The first time I rode with a Hells Angel it was a quirk of fate. We merged onto the same highway on a cool spring morning. We exchanged glances. I'd covered the outlaw biker scene for years by then, he knew me and I knew him. He nodded, accelerated with a loud throttle twist, moved to the left side of the lane and slowed again. An invitation.
I tucked in slightly behind and to the right. There was no friendship in his gesture it was just a biker thing. Two are easier to see and hear. Many drivers don't watch for bikes at the best of times, in spring they don't even think about us.
I don't know if it was for my benefit or just his style but he rode aggressively He passed cars on the right and left, slicing from lane to lane. I thought it might be a test. I locked my bike to his more out of pride than any desire to speed.
I looked over as the wind shook and popped the patch stitched to his leather vest. Eleven red letters arched over a piece of cloth covered in a gold-winged death head. The most infamous motorcycle patch in the world. I wondered what the people we passed were thinking. Was it fear, awe, respect, hatred. The Hells Angels patch rolling past on a thundering Harley is tough to ignore. I realized I was smiling, feeling its pull. Like being part of something powerful. We went our separate ways and I shook it off. I'd never ride under a three piece patch. I knew what it stood for. I'd seen the bodies, covered the murders.
In outlaw culture the patch is everything. They ride with three pieces of cloth on their backs, a curved top rocker showing the club name above its logo and a bottom rocker declaring its territory. In this case, Hells Angels on top, death-head in the middle, Nova Scotia on the bottom. Riders who earn it from a club - it is never given - are often simply called patches. It is interchangeable with brother or bro'. Many are willing to kill or die to protect it. What draws them to it?
They tell me its about brotherhood, honour, something that has to be experienced. I know it is also about fear, power and violence. But there are many criminal groups who are equally frightening and deadly. They don't need a patch. I also know not all outlaw club members are criminals. The myth that a member must commit a serious crime to get a patch is just that, a myth. Many do, but some men are drawn to the patch not to a life of crime. If they have a friend inside who sponsors them they can begin the journey to club membership. They are labelled criminals but do it anyway. Why? They tell me it's about belonging, family, love. They too say it must be felt to be understood.
The first time I rode in a true outlaw formation was on assignment in Texas. More than a hundred bikes racing down a freeway in dangerously close pairs of two. A road captain rolling outside the formation policing the gaps. There were fines to be paid if you left too much space between you and the bike in front or the one just inches away beside you. Outlaw pride demanded a uniform pack and he screamed at anyone who threatened to break it.
I locked the rear wheel and got sideways as the pack bunched suddenly in front of me. The outlaw with the FTW neck tattoo riding beside me broke away to the left, his life suddenly in jeopardy because of my bad move. He slipped back in as I recovered from the slide. We both laughed. Stupid, foolish laughs that felt fantastic.
The line of bright yellow patches ahead stretched over a hilltop and out of sight. There were killers in the group, drug dealers, violent men who shared their stories with me. One percenters now riding under the Tribe of Judah patch. The small diamond shaped 1% crest is a status symbol worn only by the top outlaw clubs. They are the one percent to fear. A middle finger raised to the cops and courts they hate.
State troopers blocked the on-ramps, keeping cars from getting tangled in the formation. Avoiding the traffic jam an accident would create. Again, I wondered what those drivers thought about this deafening spectacle. Again, I felt drawn to the power of a patch. Felt the emptiness on my own back.
I rode with a small group of Banditos in Galveston late that night. A slab of sea fog covered the empty road ahead. It hit our knees with a chill. The air above was warm. To this day it is one of the most peaceful rides I have ever been on. We rolled like one, separate but together, sharing the kind of moment that makes bugs in the teeth worthwhile. A feeling came over me. A sense of being exactly where I should be. Of belonging.
Yet, I didn't belong. Just a bike length ahead, bouncing in my lone headlight, was that diamond shaped 1% sitting beside a sword slinging, gun toting bandit. A bloodied patch as feared in criminal culture as the death head of the Hells Angels. Nothing peaceful in it. So why the feeling?
The outlaw clubs draw a certain kind of man. I suppose I fit the profile. Raised in a place others called the wrong side of the tracks. Looked up to the tough guys on the corner who fought to protect their turf. Guys who taught me early not to trust the police. I've met many current and former outlaws who could easily have been my childhood friends. The night dumb luck let me walk away and put my best friend behind bars taught me what I didn't want. I am grateful for that.
But outlaw clubs have an appeal far beyond that stereotype. Look at the staggering success of The Sons of Anarchy TV show. A violent soap opera featuring a fictional outlaw club that draws more than six million viewers every week. The three piece patch and the men who chose to stand outside the law to wear it appeal to some baser instinct. Something in our DNA that rebels against laws and rules and being told what to do. We like what they say they stand for. We admire the middle finger they fly with that 1%.
The trouble with the outlaw patch lies somewhere between the romantic notion of the rebel and the reality of the world behind the clubhouse door. I remember walking into the Banditos clubhouse in Galveston, the house where the club was born. I could feel the history there. The smell of oil and gas from the Harley parts hanging on the wall blended nicely with the sweet aroma of ribs barbecuing outside. All around me the patches were back slapping and hugging as they greeted one another. The brotherhood and love were strong. I felt comfortable there. Outside I looked across the street to the walled off compound of the new clubhouse where business was done. Where a simple nod could end a life. Two different buildings, two different worlds.
I realize now the pull I feel when I ride beside or with outlaws is okay. I'm drawn to the old clubhouse and what it represents. It's that other house across the street that stands between me and the patch. My back will always be patch free.