He was a big man, the biker with the belly and the handlebar mustache. Dressed in old jeans and a T-shirt, with cracked leather chaps and a black leather vest, he looked the part: an aging outlaw, a motorcyclist with a giant hog of a bike parked out on the street, a man with years of tattoos swirling up his thick arms. And there he was, hunched over the sink at a laundromat in the Black Hills of South Dakota, rinsing out baby clothes by hand while his wife made lunch for their kids in the shiny white RV parked directly behind his bike.
They'd come to be part of something, even if they couldn't quite say what it was. They'd driven 1,100 miles, all the way from Phoenix, to spend a week with half a million other motorcycle enthusiasts at the annual Sturgis Rally: listening to music, camping underneath the Black Hills Spruce and Ponderosa Pines, and watching the slow waves of motorcycles flow down Main Street.
Marty, a New Jerseyite with a cowboy hat and hemp necklace, told me he's been attending the rally since his retirement in 2006, because it gives him a chance to talk with the "great people" who are his fellow Harley riders. Lynne, a manager at Tyson Foods in Arkansas, comes because the rally lets her "ride with her friends and husband." "It was on my bucket list," said Bob, an engineer in his thirties from Boston, and he needed some "bro time" with his friends. "I like the vibe," added Enrique, a businessman from Los Angles. "We come for the concerts and drinks," said Frank and Cathy, suburban business owners who had hauled their bikes on a trailer from Wisconsin, just to ride them in the Black Hills. Jim, a thin plumber from New Jersey with a great head of wiry hair, told me he comes mostly to watch the bounce of all the braless women.
After an off year in 2014, when a Harley-Davidson celebration in Wisconsin siphoned off riders, nearly a million showed up for the rally's 75th anniversary last year. This year's turnout is more typical: over half a million people driving though a town of 6,000 (in a state of only 850,000). It's a ten-day carnival: outdoor concerts (with Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Weird Al Yankovic headlining this year) interspersed with track races, motocross, and caravans of bikers roaring through the forest.
Many of the riders want to look like outlaws, but the T-shirts, decals, and badges are full of support for the military and even law-enforcement. "These are my people, our people," said a woman who told me she served in the Colorado National Guard and came every year that she could.
Mixed in the crowd are the real gearheads, the mechanics who only want to talk about compression ratios, and the stockbrokers who had their expensive bikes shipped in to meet them as they got off their airplanes. And beside them are the druggie partiers, the radical libertarians celebrating South Dakota's refusal to pass a helmet law for adult riders, and a smattering of ordinary farm and ranch folk who just like to ride.
It's a vulgar and unscripted event that emerged spontaneously in the 1930s from a local gathering of Indian motorcycle owners. It's fun and unserious, without any overarching meaning or political purpose. It is, in fact, very American—or, at least, America as it should be. The brotherhood of the motorcyclists cuts across races and classes. The grungiest looking person could be a millionaire, and no one would notice or care.
The rally is the modern Wild West: a chaotic jumble of people being surprisingly nice to one another, despite their differences. Beer was being sold at every corner, and women paraded in next to nothing, as though Sturgis had become the Burning Man Festival. And alongside them were conservatively dressed farmers, and khaki-wearing suburbanites, and bikers in old-fashioned Hells Angels-style colors. The cops were laughing and joking with the drunk tourists, calmly keeping things from getting out of hand.
And then, of course, there were the vendors. The rally is a money pit, with cheap T-shirts going for $20 and gold-plated Harley-Davidson plaques for $500. The tents along the town's streets featured pop-up tattoo parlors, massage girls, bikini car-and-bike washes, artisans selling homemade jewelry at absurd mark-ups, and promotional booths for everything from Red Bull energy drinks to miniature Honda motorcycles. Perhaps not surprisingly, all the political knickknacks and T-shirts I saw were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump. "Oooh, I want this," laughed one of the young women in jeans shorts, spilling out of their halter tops, as she held up a "F— Crooked Hillary" shirt.
A man from just down the road in Rapid City told me it was his 35th trip up to Sturgis. While we spoke, his 15-year-old grandson kept trying not to get caught ogling the women walking by, some of them in little more than pasties. When his grandfather was done speaking, though, he turned to me and said that what made the rally so great was that the people who came all shared a "connection."
It wasn't one he could articulate, but it was real, to him and maybe to everyone else. Once a summer, the forgotten fragments of fly-over culture come together in the Black Hills of South Dakota for no reason except that they enjoy the fellowship. What could be more American?
Faith Bottum is a writer in South Dakota