Sacramento to Sturgis - 2005

Text & pictures copyright Tom Macom

Sturgis is Mecca to the American biker, and the annual pilgrimage of the leather-clad crowd, known to some simply as Sturgis and others as The Black Hills Rally and Races, now in its 65th year, is an event of monstrous proportions that has no equal in the motorcycling world. Due to its enormity it affects people in all segments of the population and it seems nearly everyone, from grandma to the old man who owns the little roadside market in Termo, California (Population - 0), has heard of Sturgis. It is so big that it is reported on national news coverage, all over the nation. Right now, every motorcycle related publication in America, and probably many throughout the rest of the world, are scrambling to assemble their 'Special Sturgis Edition'. You'll be able to read about, and see pictures of all the newest bikes from manufacturers and custom builders, the rides and sights in the black Hills area and the wild-and-craziness that the biker community is known for. This was my first trip to Sturgis and although I spent less than 6 hours immersed in the madness which is downtown Sturgis, the experience of the journey had a powerful effect on me and has left me with memories and unexpected Insights that make it unforgettable. In telling my tale, I hope to give you a less familiar description of attending the Sturgis Rally, to tell you about some revelations I had along the way and maybe help someone avoid, or at least prepare for, some of the problems I encountered on my own pilgrimage.


Ray and I decided on the scenic route and a more leisurely ride with time to stop and see the sights along the way. Starting from Sacramento, we rode north, then east along the Feather River until we connected to US 395, a long and mostly desolate highway that runs north to south, spanning Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. In Burns, Oregon we caught US Scenic Highway 20, which took us through several National Parks, Monuments and Forests. Freeway travel was limited to about the last 90 miles into Sturgis.

Insight #1: Scenic Highways through sparsely populated areas provide outstanding views, but precious little access to the basic necessities of life and travel.

The northwest is beautiful, but desolate where ever water is not readily available.

We chose this route with the idea that it would be easier on a couple of old shovelheads (1969 FL; 1977 FXE) and more relaxed for the old knuckleheads (us), than a high speed dash across the western deserts and salt flats. While newer Harleys can eat up whole states without even breathing heavy, Shovelheads tend to be much more . . . . demanding. On any extended trip on a shovelhead, it's best to carry tools and parts, and between us, we were carrying nearly 30 pounds of them. Each of us had built our bikes from the ground up and was intimately familiar with their workings. We considered ourselves well prepared to handle any problems that would come up.

Insight #2: Machines will break, and no matter how many tools and parts you carry, it won't include what's necessary to fix what breaks. If traveling on scenic highways, refer to Insight #1.

My "Tour Pack", donated by my friend Marty just before the trip, made packing easy and, with my jacket strapped behind me, made a great backrest. This motel room in western Idaho cost $40, no reservations necessary.

We each packed a tent and sleeping bag, but expected to get a room at least a couple of nights. We also each packed just enough clothes to make it to Sturgis before requiring laundry facilities.

Although I never felt the need for a cell phone before, I purchased a pre-paid phone just in case we got separated, and for emergencies. But, all cell phones are not created equal. More than a few times, locals would tell us "you won't get any service around here . . . . . . unless you have Verizon", which Ray did. I, on the other hand, being the eternal tightwad, shopped for prepaid phones by price. I settled on a Tracfone, which I found to be nearly useless in terms of service availability and quality of connection. It did, however, perform the essential functions for which I purchased it. It allowed Ray and me to contact each other, either live, or by means of voice mail, when ever we got separated, in one case by several miles, each bike being inoperative for its own reasons. In that sense, it was worth itís $100 price.

Insight #3: In the realm of cell phones, Verizon is king.


When we left California there was no detectable pilgrimage but the occasional motorcyclists waved to one another as we passed. By Idaho, there was a noticeable increase in the current running east, and a concurrent increase in waves between bikes. Throughout Wyoming, bike traffic became an overwhelming plurality on the highways and still the waving persisted. In Sturgis, the intensity of the bike traffic made waving impractical, but out on the surprisingly uncrowded highways throughout the area, the tendency to exchange waves continued. The most unusual thing about it was that riders of all types of bikes seemed to be exchanging waves. It was as if a truce had been called in the brand-loyalty wars.

"Wild Bill" Gelbke would be impressed with this homemade freeway cruiser.

