A Man Who Rides ~ a Flashback to Sturgis, SD
A couple days ago, as I payed the reasonable $3 toll to enter West Virgina, I had a flashback of something from my travels that I’ve yet to scribe into being. I was inspired by a group of motorcycles parked together like a group of military horses, two by two. The bikes were Harleys, every last one, and the riders popped saddlebags and situated themselves in their sexy leather pants. I couldn’t help but think of Sturgis.
Sturgis was founded in the 1870s in the Western Expansion, but it didn’t become the Sturgis people now recognize until the late 1930s. A motorcycle racer and businessman named J.C. “Pappy” Hoel decided to stir up fun with a dirt track race. From there grew the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. I’ve never heard anyone name the town who wasn’t a rider.
So, how did I end up in Sturgis? By chance. By fate. By audacity. My stay at the Gold Dust Hotel in Deadwood, a town thirty miles away, has still been the most expensive night on my journey. I didn’t plan on arriving during the motorcycle rally, I wanted to see a simulated pioneer town. I’ve taught American Literature for years, and I’ve long imagined the landscape of Bret Harte’s “Luck of Roaring Camp,” or Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. At the age of eight, I panned for gold in the American River on a school trip to Old Coloma. The legends of the Old West, a society still in the midst of making itself, fascinate me. That was my plan: see the streets where standoffs were customary. Sit on benches where ladies sat a hundred years prior holding new-bought bolts of fabric to make dresses, with knives hidden in their corsets. But that was not the Deadwood I landed in. Every sidewalk was lined with bikes. I had walked into Easy Rider on steroids.
In the second week of August the entire Black Hills region of South Dakota turns into an extension of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I didn’t know what that meant, I still kindof don’t. When I asked the hotel concierge, she said the same thing I guessed – it’s a giant party. I figured it was like the gay pride march, but for motorcyclists. I wonder how many bikers would want to slap me for saying that. Every countercultural group needs to party, right? I envisioned concerts, shows, and food trucks, and I found that. But it was the first place I felt alarmingly out of place.
I grew up riding motorcycles. Or rather, on the back of motorcycles. On weekends I spent at my dad’s house, I’d coerce him into taking me on rides to the coast, where we’d get coffee and lemon cake at the Tomales Bakery. At one point, he handed me his beat up copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I never finished, but still loved. If you haven’t read it, the book covers a journey two men take on motorcycle and poses some philosophical theories. I didn’t agree with the fact that “classical” bikers who can repair their own bikes are of greater value than “romantics” who cannot. I wonder if today it would be applicable to the macbook I type on, which I certainly can’t repair, but have used well to write poems essays and curriculum. Anyhow, my father loved his motorcycles, and he liked fixing them as much as riding them. I remember one year he and his friend David Traversi rode out to the Sturgis Rally from Petaluma, cruising the blue highways of Nevada, Utah and Wyoming on their Honda Goldwings. They came home sore from the ride with wonder in their eyes.
With my dad’s encouragement, when I turned eighteen I took the discounted motorcycle training course at the old coast guard station by Stinson beach. I passed the course, but I didn’t get the license. I wasn’t ready. Drop a bike five times, and you’d think twice too. At that time I was smoking weed daily, and drifting through hallucinogens on weekends. I could barely drive a car, let alone a bike. I was, and still am, a romantic. So I settled for riding shotgun when the opportunity came my way. It just didn’t come my way all that often.
And at Sturgis, it wasn’t just the bikes on parade, but the romance of life on that edge. It’s wonderful to splay out our weirdness in the company of those who share it. It blew me away to see riders cruising long winding roads without helmets. I stood out terribly. First of all I was driving a small blue commuter car. I don’t wear or even own, any logo clothing. My single tattoo is business-safe: a giant compass rose on my upper back. I walked in like I was wearing a shark costume to a fancy dress party. All of this I saw on my way to reception. So, at the hotel I whipped off my yellow sundress, stepped into skinny jeans and a tight black tank top, and viola! Time to pretend.
