The third phase of my trip to Sturgis consisted of a plan to ride out to the “Badlands National Park” in south west South Dakota. To me, the Badlands have always evoked a sense of rustic survival indicative of the American west. Teddy Roosevelt territory. What a perfect backdrop to an old school sidecar day trip. Jean seemed ready to go anywhere on his big dirt bike. Kevro, my sidecar accomplice, game for any destination. The day starts early as sunlight invades our tents pitched in the grass of a playground at a KOA outside Rapid City. We are not quite close enough to the shower and toilet facilities to hear the ‘goings on’ of the bathrooms. Luckily enough, we had arrived early and set up camp 30 yards from that mess. Closer to the abandoned jungle gym but a years’ reservation away from formal campsites with electric, water, and fire rings. At Sturgis bike week you take what you get and feel thankful for it. As the week passes and tent space dwindles it seems that bikers will soon be sleeping in the showers. By Wednesday road weary bikers with miles of cords and bungees over tents and camo mummy bags lumber to a field yet past our outpost. They sleep in a chain link acre labeled the “dog park’ on top of whatever scatters the uncut lawn in such an enclosure! We forego the late night partying and get ample rest in anticipation of our day trips to National parks and scenic areas. Our thoughts are we can sit in a bar at home and suck suds. This is South Dakota! On this day we will head east on SD State route 44, the hundred or so miles to get to the entrance of the Badlands National Park. As is now custom I twist open the petcock, pull the manual choke full out, prime kick 4 times, short squirt the throttle, switch ignition half way ‘on’ so as to not yet power the headlight and rob the plugs of juice and I come down hard straight legged on the kick pedal. A rehearsed pattern of movement and sound too early in the day to be envied by neighbors. Just as well so long as it results in combustion. We light out early and traffic is thin as the sun shines brightly 2 hours into a Wednesday. I feel its noon, but a squint at my watch tells me it is only 8:30 a.m. Early heat and humidity forebodes the coming sweat and I guzzle bottles of water at roadside gas stops and farm stands. The landscape is rolling and green with precipitous mountains far in the distance beckoning. We buy fuel and snacks at ramshackle gas stations that evoke wanderlust to throttle up and never stop. I sense we are headed east away from the great pacific and that somehow Canada and its high Rockies are looking down upon on us from the left.
My research tells me that the park is almost a quarter million acres of pinnacles, spires and buttes surrounded by the largest undisturbed grass prairie in the United States. With indigenous buffalo and elk it is the former hunting grounds of the proud Lakota American Indians which is part of the Sioux Nation. The massacre at “Wounded Knee” took place on December 29, 1890 on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just south of the park. The last of the great Indian Wars in the U.S. We plan on visiting the site. By midday the mountains before us get no closer. We stop for lunch at a honky tonk that rises from the intersection of 2 perpendicular roads. Our path of travel (Route 44), paved, and its bisector, a wide gravel roadway where we see no traveler dare enter and nothing but dust and haze emerge. Without speaking we collectively notice that all traffic is Harleys, coming from the west, gassing up, drinking cans of beer, eating the ‘chicken lunch’ as did we and continuing east on route 44. All, ostensibly heading to the Badlands National Park, ironically one stuck behind the other in search of a ‘freedom’ I doubt they’ll find. A steady stream of black T shirted men and hefty women aboard a blending parade of bikes the next looking more and more like the last. The longer we watch the greater the crowds in the park become, at least in our minds. In the 1969 cult classic “Easy Rider” produced by Dennis Hopper an advertisement muses: “two men went across the country looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere”. My thoughts of that quote cause me to shake my head. I stood at the edge of the crossroads between pavement and gravel and like an epiphany my thoughts turned to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. I believe it was my friend Jean piloting his thumper with knobby tires and ammo box panniers who stared south and spoke first pondering aloud where that gravel road led. We knew not. It ebbed and flowed through hills and tall grasses wavy heat distorting its end at the distant horizon. No passerby left the safety of the Harley parade flowing east, yet but a few even glanced south into the unknown gravel road we ponder. My head swims and without debate we turn south and strike out off the paved route our front tires spitting a gravel wake like the bow of an old wooden speedboat on the sea. Our destination unclear as it was unimportant. Gravel pings and dings from under my wheels on fresh black paint tossing pebbles to and fro adding patina to my sidecar rig. We all glare about and grin widely. The 2 bikes and 3 riders navigate the grasslands roadway for hours curving left and right then left again in long never ending arcs of delicious solitude. Tall grasses wave us by under a warm sun, an endless audience to our collective delight. After long silence sans teeming gravel under our wheels I scream above the solid lifters and clanking v-twin through dust and wind: “What see you when you get there, Natty?” The answer cried loudly from my sidecar monkey Kevro above the onomatopoeic ping pang cacophony: “Creation, All Creation”, as it has all week through the bewilderment of the western landscape. We laugh heartily referring to James Fennimore Cooper’s seminal work “The Pioneers” (1823) as we had all week. It beckons lost words of Robert Frost. Read decades ago by me and repeated by my children in youthful enthusiasm. It bears repeating here. Some words, so supremely apropos. Robert Frost never rode a motorbike. Too bad for him. Read these 144 words and take your own gravel road. It will make all the difference.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
We never made it to The Badland National Park that day. It remains “in the distance” for me. I trust it will be there in the years to come. As will the dings and dents in my sidecar. The sounds and smells and sights of that gravel road cleansed my cobwebs, washed my soul, to me… all the difference. Stay tuned.
Well, signing off for now. Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home. Written by Steve Murrin, the ‘Original Biker Lawyer’