(This article was published in the August 2006 issue of American Rider.)
Fifty-three years after Brando’s wild ride, we went looking for Johnny. You know, Johnny Strabler, the Triumph-riding sneer of a man with a too-cool swagger who, along with his black-jacketed Rebel Motorcycle Club, terrorized “Wrightsville,” the celluloid town featured in 1953’s The Wild One. Loosely based on a motorcycle dust-up of sorts in Hollister, California, in 1947, this movie became the touchstone for the disaffected, spiked black leather jacket sales, and mounted Johnny on a pedestal in our pantheon of motorcycle heroes—or rather, clichés.
Our search for this mythical character—hey, any excuse for a ride—began over lunch in Atascadero, south of Hollister, where editor Buzz, contributor Salvadori, and I laid no real plan and strictly avoided details; the ideal start to any two-wheeled venture. With his MapQuest-like memory for roads and locations, Clement led us north toward Hollister via back roads, hardscrabble towns, scant traffic, and with nary a Starbucks in sight—which troubled Buzzelli, who had a $25 Starbucks gift card in his wallet.
On the fringe of California’s agricultural heart, this inland arena is often overlooked by riders in favor of the coast’s spectacular Highway 1, but it holds miles of great riding roads. In particular, the 34 miles between Coalinga and the Highway 25 junction, and then north on 25 to Hollister, about 70 miles, will keep you occupied and entertained with its winding path. This year’s late winter filled surrounding hills and valleys with lush green and California poppies lending a nice accent. Though lightly traveled, the excellent quality two-lane roads can produce a bit of early morning and late-afternoon deer traffic, and an occasional wild pig. Formation-flying the big Harley FLs up Highway 25 reminded us—as if we needed reminding—just why riding a motorcycle on a great road ranks right up there with life’s grand pleasures.
Hollister, as an established town, has been around for almost 135 years. A no-nonsense burg that owes its existence to farming, it attracted the stolid sorts who worked the fields from first light to last glimmer. It’s no wonder that the motorcycle invasion of ’47 had the city fathers, and the approximately 8,000 residents, all atwitter (the bored youth of the day loved every second of it).
Today’s Hollister is pushing 37,000 in population and presents a decidedly schizophrenic face as the surrounding bedroom communities encroach on, and swallow up, the farmland. Our first clue that this is no longer Johnny’s town showed itself as Highway 25 entered the city’s edge. Walled enclaves of upscale housing politely tell those outside the wall that, one, we work in San Jose and, two, the only dirt we toil in grows herbs in our window boxes. New strip malls follow these homes with the ubiquitous green circle of the Coffee Culture proclaiming victory over the past, a victory Buzzelli was savoring as he flashed his Starbucks card.
Farther along we began to see signs of the Hollister that was; older, modest homes and buildings with construction dates actually predating the birth dates of their current residents. Central downtown is, let’s say, “charm challenged,” but marketing has stepped in and labeled it “historic.”
San Benito Street splits the downtown and is the locale of Johnny’s Bar & Grill, instantly recognized by a larger-than-life cutout of Johnny (nee Brando) fronting the place. Interestingly, San Benito Street isn’t the only thing splitting the town. Hollister sits directly atop the Calaveras Fault, each side of which is slowly creeping in opposite directions. Now that’ll be a real dust-up when The Big One hits!
When the 50th anniversary of the infamous motorcycle incident loomed in 1997, interests converged and the Hollister Independence Rally was staged to commemorate the half-century anniversary. This was largely the brainchild of that madman seat maker Mike Corbin. It was successful from the start (from an attendance standpoint) and has been held over the July 4 weekend every year since. Last year’s attendance was guesstimated at 100,000 and by official accounts succeeded at largely overwhelming the town’s infrastructure of motels, safety services, restaurants and porta-potties, the identical scenario as 1947.
Apparently Hollister never quite figured out how to profit sufficiently from this influx of riders. Law-enforcement costs had spiraled to the point where the California Highway Patrol and county and city police lent a thumbs-down to holding the event again this year. This resulted in the city council’s 3-to-2 vote to cancel the rally, despite Mayor Robert Scattini’s voiced support of the event. Countering Scattini is the San Benito county sheriff, Curtis Hill. He has referred to the rally as “a dirty, rotten, stinking event.” Johnny will not return this year.
Or will he? Large motorcycle events have a momentum that can be hard to stop. The Hollister Rally was an open, free event that offered little control over who showed up and in what numbers. This actually is the root of the problem, which can be laid out as an equation of sorts: No Gate = No Tickets = No Money. Most riders were unaware—or they didn’t care—that there was any city sanction or organizing group in the background. They just wanted to be there with the 99,999 other riders and, most certainly, have their picture taken in front of Johnny’s Bar & Grill. To them, nothing has changed, so why not return to Hollister?
Tom Horsfall and Charisse Tyson, the proprietors of Johnny’s Bar & Grill, obviously think the decision to cancel the rally is wrongheaded, and are actively promoting a non-rally rally for the coming July 4 weekend. The Internet is also active in getting something going, or rather, continuing it. Will another 100,000 riders show up? Naah, not even close to that, but certainly there’ll be a significant number of motorcycles on San Benito Street. Kinda the way Johnny Strabler and the B.R.M.C. would have liked it, unofficial and unorganized.
Those who do show in Hollister may not find the welcoming committee of years past, but the town is a good base for some interesting day trips. Head west on Highway 156 and about a dozen miles later you’ll hit San Juan Bautista, the home of Mission San Juan Bautista. Built in 1797, it is one of California’s 21 historic Spanish missions. The quaint little town itself actually has more character than Hollister—hey, let’s start a rally here.
Continue west from there, and in a very few miles, you can be riding the Monterey Peninsula to the south, or the roller coaster on Santa Cruz’s famed boardwalk to the north. Highway 1 connects these two, following Monterey Bay’s contour. The views along Monterey’s coast can be truly spectacular, particularly south of the city. If you opt to go north towards Santa Cruz, stop a while in Moss Landing, a working fishing village with a couple of excellent seafood restaurants, and a sheltered bay populated by lazy sea lions.
About 200 miles east, beyond Fresno, the Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park await visitors; beyond that lies Death Valley. And of course there’s Highway 25 to the south.
So what about our man Johnny? We found nothing more than his cutout in front of his namesake bar and, in fact, saw few motorcycles at all in Hollister. He wouldn’t recognize the town and probably would give it wide berth, opting for a place where he could actually find a parking spot and not set off alarms on Mercedes and SUVs while doing so. The odd thing about all of this is that a huge body of lore has grown around this happening, which was bent out of shape by an exploitation film featuring a mythic rider who has grown into a legendary figure. Odder yet, the mythic Johnny in many ways is more real than many of the two-wheeled celebrity bikers we’re assaulted by every time the tube is on. Johnny, we hardly knew ya, but we miss you.