A good start: My flight from Minneapolis to Rapid City, S.D., is filled with people in Sturgis shirts, and they look ready to let the good times roll. On the 20-minute drive from the airport to Sturgis, I try to count the bikes, but dozens pass us every minute in both directions on Interstate-90.
We (Rebecca Norris Webb, the photographer, and her husband, Alex, who is hanging with us for a couple of days) check into our motel, where we have scored the last room: the honeymoon suite, which includes, naturally, a heart-shaped hot tub.
Then we head down Main Street.
The first thing I notice is a “look”—long gray hair in ponytails, braids, and bandanas. My guess is that three-quarters of the people I see are in their 50s or older. I do like not being 20 years older than everyone who’s having fun.
The second is that I’ve wasted the $3.25 I spent on earplugs at the suggestion of several Sturgis veterans. Turns out Ilovethe shake, rattle, and rumble of the bikes. It’s gorgeous, thrilling, primal. It evokes a mysterious nostalgia for something never experienced, a feeling akin to the one I get from cowboy ballads.
Whenever I pause to ogle a bike, someone—not necessarily the owner—strikes up a conversation. One who does is Jim Duke, 51. He’s an anesthesiologist from Denver, here with his wife Renée, 50. “Nobody has a frown here,” Jim says. “It’s a congenial crowd. We meet people from everywhere, with motorcycling as a common denominator.” They took up biking five years ago. “To be out on the road in a car is like watching a movie,” he says. “On a bike, you’re in the movie. Moment to moment, it’s constantly changing. In a car, it’s about the destination. On a bike, the destination is icing on the cake; it’s the ride.”
Oh, the bikes! Every single one is (at least to my virgin eye) unique. I have often wondered why folks rarely customize their cars, but now I realize I was looking at the wrong vehicles. Bikers love to personalize their rides. Any color and modification you can imagine is cruising past. Some have back tires as wide as a semi’s, with the front tire as narrow as a bicycle’s. There are bikes as stretched as Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain. A lady well into her 60s loops by on a pink, three-wheeled trike (trikes are big here) so deeply glittery that it’s 3-D. Another guy is doing a stately circuit of downtown on a motorcycle crossed with a John Deere tractor, steer head mounted up front.
I’m catching on to the fact that just because they’re both forms of transportation powered by internal combustion engines doesn’t mean motorcycles and cars have much in common. Dee Snider, 53, lead singer of the ‘80s band Twisted Sister, confirms this. “I was a car guy before I started riding, in 2000. I thought it was six of one, half a dozen of the other,” he said. “But this is a different world. Once I got a bike, I didn’t look back.”
Dee was one of the VIPs in Monday morning’s Mayor’s Ride, a $150 guided tour of the Black Hills that raises funds for Sturgis first responders. “Life’s a lot better at 50,” Dee added. “Cops don’t give me tickets anymore—if I get stopped now, they want an autograph.”