I don’t know if I would ever have chosen to drop by the huge motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. But Mark was going, and I went along for the ride.
Even three hundred miles away, you could tell something was going on. There were bikes roaring down the highways. Rest areas were populated by more than the usual scattering of bikers. Bars, motels, and small town had posted, “Welcome Bikers!” Usually, by blocky, hand-lettered signs.
As we drove into the Black Hills, all this got thicker, especially the jet and chrome machines on the roads. Harleys were parked for blocks solid on the streets of Lead and Deadwood, more than a dozen miles from Sturgis. Traffic slowed to a crawl. Finally, we pulled into Sturgis proper, and stopped at a convenience store.
It was thronged with bikers. Here’s this one at the checkout stand. Long, blonde-brown hair in a ponytail all the way down his back, bound by over half a dozen hair ties, like black rungs on a tawny ladder. His beard’s the same color, sprinkled by golden highlights. Every follicle sprouts free, fulfilling its destiny. The fur of his beard rides high up his cheekbones.
Soon he’s gone, roaring off with his woman “riding bitch” behind him (that’s a technical term, no Politically Correct argument applies here). Another greets my eye, dark like a thundercloud. Same full beard and a handsome weatherbeaten face. There are more; blonde, gray, all varieties.
Where do they keep these men the rest of the year? I guess it’s no secret I like the looks of ’em! What I’d ever do with one I don’t know!
We were going to meet up with Finn, a friend I already knew, though Mark had only met him by Internet. We picked our way out of town and found the campground where we’d arranged to rendezvous. Mark thought 11 am. I remembered him saying 11:30. Along about 11:15, here comes a nice Harley, creeping out the gate, a big huge-bearded man in black leathers driving, and Finn riding bitch.
We made introductions all around. The driver, Pete, led us to their spot through what seemed like miles of debauched biker camps. Fences were so encrusted with empty beer cans crushed onto them, as a sort of rustic decoration, you couldn’t see the wire. We ran “the gauntlet” (main drag). It was festooned with every variation of “show your tits!” signs imaginable; “official inspection station”, whatever.
“I keep pulling up my shirt,” said Pete, “But they aren’t interested!”
Pete and Finn were camped with two other guys, Mickey and Roy. “Is this the Gay Biker contingent?” I asked.
“This is about the size of it,” said Mickey.
Rain was coming on, so we battened down the awnings and spent a couple hours visiting. Mickey was a handsome red-bearded man, full of stories and vinegar. I was impressed. He sounded like he’d been everywhere, and done it in style. He didn’t swagger or brag in his tone, but took us along for the ride. I liked his company.
The tales moved on to an encounter with the cops the night before. Our friends had been nervous, as they were carrying a bit of this and a bit of that. But the police just passed a friendly word, and went their way.
“I’m glad they didn’t ask us to walk a straight line,” said Mickey, “I can’t do that, even when I’m sober. I’ve got a note from my doctor, saying so.”
He’d pulled the folded paper from his wallet and laid it on the table. To pass the time, as the conversation wound this way and that, I picked up the note to see what it said.
“Mickey Dorn, blah de blah blah, has suffered myleo-patho whatever to the first cranio something nerve due to acute Cytomegalo virus episodes…”
“Yeah,” said Mickey, “The cops can’t make out what it means either, so they just let me go.”
There was lots more. I was undergoing a major revision to my image of Mickey. I couldn’t follow every word, but I got the gist. This rough and rowdy man, who seemed tough as a fist, had been at death’s door with AIDS. Like, major! And lots of times. Compassion blossomed in my heart. To ride all the way here from Santa Barbara, never knowing when the disease might pull the rug out from under. I was more impressed than ever.
The rain slacked off. We went into town to get a look around. Parking was not too impossible, a few blocks off Main Street. I learned many interesting things about Sturgis.
I’d casually noticed that signs displaying the names of stores and business were lettered onto something like vinyl tarp, held in place by ropes through grommets. The boys pointed out one of the major bike paraphernalia shops. “The rest of the year, that’s a grocery store. For the rally, they move everything out. The food, the shelves. It becomes a biker store.”
“And that tattoo parlor we were in yesterday. What’d they say it was the rest of the year?” Finn asked.
“A dentist’s office.”
The streets were packed, despite the light drizzle of rain. We wound in and out of shops selling keilbasas, T-shirts, leather. I bought a bandana. A souvenir; but something I’d actually use, too. It was black, and pictured skeletons, somewhat in the style of the Mexican Day of the Dead, partying among their tombstones. A witty detail was a skeleton dog lurking by, carrying a skeleton hand.
I thought that was probably not too far off for Sturgis. The other fifty-one weeks of the year, it’s pretty much a ghost town. The half dozen motorcycle dealerships, doing business full blast, may be sleepy Napa auto parts houses, or gone. “Yeah, a lot of these storefronts stand empty the rest of the year,” Pete told us.
