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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.

“Oh. Right.”

“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.

 

 

 

 

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Nathaniel Missildine NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

39 Responses to “Riders Welcome”

  1. Dana says:

    “I hopped on, thinking this might be easier than it looked. I proceeded to plow through a row of his neatly trimmed hedges.” HA! Yes, things involving engines, chrome, steel and wheels are often much easier than they look. ;) And what a perfect way to meet your future father in law!

    Harley offers lessons in our area. Why don’t you try out a Vespa to get your feet wet? But maybe not in Paris. (I just read your piece “Driving the Star” too.) Funny stuff!

    • I’ve heard about Harley lessons and probably need to give it a real try at least once. If only I could find a place in Paris, those bikes on the street are bigger than most of the cars.

      Thanks for reading, both times.

  2. Matt says:

    Ah, man. Bikers.

    I remember when the Steel Pony Express (Louisiana’s answer to Sturgis) rolled into town the first year I was living in New Orleans. Leather and chrome everywhere in the French Quarter. I didn’t want to go out in my leather jacket, for fear that I’d be mistaken for one of them and get into some sort of social faux paux. But you’re right, for the most part they were all really friendly folks, just out looking for a good time.

    But hoo boy, do they get rowdy when they party.

    How was Deadwood? I’ve heard Kevin Costner’s restaurant has nothing but memorabilia from his movies displayed on the walls and menu entrees named after his characters.

    Also, I fucking hate Mt. Rushmore.

    • I never did actually make it to Deadwood, which was a shame because of my deep obsession with the series. I need to go back, just not in early August.

      And yes, I’ve heard Costner’s place is like a western version of Planet Hollywood. Man, what would Swearengen say? Probably something foul. Ditto for Rushmore.

    • Gloria says:

      I come from a family of bikers. My Aunt Sunny, the matriarch of my family, rode a shovelhead Harley for years and years. There was an annual motorcycle rally in southern New Mexico called Aspencade, which was a big deal to everyone. I grew up with guys named Turkey and Dirtbag and Spider. And, yeah – lots of rowdiness. I saw more bloodshed by the time I enter adolescence than I care to recall. Those were different days, though. A different ilk. (Though, I have to say, there were a couple of tremendously nice people in the crowd – like Sunny’s second husband, Cuervo, who was lovely, or her third and current husband, Eric, who is the greatest dude ever.) Sturgis is the respectable, clean cut version of Aspencade. The doctors from Omaha and professors from Duluth attend that one. Owning a motorcycle has become such a bourgeois thing since I was a kid.

      • I’m glad to hear your perspective, seeing as how my encounter with the Sturgis crowd was fairly superficial. While I was surprised by the good vibe of this biker community, I’m sure there was an uglier side that I never saw. The ugly side being, of course, what makes it more intriguing for someone with little experience with it.

        Also, I’ve read many accounts of how Sturgis has become a tame event in recent years. The year we passed through, 2008, John McCain even made a campaign stop there. So the real deal these days is probably elsewhere.

  3. Bikers are the nicest folks I swear. And Germans are the most travelin’. I wasn’t at all surprised they topped the list of those at the Mount. More vacation time than has ever been dreamed of in this country. Sigh…

    Cocksuckers is a great word. Can’t believe it was ever underutilized. At least not by me.

  4. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I had a similar experience at some biker rally at Lake Placid, NY. Nicest group of travelers I’ve ever encountered as well. Love the closing paragraph in particular — what a great image!

    • Yes, how did they come to be so nice? I guess hooting at the night sky, from the saddle of a bike or not, does wonders for a person’s mood.

      • Cynthia Hawkins says:

        I had this idea at the time that perhaps they were so nice because they enjoyed subverting the biker stereotype. Or perhaps they’re just genuinely very nice. Maybe next time you could enact a domino chain of toppling Harleys a la Pee Wee Herman and find out.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Sturgis is great…not too good for the children. The first time I went, even I was blushing from the lack of clothing on many people. When driving past Sturgis any other time of year on the interstate, it amazes me how that small town holds all of those bikers. The Hills are a wonderful place to visit in cooler weather. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you about Mt. Rushmore…for starters I am a born South Dakotan so I am true to my state. Secondly, I am a history teacher who takes pride in my country. The dozen or more times that I have visited the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore in my life are memories because each visit was with different family, friends and even a group of Swedish students, teachers and parents. Maybe it all comes with having an outdoor, site-seeing, traveling personality. Deadwood is awesome…old west gun fights in the middle of main street and the historical Mt. Moriah Cemetery above town where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried along with other notable people. The Black Hills alone bring amazing relaxation to the soul. Living in the south now, has me yearning for the calm and quiet that isn’t found in most of the U.S. any longer.

    • I can see why the Black Hills bring a relaxation to the soul, I got a hint of this on only a short visit. Also having the equally stunning Badlands adjacent to it makes your native state one of the most beautiful to me. It’s maybe then because people say the only thing to see there is Mount Rushmore that I tend to downplay the monument. Also, reading about the megalomaniacal sculptor and KKK member Gutzon Borglum and the Lakota land deals makes the whole thing less rosy. But this is our complicated history and it’s worth taking it all in.

      Thanks for your comment, I’m still yearning for that same calm and quiet too.

