It’s poetic driving a motorcycle, but that’s the wrong word. It’s gorgeous, personal, secretive.
Riders can’t talk about what they are seeing with anyone. Their experiences, thoughts are private. It’s one of the few places and activities where men and women with calloused facades can think, reflect, experience beauty, and possibly cry while wearing aggressive-looking leathers and riding loud machines; though this can neither be confirmed nor denied. And that is how it should remain.
The wave shared among riders on the highway is forfeited during Sturgis. Respect is a given and riding with two hands is recommended. Sturgis is all about the rides, I learned.
About half a million bikes and riders descended on the otherwise sleepy and small town of Sturgis, South Dakota, from August 5 – 11 to commune with fellow enthusiasts and take in an impressive menu of events and concerts at the 73rd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the largest of its kind in North America.
The Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club hosted the first rally in Sturgis in 1938. It was a race and a few stunts, and it was called the Black Hills Classic. Only in the early ’60s did the event broaden to include other events. The annual rally was not held in 1942 due to the gasoline rationing measures during World War II.
The week-long event is a spectacle of staid hedonism, featuring many nearly-naked women, rough and tumble men, and attitudes both put-on and authentic. And it brings in more than $800 million annually to the state of South Dakota. An estimated 433,595 people attended the rally last year. Sturgis police made 218 arrests for non-traffic violations, 89 drug-related arrests, and jailed a total of 451 people.
The riders: these patriots, these die-hards holding down Fort Sturgis, one of the few remaining camps still proudly fighting a war long lost. Or so it seems. The Harley Davidson driving up and down Main Street with an oversize American flag whipping behind, and the guy walking a 12-foot, timber cross up and down the same lane waiting to spark that crucial conversation paint a picture. It’s gimmicky, but not interpreted so by everyone.
“The North won!” you feel like yelling. But the Americana is interesting to observe, and inevitably leads to discussions on passion and Canadian patriotism.
It is fantasy camp, Sturgis is, for white, thirty-something and older men and women. It is a breath of domestic air for the many tired of their families, the world, telling them to be more sensitive; tired of having to eat their vegetables. This is men and women at their most feral, at least that’s the fantasy. Eagles and freedom and buy domestic and hooray USA and you get the point. And, in contrast to whatever picture this paints, the people attending Sturgis are friendly, and ostensibly happy.
I was there, loved it, and put about 2800 kilometres on my bike in the process. I rode a ’98 Honda Shadow 1100. It’s a loud machine, made louder with after-market pipes. It’s not mine, but it was for a few days.
I rode in staggered formation between my father and oldest sibling. This was to be my first bike trip, my first foray into the je-ne-sais-quois of Sturgis. I didn’t know what this trip was all about. Yeah, it was bonding between three males who rarely do stuff together: Dad’s boys. But I was waiting for something else. And it was great.
We rode about 800 kilometres the first day, from southern Manitoba to Pierre, South Dakota, beating my previous daily record of 100 kms. I was nervous. The feeling of vulnerability that comes with driving highway speeds on a motorcycle can be crippling. And losing confidence for anxiety is not a happy place to find yourself in, especially when the bulk of the day is in front of you. But something different happened after the third fuel stop. I felt energized. The smell of canola and recently harvested winter wheat is enough to do that to a person. The American Midwest is a beautiful place, if you know where to go. The roads were bare, save for the odd group of riders making the same pilgrimage.
Witty religious slogans on church signs gave way to “Welcome Riders” and “Ride Safe” in Pierre and most other neighbouring communities. It was a warm welcome, and satisfying end to a long day on the road.
Many cart their bikes to the area, and untrailer them for the short loops through nearby towns like the old gold-rush community of Deadwood, Hill City, and attractions such as Mt. Rushmore and Sylvan Lake. Sturgis merchandise, pop-up Harley dealerships, casinos, bars, and places to buy leather vests with handgun holsters are never more than a few kilometres away. Most places block car traffic along their main streets, giving special treatment to motorcycles. The bars and merch shops open up to the streets, so riders stopping to stretch or purchase attire can watch the ongoing parade of bikes idle by, and riders driving through can rev their engines to a captive audience.
The jagged, jutting rock formations along Needles Highway in South Dakota are stunning. They reveal the obvious inspiration for Mt. Rushmore: the many deep, cavernous eyes and strong noses distinguishable in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore makes sense.
Torrential rain remains my fear, for reasons I’m sure you can all figure out. And I came face to face with it between Pierre and Sturgis. It was terrifying. It is terrifying. The hubris that propels me in other mediums could not be summoned here. Oncoming traffic could not be seen. A stop on the shoulder felt dangerous. And certainly a stop on the highway was out of the question. I had lost my crew at this point. They were miles ahead, both of them having driven in such conditions before. I plodded on, all the news stories of motorcycle deaths running through my head. I found my crew in lighter rain, waiting for me on the side of the road. We stopped at the next town and dried off under a fuel-station roof — us and about one hundred other bikers also en route and wet.
We walked the Sturgis strip the next day, mostly vendors and a street packed with bikes and people. Most people-packed places are this, but Sturgis crowds seemed an exceptional showcase of the bizarre, an interesting sampling of people. And an event I will go back to next year. The rides. Sturgis is all about the rides, and the private conclusions reached between you, the bike, and the open air.
Toban Dyck is a writer/editor/farmer. Follow him @tobandyck.
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