Arts & Life, Travel

Grit and Grace: Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, 2015

On the day the four of us leave, I laugh — every few kilometres or so — at how fiercely opposed to this trip the elements seem. No one hears me, of course. But these are things you do while alone on a motorcycle for the better part of a day, powerless to change a situation. My neck muscles ache. It’s difficult to keep my head straight in a wind that does not once relent on the eight-hour trip from Manitoba to South Dakota.

I drive a 1997 Honda Shadow Spirit 1100. It handles well in strong winds, poorly in rain, and worse in both. (Driving a motorcycle in a downpour ranks among the scariest things I have ever done.)

By noon the next day, having pushed through a rough start, we are in Rapid City. Our motel is there, the Lazy “U”, about twenty minutes away from the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Rapid City’s rally strip is the local Harley-Davidson dealership: a huge, paved area — dozens of acres — full of bikes, tents and concessions. When we pull up, they have us park in rows, an outward orderliness belying how radical we feel; how radical I feel.

Sturgis - sea of bikes
The parking lot at Harley-Davidson dealership in Rapid City. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

We’ve arrived a couple of days before the rally officially begins on August 3. We are there to watch the bikes roll in, to see it form, this utopia where motorcycle and leather enthusiasts gather to feel a part of something I wish Joan Didion would write about. She would capture like no one else the cultural undertones of, for instance, the ten-foot-high handgun bolted to the back of that truck cruising past us down the main strip. It’s as if the world has come too far, too fast, and this weeklong gathering is a way to set back the clock to a time before wearing the Confederate flag meant what it does today; to a time when men were wound-up masses of incomplete sentences and women liked them that way; to a time before political correctness, or cultural sensitivity.

Sturgis - big handgun

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

Sturgis is a showcase of the kinds of people the world fears, and those who, for a spell, want to be taken for such. It’s about looking dangerous while secretly wrestling with vulnerability. It’s about affecting an attitude 1,000 kilometres away from the one you left at home.

Sturgis is also about the bikes. The concerts and events are focused mostly on an audience loyal to the Harley-Davidson brand. More than one million motorcycles rolled into this year’s rally, making it the most-attended Sturgis in history. The rally began in 1938 when the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club organized a race that drew nine participants and a handful of spectators. It’s taken place every year since, except in 1942, when the Second World War put gasoline in short supply. The Jackpine Gypsies still own and operate many of the motorcycle tracks in the area. The rally they founded has grown into one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Sturgis - bison bike
A Harley-Davidson with a bison pelt draped over it. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

Even nearby Deadwood, a town famous for its historic lawlessness and site of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, hosts plenty of Sturgis traffic. It’s a convenient muster point along a popular bike route. The town has closed down its main street to all but motorcycle traffic. Bikes line each side, parked at an attractive angle in front of the shops motorcycle companies take over and occupy for the duration of the rally. In the centre of the street a slow, continuous line of bikes rumbles past an audience deeply, intensely interested in what you’re riding. Many of the motorcycles are custom. Some of them are factory Harley-Davidsons, and the fewest of them are other brands.

Sturgis - Deadwood
The town of Deadwood during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

I’m torn over why I love the Sturgis rally. I can’t decide if it’s because I’m there with good people, or because the largely libertarian area of the world I now live in is starting to change me. Or is it simply because Sturgis pokes some dormant yearning to be badass? In the saddle I wear a V-neck shirt, a Harley-Davidson skullcap, jeans, and Blundstone boots. I feel cool, affecting a rugged edge of lawlessness, danger, and solipsism (nothing in the world but me and the open road).

There’s grit at Sturgis, and grace. Many people only see the grit: the painted breasts, the nudity, the T-shirts printed with obscenities, the drugs and weapons the police seize every year. To see the grace, you have to look past what frightens or offends you. The rough, the boorish, the obscene — everyone on motorcycle found expression and redemption in the crack of the throttle, the open air, the pavement rushing by, inches below their feet.

Sturgis - poetry
Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

Because Sturgis is ultimately about the ride. Ask anyone at Sturgis and many will tell you it’s also about the road — namely the 107-kilometre loop through the Black Hills that takes you past Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, a wildlife reserve, and other sights in Custer State Park.

To see these things from a motorcycle is a unique experience. I couldn’t feel the same way about Mount Rushmore staring at it from behind a car window. On the motorcycle, I don’t feel censored; I can have heartfelt, emotional, sometimes even weepy responses to the beauty around me.

 

Sturgis - Rusmore
Mt. Rushmore, taken from a motorcycle-mounted camera. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.
Sturgis - crazy horse monument
On the road to Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

But the road is dangerous. Needles Highway has no shoulders. It weaves up and up in slow, tight switchbacks. There are few railings, and many large rock formations beautiful enough to be distracting. Each turn is a slow swipe to a new, wondrous scene, and each turn demands your full attention. Some are slow, with speed limits of between 10 and 20 kilometres per hour. You glance to the side when you can, but the bulk of the show has to be in front. The ifs are too gruesome to mention.

Sturgis - distracting corners
Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

During this year’s rally, additional triage nurses — and presumably doctors, as well — are brought in to handle the steady flow of accident victims arriving at the emergency rooms. Twelve people die in the more than 60 recorded motorcycle accidents. It’s an alarming statistic. The narrow, sometimes blind roads and intersections are swarming with bikes, and on a hot day it’s easy to go without a helmet when it’s legal to do so.

It is about the rides. It is also about the rough characters, the heat, the lone outbursts of emotion, and whatever that all means. I’m still ambivalent about what it is in me that loves this trip like I do. But I’m certain I’ll go again.

We fill our tanks the night of August 1, and set out for home at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.  For hours on the road, we pass groups of motorcycles, individuals on motorcycles, RVs towing motorcycles, all heading toward Sturgis. We are four Prairie bikers riding home against a tide of Sturgis-bound traffic. I’m already starting to think about how I’ll write about this event, which has become, for me, an almost ethereal experience, full of fascinating contradictions.

Then we push through the traffic and found ourselves once again on the open road. Before long the road flattens out. Full of mended cracks, it reminds us how close we are to returning home, and to the people we expect ourselves to be.

Sturgis - onthewayhome
Photo taken near a wind farm in North Dakota during our trip home from Sturgis, 2015. Photo credit: Toban Dyck.

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Toban Dyck is a writer and farmer living in southern Manitoba. Follow him at: @tobandyck

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