On the morning of Saturday, September 15th, 2018 my buddy Corvus and I headed to the Tomahawk Fall Veterans Ride & Rally in Northern Wisconsin.
This event is well known in Wisconsin, but I had avoided this event for years. Firstly: big rallys are not precisely my thing. I ride to be mindful, to think, to smell the world anew with no metal cage in between. To be quiet, to see stars. 4,000 bikers descending on a town that’s home to 3,000 permanent residents is not my usual thing. I had also avoided the event because my Wisconsinites consider the event to mark the end of the riding season. This seems pretty lazy to me: warm weather is brief and precious in Wisconsin, but I also have leather chaps, heated gear, and a touring bike with a fairing. I don’t put the bike away until there’s salt and ice on the roads.
I needed to get away, and to see if there was any chance I’d enjoy the bigger rallies like Sturgis or Daytona Bike Week. So I gave Tomahawk a try and the most popular way to do it seemed to be camping at Bubba’s Big Party.
We Rode Up
Many states suffer from being identified primarily based on a small number of well known areas. New York state is known for New York City, yet get out into the country away from Manhattan and you are in a different universe. So it is with Wisconsin: I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and I think of this state as Milwaukee and Madison and maybe Port Washington. Riding through the North Woods in September, though, I am reminded that less than 200 miles from home lies a world of pine forests, hundreds of lakes, and close-knit tiny towns. Were you to parachute blindfolded into the woods surrounding Tomahawk you’d be forgiven if you guessed you were in Northern Canada, Iowa, or really any remote area.
As we ride North away from Lake Michigan where it’s just slightly cooler during the day (and much cooler at night) the trees have just started turning. Every shoreline is a postcard, or at least a Leinenkugel’s commercial. When I think about buying land to wait out the Zombie Apocalypse (which is totally going to happen), I always think about something a little warmer like Kentucky or North Carolina. Maybe I need to give WI a chance.
Bubba’s Big Party
We arrived at Bubba’s campground and it was an unseasonably warm 90 degrees. Once we found out where to buy wristbands for the party and camping it only took us a few minutes to set up camp. Bubba’s campground is 180 acres and we went to the very outskirts of what was already populated. It may look like we’re camping in the middle of nowhere, but over my shoulder is at least 80 acres of tents and campers of all sizes.
I have slightly augmented my camping gear since I last went motorcycle camping. I have added a Thermacell setup and a heavy tarp. The 20mil 6’x8′ tarp is meant to both cover my tent & sleeping back on the bike but also serve as extra protection above or below in a real rain storm. The thermacell setup is a butane + neurotoxin setup that keeps mosquitoes away from you in a 15′ sphere but is not food safe since it’s blasting chemicals into the air. A 20mil tarp is pretty thick and does not fold easily but after a couple of tries I got my tent and sleeping bag neatly wrapped up in it. Add some Rock Straps to that and my bagger became a camper no problem.
Anyone who’s ever ridden with me knows I’m likely to get us lost. I ride to lose myself which is both a good and a bad thing. Good: sometimes we accidentally find cool shit. Bad: I space out, I miss turns, and with no visual GPS I generally make a mess of things. I had a chance to consider the performance of Corvus’ new 2019 Ultra Limited with the new 114ci Milwaukee Eight in it. Damn, I need to ride one. We sat down at a bar half an hour away in some random direction (West?) and after hanging out a while decided it was time for food.
We sat down at The Thirsty Giraffe because we’d passed it before and “Ribs, broasted chicken, and prime rib” sounded really good. You can also tell from the road that it’s on a little lake and there was seating out back. Northern Wisconsin in September can really be amazing.
We had a great meal here, especially the broasted chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. After a meal we checked out the vendors on site at Bubba’s, but I wanted a patch and they were out, so we headed downtown…
Having mostly done research online and word of mouth, I thought Bubbas party was the Tomahawk rally. Uhm, no. There are plenty of private parties during this event, and by all accounts the private parties are the way to stay, but the rally proper is downtown. If you’ve seen one Midwest Rally I suppose you’ve seen them all, but I never get tired of rows of bikes and live music. You can’t beat Northern Wisconsin prices either. Where else can you get get two cans of beer for $5 ?
If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know I try to collect a patch from every trip away from home. It took looking at quite a few vendors to find a Tomahawk 2018 patch and luckily they were also sewing them on there, so I didn’t need to do a drunken sewing job. Corvis decided he was going to start sewing memories on his vest that night. Despite being a life-long biker, he threaded his first mementos on that night.
Back to Bubba’s
We parked the bikes at the campground and headed to Bubba’s big tent. My music tastes are all over the place but I love live music so I had pre-determined I was going to have a good time at this party despite not being familiar with the bands (or so I thought).
The highlight of the night was a group called Little Texas. They were tearing it up, putting on a great old school country/rock show. When the lead singer said “Ok, now we’re going to play this song that was one of our first hits…” they rolled into something I somehow recognized. Sure enough, “What Might Have Been” is a song I grew up with. Wow! Just like you sometimes stumble onto a great watering hole when you get lost on the bike, I went to Tomahawk and stumbled onto a childhood memory from growing up in the South and absorbing my parents’ country music radio station. There was actually another band after Little Texas, and not that they weren’t good performers, but man it had to suck following this act.
I don’t put my bike away after the Tomahawk Fall Ride as many Wisconsinites do, but I’ll make this weekend every year I can swing it.
Since there were bikes coming and going at all hours of the night and I had a dozen cheap/watery beers I naturally didn’t sleep for shit since I was either woken up by baffles or pissing in the woods all night. We packed up fairly early and rode the 200-odd miles home. I came away with a new appreciation for the state I live in, and I got very nostalgic looking at the back of my vest at the Tomahawk 2018 patch I’d had sewed on the night before. I started riding in the late 90’s but I’ve only been collecting patches for a few years; I look at this vest and realize “Holy shit, that’s a lot of fun.” Each patch is a memory that helps me through the cold Wisconsin winters. I’ve got it good, and if things keep going on as they have been I’ll be able to look back and not be ashamed that my life lacked adventure. Get out there and get after it.