By Scott May Photos by: Danny, Reaper, Louis, & Abel
Despite months of challenges, controversies and conflicts, surrounding the relocation of the annual Salute to American Veterans Rally to Winter Park, the 2007 event proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the aim of the Rally is true and strong.
The overwhelming feedback given to Quick Throttle Magazine, the Rally Committee, and Pro Promotions was that of pure respect, admiration, and thanks for a job well done.
Debbie Quackenbush, founder of American Military Family (www.AMF100.org) said, “I wanted to extend my personal congratulations and thanks to each of you on behalf of all at AMF for allowing us to participate in this years Salute to Vets Rally. You all did an exceptional job and we were all privileged to be a part of this year’s festivities. The amount of hours, time and money put into this event is beyond comprehension, but you need to know that you reaped the benefit of all of your hard efforts. It was an exceptional event and heartfelt Congratulations are in order to all of you!”
A major component of the decision to move the Veterans Rally to Winter Park was the questionable economic viability of the event stated by the town fathers at the Rally’s former venue. Bottom line attitude: “Bikers don’t spend much money.” Quick Throttle Magazine received this letter forwarded from the owners of the Gasthaus Hotel and Restaurant in Winter Park, originally printed in the Winter Park Manifest:
“First off, I think that there is a misconception on ‘bikers.’ Being that Rene and I ride Harleys we have learned a lot about individuals who ride motorcycles. Our business (during the rally), both in the hotel and in the restaurant, were the best ever. Those staying with us spent money, not on beers per say but on fine cognacs, wines, etc. Those dining in the restaurant for lunch and dinner didn’t dine on burgers; they ate steaks, salmon, venison, etc.
We were grateful to have so many guests and could hardly stay on top of the business.
The majority of our guests thanked us for having the event in Winter Park. They were grateful for the hospitality that was displayed and mentioned on many occasions that they are looking forward to coming back next year.
We were honored to have guests from RE/MAX corporate who also voiced so many positive comments I can honestly tell you that this was the best event for the Gasthaus since we purchased the business in 2003 and so look forward to having it again next year!”
Indeed, while some local businesses praised the economics of the Rally and some said they expected to do better than they did, every single business owner we spoke to loved the event and was looking forward to 2008.
The Salute to American Veterans Rally seems to finally have a solid foundation in a welcoming community. In an article written for a local Fraser Valley newspaper, Winter Park resident Stephanie Miller shared her sentiments about the Veterans event:
“Last weekend, the Fraser Valley transformed into a different town.
It was a sea of black leather, American flags and motorcycles.
The whole weekend impressed me. Friday I volunteered at the Traveling Wall in Fraser, where I helped a few visitors and locals find names on the 400-foot-long wall. The look of that black wall, stretched out across the green grass at the Fraser ball fields, is unforgettable. And when the Chinook landed in the middle of the field that day, it was an awesome sight. That twin-engine helicopter looked to me like a house with propellers. I’m pretty sure my eyes were as wide as the 6-year-olds cheering next to me as it circled the field and landed right before us.
That same day I was fortunate enough to interview a soldier who had just gotten home from Iraq. He has a wife and a 4-year-old son – he was stationed in Iraq when his son was born. The soldier, Michael, was visiting the wall, walking with crutches, along with his very happy wife (who told him he was not allowed to go back to Iraq anymore).
He showed me where the bullets from an AK-47 entered his body, and the shrapnel that was still imbedded in his skin. He received two purple hearts for his bravery, but he was so humble, he stared down at the ground after I shook his hand and thanked him. He said he was just doing his job.
Then Saturday arrived, and I joined some friends in Fraser to watch the memorial ride go by. We sat in our chairs and waved our American flags, and as the streams of veterans and riders rode by, they waved or gave an affirmed nod. Most of the riders looked cheerful; some looked as if they’d been to hell and back. What they must have been through, I could only imagine. Since I knew traffic was going to be slow that afternoon, I decided to ride my mountain bike into Winter Park. I rode by the wall in Fraser, which was packed, and then by the Crooked Creek, where the smell of barbecue from the outside smoker almost brought me to a stop. A few riders and veterans stood outside, talking, giving me some idea of what I was about to see.
