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Archive for Friday, September 3, 1999

BIKER GATHERING ROLLS ALONG UNADBATED

September 3, 1999

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— Perry Lake's annual biker bash has changed, and mellowed, with the years.

It will start with a single sighting -- one man on a stretched out Harley-Davidson, chrome gleaming in the sun, engine thundering even at idle.

Then there will be another with wife or girlfriend riding behind. Then a group of riders will pass by, men and women on motorcycles stretching out for what seems like a mile.

Before long, the area's highways will be invaded by mobile battalions of motorcycle riders making their way two-by-two to this year's ABATE of Kansas National Labor Day Rally at Perry Lake.

The four-day biker party starts at noon today. It is expected to draw 3,000 people to the peninsula known as Paradise Point across the lake from Ozawkie.

For attendees, the entry fee ($15 for ABATE members, $25 for non-members) will buy live music, uninhibited fun and a chance to party with old friends.

In its 24th year, the ABATE rally is becoming a more civilized event, many of its attendees having traded their pup tents for air-conditioned recreational vehicles.

"Like everybody else, we're getting older," said Weasel, an ABATE lobbyist who attended the first Perry Lake rally. "I can't sleep on the ground any more."

Weasel -- like Cher and Madonna, he is known by just one name -- has seen the gathering evolve, mostly for the better.

The original gathering in 1976 included about 50 members of the newly formed ABATE of Kansas, the first state branch of a national group, known then as A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, formed to fight motorcycle helmet laws. The group has since changed the meaning of its acronym to mean American Bikers Aimed Toward Education.

Fueled by coverage in national magazines such as Easy Rider, it grew to a massive gathering of motorcyclists drawn by unlimited "beverages" for a single price. The attendance peaked in 1984 at 6,500 riders.

The nature of the party changed in 1987 when the "all-you-can-drink" tradition was made illegal.

"It did not break our hearts," Weasel said of the change.

Too much drinking and driving in the hilly, lakeside area where the event had been held made accidents, including fatalities, far too common, Weasel said.

"The ambulance would come about five times a night," Weasel said. "Now maybe we call it once because someone tripped and fell down."

Organizers have built showers and brought in more food vendors to keep participants at the party rather than driving back and forth to nearby towns.

The rally moved in 1994 to its current location, 183 acres owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had closed the site to camping.

ABATE volunteers cleaned up and now maintain the property, an effort that has helped overcome an image problem the event and its participants had.

Nearby resident Jeanne Steffey remembers her fears when she heard the rally was going to be held just down the road.

Her previous brushes with rally-goers were intimidating drives past the old party site.

"It was rather ominous to see all of these bikers," Steffey said. "I'm not going to say the anxiety wasn't there."

Steffey said the reality has been very far from the image.

"These people have never once given us one bit of trouble," she said.

Steffey said the local Grange youth organization collects the aluminum cans from the event to raise money. Other local organizations also have raised funds by serving meals to the bikers.

Steffey said she is not naive to some of the more exhibitionist activities going on down the road.

"I know there is nudity out there," she said. "Life is life. That's their weekend to do their thing."

The new showers haven't eliminated the lakeside nude beach.

Nor have the other amenities cut down on the fun being had, said Betsy Gast of Lansing, the organization vice president.

"I have been known to kick up my heels," she said.

Gast and other group officials say they have found a permanent home for their annual party. They say their target is an annual attendance of 4,000 bikers intent on having the kind of good time only bikers have.

As Gast put it: "If I have to tell you what being a biker is about, you wouldn't understand."

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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