There is nowhere on earth that captures the feeling of the outlaw like the Wild West, and throughout the history of the United States, outlaws of one type or another have been drawn to the Black Hills of South Dakota. There is an energy in those dusty hills and plains that permeates all outer layers and seeps into the heart and soul of those who are drawn there. It would seem that once you’ve experienced the magic of the hills, they call you back time and time again. I’ve been going back for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for more than 25 years, and every time I do I have this overwhelming sensation of coming home.
I often hear the phrase, “What happens in Sturgis, stays in Sturgis,” but it has been my experience that what happens in Sturgis opens my heart and soul to new possibilities. I fell in love on Bear Butte Mountain many years ago. Anthony was the love of my life. Sadly, he is no longer with us. But it wasn’t just him I fell in love with—I fell in love with life and learned to truly love myself among the purity and simplicity of the Black Hills.
Anthony and I used to stay in the Black Hills long after other rallygoers had left for home, and we’d marvel at the quiet. I fondly remember rolling down the side of a hilltop that was covered with wild flowers and laughing like a child. I remember picking those flowers and then buying every candle left in town to decorate a little log cabin where we stayed. Wed lay awake all night in the glow of those candles talking about our innermost dreams, ideas and desires. My heart is forever connected to that place where inhibitions are shed and souls are bared. What happens in Sturgis does not stay in Sturgis. It burns brightly inside of you for the rest of your days. The priceless friendships I have made and continue to make there every year are with men and women from all over the world, people who share a most fundamental love of all that is wild and free.
Each year when it’s time to start planning for the ride to the rally, I question what the event, one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world, continues to hold for me. Lately I’ve been contemplating not going to instead explore new and different directions. My old bike is in need of some tender loving care, as are some other aspects of my life. Staying put and attending to details would be the more practical choice to make. But that would require choosing to be practical, which clearly, this “Calamity,” my nickname, cannot! I don’t even aspire to be practical. Imagine a tombstone on Boot Hill saying, “Here lies Calamity Jane, she was a practical woman.” She is buried next to Wild Bill, whom she managed to tame with her practical ways. Tame, Tame Bill and Practical Jane. Would anyone remember them centuries later?
It’s been years since I have even found my way into town to see Main Street, or the vendors on nearby Lazelle Street. I go to the Black Hills to stay connected to that little girl inside of me who might otherwise lose her way in a complicated world built around money and success. I go to stay connected to old friends of like mind, and in that process, many new ones find their way into my life and heart. I always return home with a renewed sense of who I want to be, and what I hope to tackle in the year to come.
With only five days to be in Sturgis this year, I joined in on a ride event every day, and somehow stayed out until the wee hours of every night. Never a dull moment in Sturgis unless you want it that way, and even then, you have to plan ahead if you want to find a quiet corner!
From the moment I arrived I was off and running making use of every moment I had. Sunday was the annual ride put on by renowned motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter. He gets a lot of good riding shots for his articles on Sturgis. Later than night is the annual motorcycle art exhibit he curates. This year like others, the ride was led as by motorcycle personality Jay Allen, and custom bike builder Sugar Bear, known for his amazingly long front ends on the choppers he builds.
The Legends Ride always gets the historical streets of Deadwood hopping and this was the first year the event reached maximum capacity. Organized by The Legendary Buffalo Chip, the annual Legends Ride raises funds for the Black Hills Special Olympics and the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. Some of the kids who participate in the local Special Olympics came out to join in the fun, and meet the colorful motorcycle “legends” who led the ride.
One of my favorite events is joining in on the Biker Belles festivities, although this year we missed the fine organizational skills of its founder Meg McDonough, who was unable to participate this year. Nonetheless, I cherish seeing the strong women whom I look up to in the motorcycle world and hearing the panel of the notable women selected to speak. It’s also a chance to meet the newest and youngest women joining in on the sport.
