Friday, 8 April 2011

My Pilgrimage to Biker "Mecca"


Well, the summer of 2009 I finally experienced a trip that I've wanted to do for a very long time. Along with three friends, I finally got to experience the 69th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. We left on Monday August 3 and returned the following Sunday, August 9, 2009. The total round trip was 3281 km. What an incredible experience! While I heard estimates that there were between 600,000 - 700,000 bikers in and around the Sturgis and Black Hills of South Dakota that week (a number that still boggles my mind), others I talked to said that the numbers were down this year. Either way, there was an incredible number of bikers there! I have a patch that I bought while there that says it all, "IF I HAVE TO EXPLAIN YOU WOULDN'T UNDERSTAND." Sturgis is definitely something that has to be experienced. Words simply cannot begin to describe it. Having said that, I will try and outline a few highlights below.

Monday August 3

I left the house about 7:00 am and met the rest of the guys at McDonalds for a quick breakfast. Three other friends who were not going joined us for breakfast. Another friend, Harry, met us at the gas station next door where we stood around the bikes while he prayed for us. It sprinkled rain almost all the way to the border.

We crossed the border at Sweetgrass, MT. Tim had a little more trouble crossing than the rest of us did since he travels with a German passport, but it was only a minor delay. The first quick stop was for fuel in Shelby, MT. From there we rode straight into Great Falls, MT. There we had lunch and checked out a few bike shops. We left Great Falls and rode down Hwy 89 through White Sulfer Springs in Lewis and Clark National Forest. This was a beautiful ride through some majestic scenery.

We spent the first night at the Rodeway Inn in Livingston, MT. In what would become the norm for the trip, due to available rooms and to save on hotel costs, we always took one room with two queen beds. In this way we each only had to pay for 25% of the hotel bill. After supper, Barny, Tim, and I (Pete was too tired and stayed back) went for a little exploring ride through town and stopped at a neat little outdoor bar called "The Parkplace Tavern." There we met some wonderful people including a woman named "Jackie" who was riding by herself back from Sturgis, SD to her home in San Diego, CA. That night she was celebrating her 59th birthday with some friends who lived there in Livingston.

In what would also become the norm for us, we sometimes rode without helmets in town, but always wore them on the highways. Most bikers we saw seemed not to wear helmets at all, even on the highways, but we always did. Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota all do not have helmet laws. I'm not sure of how many other states that is also true.

Tuesday August 4

We left Livingston at approx 8:00 am after a free continental breakfast. We made a brief stop at Emigrant Gulch to take some pictures and to check out the scenery. The next stop was for fuel in Gardner, MT at the edge of the Yellowstone River. Went through the arch (Rosevelt Arch?) and into Yellowstone Park. It cost us $20 per bike to get into the park. Scenery and photo stops included the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces and the Beryl Springs. A funny thing that happened at Mammoth Hot Springs was the 3 or 4 Japanese tourists who approached Barny and wanted their pictures taken with him because they thought he looked like Santa Claus with his long white beard.

We finally made it to Old Faithful. The place was packed with tourists! Apparently it erupts regularly every 90 minutes. While we were waiting for it's scheduled eruption, we fueled up, had lunch and a cold beer. Tim commented that the mass of humanity that we saw there was our preparation for Sturgis. After Old Faithful's eruption, we hurried to the bikes in an effort to get out of that area before most of the other people. We were soon back on the highway, crossed the Continental Divide at 8200 feet, and headed east. The original plans were to make it to Sheridan, WY that night, but the time spent in Yellowstone was longer than we anticipated. Oh well, it didn't matter since right from the start we had said that our itinerary was only to be a rough guide and we all knew that it was subject to change along the way.

At a quick stop along the way, we met three guys from Colorado, one of whom rode a trike and had even a longer grey beard than Barny. Tim took a picture of the two of them talking. It was kind of amusing. We decided to stop for the night in Cody, WY. We had supper at "Bubba's BBQ" where the food was amazing! We got the last available room at the "6 Gun Western Motel." After a quick "helmetless" ride to Walmart for a few supplies for Barny and Tim, we were back at the room by about 8:30 pm. I was talking to some other bikers who were in the room next to us. They were from Illinois and were on their way back from a ride to Alaska. All I could think of was, "Wow!"

