May 30 2013 by Jason Fogelson
I buzz down to the lobby for some eggs and sausage. The folks at the BEST WESTERN Woodstock Inn certainly laid out the red carpet for us. In the daylight, I notice all of the banners and displays designed to welcome us. There's even left over food from last night's reception available for guests this morning. We stayed at all three kinds of Best Western hotels on this trip: Premiere, Plus and Best Western. And each of them had their charms. For me, it's less about the hotel type and more about the people who run them. We met some great hotel people on this trip, universally proud of their properties and proudly members of Best Western.
It's time to saddle up for the 75-mile ride to Milwaukee. First, we park in front of the historic Opera House on Woodstock Town Square, which achieved its moment of fame when it doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in the film "Groundhog Day." After a hike around the square and the active farmer's market, it's time to hit the road. We skirt around Chicago, and climb into Wisconsin. Our Harley friends take the point, and we follow them into Milwaukee. We pass ultramodern Miller Park, where the Milwaukee Brewers play. We ride past vast industrial complexes. Finally, we're there, on the grounds of Harley-Davidson. The bar and shield logo is everywhere, and the big factory setting is wide open and clean. We park our trusty bikes, and hand over the keys. This is the end of the ride, and they've served us well. I spent most of my time on the Heritage, but I swapped over to the Road Glide and Road King for good portions of the ride as well. I think I still prefer the Touring chassis over the Softail, especially for a long ride. But I would be happy with any of the bikes we had to choose from.
We pose for group photos in front of Jeff Decker's bronze sculpture of a hill climber, the centerpiece of the outdoor museum plaza. A few days on the road with these guys, and I know that I'd be happy to ride with them anywhere.
We head in to the Motor Bar and Restaurant across the plaza from the Museum, and enjoy a deliciously spicy lunch. The Motor Bar is a biker's dream, with motorcycles, memorabilia and great food all around. You don't have to visit the museum to enjoy the restaurant. It's Mother's Day tomorrow, and some lucky moms are being treated to some delicious hot wings today.
Finally, it's time to go into the Museum. Just what I've been waiting for, ever since Kansas City. As if visiting the Museum isn't enough, we're going to get a tour of the Motor Company's Archives with Jim Fricke, the Curatorial Director. Fricke is an amazing guy. Before putting together the H-D Museum, he created the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, a truly innovative and amazing museum. Getting to meet him and tour the Archives is a rare and very special treat.
The Harley-Davidson Museum opened in 2008, just before the Motor Company's 105th Anniversary Celebration. It now boasts annual attendance of over 300,000, making it a major tourist attraction. Harley-Davidson has always been conscious of its place in history. Starting around 1912, the company began saving a significant bike or two from every year of production, and storing them in warehouses in Milwaukee. Considering that the company began production in 1903, that shows amazing confidence and forethought. The Archives contain mountains of paper, photographs, blueprints and plans from every moment of the company's history. A small portion of the collection is on display in the Museum, with rotating exhibits exploring themes and trends on a regular basis.
Mr. Fricke takes our group into several rooms in the Archives. One amazing hall has boxes upon boxes, impeccably organized and catalogued on special moving racks. A box might contain all of the publicity material from a particular model year, or the original patent drawings for an engine feature, or the correspondence from one of the company founders to the engineers, or any other ephemera or artifact from the company's history. A massive digitizing effort is underway, but will take years to complete. Any one of the boxes could occupy a motorcyclist's imagination for months.
The next room completely blows my mind. It's the room where the motorcycles are stored. Similar to the boxes of artifacts, the bikes live on motorized racks, three rows high and ten bikes deep. The room houses at least 300 motorcycles, by my best guess. The Museum seems to have an endless stream of bikes, but even more amazing bikes are stored away, awaiting their chance in the limelight. Bikes from every era, production bikes and prototypes, new bikes and famous celebrity-owned bikes, jaw-droppingly beautiful bikes and some real stinkers. All on these racks, accessible at the push of a big button.
Finally, as a special treat, Mr. Fricke guides us into the Archive workshop, where a few very cool bikes are undergoing restoration. Fricke explains that sometimes it's better to preserve a motorcycle than it is to restore it, and a very delicate preservation is underway on a Harley from the teens. It's going to be a very cool bike.
After an hour of private tour time with Mr. Fricke, we have to let him go. He seems willing to share the Archives with us all day, but some of our group have flights to catch, and time is tight. I bid my riding buddies goodbye, and continue to tour the Museum. I look at the motorcycle timeline, bikes from each year of the Motor Company's history arranged chronologically. I explore the board track display, the awesome wall of tanks, the Willie G. Davidson design area. I jockey for position with other visitors to get to sit on a few of my dream bikes, which are supported vertically for discovery and experience. I could spend all day at the Harley-Davidson Museum and still come back again the next day. I suspect that if I lived in Milwaukee, I would spend a lot of time here.
So, another group ride is in the books. I don't know if I'll ever be a group ride guy. I'm just too much of a loner when I'm riding, I guess. But this ride was a good one, with an excellent group of riders and a very rewarding destination. I will definitely return to Milwaukee again -- hopefully for the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Celebration, which is coming up August 29 to September 1, 2013.
Until then -- where should I ride next?