Breaking the Biker Code
The Sturgis, South Dakota, Black Hills Motor Classic & Rally
Wyoming is a wild and very sparsely populated place. Little dusty towns, hundreds of miles apart from one another cling to the foothills of the mountains. If a town reaches a population of 5,000, it is considered a city; at 10,000, a major city. It is not unusual, however, to see towns proudly posting populations of 10 on their highway signs. The first thing I noticed (that was to lead me on this adventure) was a big banner over a storefront in just such a small town -- Cody, Wyoming. The banner read: "WELCOME BIKERS!!"
Welcome bikers ?!? Do I sense here, thought I, a change of attitude among the traditionally conservative small-town burghermeisters? (Headscratching.) Are they now saying, "Oh, please do come terrorize our community!"? Maybe their intention is to get some bikers to come trash the place so they can get a fat insurance settlement and get the hell out of here? Or, perhaps, a single freethinking entrepreneur, finding his business teetering on the brink of ruin, and shunned by the locals anyway, decided to go after that elusive "biker dollar"?
My ideas about bikers were formed by that movie with Marlon Brando (remember that movie? The Wild One?) and the Banditos of the Seventies (Texas' answer to the Hell's Angels -- purportedly Much Scarier).
When I asked about the Welcome Bikers sign, I got the offhand answer, "Oh, that's 'cause all the Bikers are coming through on their way to Sturgis."
Okay, so everybody in the USA knows what "Sturgis" is (including my mother, it turns out). I didn't know, and had to ask. "Sturgis? What's Sturgis?"
Technically, Sturgis is the Black Hills Motor Classic & Rally, which takes place in the town of Sturgis, in neighboring South Dakota, every year in July. What it is, though, the essence of it, is hundreds of thousands of bikers descending on a tiny dusty little town and having their way with it for a week. It is the Mother of all Harley Gatherings, and forms the quasi-religious focus of a biker's year, the way Christmas is the quasi-religious focus of a child's year.
This, I thought, would be something to see.
As August approached, the bikers started coming through Cody, on their way to South Dakota and ultimately to Sturgis. Apparently part of the natural cycle of life in these parts, like migrating flocks of ravens, or blackbirds -- No, I've got it: Like bats, they came, looking for all the world like Harley-Davidson TV commercials, riding their throbbing, powerful machines against the background of the breathtaking high desert, winding in formation up and down the switchbacks of the piney mountain passes; passes with names like Bighorn Canyon, Wind River Canyon, Chief Joseph Pass, Sunlight Basin, Ten Sleep Canyon -- and coming in to eat (and stay) at the Cody Holiday Inn, where I happen to be waitressing. The locals all along the Westward Sturgis route seem to view the onslaught of bikers just like they do any other tourists, in fact, hardly worth mentioning. The other tourists, however, are completely surprised, as was I. The vast majority of diners at the Holiday Inn are little old ladies and men on geriatric bus tours, headed for Yellowstone and points west -- and believe me, they nervously grilled me about the black-leather-and-chains people at the next table.
Speaking of bikers who stay at the Holiday Inn (for $150 a night), this would be an appropriate time to introduce the word "farb." "Farb" is a word which means -- let's see -- the exact opposite of "hardcore." The derivation is uncertain; it has been suggested that it is a contraction of the phrase "far-be-it from authentic," or maybe the word "barf" inside out. Farbs are comfort-loving souls who do such things as: break out their black leather and jeans once a year (I saw one woman wearing brand-new -- and I mean never-been-washed -- jeans with a crease in them, with her stiff new black leather vest and unscuffed boots), those who stay in expensive hotels all the way there and back, who belong to no motorcycle club, bikers with cell phones, or, the worst offenders by far, those who drive their SUV or Winnebago to Sturgis, towing their Harleys behind.
These be farbs.
