Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Vagabond Dream, a Sturgis 2012 Tour Diary

By Thomas Ladron
All photos by author

Packed up, paid rent, and caught my plane to Denver.

Before I did, I checked the surf report, and the only Swell this summer is hitting while I'm gone. Can't win them all.

As the Black Keys flooded my ears, I surveyed the plane. A bundle of integrated thoughts quickly flashed through my mind: girls I'm currently pursuing, financial situations, and mixed feelings about stretching my comfort zone. The plane rockets into the air. Now there's nothing to do but let go and enjoy the ride.

Today we left for Sturgis, South Dakota (home of the famed annual motorcycle rally since 1938) from Fort Collins, Colorado. After a quick inspection, a couple test roars from the bikes, we were off. After we roared up the onramp to the highway I was immediately whisked away. The flat, ever-stretching plains lay out in all directions, bordered only by rolling mountains with kind faces. The magnificent prairies coaxed my mind to wander. Recent events washed over me. I rode for Aron, who lost his life to the road last week. I have never seen such open roads. Passing through Wyoming, we lingered at a rest stop. I took some photos, and then was offered coffee and snacks from some fellow bikers. Throngs of other bikers soon appeared. Groups ranging from two people to forty rode on. They either passed us or we passed them, but there was a feeling of comradeship on the road I've never previously felt. All was good, until the stop just before Sturgis. My dad put off eating. I was too hungry to concentrate, and so I zoned the rest of the way before we eventually stopped again. As I got hungrier and crankier, food kept getting prolonged. I drove around aimlessly behind my dad. He searched out a camp site for me. No success. This added another two hours to our three hour day’s ride. At this point I wish I would have stayed home back in Cali and surfed for a week straight. At this point, I still somewhat regret coming on this trip, but tomorrow we get to go for another ride through gorgeous country. Also, I observed something I can't understand. With no helmet laws in this state, we were among the minority because we wore helmets. I'm crashing on the floor of my parent’s hotel for the night. Time to grab a snack and sleep.

Today was spectacular to the literal meaning of the word. We are staying in Rapid Falls, which is about 20 or 30 minutes out of Sturgis. We rode into the west end of town to fuel up, and then we hit the highway. The Beast was hungry for asphalt, and I had my hand on its appetite. Every rev of the throttle sent The Beast howling with hunger, consuming pavement at ever increasing rates. The warm air wrapped around me as we sped out to Spearfish Canyon. As we climbed our way up the hillside, the air cooled off to perfect riding temperature – just cool enough to keep you refreshed, warm enough to keep you relaxed. It truly was perfect. A sea of bikers filled the road, and again provided that sense of comradeship unique to the biking experience. Nods, waves, smiles, handshakes, introductions, and small talk were commonplace. No cold shouldering, no stone walling; everyone was open, friendly and courteous … which surprised me about the Sturgis ride. The canyon was breathtaking: sheer walls of multicolored slate decorated with patches of evergreens that got thicker and thicker the deeper we rode the canyon. About halfway through, we stopped and walked to The Falls. The Midwest was in a dry spell, and so The Falls were more of a trickle. After a couple pictures we made our way back to the bikes and headed to Mount Rushmore. The forests grew denser and the road started to climb. Lakes and valleys started to appear left and right. Further we climbed, and the air turned crisp and the views opened up. Three quarters of the way to Rushmore we stopped on the side of the road and beheld the presidential mountain. All four faces clearly beamed out from the rock, presiding over the countryside they helped establish. Pictures were snapped and we continued to the top. The 11 dollar charge for parking pushed us away from the actual park. On the way back we rode through Needles, a winding green canyon with lakes in the deepest valleys. Washington peered out from one of the mountains before the final descent. Once out of Needles we headed back and started the trek to Rapid City. Once on the highway, The Beast again seemed to come alive with hunger as I opened the throttle.

