I Fell in Love With Motorcycles. But Could I Ever Love Sturgis?
In order tojoin one of the private Facebook groups for the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, I had to agree to 10 rules. Seven addressed matters of basic netiquette — respect, courtesy, bullying, privacy, solicitation (both kinds). Two were apolitical in ways that felt extremely political: “NO COVID COMMENTS” and “ABSOLUTELY NO POLITICS … YOU WILL BE DELETED!” The last concerned what is known as “trailering,” or towing your motorcycle out to Sturgis. “NO TRAILER BASHING!” the rule proclaimed. “YOU WILL BE REMOVED.”
Trailering is a common way to get to Sturgis, S.D., though it is generally considered the least respectable. The most esteemed way to arrive at America’s legendary motorcycle rally is by riding there, from your house, on your own bike, an attitude evinced by the glut of merchandise proclaiming: I RODE MINE STURGIS ’21. One subcurrent at Sturgis, as I would soon discover, is rating who is and is not a real biker: trailers, renters, three-wheeling “trikers,” members of outlaw gangs, women. There is no one true answer to this question, but there are a lot of slogans making one case or another. It goes without saying that there aren’t T-shirts for people who fly in from Newark and rent a bike.
United Flight 3533 to Rapid City, S.D., was nearly 100 percent white couples of retirement age. Economy round trip cost about $700, and boarding had that hale, key-party-ish vibe of flights where everyone is on vacation. The wives, in expensive flip-flops and cheap leggings, discussed past trips to Caribbean resorts. The husbands checked weather apps on their phones. As I loaded my bag into the overhead bin, two couples noticed they were in each other’s seats. “Wanna switch?” said one wife to the other. “I’ll sit with your husband.”
Did she wink?
From my seat in Row 19, the cabin appeared as a series of horizons each with its own dim setting sun: the Bic-bald dome in noise-canceling headphones, or the mesh-backed baseball cap with the little semicircle of salt-and-pepper thatching sticking out the back. Behind me, two couples claimed all of Row 20 — husbands in the windows, wives on the aisle — passing a bag of candy back and forth.
“I wonder if I should put on my Trump hat,” one wife said. “I better not say that too loud,” she said louder.
“No,” the other wife reassured her. “These are all bikers. They like Trump.”
She spoke in a tone of mischief, not confrontation — the “Oh, you’re bad!” of the third margarita. Everyone was in the outlaw spirit, preparing to hit the open road in the lawless territory where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, a state with no adult helmet laws. Since the first Harley-Davidson was sold, in 1903, the motorcycle in America has intertwined itself with the two types of liberty: freedom to (wander, skip town, enjoy life), and freedom from (the mainstream, the desk job, social mores). These tensions reconcile in all sorts of biker cultures — the urban dirt biker, the cafe-racing yuppie — but Sturgis is unique in selling the fantasy of a subculture based on the dominant one. Here, middle-aged riders of $20,000 American-made motorcycles gather for 10 days of controlled rebellion: to wander paved roads, buy Harley merchandise and rage against the reality of their milieu’s waning cultural relevance. The mood of rebellion felt doubly high in light of the whole pandemic situation. According to research published in The Southern Economic Journal, the 2020 Sturgis Rally — “the largest public gathering to take place in the country since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic” — was responsible for between 115,283 and 266,796 new Covid cases nationwide, generating up to an estimated $8.7 billion in health care costs. This year already, the media was warning of the four bikers of the apocalypse.
Like many other Americans, I bought my first motorcycle during the pandemic. I thought I was just purchasing a mode of transportation — a way to get around without riding the train — but after some time on the street with other riders, I started to suspect I’d signed up for a lot more. Obviously I was aware of biker culture, but somehow I’d decided that these tropes — choppers, leather jackets, the whole deal — were all but contentless by now, mere tchotchkes on the wall in the T.G.I. Fridays of American individualism. Imagine my shock upon discovering not only did this strain of biker culture still exist, but that I existed within it. At first I felt embarrassed to find myself complicit in a myth so overbaked. Eventually I became curious about what might still be vital at its heart. This is the feeling that sent me off to Sturgis.
Up in the sky, at cruising altitude, I got up and took a walk to the bathroom. Outlaws munched on Biscoff cookies; a grown man snoozed across two seats in his socks. Somewhere near Row 18, a flight attendant admonished another passenger to pull his mask over his nose. He pulled it up high, then pulled it up higher, covering his whole face for a selfie. The flight attendant moved along. He pulled it back down.
