Thousands of bikers, one serene Pacific town. The combination should have resulted in hell on earth. Instead, bikers get the anthropological treatment, if only mildly gonzo. It’s subter-style.
I awaken early for a Sunday, and as I lay in bed, I hear the first motorcycle roar to life a few blocks away. I check the time – it is only 7:15 – and with a surge of energy I’m out of bed. As I get ready for the day ahead, I listen. The sound of motorcycle engines grows more frequent on the highway. I shower, gather my camera gear, and at last I’m on my way. I stop for coffee, then join the stream of motorcycles heading north. I, myself, am not on a motorcycle, but nevertheless am headed for the largest gathering of bikers in the Pacific Northwest.
Each year on an early autumn Sunday, hordes of bikers swarm from all directions into the normally quiet town of Anacortes, Washington for an event called the Oyster Run. The tradition began 25 years ago when a biker named Limp Lee and a small group of friends rode into town for beer and oyster shooters. They decided to return the next year…and the next…and the next. Before long the event turned into an annual organized gathering, complete with food booths, vendors of motorcycle-related merchandise, and entertainment. The crowd gets larger every year, and all estimates put this year’s attendance at over 20,000 bikers. Several city blocks are closed to regular traffic, and as the bikes pour into town they form four rows stretching from one end of the festival to the other. I noticed that this year the side streets were also full, as were many parking lots in the area. It is hard to fathom the sea of motorcycles without actually experiencing them – the sun shining off the chrome, the continuous rumble of the engines.
The weather forecast calls for sun and temperatures above 70 degrees. Reality does not disappoint, and I look forward to a pleasant day wandering the streets, admiring both bikes and bikers. My drive into Anacortes takes me through one of the most scenic areas of Washington State, Deception Pass. I stop briefly to take photos of the bikers as they cross the bridge. Not quite Easy Rider, but the sight and sound of bikes passing by is impressive. I can only imagine what automobile drivers unaware of today’s event must be thinking, as the movement of bikers en masse might seem a bit intimidating to some. After snapping a few photos, I’m back in the car and on my way. By 9:30 I’ve found a parking spot, cleaned my camera, and am ready to enter a world far removed from that which I’m accustomed to. The roar of bikes fills my ears, and when I reach the main street of the festival I can feel the rumble through my entire body. Even though it’s early, the street is already full of bikes, and groups of riders can be seen visiting and greeting friends. There is an air of relaxed happiness – not necessarily what you’d expect from a large gathering of bikers – but the day is young and there is still a lot of beer to be consumed. Whether the bikers live up to the rowdy stereotype that still exists for many of us remains to be seen.
There are several types of bikers at the Oyster Run, and it is fairly easy to spot the difference. The smallest percentage of riders is those that show up on the non-Harley Davidson bikes. The number of these riders seems to have increased over the years, but they are still heavily outnumbered by Harley owners. I notice that the people riding the “crotch rockets” (as they are commonly called) tend to be a bit younger, dressed in a little less black leather, and are more likely to not be white. They roam the streets in small groups, and I even see one club, called the Twisted Riderz. Next, there are the Harley riders, who can be broken down into various subgroups. There are of course the innocuous riders who no doubt just enjoy riding motorcycles, preferably Harleys, and may or may not associate with a particular group. Among these folks are the “white collar” riders who work in the corporate world during the week, then don their leathers for weekends on two wheels. Their leathers and their bikes have a look about them that says, “Money? No problem.” The largest group present, of course, is the BIKERS. These are the folks we instinctively picture when we think of motorcycle riders (admit it, you do). Long hair, bushy beards, tattoos, bandanas, chains…and a look on their face like they’ll beat the bloody pulp out of the next guy that looks crossways at them. The men look tough, and their women look tough too. I noticed the younger guys in this category were a little more likely to sport shaved heads and goatees, but other than that the classic biker persona seems to be alive and well. Although they look tough, while I was there I didn’t witness any hostile altercations. I suspect most of the festival riders are on their best behavior, and avoid any sort of activity that might result in unwelcome trouble.
