I have never “done” Sturgis. I’ll be 50 in a few months and it seemed to me the next step. Daytona, Laconia, Americade, Myrtle Beach, Love Rally, been there done that. Sturgis is my elusive one. You blink, and you’re too old to do anything. So without blinking, I decide not only should the trip be made but it should be made in epic fashion. As we all know, anyone can buy a Road King with back rest and kabillion watt radio and head north. Too easy. To make it “epic”, it’s got to be hard. Something not everyone would or could do. My challenge: A 1938 Harley Davidson, with a sidecar! I had it restored recently with daunting accuracy by Moondog Fincher in Atlanta, Ga. I did cheat and mount a panhead motor for added reliability and a little extra power. A ’56 Model. Knuckles are cool, just not 4,000 miles a week cool. The rest, we kept period correct. Bias ply tires, foot clutch, tank shifter, mechanical drum brakes, tractor seat, real deal 30’s amenities. Hence the bikes nickname, the ’38-’56!! Bike picked, the plans unraveled before me. I thought I’d ‘camp’ my way up – anyone can swipe a card at a Super 8!. A mini-goal of sleeping on a pool table in a gin mill or a hay loft of a dairy farm owned by 5 French sisters was tucked in the back of my brain, though I concede neither of those was likely to happen. I figured I’d write 4 stories about my trip: (1) This story (the trip “UP”), regarding the 1,700 miles of my chosen route; (2) the ride around Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Badlands National Park”; (3) A ride to “Devils Tower National Monument’ in Wyoming, helmetless, dressed in old school leathers on a 1930’s bike; and (4) A general tour of downtown Sturgis and its shenanigans dressed as a Roman Catholic Cardinal. (Don’t ask, read the stories).
The ‘38/’56 was freshly restored for the trip but mechanical challenges were expected. Tool sets, spare parts, tire tubes, headlamp bulbs, plug wires, oil, bolts, nuts, coat hangers, duct tape, all neatly stashed aboard in anticipation of the worst. My necessary personal gear to embark with was the object of much consternation. It was cut down to the following (sidecar room limits) sleeping bag, whisky jug, tea pot, camp chair, Winchester lever action 30-30, Advil, fly rod, T.S. Elliot Anthology, butt powder, fistful of cash, 4 pairs underwear (boxers), rain suit, “Cardinal” outfit, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair boots, 9 socks, 3 T-shirts, 1 sweatshirt, toilet paper, 1 toothbrush, 1 razor, 1 helmet, 1 cell charger, 1 pipe and cherry tobacco and 1 small musty tent (with broken zipper), and a partridge sans pear tree. Many trial runs with the 158 pounds of tools, parts, guns and clothes were made around Northern Atlanta, just to be safe. Add my 201 pounds to a 700 pound bike and 3 ½ gallon of gas at 6 pounds per gallon and its exactly 1,080 pounds or just over half a ton! Less than 50 horsepower moving half a ton across 4,000 miles of open country seems to defy mechanical logic. Although it worked across Milton, why not across the United States? It’s just longer, faster, higher, harder, colder, rougher, and a whole bunch more words ending with …er. What could go wrong?
The route was conceived as a ‘right lane’ interstate affair. With 4 speeds in the box and a big rear sprocket the rig cruises at about 65 MPH, tops. The 6 volt electrics were upgraded to 12 and powered only a filament headlight/taillight combo. No Led’s or MP3’s in 1938, none now. She carries 3 1/2 gallons on board but only get about 35 miles to the gallon given the weight of the bike, sidecar and gear so 100 miles a tank just about does it. That’s about 20 fill ups. The general route by the southerner is typically Chattanooga, TN to Nashville, TN, to Paducah, IL, to St. Louis, MO, to Kansas City, MO, to Sioux Falls, SD, to Rapid City, SD, then up to Sturgis, 1530 miles from Atlanta. I planned a route via Chicago. At 1700 miles it’s not much longer but affords me an opportunity to pee in Lake Michigan, just because I can. Plus it is a simpler route: Go north, make a left at Chicago and follow the bikes west to Sturgis.
The test runs on the ’38-’56 get much props from onlookers as I roll around Atlanta. Lots of neck crooning stares and horn beeping thumbs ups and winking ‘yes’ nods! It makes me smile. I’ve ridden on just about every interstate in this great country. Never on a sidecar and certainly never on anything as old as a ’38. My concern becomes the constant action of the ‘toe-in’ of the sidecar causing a slight right ‘push’. It should be noted I’ve never piloted a sidecar until now. The associated effort to ride ‘straight’ fatigues the shoulders and hand cramps come and go in my few hundred miles about town. The bike burns a little oil at first then settles in to a solid lifter lope and clank like an old steam engine. It concerns me though Moondog assures it’s supposed to sound that way, like a big coffee can full of big rocks. A twin cam this is not. The ‘pogo’ seat does surprisingly well against the potholes, dips and pavement imperfections of the metro Atlanta area. There are no shocks, no air ride, no gas injection, and no modern anything except that old hydraulic sprung seat between my backside and the roadway. Wide and dished like a John Deer tractor perch although covered in cowhide leather with minimal padding. My initial thought is the trip’s Achilles heel is that seat and my 5 decade old ass. My goal was 300 miles a day minimum and I do a one night camping trip to test equipment and check the bike. No problems. Although I find my whisky “jug” attracts male humans at the campground. Note to self – bigger jug! At 65 mph I trust five 12 hour days in the saddle with rests, gas stops, food, and ‘bolt-checks’ and maybe a roadside ‘fix’ here and there will get me there. Just enough to make good use of daylight as I place no trust in the antiquated bulbs to light my way and make me viable to other vehicles in darkness. No windshield also makes rain riding dangerous so weather will dictate timing. I plan on leaving Atlanta Wednesday the week before Sturgis putting me in the thick of it by the start of the 1st week of the rally. Pre ride bike checks, camping equipment inspections, oiling leathers, tool checks, all doted over with nervous but excited anticipation.
In the week of departure work explodes in a dozen wildfires requiring immediate attention. The ‘ride up’ is stalled. Work before play. Like a weird omen the sky miles statement arrives in the morning mail. A zillion unused miles with impending expiration gets me thinking. Friends Kevro and Jean are trailering up to Sturgis that same week. The planned logistics collide with forces in the universe. The road to hell…. as they say – whoever ‘they’ are?
I step off the plane in South Dakota and my bike is curb side waiting like a good and faithful wife. Kevro and Jean smile. I grin widely and without much fanfare I pull the paper airline name tag from my backpack strap and toss it in the trash. I kick the bike to life and rumble off into the heartland of America with a swagger as though I’d ridden the old beast there. Jean follows on his bike. Kevro nestles into the sidecar naively confident of my pilot skills in the thousand miles to come that week. I merge into a sea of Road Kings and Ultras with my Georgia tag drawing stares. Other riders gawk and wave acknowledging the antiquity of my chosen mount. In parking lots and at lights other riders spy my southern origin from the license plate and holler the question a hundred times: “You rode that thing all the way from Georgia?” My unflinching answer: “C’mon man, anyone can do it on a Road King”. Stay tuned.
Well, signing off for now. Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home.