Hog Heaven at Sturgis


4 August, 1991
Rapid City, South Dakota

"The noise of this thing alone is way beyond ordinary experience. It's a constant thundering blast. Sometimes it's a dozen machines at once. It's a rich, deep, throaty rumble and it shakes the walls. This is combined with a piercing high-end crack that can make you wince involuntarily. The sheer density of horsepower here is competitive with most high-power events anywhere in the world."

Whaddya think? A fighter base? NASCAR pits? Nope. This was only day two of the 51st annual Black Hills Classic Motor Rally at Sturgis, S.D. Traditionally, this is the largest gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts in the world. Last year they came from eastern European countries, they rode up from Argentina, and putted in from every state in the Union. They rode all kinds of machines in all sorts of condition, from trailored, show-ready chromesters, to rat-rusted "garbage wagons". The crowd on this first Sunday of the ten-day event hadn't even cranked up to 20% of its expected capacity. Through the course of an all-day look at downtown Sturgis (mostly a five-block length of Main St.), and a 75 mile round-trip ride out to Spearfish Canyon, a quick trip out to the Buffalo Chip Campground, plus everything we saw in between, I don't think we saw more than 5000 bikes. They say that there were more than 250,000 bikes here last year.

Of course, 5000 bikes is a hell of a presence when you're talking about a town of 5000 inhabitants. No matter where you are in town, the bike thing is already pervasive and heavy. Main St. is completely transformed. Very few of the stores are doing the sort of business which their regular signs advertise. Most of them have moved their goods out and rented the space to temporary merchants selling everything from repair-bay time for your bike to buffalo burgers. The blasting roar of a Big Twin cranking up is like a mating call. It goes on at all hours of the day and night. This teeming thing is like a natural seasonal phenomenon: The grunion run off the coast of Santa Barbara, the swallows fly to Capistrano, the mayflies rise on the Mississippi, and the bikes run to Sturgis. It's simply what they do.

Kentucky Headhunters lead singer Ricky Lee Phelps and I were cruising around downtown this morning with Sherman Halsey. Sherm is producing the Headhunters' latest video and he went out scouting locations. On the way out of town we stopped to see Paul Gomez, a custom seat-maker who works with Mike Corbin. They had a display trailor set up in a little shopping-center parking lot. Mike and Paul are fans of the band. I first met Paul at the Daytona Bike Week Rally of this year. Handshakes and hugs quickly led to an invitation to go for a ride. The only bikes available at the moment were the BMW Paris-Dakar which Paul rode, a brand new Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, and a 1975 Honda Gold Wing. There was also a Harley FXR sitting there, but the keys weren't available at the moment. Paul urged us to hang about until they turned up. Ricky was able to put the time to good use by fitting up a new pair of Corbin's riding boots. I had mentioned that I was interested in finding a pair of Stealth mirrors for my Sportster, so Mike suggested that we ride downtown to see if Arlen Ness was hanging around. Arlen is a custom bike builder and he designs very cool aftermarket Harley gear. So, Ricky jumped on the Fat Boy, and I was left with Mike Corbin's personally owned, nicely restored, and recently acquired 1000cc Gold Wing.

Mike's Wing started instantly and ran so smoothly and quietly that, at first, I wasn't even sure it was running. A large bike, it sat very squarely on the road, yet it was very light-footed in its handling. The high-rise pull-back handlebars made the rider's position quite comfortable and stylish, although Mike said they were not original and would be replaced. In the end, I did not feel at all diminished by riding this Honda through a predominantly Harley gathering. That old Wing even brought a few admiring looks from the most critical eyes in bikedom: the Strugis Main St. crowd.

We couldn't find Arlen. Apparently, he was off doing a photo shoot somewhere. We decided to head back to the Corbin display truck. When we got there, Paul handed me the keys to the FXR. Look out...

1340cc, belt drive, flat bars, Fat Bob tanks, beautiful paint, tons of chrome, highway pegs, Corbin's very stylish Gunfighter seat...and (Oh, Jesus) that rumble. It needed a bit of choke to crank, but then it fell into a marvelous pulsing rhythm, and so did I. I turned it around to face the road while Paul ran into the truck to grab his helmet. Ricky and I looked at each other, grinning big and wide. We knew we were going to have a great time. However, I was a bit anxious about riding without a helmet for the first time. South Dakota has no helmet law and, being on the road, we didn't have our hats with us...

We pulled out of the parking lot and headed south, out of town. By the time we got to a gas station a mile away, the pack thing was already beginning to happen among us. Paul was leading the ride on his BMW, and the two Harleys were making beautiful noises together. "The pack thing" means that all riders watch each other. Everybody keeps a periodic eye on the ride leader; you don't want to miss a turn...the pack keeps sort of a collective eye on traffic situations, etc. But it goes a bit deeper, I think.

