Rob Dixon on his bike outside of Frank's in Mapleton. Photo by Elliott Deins.

Riding Free

Every year, hundreds of motorcyclists trek to Florence’s Rhododendron Festival

Oregon, Rhododendron Festival weekend… noon, with clouds just starting to disperse in the sky, motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis gather and roll out from a parking lot in Mapleton heading for Florence.

Two hundred — maybe 300 — bikers, members of the Free Souls Motorcycle Club, support clubs and “ride-alongs,” with Harley engines roaring and growling, rolled down Highway 126 and into Old Town Florence on a Saturday afternoon in May as they have been doing since 1968, according to Tom Overton, former Souls president. 

“Why the Rhody Run?” I ask him. 

Overton, 73, with his gray beard in braids, responds, “It’s a nice ride from here to the coast.” 

Overton says he’s been riding motorcycles since he was 14 or 15 and has been a Free Souls member since 1977.

 The Free Souls is a Eugene-based motorcycle club with 11 chapters in Oregon and Washington. Their colors are blue and white, and their symbol is an Egyptian ankh over a motorcycle wheel.  

Going anywhere on a Harley Davidson motorcycle has not been on my bucket list, but last July my friend John Winings asked if I would go on a benefit motorcycle poker run hosted by the Free Souls. 

“You want me to go on a motorcycle ride with your gang friends?” I asked dubiously. 

Winings looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s not a gang, Camilla. It’s a club.” 

Free Souls member Tom Overton (left) with Friend and fellow biker John Winings. Photo by Elliott Deins.

He explained the poker run was raising money for the family of a club member, Larry Buckles, who had recently died. I’m a fan of poker runs — although I know them better as poker rides when I’ve done them on horseback. My first poker ride was a fundraiser for the Lane County Sheriff’s Posse. I won a breathalyzer. 

All you need is luck, not skills or a poker face. The run or ride generally has five stops and you draw a playing card at each one, making up your hand. The more you pay in, the more cards you can draw. 

Groups of motorcyclists on that July ride went from the Souls’ clubhouse off Highway 99 in Eugene to bars in Veneta, Harrisburg, Monroe and Junction City. I’m not much of a day drinker, but Winings is a bit jumpy at the best of times. One of the unavoidable side effects of the ride was that he sometimes had to gun the engine to speed up or pass a car. I wondered if a shot of whiskey might make me less prone to scaring the crap out of both of us and grabbing Winings’ leather vest when the bike surged forward.

At first, I just kept chanting in my head, “This is a terrible idea,” but as the ride continued, I figured out how to lean in counterbalance around the corners, go with the motion of the bike, and loosen my death grip on Wining’s vest.

The day-long run wrapped up at the blue clubhouse with a barbeque and bands. At one of the stops, Overton and I showed each other pictures of our horses — he has several in addition to his collection of motorcycles — over that whiskey for me and a 7-Up for him. 

In addition to his Free Souls patch, Overton wears a Clean and Sober patch featuring a martini glass and a syringe encircled in red with a slash over it. He is 34 years clean, he says, and the Clean and Sober Club has been around for about 30 years. He was far from the only rider on the poker run that day or on the Rhody Run with the Clean and Sober insignia. 

I learned several things on the poker run: One, the reason people with long hair or long beards braid them is not to look like something out of Lord of the Rings but because otherwise, your hair tangles whipping in the wind on the back of a bike. Two, it can be cold going down the highway on a Harley, and leather keeps you warm and makes you feel just a little bit better about the potential damage of the asphalt whizzing underneath your feet. And three, every Free Soul I chatted with was welcoming and friendly. 

I mean, I still wouldn’t want to piss them off, but they were definitely folks I enjoyed having a conversation with.

“I don’t like people thinking all bikers are assholes,” Winings tells me. He’s longtime friends with several club members, but not a member himself. “Too many rules,” he says. 

“Some of the nicest guys I like are the people that are judged differently,” he continues, nodding toward the popular perception of bikers in their leather and gear. 

So when Winings asked me to come along on the Rhody Run in May on the back of his Harley 88 twin cam softail, my main concern was how I would feel about zooming over the Coast Range. I’d be “riding bitch,” or in the bitch seat again, Winings cheerfully informed me, knowing he might get a glare. He did. 

That Saturday morning, we met up at Overton’s house with club members and others for the ride to Mapleton and on to Florence. The crowd was more men than women, a lot of denim and leather — I was the only one there in a jacket with pink trim — but some folks had their kids along. “She’s been on the back of a bike since she was 6 years old,” one man said, nodding at a kid playing in the group. 

Overton says the Rhody Run is the Souls’ spring opener — the first mandatory run of the season for club members. Despite Winings’ trepidation about rules, Overton says they keep mandatory runs minimal. “We try to have fun,” he says. 

Bikers meet outside of Frank’s on Highway 126 before riding into Florence. Photo by Elliott Deins.

How, I wondered, after years of getting press releases about the Rhododendron Festival, had I never seen anything about the part where hundreds of bikers and their families show up to hang out, check out bikes, go to the carnival and eat salt water taffy? 

I reached out to the folks who market the festival, and they suggested I talk to Florence Police Chief John Pitcher about the presence of “outlaw” groups. 

Winings had already informed me that the Souls were not a “one percenter” club. The phrase was supposedly coined in response to a 1947 riot in Hollister, California, after which the American Motorcycle Association was supposed to have said that 99 percent of motorcycle riders are law-abiding citizens. The Hell’s Angels and Southern California’s Mongols are oft-given examples of outlaw clubs.

