I have written before about the annual motorcycle rallies in Myrtle Beach. I endured six of them in the three years I lived there, researching Banana Republic, my book about the politics and culture of Myrtle Beach.
What started years ago as two separate biker weekends has gradually morphed into "biker month" along the Grand Strand. The two events now draw an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 bikers and camp followers between the middle of May and Memorial Day.
As luck would have it, I was in Myrtle Beach on book business during the early part of biker month — the Harley-Davidson Dealers Rally, as it is officially known. It brought back memories of sleepless nights and days of creeping traffic, as all major roads were choked with motorcycles and no hour of the day or night was free from the sound of straight pipes.
And beyond what it does to the residents and tourists along the Strand, biker month is also hard on bikers. Above the roar of engines is the wail of sirens as ambulances haul fallen bikers to local hospitals. And there is the sound of helicopters overhead, carrying the brain-damaged to hospitals in Charleston.
Eight bikers died during the recent Harley rally, up from five last year and tying the record of eight in 2003. There were 245 wrecks involving motorcycles, 175 noise violations, 1,072 speeding citations, and 2,497 total citations from all jurisdictions.
This marked a big improvement in the number of citations over recent years. "Overall, it was a good event for us," a Myrtle Beach police spokesman said.
The Harley rally had barely gotten out of town when the Atlantic Beach Bikefest descended as a plague of noise and litter. Total figures are curiously lacking from The Sun News, Myrtle Beach's daily newspaper, but suffice it to say there were hundreds of citations and wrecks, but only one fatality.
Anger at the lawlessness, noise, and traffic congestion boiled over in letters to the editor of The Sun News: "Why would we host an event that we know for certain will result in death and injury?" wrote a Pawleys Island woman.
A Murrells Inlet man wrote: "I have seen the number of bikers increase every year, along with their reckless disregard for the other drivers on the road ... As a retired police officer, I urge better police enforcement. Better yet, give the citizens of Horry County a break and discourage this annual carnage."
The bike rallies bring out the worst in everybody. Bikers who have driven hundreds of miles to raise hell will not be denied. That's what Myrtle Beach is for, after all. As for the locals, they have had enough. Those with means and opportunity leave town for the duration of the bike rallies. The rest endure as best they can. And some apparently snap.
Something awful happened on May 28. A 67-year-old businessman with no criminal record rammed a biker from behind on U.S. 17. The biker, an Iraq War veteran now stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., bounced over the hood and off the car, sustaining road burn and other injuries. The driver of the car, one Larry Jacobs, proceeded four miles down the highway with the motorcycle jammed under the front of the vehicle. He stopped only when pulled over by a police officer and now faces a charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. Jacobs "was angry, mad" at the bikers, a Myrtle Beach police detective said.
This certainly does not excuse Jacobs' behavior, but it might explain it. How many days are people supposed to endure having their community turned into a hellhole by hundreds of thousands of noisy, trashy, lawless people?
Back in Charleston, I couldn't avoid seeing — and hearing! — that many of the Myrtle Beach bikers had drifted down the coast for a little day trip to our fair city. They cruised up Meeting Street and down King Street in groups of a dozen or more. The 100-decibel blasts from their engines could be heard around the Market and along the Battery. I asked a police officer if the city had a noise ordinance. Not only did he not know, but he seemed quite indifferent to the problem. On Ann Street I saw police writing tickets on more than 20 bikes parked illegally, side by side.
More recently, since the end of biker month in Myrtle Beach, I was in Marion Square for a Spoleto performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Adding to the ambience of this great arts festival were dozens of bikers, who ripped and roared along Calhoun and Meeting streets, occasionally drowning out the music.
Oh, well, I thought. I can take consolation that Charleston is not Myrtle Beach — not yet.