Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Pilgrimage to Sturgis Part VI

“My Pilgrimage to Sturgis” is a multi-part story chronicling my trip to the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week.

Part VI – Heading Home and Final Notes:
After three glorious days in The Black Hills, it was time to head home.  As we did on the way out, we split the return trip in half, stopping at Badlands National Park on the way.  The Badlands is another area I visited on my family trips as a kid, and it is probably the one area that made an impact during my childhood visits.  The Badlands is a gorgeous, harsh environment, full of prairieland, and sharp, desolate desert mountains.  It’s also a geologist’s paradise, full of fossils, giving a rich history of the Earth’s evolution.  And contrary as it may sound, it’s also a tribute to God’s design.

We paused at many roadside stops, which provided tremendous scenic views and gave brief historical stories of the area.  We walked around and climbed some of the hills in areas where tourists are welcome to explore.  This is another instance where words can’t quite do justice to the experience.  In a small geographic region, we transitioned from rich mountains to plains to a stark relatively desert-like environment.  The Badlands are worth a full day of exploration, but if you do so, please make sure to bring plenty of water.  You can spend an entire day adventuring, but you need to plan ahead.
The Badlands

Overall, the trip was wonderful.  It was a trip down memory lane.  My wife and I forged some great memories.  I tested my skill and endurance as a motorcycle rider.  I also learned to appreciate well-maintained roads.  (The roads in Iowa SUCK compared to Minnesota and South Dakota.)  I soaked in the sights and smells in a way that you can only experience on a motorcycle.  I appreciated the fact that it didn’t rain at all while I was riding.  I experienced wildlife that I may never see again.  I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of fellow riders seeking the same memories.  I learned that I, while technically could do this type of ride on a Sportster, I would probably have enjoyed things more on a touring bike.  I was reminded that life isn’t about things; it’s about relationships and experiences.

My Pilgrimage to Sturgis Part V

“My Pilgrimage to Sturgis” is a multi-part story chronicling my trip to the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week.

Part V – Wildlife Loop and Wind Cave National Park:
For our third and final day in The Black Hills, we took the Wildlife Loop of Custer State Park, and visited Wind Cave National Park.  Our previous two days had shown us the wisdom of starting the day early.  This, coupled with the fact that camping means getting up at sunrise, meant that we once again started our journey around 7:00 AM.  The journey began with the Wildlife Loop.

The wildlife loop was a treat unto itself.  Shortly after entering the loop, we found our vehicle surrounded by a large herd of wild buffalo.  For a full fifteen minutes, we were effectively part of the herd, with a huge bull standing on the road less than 20 feet from the van, a calf feeding from mom’s teat a stone’s throw away, and countless bison grazing, meandering and playing on and around the road.  I knew from previous visits that buffalo were large, but 30-odd years of time allowed me to forget just how big they can get.  The largest of them were fully two-thirds the size of the van, and probably weighed half as much as our transport.  The wife had never seen bison in real life, and instantly became a buffalo fan.  (This may present some gift opportunities in the future, but that’s another story.)  After working our way through the herd, we meandered through the rest of the park, seeing a few deer, a wild burro, and a few prairie dogs.  From there, we headed to Wind Cave National Park.
Buffalo on Wildlife Loop

The drive to the park took 45 minutes or so… another leisurely, winding drive, rife with prairies, pine-covered hills, prairie dogs, antelope and other wildlife.  After arriving at the cave, we signed up for a tour, which is guided by Park Rangers.  The guide was incredibly personable and knowledgeable about the cave.  We took the longer tour, which lasted roughly 90 minutes.  Our guide informed us about the boxwork formations, which are apparently very rare, and showed us popcorn formations… small mineral deposits that resemble popcorn.  Beyond this, there’s not much I can really say to relay the experience… either you like the idea of caves, and find them cool, or you don’t.  I’m in the former camp.  If you like caves, then Wind Cave National Park is worth the visit.  If you don’t then I don’t recommend it.
 Wind Cave

After the cave, we stopped in the town of Custer and had lunch.  One thing I really wanted to do while I was in South Dakota was eat buffalo.  (I had buffalo burgers as a kid, and remember liking them, which made me want to revisit the experience as an adult.)  I actually did this twice… on the first day, I had a bison burger.  But the stop in Custer allowed me to eat a buffalo steak, which in my opinion gives a far better idea of what bison tastes like.  The best way to explain bison’s flavor is to compare it to beef.  The texture and flavor are very similar, except that bison is far leaner, and has a very mild gamey taste, similar to young venison.

Once we finished our lunch, we headed back to camp for a day of relaxation and watching the throngs of bikes pass by.  Sometime around mid-afternoon, we were treated with an unexpected visit of several female bighorn sheep.  This visit also brought throngs of tourists, who stopped along the side of the road to take some pictures.  In fact, a pair of bikers from Mexico stopped to view the picture.  They spoke little English, and I speak little Spanish, but we bonded over the wildlife spectacle and our mutual journey to Sturgis.  We communicated for a few precious minutes, gave man hugs as we parted ways, and bid one another “Vaya Con Dios.”  That brief international encounter gave me warm fuzzies, and reinforced the notion that we really are all one race.

