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Steel Toe Tour
Hours: The tour is offered at 9:30 and noon Monday through Thursday, and lasts two hours.
Cost: The $35 fee includes a souvenir safety vest, commemorative pin and group photo.
Reservations: Availability is limited, and reservations are recommended (877-883-1450). Children under 12 are not permitted on the factory tours; visitors under 18 must be with an adult. No tours on weekends, major holidays or during production changes and year-end maintenance.
Restrictions: Closed-toe, low-heeled, closed shoes are required (no Crocs or clogs). Cameras and recording devices are not allowed in the factory. Bags or packages such as knapsacks, luggage or camera bags are not allowed in the facility.

It’s said that four wheels move the body, but two wheels move the soul. I didn’t really get that until recently, when I took Harley-Davidson’s Steel Toe Tour of its 650,000-square-foot Vehicle Operations Plant in York, Pa.

Going Hog Wild

Appalachian Brewing Company has several locations in the area and, lucky for us, the one at 401 Buford Avenue in Gettysburg was on our way home. ABC is known for handcrafting beers with 100% natural ingredients and a strict adherence to craft brewing standards. Flagship brews include Trail Blaze Organic Brown Ale, Water Gap Wheat, Purist Pale Ale, Mountain Lager, Jolly Scot Scottish Ale, Hoppy Trails IPA, Susquehanna Stout and a big, boozy Broad Street Barley Wine. Their menu stretches beyond the usual pub fare, with salads, soups, sandwiches and full-size meals that include Mile-high Meatloaf and Brewer’s Mac & Cheese.But after a couple of hours watching Harley-Davidsons being built, you might want to wrap your hands around the Hog Wild. This bad boy’s been rubbed, braised in beer, slow roasted, dressed with root beer BBQ sauce and tucked in a brioche roll. A pulled pork sandwich never tasted so good the perfect fuel for riding off into the sunset.

Harley-Davidson employs state-of-the-art robotics and approximately 1,000 union workers in a streamlined process that turns out Touring, Softail, CVO and Trike models on a single integrated assembly line and produces certain parts — frames, fuel tanks and fenders — for the famed motorcycle maker.

About three months ago, they introduced the Steel Toe Tour as a direct result of its ongoing dialog between company and riders. Bikers have traditionally loved the factory’s free one-hour tour, but they craved a more in-depth look at the manufacturing process. They wanted to witness firsthand the art of US-made steel being stamped, pressed, forged, formed, welded and dressed into the stuff of their dreams.

The Steel Toe Tour is not for the faint of heart: It lasts a full two hours instead of one, involves a $35 admission fee and takes visitors right out to the middle of the factory floor. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better tour experience, a bigger dose of pride in American craftsmanship or a more interesting slice-of-life — all in well under three hours of the nation’s capital.

Small groups are outfitted in the requisite boots, protective eyewear and Hi-Vis vests before being led past the perimeter and into another world, where the sights, sounds and smells of manufacturing surround. A laser-wielding robot takes aim to cut front fenders and drill bolt holes with great precision, resembling a scene from Tony Stark’s basement. But more commonly the endeavor is a well-executed ballet of man and machine, with the line between the two often blurring.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the welding of the Touring frame. A human operator preps a 1,000-pound fixture and sends it into a gigantic cell, where robotic helpers are at-the-ready. The tight team of six welds and moves the fixture in a shower of sparks, completing 264 linear inches of welding in four minutes flat.

After it’s returned to the human welder for inspection and touch-up, the frame and tail section go back to the cell to be placed on an exit conveyor. Frames are then loaded on to a battery-powered automatic guided cart, which follows a magnetized strip on the floor and cues up for painting.

Particularly fascinating is a lesson on the powder-coating process, in which negatively charged paint powder is sprayed onto positively charged parts and then baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, much like a cinnamon bun. Human touch-up artists take a trip through the wind tunnel — you can, too — and suit up to prevent dust and lint from getting in the finished work.

Videos along the tour explain parts of the process you can’t see, but there’s plenty to take in, all the same. Sparks fly, engines rev and the smell of paint lingers in the air. Bruce Springsteen provides the soundtrack from a distant work station, competing with the din and just barely winning. As far as tours go, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

A motorcycle is technically born in the USA when it gets stamped with a VIN, and then it enters the assembly line for the final journey. Remember the automated guided carts? The York plant employs a sizeable fleet and assigns one to carry each motorcycle on its entire trip through assembly. With all those driverless vehicles running around the floor, it’s imperative that visitors stay together, listen to the tour guide and obey the red-light-green light system on the factory floor.

When the tour is over, you’ll wonder where the two hours have gone. Even if you’re not particularly into all things automotive, there’s a certain level of patriotic pride in touring a real live manufacturing facility that, while highly mechanized, has still managed to keep its heart and soul.

Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the Mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.