The sleepy town of Sturgis, South Dakota, wasn’t our planned destination, but one never knows where the road may lead.
friend, Heather, had never been to South Dakota, a north-central
American State rich in beautiful landscape and Native American history,
so we planned a road trip to the Black Hills Forest in the southwestern
part of the state.
Our timing, as
it turned out, would determine our journey. As we headed our car onto
the highway heading out of our current home state of Colorado, the 65th
annual Sturgis Bike Rally was about to begin. The rally, which attracts
motorcycle riders from all over the world, is a weeklong extravaganza
in the first full week of August. Live music is offered at most venues,
both large and small, and hundreds of vendors funnel into town. Drag
races, custom bike contests and exhibition shows are just a few of the
events offered. With a few hundred arrests and a few hundred more
emergency room visits recorded each year, the rally has a rowdy
While I didn’t think
we’d end up at the rally, I packed an array of black halters, well-worn
denim jeans and a bandana, just in case.
got our first taste of Sturgis while still 2½ hours away. In need of a
hotel room, we stopped at Edgemont, population 900. However, there were
few rooms to be found, due to its close proximity to the rally, and
those with a rare vacancy had hiked up their prices three times the
We headed on to Hot Springs, a larger town of 4,000. We had no luck there either, so we opted for plan B – camping.
|A sea of motorcycles stand on display for thousands of Sturgis visitors.|
“campground” wasn’t very elaborate — a simple strip of grass that ran
through the middle of town. Along one side ran the main street, lined
with businesses and a very busy local tavern. The other side offered
three churches. We agreed it was a good place to rest, so we parked the
car a few spots down from the only other campers present, locked the
doors, cracked the windows, and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of
loud bar patrons and Warrant, an '80s heavy metal hair band, singing
the lyrics “she’s my cherry pie” from a jukebox.
next morning, after getting ready for the day at a local convenience
store and grabbing some tasty, yet nutritionally void “croissanwiches,”
we headed north to explore the Black Hills National Forest, one of the
area’s most popular destinations. The Black Hills, which appear black
from a distance despite its green color, cover an area of 125 miles (20
km) by 65 miles (104 km) and are home to spectacular woodlands,
streams, rock formations, lakes and canyons.
we reached the well-known Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where the
60-foot-high (18 m) high heads of the four American presidents — George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln —
are carved 500 feet (152 m) above the ground in a wall of granite, I
was incredibly relieved I had dressed according to the biker dress
code. Instead of the commonly-seen khaki walking shorts, button-down
shirts and tennis shoes, there was an onslaught of boots, leather,
fringes, black tank tops cut down to there, bandanas and tattoos of
every size and subject matter.
this day, the people-watching was ten times more fascinating than the
giant stone faces. The most interesting to me were the bikers. Though
appearing a bit intimidating to some, they stopped to pose, like any
other tourist, in goofy “presidential” manners in front of the
we continued through the beautiful and curvy roads of the Black Hills,
we often shared the road with motorcycles. I spoke with bikers at every
stop, becoming more and more intrigued with the whole rally concept. I
took more than my share of photographs for couples who wanted pictures
together at scenic stops and learned many personal stories. Later that
afternoon, at a stop in Custer State Park – a scenic region containing
tall, slender rock formations, caverns and magnificent mile-high views
– I met a tall, burly man with a long, graying beard who had been
riding nonstop the last few days from Mississippi, which is a distance
of nearly 1,400 miles (2240 km). After a bit of small talk I discovered
he was surprisingly familiar with my midwestern town of Sedalia,
Missouri. We laughed over details that we both recognized from
mid-Missouri, and were even able to find a few mutually known people.
The world seemed a heck of a lot smaller at that moment.
|Bikers from all over the U.S. come to Sturgis for the annual bike rally.|
From there, our
next stop was Deadwood, a town best known as the place where the West’s
legendary figure Wild Bill Hickok met his demise in a local saloon.