There are people who are disturbed by the whole waving thing and some that get offended if their greeting is not returned, or the greeter uses the wrong kind of wave. Iíve never dwelled on this subject too long as the solution seems obvious. The wave is simply a greeting between passing motorcycle enthusiasts, an acknowledgment that we share a love of traveling on two wheels. To a sizable portion of the population, motorcycles are noisy death-traps and the riders are both crazy and dangerous, but another biker knows what you like and understands how you feel when youíre leaning low into a curve. Wave if the spirit moves you, donít if youíre busy with the controls or even if you just donít want to, but for godsake donít try to establish rules of etiquette for this issue. We got enough rules already.

Hundreds of shoes hang from this tree along US 395 in western Oregon.

Riding on US 20 at 65 mph through Oregon, a strap that I was using to help secure my load came loose and wrapped itself around the rear brake caliper. The metal hook on the end of the strap managed to collide with the valve stem of my rear tire and rip off the outer half of it, complete with the valve core, thereby making the tire go from fully inflated to completely flat in about 2 seconds and the rear of the bike began to swing from side to side. I had never experienced a flat tire at highway speeds before, but I immediately recognized the symptoms thanks to having read about it in various motorcycle publications. Amazingly, in that sliver of time, everything I had read flashed through my mind and I carefully followed the instructions - don't change speed or direction quickly, let the bike decelerate and slowly apply the brake on the unaffected wheel, keep the bike under you and guide it towards the shoulder of the road if possible. Although I don't have 20 years of riding experience, I was able to control the situation because I had taken the time to read the safety columns.

Insight #4: There is no substitute for hands-on experience. But experience is acquired slowly, and sometimes at great cost. In the meantime, book-learning can save your butt.

I am now convinced that taking the MSF advanced course would be worth every penny, Because I already know that crashing sucks, Iíve tried it and I donít like it. And I will eagerly learn any trick they can teach me that might help me avoid going down (again) or worse, a deadly Sudden Stop. I recommend to anyone not formerly trained in street riding, to take an accredited course such as those offered by the MSF. Practicing an emergency procedure under controlled conditions before encountering it on the road is a lot easier on your under shorts. But ya'll do whatever ya want.

A flat tire created a dangerous situation in Idaho, but it could have been a lot worse.

US 20 has a paved berm, about a foot wide, outside the white line, and I was able to stop the bike on the outside edge of it. Beyond that is gravel that slopes down at a 30 deg. angle. I set the kickstand and it touched down right on the white line. As I rested the bike on it, I realized that it leaned well into the roadway. "This isn't good", I thought, and I stepped well away from it to assess the situation. Fortunately, I was situated in the middle of a long, straight stretch of road, and traffic could see me from quite a distance in either direction. Meanwhile, Ray had gotten turned around and rolled up to see what happened, then he headed back towards the gas station that we had passed moments before, to see what help he could find.

We live in a time when it's become unpopular and dangerous to stop and offer help when we see someone on the side of the road. We can't tell the good folks from the psychopaths, and anyone who watches the news would conclude that the risks are too high. As a shovelhead rider, Iíve found myself broken down and on the side of the road many times, but I have never had to wait long for someone to stop and offer help. Iíve had many people say me, "I used to ride a shovelhead, need any tools?" One former shovelhead / current TC-88, rider still carries exhaust pipe gaskets, just because he knows what its like to need one, and he gave me one during a recent Redwood Run. Free, of course. If the general population had the same sense of community, the same concern for others that is evident among motorcycle enthusiasts, this would be a far better society in which to live.

Insight #5: Motorcycle enthusiasts are a cut above the general population.

Joe Williams is the owner and operator of The Repair Station, a combination general store, gas station and repair shop at Elk Creek Station, ID. When Ray told him what had happened, Joe immediately dropped what he was doing, and directed Ray toward the nearest place to buy an inner tube while he jumped on his own Harley and headed home to get his trailer, stopping by on the way to tell me to hang tight. He returned a few minutes later and together we managed to push the bike onto the trailer. He drove back to his store, opened the shop door and helped me get the bike into the shop, then lent me a heavy hammer (missing from our combined tool kits) to help make the tire removal a little easier.

The charge for this over-the-top kind of service? $30

Joe really cares. Thanks again, Joe!!

