Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part Five

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part Five

Written by B. Jan Montana

[The first installments of this series appeared in Issues 143, 144145 and 146 – Ed.]

As the midday heat passed, it was time to head back to Spearfish. While gearing up, Spider insisted on riding my bike the half-mile to the pavement, “just to see what it feels like.”

I insisted he wouldn’t.

He swore that if anything went wrong, he’d pay for it. And he’d let me ride his bike, which was a nice, late-model Low Rider.

Chip assured me that Spider was an experienced rider, and that if anything should go wrong, he was “good for it.”

“Only to the pavement,” I emphasized, “then we swap back.”

I got on his lumbering Harley and followed Chip and Candy to the pavement. When we got there, Gimp and all the other guys pulled up behind us, but Spider was nowhere to be seen. A moment or two later, we turned around and headed back to look for him.

We found my BMW lying on its side with a crushed fairing and tail section. Spider was leaned over a fallen tree trying to catch his breath.

The dust was still settling as we arrived. Spider got up and looked dazed. His beanie helmet and chin were scuffed, but otherwise he seemed OK. I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t need a single word of reproach.

KP, the other lieutenant of the renegades, picked up my bike and put it on the center stand. It was a sad sight. My formerly pristine R90S was not pretty anymore. Spider had obviously endoed the bike. The headlight and fairing were smashed along with the instruments. The tail rack and seat cowling to which the rack was attached were bent. The front fender and the lid of one of the saddlebags was cracked. The right valve cover was gouged. Surprisingly, the tank was unscathed.

Candy put her hand on my shoulder and led me to a nearby picnic table while Chip approached Spider. They conversed for a long time. Chip was doing most of the talking and Spider repeatedly nodded his head in agreement while he wiped the dust off my bike with his bandana. Chip started it and rode to the road and back. Then he walked towards me.

“I’m real sorry this happened, Montana, but we’re going to make it right. The bike seems to be rideable so we’re going to ask you to take it back to camp. Then we’ll load it onto the bus. In the morning, Spider will take it to the BMW dealer in Rapid City. He’s going to tell them to fix everything that needs fixing and give them his credit card. He’ll lend you his Low Rider for the rest of the rally so you don’t miss anything.”

I liked the sound of all that. I knew that it would be a huge sacrifice for Spider to let go of his machine for a few days. These guys identify with their bikes like CHP officers do.

Despite the damage, the bike seemed to handle fine on the ride back to Spearfish City Park. There was no wobbling or pulling to the side. Oil was spritzing over my boot from the damaged valve cover, but that was about the only mechanical problem I could detect. I determined that, if necessary, the bike could make it home in its current condition. That was a great relief.

When we got back to camp, several tow truck drivers were still loading up the bikes damaged by the tree branch that had fallen on them earlier in the day [see Part Four of the story in Issue 146 – Ed]. Their owners were on hand to supervise. The lawyer (who had appeared on the scene after the accident) and his perky assistant were filling out papers for each owner. I identified with them now that I also had a damaged machine.

I’d barely parked my bike when the two lieutenants, Spider and KP, rolled it into the bus and strapped it down. Then we all walked to town for refreshments. Spider sat next to me and apologized with humility and sincerity. That couldn’t have been easy for a guy like him, and I told him I appreciated it.

Red was seated with us at the table. He commented, “Hey, sh*t happens.”

“I know Red, but why does it have to happen hundreds of miles from home?”

“Could have been much worse man; at least Spider’s not dead. Guess his number wasn’t up yet.”

“Guess your number isn’t up either Red, it’s a miracle your neglected bike hasn’t dumped YOU into the dirt.”

The listeners chuckled knowingly.

“Let me explain something to you Montana. By the time I hit 13, my father had died from stomach cancer, my brother from wounds he got in Vietnam, and my mother from alcoholism. I’m 39 and none of them lived long as I have. People criticize my lifestyle all the time, but I’m still here. When your number’s up, it’s up, and no amount of clean living will change that, so you might as well max out your jollies while you can.”

I looked at Spider, “Yah, I know,” he said, “It’s hard to argue with Red’s philosophy.”

The next morning, I was wakened by the sound of the ugly school bus idling for the trip to the Rapid City BMW dealer. I got up and saw that Spider was driving. Shortly afterwards, two Rapid City taxis pulled up. A bunch of bikers packed in and drove off, supervised by the lawyer. Turns out they were off to get rental bikes from the Harley dealer. They told me later that all this was being paid for by the City of Spearfish. I wondered how much liability the town would have assumed without the lawyer present.

Candy bounced over and handed me the keys to Spider’s bike. “It’s all yours till your bike gets back from the dealer, Montana, isn’t that great! Chip says we’re going to Deadwood for breakfast, so let’s gear up!” This was clearly not open for discussion.

The Low Rider was a handful. It didn’t fall into corners like the R90S – it had to be steered. The bike didn’t fly like a bird, it lumbered like an ox. The spread-eagle riding position reminded me of my Natuzzi recliner. I wondered how any Harley rider could ever make a quick evasive maneuver? I rode carefully at the end of the pack so as to avoid holding anyone up. I came to enjoy the sound of all those Harleys rumbling in tune with mine, and it was very comfortable on the straights. I just had to remember that in turns, this machine had to be muscled like an old pick-up truck rather than thrown around like a bicycle. The beautiful canyon followed a tree-lined river with dark, steep rock faces on either side. This was not a place you wanted to miss a corner; granite does not flex.