In fact, the only division acknowledged by the bikers themselves among their ranks, is the division between those who ride there and those who drive. (Not that there is any violence -- just an unspoken contempt on the one hand, and an earnest sense of make-believe on the other.) As fun as the town of Sturgis is during the Black Hills Motor Classic, I don't believe Sturgis would be what it is today if it weren't for the glorious nature of the ride in. It must be more than half the fun, to flee all that is urban and ride your machine across this stunning and all but deserted part of the American West. No matter what direction you come in from, there are thousands of miles of badlands to cross.
All the way to Sturgis (we traveled in the ancient Glass Eye van), we were surrounded by, either coming or going, formations of bikers, looking incredibly happy and terribly sunburned. At gas stations on the way, I spoke with some bikers. Among other things, I learned that the only food available in Sturgis would be vendor-booth food. The one cafe in town, the famous Roadkill Cafe, would probably prove impossible to get into without a bribe. We decided to eat before we got there, in Spearfish, South Dakota, about 20 miles out of Sturgis.
Pulling into Spearfish, I saw what I had imagined Sturgis would look like. Every parking lot of every restaurant was packed with Harleys. It's hard to describe just how many bikes there were; motorcycles can be parked very compactly and they don't take up much room. The town was packed with them. Packed. We chose to eat at the Cedar House (home cookin' at family prices), and every table in the place was occupied with black-leather-clad bikers and biker chicks. Even the waitresses in the place (It was the kind of place that people go to after church, you know?) were wearing black T-shirts with Harley logos. The whole atmosphere was festive, anticipatory. Everyone was on their way to Sturgis.
Looking around, I saw what would later prove to be a general rule: Bikers are an older counter-culture group. The biggest age group seemed to be 40-60 year olds. It would not be inaccurate to imagine a lot of graybearded Santas, portly with a life of beer drinking, dressed in black leather, metal studs, and sunglasses.
Since the lowly Spearfish had looked as I had imagined Sturgis would, I knew that Sturgis would exceed my expectations. And did it ever. Sturgis made the thousands of Harleys in Spearfish look like a toy store.
Never, never in my life, could I have imagined the sheer magnitude and number of motorcycles, the deafening roar of thousands of thunderous exhausts, continuous throughout the day and night. (A Harley proverb: "Loud Pipes Save Lives.") There were thousands of motorcycles parked on the five blocks of Main Street alone. And what bikes! I am not a big motorcycle buff, but I am an artist and a lover of beauty: I have never seen so many beautiful motorcycles, so many wondrous machines. The majority were restored classic Harley-Davidsons, with mile-deep paint jobs and very fancy fittings, polished to within an inch of their lives. Even at night, the chrome was blinding. And there were models that, most charmingly to me, looked exactly like the drawings of motorcycles that my brother used to draw in high school -- you know the type, with the really really long fork that gives the bike a "Grim Reaper" sort of look, and the seat canted backward to give the rider a semi-reclining position from which to enjoy the road. Sadly, at one of the trade shows in this biker-dollar mecca (and believe me, that elusive "biker dollar" was being viewed with great respect by the manufacturers of motorcycle accessories and fashions), the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company had a display of the year 2000 models. I am sorry to say that they really looked like shit compared to the older, restored, customized Harleys. The new machines just looked unimaginative and clumsy, like chain-saw sculpture compared to Greek, like a modern-day Chevy Cavalier looks compared to a classic '57.
And the crowds! The people! It was impossible to drive, impossible to park, impossible to walk. Well, okay, it was possible to walk, but not to converse -- but only after you parked, which was, as I said before, impossible.
The official estimate this year was 350,000 bikers attending in a town that normally is home to about 5,000 people. Three Hundred and Fifty Thousand! All the bikers I saw were polite and friendly and just happy to be there. I didn't even see any drunk bikers. I know they were drunk, but they held their liquor well. (Perhaps holding your liquor well is part of the Biker Code.) Notably, there was not one call for reinforcements by the Sturgis police.