My motorcycle journey started in May 2019, when Revel, an app-based “urban mobility” start-up, dumped a few hundred electronic mopeds into the gentrified regions of the outer boroughs. At the time, I was living in Queens, a half-mile outside the rental radius. Despite some vague sense that the scooters were bad — that they might represent creeping privatization in the lead-up to an infrastructure crisis (or something) — I soon found myself taking furtive strolls down into the app’s coverage zone. The Revels were humiliating to ride — with the sexless body style of a Chase A.T.M. — and yet I was hooked on the frictionlessness of traversing a gridlocked city on two wheels. One day, on my walk down into the zone, I came across a guy in a garage with a whole herd of vintage mopeds for sale. Closing the Revel app for the last time, I withdrew $500 from an A.T.M. and rode off that day on a 1980 Motobecane Mobylette.
My Mobylette had a rakish red frame and an extra-long black-leather seat with space for a girl with a scarf around her neck. Like the Revel, it eased the stress of getting from Point A to Point B in a city. Unlike the Revel, it broke down constantly, teaching me new vocabulary words like “idle jet,” “petcock” and “lean oil mixture.” (As one bumper sticker goes in the vintage-scooter world: “MY OTHER RIDE IS 10 BROKEN MOPEDS.”) I wanted transportation, not a hobby, and so I sold the Mobylette and went in search of something more reliable. A bicycle was too slow; an e-bike was too novel; an electric longboard was too embarrassing. This was how a motorcycle started to feel like a practical choice.
My Yamaha TW200 arrived in May 2021, after two months at sea in the pandemic supply chain. Taking my bike out onto the streets, I quickly discovered that it was somewhat strange to view motorcycling as merely pragmatic. Other motorcyclists threw up peace signs as they passed, suggesting to me that we had something in common. Anywhere I wore my Kevlar jacket, friends harassed me with epithets like “bad boy,” and asked if they could “see my hog.” “The jacket and the helmet are for safety,” I protested. “The TW200 is a farm bike! They use it for herding animals!”
There was no livestock to herd in New York City, and the more I objected, the more it gave the impression that I was in the throes of some latent crisis of masculinity. Still, I believed the motorcycle was its own thing. Ten layers deep in sardonic detachment, I felt humiliated that a stranger might believe I’d bought into the empty affectations of the biker. When strangers started flirting with me — saying “nice bike,” and asking “for a ride” — I felt humiliated for them. How un-self-aware must you be to stir at the sight of a motorcycle helmet?
Lucky for me, these questions were made irrelevant when my bike was stolen after just two months of riding. The next morning, one building down with the super, I watched on a CCTV screen as two guys in hoodies with an angle grinder shucked my disc lock like a pistachio. The days after that were all labyrinthine bureaucracy and no open road. I called the insurance agent, who told me to call the cops, who told me to come down to the station, where they told me to go home and call 911. I went to notarize the claim form at the bank, where they told me to go to the pharmacy, whose notary only accepted cash, sending me right back to the bank. Over that weekend, someone from the @stolenmotorcyclesnyc Instagram account saw my bike parked on the street in Brooklyn. I texted the street address to my cop, who responded 10 days later to ask if I’d retrieved it.
Things went on like this for a few weeks. I kept a piece of yellow cardstock near my computer to record each step in the claim payout process. At 45 steps, I added a second sheet. Each new brush with bureaucracy made my motorcycle feel less like a machine and more like the nexus of paperwork streams. By the time I left for Sturgis, I was 55 steps in, waiting for the D.M.V. to mail a duplicate of a title I never received to begin with, for a vehicle I no longer owned. The whole biker lifestyle, which at first I’d written off, now seemed intriguing — and perhaps even fun.
On the first official day of Sturgis, I woke up to a Daily Beast headline: “Sturgis Rally Death Cult Pits Nurses Against Panicked Docs.” I scrolled through tweets from people on the coasts, predicting 10 days of public health indifference, followed by widespread hospitalizations and an influx of Harleys for sale, barely rode. Many seized upon the number “700,000,” a prediction (from where?) of how many bikers were coming to Sturgis to gather en masse. This bothered me for two reasons: First, it stank of smug schadenfreude. Second, these people did not seem to understand the very basic facts of what Sturgis actually is.
