People probably think I’m crazy when I say South Dakota is one of my favorite states, but it is. It’s a state like California or New York that has more than a bit of everything. Today we rode on US 14 through the eastern half, which is mainly prairie. The views which had been growing steadily broader through Minnesota went out to infinity now; only the curvature of the earth prevented us from seeing further. Yes, you can see this on the sea, but that’s water: not our element. On land when you see to the horizon you feel it in your bones that you can GO to the horizon. The Great Plains are special.
We passed lots of motorcycles going in both directions. The reason, which we’d learned a day or two ago, went by the funny name of “Sturgis”. Every August there’s a large motorcycle rally out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, centered around a town by that name. This year it was August 5-11, and this weekend is the finish. So we’re seeing a lot of bikes heading back after spending most of the week there, and a lot of bikes heading out for the tail end. Our arms are getting tired from all the waving we were doing.
Most of the bikes were Harley-Davidsons of course. There are whole essays to be written here, but to put it simply, while riders of sport bikes are after speed, cruiser riders want to cruise, and adventure bikers like myself are after, well, adventure, Harley riders are in it for motorcycling itself. The whole experience is raised to an art form: the bike, the chrome, the sound, the seating position – it’s all about freedom, of a particularly American kind. No matter that they’re more expensive than Japanese, or even Italian or German bikes, no substitute will do: it must be an American motorcycle for an American dream. The engine and its sound must be physically felt, the seat should place one in an attitude of dignity, and the vehicle should be simple but perfect in its details. The open road is an important component of the experience slash lifestyle as well, but only a component, no more or less important than any other. It’s not just about the ride, it’s about independence.
And yet we humans need to idolize – we do not do well with the abstract, but want to make it concrete. How do we draw freedom? Supposing we experience it while motorcycling, do we draw a motorcycle? Do we have our paintings, our mirrors, and our t-shirts emblazoned with generic two-wheeled vehicles? No. We need clarity, we need specificity, we need personification. Freedom is depicted in black and orange, and it is spelled Harley-Davidson.
It’s always interesting when I meet Harley riders, and I imagine it’s the same for non-Harley and Harley riders everywhere. We don’t quite know what to make of each other, but there is still a foundation of respect nonetheless. Maybe it’s like a Muslim meeting a Christian. Both agree on the Old Testament, both are satisfied that there is one God, but then they lose it from there. Was Christ a prophet or the son of God? To one it’s merely a detail, to the other it makes all the difference. And just who was this Mohammed fellow anyway? Yes, we are both motorcycle riders, out there taking the same risks and making the same sacrifices, and we even do it for some of the same reasons. But we know deep down that there are fundamental differences.
For one it’s a hobby, for the other, a philosophy of life. One is interested in the ride, and one is interested in the ridING. We can try to ignore these things, sweep them under the rug, but it’s painfully obvious in everything from the bike down to the clothing and the choice of what helmet to wear, or whether to wear one at all. So we exchange some pleasantries, maybe even swap a story or two, but it usually dies off from there.
I’m never sure whether outsiders recognize these lines or not. From a distance, I’m sure we all just look like motorcyclists. And indeed, everyone we meet is asking us the same question: “So are you going TO Sturgis or coming back from Sturgis?” They see our bikes, they see us, but still they ask this! Sturgis, motorcycle rallies everywhere, are about and for motorcycling. But we are here for the ride.
Anyway, we carried on through South Dakota enjoying the endless vistas of corn, soybeans, or just plain grass (yes as I said, crazy), and gradually we saw an increasing dark grayness looming ahead of us in the west. It was thicker and heavier to the south, and we wondered whether we should try jogging our route north. But we haven’t reached that kind of mercurial attitude yet where we are willing to abandon our chosen route at the whims of the weather. That will come later. For now we are on the 14 and we feel bound to the 14. This or that city is coming up in such and such many miles, and we are expecting it and don’t want to be thrown off by it. Going north will be a waste when we want to go west and eventually south (to Colorado). It’ll mess up all our planned moves if we get off the 14 now. And so we ride until we feel the first drops, then stop to put our rain gear on before heading gamely like headless chickens into the teeth of it.
It turns out not to be that bad, but over the 20 miles we go until the next stop, the water still has time to work its way into various cracks that are not protected – my boots, Päivi’s gloves, both of our collars. Somehow we find this unpleasant, although it’s warm summer and the wetness can do no harm. So we wait it out in a library and then carry on after it stops, deciding to motel it again rather than camp in wet grass.
On the way into the town we’ll stay in we pass through a suburban section where we happen to notice a family out on their front lawn relaxing the evening away. Then out of the corner of my eye just as I pass I see a cream-colored blob moving close to the street. In my rear view mirror I watch in slow motion a poodle dash out into the road right in front of Päivi. I think for sure she’s going to hit it and go over, but miraculously it makes it past her – only to be plowed into by the minivan coming up in the lane to her left. A neighbor or friend sprints from the other side into the road where it happened, and the minivan pulls over to turn around and go back. We can see the family and the friend are mad at the car and worry a bit for the fate of the obviously good-hearted person going back to see what amends they can make in the situation. But there was nothing he or she could do. Clearly it was the time for this dog and it rushed forward to meet its fate with all speed and energy. And yet so surely we are all doing the same in one form or another.