Backroads With Betsy: Reflections on 2020’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

In pursuit of freedom and adventure amidst a world in chaos

By Betsy Huelskamp

It has been 14 years since I wrote my first article for Women Riders Now (WRN). Describing myself, I wrote, “I have spent the vast majority of my 45 years running, biking, climbing, diving, skating, and flying away from commitments, restrictions, rules, regulations, and authority. I cannot tolerate anything that confines me, like seat belts, bras, relationships, or helmets. Consequently, I am a 45-year-old woman with no husband, no children, no savings, and no retirement plan, and still running wildly in search of answers to questions I don’t fully understand. My inexhaustible pursuit of freedom, strength, and independence has taken me climbing in the Himalayas, diving in all of the oceans, skiing in the Alps, trekking in the Andes, on safari all over Africa, and seeking nirvana in Tibet, India, China, and Vietnam.”

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 monk
This is me riding my Buddhist monk friend on a Royal Enfield near the monastery in Leh, Ladakh, India.

Riding is one of the things I do that clears my mind and keeps me sane. When I ride on a long, lonely road it is my time to talk to God. Regardless of what your beliefs are it is impossible to ride across America and not connect with God, Great Spirit, Mother Nature, Buddha … whatever you want to call it, him, or her—something or someone created our land. The land of the free, the home of the brave. And bikers, more than any other group of people I know, stand for that freedom.

backroads with betsy david uhl free spirit
Artist David Uhl captured my spirit in this painting that brings tears to my eyes. With a brush and a blank canvas, he brought to life how I see and experience life. When he asked the motorcycle community to choose a name for the piece, the title became “Free Spirit.” And somewhere along the backroads of the wild, wild west, my vagabond lifestyle was given validity.

This summer I turned 60 and not much has changed. My husband still hasn’t found me and yet everything has changed for all of us in just this one year. An invisible virus has stirred worldwide fear and economic uncertainty. There is racial tension, hatred, chaos, and destruction. We are a world dividing when we could be coming together. We have been given a universal time out to examine and reassess our lives and decisions. Yet fear is causing worldwide physical, mental, and spiritual paralysis. Our country is full of wide open beautiful spaces just waiting to be explored.

backroads with betsy spearfish canyon sturgis 2020
Here I am during a ride through Spearfish Canyon during 2020’s 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. There was no one in front or behind me!

Amid the unrest in every country in the world, there were many prayers answered within my own family and circle of friends this year. Struggles have been overcome and special lives are still with us—cause for abundant gratitude. Two of my close lifetime friends battled through cancer surgeries and treatment this year and are well on the road to recovery. One of these women, LaVonne, has been my Sturgis Bike Week “hostess with the mostess” for decades as she lives in nearby Spearfish. Just days after I left her home after last year’s rally, LaVonne felt a funny tingling in her arm. By nightfall she was airlifted to Denver to have a stage 4 melanoma removed from her brain. The cancer had also spread to her lungs, so every day was spent in stages of treatment and recovery. She talked of the day she would ride her Indian Motorcycle again next to me through the beautiful Spearfish Canyon near where she resides. So when she called to request that I be present at her “celebration of life” gathering to be held on the opening day of this year’s rally, I told her “Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away!”

backroads with betsy sturgis motorcycle rally 2020 biker belles lavonne
LaVonne and I at the Biker Belles ladies ride on the grounds of the Buffalo Chip campground this year.

The 5,000-mile loop I have been making annually for nearly four decades is about sharing time and space with every single family member and friend whom I love between the California coast and the Great Lakes of my native Minnesota. A global pandemic just makes me want to see and hug them all the more.

So to rally or not to rally? As an American woman, I highly value my right to think, say, and do as I choose. I fiercely protect my free spirit and childlike wonder. You do not have to agree with my choices. For me, true freedom is not needing anyone else to agree with what I think, say, or do. So, I exercised my freedoms and hugged every old friend that I could with both arms. (I quarantined for months before leaving and again for weeks upon my return.)

backroads with betsy 2020 sturgis motorcycle rally buffalo chip flags
Running wild through the flags at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground. The flags are a tribute to all of the brave men and women who have fought to keep our country free.

With the threat of the virus lurking in the air, LaVonne and I chose to avoid large crowds in tight or enclosed spaces. Luckily, the Black Hills are full of wide open spaces, even during the rally. So we didn’t attend any concerts this year … not even a walk down Main Street or any crowded tourist attractions. Instead, I put on my face mask and apron and served up barbecue to all of LaVonne’s friends who came from near and far to celebrate her enthusiasm for life.

