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Two-Wheeled Revelry

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, also known as Sturgis Bike Week, is a raucous exercise in insanity. The bikers who travel to this small South Dakota town each year in August may fall within the range of “normal” on psychiatric exams. Yet collectively, when the more than 600,000 riders of two- and three-wheeled, throttle-propelled vehicles descend on Sturgis, making the town more populous than the entire state, the leather-clad horde exhibits characteristics that would make even Freud blush. Before I attended last year’s event, I had expected to meet interesting motorcycle enthusiasts, many of whom would instigate some PG-13 moments.

As I pulled into Glencoe Camp Resort, I realized that an extremely high percentage of bikers own RVs and drive them to Sturgis, their bikes in tow. By the time I had picked out a spot among the primitive camping area (the 1,013 full-hookup RV sites had been sold out since April), I knew I was in for one heck of a week. Conservative RVers — those bothered by nudity, drunkenness and vulgarity — would do well to steer clear of Sturgis during Bike Week (two weeks, really), since revelers with these proclivities will inhabit the various campgrounds. RVers wishing to experience Bike Week without dabbling in depravity can dig themselves a moral moat by camping far from the action that takes place on Glencoe’s main drag. I’d guess the displays at the other numerous campgrounds are similarly themed. Many of the repeat rally visitors, however, make the trip each year specifically to partake of the infamous, risque, anything-goes “parades” that roar through the campgrounds nightly.

I’m certainly not claiming the moral high ground; I watched with fascination as the clothing-optional, bike-straddling participants rumbled past, men and women seductively, playfully, repulsively displaying what nature and plastic surgery had given them. Most of the exhibitionists were on the backs of bikes. As a novel sociological study, I found the campground shenanigans entertaining for a night or two (though stinky, loud burnouts made no sense immediately). Bikes revved non-stop almost around the clock. My lack of sleep shortened my patience with the far-worse-than-Los Angeles traffic that snailed its way through Sturgis. Despite having plenty of laughs with RVing bikers who obsessively return year after year to the rally, I needed to get away from the gas-powered beehive of bikes.

That’s where my two-wheeler of choice — a mountain bike, the kind blessedly free of guttural rumbles — came in. I’d read about the Mickelson Trail on a previous visit to the area, and this time I intended to explore as many of the 114 rails-to-trails miles as I could. I inched my way to nearby Deadwood, where Deadwood Bicycles awaited. Tony Diem, one of the shop’s owners, was busy working on a customer’s bike, but he soon convinced me that the ride that awaited me was a special one. Tony knows the Mickelson Trail as well as anyone, which makes sense considering it actually begins in his shop. He’ll gladly match rides to riders’ abilities, and describe the stretches between trailheads. Or, with the slightest persuasion, he may just close the doors and head out for a ride with a customer. After buying my $2 trail pass ($10 annually), filling up my water bottle, applying sunscreen and heeding Tony’s advice to start my ride on the other side of the motorcycle-laden highway, I set out in the midday sun on the steady climb that leads to the Kirk Trailhead.

The roar of bikes dissipated behind me as I ascended the route the Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line once traversed. A stream flowed on my left as I chugged past the bare, scarred landscape into a tree-lined section of narrow canyon that made me forget momentarily that all this beauty, all this quiet, was only minutes away from the hubbub throttling much of the surrounding Black Hills. I took the clockwise route Tony had recommended, pedaled slowly up, up, up through a lush forest, wishing I’d brought more water and cursing myself for not being in better shape. I knew the half-mile, you-gotta-be-kidding-me climb — with a 17 percent grade — was ahead, and I was determined to give it my best. I did exactly that, but still had to walk the last few yards. Then the serious fun began, the seemingly endless descent, chewing up the well-maintained trail, zipping around turns, feeling the invigoration of high-speed athletic pursuit.

I smiled for miles, and when I rounded a turn and heard the distant sounds of revving engines, my mood didn’t change. Two days later, Tony rode with me along the stunningly scenic stretch of trail from Mystic to Rochford, a 7.9-mile route one-way that includes numerous trestles, a tunnel and — that day, anyhow — a trip through a herd of black elk. The big, snorting creatures slowly mooed their way off the trail as we passed. Carefully negotiating through the animals will always remain one of my who’d-a-thunk-it memories. That night, as I lay in the campground listening to the merriment, I had to admire the range of the area’s two-wheeled possibilities.

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