Text: Derrel Whitemyer • Photography: Derrel Whitemyer

Thirty-five miles east of Monterey Bay the small but growing town of Hollister welcomes you. New homes, most inhabited by an overflow of Silicon Valley's workforce, spread across its rolling grassland, with many a backyard overlooking precisely manicured golf-course fairways.

But on every July 4th since 1997, in sharp contrast to this middle-class Stepford scene, the town of Hollister has hosted a happening for thousands of Harley riders from around the country. A few foreign bikes mingle sparingly between the rows of Fatboys, Springers, and Softails, but they'll forever be a small minority. Ducati red, Kawasaki green, or even my Road Warrior's purple, realistically, are but pleasant little color contrasts in a pallet overwhelmed by customized American iron.

Few, if any, full-face helmeted riders can be seen. Instead, almost everyone is wearing black plastic yarmulkes. Providing no protection whatsoever they do allow bikers full freedom of movement and view. I wore one for years until the day I did a face plant on the Big Sur Highway while riding a 1200 Bandit. Broke my wrist, three ribs, and ground my borrowed Shoei down to the tip of my nose. Since then I've "found Jesus" and dress for the crash.

The ultimate irony in a yearly celebration commemorating a motorcycle gang's partial takeover of the town in 1947 is that so many ride to Hollister for good causes. People like Dan Stern, owner of Hollister Harley-Davidson, lead daily rides throughout the surrounding back roads for the benefit of visiting riders and conducts free maintenance clinics at his dealership for anyone willing to listen. Others, like Bill Enders, owner of Bill's Monterey Custom Motorcycles, have actually helped create and support the Protect Our Kids Foundation, which takes hundreds of riders each July 4th in a benefit run for lost children from Monterey to Hollister. Forget the columnists who seem compelled to write, "...an atmosphere of Laughlin hung over the town." That circle-jerk mentality belies the preponderance of fine people who travel to Hollister simply to serve the greater good and have a great time in the bargain.

At Hollister's Independence Rally 2002 the weather was great, the vendors seem to have it together, and what problems there were spilled over from the attitudes of a few...or, as we all know, "Wherever you go, there they are." The one grim exception in the safe and successful event was the death of a rider who borrowed a new BMW for a test ride and crashed outside of town. Cienega Road is probably one of Hollister's premier back roads for riding. It passes through vineyards, oak-covered hills, and tawny pastureland. Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, known as one of California's best off-road tracks, is close by. It's a demanding ride, however, with lots of twisties, blind curves, and decreasing radius turns. No one really knows how the fatality occurred except to say one particular turn took no prisoners.

Throughout the July 4th weekend folks from Hollister Harley-Davidson took small groups of visiting riders out and around the area and introduced them to countryside too often missed when just traveling the freeways. A great idea, that, because it focused attention on more than just Main Street Hollister. It kept people out of the bars and it underlined riding's positive side. The "tours" involved small groups - no mile-long trains, no fire drill pace - mainly to provide a real feel for the roads out towards Gilroy and Tres Pinos. Owner Dan Stern took the lead and, within an hour or two, they all looped back with plenty of time left in the day to shop.

Speaking of shopping, this year Hollister's planners really made an effort to avoid vendors promoting the same wares, and to concentrate their tents within a few city blocks. Presumably the motivation behind it was security, but it also created an event that wasn't as spread out and shoppers didn't have to walk as far. From all I've heard, the city made a profit. San Benito County's hotels and even those southern Santa Clara County hotels were fully booked. This trickle-down effect brought money into local businesses, which of course, in turn, benefits the community. This also means local charities, youth sports teams, and at-risk teenage programs receive a needed boost. In the end, the positive efforts of sponsors, police, and bikers alike overshadowed any Hell's Angel or Mongol presence. In fact, when I asked two CHP officers their views about the potential problems, they admitted that, statistically, they've had a lot more problems with crotch rocket riders than they've ever had with bikers. This little factoid in no way diminishes the violence done at Laughlin, but it does put it into perspective. Or as one couple who rode up from Los Angeles said, "Hell's Angels, al-Qaida. Shit! We're more likely to get killed riding home on the interstate than by any biker gang or terrorist."

The weekend also drew two great bands, the Fryed Brothers and Starship. And those who weren't tapping a toe are probably deaf. Mike Corbin, the owner of Corbin Motorcycle Seats and a major sponsor, was instrumental in procuring this melodious accompaniment. Thanks, Mike.

Next year, who knows what will happen. Many events after this year's Laughlin killings are cancelled and I hope Hollister's 2003 July 4th Rally doesn't become one of them. Too many people - Bill Enders, for example, who leads the runs from Monterey - need this event to help supplement the community chest and to benefit charities like the Protect Our Kids Foundation. And too many good, altruistic people ride to these events for their many good causes to have them stopped.