Motorcycles are a lot more fun en masse. A rider can enjoy the flow of his position on the road, in the lane, by observing the relative position of his bike to those of his mates. If your brother or sister is right there in the lane next to you, it's a more subtle challenge to your control over the machine. Control of a dangerous situation is, after all, one of the central attractions of motorcycling to many people. A pack ride puts one in position to admire the finest in form and ability in one's mates. As you negotiate a stiff crosswind on the highway at speed, you can reflect on the ability of your mates to deal with the same challenge. Admiration breeds respect and friendship.

We launched up the entrance ramp to I-90 headed west through the Black Hills. With my "right hand in", the power of the FXR was more apparent than it had been in town, where grace in handling had been much more important. A glance in the mirror spotted Ricky and his big boy's grip on the Harley: arms wide, elbows up, head up and in the wind.

Neither of us wore a helmet, and I could clearly see the look on his face. I don't know about Ricky, but I was a bit apprehensive about this aspect of the ride before we left, and I must admit that it was a bit unreasonable for me to feel that way. After all, I know that there is not a single motorcycle helmet in use in this country which is certified safe at speeds over 25 mph. There is a compelling argument that the human neck is not designed to withstand the added weight of a helmet flapping around during the high-G action of a crash. Finally, there is no way to predict the actual dynamics of a particular crash. In terms of physics, it's a crap shoot. Philosophically, the helmet view of the world does not look the dangerous nature of motorcycling squarely in the eye.

What I found through actual experience, apart from all of the detached debate, was that riding without a helmet broadens the experience in valuable ways. The central gain is in the area of sensory input. Everything is so much easier to see and hear. Knowing his exact position in the world can be the difference between life and death to a biker. That this was so much easier to achieve without a helmet became pleasantly apparent the first time I tried to look at Ricky and communicate how I felt. A single uncomplicated glance of the sort that we share with uncounted human beings every day, said it all. I had dropped back on his left, and we were no more than 8-10 feet apart. He fact that we were moving together at 65 mph made not the slightest difference. I think that the significance of this may not be apparent to any but those who've ridden in a helmet, and then taken the opportunity to ride without one. Only then can one appreciate how much effort goes into gathering sensory data from inside a helmet. This may not seem a very important consideration in terms of winking at a riding buddy across lanes. However, it can take on a whole new dimension to a solo rider in 5 o'clock traffic.

We zoomed west on I-90. Paul kept a fairly steady pace at about 70 mph, while Ricky and I played games on the Harleys, slowing and darting, passing cars and other bikers. Later, Ricky told me that he had a bit of trouble with his eyes tearing up due to the wind blast under his sunglasses. I had to admit that my own Ray-Bans were not very effective in this regard. For this reason, he kept his speed at a relatively sedate 60 mph or so, except for occasionally noisy blasts; the Fat Boy would catch me by surprise...Ricky ripping past in profile, the modern cowboy, separated from his frontier brethren only by a hundred years and five hundred pounds of steel, but true to the heritage.

We danced into Spearfish Canyon together. The road which goes to the Latchstring Lodge sweeps through a dreamscape selection of all kinds of curves and all kinds of grades. They all mix together and wind for the length of 10-15 miles through a natural cathedral of sheer rock faces on both sides of the road. They filmed parts of "Dances With Wolves" in this place. Now I ought to go see that film and I intend to. But, it occurred to me as I rode along that the eagle I had just seen spinning lazy circles over the rock cliff 300 ft. above my head was one of the reasons that they come to places like this to make great films. That sort of "selective re-creation of reality" (Rand) requires access to The Real Thing...you don't stage it.

There I was, riding tail-end Charlie in our little pack, and just yelling for the pure joy of it. I was able to watch Paul and Ricky sweeping into their turns ahead of me...I had the best seat in the house for watching the action. I could listen for the distant rattle of Ricky shifting and throttling the Fat Boy through its paces, along with the local boom of the FXR in my right ear. I grinned to myself whenever I saw Ricky looking around at the thoroughly delightful scenery. I thought, "Man, he's having just as good a time as I am!"

Of course, being in the neighborhood of the largest motorcycle rally in the world, we were not the only riders in the canyon that day. There was a constant stream of bikes running in both directions. The canyon walls shook with the sound of V-Twins gunning and running. People didn't wave at each other too much because the ride is so demanding; it's all you can do to sneak a glance at the spectacular cliff 500 ft. wide by 350 ft. high on your left before you try to figure how to brake and throttle the righthand, downhill, decreasing radius curve just ahead.

