What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Harley-Davidson? Don’t answer that, because you might accidentally say “that incredibly loud noise, like a lawnmower chewing on a horseshoe” when what you meant was “that classically American sonorous growl, like the Constitution on wheels.” But both of those are wrong, anyway. The correct answer, of course, is “freedom.”
If you got that one right, then you might just have what it takes to wear the Freedom Jacket. It’s a black leather Harley jacket, and it’s traveling around the world as part of Harley-Davidson’s epic year-long 110th anniversary celebration. On each leg of the celebratory adventure, a different rider wears the jacket while leading convoys of Harley riders on trips to iconic places. So the jacket is kind of like the Olympic torch, except that one of them celebrates the pinnacle of human achievement, and the other is just a bunch of silly games. Boom! Take that, Olympics!
The jacket started life as just a normal black leather Harley jacket. It only became the Freedom Jacket during an early leg of the Epic Anniversary Tour, which was led by Harley-Davidson’s Chief Marketing Officer Mark-Hans Richer, and traversed China and much of the Tibetan Plateau. During a rest stop, Richer encountered a local man painting road markers, and asked him to paint something on his jacket to show how he felt about Harley-Davidson. The man painted the Chinese character for “freedom,” and lo, a symbol was born.
The Freedom Jacket has had quite the wild ride, and it’s not over yet – it will keep globe-trotting until August 2013, when it will come back to Milwaukee for the big celebratory finale. And, of course, it’s been blogging and keeping a video diary of its adventures, which are arranged into one episode for each place at 110.harley-davidson.com. (Actually, it’s not quite clear if the blog posts are supposed to be written by the jacket. These days everyone’s cat has a blog and their dogs write their Christmas letters, so who can tell?)
Judging by these episodes, the Freedom Jacket has had some madcap adventures and met some zany characters, all of whom have very strong feelings about what their Harleys mean to them and nearly all of whom make some sort of overt reference to how the Harley symbolizes some kind of personal freedom to them. There’s the Iron Elite, a group of tough-looking but (I think) deceptively sweet-natured guys who rhapsodize about the Harley as a means of personal expression. “When I customize my Harley, that’s personalized, that’s me, that’s mine now,” one says. Another talks about how no matter who you are, where you’re from, what colour you are, if you ride a Harley you’re their brother, which is sweet.
Another Iron Elitist charmingly says, “I told my ex-wife, don’t make me choose between you and my bike. Well, my bike’s still in the garage!” I love that story! I think I first heard it in a country song and it was about a truck, or maybe a fishing rod, but no matter. It doesn’t explain why the wife would want to make him choose – did the Harley want to sleep between them in the bed? – but it certainly conveys the point: the guy is married to a bike.
The Freedom Jacket has also met some people with truly inspiring stories, like Heath, an Army veteran from southwestern Virginia who lost both legs to a grenade attack in Iraq. For him, riding his bike and working at his local Harley-Davidson dealership are “paths to freedom” – along with running, golfing, swimming, and bicycling, for each of which he has a different set of prosthetic legs. For his contribution to the jacket, Heath sewed a patch from his 101st Airborne Division onto the left shoulder.
Karla is another Harley-Davidson rider for whom her bike is a route to mastery over personal challenges – in her case, stomach cancer. Karla says that when she rides, it’s like meditation – time to just be quiet and think deeply, and recharge her strength. It helps her feel that she can maintain a sense of control, which is one of the hardest things to maintain when battling a disease that is actually beyond one’s control.
I don’t care who you are, that’s inspiring. I know I’ll be thinking about Heath and Karla the next time I feel like I can’t be bothered to get off the couch to reach the remote.