Experiencing the bizarre wonder of the Sturgis Rally — plus 3,000 miles on two brand-new Indians
It’s just that Sturgis is really, really far away from any place you’re likely to be. To get there from
That’s fine, because pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be too easy, and a pilgrimage is exactly what a trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is.
Everyone knows about the rally. It’s legendary, or at least notorious. Depending on your level of cynicism and opinion of bikers, it’s a debauched quasi-outlaw gathering or a role-playing convention for pudgy weekend warriors with white-collar jobs. I ride an old Honda but tend to limit my interactions with the leather-vest guys on big Harleys to friendly biker waves across traffic. Sturgis represented an anthropological treat, a chance to view an exotic subculture in situ.
The best road trips never start off encumbered with lots of concrete plans. Especially on a motorcycle, where you’re at the mercy of the weather, a rigid schedule is as stress-inducing as it is useless. I leave late Thursday morning on a loaner 2017 Indian Springfield, knowing I need to be in
Getting lost in the Black Hills
Indian, back from the dead once again, this time for what seems like the long haul, is battling to regain headspace in what has long been regarded as Harley-Davidson territory.
The company’s roots at Sturgis run deep, though: The rally was founded by an Indian Motorcycle dealer, J.C. “Pappy” Hoel, and his wife, Pearl, in 1938. Returning to these roots on a brand-new offering by the company that was there at the beginning makes a certain sense.
A snap decision takes me down I-75 to US-24, which winds through the upper third of
Like the motor, the bike itself is a deliberate, well-engineered anachronism—cutting-edge, yet meant to recall the bikes Indian made more than half a century ago, but with much better brakes. Either you get its appeal or you don’t.
Cruising on the Indian Springfield.
It’s a really good bike, though, and fairly comfortable once I curve my back to fit the posture that a bagger like this demands. I settle in, and soon enough I’m telling time with mile markers. This is probably the closest I will get to comprehending the space-time continuum. I’m eating up distance, stopping only when I have to sleep in whatever motel is there when I stop riding. By Saturday, I’m well into South Dakota and bearing down on my destination.
The Black Hills of South Dakota really do look black when you see them in the distance, rising from the plains with a rugged grandeur that has inspired generations of model railroad-builders. Not long after you make that first sighting, you’ll be in some of the thickest two-wheel traffic you’re likely to encounter outside of southeast Asia.
As rally week draws near, the old western towns nestled in the Black Hills—Custer, Deadwood, Hill City and, obviously, Sturgis—are completely inundated. The rally’s scale defies comprehension; the 508,610 bikers that the South Dakota Department of Transportation says attended this year easily gave the Black Hills the highest concentration of thumping V-twins, functional leather apparel and generalized support for Our Troops anywhere on the planet.
Local saloons and tattoo parlors make a good chunk of their yearly profit during rally week. It funds an entire parallel economy of vendors hawking cheap, bolt-on chrome bike parts, midway-style fried foods and Donald Trump 2016 paraphernalia. A banner outside Sturgis Guns advertises the Official Firearm of the Sturgis Rally: an intricately engraved Chiappa 1887 12-gauge, one of 100, yours for $3,295. You can buy tickets for concerts by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock but also, for some reason, Weird Al Yankovic.
You’ll see casual riders who might make the trip once every couple years with a handful of buddies or their wives. Some of the wives are wearing only body paint, which is not nearly as exciting as you’d expect it to be.
On the ground at the 2016 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
There’s a certain breed that makes up the fabric of the rally. The Hells Angels are there at Sturgis, along with any number of rival outfits. The Hellfighters (an excellent name for what is, in fact, a Christian motorcycle ministry) are there. There are groups devoted to honoring fallen soldiers (the Patriot Guard Riders) and those who have tasked themselves with protecting kids (Bikers Against Child Abuse). The Sturgis Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous organizes an annual serenity ride for those battling inner demons.
These are, at first glance, the ultimate caricatures, the guys who somehow work embroidered vests into the most unlikely corners of their lives. But step into the reality-distortion field that is Sturgis, and your whole perspective flips around. You had it backwards: These are people who have folded the rest of their lives into riding. For these fundamentalists—let’s call them the Motor Tribe—riding isn’t a hobby or a lifestyle: Being out on the road on two wheels as often as possible is of vital, perhaps mystical, significance.
The Motor Tribe knows that loud pipes really do save lives, that there’s nothing like the feeling of wind in your hair and that, while freedom sure as hell ain’t free, Harley-Davidson offers attractive low-interest financing. Members of the Motor Tribe fearlessly embrace the biker-culture clichés undergirding the Bob Seger catalog, because the Motor Tribe is immune to irony. Their dedication to their strange subculture is the only thing that saves the whole rally from feeling irredeemably hokey.
Strip away the tough-guy posturing—there’s not much of it—and Sturgis is as authentic as can be, or at least as authentic as the Moab Jeep Safari or Monterey Car Week. What you see here is what you get. A guy your dad’s age slow-rolling toward
On a long trip, taking a new route home keeps the sense of discovery high and the drudgery low. Swapping vehicles midway through seems to help, too, which I discover when I exchange the
Owning the road on the Indian Roadmaster. The great thing about riding away from the sunset is that you don’t have to squint
If bearded hipsters on “Easy Rider” tribute choppers are the motorcycle world’s masochistic ultralight backpackers, then Roadmaster riders are the Class A motor-home tourers. The Roadmaster is extremely heavy and expensive, and comes equipped with a range of features that makes the purist in me scream internally. With its massive fairing and gallons of luggage space, plus a weight of 944 pounds with a full tank of gas, it banks on momentum, not agility. It has presence.
And as I streak through endless high-plains monotony at 85 mph, largely un-buffeted by the wind and with the adjustable screen absorbing the unholy quantities of North Dakotan insects, I realize: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. Distance-riding is a battle against fatigue. The longer you can stay comfortable, the longer you can ride. For eating up really serious miles in the closest thing to all-around comfort you can attain on a motorcycle, you can do far worse than the navigation- and infotainment-enabled Roadmaster.
I’d dreamed of making a trip like this, maybe out to Mount Rushmore, or farther west out to
Will I ever get around to doing that, though? I did Sturgis. The rally, an experience in and of itself, was also impetus—the thing that finally got me out the door and on the road (that, and the loaner bikes from Indian).
I was hardly a pioneer. In 3,000 miles, I don’t think I did one thing that millions of people hadn’t done first. And in the end, that didn’t matter one bit, or at least the trip didn’t feel any less worthwhile for it.
Of course, the journey is more important than the destination—another thing the Motor Tribe understands implicitly, and something they would have told me without a hint of sarcasm. I would have rolled my eyes once, but not any more. Though they’re still not my people, their strange pilgrimage seems a little less alien to me now.
The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas; crossing it marked the beginning of the last leg of my journey
My rambling route: Detroit (1), Huntington, Indiana (2), Galesburg, Illinois (3), Sioux Falls, South Dakota (4), Custer, South Dakota (5), Sturgis, South Dakota (6), Walker, Minnesota (7), Naubinway, Michigan (8) and back to Detroit. All in all, about 3,000 miles.