Each day of the rally I set out with small groups of friends to enjoy the sunshine and the simplicity of the curves in the roads as well as the majestic beauty of the Black Hills. The Biker Belles ladies ride is always a favorite day to catch up with women with whom I have been sharing roads for decades. It’s also where I meet women who are new to the sport, or new to the Black Hills and are riding with us for the first time. After a long day of riding we all enjoyed outdoor picnic lunches with lots of storytelling and laughing.

Two of my longtime lady riding friends, Jodi Perewitz and Vicki Roberts-Sanfelipo, were inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame, a huge honor for women in the motorcycle industry. Marilyn Stemp, who was inducted in 2018, received this year’s “Strider Inspiration Award.” Each of these dedicated, hard working, strong women bring a lifetime of achievements and inspiration to young women riders in the world of motorcycles. I always enjoy hearing the ladies talk about ways to enjoy being a motorcycle enthusiast.

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 hall of fame inductees jodi perewitz marilyn stemp vicki roberts sanfelipo
The group of Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame inductees who attended the annual banquet this year including this year’s female inductees, Vicki Roberts-Sanfelipo and Jodi Perewitz (front row with medallions), and Marilyn Stemp (to their right).

The Buffalo Chip’s Legend’s Ride is always a big draw because legends in the motorcycle community come out to ride in the hills with us. This year the handsome and multi-talented movie actor Tom Berenger and his beautiful wife (with emerald eyes) Laura Moretti Moore led the ride for the third year in a row. Tom has starred in dozens of legendary films like The Big Chill, Platoon, Sniper, and Major League just to name a few. Laura actually got Tom interested in riding motorcycles, and now the two of them have been traveling and riding together for years. Laura also joined in and rode with us on the ladies ride as well. They are two of the most down to earth “legends” you’ll ever have the pleasure to ride with.

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 woody woodruff buffalo chip tom berenger laura moretti
Tom Berenger with his wife Laura Moretti Moore, me, and the “king of everything”— “Woody” Rod Woodruff (to my right). The Buffalo Chip was once Woody’s unique campground. Now it is its own city! The rest of South Dakota has become its suburbs. I have long appreciated being treated like family by Woody whenever I visit “the Chip.”

One of the best parts of Sturgis is running into longtime friends I see but once a year at the rally, like Cycle Source magazine editor in chief Chris Callen. Chris is like my brother from another mother. There is a magical thing that happens when friends who have ridden together for years share the road side by side. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to think about it. It’s effortless. It’s complete trust. You just feel each other and move together as one, and it’s fun! Riding next to Chris and his wife, Heather, alongside my old friends Jack Schit and Diane Fitzsimmons, was the most exhilarating afternoon of riding I did all week long. It brings back fun memories of days gone by riding out to the “rez,” and the Badlands, as well as enjoying biker rodeos at a ranch we used to ride to.

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 jack schit
The smile on my face lasted all day long just being in the company of bad-to-the-bone old friends like Chris Callen.
backroads with betsy diane fitzsimmons
Favorite hug of all—it’s always so special seeing my friend Diane Fitzsimmons.

By sundown each day and into the evening I was back at la casa with LaVonne and her family eating leftovers on the deck and gabbing well into the night. We took peaceful rides to quiet places and enjoyed the pleasure of the simplicity of the land. Just riding, walking, and talking to my old friend felt like a blessing.

On my last day in the Black Hills, LaVonne took me to her favorite hidden treasure and wonderful contrast to the busy rally, the privately owned Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. Like so many of my favorite spots in the Black Hills, this glorious place is breathtaking and best to enjoy when no one else is around.

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 pathways spiritual sanctuary
Finding joy at the Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. The red bandana around my hat was given to us at the Biker Belles ladies ride and worn to honor of my late friend Jessi Combs. It’s a simple way to carry out her memory in the area that she loved so much.
backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 jessi combs moab utah
Me and Jessi Combs outside of Moab, Utah, when we rode out to Sturgis from California three years ago. She was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s grand marshal that year.

As I rode back toward the coast of California I reflected upon the many friends and family members with whom I have shared roads, time, and space in this sacred land. I missed those who didn’t make it out to the rally this year. I cried thinking of the loved ones I would never see on this earth again.

backroads with betsy sturgis 2020 genevieve schmitt betsy huelskamp women riders now
I missed my lifetime riding buddy so much this year! I look forward to riding next to WRN’s founder Genevieve Schmitt again soon. This photo was taken at the 2019 Biker Belles ride.

This year’s rally brought in about 462,000 freedom seekers according to rally organizers, yet it seemed like such a quiet year. I saw no signs of anything other than friends enjoying friends, nature, freedom, and life. This is a time full of uncertainty. But life—in and of itself—is full of uncertainty. What is certain is that we each had a beginning and we will each have an end. Each of us gets to choose what we do with the middle.

At times it does seem like I am always running wild, as if I am afraid that there won’t be enough time to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and feel every tree, animal, and human between home and Timbuktu—and it’s true, I am!

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