A Solo Motorcycle Ride to Sturgis, South Dakota
photography by Mark Langello and Buzz Buzzelli
[A Solo Motorcycle Ride to Sturgis was originally published in American Rider magazine]
I was leaving tomorrow morning and my clothes were strewn all over the bed, I had a load of laundry in the washer, my bags were only half packed, and my wife came in and announced, “I’m tired, I’m going to bed.” I figured I had about an hour left to finish packing. “Not tonight,” she said, “Turn out the light.”
The interruption didn’t really matter since for this trip to Sturgis, I wasn’t on a schedule. I put all my clothes on the floor and adjourned to the living room where I could spread out the maps and review my route while listening to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. I methodically retraced the highlighted roads—some state highways, other U.S. highways, mostly two-laners. Some roads climbed over mountain passes, some wound through state parks and others connected a web of roads meandering through national forests. All designed to avoid interstates.
My previous rides to Sturgis had been three-day affairs, 500 miles each day, sometimes more. It was always a grind, keeping my butt in the saddle and the twistgrip turned to the stop every minute. The ride was all about getting there, and the interstates were the roads of choice in that gotta-get-there mentality. But when you only have 11 days, it seems like the only option.
This trip was different. I allowed eight days of travel and only three days at the event. And while that seemed to shortchange my time in the Badlands, it meant more time to enjoy the ride getting there. Each day, except the first, was limited to less than 350 miles. Only the vast, boring southwest desert posed an obstacle to slingshotting past Mojave and Las Vegas.
No Reservations. By the time I loaded the 2004 Electra Glide the next morning it was 9:30. Not exactly the dawn departure I’d planned, but I had four days ahead of me. Only problem was, by the time I got to Baker its “World’s Tallest Thermometer” would be peaked at 100 hot August degrees or more. But I had to get past all that to St. George, Utah, 470 miles from home, where I’d made a hotel reservation—the only one of the trip.
Deserters. Bob had talked about joining me on this ride, but I never had the feeling that he actually would. And as it developed he was “too busy” to make the trip. Lonnie was sincere and I truly expected him to come along. We’d talked about sharing hotel rooms along the way to cut costs, and I even helped him get the full-head helmet that he wanted. But two days before leaving he told me his doctor wanted him to go into the hospital for some minor surgery, so he cancelled. That left me alone. Which was fine, since I’d always done this trip by myself. Just me and
my thoughts. Yep, me and all my delusional ideas. Hmm. That might be a problem….
What do other bikers think about while they’re in the saddle? Do they think about work? Home problems? Future plans? Building a chopper? Or do they simply let their mind wander while gazing at the passing landscape? As I started this ride, my mind was scrambled, I couldn’t focus my thoughts, which was no surprise. I’d experienced this before on other trips, and I know it takes me a couple of days to let things settle. But it wasn’t long before the single fact that would dominate this trip found its way into my thoughts: I was alone.
Mind Games. Within a few hours of riding, the first philosophical debate I mentally haggled over was the nature of mankind: whether man was born good or evil. When I saw the Baker thermometer at 105 degrees, I decided this didn’t really matter right now. What did matter was attending to a personal need, and getting some gas mixed with the fumes collecting in the bike’s tank and a bottle of water to dump on my head. The nature of man seemed less urgent.
Fuel Stops. I imagine that many bikers have a routine for their gas stops. Maybe they schedule their time: fill the tank first, take a leak, then get water. My agenda for this particular gas stop had no options because my first and only desperate priority was to visit the men’s room—the fuel tank would wait.
As the trip unfolded I came to realize that I don’t really have a routine at gas stops. I just do what I feel like first, deal with other stuff later. This almost caused a problem in Roosevelt, Utah, when, after having a bite to eat and reading a magazine, I realized I forgot to get the gas. Maybe what I need in my life is a routine.
