From the time I arrived 11 days before the official Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota started, straight exhaust pipes and modified Harleys dominated my senses. At first it was an ebb and flow of exhaust sounds as bikes came and went. I could almost tell how far away they were, and which street each bike was on. As the Rally got closer, any ability to distinguish the quantity or location of bikes vanished into thick air. By the time August 3rd hit it was as if all sound rose to a glass ceiling above town where it would turn into an invisible, booming cloud of noise.
As riders filled the campgrounds and any rentable (and not-so-rentable) spots in and around Sturgis, I often would find myself stopped at a light, then startled to see that I was in the middle of dozens of motorcycles that had pulled up around me. Being on my own cruiser and with a helmet on it was hard to distinguish what I was hearing, so I parked my bike for a few days to walk.
I’m standing on the corner of Lazelle & 4th Street looking like a lunatic not moving to cross the street. Just standing here staring at bikes and listening. The light turns from yellow to red and riders roll off the throttle giving me a false sense of brief peace. Some riders downshift to brake, the RPMs of their engines pop back up momentarily, the gunshot sound of back-firing follows them. Within seconds there are over 20 bikes staged in a haphazard fashion, staggering left then right as my eyes follow the lineup backwards. A random trike adds mass to the mix.
When I turned 21, I began taking birthday vacations to random cities I’d never been. I’d look at a map of the U.S., settle on a city that had a direct flight from Salt Lake, pack my BMX bike, and forget about everything for a week. At that time I thought alone was the only way to travel. I didn’t have to wait on anyone, or make concessions on what places I’d see or what hotel I stayed in. I would leave it to chance if I met anyone to hang out with, and if not, fuck it. I’d ride my bike around and drink heavily at the quaint little Irish Pubs I would inevitably find. I did that for about five years until I felt that my responsibilities at home or work were too great to completely check out for a week at a time.
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.
When I tell someone, “I spent the last few weeks in Sturgis,” I expect to get one of two reactions. The first is a blank stare from those who have no idea what or where Sturgis is. They may have heard something about it at some point, but can’t quite remember what. The second reaction is the one I like. The one where the person’s eyes widen, their head tilts back a few degrees, and they say something like, “Whoa dude. How was THAT?”
Now that it’s over and I can reflect a bit, I can honestly answer that the 2015 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was one big fucking mess. It was a mess of motorcycles, of bodies, of weather, of piss-soaked alleys and of adults behaving poorly. A mess of pop-up retail tents, of puked-on shoes, of wet cardboard and “lost” clothing. A mess that stretched out either side of town, from the Buffalo Chip campground to the east where thousands called home for a week, west to Spearfish, and south into the Black Hills town of Deadwood. I guess this is what one would expect when trying to run close to a million people through a town with a normal population of just under seven thousand, and those who came did not fail to meet that messy expectation. Continue reading Sturgis Is a Mess→