Fat Feeder is ordering more shots, and this time, when he presses the plastic cup of Crown Royal into my hand, I can't say no. All around me, people have thrown bundles of wood into burning trash cans without removing the plastic wrapping. Rancid black smoke fills the air, accompanied by an AC/DC tribute band's version of "Hell's Bells." Everything else is being destroyed. Why spare myself?
"To Porky!" toasts Fat Feeder, who waves his red cup in the air like it's a flag. A half-dozen other people in leather jackets, chaps and do-rags are huddled in the beer tent, raising their drinks and hollering. Two women stand on the bar, doing a drunken pantomime that is intended to be sexy.
"To Porky and the best damn rally in Missouri! And to next June!"
We drink. Fat Feeder, thick and bearded, throws an arm around his petite and bespectacled wife. She looks like a librarian being attacked by a grizzly.
Then, somehow, it's 2 a.m. and I'm at the campfire outside of Fat Feeder's tent, nicknamed the General Store, trying to dry myself off after being caught in the crossfire of yet another wet T-shirt contest. "See you're here right now," Mrs. Feeder is saying, pointing to the palm of her hand in an attempt to dispense life advice. "But there's all this around you you're looking for." With her advice comes the disclaimer that this is the first time she's been drunk in 20 years.
Over her shoulder, a diminutive biker, clad in a leather jacket and purple do-rag, turns up the radio on his bike, a blue Harley fattened with extra compartments and baggage. Led Zeppelin is halfway through "Kashmir." The man stares out at the tents as the campfires die and people crawl into their sleeping bags, saying goodnight to the closest thing Kansas City has to a legitimate biker rally. It's a moment worth some sentiment.
"You bunch of fucking pussies!" he yells, kicking the dirt.
From the looks of it, Urich is a place that doesn't want to be found. An hour or so south of Kansas City, the town of 500 would be invisible from state Highway 7 without the sign announcing its presence. There is only one gas station, Cassie's, which locks its doors and its pumps at 9 p.m., making escape after nightfall a dangerous plan if you're low on fuel.
Somewhere amid all of this is the man I'm looking for: Todd Tally, a 44-year-old biker who in four days will single-handedly triple Urich's population.
I've seen Tally once before, back in June, when he shuffled onstage for the first Grand River Rally. He wore denim overalls and a ball cap. In one meaty hand, he clutched a microphone; in the other was a Mason jar filled with apple-pie moonshine someone has handed him.
"This right here has been my dream for longer than I can tell you," Tally told the crowd that night, his voice cracking. "You can come in here and let go, and you won't be judged by anyone."
"We love you, Braindead!" a woman shouted. She wore leather chaps and had a bikini-shaped American flag painted over her chest, nipples at attention through Old Glory. She was the embodiment of Tally's dream.
Now it's September, and the fall version of the rally is less than a week away. After turning off Highway 7, I drive five miles down back roads, which narrow and turn from pavement to gravel, finally reaching Tally's house, a one-story ranch with nothing behind it but the horizon. Next to it is a narrow red garage that Tally has equipped with his own gas pump.
"Ah, I forgot you were coming out today," Tally, in another pair of overalls, tells me when we meet on his sprawling back deck. The sun is almost down. Tally offers me a glass jar of sweet tea.
"I don't know how to say it. It was just one of those things I always thought was cool," he says of his obsession with motorcycles. "I didn't really have too many friends riding them when I was a kid, but I knew I wanted one."
Raised by a single mom, Tally daydreamed his way through high school and earned the nickname Braindead by consuming large quantities of drugs in his youth.
But he can sound very Buddhist about his preferred mode of transportation.
"You get out there on the road. The concentration is so focused, you see things you never thought you'd see," he continues. "You have to be so focused, the road don't even look like a road. You see every little bit of it. Everything gets sharper and clearer."
He started going to biker rallies in the 1980s. Most of the rallies that Tally rode to have since shut down, but others have taken their place, popping up around the country as bikers have infiltrated the mainstream. They're a sort of cottage industry now. People who can't make it to Sturgis — the South Dakota town that hosts a half-million bikers every summer — or who think Sturgis has lost its edge can usually find a homegrown party within a day's ride.
But until Tally came along, the nearest rally for Kansas City-area bikers was in Iowa.
"There just wasn't anything like it close to home, and I always wished there was," he says. "I wanted to be the guy throwing the party. I wanted that for years."
Four years ago, Tally was offered early retirement from his job as a union rep at GM's Fairfax plant, so he took it. His plan was to leave Kansas City, his hometown, and find a plot of land on which to construct his dream. He had never heard of Urich.
"I wasn't even looking at this place," Tally says from the deck of his house, which borders the field where his Grand River Rally is held. "I was looking at a place down the road. The woman who lived here kept pulling the for-sale sign down because she didn't want her landlord to sell it — and she'd lose her place — so we didn't even realize it was on the market at first.
"But when we finally did, we came out here, and it was morning, and the mist was coming off all of those fields. I could just see it rising up out there as clear as day. I could see the stage and the tents and the bikes and the beer garden. It was beautiful, man."
