Thunder roads: Riding like the wind in South Dakota's Black Hills
By Britt Basel
Special to The Washington Post.
My father started messing with motorbikes when he was 12. He'd buy them, rebuild them, race them and pop wheelies. Then he'd find another relic to start working on.
He's full of stories. There was the 1943 Army issue Harley that he found in 1974. It had been forgotten in a barn deep in the mountains of Colorado. He paid $100 for it. Then there was the Tri-Cati, a 500 Triumph motor on a 250 Ducati frame that he named the Wheelie King. The way he tells it, that bike earned its name.
Dad's love of motorcycles didn't stop when I was born. As soon as I was old enough, he had me on the back of the '69 Triumph Bonneville, his favorite at the time.
When I was in my teens, we started talking about going to Sturgis together. Every August, bikers from all around the world flock to that small town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I've met Italians who shipped their motorcycles over from Europe, while some American bikers have regaled me with stories of weathering searing summer sun, gusty winds, sheeting rain and thousands of miles of highway to get there. Others take the easier approach of trucking their bikes in.
However they decide to make it, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists, families, bike clubs and the curious convene in this small ranching town every year. They're rewarded with world-class motorcycle riding, races, live music, hundreds of vendors and entertainment of all varieties. Some even get married there.
This American classic started in August 1938, when a local motorcycle club called the Jackpine Gypsies sponsored a race. Nine bikers and a crowd of spectators gathered. For 73 years, those numbers have been growing strong. During last year's Rally Week, the lazy streets of Sturgis (with a year-round population of fewer than 7,000) were besieged by 467,338 visitors, most on motorcycles.
Although I always thought that it would be fun, I always found myself "just too busy" for the ride from Colorado to South Dakota. I was a teenager, after all. In my 20s, it only became harder to make it happen, as my love of adventure led me to work as a photographer and on other projects all over the world. In August I was either in India, Australia or Spain. Not in Colorado. And not in Sturgis with my dad.
I just hit my 30s, and I've been living in Mexico while working in Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. Meanwhile, Dad's been in Colorado customizing a '76 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead that he recently added to his collection. I called him from Ecuador to say hello and update him on my travels. We spent a few minutes catching up before he asked.
I knew that it was coming. He asked me every year. "So, are we going to Sturgis?" I almost responded with the typical, "Sorry, Dad. I wish I could but I've got so much work to do. . . ." Instead, I hesitated. I thought about how excellent it would be to finally make it to Sturgis, not only with the person who'd given me my love of motorcycles, but with my dad, whom I never get to spend enough time with.
"Yep," I responded, maybe surprising us both. "What date do I need to be in Colorado?" I could hear my father smile across several thousand miles of phone lines.
— — —
August came, and my father and I blazed down Highway 85 on the Shovelhead. With him driving and me on the back, we were closing in on Sturgis. The Black Hills rose up before us, forests of spruce trees making them look inky on the horizon. The name is a literal translation of Pahá Sápa, the name the Native American Lakota gave this isolated mountain range long before settlers arrived here. We left the endless grass prairies of the Great Plains, and the air became cool and crisp as we gained elevation. I had no idea what to expect.
Our first stop was a burger joint outside town. There wasn't a single car in the parking lot. It was overflowing with Flatheads, Hogs, Dynas and custom jobs. We sat on the deck, surrounded by the little sea of motorcycles in the parking lot, and watched the never-ending stream of Harleys roar by. The burgers arrived, thick, piled high with bacon and cheddar, and so juicy that they dripped onto the plate. Between the bikes and the burgers, I knew that we were in for a great week.
We set up at a campground off Highway 385 and headed into Sturgis. As we hit the city limits, dense motorcycle traffic funneled us toward the downtown strip known as the Gauntlet. A band on a roadside stage blared good rock-and-roll, setting the tone as we parked the bike and walked into the delicious mayhem. Four rows of parked motorcycles lined the street while others cruised. People packed the sidewalks as music poured out of bars. Vendors lined the streets selling chaps, sunglasses and more T-shirts than I've ever seen in one place in my life.
We passed five tattoo parlors in less than a block. In every one, the needles were buzzing and ink splatters masked a new tattoo on some arm, hip or less mentionable body part. With about 400,000 Harleys in town, I had to ask myself how many of those bikers rode out with a new tattoo at the end of the week. Whether it was a T-shirt or a tattoo, most would leave with some kind of proof that they'd been here.
The music, the beer and the two-for-one Bloody Mary specials are definitely part of the experience. Looking at the crowd packed onto the sidewalks, though, I realized that the vast majority of us were here for one simple reason: the love of the ride.
I quickly learned why so many bikers make the pilgrimage to the Black Hills every year. The ride was the best we could ask for. Winding highways, high speed limits and perfectly paved roads snake through the mountains. Sometimes we flew along with a pack of motorcycles riding in doubles around us. Other times, the road belonged to just my father and me.
With the wind howling past and the yellow line guiding us, we passed roadside creeks lined with purple and golden wildflowers. The warm sun on my shoulders also heated the pines, making the air heavy with the sweet smell of dense evergreens.
The experience of riding on the back of someone else's bike is a little different from riding your own. I could pay attention to the storefronts in the little gold-mining towns we rode through, and the camping tents with Harleys parked beside them, barely tucked into the woods and just off the highway. I admired the gas tanks on the bikes we passed, airbrushed with so much detail and precision that they could have been paintings in a gallery.
Then, my father would open the throttle a little more, throwing my weight back, and the pounding of the wind would become a little fiercer. That's when that little jolt of adrenaline would hit. Your breath speeds up a little and, if you pay attention, the colors become a little brighter. If you're on the back of the bike, you get to notice it. But I still think that being on my own bike, riding through those hills next to my father, could be even better.
— — —
We were there to ride, and that's exactly what we did. We visited Mount Rushmore, where the faces of four American presidents loom, 60 feet high, carved into a granite cliff. Twisting mountain highways brought us to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a tribute to the Native American Sioux warrior-chief who fought to protect his people against the onslaught of the U.S. Army in the 1800s. Crazy Horse gallops out of the steep rock wall mounted on his horse, colossal and unfinished.
We found ourselves in Deadwood, the quintessential gold rush town of the historic American West, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back and killed while playing poker. He held a hand of aces and eights, now known as the "dead man's hand."
We explored every promising side road we could find. It didn't matter much where we went. We spent every day on the bike, with the wind, the sun and the rush, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
In the Black Hills around Sturgis, the rumble of bikes starts early in the morning, gradually building until it becomes a thunder that lasts into the night. It lulls you. It exhilarates you. There comes a point when you don't even register the noise anymore until you walk into one of the few restaurants or gas stations that keep the outside roar at bay. In those moments, it's the silence that becomes deafening.
My father and I had just woken up. The early morning air was still heavy from the night before. As I sipped a steaming cup of black coffee fresh off the camp stove, I heard the thunder of Harleys rising slowly as more and more of us got up and hit the road for the day.
"We finally made it," I said to my dad. His face broke into a huge smile and he added, "And man, has it been good."
It was then that I decided that no matter where I am in the summer, in August I'll be in the Black Hills riding with my dad. But next time, I'll be riding on my own.