Moto Guzzi Rally

A Pilgrimage for the Guzzi Faithful

By Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Photography by Joe Sokohl

I am at a gas station in northern Pennsylvania on one of the oldest highways in America doing what I love best: sitting on the curb eating a luggage-smashed sandwich in the company of the vehicle that brought me here. I am scribbling in a notebook a few of the 600-odd thoughts I’ve had during the past 140 miles (tank limit), and looking at my motorcycle; through it, also—air is its heart. A bike is both solid and insubstantial. I write that down. It’s a good metaphor for pretty much everything.

And it makes strange sense; I am heading for a gathering that is both as unlikely as chance and as absolute as blood: the 41st annual national Moto Guzzi rally in the Virginia foothills of the Shenandoah, Buena Vista.

Guzzisti are themselves a peculiar lot—a bit like their gorgeous, unrefined, air-cooled motorcycles, first conceived in 1920 by three World War I veterans of Italy’s Corpo Aeronautico Militaire and built in a village perched on the rocky shore of Lake Como. Guzzi riders are “independent thinkers.” An owner of one of Mandello del Lario’s output is most likely to retorque his own bolts, possibly wearing a tee that reads “Moto Guzzi: Going Out of Business Since 1921.”

I know motorcyclists who have never been to a rally, but I don’t understand them. A rally is a combination community barbecue, mutual need society, and tent revival. It is the usual ride, writ large: four days and hundreds of miles; four nights of beer, bourbon, mediocre potato salad, campfires, and campfire tales; 400 buddies, not four. We will meet whatever comes—pain or pleasure, or usually both—together. The banner hung from the park pavilion’s rafters proclaims a truth, “Moto Guzzi: A World of Friends.”

On the first day, I choose the back roads that my bike—a 1986 650cc Lario—prefers. I am traveling old-school with tent and sleeping bag strapped to the seat, paper maps, and a route sheet in the vinyl map pocket of my tankbag. I had to make a guess at the junction of Interstate 180 and, lo, it does not in fact run north-south as it does in my road atlas. OK, then, west. I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. I have never won the lottery, either.

But I chose correctly, in a way: the way of the journey. I have discovered an amazing road in Pennsyltucky. Route 74 from Port Royal to Carlisle exceeds every criterion the motorcyclist asks—little traffic, uncountable curves, and scenic surprise. That I had to go 100 miles out of my way to find it is no matter. I eat a quick meal in my motel room in Maryland as the friends I’m meeting return from their pub dinner. For some reason my notion of what constitutes excellent grub reverses itself on a motorcycle trip.

We are finally on the Blue Ridge Parkway the next morning, when Tom from Massachusetts drops out of sight in our rearview mirrors. We double back to find him at a scenic overlook—the main seal on his lovingly restored 1973 Eldorado had given way. It’s not a Moto Guzzi event without leakage.

Tom gets on the phone to a fellow 60 miles away who immediately agrees to come with a truck. Once at the rally, the Eldo trades places on another rallygoer’s trailer with his Norge. Tom would head home at the end of the weekend on a fully functional late-model machine; a kindness extended simply because both men had, one day, found the same object of an outwardly inscrutable affection.

As we pull into the rally grounds at Glen Maury Park, I see the tents massed along the treeline, the people moving back and forth between their sites and the bathrooms, the pavilion like Valhalla on the hill ahead, bikes passing us on the drive as they headed for ice or for a ride on the fabled roads of Virginia. Who might I meet again after years that would seem as moments? It was only later, after I had unpacked and unfurled the tent, that I even noticed the park was dominated by Paxton House, an imposing antebellum mansion. This gathering—from all corners of a united republic, of fans of a European motorcycle few have heard of—would be overseen by the ghost of a Confederate general.

In his honor, perhaps, or maybe just because they’re tasty, that night we enjoyed mint juleps by the light of tentside tiki torches. The next day we seek refuge from the excoriating heat (102 and counting) in a pool below Panther Falls, carefully negotiating three miles of steep, downhill gravel road. And that night, all hell broke loose.

After dinner someone walks over, smartphone in hand. “Folks, there’s a big storm headed our way—about 15 minutes.” The radar showed a dense green mass, mixed with angry yellow and orange, stretching from southern Ohio to Tennessee and moving east. Within 10 minutes, rallygoers had assisted everyone in battening down tents and bringing bikes under the pavilion’s roof. Some thoughtful person had left a box of Cheez-It crackers on a table, which we devoured while watching lightning shear the night sky and trees bend under the force of brutal winds. The storm was one of the most destructive in American history, but we were strangely calm. Everything was going to be all right or would be made so later. Guzzi people are good at fixing things. They have to be.

A friend familiar with local roads saw me on my way the next day by leading a tour through the storm’s full aftermath: great trees snapped in half, wires festooning pavement. He found what was certainly the state’s only craft brewery with enough generator to power both air-conditioner and pizza oven. Afterward I said goodbye to my friends. I was headed north, home, alone.

But a motorcyclist knows this is not how it will always be: alone. Next year we will be rally-bound again. There will be new expectation. New affiliations. And a new date on the calendar on which to fix an anticipatory pin, every year. When we come together, and when we arrive.

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By Melissa Holbrook Pierson
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