The ride of a lifetime

Jake Hughes
May 29, 2018 - 12:39 pm
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*BEEP* *BEEP* *BEEP*

My alarm went off earlier than it usually does, and for someone who works a morning radio show, that’s pretty early. Despite this, I woke up excited. I hurriedly took a shower, got dressed, and put on my gear. It was forecasted to rain, so my saddlebags were bulging with rain gear, a spare set of clothes, and an umbrella. I got on my bike, a Yamaha V-Star 1300, and headed out.

I made my way to the Key Bridge Marriott in Virginia, the staging point for my assigned group. When I got there, there were only about three or four people, but they told me I was in the right place. Over the next hour or so, about 25 to 30 people showed up, including Eric Dehm, my friend and co-worker. Everyone was friendly, genial and excited despite the early hour and forecast. At 0630, we lined up and made our way to our ultimate destination: The North Parking Lot at the Pentagon. The staging area for Rolling Thunder 2018.

As soon as we got there, it was clear how big an event this was going to be. Already, there were a few thousand bikes lined up. Food and water tents were set up, thankfully. We parked along the highway, so it seemed we would be among the first ones to roll out when the ride kicked off at 1230 and thus began the part of the ride that reminded me why I was glad to have left the military: "Hurry Up and Wait," for five hours.

Luckily, it wasn’t five hours of nothing. I got to meet some fantastic people from all across the country. One man and his little girl had rode in from Colorado. That’s over a thousand miles. It was stunning to me, and just a bit disheartening that this ten year-old girl had more miles under her belt than Eric and I combined. Others had come from Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and “only” as far as South and North Carolina. There were some true “bikers,” complete with leathery skin from too much time in the sun and leather vests depicting patches of rides going as far back as the 60’s. There were also more casual riders, like myself, some of whom had just trucked their bikes up for the event.

We saw all sorts of bikes. One was built to look like a Roman chariot. No, I’m serious. It was a trike with a toy horse on the front and a sort of half-cab on the back surrounding the driver. The horse even let out sporadic whinnies and neighs, which was cool at first, but a bit annoying after three hours.

Some bikes painted up to look like WWII bombers, complete with risqué art and swastikas depicting fighters shot down. Others had simple Army Green paint jobs, looking like they were issued straight from a motor pool. Another looked like an old Model-T, complete with windshield and cab.

So, there we sat for a few hours, laughing and getting to know the people around us, and sweating our butts off. See, despite the forecast, it ended up not thunder storming, but instead, 90 degrees and sunny. And guess what I didn’t bring because I thought the sun wouldn’t be making an appearance? My special SPF 5 billion sunblock, because my pasty flesh doesn’t last long in direct sunlight. We’re hot, burning, sweating, and yet, we were having a blast. The sense of camaraderie was overwhelming. It didn’t matter if you were a veteran of not, though there were plenty of vets there. Everyone with a motorcycle was welcomed as if they were old friends.

Finally, the roar of engines started from somewhere up near the front. The time had come. I geared back up and started my bike. Like any good unit or division run, we had to sit for about 10 minutes before the motion finally made its way to us, and then we were off. We cruised out of the Pentagon parking lot towards downtown Washington, DC.

The route was generally circular, but it took us all around the “Iron Cross,” which is essentially, all the war memorials within the National Mall. I was expecting a good turnout, but I was still stunned to see the streets lined with thousands of people, all waving flags and cheering. When I wasn’t working my clutch, I was waving almost constantly. There were Boy and Girl Scout troops, elderly veterans who didn’t ride, and people from all walks of life, all colors and backgrounds, bonded together by the respect and remembrance of our nation’s fallen service members.

We were cruising at a decent speed and I got to exchange high-fives with a group of little boys who I think were Scouts. Then, it would speed up again. At one point I saw where a mass of bikes had parked, and assumed it was our ending point. However, the fifty or so bikes in front of me kept going, and like a good little soldier, I followed.

It was about two minutes later that I realized, “Hey, wait a second. There are cars on the road with us!” Since the Rolling Thunder route is closed to traffic, it sent up some serious red flags. Sadly, by the time the group actually stopped at a stoplight—which, again, weren’t supposed to be on the route—that Eric and I realized something:

“Hey, isn’t that the hotel we started at this morning?”

Yes, the group we were following took a wrong turn, because the course was not properly marked. By the time we had noticed and were able to pull over and talk, we realized that it was too late. The roads to get back on the course were blocked. The ride was supposed to end at the Vietnam Wall, where there would be a short memorial service before we went our separate ways. Sadly, we did not get to attend.

Despite the vainglorious ending, the feeling I walked away from Rolling Thunder 2018 with was a sense of being overwhelmed. Complete strangers greeted us as brothers. We were a veritable endless sea of motorcycles, all ready to ride for our troops. People of all political beliefs coming together on this one day, just to make sure that the over 80,000 POW/MIA service members, and the countless who have fallen in defense of our nation, would not be forgotten. It kind of felt like Christmas. A day where we put aside our differences and try to be something better than we are.

I’m proud to have ridden in Rolling Thunder, and I can say with confidence that this will not be my last. Even if I move far away, as long as I have a bike, I will make the journey to the Pentagon parking lot every Memorial Day. Because some of my brothers and sisters in arms are still out there, acting as vanguard of our way of life. And I'll keep riding until they come home.