Sturgis is not a single event so much as an unstoppable annual happening, like Christmas. It has no one true organizer; people are likely to show up every year, whether somebody endorses it or not. The first Sturgis Rally was held in 1938, when Clarence (Pappy) Hoel, a local Indian-brand motorcycle dealer, and the Jackpine Gypsies, his motorcycle club, hosted a race. Nine riders were said to have attended.
In the 1980s, the Sturgis Rally grew from a sporting event to something more like a festival. By then it had established itself as basically a Harley-Davidson affair. (One representative for the city of Sturgis told me that they used to string import bikes up in trees.) Today the rally has three main venues: the city of Sturgis (population: 7,020); the nearby city of Deadwood (from the television show); and the massive Buffalo Chip Campground (an R.V.-park-slash-amphitheater). These entities host official events — rap-rock concerts, bikini bike washes — but because Sturgis is really about riding, attendees tend to spend their days out on the road, stopping at towns along scenic highways (Custer, Hill City, Spearfish) and visiting Mount Rushmore. City officials and the South Dakota Department of Transportation didn’t seem to know where the number “700,000” came from. The city’s attendance count, calculated after the fact, would turn out to be closer to 550,000.
Buffalo Chip Campground, Sturgis.Credit…Chris Maggio for The New York Times
I started my day in historic downtown Sturgis at the Harley-Davidson Rally Point, a handsome slate-and-iron plaza built in public-private partnership to commemorate 75 years of the rally. A small crowd of press and industry types awaited a welcome message from the mayor. The Budweiser Clydesdales clomped nearby; the Budweiser girls adjusted their hair and fiddled with the belt loops of their cutoff denim shorts. At noon, the mayor of Sturgis took the stage, inviting his niece to sing the national anthem. There was a message from the City Council president (his sister), a welcome in Lakota (from a Native American women’s riding club), a “drink responsibly” message, a technical glitch, a thank-you to all of the sponsors and a prayer:
Heavenly Father, sovereign Lord. We appreciate the gift of faith and the blessings that we all have. We pray in times of turmoil and difficulty that we still understand that love is the answer and the greatest commandment of all. We thank you for two wheels, steel, the Black Hills and this community. We pray that respect and love overcomes all, and that this rally is as great as it gets. We pray for safety and just thank you for what we have, Lord. In Jesus’ name, we pray.
Just beyond the plaza lies the heart of downtown Sturgis, an Old West town with spacious streets and flat-faced frontier architecture. A few businesses are open only for the rally. Others undergo a Clark Kent-ish costume change to squeeze a few bucks out of bikers passing through. The Heartland Homestore, a Whirlpool retailer, becomes a souvenir shop. The parking lots along the main drag, Lazelle Street, spring forth with Harley demo rides and vendors selling things like aftermarket seats enhanced with “space-age fluidized gel.” Compared with other kinds of pop-up carnivals, Sturgis Rally hides the boundaries of its fantasy quite well (or rather, it interlocks seamlessly with the year-round fantasy of the Old West town that hosts it). Against the Black Hills, the Harley-as-horse metaphor feels naturalistic. There’s a long history of dudes in the West putting up tents to hawk crap to other dudes.
I walked Lazelle from east to west, passing a line of bikes at a red light. Despite the frontier ambience, the mood in town was lawful that day. Everyone abided the speed limit. Trash cans sponsored by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys stood at five-foot intervals, dissuading against the crime of littering. Save for the odd fit of brazen throttle-revving, the bulk of the rebellion at Sturgis seemed to express itself via consumption. On the merch inside the tents, the slogans formed a manifesto so whimsically uncivil I can present only a representative abridgment:
“BEEN THERE DONE THAT!”; “COVID SUCKS”; “HOMOSEXUALS ARE GAY”; “HELMET LAWS SUCK!”; “HOLD MY BEER WHILE I KISS YOUR GIRLFRIEND”; “JOE AND THE HOE GOT TO GOE”; “JANE FONDA AMERICAN TRAITOR BITCH”; “A TOUR OF DUTY LASTS A LIFETIME”; “I’M NOT A VET BUT I AM PROUD OF THEM”; “LOUD PIPES MAY SAVE LIVES BUT JESUS CHRIST SAVES SOULS”; “ONLY 2 IN ALL OF HISTORY EVER DIED FOR FREEDOM ALL OVER THE WORLD … JESUS CHRIST & THE AMERICAN SOLDIER”; “IRISH”; “LATINO”; “FIREFIGHTER”; “LDS”; “CERTIFIED NURSING ASSISTANT”; “GYNECOLOGIST”; “I IDENTIFY AS A BIKER”; “I WILL NOT BE FORCED TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE TO ACCOMMODATE ILLEGALS IN MY COUNTRY!”; “I ???? BOOBIES”; “NIPPLES MAKE ME SMILE”; “THE MORE HAIR I LOSE THE MORE HEAD I GET!”; “BIKERS DON’T GO GRAY WE TURN CHROME.”
