Swarm and Destroy

by juli boggs

Andrew Taggart of the Landsquids Sacramento Moped Army chapter sits smoking a cigarette with a tall can of PBR, warding off the early heat of a July morning. He wears a homemade shirt that reads “Bi-curious juggalo looking for same,” and is surrounded by his sleeping bag, coolers, and camping gear in preparation for the three-day Moped Army West Coast Chapter Bi-Annual Cali Rally which begins now.

Founded in 1997 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Moped Army organization now consists of over 22 gangs nationwide all united by their semi-ironic devotion to 50cc or less. The bi-annual Cali Rally is one of many events that occur year round across the states but is mostly intended as a regional meet up for west coast riders, drawing members from LA’s Latebirds, SF’s Creatures of The Loin, Sacramento’s Landsquids, Reno’s Los Dorados, Portland’s Puddle Cutters, and Seattle’s Mosquito Fleet. All told there are 90 registered attendees at this year’s campout, but past rallies sponsored by caffeinated alcoholic beverages such as Four Loco have boosted attendance closer to 200.

This year the Cali Rally is being held at the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Plant Recreational Area in the middle of scorching hot nowhere 40 miles SE of Sacramento. Shut down in 1989 by a public referendum the plant has been mostly dismantled but the two massive concrete cooling towers remain a permanent part of the local landscape which is otherwise made up of golden, bone dry hills or vineyards sopped in nauseating chemical fertilizers.

When I finally park my car alongside the chaos of campsite number one the party has been in full swing for close to a day already.  The exhaustion of dozens of hung-over drunks is palpable and things have clearly devolved into the antics of the hot and bored. No one has seen Taggart in hours, but I am directed towards the beer and encouraged to hit the pool. The beer supply consists of 100 24 packs of Strangford Lough Brewing Co.’s Legbiter Ale which rumor has it had to be offloaded by a forklift. The cases have been lined up like a Berlin wall along the shaded picnic table and ends in a stack of 40 or so cases arranged into the shape of a throne where a guy sits grinning, with a beer, wearing little more than a sombrero.

I take a seat under a shade structure where one of two kiddie pools sits mostly full of lukewarm murky water and clumps of uprooted grass. Two guys from the Reno moped chapter Los Dorados sit in boxer briefs and aviator glasses, half submerged in the muck smoking cigarettes and ashing over the side into the marshy lawn. A guy with a sheriff’s badge attendant with the San Francisco Creatures of The Loin antagonizes the mixture, tossing in pieces of celery and empty beer bottles and soggy cigarette butts yelling “For the soup!” Finally the pool is too gross for even the severely inebriated and is drained, cleaned, refilled, and inhabited by a slightly less drunk group bearing sombreros and pool noodles.

Taggart emerges from his second mid-day sobriety nap and joins me with a beer near the shaded ale throne.  As the Landsquid catches me up on the events of the previous day someone announces a ride, prompting the sober members to rally for adventure. For a moment there is an adorable cacophony of little put puts, high squeals, and blurby blurb motor noises, but when the moped have rattled away and the cloud of dust settles there is still a lone rider frustratingly prodding his bike. The break down is so large a part of moped culture that one tends to do as much maintenance as riding, and a large part of the Moped Army web forum, the hub for most member activity, is devoted to technical questions and tutorials.

After founding the Landsquids in 2006 with a group of friends, Taggart says that membership rises and falls with the years as riders retire or move away. While the ‘squids still meet up every Friday, they rarely get together for actual rides anymore.  “We’re real domestic,” he says. “Usually we get together and cook,” as he gestures towards the Landquids’ treasurer, Steve Pappas, who stands slicing and dicing and tending to a 40 pound pig on a spit which has been roasting between hot coals and the searing sun for hours. Pappas is largely respected as the expert barbecue cook amongst the group. A few years back his house was featured on an episode of Kitchen Crashers garnering some major upgrades including a primo patio with a large grill that can be pulled out and wheeled around. A few of the Landsquids can be seen on the episode painting and hanging drywall and every time Taggart’s mother sees the rerun on TV she calls him up and tells him they’re real celebrities.

Sitting across the lawn is the Landsquids’ rival gang, The Lost Boys, not an official Moped Army chapter but pretty much a staple at any regional rally. “We used to pretend we had a rival gang called the Poopheads that we would post things about on the Moped Army forum,” Taggart says, “but then these guys showed up last year and said ‘We’re The Lost Boys and we’re your rival gang.’” The rivals sit in the corner of the campsite wearing cowboy hats and muscle tees under a superiorly professional banner proclaiming their gang name in foot high letters. In the end though there’s no real rivalry to be had. The Lost Boys ride mopeds, the Landsquids like to cook, but it’s the Landsquids who have the security as the only sanctioned Moped Army gang in town. For now.  While many unaffiliated groups have no interest in becoming “official” those who do face stiff requirements.  Every September Moped Army members sit down and review applications for new branch hopefuls, their acceptance determined by age and membership size of current group, the organization’s future plans, history of socialization and contribution to the moped community, and relationships with other existing Moped Army branches. In the end, only about 1 of every 7 branches pledging becomes sanctioned.

As evening approaches, groups of riders lounge in the warm sand of the beach at the Rancho Seco Lagoon to watch the sun set between the distant cooling towers, the dark mass of their concavity set against the wash of a neon central valley sunset. As night becomes total, the red blinking aviation lights are reflected off the silver rippled water and people begin to probe each other for pills or pot or whatever it is everybody else brought along for the night when beer is no longer enough. As bartering begins, a young guy called Ace wades chest deep into the lagoon while swathed in a thrift store prom gown and declares that today is his Quinceañera – a celebration of his latent womanhood. “This is when things get crazy,” an SF rider says, looking out at the be-gowned young man struggling in the water.

A group of Landsquids sit clumped together at the fireside, whispering and snickering over a hatching plan. Somebody says “This is gonna be great, they’ve been planning it all day,” as a guy eats the last pickle from a bottle and pours a few shots of vodka into the leftover vinegar. He reaches down to the ground and picks up a florescent glow stick to use as a drink stir and calls for everybody’s attention. They hail a big guy called Boz Swaggs to come over, announcing that this here is his initiation into the Landsquids, an honor that comes only after a dedicated six months of group participation under the watchful guidance of a gang sponsor, and then a 90% vote of confidence by the entire crew which he has received. Now Swaggs has passed all the tests but one: drinking the magic pickle potion.

Everyone is cheering and without hesitation Swaggs takes the jar and swigs it down in one gulp and everyone cheers again. “That’s it?” a guy says, “They’ve been talking about it all day, I can’t believe that was it.”

Want to know more about Moped Army? Grab a bike and log in to mopedarmy.com

*Originally published here via Sacramento Press on July 31st, 2012.