Wednesday August 5

Breakfast in Cody was at McDonalds where an elderly gentleman stopped at our table and talked for a while. Everyone we talked to so far was friendly. It sure gave me a new appreciation for some of the American people. We left Cody, WY at about 9:00 am. We took Hwy 16 which took us through the "Power River Pass" at an elevation of 9666 feet. Near the top we pulled over to take in the breath-taking scenery and to snap some pictures. A few minutes later, three bikes came down the mountain and also stopped. We talked to the bikers and discovered that they were from Oklahoma. Suddenly, one of them asks us if we wanted a beer. This struck me funny as I wondered where around there one could find some beer. We said sure, and he proceeded to open his saddle bag and pulled out some pint-sized cans of ice cold Budwiser. The cans were so cold that there was actually frost on the outside of the cans. What a great treat! We talked for 20 or 30 minutes, finished our beers, and said goodbye.

We stopped for lunch at a Subway in Buffalo, WY. There we met some other bikers headed for Sturgis from Vancouver, BC. By this time you could already see a huge increase in bike traffic. Upon leaving Buffalo, WY, we jumped onto the I-90 and headed straight into Spearfish, SD. The highway was suddenly packed with bikes. I also noticed a lot of Wyoming State Troopers trying to keep an eye on things and enforcing the 75 mph speed limit. Like I said earlier, most seemed to be riding without helmets. At that speed and in that traffic, I thought that was kind of nuts! I don't know for sure, but there seemed to be a ratio of at least 500:1, bikes over cars. Approaching Spearfish, SD (about 10-15 miles from Sturgis), the highways became overwhelmed with motorcycles. Words simply cannot properly convey that image and that sound. The roar of bikes was unbelievable; it just didn't quit!

As we pulled into Spearfish, we saw the providence of God at work. I was leading at that time and pulled over in front of a Rodeway Inn and a Perkins Restaurant. The original intention was to get our bearings and find out where the campgrounds were. On a whim we went into the hotel lobby and said to the girl behind the counter, "This might be a really stupid question, but what's the chance of you still having a room available?" She smirked a little as if to say that was a stupid question. She graciously checked the computer and suddenly seemed as surprised as us when she told us that she had one room left with 2 queen beds! 600,000 - 700,000 visitors to the area, no reservations made on our part, and she still had one room left? The only possible explanation I could come up with was the providence of God. Needless to say, we took the room and were also able to keep it for the next two nights as well. Three nights accommodation with no reservations! Who but God could arrange that? The room rate was high, $225, but divided four ways, that was only $56 each per night. Apparently the same room after the rally rents for only $89.

Walking out of the Perkins restaurant after supper that night, we met another couple at the door. They asked me where we were staying, and so I told them the story and how we were "lucky." The woman instantly corrected me, pointed to the Cross and Bible patch I have on my leather vest, and said, "Young man (she called me 'young' - LOL), there was nothing 'lucky' about that. It was the providence of God, and you as a believer should know that!" I was busted. She was right. Obviously they were also believers. Outside the restaurant we also met some bikers from Edmonton that we talked to for a while. In the parking lot we also saw bikes with Manitoba and Saskatchewan licence plates. Other licence plates we saw there were from as far away as Florida and California.

We rode down the street to an Exxon gas station to buy some munchies. We talked to some people there who said that they had "Super B" gas tankers come in daily, and sometimes twice per day, into that gas station alone (never mind the other gas stations). The average bike takes about 4 to 5 gallons, so that also gives one an idea of the amount of bike traffic there. There were booths everywhere selling all sorts of biker trinkets. I bought a small eagle patch with "Sturgis 09" underneath in. The guy sewed it on right there in front of me. Cost: $6 patch, $8 sewing.

We sat outside the hotel and just marvelled at the non-stop roar of bikes up and down the highway. The sound didn't ease up until well after dark. There was an amazing lightening show that night and some pretty intense rain. We were so thankful to have a room and not to have to camp out in that weather.

Thursday August 6

With the rain the night before, we had a very foggy early morning. We had breakfast at the Perkins beside the hotel and by the time we finished, the fog had lifted enough for us to hit the road into Sturgis. Like the day before, the rumble of bikes was amazing and even almost deafening. While we we travelling at basically speed limit, 75-80 mph, we were constantly being passed by other bikes. We got into Sturgis early enough to be able to park on the infamous Main Street where there were four rows of bikes parked side by side for endless city blocks. Again, words just cannot adequately explain the euphoria of finally having made the pilgrimage to biker Mecca - STURGIS!

There were shops galore, like an over-grown flea market geared exclusively to bikers. By mid morning it had already become a slow walk through the masses of people. Two girls approached Barny and me and asked if they could take our pictures. Maybe it was the beards that caused all the attention; who knows. A woman with ad ID badge from "sturgis.com" also approached us and asked for our picture. Pete stepped out of the picture because he didn't want his picture taken, but Barny, Tim and I agreed. Another person wanted our picture for the "Rapid City News," but I was unable to find it on their site. Once again, we saw another guy with a beard like Barny's so Tim took a picture of the two of them together.

