I was busy feeling unimpressed by Mt. Rushmore when I noticed the people around me. Four busts over a medium-sized ridge stared deadpan into the clouds as a collective image reproduced so often the original was an inevitable and sorry letdown.
The visitors, though, were something to behold. Among well-dressed Germans, Boy Scouts, sweaty fathers setting up the tripod, earnest tourists listening to the Lakota version of the audio tour as an act of solidarity and even a few Minnesotans, I also noticed bikers.
Every other person at Mt. Rushmore, after I started counting, was clad in bandanas, leather and jeans. Of vehicles in the overflow parking garage, a full two levels teemed with Harleys.
There was a one-word explanation: Sturgis.
Up to this moment, I never knew that the sleepy town of Sturgis holds one of the world’s largest annual motorcycle rallies. The event began as a single motor club’s get together, but now the average attendance during the weeklong festivities every August surpasses the population of otherwise well-behaved South Dakota. This year, early estimates had the numbers at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally exceeding 700,000. Ozzy Osbourne and Bob Dylan played and Pee Wee Herman performed the Tequila dance from his movie about his own bike.
My visit to Mt. Rushmore was now two years ago. I whistled innocently through the Black Hills and Badlands in a 19-foot camper van, with my wife and kids, thinking this would be the middle of nowhere. Then, we first spotted signs around Cheyenne in hotel and bar windows that read “Riders Welcome.”
“Where are the rides?” I asked aloud to everyone in our rolling home. The first thing that leapt to our minds involved waterslides.
But by the time we got to Keystone, the ad hoc village of Mt. Rushmore still miles from Sturgis, tricked-out bikes had overrun the landscape. We walked down the main street with its old-west style shops and saloons. Instead of horses hitched to a post, the sidewalk was lined with rows of chrome and steel shimmering in the afternoon sun.
A good friend of mine back in Pennsylvania had recently purchased a Triumph.
“The kind Dylan crashed in,” he’d remarked during my visit, after throwing open the doors to his shed. The bike had been waiting there silently, a silver and black invitation to all the places you weren’t really supposed to go. Its beauty was hard to deny. I stood there thinking that, in another life, maybe with a bigger build and less of a kneejerk aim to please everybody all the time, I could have been a biker.
I’d been on a motorcycle just once. When meeting my future father-in-law, he’d rolled his motorcycle out of his garage and asked if I wanted to take it for a spin. Quite literally at the time, I didn’t speak his language. So I responded “Yes” to the question of whether I’d ever ridden before. He started the engine for me. I hopped on, thinking this might be easier than it looked. I proceeded to plow through a row of his neatly trimmed hedges.
A fuel-injected life wasn’t my lot. But still looking at my friend’s Triumph early in our trip, and then much later finding myself in Keystone witnessing the spectacle of the Sturgis pilgrimage, I could hear the call that brought these people together, even if I knew I’d never heed it.
Richard La Plante in his book, Detours, about his trip to Sturgis, summed up the scene during the rally week as “Power and strength. Desire and sexuality.” We saw plenty of this, even well outside its epicenter. Men and women sported as little of the leather and bandana as they could in order to showcase monstrous tattoos, rippling muscles or silicon-pumped breasts while parading up and down streets and in and out of bars, swigging from open beer bottles at midday.
We tried to blend in wearing baggy T-shirts and shorts holding tightly to our daughters’ hands, not sure if we were allowed to pass freely among this crowd, but nonetheless curious.
We stopped for ice cream. As the girls sat at a storefront bench working on their cones, I noticed a woman in an all-black leather riding-suit taking pictures of them. She picked up on my suspicion.
“They’re adorable,” she smiled. She showed me the quality digital closeup she’d taken. “I can send you these photos if you want.”
She’d come with her husband, all the way from Indiana. She was a woman about twice my age, but with a lively sparkle in her eye and a trim build that made it clear she could handle several hundred miles with the wind in her hair.
“So what goes on once you get to Sturgis?” I asked her.
“Plenty I wouldn’t recommend taking the kids to.”
She was friendlier than could ever have been expected, and more open than most RVers we’d met, curtains drawn inside their air-conditioned land barges. She even later made good on her promise to email me the pictures.
The Sturgis crowd looked menacing at first glance, but the more we gawked from the bench, the more we saw an element of sincerity and goodwill. As La Plante described it, “Sturgis was like entering a different society, with a different set of values and customs. I met heart surgeons and pawn brokers, grandmas and preachers, but without the façade of money and status my interaction was at a personal level with no ulterior motives.”
Walking back to our own home on wheels, my younger daughter bumped into the leg of a gigantic bearded man in a jean vest and wraparound shades. He scowled and looked down at what must have felt like a slight breeze brushing up against him. The man’s expression softened and he removed his sunglasses.
“Oh, excuse me, darlin’,” the biker said, craning downward to her. She grinned up at him like she’d just made a friend who happened to be eleven times her size.
Surrounded by these so-called renegades and bullies I never felt in any kind of danger. Perhaps with the strength and aggression on unabashed display in the hardbodies of the bikes and in the riders themselves, there was no room for suspicion and therefore no mistrust.
More than that, they were the most grounded all of the travelers and strangers we’d met on our own searching road trip. Maybe it was just that in the dying-star days of America, their stance was the only one that made sense. The Sturgis riders will be prepared should the west return to outlaw territory. At the end of a particularly shaky decade for the country, these folks seemed to be the most likely to hold it together should the whole idea of states that are united fall to pieces. Maybe this explained all the flame and skull imagery on T-shirts and tattoos.
I wanted to see the nearby town of Deadwood, the town that resisted becoming a part of this cobbled-together country in the first place. I was interested thanks to the HBO series that depicted the town’s grudging acceptance of law and order and helped bring the word “cocksucker” to the literary high mark it enjoys today. But I figured we’d had enough. The scene at that gambling town probably turned more raw and R-rated, even though based on a tourist map, a Holiday Inn Express had gone up just around the corner from the “thoroughfare” as Al Swearengen used to refer to Main Street.
Instead, we circled back and settled into a campsite near Rushmore at Horsethief Lake. At least, the name felt dangerous.
“You think we should trade in the RV for a shiny new hog?” I wondered.
“If I remember correctly, you don’t know how to ride a motorcycle?” my wife remembered correctly.
“Also we’re renting this RV.”
“The girls could sit in a sidecar.”
“Louise needs to have her diaper changed. Nevermind, actually, I’ll do that.”
“Let’s go to Deadwood after all.”
She squinted back at me. “Are you joining a motorcycle gang on me?”
It was an idea worth entertaining for a few more hours. Well after dinner and before I went to bed, I heard a group of riders coming around the bend of the ridge road. The mountainside rumbled with the Harley engine throb that is perhaps the closest any machine in the world comes to sounding animal. One of the riders hooted to the night sky over the noise, marking his place from which the wild west may one day come again.