Our time in the Black Hills has come to an end.
On our last full day, we drove the most beautiful road in the country, U.S. Highway 14A through Spearfish Canyon, S.D. Saw a kingfisher and smelled the pine. Stopped at Bridal Veil Falls but reluctantly skipped the Indian tacos at Cheyenne Crossing. Did a little swing through Deadwood, where I busted a couple of tourist moves—sending postcards and buying earrings. Even with those, I’m still short on Sturgis tchotchkes!
Farewell to Sturgis and to the Motorcycle Rally. What a lot I’ve seen and learned.
I now appreciate biking more. For many people, it’s about community with like-passioned folks, and I’ve definitely experienced the camaraderie that’s been mentioned over and over. Bikers might be a national minority (less than 10 percent of Americans ride), but here, this week, they’re the majority.
I think most share the viewpoint of Hall of Fame inductee Paul K. Vestal: “There’s always a new bend in the road, and around it is always another adventure.”
“A lot of AARP members like living on the edge, and this is one way to do it,” Mayor Maury LaRue commented. There’s an epithet for bikers who only vacation on the wild side: “RUBs” or “RUBies,” which stand for “rich urban bikers.” Someone told me that he knows a lawyer who during the rally says he works on the railroad.
There really are some whose pilgrimage is more than “bikes, babes & beer,” as one sign had it. One man suggested that for him, being on a bike takes him away from the distractions of his busy life and opens up a place where he can find clarity.
Of course, just as many might agree with the man who said he was slammed by bikes the first time he saw them. “It was shiny and loud and the best-looking lady in town was riding on the back. I wanted that,” he remarked.
Or simply: “You don’t HAVE to have ‘em,” one devotee said. “You have ‘em because you love ‘em.”
One reason the 50+ crowd is taking to the sport in such numbers might also be due to something racing champ Malcolm Smith, 67, said at his Hall of Fame induction. “Bikes are more reliable now,” he observed. “You don’t have the excitement of breaking down. The ride is better.”
Also on the pragmatic side is the woman who declared: “One less car on the road!” and Pepper Massey, who, at least at first, chose a bike solely for financial reasons. She was living in Los Angeles at the time. “I could afford to get either a car that would keep breaking down or a motorcycle,” she recalled. “The guy I bought the bike from taught me how to ride it, and I’d practice late at night in a supermarket parking lot. That little Honda seemed like the biggest motorcycle in the world. Instead of a leather jacket, I had a red parka! I didn’t know anything.”
But riding changed her life. Pepper came to the Rally in the ‘80s, fell in love with the event and the area, and moved here permanently in 1998. Today she is director of the Rally, after a stint leading the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum.
She tells us how much we would have loved Pearl Hoel. I find myself heart-broken that Pearl died at age 99, a few years back, before I could meet the grande dame of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Pearl and her husband Pappy were the heart and the founding spirits of the event, which officially began in 1938 with a weekend of racing—nine riders and a handful of spectators.
“Pappy was intense; Pearl was diplomatic,” Pepper recalled. “He would go to other events and talk to racers coming to this one. He’d find the money. The local boys who belonged to the Jackpine Gypsies were rowdy, drank beer, raced. But Pearl was a schoolteacher who played bridge with their wives, went to church with them.” She fed the bikers, let them sleep in her yard, and everyone knew that if Pearl said it was all right, it was.
Thirty years later, not much had changed. Only 3,000 bikers were showing up through the late ‘60s. The town closed a couple of blocks on Main Street for them, the Rally lasted three days, and at the end, the Chamber of Commerce fed everyone sloppy joes.
“By the mid-70s, it started getting rowdy,” Maury said. In 1978, when the crowds started to get out of hand, someone opened up his family ranch east of town for camping.
The rally took off, exploding to as many as half a million visitors some years (the figures aren’t in for 2008), outgrowing the town—and nearly the state, whose population is so sparse that there’s only one U.S. Representative from South Dakota, at-large member Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. These days the Rally involves the whole Black Hills and miles beyond, with concerts, trade shows, exhibitors, competitions, shopping, races, motorcycle-model launches, and more.
Even in a week, the intrepid photographer, Rebecca, and I couldn’t begin to do everything. Unless you count walking past the Loud American Roadhouse—and “loud” was truth in advertising!—I missed the concerts. John Fogerty was rained out by a terrific, dramatic, fresh-smelling, wetter-than-wet Western storm, complete with a lightning strike that injured three people. I also missed the pickle lickin’ and “Fake Orgasm” contests (you know you’re 50+ when, as I did, you choose a press conference over more ribald fun!).
Despite the logistics and stress of hosting an event this size, Maury, Pepper, and all the locals we met seemed to be keeping their cool. One way they did that was by riding. You could see that the concentration and intensity of keeping a thousand-pound machine upright—not to mention the soothing time spent in such an amazing landscape—burns off adrenaline, anxiety, and angst.
More than that, the event manages to be well-run, fun, and comfortable for families and non-riders alike—really, for anybody—without being sanitized. (For those who want rougher fun, downtown Sturgis has bare-knuckle fights and a saloon on almost every block.) There’s a small-town graciousness that’s a direct legacy of Pappy and Pearl. Every local stopped and chatted as though he or she wasn’t having half a million guests for dinner.
Did I fall for biking? The jury’s still out on that, but I definitely fell for the bikes. I’ve always believed that everyone is an artist, with an impulse to beautify life. That might take the form of writing poetry, gardening, or a just-so arrangement of lawn flamingos. The bikes here confirm that theory. Engraved, tooled, painted, pinstriped, chopped—each more luscious and distinctive than the last.
Like most of you, I’ve found that curiosity keeps me youthful and engaged. That and a little adventure mixed with a sprinkling of uncertainty and lots of humor. In the end, I guess it was what I didn't expect in Sturgis that made it worthwhile: home-grown hospitality; authentic, honest, and passionate people; much laughter and joking; the fascinating history of this unique event; the terror and excitement in facing my fear of riding. All this makes me want to get back on the road again. On four wheels—or maybe even two.