The ride, now in its third year, has been gaining momentum. I hope it continues to grow and attract women riders for a special day of bonding and some serious girl power. The ride raises money for Helping with Horsepower and The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame, and this year a Harley-Davidson donated by Bruce Rossmeyer’s Daytona Harley-Davidson that was customized by builder and TV personality Jessi Combs was auctioned as one of the items. To the surprise of all, the proud new owner of the classy white bike ended up being Cris Sommer Simmons, whose husband Pat Simmons lead singer of the Doobie Brothers outbid everyone, declaring his winning bid along with “Happy Anniversary Honey!” Girls just love that kind of stuff! The bike alone raised $22,000 towards the grand total of $36,520.
One of my most memorable stories from the Sturgis rally this year happened when I was introduced to Marcia Kingsley Elvin. I met her at the Biker Belles ride, and she told me she had a picture of me and WRN editor Genevieve Schmitt from 15 years ago that she kept on her refrigerator for inspiration. The picture is from a 1997 road trip Genevieve and I did on our way to Sturgis. We tied signs on the backs of our motorcycles that read, “Sturgis or Bust!” Genevieve ended up writing an article about that trip and Marcia cut it out keeping that one photo as incentive to get her own motorcycle and ride it to Sturgis one day. I was humbled hearing that story, ,meeting Marcia and riding with her!
Last but not least—because you have to save the best for last, right—all of the people involved in the Cycle Source magazine ride are simply down to earth, real deal good peeps. And who doesn’t enjoy a motorcycle rodeo where you can ride wild horses, barrel race on a real horse or your iron horse, and watch all of your friends literally eat dirt? Come on, that’s the funny stuff dreams are made of!
Amid the noise and distractions, I always manage to have a few conversations where I walk away knowing that those words were meant to be exchanged. I talked with my buddy Chris Callen, founder of Cycle Source magazine, about how we’ve lost so many people in our lives, and how important it is to tell the ones you love just how much they mean to you every chance you get. You never know when it might be the last time you see someone, especially when we all ride motorcycles like, well, outlaws!
Even though I only see or get to talk to some of these friends once a year, knowing them has left an imprint on my soul. Watching my friends ride the Wall of Death is always a highlight and the performance is never the same twice. I like to show up and support the talent of guys who ride like crazy outlaws because they truly are living the life of the modern day outlaw. Each of them wounded warriors, and yet the show always goes on. I love all of these guys like twin brothers of other mothers. I really do. We are all kindred spirits.
Being more financially challenged than other years, I was leaning toward not going to Sturgis at all, but I decided to accept an offer from my friend Phil Holcomb on this year’s trip to Sturgis in his RV, and camp at “Cottonwood,” a quiet campground near the Spur Creek Saloon. I brought my old dog Yukon, who has been making gradual progress on his road to recovery from a chronic skin problem. He and I enjoyed morning runs in the solitude of the peaceful country roads before and after each day of riding.
Phil grew up desert racing in the sand dunes of southern California, and went on to become politically active with the AMA for seven years. In my down time at the campground I enjoyed listening to story after story of his riding with Steve McQueen and Malcom Forbes back when I was riding a blue Schwinn bicycle. At 70-something, he still rides like there is a trophy at stake, and has a collection of new and vintage bikes on which he won many of those races. He comes to Sturgis, usually alone, simply because he still has a love of being on a motorcycle and enjoying nature and the roads carved through it. His stories and ability to ride like the wind still after all these years are an inspiration to me.
I also never miss stopping in at Trevino’s leathers to visit my pals who have outfitted me over the years. One of the most frequent questions I am asked is where I get my fringed buckskin clothes, so here it is! My secret is revealed! Both Trevino’s on Highway 385 just outside of Deadwood, and Walter Leathers on Main Street are where many of my favorite old pieces have come from.
Bear Butte Mountain is a spiritual place where all nations of our native people come for prayer. It is a place that deserves the respect of all Americans and people who come from all over the globe to visit. It is a place where you can ask the Great Spirit to watch over everyone you love, and the mountain holds those prayers sacred. I always leave a bit of time to spend alone there, and visit the part of my heart that remains there even when all of the motorcycles ride away.