But I had no idea what to expect. When I drove past the Winter Park Pub, it was as if I’d entered another town. The first thing I noticed was the American flag waving high above Main Street, and the line of cars passing underneath. Then I had to get off my bike and walk, because the sidewalks were packed. Pretty soon, I felt like a stranger in my own town – only I couldn’t stop smiling. There were vendors everywhere, selling T-shirts, leather jackets, motorcycle boots, helmets…I suddenly became painfully aware of the shiny, blue bike helmet on my head, and realized I stood out like a sore thumb – me, a mountain biker, standing in the “mountain bike capital of the world,” feeling like a visitor. It was awesome.
I watched the veterans, walking along the sidewalks, laughing and stopping by booths. The streets were aligned with rows of Harley-Davidsons, and there was music blasting at Hideaway Park – I heard one guy talking on his cell phone, decked out in black leather, telling his friend he swears Bob Seger was playing at the park.
Then I walked by two older veterans, and heard one of them look at my bike and say, “That’s the quietest Harley I’ve ever seen.” The town that day was full of energy. I saw quite a few police, who all seemed to be smiling and chatting with visitors. I spoke with one veteran who told me he’d been deployed all over the world, but he has never met such friendly cops in his life. He and his friend agreed the Fraser Valley was a great place to be – everyone was so friendly and appreciative, they said. They felt welcomed, and hoped they could do it all again next year. I hope so too.
As I rode back home, I noticed some local business weren’t exactly booming. Many business owners said later they expected more customers that weekend – many of them overstocked, and some didn’t even break-even. But no one was complaining too loudly. The Veterans Rally, after all, was about the veterans. It was about honoring those who have served for our country, in wars past and present. As we sleep safe in our beds at night, thousands of soldiers are still out there, risking their lives, shrugging it off because ‘it’s their job.’ We should always honor the sacrifices they have made. I happened to turn my head toward Main Street as I rode by the Crooked Creek, and watched a group of veterans ride by on their motorcycles. One of the veterans was leaning back on his Harley-Davidson low rider; he looked so cool as his long, grey hair blew in the breeze, a look of peace on his tanned, weathered face. It was one of those sights that will be etched in my mind for a long time.
Yeah…I really hope they come back. Thanks to those who helped make the Veterans Rally happen – it really was a great way to end the summer.”
Next, Colorado State Representative Al White, House District 57 said:
“I have never been so proud of the Fraser Valley as I was this past weekend. I have lived here for 35 years, and believe the events we sponsored were the best happenings to come to the Valley…ever!
Huge kudos to all those involved in making it happen, the towns of Winter Park and Fraser, their boards of trustees, and the Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce and their board of directors, and employees. It was a job very well done.
I also thought the traveling wall, and the ceremony honoring veterans and servicemen and women were very moving, and timely. As support for the war in Iraq dwindles, we must remind ourselves that regardless of our views on that issue, it is our duty, and our sacred honor to support and appreciate the sacrifices made by the brave men and women who have been sent on our behalf.
We can never again let our political judgment of a war’s popularity (or lack thereof) cloud our perspective of those who have gone to answer the call. Those of us who are old enough well remember the public disdain and derision that was heaped upon our returning Vietnam veterans. We must swear to one another, never again will we dishonor those who serve.”
Finally, allow me to include a few of my own memorable highlights. Hearing the story of the incredible heroism displayed in Vietnam by Medal of Honor Recipient Mike Thornton, and then getting to meet the man in person. The boom of the F-16’s, the MIG-23 and the DeHavilland Venom jet as they passed over low and hot. Listening to American ex-POW Tom Kirk tell the story of his 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton and feeling the chills run through my body.
The standing ovation given to the wounded soldiers recently back from Iraq. The faces of the Gold Star Families as Marine Corps Lt. Col. Steve Beck talked about their sons. The chop of Chinook and Kiowa helicopters as they landed just outside town. The feeling of loss as we stood in front of the Vietnam Wall and realized what 58,000 names really looked like.
If you attended the 2007 Salute to American Veterans Rally, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you did not, best make your plans now for 2008. This event is unlike any you will ever attend. Period.