Ballad of the Black Hills
by Gary Charpentier
Saturday, May 28th, 2005 – In twenty-six years of riding, I have never been tempted to put a sound system on a motorcycle. The melody of the engine running up and down through the gears has always been music enough for me. When I felt like hearing a particular song, it was usually something I could summon in my mind, humming and sometimes even whistling in the privacy of my helmet. This morning, I was hearing a band called The Cadillac Hitmen and the song was, appropriately enough, “Black Hills”.
This tune was rocking in my head as my friend Mark and I rolled west out of Wall, South Dakota on Interstate 90 towards Rapid City. We were going to set up our base camp at the KOA campgrounds and tour the Black Hills from there all weekend. The weather was gorgeous; blue sky streaked with high cirrus clouds, and temperatures in the sixties. We pulled in before noon, set up the tent, stowed our gear, and headed for the hills.
Now, every rally rat with a custom cruiser knows the paved roads around this area. Our goal was to ride the dirt, gravel, and muddy backroads that these chrome cowboys never see. The Black Hills are laced with more miles of dirt road than pavement, but you really have to study a map to string them all together. We consulted DeLorme’s Atlas and Gazetteer and headed southwest towards the historic mining town of Keystone and CusterState Park with it’s famous Wildlife Loop.
In Keystone we took a break at an old-west saloon. Sitting there on the boardwalk, we watched a tall, bearded galoot crack a bullwhip and shoot his sixgun in the air as he walked the main street. They put on mock gunfights for the tourists at regular intervals, but Mark and I had some miles to cover, so we didn’t stick around.
At CusterState Park, we started riding the paved wildlife loop, but soon veered off onto the many dirt roads and trails where the real wildlife was to be found. We saw buffalo, antelope, and deer back in the woods, as well as the occasional rider on horseback. What we didn’t see, to our delight, was the heavy tourist traffic of SUVs and motorhomes, which stayed on the pavement. After criss-crossing the park for an hour or so, we headed northwest on State Route 87: The famous Needles Highway. This is where the going got gnarly…
Situated in the Black Elk Wilderness just a few miles northeast of the town of Custer, the Needles are tall, skinny rock formations that stick up into the sky like, you guessed it, needles. There are places where the road goes right through the base of these formations, forming a narrow tunnel which will only fit one vehicle at a time. You honk your horn before entering and proceed with caution. The elevation changes so rapidly that the roads are laid out in tight 180-degree switchbacks, posted at 15 miles per hour, with steep drop-offs over sheer cliffs at the outside of the corners. This is a road-racer’s dream… and a nightmare for the over-zealous.
The low-side happened gently, in seemingly slow motion. I had been following Mark through the switchbacks, at ever increasing speed, leaning farther in each corner. We were in the groove, with a nice rhythm going, when I rolled on the throttle just a touch too much coming off the apex of a tight left-hander. There was a fine grit of crushed cinder here and there on these roads, leftover from a snow storm a few weeks previous, and my rear tire found it when I was leaned over with my knee almost scraping the pavement. Down we went, poor Frogwing and I.
The shift lever punched a hole in my left boot before I disengaged, and I watched Frogwing slide towards the precipice as I began log-rolling towards oblivion. We were doing somewhere between 30 and 40 mph through that turn, but the dirt berm on the edge of the road stopped us short of a horrendous fall. Foster says he could hear me cussing even before we stopped moving. That’s a sure sign that I have done this too many times. Charged with adrenaline, I jumped up and hoisted the bike onto it’s sidestand, and immediately started to tally the damage: Broken clutch lever, bent shifter, and holes worn in my brand-new saddlebags. Mark had turned around and had his Leatherman multi-tool in hand, ready to assist in the roadside surgery.
In twenty minutes or so we replaced the clutch lever with the spare I always carry and I played caveman mechanic with a couple of rocks pounding the shift lever back into a usable shape. I patched my boots and saddle bag with duct tape and we hit the road again, a bit slower this time. I wasn’t feeling the pain of my road-rashed knee or bruised foot just yet, that would come later… endorphins are a wonderful thing. Pretending nothing had happened, we headed for the legendary town of Deadwood.
Today, Deadwood is a typical tourist trap, even in late May. I’m sure it must have been wonderful before it was discovered by the Hollywood elite, but now it is just another silly-ass Wild West Theme Park for the wealthy. Porsches and Mercedes prowl the brand new pavement and hordes of well-dressed visitors wander the streets, totally oblivious to traffic signals and right-of-way. It was almost impossible to find a legal parking space that you didn’t have to pay for. Thank you, Kevin Costner. We stopped anyway, had an overpriced beverage with a basket of chips and salsa, then we got the hell out of town. By this time I was hurting from my little crash, and we decided to head back to camp.
Sunday morning we decided to visit Sturgis. We stopped off at the famous Harley dealership to buy a can of chain lube, applied it in the parking lot, and went exploring on the dirt roads. We had heard of an abandoned mining town back in the hills down Galena Road and we went in search of it. After many miles of steep, rocky slopes and deep water crossings, we came to the road which allegedly led to this place, only to find it closed. Rumor has it that someone had bought the place and closed it off to the public… selfish bastards.
But the afternoon was a blur of one fantastic dirt road leading into another and I was having too much fun riding to dwell on the evils of capitalism. We got separated at one point when I decided to take one road and Mark took another. Thanks to the wonders of modern cell-phone technology, we met up at the campgrounds later that evening and were able to enjoy a nice Mexican dinner in Rapid City together. The following morning Mark had to bee-line down the Interstate for home. I took a more leisurely route down highway 14 which included about 35 miles alongside the highway on some ancient, dirt two-track which turned out to be the Pierre-to-Deadwood Telegraph Trail.
I spent Monday night in Huron at a rundown old motor court for about twenty-five bucks. Tuesday I rode home, back to the daily grind of traffic jams and wage slavery. But a seed has been planted and the part of my mind that loves freedom and wide open spaces is already hard at work planning my next journey West.
Nothing Cool Ever Lasts, Part II: I am going back to school this fall, taking courses which I hope will culminate in earning my engineering degree. Working full-time and going to school part-time means that I can no longer commit to writing Backroads Diary for every issue of MMM. Therefore, I will be going on “Educational Hiatus” for the next few years. Backroads Diary will appear in these pages sporadically, whenever I have some good material and the time to share it with you. It’s been fun and I look forward to seeing some of you folks out on the road less travelled.