My friend Dave Miller came to visit me in Taos about seven years ago, at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, a gorgeous season here when spring is in full bloom, even as the mountain peaks are still glazed with snow. Every year but this one, because of the pandemic, the roar of motorcycles fills the main drag of Taos and other nearby towns as hundreds, possibly thousands, of serious bikers descend on Red River for what is advertised as one of the oldest motorcycle rallies in the nation. Each year brings “five outrageous days of fun,” says the Taos.org website, culminating on Memorial Day with a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in nearby Angel Fire.
Dave and I needed no further convincing, especially since we once trolled the outer boroughs of New York a decade or so ago for a short-lived photo-essay-cum-blog called “Backyard Beat.” In pursuit of both outrageous fun and exotic cuisine, we visited a Chinese market in Queens, where you can buy live frogs, and braved the Russian mafia (well, possibly) in the eateries of Brighton Beach. I even reviewed the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee for the Wall Street Journal, and so I thought I knew a bit of the territory. How crazy could this be?
In truth, nothing quite prepared me for the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of a town full of beer-bellied bikers and their womenfolk on a holiday weekend. I felt like Anne of Green Gables in my little yellow blazer and tennis sneakers, and was appalled at the Nazi regalia, the right-wing sloganeering, and the outright sexism (one T-shirt read something like: “Sure, she’s pretty, but remember some other guy put up with her shit.”)
But I had to admit, the bikes were truly amazing.
Dave, though, is the shutterbug here, a world traveler who has honed his eye as a photographer in Kabul, Moscow, West Africa—and many other parts of the globe. So I will let him take over.
“The motorcycle rally in Red River was as exotic as the streets of Kabul in many ways, and about as intimidating as those of Monrovia as well,” he writes.
“This was a different culture: other lands, other customs, as the German phrase has it. I didn’t do as many direct portraits there as I have elsewhere, e.g., Russia, Mongolia, Ghana, or even Kashgar, since these guys were kind of scary. The misogyny, patriarchy, and implied-if-suppressed violence were all readily felt and that dictated a bit of caution. If they had been Russian, I probably would have been more comfortable with their demeanor since speaking Russian would have broken the ice in a different way. But I didn’t think being just an older white guy with a scruffy, not luxuriant beard and no black leather jacket would cut it. So these photos are a bit more distant than my other work.
“Another trip to the rally would be fun and probably would result in some more portraits. It takes some time to get comfortable in other cultures and to get personal enough to capture the faces that are of real expressive interest to me.”
So maybe we’ll go back one of these days. And this time I’ll know what to wear.
Top: David H. Miller, Motherlode Saloon (2013), archival pigment print on Ilford paper, 14 by 8 inches