On a chilly Sunday morning in mid-May, packs of leather-clad bikers descend on a field at the outskirts of the municipal airport in Baldwin, Michigan. From the hum of distant engines becoming a thunderous roar to the skull-print face masks and black balaclavas the motorcyclists wear to block the unseasonable cold—all of it evokes some portentous scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. But instead of a future desert wasteland, the setting is a drab midwestern winterscape. What at first look like flower petals falling from trees are actually snowflakes slowly drifting through the air.
I roll up in the furthest thing from a tricked-out Harley-Davidson: a 2004 Nissan Sentra that broke down twice during the 260-mile trip from Chicago and has a bumper that for years has been held on by duct tape. My ride feels especially ignoble on a day like today. Still, I'm not the only person who rode in on four wheels. Dozens of other cars, trucks, and RVs are parked outside the makeshift gates. But beyond the fence, it's all about the bikes—hundreds of them in all types: cruisers, choppers, roadsters, crotch rockets, and pimped-and-preened custom numbers, including a beastly machine hauling a motorboat and a gleaming black trike pulling a trailer containing a casket draped with an American flag (because . . . #supportourtroops?).
The bikers have come to this sleepy little town in northern Michigan from all over the midwest and as far as California for the annual Blessing of the Bikes. A banner hanging over downtown Baldwin's main drag, Michigan Avenue, greets those present to the "original" blessing of the bikes. Never mind that the quotation marks around "original" call the claim into question, the sign speaks the truth: While many similar events have popped up in other cities and states, the first Blessing of the Bikes first took place here in 1972.
The story goes that eight riders on four bikes took a trip up from Grand Rapids to Baldwin with the goal of helping out the folks of Lake County, the poorest county in the state. As a gesture of thanks, the local priest offered them a blessing for a safe riding season. More bikers returned the next year, and attendance at the rally grew exponentially, eventually turning into a full weekend of group rides, vendors, a chili cook-off, concerts, camping, and plenty of partying. Now thousands of bikers attend the weekend festivities before the Sunday event, though the actual numbers vary wildly depending on whom you ask: "We've had over 20,000 people during peak years"; "definitely upwards of 30,000"; "an estimated 40,000 bikers were in attendance once," et cetera.
It's a different story out at the airport, where the average number of yearly attendees is closer to 2,500. Today, organizers speculate it's something more like 1,500, which nonetheless is an impressive congregation of chrome and cowhide and riders from all manner of clubs, including the Christian Motorcyclists Association. "This year's turnout isn't great," says Carl Huey, a man standing at the entrance dressed in head-to-toe leather, including a vest covered in patches (pretty much the event's standard uniform). He's the sergeant at arms of Para-Dice, the motorcycle club from Grand Rapids that has organized the Blessing since its inception. "There were years where we'd have 5,000 bikes—a line of 'em stretching down the road for miles, waiting to come in," Huey says. "But I think the weather is keeping people away."
Huey is perturbed by the fact that a lot of folks come into Baldwin for the parties and to shop from the downtown vendors that sell patches, concealed-carry purses, skull-themed jewelry, and leather everything, but then never make it to the bona fide Blessing of the Bikes. Don't get him wrong—he likes a good time. "Not everyone in our club is churchgoing," he says. "In fact, we sometimes describe it as 'an alcohol club with a motorcycle problem.' " But Para-Dice puts a lot of effort into making sure the event runs smoothly, and donates every cent of the $5 entry fee to the local senior center. The group also invites nonprofits from Lake County to set up inside the airport grounds to promote their organizations. "The bikers that stay downtown—they're missing out on a good cause," Huey says. "We do all this for the seniors."
On the Para-Dice Motorcycle Club Facebook page, a post advertising the event echoes this sentiment: "If your not on the airport on Sunday, your NOT at the 'BLESSING OF THE BIKES' . . . Your just spending the weekend in Baldwin!"
Shortly after noon, a band begins entertaining the assembled faithful. Behind the stage stands Lake County sheriff Dennis Robinson—who instead of hassling the motorcycle gangs does volunteer crowd control at the event every year alongside other members of his police force. While the Blessing is a very mellow family-and community-oriented event, Robinson says things get rowdier during the weekend carousing. "The craziest thing I've seen were some bikers at Sporty's [Pub and Grill] downtown riding straight through the bar," he says. Also memorable: the time someone brought an alligator to the Blessing. (Para-Dice has since initiated a strict "no pets" policy.) "The bikers here mostly police themselves," Robinson explains, a fact proudly reiterated by Huey and others. It's also what differentiates the Blessing of the Bikes from Baldwin's other big tourist event, Troutarama, a fishing contest that sees a few more annual arrests.
In a tower overlooking the sea of bikes, a 29-year-old guy who goes by Moose has just proposed to his girlfriend, Erica Nicholas, 27, who says her riding name is Jailbait. She's totally shocked—"I literally screamed!" Erica says later—but her answer is an unequivocal yes. The couple are members of Grand Rapids' American Sons Motorcycle Club, who sport green bandanas and jackets emblazoned with the association's mascot, Big Ol' Boar, a cartoon wild pig chomping down on a knife.
"You can't choose your family," Moose says. "But in our club, we get to choose our family. If someone's struggling with bills, we all pitch in."
"We'll watch each other's kids," Erica says. She and Moose are parents to a five-year-old named Gabriel. They plan to incorporate motorcycles into their wedding in some shape or form. "We're hoping it will be outdoors, and everyone can pull up to the venue and park their bikes right there," Moose says.
Up onstage, Saint Ann's Praise Band has started in on a rousing version of "I Saw the Light," then Father Ron Schneider, also of Baldwin's Saint Ann Catholic Church, takes the mike for the main event. The tan, silver-haired sixtysomething is wearing a Hulkamania- esque red-and-yellow skull cap and pulls a brightly colored priest's stole out of his pocket that he drapes around his shoulders.
He thanks the crowd for being there. "You were a blessing to us long before we were ever a blessing to you," he says. When prompted, bikers across the wide expanse of field bow their heads, close their eyes, and stretch out their arms as the prayer begins:
"Good and gracious God, you know each one of these folks, you love and care for each one of them. We are so honored that they came to be here with us, to this little community in Lake County. . . . As they go down the road today and tomorrow and the next day, we ask that your spirit be at their backs, the wind at their backs, the sun on their faces. . . . We only ask one additional favor: that next year you make that wind a whole lot warmer!"
Laughter erupts. Later I catch up with Pastor Ron and ask him if the bikers believe that his blessing assures their safety. "I hope they think that's not all there is to it," he says with a grin. "They can't just leave here and be reckless." He concludes the prayer "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," then adds, "God, are you listening? They're gonna make a noise for you! Ladies and gentleman, start your engines!"
A heavenly chorus of revving motors fills the brisk air. It's the first time I've heard that sound in the context of community and solidarity, unrelated to some random act of machismo. This single moment, this roaring benediction, is probably what draws all these people here year after year. Before I head back to my Sentra, I notice the snow has subsided and the clouds have parted. And all across the Baldwin Municipal Airport, bikers are enjoying their moment in the sun. v