The turbulent descent into Rapid City, South Dakota on the night of August the 8th was only the beginning of our trip into the soul of American motorcycle culture. Prior to the trip I primed my imagination by reading Hell’s Angels and watching The Wild One, Easy Rider, and a number of documentaries about outlaw motorcycle culture. I was prepared to see scenes of decadence and depravation and the stormy landing and subsequent drive through the darkness to our campsite west of Sturgis was only adding to the ominous feeling I had about being in the midst of all of this chrome, leather, and alcohol. The only light on the drive was from hundreds of bikes going up and down I-90 as well as the occasional lightning flash that would illuminate the profiles of the tree-topped Black Hills. We met our contacts at the bottom of Exit 34 and followed them down a side road to our berth at Suzie’s Campground, a horse pasture turned campsite during the week of the rally. Our contacts, R & K, are long time Harley riders who are visiting Sturgis for the first time since the early nineties. They arrived the weekend before and were quite glad to see us – oh, and by the way, they are also my in-laws. After unloading our gear and having the first of many cold beers we settled into our loft space in the pull-behind camper and passed out after a long day of travel.
The next morning we awoke to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and the jingling of the tags hanging around the neck of R&K’s rat terrier, Bella. That morning’s ride into Sturgis was the first time I had been on the back of a motorcycle in over twenty years and by the time we parked it fifteen minutes later I was convinced that I must have one of my own. The wind and the noise and the thought that one mistake would spell the end of you makes for an excitement that I haven’t felt since my first days bombing hills on a skateboard – it’s the natural next step for a person who has an appetite for adventure and a love of the open endless road.
Main Street Sturgis is the beating heart of the rally. Bikes are parked in a double row down the center and a single row on each curb. People roam the two sides of Main looking at the circus rumbling in and out of narrow parking spots and occasionally duck into one of the numerous t-shirt shops to assess this year’s batch of shirts, leather, and lingerie. Besides drinking and riding it seemed that the most important task was to find that perfect shirt or vest patch that would show everyone in your hometown that you were indeed in Sturgis during the Holy Week and that you survived. I kept my eye out for the shirt that would suit my minimalist style but left town empty-handed. Perhaps my standards are too high.
I spent this first day walking around with the family making photos and exploring the scene. My steady diet of outlaw literature convinced me that I was going to witness some general badassery but after a few hours on the streets I was convinced otherwise. Everyone is so damn happy to be in Sturgis and they are ready to talk about what you ride and what they ride and where you’re from – it’s almost like a gigantic family reunion where even the weird cousins from down south show up and turn out to be stand up people who just happen to like walking around topless. We sat down at a picnic table in The Knuckle (a bar) and I struck up a conversation with a guy who rode up from Nebraska. He asked if we were first timers – it must be obvious – and then showed me a tattoo on his arm listing all of the years he attended the rally since 1988 – only missing it once in 2010 next to which was inked JAILED.
I was nervous about taking photos of people on the street so I decided to sacrifice some spontaneity and ask permission rather than risk getting four rings and a fist to the face. When I asked the bouncer at the Dungeon Bar if I could snap a quick picture he smiled and said go right ahead then as soon as I had the lens on him he gave me a gaze that he must use to scare the rebellion out of rowdy customers – I appreciated the gesture and was quite fond of his ability to pull off that hat.
At around 5pm the town settles a little bit while everyone grabs a bite to eat and prepares their livers for a long night. We had some steaks on the grill and a quick bone-chilling shower then returned to town where we occupied a rare empty table on the third-floor balcony of the Easyriders Saloon. The saloon is owned by Easyriders magazine, covers an entire city block, has four bars, three music venues and enough scantily dressed waitresses and bartenders to make a monk change his mind.
After we drank the third-floor bar out of Tanqueray we walked over to the Loud American Roadhouse to see what the bands were like. The outdoor tent was featuring country acts so we have no idea what went on in there. Inside the main building a reasonably entertaining cover band called Dirty Word was finishing up their finale medley that started with Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and ended with something by Led Zeppelin but I can’t read my notes so the actual song will remain a mystery. The next band, Judd Hoos, was just terrible but it started to rain hard outside so we had to stay to wait it out. At one point he sang a country version of 99 Problems – my status from Facebook that evening summed it up well – Imagine a cover band fronted by Geddy Lee singing Smells Like Teen Spirit then switching to a country version of 99 Problems. Once the weather let up we finished our drinks and made a beeline for the truck and spent the rest of the night listening to the rain.
Friday was the day of the Jackpine Gypsies Pro Hillclimb so R and I climbed on the bike and headed over while the ladies went for a drive into the country to see Spearfish Canyon.
The Jackpine Gypsies MC started the rally way back in 1938 and still own the racetrack and hillclimb and by the looks of it they haven’t renovated it since then. The spectator area at the bottom of the hill consisted of a few rows of bleachers and some room for tents and lawn chairs – I was a little put off by this lack of seating at first until I realized that spectators are allowed to line the track all the way to the top and can sit anywhere there is room on the hillside.
When I was growing up in small town Iowa the city would host Go-Kart races that used the city streets as the track with little more than hay bales to keep the riders from hurtling into people’s yards. After awhile insurance got to be an issue so events like that all over the US began to fade away. The hillclimb at Sturgis must be one of the few remaining events where you have such close access to the track as well as the riders and their equipment. More than a few times while taking photos I had to turn away from a rooster tail of red clay and large stones, one of which struck me square between the shoulder blades. Even though it hurt a little I was totally jazzed to be so close.
For those of you who have never seen a hillclimb it is very simple – go like hell and make it over the top in the quickest time possible. Here are a few photos from the bottom up.
I never did find out who won the damned thing because I could not hear the announcer from my position but it really didn’t matter. Each rider was insane to a certain degree and threw themselves and their machines up the mountain with an admirable zeal.
Our final night on the town was spent again at the Easyriders Saloon but this time in the main pavilion where we saw Great White, but not the original Great White – Apparently they broke up at some point in the last few years so this version was the one with the singer. I would say that Jack Russel (yes, that’s his name) was medicated to a certain degree based on his ramblings about love and loved ones but his singing voice sounded as it should. They played a lot of new songs that we had very little interest in so the night was spent drinking gin with weird tasting tonic until we were again saved by a fast moving rain storm – Also, they never played Once Bitten, Twice Shy, which was a total rip off!
The next few days we explored the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower, which I will save for another post, so the Great White show was the nostalgic exclamation point at the end of our Sturgis sentence. What I thought was going to be a quick look into the rowdy inner workings of motorcycle culture really turned into more of an introduction to and invitation into the family. Although there were fights and evil happenings throughout the rally it was predominantly a peaceful (though not quiet) gathering of a lot of very like minded individuals who are normally on the outside looking in. It was an experience we won’t soon forget.
Want to see more bikes and stuff? Well here you go.
That’s all for now. Keep it between the lines and check back soon for a post about Devil’s Tower and how we saw a mountain lion but we don’t have any proof.