For most every human interest or endeavor, there is a “Mecca”, representing the ultimate pinnacle of that interest. For climbers, it is Everest; for pilots, Oshkosh; for adventure travelers, there’s Machu Picchu; for surfers, it’s Oahu’s North Shore; and for bikers, it’s.. well.. Sturgis.
For some 75 years now, motorcyclists have converged every August for a week-long celebration in the little town of Sturgis, South Dakota (pop. 8,000). My own infatuation with motorcycles was rekindled about 5 years ago after a 20 year hiatus. My “collection” has grown from a humble 70’s BMW airhead, to include a Norton Commando, 1980 Honda CBX 6 cylinder, and most recently, a new Indian Chief Vintage.
When I discovered last Fall that this year’s Sturgis Rally would be in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the event, drawing an estimated one MILLION bikers, I decided it was high time to “go to the mountain top”.
Last October, I suggested the possibility of the ride to Sturgis to my good friend and fellow biker Nathan Gibson. To my surprise, without a moment’s hesitation, Nathan accepted the challenge. Now, if you were to take 10 guys who agreed, some 10 months in advance, to participate in a roughly 3,000 mile motorcycle adventure; as the date became closer, at least 9 out of those 10 guys would have managed to come up with some flimsy excuse as to why they couldn’t make it. Nathan was that remaining 1 out of 10! In short order, he took on the task of arranging (successfully) accommodations in the Sturgis area. And as time wore on, Nathan’s enthusiasm and obvious commitment to the trip, was infectious.
Truth be told, as I began to read about the million-plus projected bikers for this year (almost double the normal attendance), and to ponder the prospects of a 3,000 mile ride through tortuous Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas 100+ degree days, my own resolve began to wane. But Nathan’s continued enthusiasm removed any hesitation I might have had, and insured that our trip commenced as planned.
Thus it was, at 5 AM on an early August morning (in a vain attempt to beat the Texas heat), we two bikers loaded up and launched off on what would become the adventure of the year. Nathan on his late model Harley-Davidson, and me on my shiny-new Indian Vintage Chief.
There was some concern whether an Indian and a Harley would be compatible roadmates, but over the miles each bike faithfully accepted the challenge, performing admirably without complaint or issue. Neither bike used nor leaked a drop of oil during the entire journey.
Our adventure encompassed the full range of experiences. We rode in temperatures from a low of 55, to a high of 106 (Yes, that’s right, REALLY.. 106 degrees as verified with my onboard ambient temperature display). We stayed in motels ranging in price from $40 to $125/night (Sturgis area, naturally, and a bargain at that). We traversed Texas panhandle mesquite-scrub range land, Colorado high plains, Kansas flat prairies, Nebraska rolling grasslands, and South Dakota/Wyoming verdant Black Hills terrain. We rode in sunny, no cloud days, foggy days with visibility no more than ¼ mile, heavy rain downpours (not by choice), and even encountered ½” hail at one point in the journey.
I am convinced that riding a motorcycle is just about the most enjoyable encounter man can have with any machine, and the Indian proved itself to be an incredibly roadworthy creation. What a satisfying feeling cruising down the road with that big, modern V-twin rhythmically pulsing away, never missing a beat. The exhaust sound is just right.. not too loud, not too quiet. When even the steepest grade is encountered, even in 6th gear, a nudge on the throttle is all that is needed to keep the pace. The only difference being that exhaust note takes on an even deeper bass tone, giving no doubt that there are gobs more extra torque available, just for the asking.
There are the sounds, the smells, the 270 degree view at all times, the direct connection between rider and machine (I can usually FEEL a tire pressure difference of 2-3 PSI), the subtle way the bike responds to the lightest commands.. all combine to make motorcycling a truly unique experience.
One of my favorite aspects of biking is the necessity of giving 100% attention to controlling the bike and avoiding obstacles. As an old pilot once said to me “I sit on the edge of my seat from the time I take off until the time I land”. Any biker hoping to avoid quick membership in the Darwin Society would do well to heed that advice. Following that creed leaves no room for other distractions, and fortunately, there are few available on a bike. No radio to tune, no cellphone to answer, no GPS to program while moving… Just the road, the engine, and other traffic to observe. This frees the brain up in one of those rare instances where there are no distractions to deep introspection, meditation, and examination. Some of my best epiphanies have occurred while on a motorcycle.
