Sturgis is a small town in western South Dakota with a year-round population of less than 7,000 people. Yet every year more than a hundred thousand bikers descend on that tiny town for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This year being the 75th anniversary the numbers are even higher. But of course they haven’t just taken over Sturgis, they’ve pretty much taken over all of western South Dakota.
For background, a couple weeks ago I announced that I would be going on the road indefinitely, living and working out of a van while driving around the U.S. Checking out the Badlands has been high on my bucket list for a long time, and it just happened to time out that I would be there during bike week. On Friday afternoon I was in Sturgis proper. I doubt this is even the peak number of riders, but I had to get a bird’s-eye view. So I launched my DJI Phantom 3, picked a safe altitude, and then flew it in a straight line down the main drag, shooting 4K video as I went.
Just so you know, I’m not some kook of a first-time pilot. I’ve been flying this type of drone for over two years (and reviewing them for Gizmodo), so I’m a pretty competent pilot. I was very careful and kept the copter within what I felt was a safe range. That said, there was definite risk involved (not the least of which was getting a beatdown) and this wasn’t one of the smarter things I’ve ever done. Don’t try this at home, in other words.
Looking down at Sturgis you can see the insane density of bikes. It’s like you’re looking into an ant hill and it’s just crawling with little leathery insects. The main drag is the most densely populated, but it permeates outward for blocks and blocks. Makeshift camps are set up on people’s lawns. Finding a parking place for my big ass van was a small miracle.
What’s really incredible, though, is that it doesn’t just look like this in Sturgis. It pretty much looks like this in every town within a hundred miles. The photo you see above is Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drug. Completely packed with dudes in leather. Ditto Rapid City. Mount Rushmore? Samesies. The normally placid Badlands had a steady roar throughout the day. In fact, so did every small town and piece of highway. Any given gas station and diner was stacked.
Devil’s Tower (which is in Wyoming) was just as slammed. There were some rock climbers about halfway up the (insanely high) face. Far down below a small group of bikers shouted up things like, “Don’t jump! I hope you’ve got insurance! You’re fucking crazy!” I wondered how they would have felt if the climber had slipped.
The majority of the bikers I spoke to (or who would speak to me) were cool. They had me take photos of them with their phones, and they gabbed about the weather and how much fun they were having. Just good people riding and enjoying themselves. All good. On the other side of the spectrum there were dudes who’d glare at you when you smiled and nodded. There were tons of confederate flags still waving, and I even saw a couple swastika tattoos. I did not attempt to photograph those guys. On a brighter note, there were also clubs like Riders Against Child Abuse, representing the good guys.
As far as the crowd goes, you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s almost entirely white. I mean, in four days in South Dakota, completely surrounded by bikes, my friend and I counted three black riders and one Asian dude from Tokyo. And we were looking. The great majority was male, almost everyone was in their 50s or thereabouts, and most had the classic biker build. No judgments, just observations.
Also, this guy was there.
So there’s that.
I’d say well over 90 percent of the bikes were Harleys, but out of all the bikes I saw my favorite had to be this crazy motorcycle/Mustang hybrid I saw while camping in the Black Hills. The owner described it as a labor of love and said he’d been working on it for 18 years. He encouraged me to go around back, where there was a raccoon’s tail and a set of steel balls dangling. He said to lift the tail and read what was underneath. I did, and it squirted at me from a little hole. “Careful, man,” the guy laughed. “He likes to mark his territory.”
Overall impressions? Well, I’ll probably hear the sound of loud pipes ringing in my ears for weeks to come, as will the rest of South Dakota, but honestly, part of me wished I had the bike and the costume so I could really experience it, rather than being on the outside looking in. Maybe next year. Probably not.
Connected States is a new series from Brent Rose about living a truly mobile life. Brent will be traveling the U.S. in a high-tech van, telling stories from the road. New episodes will appear every week on Gizmodo, with more content being released in between. He is currently soliciting ideas for places to go, things to see, and people to talk to. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com
All photos in this entry were taken with a Sony A7s. Drone footage was shot with a DJI Phantom 3.