One would imagine that some bible-thumping townie would complain about the noise and the seminudity and the goings-on in general, and try to have the town stop hosting the Black Hills Motor Classic and Rally, except for this: The town seems to have to no other economy. I had imagined that the reason the Big Rally was in Sturgis was because the town of Sturgis let them, like the bikers had found some little dying podunk town and convinced the city fathers to let them have their rally here. The more I thought about it, the more absurd this supposition seemed. I then concluded that perhaps Harley-Davidsons were manufactured in Sturgis, and these were all Harley guys who went on a yearly pilgrimage to the birthplace of their beloved machine. I spoke with several residents to check my logic, asking, "Do you know why the Rally is in Sturgis?" It turns out my first supposition, while not correct, was closer than my second: They do not manufacture Harleys here; they don't even sell them here; there isn't even a parts store. The town of Sturgis just keeps letting them have it here -- and smiles all the way to the bank.
Many residents rent out their houses for the duration for fantastic sums, and there are hand-lettered signs in people's front yards saying "Bike parking, tent sites, showers." The entire male population is probably deputized into the police force, and did I mention the rental for vendor booths? The going rate was $7.50 a square foot, meaning that an area equivalent to a normal-sized room rented for around a thousand bucks. And every available square inch of Sturgis was rented to someone. For any resident to be against the Black Hills Motor Classic, they would have to be against the town's yearly shot of lifeblood.
But I skipped a little history here, and I don't want to give a wrong impression. While the decision to let the rally keep being held in Sturgis, even after it had obviously gotten to be so enormous and disruptive, may indeed have a mercenary side, the decision to have the rally here in the first place had little to do with money. There is a story behind why "Sturgis" is in Sturgis.
In 1936, a local guy named J. C. Hoel had an Indian Motorcycle shop in Sturgis. (I find it interesting that the rally was started by an Indian Motorcycle enthusiast, rather than a Harley man.) He wanted to start a motorcycle club -- an idea which in 1936 was neither a scary nor criminally perceived thing. So he called a meeting, and the motorcycle club, the Jackpine Gypsies, was born. In 1937, a dirt track competition was put on by the club. A "motorcycle run" out to nearby Mount Rushmore was the highlight of the event. Every year the races and competition were held (with the exception of the WWII years), and the attendance gradually grew from 20 riders to the 350,000 of today.
So the whole thing happened organically; the town slowly died as small towns tend to do, and the rally grew, so that now each is glad to have the other.
Incidentally, over the years, they had some Completely Insane competitions. For instance, they had "surfboard racing," in which 10 or so guys stand on a piece of wood and are towed by speeding motorcycles around a dirt track at breakneck speeds, or competitions where the maximum number of people who can ride a motorcycle at the same time was sought (at least seven, but the bikes usually got damaged), and, lest it be forgot, the Flaming Wall Crash. This is one where you crash your motorcycle into a wall of flame -- usually an ignited 4x8 sheet of plywood -- and, it is hoped, go through it.
Races and competitions are still a big part of the whole Sturgis experience. Races are held at the Sturgis Dragway, the Black Hills Speedway, and the Jackpine Gypsies Short Track, and have names like "The ABDA Pro-National Finals." I was unable to attend, but it seemed to me very few bikers came to Sturgis to compete. Most come to spectate. I find it hard to imagine that the proud owners of the cherry machines that lined the streets would actually subject them to dirt-track abuse. Perhaps only motorcycle-racing stars actually race.
