It took me a few days to nail down what I would call the defining characteristics of the South Dakotans I met in Sturgis. I feel this is mostly because when you talk with them, you can’t really peg them as being from South Dakota immediately. North Dakotans are easily distinguished, as they speak a language that is a mix of stereotypical Canadian and unintelligible mumbling.  After a couple cocktails, understanding a tipsy North Dakotan is like putting a puzzle together with missing pieces, it takes serious trial and error to get the whole picture. More than once I’d give up the fight, claim I couldn’t hear over the music, and just ask them to point at what they wanted.

South Dakotans, having little to no accent, are extremely easy to understand. Taking away the easy target of language as a way to describe them left me having to think harder about what these folks are actually like. Then one morning it hit me. Pragmatic. That’s what they are. When I would hear them talk about the fact that this Rally, the 75th anniversary, was expecting nearly a million people to descend on Sturgis like a mad, drunken, tornado of exhaust pipes and no morals, the most typical response would be “Yep. That’s Rally. They will all be here and gone in 10 days.” No emotion, just a confirming response wearing matter-of-fact from head to toe.

This calm and collected demeanor I noticed wore many hats in other areas as well. During one of my first shifts at the busy main bar within the drinking compound that is the Loud American Roadhouse I was frantically pacing the L-shaped bar looking for Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea vodka. After my third time stopping and staring at all of the other vodkas placed together on the rack, I asked another bartender where it was at.

“Above you to the left. Next to the Pink Kinky.”.

“That makes no fucking sense!” I told her while I grabbed the bottle to pour the drink.

“It does when you’re in a hurry and need it.” she replied.

She was right. That corner of the rack also held Kahlua, a cherry liqueur, and a few other bottles that categorically had absolutely no place being anywhere near each other, but were within reach and used often enough to make me never question the practical placement of the bar setup again.

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“Fuck it, let’s take the Gator to Deadwood. We can park on someone’s lawn.”

In South Dakota, simple and easy is always, always, the best. If that means riding your unregistered 4-wheeler to work so you can find parking, then do it. If it means using an automotive funnel to keep the cocktail fruit from going down the drain when you pour them out, then hell yeah, buy 3 of them.

This practical thought process doesn’t mean that South Dakotans aren’t fun, or don’t have a sense of humour though. Almost nightly one or another person working with me would have me in tears laughing at their take on the Rally clientele, stories of things their kids have said, or any other aspect of humanity that struck them at the moment.

Another thing worth mentioning is the work ethic I saw in the time I spent there. You might be inclined to think that because the Rally was going, everyone would be trying their hardest to make the most out of the situation. This is true, but let me give you an example of what I mean.

One of the bartenders there just for the Rally was a woman named Sondra. She had worked for the Loud American years before while she was getting through college, and had a tradition of coming back every year to work for that 7 days. At first, being behind the bar with her annoyed the living shit out of me, because no matter how busy we were she would always move at a frantic pace, buzzing all around myself and other bartenders like we were standing still. It was like watching the superhero Flash pouring drinks and grabbing beer out of the coolers. I am used to working at a pace that matches current need. If it’s slow you walk, if it’s busy you run. Sondra however seemed to have a personal goal of making every other bartender look like they were doing fuck all, with her feet never touching the ground at the same time and her hair constantly flipping with her changes in direction.  

After working with her just a couple times though, I began to understand that this is just how Sondra is. When I found out that she has kids at home, works at a law firm during the day, and still had the energy to bartend like that, I was blown away. Needless to say, when it came time to look at numbers at the end of the night, it was a rare instance that her sales weren’t at the top. I had to respect that and her subsequently. 

Sondra was definitely not alone in how much energy her personal life needed. My guess is that well over half of the staff I worked with had at least one child at home, a lot of them being single mothers. There are sure to be people who think waiting tables or pouring beer into a glass is an easy job, and sometimes it is, but those people don’t usually think about what it’s like to be moving heavy tables and mopping at 3:30 in the morning, knowing you won’t actually get to bed until 4:30.

“Get out you fucks! We need to mop up all the beer you ham-fisted idiots couldn’t hold on to!”

It’s a fact that tables and chairs double in weight after 2:00am. Science might not be able to prove this, but I’ve seen it happen time and again. At 12:30am if someone pukes on the floor, that shit needs to be cleaned up quick. I’ve seen a 105lb cocktail waitress lift and move a table without as much as a grimace. Fast-forward to 2:35am, the floor needs to be cleared for mopping, and a 290lb dude who carries kegs of beer for a living groans to lift 2 chairs at a once. There’s a relationship between time and mass going on here that has so far been completely ignored by physicists. They need to get on that.

The last thing I will point out as it is particularly applicable to this topic is how well South Dakotans hold their booze.

I’ve worked in many bars and in a number of states. In Utah and Texas, the laws holding bars and bartenders responsible for the customer’s actions has made me acutely aware to the point of paranoia of a person’s alcohol intake. In South Dakota though, I found it particularly hard to draw that line between another beer and a forced glass of water for a customer.

I had stayed and worked a couple shifts after the Rally had ended and while the town was getting back into it’s normal routine. During that time a customer had asked if I had a phone charger he could borrow. I had one, and because of his distrust in me having his phone, and my distrust in getting my charger back, I plugged it in where both of us could keep an eye on it. I then took his drink order and went about helping other customers.

Somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes later as I was clearing a table, the customer comes up to me and asks “did anyone turn in a phone? I lost mine. It’s got a blue case one it.”

I was absolutely shocked. Even then when I was trying to look for some perceptible indication of his intoxication, I couldn’t find one other than he had forgotten what had happened just minutes before. I grabbed his phone to give to him, which he was excited to be reunited with, and politely exchanged his Jack and Coke for a delicious cup of water. Amazingly, he nodded and said “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea right now.”

On another hand, perhaps I can add “forgetful” to the list of traits people from South Dakota share.

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