Saturday afternoon, blue skies and sunshine punctuated a sea of black leather along Seawall Boulevard between the historic pleasure pier and Hotel Galvez as the Lone Star Rally, an annual event estimated to bring tens of thousands of motorcyclists and other visitors to the island, kicked into high gear.
The ground rumbled as big bikes revved in circles around the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd meandering past vendors’ booths on foot. From time to time along the creeping human promenade, a crack between two tents offered a view of churning seas across the seawall.
On the sidewalk just outside Chick-fil-A, two petite Asian men dressed in saffron-colored silk clothes, their heads shaved and covered with orange knit caps, watched intently as the rally unfolded before their eyes. Apparent Buddhist monks, they spoke no English, but their faces told a story of wondrous disbelief over what they’d stumbled upon.
A couple in studded leather chaps walked by holding hands and the woman, her blue-streaked hair gleaming, nodded at the two men and quietly intoned, “Namaste.”
All around, rows of motorcycle amenities, motorcycle accessories and motorcycle necessities vied to catch shoppers’ eyes.
A carnival atmosphere prevailed at 23rd Street and the seawall where a man hung from a horizontal bar, his feet lifted off the ground. “Hang for 100 seconds, win $100,” the sign above him proclaimed and a crowd watched as a digital clock ticked down.
“How long?” he yelled.
“Fifty-eight seconds!” the crowd yelled back.
“I’m going to make it to 68,” he said, clenching his teeth, arms trembling, palms slipping.
At 67.8 seconds, he fell to the ground and the crowd groaned as another beefy biker stepped up to take his turn on the bar.
At the other end of 23rd Street, up and down The Strand and its side streets, a similar scene emerged as rally-goers shopped and strolled, ate and drank, high-fived and back-slapped along rows or ornate turn-of-the-last-century buildings, a massive cruise ship docked just a block away, towering over it all in true Galveston-style.
Paul and Theresa Fabiano of Florida sold steel biker jewelry and club rings from their pop-up tent on 25th Street, Debria’s Designs. Rows and rows of silver skulls, steel chains and other ornaments glittered and swayed in the breeze.
“We’ve been to 37 rallies this season,” Theresa said. “Next week, we finally go home.”
The Lone Star Rally is one of the biggest on their circuit, she said, and was the most eventful this year after Tuesday night’s windstorm knocked down her pop-up tent and most others on the row adjacent to it, leaving a mess of twisted metal and sending vendors out to area Walmarts, Home Depots and Academy stores frantically searching for replacements before the rally opened Thursday.
“It happens,” Theresa said, her hand hovering over what she said are the best-selling designs from this year’s line of biker rings — Deplorables, a silver skull with a gold cap; the Second Amendment ring; and The Punisher, a Marvel Comics character.
Along the street, a pedestrian mall of biker garb: jackets, vests, chaps, bags and gloves. One pair on display spelled out HARD CORE in rhinestones across the knuckles of two hands.
Hand-made knives with beveled and engraved blades were displayed next to hand-tooled cowboy boots sporting custom biker designs.
Many vendors sold Gremlin Bells, also called Guardian Bells, a piece of biker culture little-known to neophytes wandering among them.
According to legend, these small silver bells, attached to a motorcycle somewhere close to the ground, catch evil road spirits and gremlins that cause mechanical problems.
“The cavity of the bell attracts these Evil Spirits, but the constant ringing drives them insane and they lose their grip and fall to the ground,” a tag on one vendors’ Gremlin Bells read. “Have you ever wondered where potholes come from?”
Inhaling, one could easily imagine being at a county fair with the scents of funnel cakes, corn dogs, beer and barbecue mingling in the bedazzled air. One peculiar smell, however, marked the difference: cigars. No less than three booths sold stogies and fingerless-gloved hands at nearly every intersection clutched a smoking brown stump. At the Havana Alley Cigar Lounge over on 26th Street, business was hopping, the street and parking lot lined with glimmering bikes.
A biker sucking on a stogie hitched a leg across his ride, eased off the kickstand and glanced toward the harbor, then toward Broadway. Silver-haired with a silver beard and bushy silver eyebrows, he pulled on a helmet, took one big puff of his cigar and eased onto the street, pipes building to a loud bellow as he made his way south toward the Gulf, joining the swell of bikes and bike sounds enveloping the island.