Thunder in the Canyon


Thunder in the Canyon


The sound of forty engines thunders off canyon walls as the serpentine procession of hogs and choppers roars through the twists and turns of the Feather River highway. Like a swarm of locusts, they pass through sleepy Gold Rush towns and villages with names like Belden, Twain, Keddie, Quincey, Cromberg, and Blairsden. Near the river’s source at the top of the Sierras, an advance scout parks his bike in the dusty lot of the Portola Coffee Shop. He leans it on its kickstand, sticks his head in the door, and asks. “Can you handle thirty or forty hungry bikers?”

“Bring ‘em on,” Margaret, the shop’s owner, answers from alongside the grill.

“They’ll be along in a bit.” He moves his bike out front on the highway to signal that the place is cool.

From near the front window, a customer observes the Death’s Head patch on the back of the biker’s leather vest. “You got a bunch of Hells Angels on the way,” he announces.

The breakfast crowd grumbles about outlaw biker gangs invading their territory as the scout comes back in and takes over an empty booth. The crowd scatters. Their territory or not, they want nothing to do with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

"Hell's Angels" was a popular moniker for bomber squadrons in World Wars I and II, as well as the title of a 1930 Howard Hughes film about the Royal Flying Corps. Ralph “Sonny” Barger and Don “Boots” Reeves adopted the name when they founded the Oakland California based motorcycle club in 1957.

Sonny Barger, born in 1938, grew up in Oakland California. His mother left him with his alcoholic father and an older sister when he was four months old. Growing up, he was suspended from school several times for assaulting teachers. His reputation for starting schoolyard fights was legendary. He dropped out of school at age sixteen and enlisted in the Army. He was discharged 14 months later when it was discovered that he had forged his birth certificate to join.

Barger joined his first motorcycle club, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956. After that club disbanded, he started riding with a group of bikers that included Boots Reeves. Reeves wore a patch with a small skull wearing an aviator cap set within a set of wings. The “Death’s Head” became the Oakland Hells Angels logo. A patch with the logo adorned the back of every member’s vest.

The founders were unaware at the time that there were several other, loosely affiliated, California clubs using the Hells Angels name. With Barger as president, the Oakland Hells Angels travelled to Southern California, met with the other Hells Angels chapters, divided territory, and formed club bylaws.

The advance scout in the Portola Coffee Shop on that late summer morning wears the patch of the Oakland Hells Angels Chapter.

A widower with two late teenage sons in the late seventies, I live in Portola California and operate a computer time sharing service in nearby Reno, Nevada. Margaret, a single mom with a late teenage son and daughter, owns the Portola Coffee Shop. We recently started dating and I hang out there, sometimes helping in a pinch. A diner full of hungry bikers is a pinch. I ask Margaret what I can do to help. She hands me a spatula and says, “cook.”

My prior exposure to motorcycle gangs consists of watching Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin take over a town and terrorize it in the movie, “The Wild One.” Even so, the name “Hells Angels Motorcycle Club” generates a picture of criminality and violence in my mind. I fear the worst.

We prep the kitchen as well as we can on such short notice. True to the advance scout’s warning, the empty parking lot soon fills with rows of neatly parked motorcycles. The riders cram into our dining room.

They come in all shapes and sizes—unkempt men, most with long hair and beards, some with hard looking women at their sides, all wearing leather or denim vests with the Death’s Head patch on their backs—and they come hungry.

These renegades on two wheels are not picky about their food. They just want lots of it. Double biscuits and gravy, double hashbrowns, double stacks, four eggs to an order, both ham and bacon, four egg omelets—we heap their plates high. Thanks to Margaret’s devotion to keeping her shelves stocked, we don’t run out of anything.

It takes about two hours to get everyone served, but they are patient and polite. I am exhausted, as is the rest of the crew, when the last plate is delivered. But Margaret is happy. She charges them well for all the extras and they pay without complaining. She is happy, so I am happy. And the fears I had harbored seem unjustified.

As the crowd thins and motorcycles roar out of the parking lot on the way to the gaming tables of Nevada, a surprisingly quiet and clean-cut man approaches me. He thanks me for the hospitality, hands me his business card, and says: “If any of these guys ever give you any trouble, just call this number. It’ll be taken care of.”

I thank him and put the card in my shirt pocket without examining it. He leaves and the rest of the gang follows him out the door.

Later, when the locals return to see how we fared, I show the card to a customer I know rides street bikes and ask him what it means. His eyes pop open in surprise. “Why, that’s Sonny Barger’s card. He’s the head honcho of all the Hells Angels.”

You would think I just met the world’s greatest celebrity.


Robert LaRue


Robert LaRue wrote technical stuff when he was part of the corporate world. Now retired, he writes a newsletter for his local history club, popcorn stories for the club, and an occasional letter to the editor expressing his iconoclastic views for the local newspaper. His writing credits include short fiction in Ariel Chart. When he is not writing, he can be found enjoying the great outdoors surrounding his home in North Idaho. At age eighty-six, he has earned those rights.


  1. Great story, Robert! I would love to have been a fly on the wall and heard those bikers’ conversations at the Portola Coffee Shop. How can I subscribe to your newsletter? Enjoyed reading this story. 😎

  2. Thank you for the comment, Melissa. Send me an email and I will add you to my mailing list. You may find musings from the backcountry amusing! Bob LaRue

  3. Great story well written Lash!

  4. Wonderful writing as always, Lash.

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