FULTON, Ill. — Each year during the Blessing of the Bikes in Fulton, bikers remember those they lost the previous year. This year’s list included the founder of the event – Arley Downie.
“He’s here and he’s guiding us,” said Downie’s daughter, Julie Meiners, who acts as host each year. Downie died of COVID-19 in August.
“We lost many friends,” Meiners said as motorcycles rolled into Fulton for Sunday’s Blessing. “It’s been a very hard year for a lot of people.”
People asked if the Blessing of the Bikes would continue without Downie, said Meiners. It will, she said.
Meiners and American Bikers Aimed Toward Education will keep the event alive as a legacy to Downie and to Meiners’ late boyfriend, Bear Richardson. Downie began blessing bikes in 1989 in his daughter’s driveway when he blessed the motorcycles of Meiners and Richardson.
Downie blessed a few bikes in a couple of locations last year to keep the streak going, Meiners said, but the large gathering in Fulton didn’t happen last year during COVID shutdowns.
“We’re starting to feel alive a little bit,” Meiners said Sunday as downtown Fulton filled with motorcycles.
Meiners said she’s grateful to the City of Fulton for letting the bikers gather every year for the Blessing of the Bikes. “We really want everyone to have a safe biking season.”
Ten-year-old Macie Seibel stood in front of Susan’s Calico Creations on North Fourth Street in Fulton selling commemorative T-shirts bearing Downie’s picture. This is the second Blessing of the Bikes Seibel’s attended, she said.
And though the girl is a little young to be driving a motorcycle, she likes to ride with her grandfather, Larry Leonard.
Leonard’s restaurant, Paddlewheel Pizza, is missed by some returning bikers. Dennis Kyarsgaard of Sabula drives to Fulton every year for the Blessing and for Paddlewheel Pizza, he said. The business fed bikers in the summer of 2019 but closed at the end of that year.
Bill Tyson travels the country doing ironwork. He’s been visiting Fulton on his bike for 10 years or more, he said. He visits with old friends and has a good time.
Katie Gates and Brandi Gates set up vendor tents. “We set up here every year,” said Brandi. “I hand make everything.”
Business is good, said Katie. “Bikers like their bling.”
Despite his youth, Zander Halverson rode his own motorbike to the Blessing on Sunday. He’s been riding for about a year, he said, mostly in the church parking lot by his dad’s house.
Halverson likes riding two-wheelers, he said. “I like that they’re fast. ... Cars are boring.”
David Echebarria’s ball python likes motorcycles too. Echebarria, of Fulton, has had Rafiki for about eight months, he said, and the snake travels with him.
Cyndie Johnson of DeWitt stroked the snake as it crawled up her neck. “They like people,” she said.
Loren Snyder, of Clinton, attends the bike blessing to have a good time, visit old friends and make new ones. “We all ride for the same reason,” he said. “Freedom.”
Snyder rode his Electra Glide Classic, he said. “My wife’s got her trike.”
Bob Fore, of Clinton, has attended the blessing for about the last five years, he said. He likes the atmosphere. Now retired, Fore can take his bike out quite often, though he usually takes short rides.
Dan Hansen, however, puts a lot of miles on his bike every year. A resident of Traverse City, Michigan, Hansen hit the road when he retired at 65, he said.
Now 68, Hansen has driven his motorcycle through all 48 contiguous states. His longest trip took him 6,435 miles, but he’s planning to log 10,000 miles during his next trip.
Hansen had his bike blessed in Baldwin, Michigan, but he likes Fulton’s Blessing better, he said. Baldwin attracts 15,000-20,000 bikes, and the blessing is given once for all the bikes.
In 2019, Hansen came to Fulton where each bike was blessed individually. “I was surprised that they sprinkled the holy water.”
Hansen said he’s not a religious man, but after he had his bike blessed in Fulton two years ago, he made a trip down the coast of Maine and hit a deer at 55 miles per hour. Though the accident messed up Hansen’s leg, he survived.
“It makes me think a little different,” Hansen said.
In addition to blessing bikes, event organizers raised money for the local food pantry through raffles and donations.