Two Children, Mount Rushmore, and 5,000 Harleys

On a warm August day last summer we headed south from our Northern Minnesota home to explore the sites and the Old West attractions in South Dakota. Soon we turned west on Interstate 90.

"Hey Mom, look at the cool motorcycles," my ten-year-old son exclaimed as two shiny Harley Davidson bikes passed our van. Then we saw more, and more, and more. It wasn't until a group of black leather-clad men with "Hells Angels New York" on their jackets zoomed by that my husband and I realized something was up. At the next gas stop we found out what. We were headed in the same direction as the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who visit Sturgis every year. Our quiet family vacation had suddenly been joined by five thousand motorcycles!

As we viewed the landscape, we also enjoyed watching the unique array of bikes and bikers on the road. From sissy bars to big, padded seats with saddle bags and sidecars, each bike had its own signature. Many had stuffed animals--from teddy bears to Taz--strapped on the back. Some bikes had names. One boasted a roof, in case of rain. All bikes carried leather-and-bandanna-wearing riders, from leather pants to leather bikinis. Riders were young teens to grandparents, bleached blondes to silver grays, making their way to the biggest motorcycle party of the year. As night approached, we realized we were sharing more than the road with these bikes and bikers: the race was on for a hotel room.

The first town we stopped in had No Vacancy. Everywhere. The town was jammed with a river of bikes--streets flooded, restaurants crammed, hotels full. We had no choice but to continue on to the next small town where we managed a room, overpriced: proprietors saw the motorcycles coming and jacked the rates. As an elderly lady decked out in biker clothing for the occasion checked us in, my five-year-old stared in disbelief.

The next day I was sure our biker friends would be off and running to reach Sturgis. In my naivete I believed that these "tough" bikers would forego the usual tourist sites for the party awaiting them. I was wrong.

As we pulled into the town of Wall, home of the famous Wall Drug, we found the streets lined with bikes. We finally managed to park, and spent two hours squeezing our family through the crowds of leather, beer bellies, beards, and ponytails to visit the shops and sites. Apparently Wall was also expecting the bikers: t-shirts and trinkets imprinted with the Harley Davidson name sat out on display everywhere. Later, when we pulled out of town, an older biker on his homemade, three-wheel cycle with a bandanna-wearing Snoopy strapped to the sissy bar honked and waved to our kids. We headed in the direction of Mount Rushmore with more bikers on our tail.

Now, I've visited this national monument several times in my life, but never have I seen the site that lay before us that afternoon. The parking lot, usually half-full with station wagons and mini-vans, was overflowing with cycles. Hundreds and hundreds of cycles. So many cycles that park rangers were directing traffic, and bikes were even parked on surrounding lawns. Once again, feeling like the last family on earth in some futuristic movie, we squeezed through the crowds to view the four presidents. The monument seemed dull compared to the crowed looking up at it.

We headed west again toward Deadwood. By now we were expecting motorcycles. We pulled into town with the idea of visiting the graves of Calamity Jane and "Wild" Bill Hickock, and perhaps catching a glimpse inside some of the old saloons. But when we went to the visitor's center for a map and directions, it was the sight in the parking lot that amazed us. "Five-thousand Harleys," the representative at the visitor's center said proudly. They were on a "Poker Run," and all had checked in. Lined side by side, gleaming in the afternoon sun, stood five thousand motorcycles. My son made sure to capture this Kodak moment on film.

We--along with throngs of bikers--visited the Midnight Star Casino, owned by actor Kevin Costner. We wanted to view the many movie costumes displayed on the walls. Our favorite, from Costner's role as Robin Hood, was placed high above the mantle of an enormous fireplace, under which a group of bikers gathered around a large table. As we-- being the only people in the place interested in the costumes, not the beer--pushed closer for a better view, the bikers around the table stared at us strangely. "Sorry," I said, realizing we were pushing into their space. I didn't want to start a bar-room brawl. A large, bearded man at the table stared at us and then up at the costume. With a wide smile he turned back to us and said, "Cool costume, huh?" He then returned to his mug. As we left Deadwood I couldn't help but think that Calamity and Bill would have approved of these motorcycle renegades invading their town.

Once out of Deadwood the motorcycles became fewer and fewer. We passed bikers coming from the west, but the run for hotels lessened and we continued on to enjoy our vacation. We came away from our South Dakota experience with much more than a history of presidents and gunslingers. We experienced a completely different culture.

We learned that bikers are not as they appear. Sure, the leather and bandannas, long beards and sweat may look intimidating. But we never had any trouble at all from our biker companions. People smiled and said hello, they opened doors and said excuse me. On the road, bikers waved and honked at our children in passing. No one sneered at our van, no one laughed at our "family vacation." The bikers were just like us--on vacation and enjoying themselves.

One vacation memory in particular reminds us that life truly has no boundaries. As we waited at a gas station for my husband to pay, my children and I watched two young bikers come out of the adjoining restaurant. The first man walked out and hopped onto his cycle. The second followed, in a small wheelchair. He lifted himself out of the chair and onto his bike, folded up the wheelchair, placed it in the sidecar, strapped his legs to the footholds, and the two bikers took off together. "Wow," both children said, amazed. They were right. Wow.

Deanna Sletten lives with her family in Bemidji, Minnesota. Although she once contributed to Minnesota Parent on a regular basis, this story is her first for us in more than two years. She plans to buy a leather bikini with this long-awaited freelance check.

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