They're the mild ones, kickin' tires and quotin' Scripture. Christian biker gangs eat a lot of Big Macs and dust as they ride their Harleys and Hondas for Jesus.
November 18, 1990
Text by David Handelman
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
They're the mild ones, kickin' tires and quotin' Scripture. Christian biker gangs eat a lot of Big Macs and dust as they ride their Harleys and Hondas for Jesus.
Bikers parading through Williams, Ariz., during the association's national rally.
Fonda: "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."
Hopper "That's a humdinger." "
HERE THEY COME! THROUGH THE SHIMMERY heat down the dusty desert highway, a thunderous roar warns of the imminent descent of dozens of motorcycles on Tusayan, Ariz., a previously peaceful hamlet near the Grand Canyon. Soon enough, the staggered double-barreled formation zooms into view, aimed right for the mall. Cars pull aside to let them pass; local moms quicken their pace, shooing kids safely inside stores. The bikers bring their machines to a halt in the parking lot, lining up rows and rows of their polished-chrome and pin-striped beasts in the summer sun.
It's lunchtime, and the gang splinters into separate packs to feast on the best Highway 64 has to offer. Four bikers from Independence, Mo., head for the local McDonald's. Inside, a kid with a bandanna and a Def Leppard T-shirt stares awestruck as the group waits in line, orders burgers and Filets-O-Fish, and takes seats at a Formica table. Before popping the lid off his container, one biker, Curtis Wood, turns to his companions with a gleam in his eye, saying, "Shall we?" Onlookers exchange uneasy glances.
The bikers shut their eyes and hold hands, as Wood speaks in a low voice "Thank you, Lord, for bringing us to this day, for our bodies, and for this food we are about to eat." And with a rousing "Amen;" four members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association chow down.
"AT THE COUNT OF THREE," HERB SHREVE commands into the microphone, "say where you're from." Wearing a windbreaker, Shreve, the founder and leader of C.M.A., the Hatfield, Ark.-based group with a membership of about 33,000, is conducting the opening service of the organization's 1988 national rally in a wedding-size tent at the Circle Pines campground in Williams, Ariz.
Under the gaze of three cameras, which will make videotapes for C.M.A. to sell in its quarterly newsletter, Shreve stands at a homemade podium and counts, "One, two, three." His congregants, sitting in folding chairs, all shout out their hometowns at once: the Good News Riders are here from Auburn, Wash.; the Victory Riders from Riverside, Calif; the Jesus Team from Wichita, Kan.; the Sierra Saints from Sonora, Calif.; the Son Crest Riders from Albuquerque, N.M.; the One Way Riders from Las Vegas, Nev., the Cruising Christians from Tucson, Ariz.
Lucille and Jean Pidcock, members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, spent their honeymoon eight years ago logging 9,500 miles on bikes.
The turnout is good for this four-day weekend - about 300 bikers. In fact, campground officials have had to clear away an additional area for C.M.A., which, to the dismay of the Christian bikers, is still full of rocks. The campsites here have been given out on a first-come-first-served basis. But at other C.M.A. rallies, the joke is, organizers have had to put Baptists up front because they can be counted on to bed down by eight o'clock, and Pentecostals in the back because they're the noisiest.
Many of the bikes sport customized, hand-painted Bible scenes or quotations like "Narrow 1s the Road That Leads to Life." In the shade of a pine tree sits the official trailer, where Roy Johnson from Levelland, Tex., is selling C.M.A. "goodies" - watches, belt buckles, caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts, golf shirts, patches, pins, license plate holders, suspenders and mud flaps all featuring the group's triangular insignia of two praying hands and a cross.
At the opening service, the almost exclusively white crowd looks as if it would not be out of place at a country-and-western bar (though few Christian bikers actually drink). Most are married couples in their middle years, some with children, a few even with dogs, notably a dachshund named Schnobbles and a schnauzer named Spice, who has logged 130,000 miles riding atop a sheepskin cover on his master's gas tank.
Shreve, an ordained Baptist minister, smiles, waiting for the noise and confusion to die down, then says: "We are going to get unity in here one way or another. One, two, three." Still more places are called out: Texas, Delaware, North Carolina, West Virginia, Oregon.
"I think it's hopeless," Shreve says. "Let's try this one more time. This time on three, tell me who saved you. One, two, three."
"JESUS!" booms the collective reply.
Bridget and Charity Vadner, sisters from Powder Springs, Ga., rode to the Christian bikers' rally with their parents, James and Karla, in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson.