Waking up on my second day at Sturgis, the first thing I heard through the hotel window was the sound. Usually, a motorcycle engine is something that fades away into the distance. At Sturgis, there is no Doppler effect — no dwindling, petering waning at all. Before one bike passes, another appears, sustaining a gruff undercurrent of noise the city of Sturgis has branded as “the Roar.”
The primary perpetrator of the Roar is a class of Harley-Davidson officially known as a “grand American touring” motorcycle, and unofficially known as a “bagger.” Baggers are designed for comfort on long rides across the U.S. Interstate. They take their name from the saddlebags attached to the hindquarters of the bike. The most well-known fans of baggers are retirees, many of whom probably first bought Harleys in the ’80s. Between 1983 and 1987, the Reagan administration imposed a steep tariff increase on foreign-made bikes with engines larger than 700 c.c. This law sheltered Harley, and provided an incentive to double down on making heavy bikes with big engines. You can imagine Harley now as trapped in a tortured feedback loop, in which bikes get bigger and customers get older, losing the brand both cachet and youth appeal. The bagger is the logical outcome of the cycle: an overdesigned, La-Z-Boy on-the-go, well suited to the needs of the geriatric rider. The most extreme model, the Tri Glide Ultra trike, is sometimes maligned as a “mobility scooter.”
Because Sturgis is a highway-riding event, almost every bike I saw for rent was a bagger. In the days leading up to the trip, this had been a major source of consternation, as I worried the bagger would make me feel uncool, and then wondered if my desire to feel cool betrayed some belief in biker lore after all. There on the ground, at the rental desk, this set off a subsequent spiral, in which I asked myself, What was actually so wrong about engaging with a prefab form of cool to begin with? Mostly, though, my misgivings were concrete: My stolen motorcycle weighed less than 300 pounds. Many Harley baggers can exceed 800 pounds, and from the motorcycle-safety course I’d taken to get my license, I retained just one mandate: Don’t drop the bike. Dropping a lightweight bike is an annoyance and, at most, a tragedy for your mirrors or gas tank. Dropping the bagger would be humiliating. I’d need two strangers to help me pick it up.
The rental agent listened to my concerns and matched me with the Harley Heritage Softail, a thinking man’s bagger with leather panniers, weighing in at a mincing and elegant 700 pounds. My plan was to ride to Needles Eye Tunnel, a destination and scenic photo op I found through the #Sturgis Instagram hashtag. Squeezing the clutch and finding first gear, I rolled off the lot onto Highway 14A, passing the now-defunct World’s Largest Grill, and turning on to Rochford Road, a meandering route through the Black Hills National Forest. The scenery was pinier and more romantic than the tree erotica of a Yankee Candle jar. The roads were sinuous and well maintained, and instantly I understood the pleasure of riding in a place where motorcycles were not just tolerated but courted. Back in New York, I’d only ever rode one curve, a potholed frontage next to Green-Wood Cemetery. Here, there were only curves. At first I worked them tentatively, and then in a flow of efficient momentum.
It’s pretty much self-evident that riding a motorcycle is fun. There’s plenty of writing on motorcycle culture, and motorcycle outlaws, and biker symbolism, but seldom does an author feel a need to explicate the literal, baseline appeal of the pastime. In the famed Harley ethnography “Subcultures of Consumption,” John W. Schouten and James H. McAlexander identify four factors they believe contribute to the spirituality of the motorcycle-riding experience: “the increased closeness to nature, the heightened sensory awareness, the mantric throbbing of the engine, the constant awareness of risk and the concomitant mental focus.” Soon, their descriptions must transcend the concrete, as they liken Harley-riding to “a modern equivalent of the shamanic experience of magical flight. Under certain conditions (e.g., in fog, snow or heavy rain; on deserted streets at night; pursuing mirages on a desert highway; or at the leading edge of a storm front), the whole experience of riding can seem particularly magical or otherworldly.”
