Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Resurrection On Spirit Lake

Tucked into the mountains and forests of the upper Idaho Panhandle is Spirit Lake, about 25 miles from a lake where I rendezvous with family each year.  One of 76 lakes within a 50-mile radius of Spokane, it too was one of my favorites when I helped jump-start the community-destination marketing organization (DMO) there in the 1970s.

A construction detour stopped me from seeing another Spirit Lake on one of my cross-country trips but now I have another reason to there.

That beautiful, glacier-sculpted section of the northern edge of Iowa, another “I” state, is now the home of Indian Motorcycles, which along with Victory Motorcycles is now owned by snowmobile-rooted Polaris Industries.

Spirit Lake, Iowa is roughly midway between Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Clear Lake, Iowa which was made famous by Don McLean’s song American Pie as the place The Day The Music Died in 1959, six months after my tenth birthday.

That’s the night when rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” Richardson were all killed in a light plane crash shortly after take-off in white out conditions when a wing tip caught the ground.

Coincidentally, two other personal favorites have connections to that tragedy.  Country-music legend Waylon Jennings played bass at the time for Holly and the other groups including Dion on the tour.  He gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson who was sick.

They were replaced on stage the following night by Bobby Vee, who as a 15 year-old was put on stage as a replacement at the next stop on the tour in Fargo, North Dakota along with a band of school-boys deemed The Shadows.

The Surf Ballroom where Holly, Valens and the “Bopper” had performed in Clear Lake the night they died held 1,100 for performances.  It was similar to three ballrooms frequented by and triangulating where my friend Harvey Schmitt grew up about an hour east.

Even seven years later, hugely-popular rock and roll bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Standells performed in ballrooms not much larger than the one in Clear Lake when I traveled from Idaho to northern Utah to see them at the Lagoon Patio Gardens on July 23, 1966.

I first became intrigued with Indian Motorcycles in the early 1980s when I completed the start-up process for another DMO, in Anchorage, Alaska.  There were stories that crates of unassembled P-36 fighter planes had been found in a ravine there after the war.

Even more intriguing, the friend who was the source of that information, Ken Taylor, had been one of the few to get off the ground in a fighter plane to defend against the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He also told me of a story that a crate of unassembled Indian motorcycles had been discovered in a cave on the Aleutian Islands many years after they had been hidden away during Japanese occupation during the war.

People often assume I take my frequent cross-country road-trips on my Harley-Davidson Cross Bones.  There are several reasons I don’t, the most significant of which is that I would miss the company of Mugsy, my English Bulldog.

It certainly isn’t out of the question, though.  In 1914, “Cannon Ball” Baker went coast to coast on an Indian motorcycle in 11 days to set a record at the time.  I can’t imagine doing more than 300 miles a day even on today’s roads but “Cannon Ball” was half my current age at the time.

Harley-Davidson has 55% of the heavyweight motorcycle market today compared to 5% for Indian and Victory combined.  Harley’s and Indians both date their heritage to 1901 when William S. Harley first drew up plans for a motorcycle, but Indian already had a prototype that same year.

However, neither was first.  That honor belongs to Daimer in 1885 with its gasoline powered Reitwagen, but Indians were already popular in Europe before and during World War I.  The US Army had used Harley’s in pursuit of Poncho Villa and used them extensively in World Wars I and II.

Indian motorcycles gradually became extinct after WWII while Harley became iconic.  British motorcycles were rebadged as Indians for a time.  And the use of motorcycles overall went into decline from the late 1970s through the 1980s.

Harley-Davidson found its way again and the brand took off in the 1990s.  The Indian brand was resurrected in North Carolina in the mid 2000s before being sold to Polaris in 2011.  It is good for Harley to have some “made in America” competition.

Indian has a historic edge when it comes to styling.  But for me, my preference for Harley is in its very distinctive sound.

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