An American dream motorbike adventure
A 3,000-mile trip from Southern California to Sturgis, South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
– Guest post by Portia Leigh
With jeans rolled up and my leather vest soaking up the sun, I sprawled out on the flat damp grass on the banks of the Salt River that borders Idaho and Wyoming, and submerged my feet in the icy water with masochistic pleasure. There’s a warm Coors Light in my hand and a funny man (more accurately, a soon to be ex-boyfriend, but he’s funny just the same ) standing in front of me with sopping wet jeans.
We pulled off Highway 239 on Luc’s 1746cc Harley Davidson Fat Bob in search of refuge and found ourselves in a town called ‘Freedom,’ though calling it a town seems generous.
The doors of the early 2000s dodge truck slam shut. The refuge has been infiltrated. Two midwesterners in their late 50’s mosey up to the bank lugging their fishing gear and rubber boots, “Seen any fish?”
I tell them we just arrived and are taking a break. We were stuck out in the sun in that gnarly construction back on 34.
I say gnarly because, one– we’d waited for 40 minutes, bodies vulnerable to the elements, for a forklift to make its way across a long stretch of highway construction that was little more than dirt and pasture not long ago– and two– because a drunk lady in Utah told me the day before that 25 people had died on that road over the last year or two (but I have no proof of this).
“Where y’all headed?” one of them asked.
“Sturgis,” we replied.
“Bet it gets pretty wild up there,” they said with a wide-eyed smirk.
The conversation didn’t go much further. We would however learn that one of them was a navy man and the other, from the army, and they made it a point of telling us: they weren’t traveling ‘together.’ Though I found the disclosure unnecessary (perhaps because I’m from California), it was one that would ricochet off the walls of many future conversations I’d have with men traveling in groups of two. God forbid anyone mistook you for lovers.
It was day three of our 3,000-mile motorcycle trip from Southern California to Sturgis, South Dakota. The two-week trip would ultimately end in Minneapolis, Minnesota where we’d leave the bike– but the 77th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was the gold star on the map. Everything else was just fluff, or so I thought at the start. In the end, the unplanned moment-to-moment unfoldings of the journey were what made the trip memorable- but then again, that’s how it always is, isn’t it?
The painful serenity of the bucolic scenery, the characters we’d meet and the Bermuda triangulation of towns like Cody, Wyoming, Bridger, Montana and Murdo, South Dakota that made us feel like we’d been transported to another dimension– these are what made this trip something to remember. And they’re what have since led me to develop a strong affinity for the American midwest– something I never thought I’d say.
The developing characters along the way gave shape to a way of life far distant from my own. From the outside theirs seemed much simpler. Towns where everyone knows each other by name quickly take notice of a stranger’s arrival. We were the strangers, and everywhere we went someone wanted a little chat. Even a cop who pulled us over as we rumbled through the Badlands several days after the motorcycle rally.
“Were we going too fast officer?” Luc asked with a laughable air of innocence.
Meanwhile, I sat on back in a silent panic over the two whiskeys we’d drank at a dark local bar and coming up with ways of how to talk us out of an unwelcome South Dakota DUI.
The officer looked at us with a genuine grin and said, “Oh there’s not a lot of action around here dontcha know, I guess I was just curious about your story.” After a brief rundown of where we’d been, the interaction ended simply with, “Y’all come back now ya hear”… Confirming once again that I was living in one of those 1950s shows I used to watch with my dad where nobody locked their doors.
We were only two hours outside of Los Angeles when my butt started to feel sore. We hadn’t even made it to Vegas yet and I’d begun to question what I’d gotten myself into this time. We each had a saddle bag the size of a basketball player’s shoe box crammed to the max with our belongings (Hey helmet hair, do you really need a hair straightener? I might, I definitely might). Bursting at the seams with camping gear and fishing equipment (we better use this sh*t) was a rucksack the size of a small human that we’d secured to the sissy bar with bungees… It turned out to be a comfortable backrest.
Nevada and a corner of Arizona choked us with their customary 110 degree August heat (no wonder they call this section the “valley of the fire”), so we wrapped ice cubes in bandanas and tied them around our necks, driving faster in search of a breeze. Crossing into Utah that same day, the skies illuminated in an ominous charcoal grey that erupted in refreshing summer showers that stung like needles on our skin.
That night we stayed in a charming old school bus named “Ripples” at Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah. We took a midnight dip in the hot springs, and in the morning I was chased down a dirt road by a mob of enraged geese. Day three was off to a good start.
Beholden to nothing other than the desire to cruise the open road and enjoy the raw scenery of the American West, we’d spend a minimum of seven hours a day with our butts glued to the bike. We traversed California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana before finally crossing the South Dakota border. Some might find this miserable, but I don’t know those people. These are the adventures we live for.