Met a bunch of believers here and there as we walked through the streets of Sturgis. One woman approached us and was offering free samples of "Al Capone Sweets" cigars. There was virtually every brand of motorcycle there, although the Harley Davidson's were by far the most popular make. The Sturgis police presence was hard not to miss; on foot, on bike and in cars (the cars were only on the side streets since Main Street was open to bikes and pedestrians only). Every imaginable bike artist was represented ready and willing to do any customizing one wanted on their bike. Tim and I stopped in the Knuckle Saloon (an outdoor bar) for a cold beer while we waited for Pete and Barny. There was a live band playing, I'm not sure who they were, but we didn't stay long as they were too loud for Barny and Pete when they met up with us again.

It was a long day of walking and seeing the sights. While we saw a lot, there was also a lot that we didn't see. We also didn't take in any of the night-life, which is probably just as well as that's when things do get a little raunchier. I did see one topless woman on a bike, even though public nudity is illegal. Oh well, it's all a part of the atmosphere. A couple other interesting sights were a biker towing a casket-trailer which was painted the same colour scheme as his bike. Another was a biker riding down Main Street with a dog (the dog wearing a t-shirt and goggles) riding on the gas tank and both riding right in front of a Sturgis cop. Later in the day we all purchased some souvenir t-shirts and patches for our leather vests and jackets.

In looking through the pictures on "sturgis.com" it's obvious that there was still a lot that I didn't see. One would really have to spend the entire week there to fully appreciate the experience. Still, it was a fantastic day and a memory that I will never forget: the day I spent at the 69th annual Sturgis Bike Rally.

Friday August 7

We left our motel early in the morning for a day of riding through the Black Hills of South Dakota. We took Hwy 14A which is also known as the "Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway." This proved to be a good choice as it exposed us to some beautiful scenery through the winding Spearfish Canyon. This is a highly recommended trip for anyone finding themselves in that area. We came out of the canyon at a place called "Cheyenne Crossing" where we made a quick stop for some pictures. From there we went on to the towns of "Lead" and "Deadwood."

In Deadwood we looked for a place to park the bikes so that we could walk around a bit. This in and of itself proved to be a bit of a feat given that Deadwood, like Sturgis, was full of motorcycles. Deadwood, an old gambling town, is famous for being the location where "Wild Bill Hickok" was killed. There is even a bronze statue of him at the edge of the old downtown. Deadwood is still a gambling town with a lot of casinos in the old hotels.

From Deadwood we rode down Hwy 385, stopping in Hill City. Hill City is essentially another mini-Sturgis, with bikes parked up and down both sides of Main Street. I took a picture of a street sign that stated that "Main Street was open to motorcycles only." I was amazed at how this whole Black Hills region completely catered to motorcyclists for this week in August. I wouldn't be surprised if the bulk of their annual budgets wasn't made up from the tourism of the Sturgis Bike Week.

From Hill City we continued south to "Keystone" which, as you might by now have guessed, was also full of bikers and parking was again a chore. We had lunch at a little cafe called "Oma's Cafe." Our waitress was a young woman from the Ukraine who was in the US on a student visa and was about to head back to university in Kiev. She was overwhelmed when both Barny and Pete spoke a few words to her in Ukrainian, which also caught me off guard. As it turns out, their mother was from the Ukraine and so they had learned a little of the language when they were younger. From Keystone it was just a short ride over to Mt. Rushmore where we pulled over to the side of the highway for some pictures. Many other bikers did the same rather than paying to go into the park. After leaving the Mt. Rushmore area we circled back to Hill City for more fuel and then on to "Crazy Horse." Again, we opted not to pay to go into the park but simply took a couple of pictures from the roadside. As I understand it, Crazy Horse is simply a bunch of old native drawings on the mountainside, which, while no doubt interesting to some, wasn't interesting enough to us to have to pay for a closer look.

Next we were off to "Custer State Park" which required a $6 admission per bike. We paid the admission because we wanted to ride the famous "Needles Highway" within the park which we had heard a lot about. Needles Highway is a very narrow and winding highway with one hairpin turn after another. I noticed several hairpin curves had speed limits posted of only 10 mph, and once we were into these curves, I could see why! Much faster through there and you would find yourself in trouble. Certainly Needles Highway is not for the inexperienced rider or the faint of heart. There were three one-way tunnels cut through the rock which were also interesting. They were so small that a full sized pick up truck would just barely be able to squeeze through. I thought it strange that they called this route a "highway," for it seemed to be anything but a highway. "Lane," or maybe "Goat Trail" might have been more appropriate. Still, despite the dangerous curves, the scenery was breath-taking! On a side note, we did see one accident where a biker went off the road. Thankfully it wasn't over one of the cliffs. We were not sure of the biker's condition, but as many other bikers had already stopped to assist, we didn't bother stopping.

