For Eddie Longhurst, hitting the open road on a Harley-Davidson has always been a way to disconnect, to escape life's troubles.
"If you have a bad day, you can just get on your bike for five minutes or five hours and leave it all behind," said Longhurst, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Pipe Creek, Texas. "All you feel is the wind in your hair."
Longhurst is among thousands of devoted Harley-Davidson fans firing up their bikes this month to head "home" for the motorcycle's 100th Anniversary celebration.
Harley lovers were gathering in Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., Baton Rouge, La., and Washington, D.C. to begin their pilgrimage on the "Ride Home." All roads lead to Milwaukee - the birthplace of Harley-Davidson, where a big bash is scheduled Aug. 28-31.
Riders leaving Las Vegas on Tuesday will roar through the Southwest, making official stops in several states including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.
"We don't figure we're going to be around for the 200th, so we might as well do it for the 100th," said Richard Bertram, 55, of West Bend, Wis., who along with about 100 members of his local H.O.G (Harley Owners Group) chapter rented five tractor-trailers to haul their motorcycles to Las Vegas.
The group joined hundreds of other bikers who partied at the downtown Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall that was lined Monday with hundreds of motorcycles. The chrome sparkled in the afternoon sun, and bikers clad in black leather vests and Harley-Davidson T-shirts mingled, sharing facts about their bikes and how they came to love an American icon.
"Since I saw `Easy Rider,' I've always wanted a Harley," said Michael Ezell, 52, of Phoenix, Ariz. "I didn't want it to look like the Captain America, but I wanted my own hog."
Ezell, a production line supervisor for Boeing Co., had to wait 27 years until he could earn enough cash and his wife's approval for his "baby," a Softail Springer.
"It's all about the attitude, `If I have a Harley, don't mess with me,'" he said.
Bud Chapman, a retiree from St. George, Utah, sat atop his 2000 Ultra Classic, chatting with other Harley-Davidson aficionados.
"They're not only the best-made bikes, they're the best-looking. I don't care how fast I get somewhere, I just want to get there looking good," said Chapman, 63, who will be making his second trip to Milwaukee.
He was there for Harley-Davidson's 85th Anniversary celebration.
"I'm a Harley man," he said. "It's the pride of America. ... Harley is the American success story."
Success didn't come easy for a company that has struggled financially over the years, including in 1985 when it neared bankruptcy.
Arthur Davidson's and William Harley's company was born and nurtured in a small wooden shed. Davidson's brothers, Walter and William, joined the growing company, and in 1909 it began selling more powerful motorcycles, debuting a bike with an engine that would remain a company standard. The V-twin, built with two cylinders in a 45-degree angle, provides its distinctive guttural sound.
Over the years the company has morphed in style and attitude, from selling to police departments and the military to becoming popular with outlaw biker gangs and eventually middle class America. The company survived hard financial times, merging with American Machine and Foundry in 1969. AMF later put the company up for sale, but couldn't find a buyer. It was then that a group of 13 Harley executives, including Willie G. Davidson, the grandson of William Davidson, bought it back.
"We were determined to make it work," Willie G. Davidson has said. "I think Harley-Davidson is a treasure respected by many, many people, and we really didn't want to lose a great name at that point in time."
For many who would never own anything other than a Harley-Davidson bike, it's hard to explain.
"If I have to explain it, you won't understand it," said John Devlin, 42, of Las Vegas, quoting a famous Harley-Davidson expression.
"Even if the thing doesn't run, even if it sits in the garage, it'll make you smile," he said. "I'd rather push it than ride anything else."
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