For the first couple of days, Ray's bike would periodically stop running at inopportune times (as if there would be a good time). Then, as soon as we would unpack the tools to begin checking, it would start and run fine, which complicated the troubleshooting process tremendously. On the morning of the third day, just outside of Boise Idaho, it died in the middle of a freeway on-ramp. With the dead bike sitting on an 18 inch strip of asphalt between the white line that bordered the one-lane ramp and the small curb designed to contain any wheeled vehicle which entered it, Ray and I quickly began the usual checks for fuel and spark while keeping an eye on approaching vehicles, ready to leap out of the way if we sensed an inattentive driver headed our way. As we worked, a man named Greg pulled his pickup into the narrow strip which separated the adjacent off-ramp and asked if we needed help. We explained that we had not yet determined the source of the problem and we fully expected that he would drive off, satisfied that he had done all he could to help his fellow man. But that is not the way of the motorcycle enthusiast. Instead, we could hear him call his boss and explain that he would be late getting to work, then he waited for us to make a diagnosis. Fortune sometimes smiles on fools and this time the faulty ignition coil failed to cover it's tracks. Greg gave Ray a ride to the nearest bike shop to buy a new coil, then waited until we installed it and confirmed the repair before continuing on with his day.

Thanks again, Greg!

On the ride home, I got a chance to practice my newly acquired skill, when my rear tire again suffered a blowout on I-80, just east of Reno. This time the new inner tube, which I knew was the incorrect size when I used it, split along its seam causing an immediate and catastrophic flat-tire at while highway speeds. Once again, I was able to get the bike safely stopped, this time well off the highway. (Yup, I think I've practiced that enough now.) Again, in a matter of minutes, three people stopped to help (1 on a Harley, 1 on a Gold Wing and 1 who was driving a pick-up but was definitely biker-friendly). Each provided assistance in different ways which allowed me to get my bike a mile down the freeway and off next exit.

The situation was such I did not get any of your names, but I really appreciate your help, brothers!

To be fair, not all good samaritans are bikers.

We had enough sense to buy two tubes, one of each size needed for our bikes, at the first opportunity following the Idaho flat tire ordeal, but not enough sense to install the one I knew I needed at a more convenient time and in a more appropriate location. I made it to safety with some help from my biker brothers, but I still had to get the bike up so I could change the inner tube (again). I wrestled the bike, the back wheel squirting from one side to the other, to a spot in front of the truck stop diner. I had just unpacked it, to lighten it as much as possible, when a muscular young guy in a pickup, who was coming to pick up his girlfriend, pulled in beside me. Ray spoke with him briefly and he cheerfully agreed to help lift the beast onto a milk crate. We thanked him and jokingly told him to come back in about 40 minutes. Just as I was tightening the last nut, he showed up again to help lift it back off the crate.

I never got his name, but Thanks, Dude, I couldn't have done it without ya!

Mike, who manages Grandmas Kitchen in Cody, Wyoming, may have been a closet motorcycle enthusiast, but he never admitted it. Yet when he learned that we were in town without a place to stay due to our lack of reservations and booked-solid motels, he offered us the use of his front yard to pitch a tent. I slept on a trampoline and awoke in the morning to the sights and sounds of a dozen colorful hot air balloons being filled. We watched as each, in its own time, drifted up through the cool Wyoming morning sky.

I slept great, Thanks Mike!

The rest of the problems, the brake light that just wouldn't stay fixed, the leaking fuel tank that reduced our distance between fuel stops to 75 miles, the failed charging system and the subsequent dead battery that resulted in periodic battery swaps so that the working bike could charge the dead battery and the non-charging bike could have head and tail lights as we careened down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in the wee hours when fast-moving big rigs rule the highway, all of these things Ray and I handled, mostly with resolute good cheer.

Insight #6: Insight #2 does not invalidate the need for good preparation.

Not everyone will understand this, but there is a satisfaction that comes from being the master of a powerful, but cantankerous, machine that seems hell-bent on stranding your ass, and there is a peace that comes from being the (re)creator of that machine. We started this trip pretty well prepared, we relied on each other and we each did whatever was necessary to go on. And that provides camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment that is beyond explanation to those who donít understand.

