Half a Million Harleys: Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota
Story and photos by David Rich
"Call Me Tammy"
After days on the road I screamed into Sturgis with an assortment of fanatics on their annual pilgrimage to the biggest out-of-control Harley Davidson rally on the planet, to the Black Hills of South Dakota, U.S.A. If reality TV is most people’s escape from boredom, Sturgis Bike Week spells in-your-face high-definition relief.
The closest I’d been to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle before Sturgis was ears apoppin’ when one roared by. But I’d always been curious about the secret life of my solidly middle-class buddies who escaped their work-a-day lives every single year, taking a couple of weeks each August to screech up to Sturgis.
So I swung onto the back of a well-dressed monster bike, unsuspecting until miles later how that tiny second would engender a virtual sex change. You can call me Tammy. The Harley Hog Hags did because the unwritten rule is that only babes ride on back of a Harley while real men are always at the helm in total control.
Hopping on the back for my first Harley ride and sinking into a cushy high-backed captain’s chair, I hoped it wouldn’t be like riding a wobbly tornado. Brrrrrrr, Broooooom, Brooooom, up to umpteen decibels as we jetted off. It was incredible, like perching on a rock-solid Gibraltar in a bit of a hurricane (officially 74 mph and up), tooling down the freeway at 85 mph (140 kph). Riding a hot-rod Harley is learning to love flying inside the wind tunnel of a jet turbine instead of inside the aircraft, definitely skipping all security checks.
Supply and Demand
As we neared Sturgis for the 65th annual rally, the number of Harleys increasingly converged from all over the world until we totaled half a million alien-type creatures wearing black leathers on rip-snorting beasts, burning rubber and popping wheelies, overpowering the formerly small towns of Southwest South Dakota, the epitomes of capitalism. When demand exceeds supply prices triple or quadruple until supply equals demand. The locals make their yearly nut in this singularly frenetic week.
We paused 12 miles before Sturgis, in Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok drew the deadman’s hand, aces over eights, and was promptly dispatched. Deadwood reintroduced gambling in 1989 under the mentoring of Kevin Costner when filming Dances with Wolves.
Now Deadwood hops faster than a manic kangaroo, especially during Sturgis Bike Week when the streets overflow with Harleys and babes wear chaps over diminutive underwear and flapping vests over no underwear at all. This Tammy passed on chaps and vests.
There were cops on horses, cops on foot, cops in cars and cops on bikes, wholly inadequate but all waiting to pounce should one too freely imbibe the Jack Daniels Whiskey flowing like Niagara, basically the opposite of Viagara.
But the cops, for biker convenience, accept all credit cards. A driving under the influence of Jack is $1500, insert card, sign and perhaps be allowed to wobble away on foot, assuming your card’s not already over limit. Otherwise you’re a resident of the Deadwood City Jail while your friends ransom your outrageously expensive Harley Davidson from the police property room, a warehouse the size of Los Angeles.
The other popular offenses against public peace and quiet are burn-outs and sheer speed. The week begins sedately with bikers meticulously observing the 35 mph (60 kph) speed limit in little South Dakota towns, except there’s no law that says you can’t shave the world’s record from 0 to 35 to 1/10th of a second. Just don’t burn out, sending an acrid cloud of black burning rubber to the horizon and twice as high. Otherwise you’ll sign for an extra $500 on your credit card.
A mere $500 appears to be a drop in the bucket for bikers who have previously shelled out $20,000 to $50,000 for the basic Harley, dropping a like amount on embellishments, bells and whistles, many trailored to Sturgis in humongous appurtenances towed behind quarter of a million dollar motor homes.
"Tammy the Poor"
Meanwhile I stayed with friends in a campground where we slept in tents and the backs of trucks. Call me "Tammy the Poor."
Fellow biker Rex was popped for being under the influence of Jack Daniels and whisked inside the Sturgis jail while panicked friends invested two hours springing his bike. Upon arrival at Rex’s motor home they found him smoking a big cigar, slouched on a brand-new Harley he‘d ordered by cell-phone and had delivered by the local dealer while he was being booked in and out of the Sturgis jail. To him the old bike was history. Most of the Sturgis bikers aren’t Hell’s Angels but instead consist of dot-com millionaires, judges, doctors, lawyers and similar thieves.
Sturgis boasts the largest jail of any town its size east or west of the Pecos, logical when a smallish burg suddenly inflates from a staid 6000 souls to a menagerie of bikers from all known and unknown professions, instantly 506,000, more or less, souls.
Main street is blocked off from all vehicular traffic save Harleys and their grossly inferior cousins, Hondas, Yamahas, Suzukis and other un-American types of two-wheeled transportation. Bikes are littered six-deep for the mile (1.6 km) of Sturgis’ main street and for blocks on either side.
Main street and side streets are lined with tattoo parlors boasting week-long lines and overheated needles, food stands crammed with exorbitantly priced cholesterol, plus biker paraphernalia, t-shirts and exhibitions from the Budweiser Clydesdales and Hard Rock Café bikinied bartendresses to Playboy and Penthouse Playmates signing centerfolds.
The big bikers bars, especially The Buffalo Chip and Full Throttle, double as concert venues featuring 30 concerts a day, ranging in 2005 from Twisted Sister, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw to Jasmine Cain, Creedance Clearwater Revisited, Disturbed and the Steve Miller Band.
But the primary reason many trek a thousand or more miles to Sturgis is to ride the gorgeous Black Hills through fragrant pines, up the spiral pigtail bridges through tunnels framing Mt. Rushmore and four stoned Presidents, over Iron Mountain and through Custer State Park.
Locals line the highways, gawking from their easy chairs at the literal thousands of unbelievably colored and tricked-out bikes making their way to the work-in-progress mountain being sculptured into a giant Chief Crazy Horse.
The scenery is soothing, punctuated by herds of elk and kitschy attractions ranging from Bear Country and Reptile World to Mistletoe Farm, motocross hill climbs and casinos, always interrupted by swirling herds of bison bringing traffic to an abrupt halt for the ultimate photo op.
Half a Ton of Pork
On Wednesday of every Sturgis bike week 100,000 Harleys yammer 90 miles (150 km) past the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming where kindred aliens landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nine miles later they engage in really close encounters of a raucous kind at Hulett, Wyoming’s Ham ‘n Jam, scarfing up 1000 pounds (450 kg) of roast pork sandwiches for free while the true Tammys among them show off the latest abbreviated fashions, Bikers for Christ hawk religious literature and exotic bikes completely overwhelm this town of 408 cowboys.
I interviewed a slew of bikers, asking them why they came to Sturgis and Hulett every cotton-pickin’ year and the best answer was from a vividly tattooed biker who said, “It’s the five basic Bs: Beer, Bikes, Bands, Bets and Babes.” For a package experience emphasizing the first and the last of the basic Bs, many bikers gather at Glencoe Campground three miles (5 km) east of Sturgis an hour before sunset to watch the parade of nudists and others in creative non-costumes riding bikes in creative positions.
But not all bikers are heedlessly hedonistic. The group I rode with, on the back of the Road Captain‘s bike, solicited contributions from the members of Big Biker Fun (a group of 70 primarily from Wisconsin and Arizona) and came up with home-coming presents for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq: a dozen cases of Jack Daniels.
So if you want to kick the boredom of television and your work-a-day life but don’t own a Harley, jump on the back of one for Sturgis bike week next year and you can be Tammy, too/II.
David Rich has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 20 years, living in 135 countries to date. Here he is shown on top of Villarica in Chile