Shreve does not look like an evangelist - or a biker. He has none of the polished slickness of the former, or the rough edges of the latter. At age 57, he is a soft-featured, slightly paunchy, silver-haired good ol' boy who could be easily mistaken for a retired farmer. In 1972, he was preaching at First Baptist Church in Cove, Ark., and worrying that his long-haired teen-age son, Herbie, seemed to be heading down the road to heathenism.
The elder Shreve had gone into preaching like his father before him, and he didn't have much interest in motorcycles. But to bridge the generation gap with Herbie, he bought two 450-cc Hondas, and the two of them took a long trip to the Pacific Northwest and Canada. The preacher enjoyed it so much that he started barnstorming solo to what he calls "secular rallies" - rowdy leather-jacketed get-togethers marked by drinking, fighting and general hell raising - where he noticed that "nobody was there to care about their problems."
Herb Shreve, the founder of the association, with his wife, Shirley. Shreve says God chose him to change the world of motorcycling.
After undergoing open-heart surgery in 1976, Shreve decided to resign his church, losing his salary and the parsonage he'd been living in with his wife, Shirley. He started borrowing money to go to biker rallies and save souls, holding services, distributing literature, witnessing tales of sin and winning converts. He'd head off with $60 in his pocket and come back four weeks later still with $60, so he figured God was smiling on him.
"He chose me, a man who had only been motorcycling for three years, to go out there and change the world of motorcycling," Shreve says. "And I didn't have any better sense than to believe I could do it."
Since then, Shreve's mission has taken him 600,000 miles across the country. And, with no membership drive other than a regular classified ad in American Motorcyclist and Road Rider magazines, Shreve has built C.M.A. into a 321-chapter network with an annual operating budget of $350,000. The money comes from merchandising, donations and special fund-raising events. C.M.A. is overseen by eight roving evangelists, each of whom is provided with a bike and a starting salary of $20,000 to minister to different regions of the country. Shreve himself earns an annual income of $28,500.
"C.M.A. has succeeded in doing something that nobody else has," Shreve says. "We've got a lot of people who feel unwanted in churches. I believe that God has an army, and they are riding Gold Wings and Harleys. We let the privates ride the Hondas, and the generals ride the Harleys."
Shreve's once-renegade son, Herbie, now 34, is himself one of the generals. Each summer, Herbie, his wife, Diane, and their four children spread the word of God via Harley, Moto Guzzi and sidecar. "We're not some super saints driving down the highway, changing lives everywhere we go," says Herbie, who is tan and boyish in the Jeff Daniels manner. "Riding bikes in the heat and rain keeps you pretty humble. You know, Jesus rode a donkey."
THESE DAYS, DRIVERS on America's interstates are more likely to pass gangs of bikers like Herb and Herbie Shreve than the drug-dealing long-hairs depicted in "Easy Rider." The cartoonishly extended, no-frills choppers that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode to their deaths in that film are now practically museum pieces. Since 1974, when Honda first introduced its snazzy, option-packed, 1,000-cc Gold Wing tour bike, the sport of motorcycling has trickled up to staid suburbanites.
In place of the hell-bent godless unwashed is the new breed of rugged but God-fearing citizen who keeps his bike immaculate and can be seen taking it on "pie runs." These days, it's no big surprise to see five or six middle-aged couples cruising the speed limit on heavy, sculptured, multi-compartment, computerized vehicles that cost more than $10,000 apiece, talking to each other over in-helmet intercoms and CB's and listening to Jimmy Swaggart tapes.
Instead of the pants motorcycle outlaws wear, called "originals" - which Dr. Hunter S. Thompson described in his 1966 book "Hell's Angels" as Levi's dredged in urine, dung and crankcase drippings - the new American biker is more likely to be outfitted in Perma-Prest.
And some of the most vivid examples of these tamer incarnations of "The Wild Ones" can be found among the members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association. Christian bikers fall mostly into two categories: the preacher's kid who finally cut loose and bought a motorcycle, or the outlaw who drove so close to death it instilled the fear of God.
WHOA! DON'T TOUCH Travis Lee's bike when it's parked. It would set off a burglar alarm that pages his beeper wherever he is. You can only trust in the Lord's protection so far when your pin striping is real 14-karat gold.
"It and the trailer, I got $27,000 in," says Lee, a chemical engineer from Taft, Calif. He carefully polishes his limited edition fuel-injected 1985 Gold Wing. "Everything has been chromed - the cylinder valve covers, the forks, the cowling."