Insight #7: Riding together can turn an acquaintance into a friend quicker than anything I know. Successfully completing a "Hell Ride" through co-operation, mutual trust and combined skills, and having the sunburn and the t-shirts to prove it . . . . . . priceless!

Ray uses my larger fuel tanks as his rolling reserve whenever we miscalculate essential fuel stops.

Insight #8: It should be up to the rider to decide.

I had nearly forgotten how much I love riding without a helmet! Itís much like swimming without trunks, once you do it, it just feels wrong to put them back on. Similarly, after nine days of riding helmetless, my head itched like crazy after donning my brain bucket before entering Nevada. It totally detracted from the preceding experience of standing on, and looking out across, western Utahís salt flats. Helmets may save your life in an accident, but I prefer to take the pro-active approach and focus my efforts on avoiding accidents. The increased awareness that I get from riding helmetless seems to be a positive step in that direction.

Between the mechanical trouble and all this philosophizing, you might wonder if I was able to relax and enjoy any of the ride. Well, Hell Yes! I love traveling on two wheels. Every trip on a Harley is an adventure, and on this adventure I was to pass through two of the four states I had never seen. I had two weeks vacation and a brand new destination before me. Whatís better than that?

Riding across the hot prairie through Oregon and Idaho and on into Wyoming, I was constantly watching for creeks to refill the mister which I referred to as my air conditioner. With the bottle filled and the pressure pumped up, a fine mist would be sprayed out which I would then ride into, providing evaporative cooling. Ray discovered that if he rode just off the left side of my rear wheel, the remaining mist would cool him too. But as we traveled through great expanses of unpopulated land, the relative lack of water explained the desolation. For the first time, I truly understood why settlers of the west killed and died for water rights. If you own a million acres but there is no water to support it, you might as well have a deed to the moon.

Insight #9: Water is essential to life. Where there is no water, or the water isn't potable, we cannot survive.

After crossing the high plains and beyond the buttes, we passed through Yellowstone National Park. It would require a 2 week vacation to even begin to get acquainted with Yellowstone, but we passed through in a single day. Never the less, we stopped to watch a herd of elk graze along the river bank, followed the walkway over Mammoth Hot Springs and watched a small, unnamed pool of water bubble and boil from the heat of a barely hidden volcano.

Waiting to see if the elk herd will decide to trample some pushy tourists in Yellowstone. Notice the trees in the foreground where the elk have been sharpening their antlers in preparation for the tourist season.

While trying to leave the park before dark, we came to a line of cars that were stopped because a herd of bison had taken control of the roadway. We stopped way back from the cars and watched as the huge beasts snorted, grunted and pawed at the ground, not at all happy about being disturbed by the traffic. Some stood defiantly in the roadway while others charged the knot of cars threateningly. We watched in stunned amazement as some of the human gene-poolís weaker links got out of their cars and approached the animals for a better camera angle. Pretty soon, a park ranger drove up behind us. She congratulated us on having the sense to stay back from the herd (Duh!) and instructed us to stay close to our bikes and watch for the first opportunity to get out of there. Then she slowly drove up through the tangle of cars and bison, gently nudging the herd off the roadway. In a few moments, we saw our break and crept our bikes up through the line of cars. Upon reaching the last car, Ray and I twisted the throttle and shot past the heard, causing a small group of bison to stampede in the opposite direction. We didn't even look back to see what destruction we had wrought.

Ray, on the yellow Buffalo Bike, watches the buffalo graze while waiting for a chance the pass safely through the agitated herd.

It's clear to me now why all of the bison had to be killed off before America's relentless drive west could continue. Standing over six feet tall and weighing in around 2 tons, bison have the bulk to back up their bad attitude. Herds like those that existed before the intrusion of the white man could literally flatten an entire settlement or knock a locomotive off its tracks. That their destruction would simultaneously eliminate the resource which sustained the lives of so many Native Americans, the other perceived enemy of our manifest destiny, could possibly have been a serendipitous benefit and not the primary factor. I'm not defending manifest destiny or the slaughter; I'm merely saying that I understand why it happened.

Although I had crossed the country a few times, I had never crossed the continental divide from west to east while on the ground. Climbing up the western face of the chain of mountains that isolates the western third of the United States, you can see the multicolored layers of limestone that took millions of years to deposit and more millions of years to erode into shear cliffs and canyons. At Shell Falls the process continues, and the results are spectacular.