I did not see one single "Jackpine Gypsies" jacket the whole time I was there. I imagine that it is part of the Biker Code not to counterfeit another club's jacket -- nevertheless, I would love to have one! The Jackpine Gypsies must feel like kings during Sturgis. Now that I think about it, they must be treated with a great deal of respect by the townspeople all year long, for bringing so much life and fame and money to this otherwise forgotten prairie town. Because I have the clear mind of the utterly ignorant, I wondered what most of the bikers did for money. Are they mostly farbs, and if so, what types of professions did they follow? And if they are full-time bikers, how do they make money? No one will pay you to ride around on a motorcycle 365 days a year, will they? As nice as they seemed, the full-timers must be engaging in illegal activity to have money, I figured; they must be selling dope or stealing or something. (Some of them certainly could be nightclub bouncers, though.) So I decided that the thing to do was to interview a lot of bikers to find out the answers to these pressing questions. Had I been a bit more insightful, and less like a naive 10-year-old, I would have realized before I began my interviewing that no one wants to break character and openly admit they are a farb! (And the number of people who will admit to making a living illegally is even smaller.) The few guys who did admit to having jobs all said they "worked for the city," which is pretty obscure. I thought it was interesting that they all used the same terminology (as teachers? as garbage men? as urban planners?). After a couple of fruitless hours, I decided to give them a break and let the part-timers live out their fantasy without my pestering. After being there a while, real bikers became pretty easy to spot anyway (and there were lots and lots of them), because (duh!!!) of their wind-burned, leathery faces. You don't get a complexion like that tooling around on your Harley only a few weeks a year. The wind has, alas, the same effect on the face of the biker chick. It is even more pronounced, really, because the biker chick has no protective beard covering her face. I always thought biker chicks looked so "used" because they partied too much and lived too hard, but upon reflection, the culprits are most likely the wind and sun. (I know plenty of urban ladies who live hard and party too much, but their skin doesn't have that thick, tired look.) Also, the real bikers are often gimpy from wrecks, and have canes and stuff. You can't continuously ride a Harley for 30 years and not wipe out sometimes.
Back to the biker chicks: What's the deal with them? I have always been curious about what would make someone choose to be a biker chick. They seem soooo subservient, and they dress really, really, really, um -- what's a good word? Sexually? Revealingly? Whorishly? The word I found myself using when I was there was "arresting."
The fashion this year I saw above all others was an item of apparel my husband termed "Ass Pants." This is a thong that goes in your ass crack so that your whole ass in absolutely on display: It looks like your butt is naked. In the front, your pubic hair is just barely covered by a little leather triangle. Then, in addition to this, you have on black leather "chaps," which cover up your legs only, like cowboy chaps. This is a very arresting fashion! (Often worn with a black-leather bikini top.)
Anyway, I used to wonder what would cause a woman to accept or desire the life of a biker chick, especially times when I saw a young and relatively pretty girl on the back of some grizzly old beer-gutty dude's bike. Once in Sturgis, however, I just sort of understood it. It made sense to me in light of my recent experiences. If I were less artistic and lived somewhere where my options seemed to be either working at the Holiday Inn dining room (or something exactly like it) or getting on a Harley behind some biker for a life of riding around the country, drinking and partying (with no asshole boss or time clock), I can easily see how one could choose it. For some women it is probably the only counter-culture they come into contact with, the only way of getting out of "the System." And the System really sucks when you are at the bottom of it.
One hard line of division between the bikers and their chicks is the line of Dance: the Chicks like to dance to the band and the bikers are very reluctant. There was mucho female same-sex dancing in the bars with live music. Naturally, I had to visit many bars in Quest of Great Journalism -- and I can tell you right now that the music sucked -- and it was great!! At least, the music I saw did. The first band I saw was an outfit by the name of Chain Lightning (love the name). Fronted by a typical chubby, older biker guy in a black pseudo-Ronnie Van Zandt hat. As we walked in they were covering (I kid you not) Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." It was so great! They had a blond, apparently stoned lady in biker regalia "playing" the tambourine and congas -- with the mike off (kudos to the sound man). On the next number (possibly original), the two guitarists stepped to the front of the stage and did the Spinal Tap Two-Step, complete with the "I'm-Taking-a-Crap-and-It-Feels-So-Good" face (in sync!). Then, when the time for the Guitar Solo came, the lead guitarist stepped forward and shredded, fingers flying, features twisted into what only can be described as the face of "Guitargasm," with occasional emphatic chin-jutting. And they were completely sincere; they were so into it. They loved themselves and the audience, and the audience loved them. In spite of the total predictability of, well, everything, only an utter snob could fail to see that this was the spirit of rock & roll! It was pure, it was innocent, everyone was totally rocking out, and nothing else mattered. At another bar, a chick band was playing to a younger biker crowd. In fact, I think this bar had the entire concentration of bikers under 40 in it. The band was fronted by two girls who threw their hair around and smiled a lot, frequently looked gleefully at each other with the "Isn't the gig going great?" face, and then threw their hair around some more. In the pit were the dancers, pogoing passionately, fists raised up over their heads, yelling along the lyrics to a Nirvana cover, which by the strange alchemy of some kind of Quantizer, was coming out of the chubby-faced keyboard chick's mouth as a very low Kurt Cobain-like male voice. (The two frontwomen were totally amused by this technology and had a hard time keeping straight faces, so after a time they had to quit looking at each other and just got real soulful.) The audience in the pit was blissed out in the extreme, eyes shut, jumping up and down, emotion just pouring out. Security had to penetrate the mosh pit to rescue someone, or stop a fight, or something, but everyone just kept pogoing away around the disturbance.