Bikes were made for curves, and we found plenty through the mountains of South Dakota, including one of our favorite routes: Spearfish Canyon (footage included in the video). And the Indian leapt at the opportunity to prove its mettle. Approach a sweeping turn, and the lightest, most intimate touch on the handlebar commands the bike to enter and hold the perfect line through the curve.
From the beginning, I had harbored two nagging concerns about the trip. One, the extreme high temperatures we were sure to encounter, and two, dealing with the expected crowds at Sturgis. As it transpired, there were only two short segments along the route where conditions would definitely have qualified for the United Nations definition of torture: a 2 hour mid-afternoon sprint from Lubbock to Amarillo on the way up, and a similar afternoon span on the way home from southern Kansas to Abilene. For the remainder of the route, we were able to minimize our heat index by employing judicious 5:00 – 6:00 AM departure times. Once we reached northern Kansas, the ambient temperature had dropped a good 10-12 degrees, resulting in positively frosty mid-80 degree riding conditions.
Our Sturgis home was a motel in the little town of Sundance, Wyoming (pop. 1100), where we found a friendly and accommodating staff, and a quiet, relaxing little village far enough away from Sturgis (55 miles) to avoid the madding crowds.
We had elected to spend just one day in Sturgis itself, the Saturday of the ending weekend. Fearing the worse, crowd-wise, I convinced Nathan that we should head out of Sundance by 7:00 AM in order to secure a good parking spot on main street. Sure enough, our 7:00 departure found us taking the exit into Sturgis about 8:00 in the morning. To our immediate surprise, we just motored right through town toward Main.. there were, of course, lots of bikes on the road, but not sufficient quantity to hamper our progress. Upon reaching main street, we were astounded to find that no more than 25% of the available parking spaces were occupied. We selected a choice spot at “ground zero” roughly equidistant from the 8-block-or-so length of Main Street. I was elated at our good fortune, but somewhat disappointed at the sparse crowd.
I asked Nathan, “where are all the bikers?” “Don’t worry” he says, “They will come”. Sure enough, by 11:00 or so, the streets were packed with bikes and bikers.. all spaces filled, but with a steady stream of additional incoming bikes. As Main Street filled, the intersecting streets began filling up as well, until Sturgis, as promised, became one thriving mass of bikes and people. We found our fellow bikers to be courteous, respectful, and friendly. Most just hard working folks coming here on their vacation. Sturgis has no traffic lights.. just 4-way stop sign intersections, and traffic flowed efficiently and courteously, without any need for honking horns on one-finger salutes.
The attendance on Saturday and Sunday was reported down some 25% or more from earlier days in the week (the rally runs from Monday through the following Sunday). Our guess is that many attendees are working folks, taking a week’s vacation, then traveling on the first weekend, and returning home on the second. All the better for us, as we got to experience all the sights and sounds of Sturgis, without the rumored long lines.
Most surprising, given the huge presence of bikers, was the lack of lines for any services. Whether it be looking to purchase a souvenir, use the bathroom, get a beer or something to eat.. there just weren’t any lines! We were able accomplish all we had set out to see (including an incredible vintage bike museum right on main street) without encountering the crush of humanity we had been led to expect.
One day of Sturgis itself seems sufficient. With the exception of the numerous night time concerts (with some pretty big names), each day in Sturgis is pretty much a repeat of the previous. Therefore, we opted to devote our final day in South Dakota to touring some of the beautiful Black Hills. Our favorite route was Spearfish Canyon.. too beautiful to describe in narrative, so be sure to watch the video for those scenes.
The North-South road map between Texas and South Dakota offers two distinct and separate routes of almost identical mileage, and each comprised of mostly non-freeway, lightly traveled (but paved) back roads. We opted for the Lubbock-Amarillo-Colorado route north-bound, and then our return route was more easterly, through central Nebraska and Kansas, and skirting the east-most border of the Texas panhandle through Abilene. Our departure to Abilene was delayed by rain, which pushed our last leg in late afternoon, just in time for us to reach our personal best of 106 degree riding temperature! It was so hot I elected to reduce speed from the posted 75 mph down to about 60, concerned that the engines might just give up if flogged so hard. Not to worry though, both of those meaty V-twins just kept chugging along without complaint, a real tribute to American technology and ingenuity!
CLICK HERE to read riding partner and published author Nathan Gibson’s day-by-day account of our trip.
… phil auldridge