Shell Falls is the artist-in-residence, constantly revising our view of the inconceivably long history of the North American continent.

Continuing upward, we soon reached one of the points that defines the line called the Continental Divide, on one side of which all water from rainfall and snowmelt flows to the Pacific Ocean, while the water on the other side flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing the summit, I felt like I was literally on the top of the world because everything around was below me. Then, suddenly visible through a break in the mountains and spreading out from their base until it faded into a hazy horizon, I can see the whole rest of the country. The view is magnificent and I found myself grinning like I had just discovered a new continent.

Barely visible through a gap in the mountains, middle America fades into the hazy horizon.

The Great Plains is only one portion of the contiguous United States, but itís a big one.

Insight #10: It should be a part of every child's education that they travel by land across this country, just too give them a perspective of where they are in the big picture, and so that they will have some concept of what the hell they're talking about when they use the term ĎAmericaí.

A route should be mapped out that passes through as many National parks and monuments as possible and that includes a glimpse of the main geological features, and major cities of our fair land. Military bases should be used when available and dormitories should be built wherever necessary to provide sleeping quarters. Then each child should be put on a bus and sent off for a month to learn what America truly is. The benefits of such a trip are undeniable. Cut the football budget if necessary and use it to provide an experience that will have a lasting effect on their lives and permanently change how they think about their country.

Relaxing with our hosts at the Iron Horse Inn in Whitewood, SD. Having traveled to Sturgis "the right way" this time, one of these specialty trailers with living quarters in front and room in the back to carry two bikes, seems like a good idea.

Once we arrived at Whitewood, we located Art and Maggie, old friends of Ray, who were our hosts and guides for the coming week. Also in camp were Jim and Becky, who completed our riding group. The area around Sturgis, South Dakota is thick with historical sites and geological wonders, from the majestic and oddly phallic Devilís Tower to the Badlands, whose name belies its beauty. Mt. Rushmore is impressive but the ambition behind the Crazy Horse Monument is awe inspiring. The old, lawless Deadwood is where Wild Bill Hickock drew his famous "dead mans hand" of aces and eights.

If you go to Sturgis, enjoy the party, but don't forget to ride.

The Devilís Tower is an imposing geological oddity and a popular day ride from Sturgis.

A face-to-face conversation with Crazy Horse.

Wall Drug, outside the Badlands, is touted to be the worldís largest drug store.

Beck samples the outlaw life in historic Scenic, SD.

Our entire biker gang was captured . . . in pixels . . . in the Badlands.

I used one afternoon to visit the Museum of Geology and Paleontology housed at the University of South Dakota in Rapid City. The display of minerals and fossils is world-class and admission is free.

The two week vacation that seemed so long at the beginning, evaporated like the water from my mister, long before I was able to explore all the sights surrounding Sturgis. Faced with having only two days before beginning the trek home, on Wednesday night I tried to ride into downtown Sturgis. The party was in full swing and the streets were packed. After spending an hour and making it only as far as the edge of "Vendor-tent City", my clutch hand ached and the heat from the engine was burning my legs. The shovelhead's clutch grabbed and lurched, the lifters were ticking and the brakes were squealing. Disgusted, I turned off the main street and headed back out of town.

On Thursday afternoon, I followed the advice of our hosts, and took the free shuttle into town to buy some t-shirts and explore the displays. I also visited the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, an excellent display comprised of dozens of motorcycles and hundreds of bits of motorcycling history. It was here that I happily accepted my first-ever senior discount. Anyone over the age of 50 is given $3 off the usual price of admission, making it the best bargain in downtown Sturgis. Out on the streets, I took photos of, but didn't bother trying to get a drink at, The Full Throttle Saloon, The Broken Spoke and the Knuckle Saloon. I'm not anti-social; I just didn't want a drink that bad.

The Motorcycle Museum is the best bargain in downtown Sturgis.

This sculpture, in a case at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, spoke directly to me.

On Friday, we said goodbye to our hosts and riding partners Art, Maggie, Jim and Becky and started the long, eventful ride home, electing to catch I-80 for the quick route home. But even the shortest route between Sturgis and Sacramento is a long, long ride. 3,915 miles in 13 days. I think I'll abandon my thoughts of joining the Iron Butt Association.


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