After a windy cab ride from Deadwood to Sturgis – where would I park a car!?- I took it all in. I strolled up Main Street and looked towards the Sturgis sign on a hillside in the distance. I was still in mountainous terrain. The air was clean and temperate. There were more bikes parked on the street than I’d seen in the past ten years. Most bikes were standard cruisers, Harleys, Hondas, etc.. But I saw one tricked out with comics painted on the sides of the saddlebags. There were bikes with flames, bikes with bodies shaped like taxidermic animals, bikes with three wheels, and even a few bikes with flashing night lights like Vegas or Burning Man. And then there were the bike clubs. I couldn’t help but notice the vests with hand sewn patches with codes like the lingo under senior portraits: belonging as easy as a strip of fabric. But it’s not, never is. I was pitched tattoos, bandanas, stripper heels, corndogs and even a cell phone charger. But I just wanted to walk around and talk to people. Who is a biker today? Who is a Sturgis biker I wondered?
It's strange, because though I am not a biker, I am a traveler. I know, and love, the pull of the road. At hour two or three, when your body gets uncomfortable, and you weary of your music or book on tape, you have to fold back into yourself. I understand how the new scenery invites us to see more of ourselves. I have a hard time staying in one place, conforming to one set of rules. I like rules, I just don't know which ones are the right ones. Here at Sturgis, it seemed that there weren't many rules at all. Park your bike close to the one next to it. Eat, drink, play.
Anyhow, after a slice of pizza, I found myself front and center at the Loud American Bar. I scored a prime location in the front porch, perfect for people watching. I looked at the groups of people—lots of couples, and groups of men. I was surprised that most of the people were over forty, and wondered if biking is something people begin now later in life. Millenials and Gen-Xers seem happy to live in big cities, which is a terrible place to ride any kind of cruiser. But the average age could have also been due to the early hour of 8pm. I sat down on a bar stool holding my silver bottle-can of Budweiser, and eyed the group of rowdy men in front of me. They all clinked their glasses together and shouted “Oy oy oy!” I though, holy hell, I don’t want to talk to these guys.
And of course, twenty minutes later, I had been subsumed by the group. It’s been a few weeks now, and I don’t remember all of them. But the person who brought me into the group was a goateed man in his mid forties, six foot five, from Australia.
“You came from Australia? For this?” I asked.
“Yes! Of course,” he’d said. “Look around, it’s the biggest rally in the world. So we saw you from over there, and we agreed. You can’t come to Sturgis and sit alone at the bar.” Shortly he’d introduced me to a few friends, and his wife, who’d been sitting further down. It became clear that this wasn’t one group of men, but a few who’d piled together. A party is a party, and this was a good one. Most of the men there were married, and left their wives at home. With each man, I asked about why he came to Sturgis, whether he’d come before, and what kind of bike he rode. I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t riden into town on my own bike. But I wasn’t ashamed - I was there in homage to my father. And in dumb luck.
In this cluster, there was a group of guys from Ohio, one of whom visited the SF Bay Area often. It was pleasant to talk to someone who knew my old world. This man worked in sales, and like many who do, could coax a conversation out of anyone. There is a gift I wonder if I possess that sales people have – just putting their conversational partner at ease. He gave me the most hassle about coming to Sturgis in a car, and it cracked me up. He also lifted his eyebrows at me when I said I wouldn’t do shots when fifteen tequila shots arrived at the tiny bar table. Was I going to shout “Oy oy oy?” Sure, but no tequila.
“Wild child, huh?” he asked.
“Adventurer, yes. Tequila drinker, no” I said.
“It’s Sturgis. Really? Come on.”
“I have to find my way back to my hotel solo. You have a posse of travel mates if you get wasted.”
“Okay, fine” he replied.
At that I felt both respected and seen. Here I was in the middle of the rough-and-tumble community of motorcycle riders, and they were some of the kindest men I’d met. I felt I with someone who could be a real friend. I left shortly after, and made sure to say goodbye. I had in front of me a six hour trip across South Dakota, and hopefully a visit to Mt. Rushmore National Monument and the Badlands National Park.
I’m still traveling, and every time I see a cruiser on the highway, I smile. I roll down my windows and imagine what it would be like to be part of that world, to be that vulnerable on the road. It still feels like rebellion, like James Hurley, Laura Palmer’s secret boyfriend in Twin Peaks. I carry so much comfort in my car. The restlessness that invokes speed on a bike is one I can relate to. I’m just not skilled enough to pilot that adventure. I’ve always thought of my dad when I see bikes on the Sonoma highways. But lately, as I pass these big groups of motorcycles on the highway, I think of the good men I met at Sturgis. There’s something damn cool about a man who rides motorcycles.