Across Mojave. When I’m in the middle of the desert in 105-degree heat at 85 mph, the thought of a mechanical breakdown is pretty scary. It is moments like these that help me appreciate the stone-like reliability of today’s Harleys. This isn’t those not-so-good old days, when AMF Union workers left a few loose nuts and bolts inside the transmission case as a souvenir reminder of who built it. I couldn’t help but think, droning across windswept highways with nothing but nothing on all sides, about Harley’s all-weather dyno that can simulate arctic or tropical conditions. How many hours were the Twin Cam engines tested on dynamometers and bumpy test tracks? I welcome the fully tested electronic ignition and fuel systems. Goodbye points.
In the Mood. In the morning of the second day I fueled before leaving St. George at 10 a.m. It was another late start, and although I felt no urgency, no panic, I did feel a little uneasy because on all the other trips I’d have expected to be 100 miles down the road by this time. I didn’t know where I’d end up this evening, but I did know that at 5 p.m. I would look for a motel.
Picture Perfect. After a 50-mile wake-up ride on Interstate 15 the Electra Glick (my own name for this FLHTCI) floated down the off-ramp at Cedar City. We were stalking highway 14 through Dixie National Forest, a terrific road leading to 143 North that winds through canyons and along mountainsides. A lookout near the top was a perfect photo op, so I stopped to dig out the camera, except I couldn’t remember where I packed it. After half-emptying both bags I found it exactly where I put it—under the rainsuit. That wouldn’t do, so I put it in the tankbag. Later that evening I would find that in my haste to get the pictures I neglected to set the camera correctly and the photos were junk.
Buffet in a Bag. Yeah, I know that Harley riders generally don’t favor tankbags perched on their tank. That’s always been a mystery to me because they’re willing to hang saggy old leather bags on the rear fender or stack a garage-sized T-bag on the sissy bar, but somehow a little nylon pouch on top of the tank isn’t cool. What’s with that?
I selected a medium-sized bag made by Bagman. It’s big enough to hold my camera, cell phone, maps, gloves, a bottle of water and all the breakfast bars and jerky I could possibly eat. My camera was always handy at photo stops without having to dig it out from under a soggy rainsuit, and the cell phone and Palm pocket notebook were a finger’s touch away.
The best thing about the tankbag was that I could munch a snack and suck water while in the saddle. Just lock the throttle, zip open one side of the bag, and slip out a tasty Hostess Apple Pie or some turkey jerky followed by a slug of Deja Blue. (Readers: please, no mail about this foolhearty stunt.)
Fuel Management. When I saw the sign on Highway 89 indicating that Interstate 70 was just ahead, I realized I had missed the turn for the 62, which was to take me eastward to Fremont Junction. Not wanting to double back I decided to simply hop on the interstate over to Fremont and Highway 10. It was only about 50 miles.
This section of 70 runs east all the way to Green River without any gas stops. I know this because I ran out of gas about 20 miles short of Green River a few years ago. I had misjudged the fuel mileage the bike was averaging. That taught me an important lesson: know thy mpg. Not wanting to repeat that sickening experience, I topped the tank in Salina.
On this trip ol’ Electra Glick was going about 42 miles on each gallon, 46 at best, 39 at worst. So I reasoned I could cover 160 miles and still have a gallon left (40 miles’ worth). On a long trip in the middle of nowhere, fuel management is the first priority.
Got Gas? After turning onto 10 at Fremont Junction I came upon a guy pouring gas from a five-gallon container into his truck. He asked if there were any gas stations around here. I told him I thought there was one about 10 miles up the road in Emery. He said his truck got 15 mpg, and he thought he could make Green River on I-70. I wished him luck, but doubted he’d make it. Later that evening I checked a map and figured he might have made it, but me, I wouldn’t have taken that chance.
Having Choices. As highway 151 led me into Price, Utah, an amazing thing happened: I realized that since it was about 4:30, I could actually stop here if I wanted! I’d gone about 320 miles, which was enough. After taking my time motoring around town looking at hotels, I picked a nice one that had a restaurant right across the parking lot from the rooms. Whoa—I never had a chance to consider all those kinds of options before. At the end of a 500-mile day that had wound the wristwatch past 6 p.m., I usually took whatever was available. One thing I discovered on this trip is that before 5 p.m. there are usually lots of rooms available; after 6 the choices diminish. It felt good to have choices.