I’m sure the big question you’re all wondering is if I saw any Hell’s Angels. No, I didn’t, though that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. The Hell’s Angels have a nomad charter in Washington State, but the predominant outlaw motorcycle club here is the Bandidos. They were present in large numbers, including a van providing tattoo services. Outlaw motorcycle club members can be recognized by the emblems on the back of their jackets, referred to as their “colors.” The emblem includes the club symbol (such as the Hell’s Angel’s death head) with a patch above, called a rocker, that shows the name of the club and a rocker below with the member’s location. Other patches are common, including MC for “motorcycle club” and the mysterious 1% patch.
Contrary to rumors otherwise, the 1% on the back of a biker’s jacket does not indicate he has killed somebody. If it were true, then I spent the day surrounded by unabashed, un-apprehended cold-blooded killers. Rather, it indicates the wearer is a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang, such as the Hell’s Angels or the Bandidos. The members of these groups choose not to align themselves with the 99% of law-abiding motorcycle riders, supposedly represented by the American Motorcyclist Association. These outlaw bikers pride in the fact they are on the fringes of motorcycle culture and society as a whole, declining to live by the rules the rest of us take for granted.
Later in the day I meet up with a friend, and we spend the afternoon walking up and down the streets, taking pictures of people and bikes. We enjoy the annual appearance by the Seattle Cossacks motorcycle stunt drill team. The Cossacks have been performing since 1938, and today they ride vintage Harleys from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Their show is one of my favorite parts of the festival. The stunts they perform are amazing, and they always seem to be having a great time showing off for their fans.
The Oyster Run is heaven for people watching. Many people like me have come to gawk at the spectacle, and some of them are just as interesting as the bikers. It is clear that many of the people here want to be seen, and they don’t seem to mind having their pictures taken by total strangers. Every time I turned around I saw people happily posing for cameras, including quite a few scantily clad women. So much black clothing abounds that I wonder how many people have brought out their “biker best” just for the day. The sound and sights begin to overwhelm me, and after a long day I finally grow weary and decide to head home. As I wind down for the evening, I continue to hear motorcycles on the highway as the bikers make their way home.
After the Oyster Run, I began thinking about my uneasy fascination with biker culture. I have no desire to become a part of it, yet I am intrigued by the people and behaviors they exhibit. I found several books at the library, but only read one – Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, a Strange and Terrible Saga. Thompson spent over a year with the Hell’s Angels during the sixties, and his experience and observations of that time help me understand the bikers a bit better. As I see it, they are just another tribe of humanity that has been formed by men that have been unable to fit into “normal” society. Their need to belong to something meaningful is just as strong as anybody else’s is, maybe even more so. They are fiercely loyal to one another, even if this means committing a crime or a violent act. To the rest of us, this is difficult to understand and at times downright scary. Since the early days of motorcycle gangs, movies such as Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, as well as the sensationalist reporting of motorcycle “riots” helped create the fearful stereotype most of us know. Outlaw bikers often behave in ways to further the stereotype, and today they are considered to be one of the biggest problems in organized crime. Many of them are involved in drug trafficking, and there are intense battles between some of the gangs, such as the 2002 brawl between the Hell’s Angels and the Mongols in a Laughlin Nevada casino that left three dead. While not all of them are involved in criminal activity, they still don’t lend themselves to a clean reputation among those of us outside their world. My suspicion is they want it that way
Many books have been written about and by bikers, in particular the Hell’s Angels.
- Barger, Ralph “Sonny” – Hell’s Angels, The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club 2000)
- Barger, Ralph “Sonny” – Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free (2002)
- Lavigne, Yves – Hells Angels, Into the Abyss (1996)
- Sher, Julian – Angels of Death, Inside the Biker Gangs’ Global Crime Empire (2006)
- Thompson, Hunter S. – Hell’s Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966)
- Winterhalder, Edward – Out in Bad Standing, Inside the Bandidos Motorcycle Club The Making of a World Dynasty (2005)
If you are interested in my photos of the day’s event, they can be seen online.