I was so lucky to participate in the 2019 Rolling Thunder in Washington D.C. on May 26, 2019. The term “Rolling Thunder” originated from the Vietnam War, when planes just rolled in one after another to drop bombs. Because the motor of a Harley rumbles like thunder, it is fitting to name this ride Rolling Thunder with the hundreds of thousands of vets riding their Harleys.
“Rolling Thunder Washington, DC, Inc’s mission is to educate, facilitate, and never forget by means of a demonstration for service members that were abandoned after the Vietnam War. The Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run has also evolved into a display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country. The first Run in 1988, had roughly 2500 motorcycles and riders demanding that the U.S. government account for all POW/MIA’s. It continues to grow every year, becoming the world’s largest single-day motorcycle event. Now with over a million riders and spectators combined, Rolling Thunder has evolved into an emotional display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country”(https://www.rollingthunderrun.com/).
I have always been proud of my dad’s military service. Retired after 20 years of service to the U.S. Army, my dad is a Vietnam Vet. For the ride, we washed and dressed up our bikes, adding the U.S. and Army flags to the backs of our bikes! Almost all the bikes had flags on their bikes.
We went to the Washington DC H-D store the day before the ride to get the official t-shirt and a poker chip. Police were directing traffic, beginning blocks away to manage all the bikes. The crazy thing is that when we got into the store, they only had ONE cashier set up to sell the shirts. The store is under new management, and apparently, the new manager didn’t use common sense. I told my dad to find a place to have a seat, and I stood in line to get the shirt. I stood in line almost 2 1/2 hours, and that is no exaggeration! They had volunteers who brought in coolers with bottled water, but you could tell they were just standing around a lot because there wasn’t much they could actually do with the way this was set up. One of the volunteers told me that in years past, they would be outside with multiple cashiers. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have a tent with at least 20 cashiers using ipads, tablets, or phones with chip readers to take people’s payment. The volunteers could be directing the lines to the next cashier. A t-shirt rep asked me how long I was in line, and I told him. He tried to excuse the manager because it was “his first Rolling Thunder.” I told him it was mine too, but somehow, I knew there would be hundreds of thousands of bikers, so as a business owner, he should have known too! The joke is that if anyone ever asks my dad how much his daughter loves him, he can say that she loves him enough to stand in line for 2.5 hours to get him a t-shirt.
On the morning of the event, we were out in the parking lot by 5:45 a.m. to get our bikes ready. We joined in with fellow The Hill Country Chapter (THCC) members to do the ride, and we had our kickstands up (KSU) at 6:30 a.m. We were told to keep the group tight and to avoid letting people cut in to break up our group. Because there were so many bikes, it took more than 2 hours to get parked in the Pentagon lot, and there were multiple freeways emptying into the Pentagon. There were police to direct traffic, but sometimes, we would sit at a standstill for so long that we would just turn off the engines to try to minimize the heat. There are multiple lots used in the Pentagon, and the first lot was filled by the time we pulled in at about 8:30 a.m., so we were directed to the second lot. Along the way, as all the freeways combined into one road, our group did get broken up, but my dad and I managed to stay together. There were rows and rows of bikes parked (with directors in the lot) and it is so tight that you have to get off your bike on the right to avoid getting hit as bikers keep coming in on your left.
The actual ride was scheduled to start at 12:00 noon, and they were supposed to empty the lots in the order of arrival/fill. In the meantime, we just had to wait in the heat. My dad and I found some grass in the shade of a tree at the end of our parking row, so we laid down and took a nap. When we awoke, our little patch of grass was very crowded because everyone was trying to stay in the shade. There were some volunteers from a Christian Motorcycle Association who were walking around and offering paper cups filled with cold water. There were also Red Cross people walking around and checking on people. As the day went on, it got hotter and hotter. As the sun moved, we lost our shade, and the heat rose to 94 degrees with sunny skies. People started passing out with heat stroke, and the fire engines would come in to tend to them. In the meantime, there were bikes backed up all the way onto the various freeways because the lots were filled.