Alone Again. I parked Glick right outside my room in Price. I thought about Lonnie, who would have enjoyed the day’s ride. I took a picture for him of the bike with extra space around it, space for his bike. He’ll be disappointed when I tell him about the trip. I wondered what this trip would be like with a big group of bikers, a thought that often reoccurred. Maybe next year I could invite American Rider readers to join me on the ride. Not all of them, of course, but we could run a contest or do a sweepstakes or something to involve readers. It occurs to me that I wouldn’t have thought of this without going on this ride.
Going Downtown. I always need to go downtown just to get the feeling that I’ve arrived. Of course it’s the same, the same as last year and probably the same as it will be next year. But it’s Sturgis, man, and I’m not coming all this way and not experiencing all the bikes, the people and the spectacle of this major biker Mecca. After a five-block walk down the street with photographer Langello, we decide we’ve had enough of this madness and elect to get some random photos out on the roads around town…but not before three scantily clad women dance erotically in front of his Nikon lenses. “Some girls just want to have their picture taken,” he said.
Going Home. Other bikers in the hotel’s parking lot were strapping on sacks and bags. A couple of younger riders loaded their Ducatis on a small flat-bed trailer, and some Harley guys stuffed four baggers into the back of one of those toy-box trailers. I made some changes and rearranged some gear. The process of packing and loading the bike to go home always puts me in a melancholy mood. It’s the beginning of the end of the ride.
Essentials. After roaming the rolling hills of eastern and central Wyoming, the roads south into Utah climbed as high as 10,000 feet. The 151 had so little traffic I barely saw another vehicle anywhere. Usually it was just me and Electra Glick, and again I reveled in the Twin Cam’s unflappable character. It simply droned on and on, into headwinds, up hills, across the flatlands. I had no worries, with the complete tool and tire repair kits, a utility tool, a siphon hose and a well-stocked first-aid kit lying at the bottom of a saddlebag. Even so, there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that if anything happened, sooner or later another biker would come along and help.
A Tale of Doom. About an hour outside of Vegas the dark clouds appeared. The air got heavier, wetter, and then a mile from the North Las Vegas ramp near the raceway, the rain started. By the time I got to the off-ramp the wind howled and I was soaked. Two other bikers pulled up wearing shorts and tank tops, and told me there’s a restaurant around the corner, the Iron Skillet. They were locals. We went there and had coffee, where one of them told the story about how he made several million dollars and lost it all. He sold what he called an obscure airwave stock that he had purchased decades ago for mere pennies, but the Fed impounded the money for taxes, and he couldn’t pay the IRS because the IRS had already impounded it, and meanwhile the stock dissipated to a value of only a few hundred thousand dollars…it was a sad but true tale.
Fear and Loathing. It wasn’t the rain in Las Vegas that bothered me, it was the lightning, which scares the hell out of me. Lightning likes bikers, and I don’t want to be toast. I was already toasting from the 100-degree heat, gridlocked in stop-and-go traffic on I-15 among the Sunday L.A. mob heading back to California. At the state line, I decided to stay overnight in Primm. And why not? I’m only 300 miles from home with all the time in the world.
Reflecting. On this trip I accomplished many things, besides clocking 3,500 miles on the bike. I had mentally organized the contents of the next issue of American Rider; cleared my thoughts on many issues and made some decisions; figured out how to wedge a TC88 engine in a Buell chassis; made up lyrics to an instrumental song that had been playing my head; and decided that the next Harley I’ll own will be a V-Rod modified with Road Glide parts. As for the nature of man, I decided it’s none of my business.
I also hatched a scheme to buy decrepit old motels on less-traveled highways and back roads, remodel them and convert them all into a chain of biker motels. Each room would have a covered motorcycle parking stall right outside the door. Local dealers would be financial partners, because all the decoration in the rooms would promote the dealerships. Once established, I’d sell the whole chain and retire a millionaire.
And Finally. I learned that although I really enjoy traveling alone, it can get monotonous after eight days. Next time I go to Sturgis, I’ll go with someone else. It’s just too crazy out there, being alone with my own thoughts.