This usually quiet town nestled among the hills is filled with
architecture reminiscent of the 1800s Old West. As we passed along Main
Street, we stared in awe at the motorcycles perfectly lined up for
blocks on either side of us.
It was at this
point we decided we just had to go to the rally. There was still
daylight and Sturgis was less than an hour away, so we jumped back on
the road and headed north.
As we entered the
town of Sturgis we were surrounded by hundreds of motorcycles on every
side. While the city outskirts have a modern appearance with chain
restaurants and strip malls, the heart of Sturgis is more personal,
with individual-owned establishments. The views from downtown into the
distance were of peaceful hills covered with green trees and untouched
by anything but nature. We drove along the main street of the rally at
a turtle’s pace, due to the throngs of people filing into town.
Sturgis, a town with
a year-round population of 6,400, actually grows to more than half a
million during “Bike Week,” making slow traffic inevitable.
Nonetheless, it gave us a chance to check out the chaos as people
filled the sidewalks and town residents rented out their yards, showers
and restrooms to travelers. All main-street parking was reserved for
motorcycles only, making it a bit difficult to find a parking spot.
After we finally found a place at the edge of town, we embarked on our
first walk through the hub of the activity.
|Bikers come here to kick back and relax.|
Now, I’ve been
raised around motorcycles all my life. My father always has at least
one bike in the garage and my mother, siblings and I all know how to
ride, so I’ve been to numerous races and events where I’ve seen my
share of motorcycles and bikers. However, never had I seen such an
incredible amount of either in one place. Every parking lot and most
streets were lined with thousands of motorcycles in deep metallic
colors. The artwork on the sides of tanks was detailed to perfection.
Nature scenes depicting the sunset were meticulous enough to rival a
photograph, and portraits were rendered so lifelike that the eyes
seemed to speak to passersby. The chrome was beautifully shined despite
the long trips most of these bikes had just made. There was laughter
and conversation among strangers as they checked out one another’s
through some vendor tents, which lined the main street and seemed to
offer mostly Harley-Davidson and Jack Daniels apparel, we grabbed some
dinner from one of the makeshift sidewalk cafés, and then ducked into a
local bar to whet our palates. The Firehouse Saloon, painted red with
yellow flames around the walls, was our first stop.
As we walked in, I
noticed a couple of girls with blue flames worn over their shoulders,
yet no material on their backs. I headed toward the bar where the girls
were sitting and, upon closer inspection, realized that their “shirts”
were merely painted on over adhesive patches concealing their nipples
and accented with short denim skirts. I sat with them for a while and
asked all sorts of curious questions: Where did they get it done? How
long does it last? How do the police officers react to it? The gals,
who were friendly and fun-loving, were more than happy to promote the
artist, a guy who airbrushes artwork onto motorcycles but had expanded
during Bike Week to airbrushing shirts onto women. It seems that the
paint stays on well despite humid weather, but comes off fully in a
As for the cops, the
girls hadn’t had any problems so far, although they had heard that one
woman, who had worn pasties only and no painted shirt, had been fined
US$ 90 for indecent exposure. I guess that just goes to show how much
artwork is valued in this area. The girls assured us that it was a
great way to keep cool during a summer evening.
|A live band plays in the evening at the Broken Spoke Saloon.|
We finished off the night at the Broken Spoke Saloon. A friend had told us that it was the
place to check out — and he was right. We grabbed a drink from a
bartender dressed in lace shorts, leather chaps and a bikini top, and
found a seat at one of the many picnic-type tables. Motorcycles were
once again the most prominent décor and the place had a rustic feel to
it. A band consisting of mostly graying, longhaired, bushy-bearded men
kept the crowd riled up.
As our evening wound
down, we headed back to our car knowing we’d be driving hours away to
find a place to lay our heads. The streets were still filled with
people who weren’t even close to calling it a night, and music
continued to blare from every bar and tent we passed. While the
atmosphere seemed relatively tame on this particular evening, it wasn’t
difficult to imagine that things could get pretty rowdy during this
unforgettable rally, a time when the streets are full, sleep is rare
and liquor flows freely.