History is written on signs pointing back to a place you can never find – the reason why. Riding from Fresno to Monterey, still zoned-out from Yosemite I caught a glimpse of a wood sign so faded I almost missed it. The arrow was pointing backwards.

<— Hollister 3 miles

Adventure waits for no one so I turned the Harley around and went looking for Hollister. Did I find it? You decide.

tree covered sidewalk

A Gypsy Tour and the Myth of the Outlaw Biker

Hollister is a small farm and ranch town in the Central Coast of California. Because of a bizarre Fourth of July celebration in 1947, Hollister is also hallowed ground for motorcyclists all over the world. Thousands came from all over to what was billed as a “Gypsy Tour” by the American Motorcycle Association. The night began with drunken burnouts and wheelies by The Boozefighters Motorcycle Club of South Central LA, led by founder, Wino Willie. The night ended at dawn in a vaporizing mist with a Life Magazine photo that shocked the nation. Memories of that night inspire re-enactments annually to this day. An award-winning short story appeared in Harper’s in 1951. Two years later, The Wild One was released in theaters and became an instant cult classic. You can never predict the outcome of a drunken brawl.

Outlaw bikers like Sonny Barger (Oakland Hell’s Angels), Don Chambers from San Leon, Texas (The Bandidos) and Wino Willie’s Boozefighters all had one thing in common – they were ex-soldiers. War can bind men together for life. Soldiers who had trouble returning to civilian life found a home in biker clubs where brotherhood and strict rules of engagement approximated the intensity of war that civilian life could not offer.

A Drunk and His Photographer

That night in Hollister would’ve been forgotten by history if not for the infamous photo in Life Magazine depicting a wild-eyed drunk on a motorcycle surrounded by empties on San Benito Street. Follow the backward signs and it turns out the photo was staged by a photographer who pulled a drunk from a bar, posed him on a motorcycle, surrounded it with empties, and snapped the picture that made Hollister famous. The photo sparked a national panic and created an image in the minds of Americans about motorcycles and the people who ride them. The event became known as “The Hollister Riot.” Every young man in the country was drawn to the story – the motorcycle business went on to experience explosive growth for decades. How many industries can say they owe a debt of gratitude to a drunk and his photographer?

life Hollister photo
Life Magazine photo with the caption, “He and his friends terrorize town”

But was the photo staged? Eyewitnesses said yes and Hollister used them to rebut the headline,

‘Outlaw Bikers Take Over Town!’

Strangely, nobody wanted to believe the eyewitnesses. Is myth the stronger tale? 70 years later, the hotels, bars, and restaurants in Hollister owe more to the power of myth than they know.

It’s Hard to Kill a Good Story

But was it really myth? If you follow another backward sign floating around out there you come upon an old interview with Wino Willie where he bragged of plying Hollister’s wheel-chair-bound town drunk with wine then tying the chair with him in it to the bumper of a car and slinging him around town. When he fell out of his wheelchair Willie threw him on the hood of the car and drove ’til he noticed the man had stopped breathing. Fearing he might be dead, Wino Willie dumped the guy on a backstreet, covered him with newspapers, untied his wheel chair, and left. The next morning Wino Willie woke to discover his cell mate was the very much alive drunk cripple he’d given up for dead a few hours earlier.

“It’s hard to kill a drunk,” said Willie which generated uproarious laughter at Johnny’s Bar later that day and for all time, I suspect.

The irony of a man named Wino waking up in a drunk tank next to a real wino was lost on Willie. And the irony of elevating to the status of mythic hero a man who for his own amusement nearly killed a handicapped citizen of Hollister was apparently lost on everyone. Wino Willie wasn’t even charged with drunken disorderliness much less reckless endangerment — a crime to which he confessed freely right from the start and tirelessly thereafter.

Once it was discovered that The Hollister Riot was good for business on San Benito Street, Hollister’s City fathers worked history over the years to downplay the immense property damage caused by drunk bikers during annual reenactments of that wild night. Bikers worked history to get their mayhem mythologized. History is always being worked.

birthplace of the american biker

The Tao of History

The Boozefighters weren’t outlaw bikers then or now. Wino Willie was a gunner in the open belly of a war plane in WWII before he was a Boozefighter. At times he could become a little unhinged but we may owe more to unhinged men than we know. Wino Willie died a legend in 1997 at the age of 76, in the quiet wine country town of Santa Rosa. Some say he resides in an urn at the back of Johnny’s Bar on San Benito Street in Hollister. Every time you dig into the history of that night – Wino Willie, the photo in Life Magazine, The Wild One, outlaw bikers, and legends – you find something that alters the story. History never sleeps.

Today Hollister seems determined to keep the annual 4th of July re-enactment alive. It draws tens of thousands of bikers from all over the world. People talk about Hollister in England, Italy, even New Zealand. I’ve seen Mayan teens wearing commemorative Hollister T-shirts in remote Pueblos of the Yucatán. Hotels, restaurants, and bars have a financial interest in keeping the mayhem alive but local government can no longer afford the cost of security and the town goes nearly bankrupt every year. Yet the event still goes on.

Hollister is a quiet town with tree-lined streets where people are mostly concerned with crop yields and cattle. Late model SUVs and shiny muscle cars cruise the streets and except for my Harley, there’s not a motorcycle in sight. But for one night every year the people of Hollister take a walk with The Wild One, and no one knows the reason why.

camaro and dark knight on main street in hollister

Hollister, California – September 16th 2013

Author notes:

The Boozefighters Motorcycle Club was founded by Wino Willie in East LA after WWII and is still in existence … it promotes worthy causes and is as much a charitable organization as a motorcycle club

Stanley Kramer’s movie, “The Wild One” scrambles people and facts about the Hollister Riot but captures the ambiguous character of the American Biker through Marlon Brando’s skillful method-acting

Frank Rooney’s short story, “Cyclists’ Raid” was based on the Hollister Riot and published in the January 1951 issue of Harper’s

What became the “Hollister Riot” that night started out as an American Motorcycle Association (AMA) sanctioned “Gypsy Tour” rally for July 3-6, 1947

Hollister hosted annual Gypsy Tour rallies throughout the 1930s which were interrupted by WWII

The “Hollister Riot” in 1947 was a revival of the pre-War Gypsy Tour rallies from the 1930s

The AMA released a statement at the time disavowing the Hollister Riot, attributing it to “the one per cent deviant” tarnishing the image of motorcycling …”one percenters” was used derisively thereafter by the AMA to refer to outlaw bikers … the AMA today disavows their original statement, saying they can find no record of it … there is no better indication of how important the “outlaw biker” image has become than in the marketing of motorcycles today

The young man standing in the background of the infamous Life photo was one of the eyewitnesses to the staging by the San Francisco Chronicle photographer and he recounted the whole thing in great detail in later interviews that no one ever read or believed

Wino Willie died in 1997 while preparing to ride to Hollister to lead the 4th of July re-enactment parade for the 50th anniversary of “The Hollister Riot”

Willie got the name “Wino Willie” as a 7 year old breaking into wineries to drink wine…even as a child Willie was a little unhinged

Hollister really does have tree-lined streets without a motorcycle in sight

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