Days Five, Six and Seven
Mt. Rushmore, Custer Park, Crazy Horse, Deadwood and Sturgis
Clear skies and a bright sun shone above me as I waved bye to the park ranger working at the Interior entrance. My window rolled down and music blasting, I watched the Badlands give away to ranch land cut in half by long, dusty driveways.
Before long, I entered Rapid City to find the needed road signs pointing to the first stop of the day, Mt. Rushmore where the four of the most famous men in the Black Hills resided. The scenery changed once again giving away from grasslands to rolling hills filled with evergreens and pockets of small hotels with welcome banners and no vacancy lights.
Thirty minutes later, I got my first glimpse of the presidents’ 60-ft of granite faces hanging from the side of a mountain. Once inside of the park, I made my way through the Avenue of Flags towards the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. It was surreal to stand right under their noses and listen to the park rangers explain the undertaking of this project.
On a tight schedule, I left the fad four for Custer State Park’s Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway where I drove along fourteen miles of pigtails bridges, hairpin twists and unbelievable granite cathedral spires overlooks until I got to the famous Needles’ Eye Tunnel.
Having watched videos, I knew it was a one-way stone tunnel with a narrow passage. A little nervous, I parked at a small overlook to observe bikers as they passed through. Only after watching a similar sized SUV come through did I sandwich myself between a group of bikers and wait my turn. With a quick wave from the flagman, I made my way through the eye of the needle.
From there I enjoyed the park’s beauty as headed out to my third stop, the Crazy Horse Memorial. Another moment of awe. There at I learned about the Lakota people their dedication to their heritage to finish the decades old project.
With time left on the schedule, I made my way to the last pit stop of the day, Deadwood. Fans of the HBO series and the old west are familiar with this gold rush mining town that drew the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, miners, gunslingers and outlaws to its vices. But on this hot August day, the only metal to be found was the chrome of the hundreds of bikes lining it now bricked streets. After staking my claim on the last space in the town’s parking deck, dressed in hiking attire and not even trying to blend in with the leather and bandanna wearing patrons spilling out of the bars, shops, hotels, casinos doorways, I wandered along the streets of Deadwood to enjoy all its offerings.
Then it was back to the road where dark and grey clouds filled with heavy rains took over the afternoon skies as I headed to the day’s last stop, Sturgis.
Okay, let me stop here and share my solo trip planning technique. Every year I pick one place I really want to visit and then I build my journey around it. I’ve shared in a previous blog I venture out for three weeks every year. And yea, I could spend all that time in one place and have a wonderful experience, but I want to see it all. So, I chose one place and spread twenty-one days of experiences around it.
2018’s it was Sturgis and its bike rally. So, I planned on to join more than a half-million people for its 78th year. Do I own a bike? Nope, but I do have my endorsement. I’m just too chicken to ride on the roads. And that’s on my list of fears to overcome. I am envious of the riders cruised by me on the I-90’s straight shots of pavement or Needles Road’s body-hugging curves. Maybe in time I’ll be one of those ride free(er) bikers that the South Dakota billboards proclaim to passersby.
Just one-hour shy of my campsite entrance deadline, I entered Sturgis in a steady rain. Despite the weather, its downtown was filled with vendors and people. This crowd favored more skin than leather with halter tops and ass chaps. I kept hoping it would be more equal opportunity in the bared ass chap’s department, but no such luck as I snail crawled out to the Buffalo Chip Campground.
There I waited three lines deep with trucks, RVs, campers and bikes to park and get my wrist bands. Waved through, I got in another line at will call. While waiting, a Scottish-speaking kilt wearing biker asked for help with his wrist band. I can’t say I ever through of those two things looking good together, but once you see it in person, believe me it does.
Back in the car line, I waited again. Okay, I can admit while sitting, taking everything in, self-doubt began to creep into my mind. But before I got to too caught in it, security waved me forward. Rolling down my window, I began to ping off questions to the guy. Midway he stopped to ask if I was alone. For a second, I hesitated, but answered truthfully yes. Then he asked if I planned to attend the concerts. Another yes. With that answer he proceeded to direct me with hand gestures to an American flag pole by a parked RV, telling me to take a left and keep going I saw a chain link fence, take a right and go as far I could drive and get as close to a water tower sitting on a hill.
No problem on the left turn. I had the pole as a marker. But with the fence, there were plenty of options for a right. Needing another marker just in case I got turn around in the field of tents and campers, I finally took a right. Again, at a flag pole. Only this had two blow up dolls hanging from it, proclaiming there was lots of fun to be had at this particulate campsite. From there, I drove on the flat ground until it gave away to a low dip and a large opening between two tent sites.
In the rain, I began to set up my tent. Just as I finished up, my neighbor to the right came over to introduce himself. With a fifth of Jack stacked on top of a Budweiser, he offered me a drink. I learned he had ridden up from Florida while the rest of his group had ridden in from Oregon. And like me, he was a first timer, too.
Still light outside and now with clearing skies, I made the rounds to meet my other neighbors. As a solo traveler, this is best part of trip. Meeting people and learning about their lives. In front of me, there was a young couple from Michigan who had a won nine-day pass to Buffalo Chip from their local radio station. Neither rode bikes, but it was a free trip with music and people watching. Having four days on me, they shared where the free showers were, which port-a-john to avoid at the top of hill (#3 & #4 had busted wood planks in them), where to dump trash and some funny stories like the guy who zipped line across over the amphitheater area dressed in only one sock.
