This is part 1 in a series of “uncut” impressions from our associate editor Paul Dail, who attended the Sturgis rally for his first time. Watch for future installments, including “What to wear, what NOT to wear,” “Up in Smoke: Other Misconceptions Blown,” and “On the Road Again.” The final abridged version of the article will appear in our October issue, which will include several Sturgis sidebars and other content exclusive to the print edition, as well as our full photo gallery.
But for now, sit back and enjoy a Sturgis rally first-timer’s perspective. Remember your first time?
Sturgis Rally Expectations and an Unexpected Comparison
The night before I left for the 2022 Sturgis rally, my wife and I watched Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, a documentary about the three-day concert in July 1999 marking the 30th anniversary of the original 1969 peace, love, and music festival in Bethel, New York. The ’99 version was, as the title implies, a train wreck.
Watching the documentary seemed a fitting send off for my first trip to Sturgis and, I thought, was indicative of at least some of the shenanigans I might see in South Dakota. I recognized the rally had been going on long before Woodstock ’99, but some of the events depicted in the footage of the concert, which was later described as “male toxicity at its worst” committed by members of my generation, were similar to the description of Sturgis I had heard from my older brother. If those Woodstock ’99 concertgoers were close in age to me back then, Sturgis seemed like a natural fit for where they might be hanging out these days.
On the drive down to Las Vegas to catch my flight the next morning, I reflected on the possible similarities between Woodstock ’99 and Sturgis. I started mentally crafting a story about passion. I knew there were going to be people full of passion at Sturgis. I figured they were passionate about motorcycles and the spirit of freedom, especially heightened by our charged global-political environment. Those in attendance at Woodstock ’99 were passionate about music and the angsty spirit of freedom, especially heightened by a divisive political environment and the looming end of civilization (Y2K, anyone?).
Motorcycles. Music. Freedom. These are all reasonable things to be passionate about. The problem might be in the masses. One or two people with similarly strong passions hanging out is one thing; 300,000 to 400,000 of those people all in one place is another.
As I drove to the airport, I wondered if I would find similarly stoked passions amplified by the sheer numbers of those who shared them. Coincidentally, the estimated number of attendees at Woodstock ’99 and Sturgis aren’t terribly different considering the length of each event. Likely spreading out those hundreds of thousands of Sturgis attendees over many more square miles would diffuse things, I thought, and it certainly wouldn’t be “male toxicity at its worst,” but I felt certain I would encounter at least a little bit of that machismo, based on what I had heard about past rallies.
The last time my brother attended Sturgis was more than seven years ago, but from what I personally experienced, Sturgis doesn’t seem to be your older brother’s (or father’s or grandfather’s) rally anymore, and while it was certainly a far cry from Woodstock 1969, perhaps the times they are a-changin’.
Leaving…On a Jet Plane?
I know, I know. I wrap up the last section with a Bob Dylan reference and start out the next one with John Denver. What kind of Sturgis coverage is this anyway? Hear me out.
You see, flying wasn’t the way I would’ve chosen to attend my first Sturgis rally. By the most direct (albeit least appealing) route, it would’ve taken me two pretty solid days of riding if I only stopped for food and gas during the day, which is kind of defeating the point of a ride if you’re just going for the destination.
I would’ve been looking at four days of travel total instead of less than two flying, the latter of which included time I could be doing my job with a laptop and wi-fi. With looming deadlines for the American Rider September issue, flying was the only way I was going to make it happen this year, so my flights were booked.
For the past 20 years or so, the closest airport to me has been Las Vegas. This means that anytime I’m flying back from somewhere, I’m coming into Sin City with a host of tourists gearing up to make some memories that will “stay in Vegas.” This creates a certain party atmosphere on the plane, an atmosphere I was reminded of as I boarded the small Bombardier jet connecting out of Dallas to Rapid City.
Since I wasn’t on my Heritage Softail, I was traveling comfortable for the flight: shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops that could come off and on easily at security checkpoints. I felt a little underdressed waiting for my connecting flight in Dallas. Just as tourists heading to Vegas are often dressed to the nines in preparation for their (hopefully) high-roller experience, several of my fellow travelers to South Dakota were garbed in Harley-Davidson tees, jeans, riding boots, and patched-out leather vests in preparation for their two-wheeled experience. And most of them had tattoos (I only have one visible when I’m wearing a tee).
Conversation levels were louder than the larger jet I had just taken to Dallas. Someone shouted about meeting at the Full Throttle Saloon. Plans were being made. Considerable laughter was heard. A group of four older women flirted with a couple of obviously younger men. No phone numbers were exchanged that I could see, but when the groups parted ways at the end of the flight, one of the women fired off a hopeful sounding “Maybe we’ll see you on Main.”
Although I had never been to Sturgis, I had heard stories of how many people would be there, and as we deboarded, I thought there was a pretty good chance these two groups were not going to see each other again unless they happened to be on the same flight going back home.
End of Part 1. Read Part 2 here.