We rode through the Grand Tetons and then Yellowstone National Park, where a buffalo in heat nearly ran Luc down. We covered ourselves and the bike in mud and nearly fell over in the dark of night when, trying to escape a flash downpour, we attempted a shortcut Google Maps suggested. It turned out to be a slippery dirt sludged road over a steep mountain and we had to turn around.
We road across the massive Crow Reservation in Montana, Luc white-knuckling the handlebars against the unstable and unforgiving gravel roads, and eventually found a river near the highway to camp for the night. Though the mosquitos were relentless, we were finally using the camping and fishing gear.
Six days into our journey and we were getting closer. It was the second time crossing into Wyoming when images of where I was heading began to sink in. Sitting on back, arms wrapped around Luc’s waist, I squeezed tighter as visions of burly patched up men wearing only leather crossed my mind. With South Dakota being an open carry state I figured a good portion of the 480,000 attendees would have pistols, the drugs and booze would flow freely, and naturally, all of the ‘biker babes’ would be practically naked.
Up until this point we’d passed a couple hundred bikers. And the numbers multiplied exponentially as we got within 30 miles, but nothing could prepare us for the shiny chrome sea we’d encounter upon arrival.
We pulled off the highway late Sunday afternoon and stopped a few miles outside of Sturgis at the Hideaway Diner and Bar in Whitefish, SD. It was three days after opening day. Scattered across the dimly lit bar were men and women drinking and chatting as classic rock blared from the speakers. Everyone appeared well over 50.
These guys don’t look that tough… With that thought in mind, I dressed to the biker nines that night with leather shorts, a white tank and thigh high socks and boots…. I’d soon find out I was waaay overdressed, well, underdressed actually.
Approaching the center of Sturgis town, the euphonic rumble of bikes enveloped us from every direction, a sound that, even while asleep, would persist 24/7 until departure. I’ll never get tired of that sound.
The view was bananas. To see a town where the local population normally comes in at barely 7,000 turn into a city overrun with bikes in every direction and an annual attendance ranging from 500,000 to 700,000 is really something.
Aside from the women working at the bars, pretty much everyone was fully dressed– sure there was a short skirt and a crop top peppered throughout the crowd, but few more revealing than my leather shorts, which definitely debuted my ‘butt cleavage’ the moment we arrived. At one point during the first night a drunk woman in her 50s or 60s unexpectedly wrapped her arms around my thighs and told me how much she loved my long legs– that was as ‘weird’ as things got, which left me slightly disappointed.
Things did get a little wild at Full Throttle Bar. It was there that I watched people bet on who’d earn the privilege of rubbing whipped cream on one of four strippers in a blow-up pool, which later turned into four strippers wrestling a midget/little person in said blow up pool. The sugary massacre was silly fun and all genders seemed to be down for it– though I kept wondering what this place would be like for a vegan feminist biker? Being a mostly non-meat eater, I’d struggled to find food over the course of the rally, so I was just curious where those women were hiding out during all of this hullabaloo. Do you chicks exist? You must.
Luc had no issues with this. The second we arrived in town and found a slot to stash his muddy bike in between the other thousands that stretched into the distance, he quickly caught sight of a massive turkey leg the size of a bodybuilder’s bicep strolling by in someone’s mouth. “I must have this.”
Over the next five days we’d bounce around between the Iron Horse, One-Eyed Jacks, the Broken Spoke and Full Throttle Saloon, watch the Brawl at the Buffalo, a V-twin stunt competition where bikers wheelied and did other tricks on Harleys, and zip-line above the crowd as Ozzy Osbourne played at The Buffalo Chip campground.
We’d check out thousands of pristine bikes of every make and model imaginable, and encounter people who’d come from all over the world to attend the annual motorcycle mecca in South Dakota; it seemed everyone had a smile on their face and a beer in their hand.
After leaving Sturgis we headed to Mount Rushmore where, still surrounded by a sea of bikes, it appeared a large portion of the rally had the same idea. In fact, no matter what route we took, over the next 800 miles we’d be continuously surrounded by bikes until the very end.
The mountains, rolling hills and long flat stretches of blooming farmland were so sweet and peaceful they threatened to gag me with their appeal; I often found myself thinking, I could live here on one of these farms, I could roll down that yet-to-be-paved road on a CAT, perhaps herd a lost cow or two along the way.
I felt slightly melancholic as we approached the towering buildings in Minneapolis, back to city life. In the end, my perception of the life I live and the way of life for the people in these parts changed. But that’s why most of us travel, isn’t it?
For more amazing female adventures, check out the travel stories section of the website.
Thanks Portia – what a motorbike adventure that was – So many sights and wonderful people!