Ever go on an adventure so engrossing that upon your return home, you find it takes several days (and daydreams) to recover? That’s squarely where I am right this moment, 11:53 p.m. on a Wednesday night, as I struggle to come down from the high of last week’s 77th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. What a scene.
Now, I’ve only been into motorcycling for the past few years, but I’ve long known about Sturgis. My uncle Roger attended several times, riding his big ol’ Harley over from Northern California, and his recollections made it sound like a pretty wild and wonderful gathering of half a million likeminded motorheads. My only regret is that at the time these tales meant little to me, and now that he’s ridden off into this plane’s sunset I’ll never get to hear them again.
One silver lining: His stories made enough of an impression that when South Dakota Tourism invited me to stay at The Legendary Buffalo Chip and take in the festivities, I accepted in less time than it takes to push start an Indian Scout motorcycle. And not long afterward, there I was.
And while it’s impossible to really do it justice, here are some pictures of and words about the people, the wheels and the scenery. At the very least, I hope they’ll help you feel the rumbling throttle of the experience—and, from that great motorcycle rally in the sky, make Uncle Roger smile …
Cruising the grounds, I couldn’t help but imagine some sort of Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic scenario where the only transportation is two wheeled, heavily bearded humans mill about in tattoos and black leather… oh and bikini’ed beauties wash all the grit out of your bike with big grins. Which I guess is kinda the opposite of dystopia.
1. The people are about as friendly as they come.
From the moment I landed in Rapid City, a good 35 miles southeast of Buffalo Chip, I had a pretty good vibe. Mostly because my seatmate, a laconic fellow also named Steve, graciously offered me a ride there in his boisterous buddy Frank’s pickup truck. Considering it was late Saturday night and I sensed cabs might be scarce, I was pretty stoked. And that human congeniality carried through most of my trip, as I met people from all over the continent, with all sorts of backgrounds.
Granted, most were on vacation, which tends to brighten one’s mood, but some were working. Exhibit A: KK (below right), a Nashville bartender who flew in to make some quick cash—many young people do, as a town of about 7,000 imports loads of workers to accommodate the massive influx that generates, no joke, $800 million in revenue. “I love Sturgis,” said KK, whilst slinging drinks at The Beaver Bar. “You meet people from all over the country. Cool people. It’s an opportunity to be yourself and not be judged.” Damn straight.
2. The Legendary Buffalo Chip is a true moto oasis.
If you’re looking for the epicenter of the Sturgis rally—or one of them, anyway—look no further than this 600-acre campground about four miles east of town. The brainchild of attorney and CPA Rod Woodruff and some friends, the Chip has hosted tens of thousands of RV campers for more than 35 years. What makes it so popular? It’s loaded with attractions, including an exhibition area called The Crossroads, a party cove called Bikini Beach, loads of temporary bars and food stands, and a massive amphitheater hosting everything from races to beauty pageants to concerts every night.
Naturally, there are motorcycles—mostly Harleys—everywhere, which is both awesome and kinda trippy. Cruising the grounds, I couldn’t help but imagine some sort of Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic scenario where the only transportation is two wheeled, heavily bearded humans mill about in tattoos and black leather and there’s always a healthy line for $16 12-packs of PBR. Oh and bikini’ed beauties wash all the grit out of your bike with big grins. Which I guess is kinda the opposite of dystopia.
3. American Flat Track is grassroots moto racing at its finest.
If MotoGP is the F1 of motorcycle racing, American Flat Track is its NASCAR—lively, visceral and accessible to anyone who’s ever played Excitebike. At its highest level, racers ride 750cc Harleys, Indians and other makes you can easily picture yourself astride. And the Sturgis TT (which began a three-year contract this year) was an excellent showcase of what makes this sport so compelling. On a twisting, technical dirt track plopped right in the middle of the amphitheater, racers battled all night for supremacy, negotiating tight turns with AFT’s trademark move—one foot grazing the gravel to maintain control without sacrificing speed.
And talk about spills: After multiple crashes and restarts, Henry Wiles appeared headed for victory when his Kawasaki Ninja started leaking oil, sending second-position rider Brian Bauman into an uncontrollable slide. But things turned around, as Wiles’ bike proved too damaged to continue and Bauman held on for the win. Perhaps even more exciting? During the second semifinal, Sammy Halbert’s Yamaha FZ-07 experienced a mechanical failure during the last half lap. Undeterred, he hopped off the bike and literally pushed it to the finish line to narrowly qualify for the final. As thousands of spectators hooted and hollered, I could only reflect that you sure don’t see that kinda thing in MotoGP.
Source: American Flat Track
4. Bikers really care about—and are—the troops.
Just looking around at the various tattoos and vests and talking with people, I was quickly reminded just how many brave servicemen and women make up the motorcycle community—and how that community loves and supports them. It’s not just the incredibly powerful Field of Flags, Battlefield Cross Sculpture and Veterans Memorial Wall pictured below. In addition to these moving tributes, Buffalo Chip hosts nearly a dozen events, exhibits and on-site veterans organizations supporting and honoring those who have served.