Arriving in Rochford (population: eight) I certainly felt beyond reality. On first glance, the town appeared a bit rundown. On second, I wondered if it only looked that way to appeal to the biker daydream of stumbling across a rundown town. I parked, and stopped into the Rochford general store, which bills itself as the “Small of America.” There I bought a postcard and a drink. The trees in the valley absorbed all of the sound.
On the way out of town, I passed the Fire Department’s sign: “Drive safe or we get to see you naked.” So thoroughly intoxicated by the quaintness, I scanned the street for oncoming cars, then whipped my handlebars into a U-turn, hoping to score for Instagram. I knew the bike was falling before it even fell; the loss of control registered in my stomach, followed by the sound of my left headlight crunching like a corn chip. Unharmed but for my ego, I crawled off the fallen bike and tried a few times to dead lift it back to standing. When that failed, I stood there stupidly, my helmet like the fishbowl head of a spacesuit.
Ten minutes later, a trio of bicyclists emerged from the head of a nearby trail. They set the bike upright and sent me on my way, headlight dangling by its entrails. Somewhere outside Mystic, I flagged down a trucker, who helped me tape the light back on. Soon after that, cell service dropped out, and I started to suspect I might be on a real adventure.
Cruising along toward Needles Eye Tunnel, I toggled back and forth between two realities: Sturgis, the hermetic Harley Disneyland; and Sturgis, an occasion for real enterprise and danger. Though the rally was a somewhat decentralized event, the itinerary felt pretty predetermined, enforced by pop-up traffic lights and organized group rides led by the mayor. At the same time, this really was the open road — South Dakota spreads the population of San Francisco across some 77,000 square miles — and I really was in trouble and alone, fully reliant on the kindness of strangers.
Still, Sturgis Rally seemed to oversell its own adventurousness. There is nothing inherently political about motorcycles (at least, not more so than anything else), and yet the merchandise downtown seemed desperate to convince me otherwise — that the biker was not just a hobbyist, but a vigilant combatant against various enemies. Sometimes these were the usual foes: liberals, “illegals,” Joe Biden, people who don’t ???? boobies. And behind all of this lurked the mythic outlaw biker — a boogeyman so bad to the bone that he could commit any sort of crime anywhere at any moment. Nearly everyone I spoke to that weekend had some anecdote about how Sturgis used to be dangerous, or was still way more dangerous than you might think. One man I met while walking downtown explained that there were F.B.I. agents everywhere who would rip off their disguises at first sight of Hells Angels. Outside some of the bars there were signs that read “NO COLORS,” and I couldn’t help feeling that the intended audience was people who were not in biker gangs themselves.
Riding along, I thought about Harley and how its ultimate triumph as a brand was creating a mass fantasy in which men could role-play as outlaws on weekends. Much could be said here of boomer decline — from “Easy Rider” to mortgaged homeowner, and so on — but for me, in that moment, such cynical truths did not feel so insidious. My bagger, though I hated it, opened up a space in which motorcycling could be many things at once: a nexus of paperwork streams; a symbol of a culture war waged on false grounds; the loophole through which I could transcend it all for a moment. Was it the “shamanic experience of magical flight,” or was I just driving fast and feeling cool? As my phone caught some service, Drake came over my AirPods. I leaned into a curve and the myths that I detested. I was James Dean, DMX, Che Guevara. I was a “bad boy” riding a “nice hog.” Thankfully, no one I knew was there to see it.
A lot of people were there, though, pursuing the fantasy in their own way. We were a gang of bad boys on nice hogs, clogging the silly straw of Needles Highway. The tunnel appeared, first as a traffic jam, and then as a truck-size aperture of light blasted through the face of the granite pinnacles. A teenager sat at the mouth in safety yellow, waving people through with a light-up baton. I inched forward, steadying the bike. Finally, he waved me through.
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a contributing writer for the magazine. Their last article was about the comedian Jacqueline Novak.