My Pilgrimage to Sturgis Part IV

“My Pilgrimage to Sturgis” is a multi-part story chronicling my trip to the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week.

Part IV - Mount Rushmore, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway:
Our second day in The Black Hills started with a trip from our campground in Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore.  Once again expecting that an early start would allow us to beat the crowds, we departed camp around 7:00 AM.  We took Highway 16A, which is also known as Iron Mountain Road.  It’s a fun, scenic road full of twists, turns, pigtail, split roads, and one-lane tunnels.  There are three points along the way where you can clearly make out Mount Rushmore… about a quarter of the way up, if you look across a huge meadow, you can just see the fact that the mountain had been altered… around the halfway point, you go around a bend and see Rushmore as you look through the one-lane tunnel… and the final time is also as you look through a one-lane tunnel.  This well-thought road does a wonderful job of building anticipation for how truly magnificent Rushmore will be when you finally arrive.

Once you get to Mount Rushmore, the thing that’s most striking is that pictures don’t do it justice.  It’s huge.  Each face is approximately 60 feet high.  The monument features a brief movie that discusses the making of the monument, which advances the sense of awe you feel as you gaze upon the faces of the Presidents.  There, of course, is a gift shop where you can purchase souvenirs, and on the day we were there, a man who actually helped build Mount Rushmore was there for a book signing/Q&A session.  He had a sign on his desk that said “No, it wasn’t scary.  No, it wasn’t fun.  It was hard work.”  He talked about periods where he wasn’t paid on time, but also pointed out the fact that he was working during The Great Depression, and he got fed, so he wasn’t upset about delayed paychecks.

The Mandatory Mount Rushmore Picture

In total, we spent about three hours at Mount Rushmore.  By the time we left, the biker horde of bikers was descending on the monument.  We drove back to camp, and I informed the wife that I needed to go for a ride.  She understood and said that she was going to drive around the countryside while I rode.

My ride lasted about three hours.  I started by hitting Needles Highway, a road famous for its granite spires and its twists and turns.  Like Iron Mountain Road, there are one-lane tunnels and plenty of pull-outs that allow for scenic stops.  Since I did the ride later in the day, I shared the experience with thousands of my fellow bikers.  At one stop, I was asked by a group to take their picture with them all in the background, and they gladly returned the favor.  If you ever get to The Black Hills, I highly suggest hitting Needles Highway, especially if you’re visiting on a bike.

 Needles Highway

After Needles, I still wanted to ride some more, so I rode Iron Mountain Road.  (My first trip was in the van with the wife.)  This ride also was later in the day, so it too was heavily populated with bikers.  This prevented me from riding as aggressively as I wanted, but the slower ride allowed me to enjoy the journey.  In all honesty, I like Iron Mountain Road better than I like Needles Highway.  This statement isn’t implying that Needles wasn’t fun… it’s just that I enjoyed riding Iron Mountain Road more.  It’s more challenging… it’s longer, and it’s more technical.

Once I finished riding Iron Mountain Road, I met the wife back at our campsite, and we spent the rest of the evening enjoying each other’s company.  We made a lot of memories that day, and expressed to one another how much we were enjoying our time together.

My Pilgrimage to Sturgis Part III

“My Pilgrimage to Sturgis” is a multi-part story chronicling my trip to the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week.

Part III - A Day in Sturgis:
On our first full day in The Black Hills, the wife and I forayed into Sturgis, SD.  Sturgis, after all, was the official reason for the trip.  It stood to reason that it’s the first place we’d go.  We left Custer State Park somewhere between 6:30 AM and 7:00 AM. On our way out of Custer, there was a light fog rising from the roadside creek and fields, and we passed a small group of Pronghorn Antelope standing on the shoulder of the road.  After the hour-long ride, we arrived in Sturgis between 7:30 AM and 8:00 AM.  We were on vacation, so we didn’t keep close track of the time.

Despite the fact that we got to Sturgis early in the morning, Main Street was completely filled with motorcycles, and it took us about 30 minutes to find a parking space.  In the end, we decided that it was more convenient to pay for a parking spot a couple of blocks away from the main drag than it was to search for free parking.  No big deal.  In fact, I kind of expected it.

