trey and I then headed for Ruidoso Downs, the racetrack where the rally was centered, set up camp, and checked out the place. Ruidoso is a charming town of about 5,000 people which lies at about 7,000 ft. in the Sierra Blanca mountain range of south central New Mexico. The Mescalero Apache reservation is nearby and we were told they owned a fabulous casino/resort up in the mountains a few miles out of town. They also operated a ski resort on a nearby 12,000 ft. mountain. It was a no brainer that we had to go check them out.”

“So did you?” Candy asked.

“Not that day; we ran into an interesting couple at a local pub and ended up spending the whole evening with them. He’d retired from NASA and had some fascinating stories about his tenure there. What I remember most is how many of their flights were by guess and by golly; nobody really knew whether they would prove successful or not because they weren’t sure of the variables that might come into play. They were betting astronauts’ lives on getting it right.”

“I always thought they knew exactly what they were doing,” Chip commented.

“So the next day at 1 PM, we were handed the keys to a couple of new Harley dressers and given a map of the route we were supposed to take. It was only about five blocks long. At the first stop light, I told Trey that there was no way I could properly demo a bike in five city blocks and that I intended to take the bike up into the mountains. He didn’t want any part of that, so we waved goodbye and I zigged left where I should have zagged right.

The road climbed into the hills immediately upon leaving the valley in which the town is located. I soon came across the Mescalero hotel/casino a few miles away. I was a surprised to see such a huge and impressive resort in the middle of nowhere. So naturally, it needed to be investigated. It was as nice inside as out. I dropped $20 into a machine and came out with $227. Now I was really in a good mood, so I headed down some bumpy service roads through the forest. It eventually looped back to the casino. Good thing the tank was full.

I asked where the ski lodge was located and had to take some back roads to get there in order to avoid being spotted in town. Stunning mountain scenery on the way but the lodge was closed. I found a place to get through the gate in between the parking attendant shack and the No Trespassing sign. There was nobody on the deck so I sat back and took in the beguiling scenery for an hour or so. Both large and small animals popped out of the woods to investigate the intruder and the birds provided the soundtrack.”

“That sounds so lovely.” Candy commented.

“Yah, but you were pushing it.” Chip added.

“Perfect day, beautiful bike, gorgeous scenery, and a full tank of gas, Chip, that’s the Creator’s way of saying, ‘Rules are made to be broken.’”

Candy asked, “So what happened when you got back?”

“The guys at the Harley tent were really pissed. They were hollering and waving their arms. They said I’d returned five minutes shy of them calling the cops to report the bike stolen. Quite frankly, I’d never thought of that. We’re in a tiny mountain town in the middle of an endless desert. It’s like trying to steal a car on Guam. Where are you going to go?

Spending the night in jail would definitely have put a damper on the rally for me, so I took their castigation for what seemed like an hour.

Then a hippie-looking guy with long, black hair, a full beard, and a black cap strolled by. The inquisitors snapped to attention like he was General Patton. They explained the situation in dramatic fashion and after a few minutes, he waved them off.

Then he walked up and said, ‘Come with me,’ We walked in between the tents and I wondered if he intended to inflict corporal punishment. When we were behind the tent, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked, ‘How’d you like it?’”

“Oh Wow!” Candy exclaimed. “What’d you do then?”

“I told him the truth; the bike was a joy to ride on the straights and a handful in the twisties, especially bumpy ones. I loved the sound of the motor but the tranny was clunky and the controls were awkward. On the open road, I found it as comfortable and as smooth as any Gold Wing. He was really happy to hear that.

Then we walked around to the front of the tent and he told the inquisitors to hand me a writing pad and a pen. ‘Would you mind writing all that down for me?’ he asked. ‘No problem,’ I responded. He thanked me, took his bandana from around his neck, and handed it to me. ‘That’s a collector’s item,’ he said as he walked away.

‘Your boss is an interesting guy,’ I commented.

An inquisitor responded, ‘You just spent 20 minutes one-on-one with Willie G. Davidson, grandson of the founder of Harley Davidson. In eight years of working here, I’ve never received that much attention.’


Willie G. Davidson. From Cycle World.com.

Willie G. Davidson. From Cycle World.com.


‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I responded. ‘Maybe you need to lighten up a bit.’ He didn’t want to hear that.”

“You still got the bandana?, Chip asked.

“Yah, it’s grey and has a completely different shield logo than the current one. It includes the words, ‘Milwaukee, Wisconsin.’”

“You’d better treasure that, it’s very old.” Chip remarked.

“Doesn’t sound like Willie G. Would be unhappy to see you. Montana,” Candy said. “You kind of helped him out, didn’t you? Why don’t we just ride to the dealership to find out?”

“All right, let’s give it a shot.”

When we finished our coffee, we got on our bikes, rode across the Mississippi River, past the gorgeous old church again, and headed for the St. Paul Harley dealer, a large building with a lot of bikes inside and out, both Harleys and trade-ins. We were welcomed at the door by a pretty girl, scantily-clad, perched on exaggerated, high-heeled shoes. She asked if we were here to meet Willie G., and when we nodded in the affirmative, she gave us some cards to fill out with our basic information.

I recognized Willie G. immediately – same hair and black cap – strolling around the showroom while talking to admirers and signing autographs. Amongst them were Gimp and Tina, Spider, KP, and some of the other renegades. He asked each of them for their impressions of the latest models and listened attentively. I caught his eye on a couple of occasions, but he didn’t let on that he recognized me. Perhaps I was safe, I thought.

When he strolled our way, Chip told him about his time in the California Highway Patrol and how many miles he’d put on Harleys. He said they were comfortable highway cruisers but tended to overheat in the summertime.

“We’re working really hard on that,” Willie G. responded, “and you’re going to be pleased with the result.” I learned later he was talking about the all-aluminum Evo motor, which ran cooler and was more reliable than any previous engine they’d ever made. It transformed Harley from a fringe manufacturer in the 1980s to the largest seller of motorcycles in America in the ’90s.

Candy gushed over what a thrill it was to meet the grandson of the founder, and got his autograph. Willie G. was gracious and pleasant.

I intended to just shake his hand and quickly move on, but that didn’t happen. He lingered, talking to admirers, and was interrupted several times by dealership staff. Then he asked one of them whether they had a new dresser in stock. He said they did.

“Is it prepped?” Willie G. asked. The staffer nodded in the affirmative. “Bring it around to the front, please?”

Then he turned to me, shook my hand, and asked, “Do you have time to test ride a new dresser today?”

“Sure,” I responded.

“Great; I think you’ll find the tranny will feel a lot smoother than the one you demoed in Ruidoso.”


Previous installments appeared in Issues 143144145146147148149150151152153154155156157158, 159, 160,  161, 162, 163 and 164.

Editor’s Note: we are aware that “gimp” can have a derogatory meaning and mean no insult to anyone disabled. In the story, the person with that nickname doesn’t consider it as such, and we present the story in that context.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Salvatore Rubino.

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