Three lanes of Interstate 66 empty of traffic except for two columns of motorcycles is a strange sight. The lanes seem wider, the signs larger, the horizon farther away.
But then you hear the cheers, see the shadowy silhouettes lined along a distant overpass with hands waving and flags flying, and you remember that while closing off 20 miles of major highway might be remarkable, it's also the way Northern Virginia shows respect.
For 15 years, Patriot Harley-Davidson in Fairfax has hosted a motorcycle ride before the annual Rolling Thunder event, a 500,000-motorcycle behemoth parade and protest honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. It boasts more than 3,500 bikes from around the country journeying to the Pentagon staging area in advance of the larger rally.
The event begins like you might imagine it — an assault on the senses. By mid-morning, the smell of coffee, leather and cigars wafts through the modestly sized parking lot of the Fairfax motorcycle dealership.
While the day ended up delightfully sunny and warm, in the hours before the ride began the air was chilly, so many of the bikers stayed bundled up. Sitting snuggly in a side car, a cup of black coffee in his hands and a white blanket over his legs, 62-year-old Lea Daniels sat quietly watching the preparations.
Mr. Daniels told me he was a prisoner-of-war for two years in Vietnam — he joined the Marines when he was 17 — and had lost a part of his tongue during his time in captivity. His hearing is declining, and he needed to look at me directly to understand what I was saying. But we got to talking about how he'd come to find himself in Fairfax on Sunday morning.
A chaplain with the nondenominational Arkansas-based Christian Motorcyclists Association met Mr. Daniels only a week or two ago, while he was homeless in Richmond. After some convincing, Mr. Daniels agreed to be an honored rider.
I asked him why he agreed to do it.
"I do what I can," Mr. Daniels said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine. This means a lot, everybody coming together for a common cause."
West along Fairfax Boulevard, neat rows of polished bikes were parked, waiting for the start of the ride. Each biker has his or her own reason for riding. Some proudly pointed to their own pin or patch indicating their branch of service in the military, while others spoke solemnly about memories of a fellow soldier who didn't make it home. But the ride isn't just to commemorate the fallen.
Dale and Cyndi Harkleroad came from Ohio in honor of their son, who's serving his second tour in Iraq.
Mr. Harkleroad, 60, told me he had heard about the Ride of the Patriots for years.
"I'm a veteran. We decided we should go," he said.
"We couldn't sleep we were so excited," Mrs. Harkleroad added.
By the time the ride began, the excitement and growing impatience was both palpable and audible. For more than a mile, motorcycle engines turned over, some revved by their riders, while others purred in anticipation. At Patriot Harley-Davidson, riders knew their place in line but still jostled to their positions to ensure they left with the best view of crowds.
For a community that dragged its heels to allow the first few Ride of the Patriots events, residents have since opened their hearts to the bikers.
Despite the early hour, hundreds of well-wishers stood along the path of the riders, waving their hands, displaying flags, snapping pictures, and along one block holding signs with photographs of their loved ones who have died while serving.
My ride for the day, Ken Lyons, said those signs only started popping up last year. They're a sobering reminder amid the cheers that for every family that welcomes a soldier home, others are mourning a permanent goodbye.
Mr. Lyons has been helping to organize the event for years. His beefy black Harley-Davidson comfortably sat him and me, and he turned up Creedence Clearwater Revival from Fairfax to the Pentagon, which made for a perfect soundtrack to an event that's patriotic and falls on a holiday weekend that heralds the start of warm summer nights. We rode near the head of the pack — close enough to the front to see the flashing lights of the police escort.
For safety reasons, the drivers are told to avoid waving to the crowds, which takes their hand off the handles, and instead honk their horns. In between blares, Mr. Lyons told me this year seemed more crowded along the overpasses, and that includes other years when the weather has been cooperative.
The ride to the Pentagon was the easiest commute I've ever ridden, though I can't say the same for the handful of cars stopped along entrance ramps by police cruisers. We kept a pretty good speed, just shy of the posted speed limit. Rounding Rosslyn, the D.C. skyline came in to view, the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.
As we passed Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Lyons turned down his stereo, as did many of the riders around us. Each white headstone had an American flag in front of it.
He told me this was one of the hardest parts of the ride, to pass the final resting place of so many people who were friends and family to riders.
By the time we turn off for the Pentagon parking lot, we're surrounded by a sea of bikes, the heady aroma of exhaust hovering around us. Mr. Lyons had plans to watch the Rolling Thunder ride, rather than participate, so we bid our goodbyes.
Even before the noon kick-off, riders were telling me this year had not only the best weather but could easily top attendance records.
While it was strange to travel I-66 with no traffic, the restful atmosphere of the Pentagon was equally as odd — so many bikes, so many people, but silence in many parts of the lot, as riders took their last few minutes to gather their thoughts.
As I made my way to the Pentagon Metro station, my legs sore from the hour-long ride and my face well on its way to being sunburned, I heard that unmistakable sound made by a half-million bikes ready to roll — thunder.
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