When I first visited Deadwood in the ’70s, it was a real town with a hardware store, pharmacy, grocer and so on right on the main street. Since then, the state has legalized gambling and now it’s all casinos and tourist shops — more like Disneyland than the authentic Old West.

I was disappointed, but the rest of the renegades weren’t concerned. They headed straight for the nearest casino. The guys gravitated to the bar while the girls played the slot machines. Breakfast came in a glass. I wasn’t interested in that, so I told them I was going for a proper breakfast. KP, Gimp, and his girlfriend, Tina, walked out of the of the casino with me. The fresh air was preferable to the stench of stale cigarette smoke. In the ’80s, no-smoking sections hadn’t yet been invented.

We enjoyed a filling breakfast at real restaurant, and wandered back to the casino on the other side of the street. We came across on old-time photo studio and Tina insisted on a group photo. This idea was a pain at the time as we all had to change into western gear, but I treasure the photo now. The photographer told us to wear our best outlaw faces.

After an hour or so, we headed for the next casino, but it was full of Bandidos. Chip turned us around at the door and said, “I think we’ll go elsewhere.”

He explained later, “There are a few clubs you really don’t want to mix with, I tend to avoid the Bandidos and the Mongols. Unlike the Hells Angels, they’re just too unpredictable.”

Eventually, we came to the Saloon No. 10, site of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok. He was shot in the back by a cowardly, low-life varmint named “Broken Nose Jack” McCall. McCall was angry for having lost all his money the day before in a poker game in which Hickok was a participant. Hickok was facing the wall rather than the door – contrary to his usual habit; otherwise, he’d have seen McCall coming and been prepared. McCall shot him in the back.

Old Style Saloon No. 10, Deadwood, South Dakota. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jerry Rawlings.

Old Style Saloon No. 10, Deadwood, South Dakota. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jerry Rawlings.

He was hanged for the indiscretion eight months later and buried with the noose still around his neck. Hickok was buried on Boot Hill, an honor at the time. Calamity Jane was devastated. Despite the fact that her love for him was never reciprocated, she grieved his death for the rest of her life and bought a burial plot next to his.

I’ve summarized this tale in two paragraphs, but it took two hours for the patrons of Saloon No. 10 to agree on the details, bikers and cowboys involved in a lively discussion. A sign of the times: it included an argument on who should have been sued for wrongful death. This was some of the best entertainment at the rally.

By the time we tired of Deadwood, it was stinking hot again. We decided to head to Sturgis on a different river road; much like the twisty one we were on in the morning except that it was completely packed with motorcycles and pickup trucks. The traffic was slow and the speed inconsistent. Some foolish riders lost patience and decided to prove themselves by weaving through the traffic, with little margin against oncoming traffic. We reeled in these “heroes” every time the traffic jammed up, so I wondered what the point was? Then we’d watch them repeat the stupidity.

After we were passed a few times, Red took the bait. He pulled out in front of Chip and blasted off into the distance. I could see Chip shake his head. I’m thinking to myself, choppers aren’t suited to road racing, Red’s chopper is barely roadworthy, and Red is barely alert, so what the hell is he doing? I had visions of disaster.

A few minutes later, the traffic slowed again, then it stopped altogether. We caught up to the fast guys but Red wasn’t amongst them. After idling for five minutes, Chip turned off his motor to let the engine cool. We followed suit. Then we’d start them up again to pull ahead a car length or two, and shut them down. After 20 minutes of this, I became concerned about the bike’s battery life.

Suddenly, Chip pulled onto the dirt shoulder and rode his bike a hundred yards to a wide spot next to the river. When we saw what he’d done, we did likewise. That gave the bikes a chance to cool down, and us a chance to stretch our limbs. I walked straight into the river up to my knees, boots and all. The cool water felt wonderful. Several renegades did likewise. Other bikers soon joined us and it became a social event. That is, until we heard screaming sirens. We realized this wasn’t just a traffic slowdown, it was an accident – most likely involving bikers.

I started sloshing past the traffic towards the sound of the sirens. Chip, Candy, and KP strolled with me. We sweated for about a mile but it seemed like eternity. Just past all the swirling lights from emergency vehicles, we came across a scene of carnage reminiscent of a terrorist explosion. There were shredded motorcycle parts and camping gear strewn over 100 feet. When we got closer, we saw pools of blood on the road at the base of a rock face. The police had cordoned off the entire area.

As the ambulances pulled away, we were told that some chopper pilot went wide on a right-hand turn and pinned a couple on a Gold Wing into the rock wall. I got a chill up my spine. Candy screamed. She thought she recognized what was left of Red’s bike.  The police wouldn’t tell us anything except that the ambulances were headed for the Rapid City Regional Hospital.

This trip was starting to feel like a disaster movie.

Editor’s Note: we are aware that “gimp” can have a derogatory meaning and mean no insult to anyone disabled. In the story, the person with that nickname doesn’t consider it as such, and we present the story in that context.

Header image: “The photographer told us to wear our meanest outlaw faces.” Left to right: Tina, the author, Gimp – who insisted on standing – and KP.

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