After parking, we walked to the aforementioned Main Street.  This is the point where I should mention that Sturgis was effectively another tourist trap.  I expected this, but not to the extent I experienced.  Even the Sturgis Harley dealership was nothing but T-shirts.  It didn’t have a single bike on display.  Main Street was nothing but souvenir shops, with nothing to really differentiate one from another, and the occasional bar thrown in for good measure.  Strips of road that served as alleys during the off season were converted into temporary stores for the rally.  The streets were lined with awesome, beautiful, ugly, abused motorcycles.  (This part I expected.)  But the bikes did not appear to be owned by biker gang members or hot biker chicks.  Judging by the people walking the streets and flooding the shops, these bikes were owned by 40-something and 50-something middle-aged men and women, like my wife and me, who were also there to see what the fuss was about, and to check an item off of their respective bucket lists.  I stopped into one of the bars to drown my disillusionment.

My wife and I spent the next couple of hours fulfilling our duty as tourists, looking for just the right memorabilia for ourselves and to take home to our family.  I bought a sleeveless button down shirt that demonstrated that I was, indeed, in Sturgis for the 75th Annual Bike Week, and a patch for my biker jacket proclaiming “I rode mine.”  It took several hours for us to find everything we were looking for.

I don’t want to paint this as strictly a tourist trap, or as a disappointment.  That’s not the case.  As I mentioned, there were thousands of bikes on the main drag.  Many of these bikes were remarkable.  There was one that was completely covered in cow hide and leather.  (By cow hide, I mean that it still had the fur.)  There was another (trike) that looked like a Cadillac.  Another one was decked out to pay homage to John Deere.  Alas, though, there were no bare titties bouncing their way down Main Street.  The closest we came to seeing that was a young woman in a lingerie store who wore a G-string and pasties for her work clothes, and another young woman who was scantily dressed as a she-devil.  But it wasn’t a drunken free-for-all.  In fact it was pretty sedate.

But after four or five hours, we decided that we’d had enough, and we headed back to camp.  On the way out, we discovered that our decision to go to Sturgis early was the right one.  As we left, we saw that traffic was backed up from Main Street all the way to the I-90 freeway exit.  Those poor bastards had a long wait in store to get to Downtown Sturgis.

A few pics from Sturgis...


My Pilgrimage to Sturgis Part II

“My Pilgrimage to Sturgis” is a multi-part story chronicling my trip to the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week.

Part II - Getting There is Part of the Fun:
As you will recall from Part I, I rode to Sturgis.  I rode a Sportster.  Apparently, relatively few people actually ride to Sturgis anymore.  Most people take their bikes on a trailer, or in a toy hauler.  And significantly fewer people ride Sportsters.  I saw maybe two other Sportsters on the road to and from Sturgis, and only saw a couple dozen in the area.  I really don’t get this, because getting there is half of the adventure.

Let me start out by saying that I know my limits as a rider.  Sturgis is approximately twelve hours from where I live.  While I would be absolutely willing – and comfortable – driving that far, there’s no way that I would ride that far, straight through, on a Sportster.  Sioux Falls, SD is almost exactly half way between my home and Sturgis.  So, the wife and I rode from home to the halfway point, and stayed in a hotel in Sioux Falls.  This worked out just about perfectly.  After 300+ miles on the skinny Sportster seat, I was ready to be finished for the day.  Besides, this gave us a precious first day away from the family, and a comfortable last day before we forayed into the “camping” expedition of the Black Hills.

After leaving the Black Hills, it was on to Custer State Park. This was not only a journey of miles; it was also a journey of time.  As I mentioned in my last entry, I have been to the Black Hills before – twice – on family vacations when I was a boy.  So, in addition to collecting miles, I was also recalling memories as I rode to our destination.

Our first stop after Sioux Falls was Mitchell, the home of The Corn Palace.  The Corn Palace probably sounds really, ummm… corny.  It is.  But it’s also really pretty cool.  There’s a lot of history to the place, and it’s really artistic.  The Corn Palace is a more than a tourist trap, though it’s definitely that.  It’s also a historic live performance theater where the likes of Jim Nabors, Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton have performed.  And the art is really cool too.  They use corn, corn silk, and other agricultural products to create large murals that act as a tribute to America’s agricultural history, and the history of South Dakota.  Though not an all-day trip, it’s absolutely worth a couple of hours of your time to stop in Mitchell.

The Corn Palace

The next major stop after Mitchell was Wall, SD.  Wall is primarily famous for Wall Drug, which is a huge – and I do mean HUGE – tourist shop.  My size estimates may be a bit off, but Wall Drug is a series of interlocking shops that total approximately a full square block of shopping area.  The vast majority of it, of course, plugs Wall Drug.  There’s bound to be something for everyone, whether it be a “free glass of water,” “$.10 coffee,” a place to eat, a stuffed Jackalope, or just a place to use the bathroom, Wall Drug, though kitschy, is truly something to behold.

 Wall Drug

After leaving Wall, it was time for our final leg of the trip, which brought us to Custer State Park.  Even though it was the end of the day, once I hit the scenic, winding roads of Custer State Park, I was energized.  The road-weariness left my mind, and the aches and pains of long-distance riding left my body.  I was surrounded by the sights of the mountains, and the scents of the forest.  Getting there was absolutely part of the fun.