Lee, 53, has a gray mustache and a military bearing. His C.M.A. T-shirt matches that of his wife, Joanne. Though he has a company car, he uses it only to drive around his hometown. In fact, he and Joanne once tried a trip to the coast by car, but after an hour they were so bored they turned back and got the motorcycle instead. Little surprise that he puts 15,000 miles a year on it.
"You get a lot better smell than in the car," Lee says. "The trees, the grass, new-mown hay and things like that" He proudly deciphers the dizzying array of buttons, controls and displays on the Gold Wing's dashboard and handlebars. There's an altimeter, an atmospheric thermometer; an automatic air compressor to adjust the shocks; a hidden radar detector; a clock with a map of the United States that registers changes in time zones; a CB and radio-cassette stereo that adjusts automatically to the noise level of the ride.
"This bike cruises all day at 90 and 100 miles an hour if you want it to," Lee says. "But we usually run around 75 to 80. I hope the bikes don't get no bigger. New ones are four inches longer, 80 pounds heavier. They're too bulky, they get less gas mileage. Pretty soon you might as well put two more wheels on it and make it a car."
Lee got his first bike at 18, because he couldn't afford a car. "I thought bikers were all Hell's Angels. But I knew I wouldn't be like that, because I was saved when I was 14." He discovered C.M.A. in 1985, and has been biking wholesomely with the Bakersfield chapter ever since.
A few years back, the Lees were riding their 1985 Honda in Arkansas, looking at the scenery. Spotting a deer on the side of the road, Travis missed seeing a van up ahead taking a left turn, and he hit it going 55.
"It pulled my left arm off," he recalls. "I had five hours' surgery to put it back. Joanne had broken ribs, pelvis, bruised heart, kidneys. The Lord was looking over us, though. I can still pull the clutch handle with that arm!"
AAAIIIIIEE! HOMER LOWRANCE is in pain. Cruising down the road from Sedona, Ariz., on his Yamaha - no hands on the handlebars - the burly 49-year-old Lowrance is carrying his infant son, Kelly, in a Snugli; Kelly has just woken up and is tugging the hairs on his father's barrel chest. Riding behind them is Lowrance's third wife, Baxanne, 36, a small, bony former dental hygienist who has red hair, freckles and a downturned mouth. Baxanne is on a small Kawasaki 454 with their son Kory, 7, who's clasping her from behind.
Prying Kelly's fingers free, Lowrance leads his family off Interstate 40 to the Circle Pines campground, where they settle around a picnic table. Wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with the Pepsi logo but with the word "Jesus," husband and wife recall the rocky road that led them to C.M.A.
Homer had once owned two topless clubs in Lubbock, Tex., and had ridden with a gang out of San Antonio called the Grim Reapers. "He was about as hard-core as they come," Baxanne says.
One night, one of Homer's partners, who'd been drinking, took a shot at their other partner, trying to scare him. "It went out the back of his head," Homer says. "He died."
Homer watched as the gunman and two accomplices took off with the body in the trunk of their car. They tried to set the car on fire, but managed to burn only the front. "That's how dumb drunk they was," Homer recalls. "They went down the road 50 feet, took their bloody clothes off and started burning them in the dark on the side of the road. The highway patrol seen 'em.
"I was with them at the bar, so I spent a month in jail. Then I turned state's evidence against the guy. He died, but I got entangled with his family and they tried to blow me away a couple of times. That's why I left Texas."
The baby starts to cry, and Homer falls silent, staring out at the passing traffic.
"But tell what happened," Baxanne urges, rocking Kelly back to sleep. "What brought you to your knees?"
"I lost everything," Homer says. "I weighed 400 pounds and…"
"He was stuck in himself," Baxanne interrupts in her Texan twang. "Watching TV, and he was so overweight, he was abusing his body. I kicked him out. Of course, I was doing some things, too."
"You was no angel, dear," Homer says wearily.
"Anyway," she continues,"two days later he got on a bike and was going to kill himself. In Santa Fe there's a street with a hairpin curve called Agua Fria that is famous for killing bikers. He hit that doing about 100 and went up in the air, but the bike righted itself and came back down. So he had angels looking out for him."
Today, the Lowrances manage a trailer park. "You know," Homer says, "the image of biking has a lot to do with the movie media. Almost every movie that was ever put out about bikers, you get a young kid who can afford his first bike, and the first thing he's looking for is free love and beer - status stuff. I can't say I'm a teetotaler; if it's hot enough I'll drink a beer or two. But I haven't gotten drunk in years. Speeding - that's my sin."
