Wall, South Dakota

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is 244,000 square miles of land that is wedged between broad sections of Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This piece of real estate begs for the Sons of the Pioneers’ song, “All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water.” When we drove through this horizontal oven at 95 degrees, we were able to appreciate its true parched flavour because the air conditioning on our car died.

We decided to drive west to have a look at Yellowstone National Park with the idea of dealing with some of those magnificent views in paint. The drive to that renowned park was direct. Using an approach that local geographer, Warren Stauch, calls Shunpiking, we toured back roads and secondary highways, often avoiding the superhighways.

We first noticed an unusual number of motorcyclists way back in Wisconsin. Being bike illiterate, we thought how pleasant for these folks to be rolling down the highway, carefree and happy. Often these bikes towed small one- or two-wheeled trailers. Frequently in clutches, these shiny machines seemed at home, appropriate to the large flat plains as we journeyed westward. As the temperature hiked higher, as the motorcycle traffic thickened, we realized that this crowd of Harleys must be part of a great event that had not appeared on our radar screen.

In 1805 when Lewis and Clark travelled through these northern plains, they wrote that this Great American Desert was suitable only for buffalo. They had no idea that someday two hundred years later a swarm of bikers might ride past tourist traps like the Corn Palace in Mitchell, the Boston Gardens of the Midwest. This arena, paved with 600,000 ears of corn, hosts over 150 basketball games each year. Not all the leather-clad Bikers for Jesus, Hell on Wheels, Satan’s Sons, or New York Cycles avoided this small town in South Dakota. Several hundred stopped, had a gawk and a smoke, and then moved on toward the holy city, Sturgis, the home of the biggest motorcycle rally in all the world.

Sturgis, port of entry to the Black Hills, is known as Motorcycle City. During the first week in August this town, founded in 1880 to entertain off-duty soldiers from the U.S. Cavalry at Fort Meade, now hosts a gathering of bikers estimated at 450,000. This noisy event is really quite sedate with only 8 felony drug arrests last year while the wedding total during the week topped 100.

By the time we reached Wall, South Dakota, the highway was choked with Harleys and their cousins. These vehicles are pampered and cherished. Mark us gob-smacked when a fellow in our motel took his bike right into his bedroom. Nobody was going to mess with his machine, but this only happened after his wife/girlfriend had finished washing and polishing the by-then gleaming machine.