Of course, the simple solution would be to simply get off the bike and look at the damned cliff. But the issue is not quite that simple. The point is to ride. The main value here is to be on the bike, no matter where it is. Thus, the rider who bases his or her experience on this premise might face the same challenge anywhere; whether Spearfish Canyon in the afternoon, or Peachtree St. on a Friday night. Spectacular scenery or the more attractive of the opposite sex; both can be distracting. However, adherence to the basic premise (to ride) clarifies everything. Keep the faith, pay all due attention to the machine. Then, you can go anywhere you want or need to.

Of course, different values can accrue when the balance of observation tips the other way, depending where you go.

We sat at the Latchstring Restaurant and had lunch on a deck looking out at the broad expanse of the canyon. It was just enough of a break to catch our breath before blasting off on the ride back to Sturgis. I don't know about Ricky or Paul, but I was ready to get back out on the FXR after a single cup of coffee.

Being warm from the outride, it started on the first crank. Leaving the picturesque lodge behind, we zoomed out of the parking lot into and through a wide, slightly downhill right turn into the sun-dappled canyon, running out to the highway.

Interstate 90 averaged about 15 bikes per mile on this day, and 95% of them were Harleys. Anyone who has ever spent any considerable time on a highway has seen a biker on the road. I wonder if they can imagine what it's like. Can they understand how vividly a motorcycle brings the experience of traveling to life?

On a bike, the road is no longer a poetic abstraction, or the simple image of a line on a map. Travel in cars can foster this sort imprecise vision. This is because of their nature. Being encased in glass and steel does not alter the nature of the road, it merely conceals and filters it. The frames of the windows limit the outlook. The glass mutes the sounds. The relative comfort of the car's interior dulls the sense to the dynamics of motion. This last sensitivity can be increased by several orders of magnitude simply by cranking open a window. However...

On a bike, the road is no mere metaphor, or just a noise blowing in because the top is down. On a bike, the road takes on all of the captivating intrigue which has fired the imagination of scribes and songsters ever since the Jews took the Red Sea exit.

There occurred in the 20th century a fundamental transformation of overland travel. Now, I'm not the first person who ever pointed this out. However, a road trip on a bike can bring the point home in a brand new way. Modern people, particularly modern Americans, don't really travel in the classical sense; they simply become conveyed from point to point. In truth, I suppose this transformation began with the advent of trains in the 19th century. Beginning with them, the effect of the mode of conveyance was to isolate the traveler from the essence of the experience. This isolation was certainly incomplete, but it had begun. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin addresses this change in section V, chapter 23 of his book, "Hidden History"; "Formerly travel required long planning, large expense, and great investments of time. It involved risks to health or even life. The traveler was active. Now he became passive. Instead of an athletic exercise, travel became a spectator sport." (p. 297, "Hidden History" - Daniel J. Boorstin, 1987, Harper & Row)

The motorcycle experience in the modern day, however, is directly comparable to all forms of overland travel reaching into antiquity. Making allowances only for technology (the bike, the Interstate, etc.) the experience of the journey on my Virago 920 from Atlanta to New York and back would be quite recognizable to any traveler transplanted through time from the Road to Mandalay. The same sun was known to me along its course all through the day, and its passage marked the time as reliably and somehow more intimately than my wristwatch. At the end of the day, I had a powerful sense of having personally known every mile as did, perhaps, the pilgrims on the roads to Mecca, or the pioneers along the Oregon Trail.

Modern travelers, with their laptop computers, do business while traveling or, with other wonders of micro-electronics, they entertain themselves and engage all sorts of schemes to pass the hours of conveyance as quickly as possible. Bike riders on the big road, however, make constant, imperative use of sensory data to conduct themselves from moment to moment. Almost none of it is passive input for diversionary purposes as with, perhaps, an in-flight movie. Compared with a tiny percentage of perceptual intake which is contrived, the great mass of data is gathered from a rich study in metaphysics; there is hard reality everywhere at hand. There is nothing between the rider and the startling majesty of the mountains. The sun burns earth and rider alike. The wind will not distinguish between surface area of the machine and the trees; it whips both with equal disregard. The rain will fall according to the same timeless laws it has always obeyed. Each of these things will have its impact on the experience of travel in its own way. All of these things and more invariably challenge the rider's will and imagination.

Thus, anyone capable of any sort of introspection can come to know himself in new ways on the road on a bike. The truly epic nature (particularly in the crisply micro-managed environment of life in the late 20th century) of a cross-country motorcycle trip will cause most people to ask and discover who and what they are, to a degree that they may not have ever considered before.