Behind me against the fence, two middle age couples sat under a shade tent in lounge chairs watching the coming and going around them. They shared they have been coming since their teenage years and never missed a year. This year would be their teen aged children first time, but they only go to the Kid Rock concert. I also learned they lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I told them I had met a woman at the Badlands campground who was also from there. As I said her name, one of the women swiped through her phone to show me a picture of a woman in bike gear, asking if this was her. Confirming it was her, I stood there amazed how small our world really is.
After a quick power nap and dinner, I geared up for the main event of my evening, Lynyrd Skynyrd. With a flashlight in one pocket and mace in the other, I walked up the hill, towards the water tower and through amphitheater’s gates. Once inside, I found it to be more like a mini-town with its adjoining buildings and concert stage. There were stores selling souvenirs and biker gear, eateries, even a Domino’s. All built in a semi-circle around the concert stage. A large yellow Buffalo Chip sign hung over the stage area while rows of bikers sat on their chrome machines in the pit area. It was an awesome sight and sound as Lynyrd Skynyrd rocked forty years of southern rock classics to the roar of throttles, shouts and claps.
Hours later, I made way back pass the gates, water tower and port-a-johns on the hill, looking for my tent. The glow from the amphitheater gave off some light, but even with my flash light, I had a hard time finding my tent. Remembering, I had my car fob, I pressed down on it turning my car into a lighthouse.
Weaving between campsites, I listened to music filtering from the bars. As I got closer to my own campsite, I realized how quiet it was around it. No lights. No noise. None of my neighbors were home yet. Unzipping my tent, I sat on the edge of the cot, waiting for some noise, any noise. That self-doubt I had earlier at the security gate started to make its way back in the darkness of my tent. I couldn’t go to sleep with no one around. Should it had made a difference? Probably not, I really didn’t know them, but for some reason it just made me feel safer. I had two choices. I could wait out in my tent or the car. The car won out. Covering the driver and passenger windows with beach towels, I pulled my sleeping bag over me as I settled into the reclined car seat to face off to a line of smiling emojis on the car shade blocking the car’s front window. The plan was to stay awake until I heard someone.
That plan worked as I awoke to the low rumbling of bikes. Only it was around seven the next morning. I sat wrapped in a sleeping bag in a smiley face, towel lined windows, Rubbermaid packed car listening to others discussing the day’s plans. I smiled back to the emojis as I thought about being pushed outside my comfort zone and how I made it though.
With nothing on that day’s agenda, I explored the campground beginning with the amphitheater. During the daylight, it appeared tamed as a handful of people wandered through its shops. Workers were busy shifting fences around to set up for the afternoon races. I mingled and talked my way around the grounds before finally arriving at bikini beach to grab a slice of pizza and watch sun bathers perform cannon balls and dives into the cool water. While eating I met another first timer. She was from New Jersey. Through our conversation, I learned her best friend lived near my hometown. From there, more walking and talking until I hit the smoothie food truck. I guess bikers like smoothies, too. While standing in line, I met the campground security and programming head guys. It was interesting to get a bigger picture of what happens behind the scenes to pull off something this big.
My take away from the day’s explorations is how easy it is to fall for stereotypes portrayed in media, television or movies making us forget we have more in common with each other than not. We’re working jobs, taking care of families, paying rent/mortgages, saving for homes and vacations. Despite our outside wrappers, we’re all just people trying to live our lives the best we can.
The day’s walking and talking took its toll on me. Translation: afternoon nap time. No need to bore you on how fast a tired, sweaty body can fall sleep in hot tent under the low breeze of a battery-operated fan.
A lazy day fell into a lazier evening as I sat by the tent listening to The Marshall Tucker Band bellow out, “Fire on the Mountain”. Based on the interact with the crowd, they came to Sturgis for a good time and had no trouble finding it. Then later, I headed up the hill same as the previous night, pass the port-a-johns and water tower to the stage area to listen the night’s head liner, Aaron Lewis. Again, on repeat, I trekked my way back to my tent to find myself the first to return. What had freaked me out the night before, the silence, now had no hold on me as I readied myself for bed. Maybe because the unknown had become the known.
On my final full day, I found I need something more than Sturgis could offer. Starbucks and Target. So off to Rapid City, I head for a morning of wifi, caffeine and shopping. On my way back, I stopped to mingle with bikers and tourists on the streets of downtown Sturgis in the hot, muggy afternoon air.
Returning to Buffalo Chip, I navigated my way to my campsite using the pole hugging blowup dolls as landmark. As I re-organized storage containers and cleaned trash from my car, I heard a voice coming from a large SUV stopped behind me asking if the spot to left was open.
And that’s when I met the Montana fun girls. You know that moment when fate gives someone you can be yourself in a no judgement zone and just have fun. That who the Montana fun girls were. The three of them had come down from Billings for the Eric Church and Kid Rock concerts. What was great about them? They were my age, loved music and wanted to have fun.
I introduced myself while they set their tent and asked to tag along with them to the night’s concert. Despite having talked to a lot of people over the past week, I had not hung out with anyone. I needed girl time. Lucky for me, they said yes.
Over dinner and drinks in a BBQ joint at the amphitheater, we shared stories and insights of Netflix shows, serial killers and sex. Strange intertwined topics that made great conversation. Afterwards, we headed up to the second floor of the bar next door to claim our piece of real estate for the concert. Eric Church had a hard time completing for our attention between watered down sea breezes, zip liners, go-go dancers and our laughter. Finally, in the early morning hours and one Domino’s pizza later, we called it night.
The next morning, I shared a farewell breakfast with my new peeps. Exchanging contact information and a few more laughs, I left South Dakota where presidents, bikers and fun girls came together to make Great Faces, Great Places more than an advertising motto.