Kelly Patrick has lived in Redcrest his whole life -- he calls it "Home Flat" -- and he's just the type of person you want to run into at a small-town diner. The gravel-voiced 57-year-old is part of the fabric here, the sort who'll grab the coffee pot for tourists when the tables get backed up at the Eternal Tree House Café.
Lately, Patrick's been worrying about the fate of another fixture around here: Redwood Run, the massive biker rally held each June at the Riverview Ranch, in Piercy, just over the Humboldt/Mendocino border. The Run's organizers, Sciandra and Doug McCauley, are calling it quits. They say this is the last year the Run will be at Riverview Ranch -- and that it might be the last Run, ever.
"The thing I'll miss is the thunder," Patrick said, inside the Eternal Tree a couple of weekends ago as the 2010 Redwood Run was underway. He recalled one of the first runs, whichhe'd taken his dad's truck to. "It was at the old French's Campground. Of course, we proceeded to have a cocktail for hours and hours. That's what it was -- a gathering. Now all these years later, it's folding up? That's terrible. It's going to be missed. The noise, a lot of people like the noise. A lot of people don't. The people are beautiful. The bikes are beautiful."
The Run's demise would mean more than just the end of an era of big noisy bikes and beautiful people. Dotting the Avenue of Giants are small towns, once the pit stops of U.S. Highway 101, with roadside businesses still clinging to summer traffic. Miranda, Phillipsville, Myers Flat -- they all rely on the annual influx of visitors, especially the surges during festivals like Redwood Run.
In the weeks leading up to June 11, the first day of the biker festival, and throughout the festival weekend, things were not exactly reminiscent of the good old days. Pre-order ticket sales were way off. Numerous complications had created internal strife. In backroom scenes reminiscent of the other big SoHum/Northern Mendo events -- Reggae on the River and Reggae Rising -- ancient histories and bad feelings led to rifts, petty and big. Through the course of the Run's 33 years, the players and organizers have come to know each other real well. In many cases, way too well.
And then there's the fatigue factor. "We're tired," said Sciandra McCauley. She and Doug have been running the Run for the past 18 years from their McKinleyville-based Riverview Productions. Dealing with health issues, malaise and the loss of the event's site at Piercy's Riverview Ranch, the couple responded like most would who've been shouldering an event that requires year-round attention. They started spreading the word in the days leading up to the party that the Redwood Run was having its last stand. "This is the last chance to make the run," they announced on their website, redwoodrun.net.
Riding down through the Avenue of the Giants -- the traditional poker-run route of the Redwood Run rally -- the typical Humboldt County biker-to-biker two-finger waves began to drop away. There were simply too many motorcycles to acknowledge, and attempting to resulted in a sort of spastic jerk that made handlebar operation perilous.
Dropping through the 32-mile redwood-lined State Route 254, the temperatures fluctuated through sun and shade. Small elevation dips found microclimate pockets that go unnoticed inside a four-wheel vehicle. Along turnouts, their bikes parked, leather-clad men took photos of one another in front of the Immortal Tree and Founder's Grove. Big men dwarfed by bigger trees, smiling.
Entering Riverview Ranch property was a bit like taking a ticket to Dirty Man Disneyland, or a roll back in time to 1970s Humboldt. Past the traffic cones and into the gate, the helmets came off. Harley-Davidson Fatboys, Road Glides, Heritages and even a couple of newfangled V-Rods roared along the property's two-lane road, up and over the ranch's hills. Thousands of bikes were parked in front of dome tents and simple camp accessories -- whatever could be loaded onto a motorcycle and carried hundreds of miles.
Until a few years ago, only American bikes were allowed in. Today, if you're riding a German, British, Italian or (gasp) Japanese motorcycle, you're out-numbered about 500 to one. There were some cases of "rice rocket" vandalism in the past. Now, Harley owners just kinda shrug and scan for something more interesting to look at when one rolls by.
Riders came in from throughout the West Coast, from Nevada, Washington, Arizona.
