story and photography by G.P. Garson
Two rules of thumb when traveling to new territory: One, the fastest way to learn the lay of the land and all the riches it has to offer is to literally let your fingers do the walking. But dress them in comfortable shoes. The Yellow Pages is a cornucopia of information. Bike shops, pizza parlors, the nearest laser tattoo removal shop—all those things that might come in handy after you’ve clicked your heels three times and found yourself plopped down in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die.” And no, they didn’t steal the phrase from Bruce Willis’ latest flick of the same name. But Bruce, you need to give New Hampshire the credit. The motto is well deserved. For example, no motorcycle helmet is required if you’re over 18. In fact, if of the same age, you don’t even have to wear your seatbelt in a car. It’s up to you. And just to be clear, that state motto is “Live Free or…” not Live Free and….”
For those of you who have been paying attention, at the outset I said two rules of thumb and no doubt you’re waiting for the pay-off. The Second Rule of Thumb is don’t buy a leather biker jacket over the Internet from Yemen for $14 and then get caught in a Laconia rainstorm. Actually, that’s not it. The Second Rule, for the purpose of reconnoitering a newly arrived destination, is to immediately drop by the local Wal-Mart. And yes, you’ll always find one. You might remember they even tried to convince the Egyptians to let them build one in Cairo in the shadow, and thus cooler side, of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
About as large, this particular Wal-Mart happened to be near Laconia, New Hampshire, home to the 83rd Laconia Bike Week. Or is the 84th? Someone at the Laconia event HQ said that next year, being the 85th, would be the lollapalooza of all Laconias. In any case here I was at the 80-something Laconia Bike Week, one that had previously drawn up to 200,000 participants, and while talking to Cheryl at the camera section of Wal-Mart where I was puzzling over a polarizing lens for my camera, I received my first introduction to what Laconia was all about. It’s got some serious history going for it. Said Cheryl, “Thirty years ago I used to hitchhike rides with bikers rolling in for the party. In those days, before the riots, they used to let you camp all along the roadways leading into town. Usually you had to pop a wheelie to be allowed to join in. Every Bike Week I’d go hitch a ride with a biker and every Bike Week my parents would find out and give me a whooping. But like they say, no pain, no gain.”
I was about to point out a page in the Yellow Pages I was carrying, one with the laser tattoo removal place, but I figured Cheryl still had fond memories of “Knucklehead Nick,” his named etched inside a squiggly red heart on her shoulder.
As I paid for the polarizing lens, intent on catching the brilliant blue sky and candy cotton clouds floating over Laconia now that the sun had returned, Cheryl added the parting advice, “Just head for Weirs Beach. That’s where all the action is.”
Stifling an urge to ask, “Uh, where’s Weirs Beach,” I simply said thank you and once outside consulted the map thoughtfully contained in my Yellow Pages. After getting my bearings I stuffed it back into the multipocketed fishing vest I always wear on photojournalistic assignments, strung my Pentax around my neck and flipped down the side panels of my surplus Afrika Korps cap. Bring on the bikes. And the babes. And maybe a root beer. Yes, Laconia has matured into a kinder, gentler Bike Week suitable for all members of the family.
Bottom line, Laconia is all about the bikes and the people who ride them, always unique as a fingerprint and ready to prove that Man (and Woman) is indeed a social animal. And motorcycles—of all shades, sizes and displacements—are nature’s perfect conversation starter.
By the way, New Hampshire is famous for its maple syrup, Dartmouth College and the character of President Bartlett played by Martin Sheen on TV’s West Wing series, who was supposedly from the state.