To see video of the parking lot and all the bikes still trying to get in, click: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaY-IEtkPc4&feature=youtu.be
As always, we met some interesting people while we waited. We spent most of our waiting time with a nice couple from Missouri who ride a Trike. They were also celebrating their anniversary, happily married for six years so far. The wife told me that she always carries a gun in her vest and a double-edged knife in her boot in case because she feels that female bikers are at a greater risk of being attacked. So far, I have never felt in any greater danger than a man would be in, but I am glad she is taking precautions if she feels that way. We saw some interesting and some funny shirts on the various bikers, including the one below.
Sadly, they say this is the last Rolling Thunder because the city doesn’t want to support it anymore. They complained about the cost of renting the parking lots and paying for the police. As a result, this year was the largest one ever, and they estimated a million to a million and a half bikers. The original organizers are getting older, and they want some more support, but the city doesn’t want to support it. Trump tweeted that he will get the permits needed to continue this event next year, but the city officials told him not to promise anything too quickly. All throughout the day, bikers were saying they should just charge $20 per bike, and they would even make a profit! We heard the parking lots cost $200,000 to rent with clean-up, but if they charged each bike $20, at 1 million bikes, they could have twenty million dollars! We would be more than happy to pay for the parking, police, and clean-up crews. It’s kind of sad that our governmental agencies don’t want to support a veteran display on Memorial Day.
Because of the freeway congestion, the police kept allowing the freeway people to go first, and kept us trapped in the parking lots. We didn’t expect to actually get into the ride until about 2:00, based on how many were ahead of us in the lot. As the hours went on, I was overheating. We drank a lot of water and bought a shaved ice, but I starting feeling lightheaded. More and more people were passing out. By 3:00 pm, the lots were not even moving, and people were getting very angry because the police just wanted to keep us trapped in there. A little after 3:00, some bikers started forcing their way into the traffic to go for it, and some were so fed up that they turned right out of the lot, to surrender and go home. By 3:30, it was apparent that the police had no intention of letting us out, so I asked my dad if we could just go for it. I told him I either needed to do the ride or just go home, but somehow, I needed the breeze to cool down because I couldn’t take it anymore.
We told our fellow THCC hogs that we were going for it. We edged up there, put our blinkers on to turn left, and a nice guy let us in together. A couple rows ahead, some more people edged in, and a police officer whistled at them and directed them to move back into the lot. I don’t know if we were included in that or not, but we continued on. There was no way we were gonna turn back now! The ride officially began!!! We only rode about 25 – 35 mph, and it was 3:45 by the time we were in the ride. The police traffic directors worked until 4:00, so for part of the way, we had police and for part of the ride, we had no police. There were pedestrians on the sidewalks waving flags, giving the peace sign, and trying to high five the bikers. Some of them held beautiful signs to thank our veterans, and it made my eyes well with tears of appreciation. I am so glad my dad got to experience that, especially knowing that our country did not do a good job of welcoming back our Vietnam vets. We passed by the memorials, and we rode up the street toward the Capitol building. It was so beautiful and such an emotional experience. I waved to many people along the route, but I was not brave enough to try to high five anyone. I have always loved parades and fanfare, so this was a phenomenal experience!!! It was well worth the heat exhaustion.
My dad and I were connected with our intercom system in our helmets, and after the ride, as we started back to the hotel, I suggested we go to DQ for a blizzard or to Mc Donald’s for a shake. I just wanted something cold! We pulled over to find the nearest DQ in our google maps, and we headed over. We ordered small blizzards and drinks. I drank so much that my stomach sloshed and couldn’t consume anymore.
When we arrived to the hotel, we showered and cooled down, drinking more fluids as much as possible. Unfortunately, we were too late to see any newscasts or the local news, but I imagine riders were going well into the evening, with or without the police. We didn’t ride across the country to just go home. We came to do the ride, and by God, we were all going to do it!
I do hope that Trump will follow through to continue this wonderful event, and I will be sending him a letter to let him know that we, the Harlistas, are more than happy to pay a price per bike to cover expenses. We could even use the extra money to help bring our soldiers home! I would also suggest that the ride start earlier to avoid some of the heat stroke, and it would be terrific if the police didn’t try to trap people in the hot, blazing sun.
All in all, I am truly thankful that my dad and I were able to participate in this amazing event. I am proud to be an American, I am proud of my dad and all the veterans who have sacrificed so much so that we can live the way we do. I am glad that people came together to thank them for their service. It was a nice day of remembrance.