Tally bought the land and spent the next three years getting it ready. After clearing 80 acres, renting equipment and paying band-booking fees, his first attempt at a rally was in June 2009. But a flash flood soaked the land.
"I lost a lot on that deal," he says.
He tried again this past June, drawing about 1,400 paying customers, which was enough to encourage him but not enough to cover his costs.
"I can only put so much of my own money in," he says. "This is all I want to do. I mean, I want this rally to be my life and my full-time job. But I need to keep building it for that to happen."
That explains his plan for a second rally, a fall version that he hopes will be even bigger than the June party. To help, he has posted fliers in every biker-friendly bar in the area. He'll let booze vendors keep their revenue in exchange for keeping prices low, hoping that $2 beers will entice people to pay the $30 gate fee, which drops as the weekend goes on.
The old-school hustle is paying off. He has gotten calls from people around the Midwest asking about the weekend, and Cycle Connections magazine has promised to spread the word to its Midwestern readers. He has even gotten some attention from "1 percenters." After World War II, when the Hell's Angels were gaining notoriety, the American Motorcycle Association put out a statement saying that 99 percent of all motorcycle riders were law-abiding citizens. The Angels, naturally, started sewing 1-percent symbols on their jackets. Other outlaw clubs did the same.
The presence of 1 percenters can lend a certain credibility and can jack up attendance. But motorcycle clubs (MCs) tend to manufacture tension, marking off turf and threatening people who don't watch where they step.
"I got a call yesterday from this guy, Rocky, who said he was with the Hell's Angels in Illinois," Tally says. "They wanted to know what the rules are. I told him colors are welcome. I'm friends with some guys in 1-percenter clubs myself. The only rule is that this is neutral ground. I want everyone that comes out here to be friends."
It's the last Friday in September, the first night of the rally. I stop at Cassie's on the way to secure provisions: a case of Budweiser cans and a bag of Doritos. My imbalanced diet gives away my destination.
"You going to the rally?" asks the woman behind the counter.
"Yeah. Anyone showing up?"
"We haven't been this busy all year," she says. "We'll probably run out of beer."
But when I arrive, Tally's mother, who's working the gate, isn't so certain.
"It hasn't been as good as I hoped it would," she tells me. "We've got maybe 700 people so far. I just hope the weather holds."
I set up my tent right before the sun goes down and walk to the beer garden. I see a woman with a Confederate flag painted over her bare ass, bending over to give a man with a Flip camera a better angle. Necklace upon necklace of colored plastic beads dangle over her naked breasts. This is standard for a biker rally. It's what society would look like if a Girls Gone Wild crew executed a military coup.
Onstage, a Janis Joplin tribute band is covering "Mercedes Benz." Next to the stage is a dunk tank, and there's a man even bigger than Tally, with the same fashion sense, laughing at the topless woman who just went into the drink. Fat Feeder.
Feeder says he met Tally when both men worked the line at a manufacturing plant. He doesn't remember what company employed them. "I was working on the feeder belt. His first day, he comes up to me and says, 'You sure are fat.' And for the rest of my life, people have called me Fat Feeder. And I'm thinking, This sonofabitch is fatter than I am! So I thought about it for a while and then started calling him Porky, and that stuck on him."
Feeder, whose real name is Mike Cheiner, is Tally's right-hand man. He works on the line at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence. He's 48 years old.
"When he brought me out here, it was all soybean fields," Feeder says, holding his open hand palm down at mid-thigh. "This high. We spent a lot of time just cleaning that out. Then we had to lay down all those roads out there for the bikes. We still aren't done yet. We want to dig up a pond out back there by the campsites. We'll call it Nude Lagoon."
For now, though, the beer garden is the center of the party, and the dunk tank is an amusing sideshow. "You must pitch for the Royals," Feeder taunts when the next thrower's ball goes 3 feet wide of the target. Back on her perch, Topless is yelling, "You gotta work to get me wet, baby." She's got an eagle tattoo on her left breast and a few gaps in her teeth.
The next ball hits, and she disappears into the water. Fat Feeder howls.
Later, back in the camp, I meet two couples lounging outside an RV. I can hear something over the beer garden's PA system. Judging by the occasional cheers — and by the variety of bizarre competitions that occur at biker rallies — I'm guessing it has something to do with tits and lunchmeat. But out here it's quiet. For now.
The people say they're from Iowa. I ask if they've ever been to the rally in Conesville. It's called Hog Wild and it provides a decent sense of what Grand River Rally could become. Like Tally's, the Hog Wild parties bookend the summer. Also like Tally's, it's a 21-and-older event that started with a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere. It now draws more than 10,000 people.
"Hell, yeah, we used to go there all the time," Doug says, "except this one wouldn't stop showing off her tits." He gestures to his wife, Patty.
"Don't be jealous, baby," she coos.