"Yeah, we confess," Baxanne chimes in. "I repent but I can't for very long. It's an incurable sin. It's not because you're trying to break the law. It's just that bikes don't run at 55."
Homer remembers being raised so strictly in the customs and teachings of the church that he rebelled. Baxanne, whose mother and father were both alcoholics, says she was so ignorant of religion, she confused Christmas and Easter. Both their parents' marriages ended in divorce.
"When I was growing up," Baxanne says, "my hero was Jim Bronson," of the 1969-70 adventure series "Then Came Bronson." "I used to watch him ride that bike from town to town through all that beautiful country, and it was so free. He just went around and helped people. He didn't have to worry about anything. No entanglements. There is a sense of control. Everything can be falling down around you, and you get on a motorcycle and somehow it takes all of you - your sight, your sound, everything physical. And when you come back, you feel you're in control of things again."
Eight years ago, Baxanne was saved in a church in Bixby, Okla. "When I walked in,', she says, "I felt something that I never had at home growing up, and that was love. Like somebody had put a cloak of love around me. It just broke me into tears. I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried. I was out of control. Homer said: Why are you crying? This is embarrassing me."
"You know," Homer says, "as little as she is, and as big as I am, they thought I was standing on her foot."
EVENING FALLS OVER ANOTHER service under the big tent, with Herb and Herbie Shrove tag-preaching about honoring wives. Donations totaling $189,000 - accumulated from the biking event "Run for the Son" - are presented to representatives from the Netherlands-based Open Door Ministries and to Missionary Ventures, a group that buys and maintains motorcycles for proselytizing preachers in Guatemala, Nicaragua and India.
Afterward, with tables lit by lanterns, there is much witnessing and sharing tales of salvation late into the night. Some campers are more gung-ho Christian than biker, some the opposite. Some are just happy to have a clean-cut, cheap way to spend the weekend - $3.50 a day to C.M.A. members.
After their marriage eight years ago in Las Vegas, septuagenarians Jean and Lucille Pidcock of Yuma, Ariz., spent their honeymoon logging 9,500 miles on motorcycles. But for this trip they brought a car and trailer with them. "At our age," Jean says, "you go 50 miles on a bike and your bottom gets tired."
Some attendees are trying out C.M.A. after frustrating experiences in other biker groups. Buz Dougherty, a hulking, shaved-headed Harley rider, used to ride with the Henchmen out of Chicago "We did arms and drug deals before Peter Fonda had pubic hair," he says with a laugh.
Dougherty, a Vietnam vet, was a P.O.W. for 5 years, and an outlaw for 17. Now he's
registered to vote and has served jury duty. But he still loves to ride. "If there were no fences and roads, I'd probably own a horse," he says. "I like the freedom of being able to go where you want and not having to stick to that black ribbon out there."
THE LAST DAY OF the weekend, 145 bikers assemble at the campground entrance for a parade through downtown William a circular one-way loop around a few restaurants, fast-food joints and stores. Everyone gets on Channel 1 of the CB with Harley riders cracking jokes about Honda riders, and vice versa. A police escort shows up, and the procession rumbles to as much life as 10 miles an hour will allow. Uplifted by the sight of their impressive ranks, the Christian bikers let out a steady stream of "Praise God" over their CB's.
The locals come out to wave and honk. One trucker is overheard saying "See all them bikes? There's cops with 'em. I think they busted the whole gang."
The parade lasts about a half-hour, then everyone heads cheerfully back to the campground.
As things wind down, C.M.A.'s evangelists help raise money by posing with their wives and bikes for snapshots taken by assorted members. This makes up for the previous day's rainout of a fundraising water-balloon toss at them - $1 per evangelist, $2 for one at Herb or Herbie Shreve, "and 50 cents for one tossed at a wife," Herb says with a smile.
Meanwhile, near the campground office, a handful of C.M.A. children are being entertained by a puppet show espousing Christian morals. "Does anyone have anything to be thankful for?" one puppet asks the audience in a high-pitched voice.
"Yeah," a boy says. "My gum." And he pulls a wad out of his mouth to prove it.
Soon, it's time to depart. There's a final service, in which Herb Shreve arranges rides for the few who came without bikes, and Herbie leads a still energetic group in hymns. Then trailers are packed, tents taken down and engines revved.
The last few stragglers hang around the campground commissary for some coffee and burgers. Among them are Homer and Baxanne Lowrance and their children. Before eating, Baxanne sits holding hands with Homer and Kory, and prays. "Thank you, Lord, for this meal," she says. "And protect us from the idiots on the road."
David Handelman is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone based in New York.