There were hundreds of black leather vests pinned with memorabilia and patched with nicknames such as “Ironhead,” “Captain America” and “UTurn.”
Men with wiry gray beards and women with leather chaps had parked their motorcycles in clustered rows at the Harley-Davidson store near the Santa Fe Place mall around noon Friday and swarmed tables set up under tents to eat and rest from the road.
The wind caught fumes and the scent of hot rubber.
A sense of pride spread through the crowd.
“The motorcycle is just a tool we use to honor our veterans,” said Jackie “Best Man” McKinney, the mayor of Gallup and a road guard for the Run for the Wall.
The annual event — in which military veterans, soldiers and supporters from across the country and around the world gather for a 10-day ride from Ontario, Calif., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to pay homage on Memorial Day — was passing through Santa Fe.
About 430 riders and drivers along one of three cross-country routes had stopped for lunch at the Santa Fe Harley-Davidson dealer.
The 30-year-old Run for the Wall initially was held specifically in honor of Vietnam War veterans. Dan “Papi” Eckstein, a Navy veteran stationed in Vietnam from 1968-70, said the event is like a homecoming parade the vets never got.
“We are greeted by thousands and thousands of people with flags … that welcome we never got when we came home,” Eckstein said. “Going to the wall is part of the healing process.”
As the years pass, the ride also seeks to pass on the tradition by drawing younger riders. Participant Courtney Naber, 22, said it’s important to keep the past alive.
“These people gave up so much for us,” Naber said.
Recruiting younger riders is part of Kirk “Pretty Boy” Olson’s mission. As the director of public relations and communications for Run for the Wall, Olson said the organization also wants to expand the ride into a wider tribute to U.S. veterans.
“We welcome them all to ride with us,” Olson said. “We want anyone who believes in supporting our vets.”
An estimated 1,600 people registered for the ride, he said, but he expects that as the groups arrive in D.C., the riders will number some 2,000.
“We’re the most organized motorcycle event in the country,” Olson said.
Run for the Wall is split into three routes, two packs to a route. Within the packs, there are platoon leaders heading the way and tail runners closing the rear. Medics and chaplains ride with the platoons. The fueling team and staging crew, who organize stops, leave ahead of the rest.
“It’s absolutely chaotic,” said Barbara “Rocky” Bell, a medic. “But it’s organized chaos.”
Bell, a veteran of the Iraq War, directed incoming motorcyclists at the Santa Fe Harley store as part of the advance team. New Mexico is a bright spot on the route, she said, because of the support the riders get from the New Mexico State Police.
For the three days the group spends riding across the Land of Enchantment, a dozen state police officers volunteer to escort the pack, clearing roads and intersections.
“New Mexico really comes out and does an absolutely wonderful, wonderful job,” Bell said. “It makes a difference for the participants.”
State police Officer Anthony Perez called the riders “a good group” and said, “they know what they’re doing.
“It’s the other drivers that we’re worried about,” he added.
Ron “Wrong” Grittman and his wife, Cecilia, participated in the Run for the Wall for the first time this year, riding to support their daughter, who is enlisted in the Air Force. While the ride is intense and exhausting, Ron Grittman said, it has been fabulous.
“When ever have you gotten to ride on I-40, I-25 with no other cars around?” he asked. “Rolling into all the different towns, you’re showing support and that it still matters.”