St. Louis, Mo. – When traveling historic Route 66, it’s not so much the landscape littered with long-abandoned gas stations or antique cars scattered along the roadside, it’s the journey through its cultural landscape that makes the memories.
For veteran motorcycle riders, it is their mantra – it’s all about the journey.
"The American Road Tour with Bill Davidson" ended the day in St. Louis Wednesday, and the road-weary plodded to their rooms for a respite from the heat and humidity. As they stuffed pins, banners and assorted memorabilia from the day’s travels on Route 66 into their saddlebags, Richie Finney was already plotting out their next memory.
Finney runs Saddletramp, a high-end British tour company working with the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee to create the first-ever road tour to coincide with one of its exhibits. The one to compliment "The American Road," opening this week, had to be special – one for the books. Cue Finney, a 25-year movie soundman who now makes memories his business.
"Motorcycling has always been my passion," Finney said. "I have the opportunity to deliver high-end experiences that combine that passion for clients who have wealth but are time-poor."
Years in the movie business enabled Finney to cozy up to "fixers" – the industry moniker for the locals who make sure the movie company has everything it needs when they come to town to film. Those contacts were a natural for Finney to contact when it came to setting up tours around the world – whether in Cambodia, Africa or for a Norwegian dog-sled adventure.
Finney makes his home in Norfolk, England with his wife, movie makeup artist Christine Greenwood, who won an Emmy for her work on "Downton Abbey." So planning from a distance meant finding a Milwaukee partner, which Saddletramp found in the House of Harley-Davidson. Mark McClain, rentals and Riding Academy manager from the House is on the ride pulling an enormous trailer with "House of Harley-Davidson Milwaukee" emblazoned on the side.
"Pulling up to these iconic stops and having people come up to us because they instantly recognize the global brand of Harley-Davidson along with the motor company’s home of Milwaukee has been very gratifying on this trip," McClain said.
It’s quite the sight when this caravan pulls in to a stop along Route 66 – 30 motorcycles roaring in with the black and orange trailer sweeping the group. And there is Finney, who, removes his helmet, setting free a torrent of long, gray hair and with a twist of his mustache (he is the inventor of Captain Fawcett Mustache Wax) ensures all is ready for the day’s memory-making.
Wednesday’s Route 66 adventures included stops at Bob’s Gasoline Alley in Cuba, Mo. – a cornucopia of gasoline memorabilia (touted as the "largest in the Midwest" because everything on Route 66 is billed as the "largest" – be it the largest rocking chair, largest ball of twine or biggest covered wagon).
When Bill Davidson, great-grandson of the founder of Harley-Davidson and vice president of the Harley-Davidson Museum, who is leading the tour, approaches business owners at the various Route 66 attractions, there is a flurry of activity to grab cameras and get autographs. He is gracious and engaging. Owners of the Route 66 attractions are stunned when they are introduced to the scion of the Harley-Davidson legacy. Davidson approaches them gingerly and with innate curiosity about how their collections came about.
"This is maybe the best day of my whole life to meet Mr. Davidson," said Gary ("just Gary," he says when asked for his surname), the owner of Gary’s Gay Parita in Ash Grove, Mo. "I can’t believe he would stop here at my little store and take the time to meet me."
Gary, like so many on the route, is a character. Route 66 is filled with them – people who genuinely love people and love telling visitors their stories. Gary is the denizen of an old filling station chock full of souvenirs and memorabilia. But if you admire something that falls into the "memorabilia" category, chances are, you leave with it, courtesy of Gary, who took a book off a shelf that a visitor was admiring and gifted it.
Stops are short but are enough to drink in the flavor of middle America. After taking his picture with Davidson and his sister, Karen Davidson, Harley-Davidson creative director, who is also on the ride, Gary heads back to his post inside the old Sinclair station – but not before stopping to check out the House of Harley-Davidson truck.
"I just can’t believe it," Gary said, rubbing his hand across the bar and shield logo on the side of the trailer. "Someone like Mr. Davidson came from Milwaukee and rode up on a Harley to my little store. This is unbelievable."
For Gary, it was a day that included the experience of a lifetime. For the riders, it’s on to the next one.
Anne E. Schwartz is a veteran award-winning print and broadcast journalist who has worked for more than 25 years in the Milwaukee area writing about public safety issues. She was the reporter who broke the Jeffrey Dahmer story while at the former Milwaukee Journal in 1991 and wrote a book on the case, "The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough: The Story of Milwaukee's Jeffrey Dahmer." She is a nationally-recognized trainer on crisis communications and risk assessment for both the public and private sector.
Anne lives in Milwaukee's Third Ward. She enjoys cooking and takes culinary classes when she travels around the country and the world. She loves riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles with her partner Mark.