Today we explored another sight around the Sturgis area. We left earlier in the morning, around 10 or so. Before long, the throttle was controlling the metal monster’s asphalt appetite yet again. This time we crossed state lines back into Wyoming (we made our way through the southern part of the state on the drive from Colorado) and headed toward the rock monument, Devil's Tower. After a couple quick stops at various biker attractions (a saloon, an old stone house, and of course, a quick refuel) we made our way to the natural formation. As we rode through Wyoming, red rock started to splotch the otherwise normal soil. With the array of line trees that covered the hills it was beautiful to drink in. Originally we parked outside and took pictures from a distance, but after we learned it was only a 5 dollar per motorcycle charge, we rode to the bottom of the tower. The tower itself is magnificent to behold. It's a pillar of hardened magma that has remained as other lighter and looser sediment eroded away. Hawks circled up at the top of the 850+ ft volcanic production. Once at the base we hiked about halfway around. The scenery was gorgeous, and on one side an entire valley view spread out in front of us like a post card. Fun fact: Indian mythology states the red soil came about because of a foot race between human and buffalo to see who was superior. Since humans only have 2 legs where the buffalo have 4, man was allowed to choose a substitute in his place for the race. The myth has humans choosing a bird as a proxy, and the race was off. The buffalo knew what was at stake, and they pushed themselves so hard they bled wildly. Legend has it blood leaped from the buffalos’ mouths and snouts. The blood then was trampled into the soil, creating the Wyoming red dirt seen today. Unfortunately for the buffalo they lost regardless of their effort, and humans were allowed to hunt them because of the mythical outcome. After tons of touristy picture taking, we headed back to Sturgis, but not before stopping at the meadow off the road back down from Devil's Tower to check out prairie dogs. Interesting creatures. Anyway, we fueled up once back in South Dakota and took to Sturgis. There, my parents grabbed a quick bite at the McDonald's, and I wandered on my own through the packed streets. What a sight to behold. I've never seen such a vast array of bikes and people. The bikers themselves ranged from old school Hell’s Angels types to first time riders. I saw all sorts of customized paint jobs, including Looney Toons, Snoopy, The Jetsons, and of course the classic American flag type. Custom choppers were plentiful, and I even spotted a couple of Boss Hoggs (V8 engines in custom bikes). There were topless women perusing the streets with their men, relying only on body paint and a good artist to obscure full view. Everyone was hanging out, shopping and checking out bikes. It was wild. After we left Sturgis we headed to Deadwood, a casino-based tourist attraction from a town further west. On the way to Deadwood we rode through Black Hills National Forest, another breathtaking nature scene impossible to fully describe. Lush forest covered every inch if landscape, igniting the air with a brisk scent. After we navigated the canyon leading to Deadwood, we tried to eat. The restaurant we stopped at, Wild Bill’z Steakhouse, was too busy with too limited a menu. After we realized there was nothing to suit our appetite, we headed back to Rapid City for dinner. We ate at a 1950s replication diner and had, overall, a good meal. After my dad ran a red to get on the freeway, and I caught up with him, it was smooth sailing back to the hotel, where pop and I grabbed a beer and unwound after a long day.

Today was our last day in the area. Tomorrow we head back to Colorado and wish Sturgis a fond farewell. We rode out to the Badlands. The ride consisted of plains that stretched as far as the eye could see. The only break from the flat landscapes was the occasional hill. As we neared The Badlands, hills appeared more frequently. The sheer openness of the plains was a humbling sight. The Badlands is a state park, and we had to pay to get in, but the fee was well worth the ride. Immediately, giant rock structures began to rise out of the distance. Once we hit the first viewpoint I was lost in the landscape. Slopes, peaks, and random rock formations cut by wind and water erosion painted the horizon. Majestic white limestone proudly wore red and yellow stripes, some even donned a prairie grass cap. The Badlands stretched as far as the eye could see. It used to be an ocean, and over time became marshlands, then prairie valleys and colored mountains. The Indians referred to the land as bad because of how difficult it was to cross. The 33 mile loop was astounding. As much as the Spearfish Forest and Black Mountain Forest made me feel vibrant and alive, The Badlands made me feel much more insignificant. The formations stretched and stretched, with different patterns, colors, and size. After completing the 33 mile loop, we grabbed some dinner and went into Sturgis. I left my parents and wandered the street. Every type of bike and biker imaginable was there. There was even a vintage 1940s bike with a pull break on the frame by the seat. It was a party, and everyone was out in full force. Bikes crowded the street, half naked women walked around flaunting their tits, ass, or whatever physical quality they deemed worthy of flaunting. After grabbing a couple beers at a Karaoke bar, I stepped outside and saw a man dump his Harley in the middle of the road. After running out and helping him lift his bike back up, I continued on, taking in all the different people. It was wild. I headed back to the hotel after three hours of checking out bikes, stores, and babes. I already told myself I'm going back at some point. Now it was time to rest up before a three state ride in the morning back to Colorado.