I wonder if the plodding hoofbeats of their horses did not serve to modulate the thoughts and reflections of the Crusaders along the roads to the Holy Land, as the steady rumble of a V-Twin modulates my own, today...

The return ride over the road from Spearfish Canyon to Sturgis was only about twenty minutes in length, but its occurrence in the middle of a 24 day road trip without access to a bike was a rare treat to be savored through every last minute of it. Serene delection turned grew slowly into excited anticipation, however, as we drew near to town. The crowds of bikes were thick at every intersection after we left the highway.

It was getting on toward evening when we made it back to the edge of town. With every tenth of a mile we covered, the density of bikes and the decibel level of their presence increased emphatically. Paul led us through a couple of turns which I didn't recognize. I was curious about what he had up his sleeve, but I wasn't about to stop and ask him about it. We rode through side streets which were lined with houses that had tents pitched in their yards, and there were bikes parked everywhere.

All at once, we took a left hand turn and found ourselves in The Parade; headed down Main St. toward Junction Ave., which is the main road out of town. Normally at a major rally like this one, the main action is endless cruising. Again: the prime value is to be on the bike. So, most people turns laps around town looking at and listening to bikes until they get tired, hungry, or low on fuel. At that point, they head for Main St. and try to find a place to park.

Main St. in Sturgis is a fairly wide street in the western tradition. I believe (I'm not certain because I didn't see a single car on Main the whole time I was there) that they park their cars nose in toward the curb. It takes a fairly wide street to do this. As a result, the street is nicely suited for a major bike rally.

Imagine two motorcycles parked nose-to-nose across the middle of the street. Imagine two more parked in the same fashion right next to the first two, in line abreast. Now, extend this line straight down the middle of the street for a distance of five blocks. We're not finished...

Park a bike at the corner, tail first against the curb. Park another on the opposite side of the street in the same way. Two more, line abreast with the first two... Now extend these lines down the street for the same five blocks. What you end up with is 1500-2000 motorcycles parked along the downtown length of Main St. with just two narrow lanes left for The Parade. It runs up Main St. after taking a left off of Junction Ave. It runs one of the lanes between the double row of bikes in the middle of the street on the rider's left, and the line of bikes against the curb on the right.

Up you go, dodging cops directing traffic and pedestrians crossing or simply hanging out in the street. The sidewalks are jammed with spectators inspecting the bikes, shopping in the stores, or simply hanging out seeing and being seen. This is a parade in form only...There is such a cool sort of pretense to it all. You don't ride down the street smiling and waving to all the spectators. Yet, you know and understand that they will check you out, and judge your passage according to unwritten but strict standards.

Mainly; your bike. One interesting aspect of this rally is that it is mainly a Harley event. So, Harleys naturally get the nod of approval from the five block-long jury box. Some elicit more powerful reactions than others. A fully chromed, custom framed and painted Harley of any type will turn heads the way a stock type directly from the showroom floor might not. It can get even more exotic. One individual of questionable mentation covered his Electra-Glide with a complete buffalo hide, including the head and horns looking forward over the handlebars, and realistically simulated gonads hanging aft over the license plate. Video cameras up and down Main St. popped their lens covers over this one...

Other factors will enter subtly into acceptance or dismissal; the cool of your attitude, the way you dress (outrage can go far here)...in other words, the general aesthetic of your passage. Or...the company you ride with if you don't Parade alone. This is where the Pack Thing begins to hook up again.

We headed down Main. It was a slightly overcast but very pleasant high plains afternoon, and the downtown action was robust. The crowds along the street included refugee big-city lawyers with 3-day beards, many groups of elderly riders, Bikers For Jesus, and a delegation from California chapters of the Hell's Angels.

For one moment out of the two major rallies we attended this year (including Daytona in March) we weren't standing on the sidelines. Man, we were in the game...thundering down Main St., listening to our Big Twins reverberating off the brick storefronts. This must be what its like for jet pilots on those rare occasions when they get to work at low level during airshows. We made as much noise as we wanted to and nobody complained. After all, this is why this seasonal thing takes place every year; to dig the Harley aesthetic, that is; the thunder and the chrome lightning.

Metaphysicists are urged to go out to the superbike tracks: if you're looking for lap times and record speeds, go join the world of 4 cylinder screamers, and God bless you. But if you have a taste for the look, sound, and feel, then go out to the Black Hills in the middle of the summer...buy, beg, or borrow (I can't endorse theft) something that shakes the ground and ride it down Main St. The price of admission is simple understanding and a desire to share it. Tens of thousands of your brothers and sisters won't let you down.

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