I had never seen more old naked people in all my 18 years. Most of them were riding motorcycles. All of them were drinking beer.
It was the summer of 1997, the brief period of time between my senior year and the start of college. My buddy Greg’s dad, Rich, had driven his Harley out to Sturgis for bike week. Shortly after arriving, while navigating a muddy campground, his bike slid out from underneath him and the resulting crash broke his leg.
A few hours after the accident and 900 miles to the east, the phone rang at my house. I walked to the island in our kitchen to retrieve the handset off the wall as a mound of phone cord untangled itself on the counter top. It was Greg.
“Hey, my Dad broke his leg out in Sturgis and needs a ride home. Wanna go with me out there to get him?”
I didn’t have to think long. My next shift at the grocery store wasn’t for a few days, and I had just gotten a paycheck. At 18, you can get a lot done with $67 and a few free days.
“I’m in. When do we leave?”
The trip may have been my longest car ride to date…certainly the longest road trip I’d ever done without parents. Thirteen hours from Ottawa to Sturgis and we hammered it out in one day taking turns at the wheel. The Badlands were the most impressive scenery along the journey that I’d ever seen, hulking rifts of raw earth eternally exposed to the elements.
Rich’s leg had been set and put in a cast at the local hospital before he was taken back to his campsite where he waited for us. It was late afternoon when Greg and I rolled into Sturgis in his mom’s turquoise Chevy Beretta. Black, chrome, and thunder swarmed around us on the roads as we drove around looking for the campsite (Back then, maps were printed on paper, and you had to plot your own route.) The sense that we were out of place was only going to worsen.
We finally found the campground. A sign marked the gravel drive leading up to a sprawling open space of muddy grass on the side of a rolling ridge. Nothing there was flat, nor dry. Nor was there any signage among the thousands of tents and RVs delineating campsites. Positive we possessed the only car within miles and after a few close calls of the front wheel drive struggling with the mud, we decided to park the Beretta and find Rich on foot.
Clad in cargo shorts and neutral colored T-shirts, we stepped out of our ride and were immediately met with irate shouting.
“If you boys spin out and get mud on my tent I’ll kill you! You watch it now!”
We turned to see a large leather-clad man sitting in a lawn chair holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I had never believed anyone more implicitly than I did that guy. In a low but urgent voice I told Greg, “We need to find your dad quick.”
We found Rich hanging out at his tent located about 80 yards from the campground’s entertainment stage. Over the next few nights that we stayed there I learned why they put chain link up in front of the band as a female “vocalist” ran flat and pitchy through countless southern rock anthems. Imagine a woman version of Sling Blade performing “Sweet Home Alabama” until two in the morning. For a kid from a farm town in Illinois, Sturgis was a completely new frontier.
Twenty years later, despite the copious wrinkly tan bare skin I was exposed to, I look back on that time and recognize the importance of saying “Yes” to adventure. To this day it’s shaped the way I respond to opportunity. There are times when I’m not full prepared, or even willing to set out, but I’m rarely disappointed by jumping in. It seems that way with most things in life. If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be too late. Kids. A job. Faith. A hunt. Life is short and there’s never a perfect time.
After a few days of soaking in the culture, the three of us headed back to Illinois. Like countless travelers before us, we stopped at Wall Drug, ate a cafeteria style meal, saw a large rabbit, and walked through a gift shop that would dwarf a Walmart. Ambling through the trinkets and tourists, Greg pronounced in an inappropriately loud voice, “All I see here is Wall Crap.” He didn’t mean to say it that loud, but it stopped most people in their tracks and caused them to crane their necks in our direction. We left quickly without buying anything.
I guess if there’s a secondary lesson from our Sturgis adventure, it would be to just say no to Wall Drug.