Bob Fanchier rode his H-D Ultra-Limited. It was his first run on the new bike (retiring an '08 Ultra Classic model) and the aviation technical rider from Salem, Ore., was catching some shade from the noon sun under one of the ranch's few trees. "I've been planning this trip all year. I like the music and camping out. And the ride here is pretty nice," Fanchier said, watching a Fatboy trundle in. "There's two parts to it: There's the ride and then there's the music once you get here. For some people, it's amazing what they can pack on their bikes. It looks like what you'd imagine the Okies [looked like] going west on Route 66. Behavior is really not that odd. It's a very comfortable place. I feel safer here than I do at a state park or something."
Meanwhile, a woman on the back of a bike was turned around backwards, smiling and flipping off the crowd. Her pilot, holding a Coors Light, glared at a photographer.
Then the "Burlyman" -- Dana Hall of Cool 105.5 FM -- announced that the wet T-shirt event was taking contestants.
Fanchier was there for the music. It was a solid lineup that included Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Elvin Bishop, the über-tight Southern rockers of Blackfoot and the all-female Motley Crüe cover band, Motleys Crew, who would have shamed their progenitors.
But most dudes seemed more enthused about the boobs. At the Redwood Run, a woman, whether in tow with a partner or not, will be regularly requested to show her breasts. The trade for Mardi Gras beads is a frequent sales pitch. Others will lead with something akin to: "How 'bout showing your tits?" Most female attendees acquiesce. Those who refuse are left alone, with a smile or wink -- until they reach the next pack of bikers. So it goes.
It's unnecessary to point out that there's a strong element of sexism at biker rallies. No doubt some letter-to-the-editor writers will go ahead and do that anyway. Longtime participant Dave Hardy explained that away, saying it's a private party under different rules. Another attendee, wearing a flowing blue skirt, a pair of prescription eyeglasses and some body paint over her breasts, said, "If you don't like it, don't fuckin' come."
This was during the height of the wet T-shirt contest. "I grew up going to biker rallies," the woman in the blue skirt and body paint said. "I have no problem with this." Then she turned to scream for "Cheryl," a Rubenesque brunette in a jean skirt and running shirt. Cheryl was gyrating with no particular rhythm to Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," the least surprising element of this scenario. She made it to the second elimination. She appeared to be in her late 40s, and to be doing this for perhaps the first time. She was laughing.
"Yeah, Cheryl! Shake it, baby!" the body-painted woman yelled.
While Hall, the "Burlyman," emceed the proceedings, a dozen Hell's Angels in a line judged. They seemed taken by the enthusiasm of the contestants more than by any other factor. An audience member, a man in his early 20s, stood transfixed, mouth agape in permanent boob gaze. One contestant pulled up her skirt to reveal that she wasn't wearing underwear. This was well received by the audience. That move upped the ante, and two other women followed suit (or suitless).
As the competition heated, Doug Wakefield ran to keep up with his duties, dunking a large can formerly containing S&W tomato sauce into a water tank in order to get the women wet yet another time. Water built up on the stage at one point, forcing a timeout for the use of a squeegee broom. His wife, Tammy, laughed throughout, having posted the winning bid of $300 for the honor of Doug being the wet T-shirt soaker. This, she assured, would supply her with plenty of ammunition during marital debates. She had purchased him the right to pour water on 15 naked women. He would be nice to her for a long time.
In the end, the bigger women fell prey to all-American rules of aesthetics. The winner, a young, ample-breasted blonde, who appeared to have had prior training, had played it closer to the vest, waiting longer to deliver the goods, as it was. She was coy. She kept her pants on. She left with the Wakefield's 300 bucks.
"Why not?" Jessie O'Brien asked back, when asked why she and her friend Kelsey Denby were topless -- save for a kinda pink leopard skin design on O'Brien and a lobster design on Denby. "And it's hot here." Their reason for attending the 33rd annual Redwood Run was also temperature based. "Bikers," O'Brien declared, "are fucking hot." They were beginning to collect several strands of beads.
