My immersion in Rolling Thunder 2019

Somehow, everyone in the Pentagon parking lots was sure there'll be another Rolling Thunder.

Mainly to show support for veterans, which I am not, I joined the biggest protest parade in Washington, Rolling Thunder 2019. The annual event has been running for more than 30 years, but the founders are getting older and more frustrated with the District of Columbia and the Pentagon. Whether Rolling Thunder 2019 was really the last is uncertain.

Don’t call it a bike rally or a parade — it’s officially a protest ride to keep the Pentagon’s attention on the POW-MIA issue. But I won’t deny that it also seemed like a fun motorcycle thing to do, too. I’ve watched the event and vowed to be part of it at least once.

Rolling Thunder 2019, motorcycles, bikers
Riders at Rolling Thunder 2019 cool off before disembarking from the Pentagon.

I started early Sunday morning with a couple thousand other bikers departing from District Harley-Davidson in Gaithersburg. How cool to ride in two columns on Shady Grove Road, Interstates 370 and 270, the Beltway outer loop and George Washington Parkway, which were closed to cars and police escorted.

Entering the Pentagon’s property perimeter, the ride slowed to a stop-and-go crawl, as police and organizers worked to cram umpteen thousand bikes into the Pentagon’s three giant parking lots. Once parked at the extreme end of the middle lot, behind all of the decorated ceremonial tractor trucks, I started my hours-long wait for the start of the parade out of there.

If you love people watching, the staging area of Rolling Thunder is the place to be. I wandered through and around two of the vast lots, covered with closely-parked bikes of every imaginable description. Veterans, spouses, kids and just plain riders like me of every age mill about, chatting, comparing motorcycles. I photographed three Vietnam-era guys sitting on a shady curb, watching the controlled chaos on the street in front them them. They were part of the Cartersville, Georgia, chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. Like many others, their leather vests were decorated with dozens of patches from rides and military units.

Rolling Thunder 2019, motorcycles, bikers
Riders for Rolling Thunder 2019 line up in the nation’s capital.

How rarely, I thought, do civvies like me get to talk to vets who are total strangers. Motorcycling produces common bonds. That, plus the festival atmosphere of the staging area, everyone lamenting the heat in good humor, made for easy human interaction.

The day was indeed hot and humid and the Christian Motorcycle Association had stations handing out cups of cold water and refilling people’s water bottles.

When Rolling Thunder itself finally started, I and a few other guys parked near me, slipped out of our parking lot and onto the main road, just behind a departing column. I broke my own rule of always wearing a jacket and rode bare-armed in my albeit patchless leather vest. I rode behind a woman from St. Louis (see her in the video; that’s my fender in the lower right-hand corner) who did a lot of waving to the crowd. Most of the riders are men; she handled her big bike with no problem.

Soon I was on the main parade route crossing Memorial Bridge. People cheered and waved flags along the route down Constitution Avenue, across the Mall near the Capitol, and back down Independence Avenue. At one point I rode right by the famous Saluting Marine, our eyes meeting briefly and I thought, I should be saluting you.

Tom Temin, Rolling Thunder 2019After departing the parade route where it comes near Rock Creek Parkway outbound, I headed towards the Whitehurst Freeway, and took the great Canal Road back home to Montgomery County, where the shade felt cool after squinting in the sun, apparent in the selfie at the left. I was thrilled to have participated in the Rolling Thunder spectacle and I hope there’s another. It’s a dramatic way to honor our war dead, our missing in action, and our still-living vets.

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