Intrigued by the reference to the Souls as an “outlaw” group, I also reached out to the Eugene Police Department, which didn’t want to comment but said there was a lot of information if I did a Google search. 

I found a 2008 story from The Register-Guard saying law enforcement regarded the Free Souls and other groups as “outlaw,” but that also pointed out the groups dispute that claim. I found a slideshow from a professor about outlaw clubs that drew its information from Heartland Law Enforcement Training, which its website says focuses on “Nacrotics, Gang and Covert Operations.” (I think they meant “narcotics.”)

I also found years of mentions of the Free Souls contributing to something called the Santa Project in Veneta — an annual toy drive, as well as loving obituaries with fathers and grandfathers listing their FSMC membership with pride.

Florence’s Police Chief Pitcher answers the phone, and when I ask him about the annual Bay Street gathering of bikers. “It’s a huge part of the thing,” he says, “and everyone likes to see all the bikes.” 

Of the bikers, he says, sometimes if there’s “too much alcohol” there can be problems, but that didn’t happen this year. “For the most part,” Pitcher says, “they are just here to enjoy themselves.” 

Jake Courtright lounges on his bike with a grape soda. Photo by Elliott Deins.

For an hour after we left Overton’s house, our group of club members and ride-alongs roared along the twists and turns of Highway 126 in a more or less informal formation of Harleys until we pulled into Mapleton, into the parking lot for Alpha-Bit, Frank’s Place Restaurant and Lounge and more. If you’ve driven to the coast from Eugene, you will know it as the spot where 126 comes to a T intersection, and you turn left to head to Florence.

And if you’ve been to the coast on Rhody Run weekend, then you know it as the place that’s packed with motorcycles and riders, end to end. Threading through the crowd as a band played in the parking lot, there were bikers who were young and fresh-faced and others more grizzled. There were kids and there was at least one man in fur with antlers on his helmet.

There were bikes so wide they looked like they were part car. Winings pointed out a chopper with high handlebars and long forks in the front. There were hardtail bikes with a single-piece frame with traditional front fork suspension, and there were softails, like Winings’, that have a separate frame and are supposed to be better for long rides — for example, the hardy souls who trek the 1,000 or so miles to Sturgis, South Dakota, each summer for the largest motorcycle rally in the world boasting an average of 500,000 people a year. 

Honestly, it was a sea of bikes to me, but the majority of them were Harleys, with Winings pointing out at least one Kawasaki in the mix once we hit Florence. 

I followed Winings and his friends who discussed the merits of various motorcycle seats — one was straight-up shiny metal and another looked like the seat on a tractor. Given I was sore from an hour on a soft leather seat, I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or horrified. 

In addition to men in Free Souls MC gear, others wore jackets emblazoned with Anubis Ridans and ROAR MC, which Overton tells me are “support clubs” of the Free Souls. The support clubs ride with the club on runs, and support the main club at events and in what they might be doing. 

Some of the bikers wore patches that said “Prospect,” which Overton explains means they have the “prospect” of being members, have to have a sponsor in the club, and are in the process of proving they have what it takes to be a member. 

One man was collecting funds for the toy drive in a Free Souls blue can. Overton later explains that every year, the Free Souls MC participates in the Santa Project for kids in Veneta and Fern Ridge, and have been for 45 years, ensuring the kids out there have toys at Christmas.

As we wandered through the crowd, I didn’t know what I expected folks to talk about at a biker gathering, but conversations centered on visiting family and vacation plans.“If you like whiskey,” one leather-vested man proclaimed, “you’re going to like an IPA.” 

I beg to differ, but I can see where he is coming from. 

“I call that ‘crap beer,’” another biker later said of the IPA craft beer contingent. 

After about an hour of socializing, the riders prepared to roll out — patches in the front, support clubs next and civilians, they said, last. Patches, I figured out, were the full-fledged club members. 

With that, the 200 to 300 or so bikers rode from Mapleton down to Old Town Florence with roaring, revving engines and a certain, unique, pomp and circumstance. 

Not to lean too hard on the simile, but the ride was like a well-oiled machine with riders fending off traffic so the procession — at least a mile long with bikers riding two abreast — could roll through. 

After the loud and overwhelming entrance into Old Town, riders parked their bikes on Bay Street or at a nearby campground, and wandered around town getting lunch and admiring other bikes. Winings pointed out a couple of men in Mongols gear, but for the most part the day was dominated by the blue of the Free Souls and their support clubs. 

Club members and general motorcycle enthusiasts wandered through the crowded street. Motorcycles were parked in shiny metallic rows for block after block. Periodically, bikers would ride slowly down the street, revving engines to the delight of the crowd. Mixed in with the bikes were classic cars from the Show and Shine car show taking place nearby at Siuslaw Middle School.

But it was that entrance into town — silver metal gleaming in the coastal sunlight, some leather gear shining and on others the vests and jackets showing the wear and tear of decades of use — that was the ultimate moment of the day. Motorcycles, two by two, stretched as far ahead of us and as far behind us as I could see.

Bike after bike paraded through, roaring and growling, a festival of machinery that may not show up in a press release but appears year after year in a celebration of all that is men and motorcycles. It had been a fascinating trip… “fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others” — and on balance, I’d go again if they invited me.

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