Today was our ride back from Rapid City to Fort Collins. We loaded up the bags, checked out from the hotel, strapped it all to the bikes and grabbed a quick breakfast. Once we were on the highway it was only a matter of gas stops before we would be done. The ride itself took us through three states: South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. Wide open prairies reached out towards the plateau topped hillsides. As we headed through South Dakota, evergreens dotted the red hills providing a breathtaking contrast of the earth and the life it supports. Once out of South Dakota the trees grew scarce and the prairies stretched further to smaller hills and bigger plateaus until the prairies were bordered by an almost uniform line that cut the across the horizon. We stopped to rehydrate and rest. Water was provided by some friendly bikers. We hit the road and made our way to the city of Lusk. It was in these last couple legs, of a close to four hundred mile ride, reality set in. Soon, cold routine would have me in its clutches once again. This trip affirmed my dream to be a biker vagabond for a year or two before I turn thirty. We were now in the heart of Wyoming. Cattle were grazing with occasional deer too. It was here my eyes wandered the landscape and I thought of what I was headed back to. I wasn't ready to go back. I wanted to keep riding. No stress, obligations or worries – just stay alive. I thought of all the friends I have lost in the last few years and how I shouldn't take anything for granted. I thought of the people I've wronged, the people who've wronged me, and everyone between. I thought about the gorgeous landscapes laid out before my eyes over the course of the trip, how long they had been there before I was, and how long they will stand after I am gone. Thoughts like those set me at ease and shook me at the same time. Nothing I do is significant, time will wash it away and, yet, everything I do is significant because of the limit of time. I wandered back to Spearfish Canyon and remembered the fresh, alive feeling of breathing in pine forest. I wandered back to The Badlands to dwell in the grandeur of the wind and water cut figures. Memories can't be stolen, so I decided I needed to make the most of the time I have with people worth effort. I thought of the cultural diversity I came across, from the New Zealand group of riders, to the amiable Texan, to the firey East Coasters, and how all of them, and myself, came together to celebrate the freedom that comes with riding. I thought of all my parents had done for me, and how I hope I can repay them double. But most prominent was the thought of myself in context to all this. I thought how one person, act, or place can influence my life and send me in a direction I never saw myself going. Before I was done thinking, we were in Fort Collins, and my ride was over. Mixed emotions overcame me: excited to go back and surf, work, and progress, … yet fully disappointed I could not escape to my vagabond dream early. Tomorrow I fly back, time to rest.


Thomas Ladron is currently finishing undergrad work in the growing field of Gerontology, the study of aging, at a southern California state university. He has a sense of inner decency, this command of basic human interaction, to immediately draw a person toward him. He listens. He invests in the conversation. At a very low point in my life (in a seemingly bottomless series), he intuited a need I had to just fucking relax and have a beer. He downright insisted. I found a million excuses not to join him, but he shut each one down. I knew then this was someone I’d want to get to know (I’ve not been able to say that about many people in recent years). While most are content to live the usual life in the usual way, questioning little beyond the thought poles of respectable opinion society has delineated (thus far, and no further), he pushes himself to dig. He’s insanely curious about life and his place in it, and when he explained he’d be joining his family on the above trip, I asked for his reflections. This is what I hope will be the first of many entries for guttervox.

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