Legion Rider Terry Woodburn talks to two Illinois Riders at a Kentucky rest-stop. Photo by Marty Justis

Day 1: How we roll

Day 1, May 26

This, for me, is trip No. 7 to Washington, D.C., for the Memorial Day weekend event, Rolling Thunder. In sheer numbers, it is certainly one of the largest spectacles of its kind in motorcycling. Smaller than Sturgis and slower than Daytona – two of motorcycling’s more notorious gatherings – Rolling Thunder exudes a rider character that most of us who ride would hope to see in everyone who straddles a two-wheeled vehicle.

For some, it’s a party. For others, a memorial event. But the truth is, it’s a demonstration in the truest sense. Although some may never come to fully realize this, each and every motorcyclist who’s a part of this one-day, 10-minute tour of downtown D.C. understands that they’re part of something bigger than the whole. Is it fun? Yes. Is it exciting? Sure. Is there a measure of appreciation shown for those who have served and never returned? Well, this is exactly what Rolling Thunder is. It’s a once-a-year opportunity to draw the nation’s attention to the plight of those who were prisoners of war, and those who went missing in action while defending democracy and the interests of our nation around the world.

People who participate in Rolling Thunder come to the D.C. area from all over the nation. They come in groups, and they come individually. They ride two-wheelers, mostly, with a nice mix of trikes and a handful of sidecar-mounted machines. All makes. All models. All sizes and colors. Bikes mechanically adorned are balanced by “rolling art galleries” – digitized paint schemes with intricate art work, many that tout military themes.

Today, I leave Indianapolis with a group of Indiana and Illinois Legion Riders. It’s a bit stormy as we begin the journey, but no one among us is unaccustomed to that. By Friday, we will be in Washington, D.C., among hundreds of thousands of like-minded riders, who share a love of the road and the feeling of freedom it offers. Were it not for those who gave their lives for our nation, or were held prisoner in some distant land, we are all aware that such an experience would not be possible. It is in their honor that we roll.

More from Day 1

The trek thru Southern Indiana made us witness to the devastating weather of last evening. Heavy storms and tornados ripped many a tree from the roadside, most of which has been cleared fm the road surface, and pushed back to the edge. Indiana DOT folks had a busy night, and they’ve done well to keep the highway open and safe.

Into Eastern Kentucky now and starting to feel comfortable with riders around me whose abilities I haven’t before experienced. We’re in good hands with the leadership on this first leg. Legion Riders Terry Woodburn and Jim Cowley set the pace and call the shots; both are volunteer staff leadership for the Legion Legacy Run. T.W. rides Road Captain on the Run; J.C. is his sweep. With the radios that most of us have, it’s interesting to hear their banter and listen as they call the moves with military like precision similar to that of the Navy’s Blue angels. Or maybe not.

The southern Illinois Riders will join us soon and we’ll be off toward Beckley, W.Va., after we exchange hellos, kiss each others wives, and lie to one another about how little we’ve changed in the last year. More later.

Day 1 continues

I’ve been watching the lines of riders and they are doing well. Oh yea, we have a few “wobblies” who make themselves conspicuous, now and then, but overall the group is keeping their head in the game. Space, place and pace have all been good within the group. For those who have ridden the Legacy Run, you’ll understand what’s meant in saying that Uncle Dick Woods would be mighty proud of this bunch.

With the Illinois Riders who joined in at the Kentucky rest-stop, we picked up a few more Legacy Run folks in the persons of Roy and Teena Smith. Roy, retired from the Navy and an Illinois Legionnaire, runs sweep for one of the Legacy Run groups, and he’s handling the job for this trip as well.

American Legion Auxiliary member Joy Wilson and husband Keith are the newest folks to all this. It’s their first large group ride and this 1,600-mile jaunt will be their longest one. They tell me they practiced for it recently by riding from home in Bloomington, Ill., to Indianapolis and back. They’re eager to get to D.C. for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that neither have yet been there. A “high regard” for vets is what spurred them on the trip, and a deep concern for the missing is what sealed their decision to ride. Joy looks forward to a visit, particularly so, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where, she says, she just wants to offer a quiet “thanks” to those who served and a prayer for peace for those who never returned. And that, for sure, is what this coming weekend should be. Good thoughts Joy!

At around 1600 hours, we are on our last fueling, have two toll booths to negotiate and then we’re done for day one. The sun’s disappeared again and  the rain picked up. It’s been a wet 100 miles since the last stop  but the group is handling it well — most are still smiling. But then there’s something about the open road and handlebars at the end of your arms that makes that happen. I need to finish up a bottle of water as a pint is about the right amount, even in cool temps, for every 100 miles. This is a 425-mile day. Not an especially long distance, but a heck of a lot of water.

At 1730 hours we made it to our hotel at Beckley, W. Va., in time to beat a hail storm, heavy rain and high winds. Surprisingly, no one’s tired. They keep talking about Rolling Thunder, their experiences in years past, and their expectations for this weekend. 

Marty Justis is the executive director of The American Legion National Headquarters and a member of the Legion Riders.