Sturgis is Pizza… and Other Observations From the Road by Tim Leary

By the time our five-man gang got rolling, it was well past 6:30 p.m., and most of our care package treats were eaten. We took Highway 169 south out of Minneapolis and practiced our “rally attitudes” on the rush hour crowd, but they weren’t fooled. Our bikes, clothes and faces were way too clean. Besides, we’re a mishmash gang. Greg rides a Wide Glide; John’s on a Shadow; Tom has a CB900 Custom, and Dave and I are astride Gold Wings. The biggest threat we pose to society is if our excess chrome polish were to run off into the well water.

As we hurled into the Minnesota River valley, I was still a bit uneasy about taking the time off, but the stoplights and streetlights turned into fence posts and cattails, and my usual trip giddiness overtook the anxiety.

We had taken this route to Sturgis many times before. St. Peter and other small towns along the way draw you in and hold your curiosity. You always swear you’ll spend more time there someday. Tonight, however, we were not afforded the luxury of sightseeing. We had gotten a late start and now were making up time. We climbed out of St. Peter on Highway 99 and headed toward the setting sun. Soon we were at Nicollet making a slight right onto Highway 14 and burning the retinas out of our heads as the sun set into the road.

Nightfall set in, and we continued on–more afraid of losing time than hitting deer. I became mesmerized by the rhythm of the road, the flashing yellow lines and the surreal floating of the four bikes’ taillights ahead of me. When I regained semi-consciousness for refueling, I could tell by the lack of conversation at the pumps that the others were somewhat zombified also. Everyone livened up, however, when we reached our free campground in Arlington, South Dakota. You see, we all knew that a one-block walk would yield frosty beers, hot pizza and good tunes.

At about 3:00 a.m., as we wallowed in the peaceful depths of REM sleep, we were reminded of one planning oversight: we forgot to pick a different first-night campground. A passing freight train blasted its horns within 40 yards of our tents…the same as every year before. As if that weren’t enough, the train was so loud I could have sworn I was laying between the rails.

After about four hours of total silence, my hair was no longer standing on end and my muscles were released from their temporary rigor mortis–just in time for the 7:09 a.m. town siren. Situated at the edge of our campground, this siren cleared my arteries of any remaining cholesterol that the train horn had missed. (Hmmmm. Maybe there’s a reason the campground is free?) The siren’s purpose was a mystery. I think it blows simply to let the fine citizens know that they have to get up and go to work one more day.

With bags under our eyes, we headed west on 14 to Huron. At breakfast there, one of the locals warned us of some nasty road construction on 14 just west of town. Hating gravel and delays, we instead headed straight south on 37 toward Interstate 90. After a short right on 34 and a left on 281, we hit that big concrete conveyor and catapulted towards Rapid City.

The scenery on 90 got more interesting as we crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlin. Climbing the west bank out of the river valley, the terrain turned into large, lumpy, treeless hills. A few miles further we crossed the beautifully desolate Fort Pierre National Grassland. Six hours of SD sun and wind sucked the moisture out of our bodies. By the time we reached our Keystone campground, via Highways 16 and 16A off I90, we were raisins. After quickly setting up camp, we all jumped in the pool.

Refreshed, we sloshed our way into downtown Keystone for pizza. Tucked tightly into a narrow, steep-walled valley in the Black Hills, Keystone is quaintly appealing. Despite its many trinkets, trash and T-shirt stores, there’s a certain charm in its wooden sidewalks and ‘Old West’ look. And on any given night during rally week, it seems to attract hundreds of the best bikes.

The next morning, Friday, we discovered that our poor sleeping experience back in Arlington may have been an omen. At 6:00 a.m. we were roused by an encounter with a North American Ciga-rooster. This animal rose at dawn from a neighboring campsite and “crowed” every 30 seconds with a loud, painfully rough, ten-second cough that left the creature doubled over and completely out of breath. Unbelievably, our rooster mustered up enough strength between crows to take another drag off his cigarette. Aaaahhhh, the wonders of nature.

Also in our area of the campground were the Revsters. These three guys obviously believed that incessant revving of their bikes would eventually knock them back into tune. This morning they continued last night’s tuning session. Thankfully, the head Revster only had a 700 Magna.

Today was Sturgis day and we were looking forward to getting rolling. We headed northwest on the very scenic Route 323 to Hill City. From there we turned north onto the beautiful Highway 385 and rode to Deadwood. To the Presidents at Rushmore, this highway must have looked like a two-way column of ants as bikes dominated the road in long, unbroken groups.

