The anatomy of a Harley owner

Published 11:38 pm Saturday, September 22, 2007

They’re easy to see, bearded men and righteous women wearing leather, bandanas and boots, the wind blowing their hair behind them while their motorcycle’s tailpipes growl out a nearly deafening thunder.

But what is it that makes a Harley owner a Harley owner?

Appearance might be easy to point to, but walking amongst them Saturday morning at the Mississippi State Harley-Davidson Hog Rally, one was just as likely to hear a snatch of conversation about boardroom politics or farm life as about the custom jobs on their bikes.

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Wearing a leather vest and bearded, Robbie McDowell, whose mild-mannered alter-ego works as an engineer in a hospital power plant, said the appeal of riding is the liberation it gives.

“It’s the freedom of the highway,” he said.

But ask McDowell why he rides Harley, and he adopts an almost hushed tone as he admits it is a mystery even to him.

“There’s just something about riding that machine,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

Natchez resident Bob Perkins agreed with McDowell.

“There is a sort of freedom to it, riding and feeling the wind on your face, the wind blowing past you,” he said. “When I got my bike, my wife told me she wouldn’t ride it. Two weeks later, she came to me and asked, ‘Where’s my helmet?’”

For Nevada, Iowa John Deere factory worker Dan Barker, the love of the bikes is genetic.

“I’ve been riding bikes since I was five or six,” he said. “My father had a couple of bikes in his younger years.”

Gesturing to his machine, Barker said he’s owned his current ride for about a month, and has already put 4,600 miles behind it.

He, too, enjoys the freedom riding gives him, Barker said.

“I get to get out, travel and meet all kinds of people,” he said. “I’ve even run into some of the (motorcycle) gangs, but I’ve never had any trouble.”

Newellton farmer Trey Leake said he first got into riding three years ago to meet new people and find his niche in the world.

“My father and brother raise thoroughbred horses, but I didn’t want to get grouped in with that,” he said. “This (Harley) is my thoroughbred horse.”

When out on the road, Leake said he has 2 million friends, all united by the common bond of Harley.

“Someone sees you out there, and they see you riding a Harley, they will come over and talk with you like you’ve known each other for years even though you just met,” he said. “We all watch out for each other.”

Dave Gray, who hails from Vicksburg, has only been riding his Harley for a year.

“I always wanted to get a motorcycle when I was younger, and the opportunity finally presented itself,” he said.

As for why he chose Harley, Gray said he acted on his son’s recommendation.

“I was thinking about getting a starter bike, but then I thought about it and decided why not start with the best?” he said. “You might hear people who try to tell you why they didn’t go with it, but you never hear a Harley owner talking about getting another kind of bike.”

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worker, Gray said he hasn’t had a chance to take many road trips, but he is an avid weekend rider.

“If you can only take it on long trips, that’s just too long between rides,” he said.

And Gray, too, has trouble explaining what the connection is between Harley owners and their brand.

“It’s emotional rather than logical,” he said.