There was no lull in the action as the boob fest was followed by the Hell's Angels-organized wheelie and burnout competition on the hill. Hundreds of spectators lined the road as four riders inexplicably got the front end of 700- to 900-pound motorcycles skyward.
The contest was briefly interrupted as a woman stepped forward and offered to "cut" another woman in thigh-high plastic boots and "rip your throat out with my teeth." There seemed to be some history between the two. It was the closest thing to a fight that day.
A guy named Josh stole the show by adding a bit of a back-tire, meandering slide-out to his downward slalom trips. He maintained total control as he appeared to be surfing down a long, fat wave. "Just a love for it," the Sonoma County Hell's Angel said about riding. "Private property, we can get away with it. No one gets hurt."
Fern Breed, of Eureka, said when she first started riding, Redwood Run was considered one of the last true biker parties in the state. An active member of the United Bikers of Northern California, she came in on her '68 Panhandle. "It's fun," she said. "You don't have to wear helmets past the gate. A lot of people plan their annual vacations around the event. I just keep coming because everyone is pretty real. And there's no drama, usually."
When the on-stage and on-road drama wasn't unfolding, bikers milled about, beers in hand, chatting and reconnecting with old friends. The atmosphere was collegial, like only gatherings of outsiders are when they get together. The Redwood Run isn't even a get-together. It's a tribe.
As dusk settled, engines revved in the main parking section and bikers buzzed off like bees from the hive, seeking curvy roads through the forest understory. Business looked to be booming at the South Fork Youth Football beer booth, where the volunteers were running four taps. But in fact business was way off and the group looked worried. The nonprofit had come to bank a lot on Redwood Run fundraising.
Throughout the festival, vendors supplying gear, tattoos, clothing and food were complaining about the comparative slowness of business. The Redwood Run is the main fundraiser of the year for the Southern Humboldt Kiwanis Club, whose local youth projects and international poverty health works rely on the proceeds. Although Sciandra and Doug McCauley hustled all weekend long, running around the property to handle problems big and small, some within the Kiwanis Club have faulted them on their pre-event planning.
More rifts were created when the couple announced publicly that the Redwood Run would no longer go on. "They are not in a position to say ‘it's over,'" said Kiwanian and longtime Redwood Run participant Hardy.
When Kiwanis started the event in 1977, it was just a small gathering of local bikers getting together for a good cause. Harley-Davidson caught wind of the cool event and became the sole corporate sponsor, turning the gathering into a three-day concert with a constructed stage, major touring acts and security. That run kept up until about 15 years ago, when H-D pulled out. Familiar with the inner workings, and active participants, the McCauleys stepped in, took on the full-time organizing role, and kept the quality going.
Now they're ready to let go.
But Hardy said the festival's owner -- SoHum Kiwanis -- is certainly not. Hardy said the attendance problems had less to do with national economic factors than a delay in publicizing the music lineup. While bikers were planning their summer runs, the Redwood Run Web site remained stale, with 2009 information.
Last Wednesday, the Kiwanis held a meeting to decide the best course of action. The show, they said, will go on. "It's going to be less corporate, more community," Hardy promised.
"Most of the members are up for it," Southern Humboldt Kiwanis President Danielle Whitmore said. Whitmore added that the issue would have to be brought to a vote by the 27 members, but the outlook was positive. The new run would not happen on Riverview Ranch property, "but there are several private ranches in SoHum that have been offered to us." Riverview Productions would have no involvement. The estimated $4,000 to $8,000 generated from the annual run is used by the Kiwanis for a Toys for Tots drive, cemetary cleanups and approximately $8,000 in annual scholarships to South Fork High School students.
Donna Landry and her husband, Bryan Rehling -- who seem to be at every fun, community event in the county -- are confident the thunder will keep rolling through Southern Humboldt. They've volunteered for a decade at the Redwood Run.
"The Run does so much good in the local surrounding communities," said Donna. "There is a 'scary element,' but respect and common ground yields respect and common ground. It all seems to work when we work it."