"I won't go back there," says the other man, Brian. "I like this one already for all the reasons I won't go back to Conesville. Conesville is all about biker gang, MC territory now. You're afraid to walk around because you don't know what's going to piss them off."
He's hardly exaggerating. The last time I was in Conesville, a 1-percenter club called the Sons of Silence cordoned off their camp with police tape and walked around with Maglite flashlights hanging from their belts, a heavy but legal reminder that violence is just a smirk away.
"Fuck that," Brian says. "I'm not risking that bullshit because I stepped on someone's turf I had no way of knowing about. Right now, this is peaceful. There's no bullshit. There's nobody blocking off a camp. I don't have to watch my ass to make sure I don't get beat up and not even understand why."
Saturday morning. Breakfast time. Some are still in the camp, frying eggs over portable propane grills. Others have ventured into Urich for breakfast at the VFW Hall.
When he bought his land, Tally hoped that the rally could coil itself into Urich's DNA.
"Part of the point of this was finding somewhere that would actually benefit from it," he says.
Donating part of the gate to whatever community they're ravaging is standard practice for the successful biker rallies. In Conesville, a percentage of the proceeds is donated directly to the city, which is happy to cash the check and let the bikers have their fun. Raffles also are held for various charities, and money made from recycling beer cans goes to the Boy Scouts of America.
But Urich won't be won over so easily. Richard Shields, the prosecuting attorney for Henry County, which includes Urich, says that when Tally first tried this last year, Urich sued to stop him. (The suit didn't go anywhere.)
"I think a lot of it had to do with the fliers," Shields says. "Some people saw them — even Todd admitted to this, I think — and thought they were pretty raunchy, pretty scandalous. People looked at them, and they didn't know what was going to happen. Is there going to be a thousand bikers having an orgy in a field somewhere or what?"
The flier wasn't much: just a little black card with a woman in a bikini riding a motorcycle, plus a list of dates and a calendar of events. But it was enough to stop Urich from welcoming Tally and his friends.
"When I was planning it, I called the fire department and asked about donating a part of the gate, and they wouldn't even take a check from me," Tally says. "The cops wouldn't. I got shot down by every group in Henry County. None of them would touch me. Finally, I met some people who work with kids' baseball programs — Little League and that sort of thing — and told them what I was doing and how I wanted part of the gate to go to charity. Last year, we paid for all their uniforms. It's just part of the way I want to show people that don't understand, this isn't a bad thing."
After breakfast, the day is spent on traditional tests of biker strength. In one game, a skinny guy's blue thong pulls a blanket loaded with kegs. Eventually, the burden proves too much for the underwear, revealing the man's nether-region, which is completely shorn of pubic hair and adorned with a multicolored lightning tattoo. Another game tests a woman's ability to bite a hot dog that's suspended from a string while she rides on the back of a moving motorcycle.
This exercise aside, motorcycles seem almost unnecessary here. No one is racing them, and with the exception of one burnout, you don't see many tricks. A good paint job is admired, and a custom chopper is on display here and there. But there's a sense that the parking lot could be full of PT Cruisers, and it wouldn't make a difference.
That night, I head back into the beer garden for what's supposed to be the last big event of the rally, the fall Miss Grand River Rally competition. Tally takes the stage to introduce the contest.
"You all know this is my dream, a field of dirty dreams," he says, tipping the ever-present Mason jar. "And every one of you here tonight is here to show them that a bunch of bikers can get together and have a good time without hurting anybody. Every one of you here tonight is making that dream come true, and you're my family now. You better get back here in June because it's going to be better than ever, I promise you."
The crowd hoots. Tally steps aside, and "Low Rider" comes on, and the girls take over. The first two are topless when they come out, so there's not much they can do to tease the masses but grind on the stage. The crowd, which has been mostly scattered before, has jammed together in front of the stage. Cell-phone cameras go off in scattered bursts.
I wake up Sunday morning to find that at some point during the night, the tarp has come loose, and the cruel Missouri sun is shining down in my eye like a knife. I need to find a mirror and a toolbox, because clearly, someone has sneaked into my tent and drilled steel bolts into my skull. It's the only explanation for this pain.
The fields are empty now, except for a few shuttered food stands. Smokers full of turkey legs, Philly cheese steaks, nacho stands — all gone. Only the vendor of knockoff sunglasses still has his tent open, trying to hustle a few last sales from the stragglers.
I glance toward the General Store and am surprised to see it still standing. A lone figure in overalls is surveying the fields. It could be Fat Feeder or Tally. It's impossible to tell. The slump of his shoulders looks bittersweet somehow. Or maybe he's just trying to keep his breakfast down.
A few days later, I call Tally. He's still getting receipts checked, but now it looks as though the total draw was 700 people, a drop of 1,100 from the June rally. The Hell's Angels didn't even make it.
"It was disappointing," he says. "The weather was against us some. It got colder than I thought this weekend. That's OK. We still had fun."
Next June's event is still on, but the fall Grand River Rally is dead.
Looking ahead to the summer, he says, "I still think it's going to be something someday. Everybody needs to start somewhere."