  6. Amanda says:

    i grew up in Sturgis (i promise it’s ok for the children), and was born in Deadwood, as that is where the doctor was on the day i decided to be born. i loved reading your perspective on my homeplace, as a visitor in an RV with a family. we often disparage the RV/onlooker/tourist types when it comes to good ole fashioned biker reality, but i like the fact that you picked up on “biker reality” in your short interactions with such. they are good peeps. solid. loyal. and will love your little girls without a dash of pedophile in ‘em. i have lived a long way away from there, for a long time. i still know “true american” through and through, from growing up every summer with all those bikers–heart surgeons and stock brokers and mechanics alike–showing up in my little corner, showing me what it’s all about. thanks for sharing the ride.
    love,
    a Sturgis Girl

    • Really glad to see natives to the area like yourself responding to this. I only captured a tiny sliver of what the region and the Sturgis folks have to offer, but it means a lot that you enjoyed reading my perspective.

      And oh, to be able to say I was born in Deadwood. Just out of curiosity, was the HBO series popular among locals, as much as it was with people like me from the coast?

    • Gloria says:

      Amanda, see my note above, to Matt. I think your experience growing up with bikers is wildly different than mine.

      That said, I’ll bet Sturgis is a blast. :)

  7. Zara Potts says:

    I really enjoyed this, Nathaniel. Very nicely written!
    We have a motorcycle rally here in NZ called ‘The Brass Monkey’ which is basically where a massive group of riders motor on through the iciest, coldest towns in the middle of winter. I’ve never experienced it firsthand, but by all accounts – it’s supposed to be 100 kinds of fun.

  8. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    Just don’t ask Lenore to teach you how to ride.

  9. Lenore says:

    i freaking love old motorcycle chicks. they are the coolest women in the world. and they are all nice and call you “sugar” or “sweetheart” or something loving like that. i wish they’d all be friends with me.

  10. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Just a few short weeks ago, my wife and I duplicated – very nearly verbatim – your spousal reality-check conversation while discussing a micro-vacation to Deadwood. Luckily we were only in our livingroom at the time so there was less chance of an impulsive mistake. We’re getting a puppy instead. Ahem. But a very butch puppy!! And we’ll name him “Tank” or “Bear” or… something not “Mister Snuggles”.

    Seriously, Nathaniel, I love reading your “family trip” pieces.

    • We recently considered a dog ourselves, but have settled on the high adventure of soon getting some guppies from the fish store. That’s right, guppies. I too might get to name one of them, so we will have Cutie, Fishy, Fishy Jr., Nemo and….Leviathan.

      Meanwhile, you should take that road to Deadwood and write something about it. The family will thank you later.

      Thanks dearly for the comment.

  11. Simon Smithson says:

    Nathan, I read this, and thought, without thinking it, if you know what I mean, Fuck this. I need to be back in the States, ASAP..

    Isn’t it odd how monuments seem so much less monumental on TV, without the aid of a zoom and a tracking score?

    And isn’t it odd how people can turn out to be amazingly friendly, just when you think they’ll be terrifying, and really, the opposite as well?

    I, too, have never ridden a bike. It’s on my life of things to do before I die.

    I enjoy these pieces of yours very much, just so you know.

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    I’ve been to both Deadwood (before it became the name of a TV show) and Sturgis, though not during the rally. A friend of mine was taken to the rally by his father when he was eight or nine, and I always thought that was a terrific germ of an idea for a movie.

    Meanwhile, I could’ve sworn the below was shot in Sturgis, but my memory seems to be wrong:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dOsbsuhYGQ&ob=av3e

    Oh, well. At least the bikers are real. Biker fashion never much changes, huh?

    • That video might as well have been Sturgis, but for the presence of Mellencamp’s hair. Otherwise, it really is true that biker fashion never changes.

      Also, it seems like a Sturgis movie would have surfaced by now, though maybe that goes against the whole spirit of the thing. Perhaps for the same reason, we haven’t yet seen a Burning Man movie.

  13. Joe Daly says:

    Killer travel piece, Nat. As a non-rider, I’ve always been curious about the participants and activities in these deals. There’s one up in Laconia, near where I grew up, where bikers would disappear for the weekend, and you’d hear the odd kid talk about his “old man heading up to Laconia,” having no idea what that meant.

    I read Jay Dobyns’ book No Angel, which gives a very different picture of rides like this, as it focuses on outlaw motorcycle clubs. It was interesting to read your experiences and hear that it’s far more about people just getting away for awhile, than assaulting each other with pool cues and snorting crystal meth.

    Any pix? Great read!

    • I’ll have to check out that Dobyns book. I’m sure the pool cues and crystal meth came out after hours, but I didn’t have the cajones (or the ride or tats) to venture into those circles. I like how these events are places where people disappear to for awhile and that somebody’s old man continues to “head up” to them.

    • Also, I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have liked, but there’s one of a couple on a orange Harley we trailed coming in from Wyoming that will be the cover of my next shitkicking country music album.

  14. Gloria says:

    Thanks for your article. Great article. It is extremely unfortunate that over the last several years, the travel industry has already been able to to deal with terrorism, SARS, tsunamis, bird flu virus, swine flu, as well as first ever entire global economic collapse. Through everything the industry has proven to be sturdy, resilient and dynamic, locating new tips on how to deal with hardship. There are usually fresh challenges and opportunity to which the marketplace must yet again adapt and reply.

    Thanks for your article.

    It was great.

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