In Deadwood, we opted to continue on to the Big Show rather than gawk at the bikes in the city’s square. Highway 14A East put us on the home stretch. As we neared Sturgis, bikes continued to trickle into our group from small roads, driveways and parking lots. By the time we reached the city limits, a river of headlights filled my mirrors.

We deduced that parking was going to be a problem, so we rode to the far end of downtown where it tends to be lighter. We weren’t the first ones to think of this. We ended up squeezing in between cars and campers about four blocks from the Center of the Known Motorcycle Universe. After wading through an unusually thick layer of police officers, we dove into the boiling mass of people.

While searching for the souvenirs that perfectly expressed the meaning of our existence, we quickly became separated. When we regrouped to plan our next move, we noticed a very large group of gruff looking fellows headed in our direction. We did our best impersonations of lamp posts and parking meters as these 150 Banditos drifted past us and funneled themselves into a bar designed to hold about 73 people.

While we refrained from making any sudden movements, some guy in black socks and Bermuda shorts next to us whipped out his camcorder and started filming these ruffians. Emboldened by this move of courage, Tom pulled out his camera and fired off a frame. One of the gang members flipped us off and veered in our direction. Luckily, he was intercepted by a buddy who was headed toward the bar.

Feeling now that we had experienced all that the downtown area could offer, we headed to see what bike flavor Arlen Ness had cooked up this year. After 20 minutes of tripping over our tongues in the custom bike area, the sky turned black, so we checked out the displays inside the civic center. We all agreed that the best things there were the 50¢ ice cream sandwiches. We each had two, then motored over to the Excelsior-Henderson tent to check out their motorcycle.

The sky still looked unhappy to the east. We decided to wait no longer to head back to camp. Blasting back toward Rapid City, the sky turned mean colors, so we stopped for–what else?–pizza. When mom nature took a breather, we scampered to our bikes and pointed them toward Keystone. Of course, as soon as we got out into the middle of Absolutely, Nowhere, the raindrops grew to the size of lollipops and stayed that way. For the next 45 minutes, our nerves and vision were put to the test.

After the steady rain, we decided to end our evening in the company of Mr. Anheuser Busch. At the liquor store I emptied the contents of my rain-suit hood onto their floor (accidentally) while John emptied the contents of his bank account into their coffers (painfully) for two twelve packs. One hot shower, four cold beers and many laughs later, we were snoring.

Saturday morning, after our breakfast buffet, we made a patriotic run to Mount Rushmore and a short stop at Reptile Gardens. “Go Wrestle A Gator” t-shirts and rubber snakes are hot items back home. Soon we were gassed and blasting east on 90 toward home. Preferring the two-laners, we turned north onto Highway 47 at Reliance and rode to a cool dam area at Fort Thompson. With no services available there, we rode east on Highway 34.

Although I had a quarter tank of gas, I began to panic. The region was very sparsely populated, and it was my idea to take this route. With about 125 miles under our tires, I began figuring out how we were going to shuttle gas back to John when his 3.5 gallon Shadow ran out. Over every hill I hoped for civilization. Finally, I spotted the sure sign of gas ahead: an Adopt-A-Highway sign. At Wessington Springs, we gassed up, grabbed a quick Snickers and split.

Nearing Woonsocket we realized that, even though we were halfway home, our adventure was not necessarily over. We were approaching a humongous wall of black clouds that reached right to the ground. With a layer of white clouds protruding outward about halfway up, it looked as if Sioux Falls was hit by a nuclear bomb. As the black clouds caught up, half of us stopped to put on the rain gear while others sped on toward shelter.

We outran the worst of the storm and stopped in Howard. Since we were still mostly dry, we decided, not unanimously, to continue on rather than camp there for the night. We hauled our faulty short-term memories toward Arlington to camp for the night. Since it was a Saturday night, the train probably wouldn’t be performing heart surgery, right? Surely the town siren wouldn’t be making any major announcements early on a Sunday morning. We celebrated our last night on the road with pizza, beer and joking locals.

On Sunday morning our prayers were answered with peace and quiet. Well rested and on the sunny road by 9:00 a.m., we followed the same route home as we had coming out. Ironically, these roads that had been so relaxing on the way out now reminded me of how much work I left behind.

In New Ulm we made our last gas’n’lunch stop. Since we wouldn’t be stopping as a group again before reaching home, we ceremoniously parted ways with hearty handshakes and promises of a photo exchange sometime soon…over a few brews and some pizza, of course.

M.M.M.

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