For those who’ve never held the merciless power between their legs, there is something untouchable about the motorcycle culture. Bystanders are left in the literal and proverbial dust with only a glimpse of the dangerous world screaming by. Unless, that is, the world stops and just idles there for a while.
Such was the case last weekend in Auburn, where bikers gathered for the second annual Motorcycle Expo. Burrowed in the Gold County Fairgrounds, the cluster of vendor tents became host to hundreds of enthusiasts, curious outsiders and rows and rows of bikes. But, to the disappointment or maybe relief of pop-culture-gorged newcomers to the scene, there was no violence. No orgies. It was pretty much just about people and motorcycles.
“Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” one vendor sang to herself, the wheeze of a smoker’s voice slurring the pop ballad. After a vicious hack, she descended on a young boy trying on a leather vest. “How’s that fit you, baby? That fit good?”
A man in full American Indian dress, with white paint splashed across his eyes, strolled past the vendor’s booth to meet up with some friends at the end of a long line. The foundations of many cultures are forged from lore and legend, and the people in this line were waiting to meet their legend: Ralph “Sonny” Barger. The Modesto-born founding member of the most nefarious motorcycle gang in the country, the Hell’s Angels, was signing autographs and shaking hands with tattooed, leather-clad, full-bearded, 350-pound fanboys.
“It’s a picture of Sonny and his wife!” said one, holding aloft a two-foot by three-foot framed portrait. This was Panhead, a member of the Sacramento Chapter of the Viet Nam Vets Motorcycle Club, who stood waiting in line with his wife, Lady O, to get his hand-drawn picture signed by the great biker himself.
Barger is a classic example of the misconception outsiders still have about the biker culture. With a history of rebellion and violence, the Hell’s Angels have struck fear into Class C drivers since the late 1950s. Their exploits and crimes were heavily documented in film and literature in the ’60s, with Barger being no exception. After 50 years with the Hell’s Angels, the legend has over a dozen years of incarceration under his belt. These are the facts the public most likely will hear and hold onto.
But the man at the meet-and-greet wasn’t much of a monster.
After cancer forced doctors to remove his vocal cords, Barger learned to speak through a device implanted in his neck. Now his words are quiet and raspy, as if everything he says is a wizened secret. When the man who says he never looks back was asked what he looks forward to, he simply replied, “Everything.”
And that should tell you just about all you’ll need to know.