One of the higher-profile ones is freestyle motocross legend—and husband of Pink—Carey Hart’s Good Ride Rally, a fundraiser for the Infinite Hero Foundation. “My wife’s family is all military,” he told a few journalists during a brief meet and greet. “My brother-in-law is a Sergeant in the Air Force and her dad and stepmother both did tours in Vietnam, and it’s just really sad to see what happens when people come back, they go get tore up to defend our country and then they come back and get thrown to the wayside. So we try to raise money to make a difference. If we can help out a little bit, it’s better than not.” I don’t care what your political views are—that’s the kinda thing we should all be able to get behind.
5. If you’re gonna do Sturgis right, it helps to have a kickass bike.
OK, I can’t go any further without paying tribute to my ride for the week: A gorgeous 2018 Indian Scout boasting 100-horsepower V-Twin engine, stunningly smooth 6-speed transmission and the sweetest retro styling this side of a custom bike show. I rode it all over Buffalo Chip, Sturgis and the state of South Dakota (see it posing in front of Spearfish Canyon’s Bridal Veil Falls below), rolling up some 500 miles in just a few days. Between the surprising power and the double-takes from passersby, this thing brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined. They say money can’t buy happiness, but if it can buy you one of these bikes, “they” are wrong. OK, I’ll shut up now, before my girl back home catches wind.
6. Although it’s not the only motorcycle that looks really fuckin’ cool.
Check out the below photo of the vintage BSA from J Shia’s Madhouse Motors at the Motorcycles as Art show. Think it pretty much speaks for itself.
7. Yes, it’s mostly dudes, but the women you do see will often blow you away.
So there can be no denying that Harley motorcycle culture is pretty overwhelmingly male, a fact that is very much evident around the rally. So many dudes, mostly middle-aged and white. And yet, there’s plenty to turn any red-blooded heterosexual American man’s head. Because from the seductively dancing Flaunt Girls and the scantily clad Miss Buffalo Chip contestants to the costumed Broken Spoke Saloon bartenders and this mysterious Harley-riding babe, beautiful distractions abound. Oh, and I wasn’t lying about lovely girls in bikinis washing bikes either…
8. Ozzy Osbourne can still really sing!
I’ve now seen him twice in the past couple years, and despite pushing 70, the bloke brings it. My only regret about the below “War Pigs” audience participation clip is that it lacks what I now consider Ozzy’s signature catchphrase: “I can’t fucking hear you.” Which, given the heavy metal icon’s advanced age, he may mean quite literally.
9. South Dakota has not one but two epic sculpted monuments.
So everyone knows about Mt. Rushmore, and I was pretty stoked to ride the Scout an hour south of Sturgis to check it out. And while it’s quite a spectacle, I found myself even more moved by another massive sculpture about a half hour west: Crazy Horse, an amazing Native American memorial that this Polish dude named Korczak Ziolkowski started work on all by himself way back in the 1940s. Depicting the great and uncompromising Oglala Lakota leader Tȟašúŋke Witkó (translation: His Horse Is Crazy) astride a mighty steed and pointing out over the land, it will easily dwarf Rushmore and pretty much every other manmade sculpture in the world when it’s done.
That being said, it’s nowhere close at the moment, with just the fellow’s gigantic 87-foot head visible so far, so it’s almost quixotic. Yet at the same time the project has grown into this amazing complex that nurtures Native American culture—and Native Americans—themselves while not taking a dime of government money, and many of Ziolkowski’s 10 children continue to work there to this day, honoring the slogan: “Never Forget Your Dreams.” I just fucking love that attitude and it’s a good reminder, don’t you think?
10. And the best roads will leave you believing in a higher power.
Toward the very end of my stay in South Dakota, I got the opportunity to take a scenic ride with Tom Griffith, Rapid City journal writer and husband of Nyla, the wonderfully badass woman who heads PR for Buffalo Chip. The couple has lived in nearby Deadwood for years and Tom proved to be quite the raconteur, in addition to one speedy—and helmetless—tour guide. He took a few of us up down of South Dakota’s most eye-catching and otherworldly roads while telling magical tales of the state’s history.
One of my favorite stretches was Needles Highway, where majestic stone spires sprout up alongside the road and even form a narrow tunnel—The Eye of the Needle—at their peak. Cruising through it, marveling at the surroundings and the countless other bikers making the same pilgrimage, I was reminded of one of many factors that unites this fascinating American subculture: the sheer love of an unforgettable ride. So while I was truly sad to bid Sturgis goodbye the following day, I will always cherish my memories of it. And hey, with any luck, maybe I’ll see you there next year!