It was charming. (Did I mention that Chain Lightning had a drum solo?) The whole biker thing reminded me in a few ways of the early punk scene. Obviously, not in terms of musical originality, but in terms of animosity toward the Establishment -- intermittent musical ability coupled with a lotta heartfelt feeling, and a sorta "scary" way of dressing. I remember in my own early youth, my mother expressed some concern that I was hanging around with punk rockers with mohawks and tattoos. I remember explaining to her that Chris Gates and Biscuit (and every other scary looking punk rocker I knew) were all really sweet guys. As I tried to reassure my mom that it was "safe" for me to go to shows at Club Foot, I started wondering myself about the scary appearance thing, and I made the statement, "It's like they get all their aggression out in their fashion statement, Mom!" I suspect the same is true of the majority of bikers. I know that there are indeed aggressive, even dangerous, bikers, but the vibe at Sturgis was very similar to that in a punk club. Counter-culture types know one another to be perfectly nice people, but it sure is a lot of fun to aesthetically intimidate the "normals."
Aesthetically intimidating the "normals" carried a high price tag for them, however, by Saturday afternoon, when the temperature rose to nearly 100 degrees. I overheard a biker say to a friend, " ... And she asked me, "Aren't you hot in all that black leather?' and I says to her, "Fuck yeah, I'm hot! So what?'" and they both laughed.
Apparently, throughout the day the sun had moved closer to the earth and was now about six inches over our heads. The pavement underfoot bounced heat back at us like the surface of an alien and hostile planet. The crowds pressed in on all sides, and there was no shade to be found. I had no more money to buy fruity lemonades. Four hours away, up in the Bighorn Mountains, it was 50 degrees. Need I say more? We left.
I left Sturgis, South Dakota, with a very different picture of bikers than I had had before. One of my favorite quotes from the movies is one that I first heard from Austin drummer Dave Cameron. (We toured together once in the aforementioned Glass Eye van.) In the movie (which I do not know the name of), an irate townsman questions some town-terrorizing bikers, outraged by their lawlessness. The townsman practically shrieks at them, "What do you want?" "Freedom!" answers the bikers' leader.
"Freedom!! What does freedom mean to you?!?!?" the outraged townsman asks.
"Freedom -- (pause). Freedom means -- Freedom to ride our machines -- (pause) without being hassled -- by the man!!!!!"
I left Sturgis with the impression that really is all any biker wants -- farbs and hardcores alike. Freedom. Freedom to ride their machines. Without being hassled by the Man. Thinking of how gloriously free the bikers looked, riding in formation over the switchbacks of the mountain passes, it seems fitting that they are now invited into the small towns along the way.
If one wishes to view Main Street, Sturgis, South Dakota, see the Web site http://www.rally.sturgis.sd.us/index.html Gateway Computers, one of the rally's sponsors, has a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year "spycam" continuously broadcasting. Of course, now that the rally is over, all you will see is a dusty little street. I watched for hours last Sunday and I saw a car pull into a parking space. Oh, and I saw a fat, old lady walk down the street. The site also has pictures from the Miss Sturgis competition, though.
Writer and singer-songwriter Kathy McCarty played in the legendary Austin band Glass Eye and still travels in their van.