After making our way out of Needles, we headed back north towards Deadwood on Hwy 385. As we approached Deadwood, the sky suddenly got very black. We pulled over and thought it wise to put on our rain gear, and I'm glad we did. Suddenly it started to pour like I haven't seen in a very long time. Then, at the edge of Deadwood, it hailed. Since hail and motorcycles is kind of like walking on marbles, we pulled over again. Barny took pictures of hailstones in his hand the size of golf balls! We ran across the road and took refuge inside someone's open garage (with their permission) until the hail stopped. There were a few ambulances and police cars racing up the road we just came from. I hope nobody was seriously hurt. The next mile or so was slow going as we rode though Deadwood in some deep water and mud that was running across the street. There was quite a bit of flooding. From there we went back up Hwy 85 north and onto the I-90 west and back to the hotel in Spearfish.

We heard reports of soft-ball sized hail in parts of Sturgis that day which apparently caused an awful lot of damage to some bikes. There was a DJ from Utah staying at our hotel who showed us his vehicle that was in Sturgis during the hailstorm. It had broken side windows, a seriously cracked windshield, and a completely pitted hood and roof. It was so seriously damaged that we thought that the insurance company would probably call it a write-off. I'm so glad we didn't do Sturgis that day, although we originally planned on going back through Sturgis on our way back from Mt. Rushmore. Once again God's hand was obviously upon us as none of us experienced and hail damage to our bikes or got physically hurt in the process. The worst that happened, besides getting soaked, was getting a few hailstones on some tender body areas which did leave a few bruises. Here too was another good reason to wear helmets (which we all did) as I can only imagine what golf-ball sized hail would feel like on a bare head!

Saturday August 8

We loaded up the bikes, checked out of the hotel, and started for home. There were some serious dark clouds that resulted in us riding for a while in the rain once again. We had hoped to go see the "Devil's Tower" in Wyoming, but it was raining so hard that we simply rode past in an effort to get out of the storm. Maybe next time we'll see it. We had also hoped to take the famous 11,000 ft "Bear Tooth Pass," but we were cautioned that, when there is rain falling below, there is usually snow up top (even in the summer). None of us felt like taking the chance of riding in the snow, so this too, we will leave for a future time.

Eventually we got out of the storm and pulled over to take a picture of the storm cloud behind us. We made another fuel stop in Gillette, Wym., went through Sheridan, Wym., and stayed on the I-90 all the way into Billings, MT. Just before Billings, MT. is the sight of "Custer's Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn" where we made a brief stop. In Billings we got something to eat and made another fuel stop. The original plans were to spend the night in Billings, but it was still relatively early so we decided to carry on another two hours to Lewiston, MT. Lewiston had no rooms available anywhere, so we felt we had no choice but to push on still another two hours to Great Falls, MT.

Suddenly, after leaving Lewiston, the clouds grew black again. I prayed (as I found out later the others did as well) that God would just hold back the rains. By this time I was tired of riding in rain. It was amazing what happened next. As we rode on, at the very edge where it was pouring rain, the road suddenly curved away from the rain. There were rain clouds on our left and on our right, and each time it looked like we were about to ride through the rain, the road curved yet again taking us away from where it was raining. We kept dry the whole way. Truly, that was an answer to prayer!

About an hour out of Lewiston we passed through the little town of Stanford, MT. where we saw a small motel (The Sundown Motel). We stopped and they still had a couple rooms which we took. It was owned by a Christian couple. They told us about the "Waterhole Saloon" in town where the locals go and where we could find some good food. We rode into town, found the saloon, had some supper and a couple of beers and talked to the very friendly locals. Tim figured that we rode almost exactly 500 miles (800 km) that day. I think that was a daily record for all of us. No wonder our rear ends were sore!

Sunday August 9

We left Stanford about 7:00 am for the hour ride into Great Falls, MT. There we made a stop for breakfast and for more fuel. After another quick fuel stop in Shelby, MT., it was no to the border. We arrived back in Lethbridge at 12:30 pm and headed straight for the Burger Baron (where we often fellowship Sunday mornings) and had a celebratory milkshake. We were happy to see that some of our friends were still there. On a more comical note, Delores came up to me and began brushing my beard to pull out a trapped grasshopper. I guess she figured now that I was enjoying a great milkshake that I no longer needed to snack on the grasshopper.

I stopped by Ginny's work briefly to let her know that I was safely back, and then went home. The total mileage from the time I left home until I pulled back into my driveway was 3281 km. This really was, as my brother called it, my "Pilgrimage to Biker Mecca." What a great time! What a great experience!

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