Main Street was closed off to all traffic other than motorbikes. Harleys lined it solid for blocks, angle-parked to the curb, and in double lines down the middle. There was every style; basic black, chopped, painted to flames or tiger stripes. It was hard to pay attention. I was easily distracted by masculine eye candy.
We passed burrito shops, not tent-sided booths as you’d see at a crafts fair, but full on restaurants. We went into a veritable mall of biker-serving businesses, handling everything from tattoos, to leather jackets, to piercings, to those tie-on headpieces you use to keep your long hair from tangling in the wind. We walked beneath the awning where the WebCam was mounted, feeding out to the world, at one frame per minute, images of this slightly dampened spectacle.
This rally was in it’s fifty-ninth year. It started in 1940, but had only gotten really big in the ’80’s. Another big one happens in Florida, in the spring. “The Florida on is nice,” said Pete, “But I live in Indiana. I can’t depend on the weather that time of year, to ride there and back. And I like to ride it.”
“Sturgis happens in the summer. And it’s such a beautiful area. So many places to go and things to do.”
“1999 was kind of a lull, from a bigger crowd in ’98. A lot of people are waiting for the 60th, in 2000.” Sturgis, watch out!
Finally, we’d seen it all, and headed back to camp. The rain had quit, but it continued cool and gray. The weather had really subdued the activity in camp, the boys told us, compared to previous days.
“Yeah, it was hot, like a hundred degrees. Men were running around with their shirts off. Women were topless too. People were fucking right on their motor bikes.
“Last night, they were doing the drag races right over there. You got a rhythm figured out. You’d hear the revv, and whatever words were coming out your mouth, you’d just hold that thought till the race was over.”
Less than twenty four hours later, I was at a very different kind of gathering. United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming holds their annual campout, called Rendezvous, in the National Forest near Laramie. I just had to go, to find out what sort of ilk populated Wyoming.
Some things were as I expected. Whereas, in Sturgis, the men were red-hot but out of the question, at Rendezvous, they were probably available but about as sexually enticing as calamari. On the last evening, I spotted a few bearded guys I hadn’t seen before. Interesting. They had on different colored armbands. They weren’t meeting anybody’s eyes. Wouldn’t you know it, they were setting up for the dance. They were in the band.
Still, it was a good time. Louella and Diane, the drag queens MC-ing the no-talent show my first night there, were hilarious. They came across as real people, and clearly liked each other. Most gay events, the drag seems obligatory; wooden lip-sync from bored faces. Here, Diane even sang with her own voice, and she was good.
“Ladies and gentlemen, The Holdens!” A striking grey-haired man took the stage, along with his teen-age son. They did a few songs through the evening. A small wiry woman gave us a comedy routine, Billy-Bob teeth as part of her shtick. The crew from the bar in Fort Collins got up, dressed as nuns, their own local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
In between, our hostesses livened the atmosphere by their own performances. Each time, of course, in a different gown. Louella deftly shuffled dirty jokes and tearjerkers, delivering both with perfect flair. She bounced right back after, in the middle of her most torrid torch song, the generator died.
Soon their husbands had power restored. “And now Rick Shory, with song and story. Hey, it rhymes!” Louella quipped.
I had drifted into the tent after talent night was already underway. When they announced that they were still scheduling slots, even as the show was going on, I got to thinking. What the fuck. Nobody here knows me. I’m never going to see any of them again. Why don’t I just get up and do something!
Of course, after my name was actually on the little yellow piece of paper, my lassitude was replaced by a healthy dose of performance anxiety. Now came the moment of truth. My big black workboots trod on the stack of two-by-eights, which served as a step up onto the flatbed trailer, which served as a stage. The same step Louella and Diane had twinkled up and down half a dozen times so far. They made it look so easy!
Now I was at the mike. “How does this work?” I said. Oh. It was on!
“I’ve been working for the Forest Service,” I began. I told about travelling around last summer, doing our surveys in the woods. I told about Cory, “A little cowboy from Kansas.”
“We ended up working on the same team together,” I continued. “After we found out each other was gay, we had a real good time!” When the chuckles had died down, “… commiserating about our boyfriends, and how much we missed ’em back in the city.”
“Well, Cory’s in Portland this year, closer to his guy. I’m working down in Colorado. This song comes to mind a lot. It was sort of Cory’s and my theme song.”
And then, as best I could, I sang “Someday Soon”, that song with the lines “There’s a young man that I know … he comes from down in southern Colorado…” I tried to make it rich and sultry, as it always had sounded when Cory and I sang it in the rig. Somehow it didn’t come out the same. My voice quavering like a loose needle on an old phonograph. But a good portion of the audience was smiling and nodding. They got me through.
Next morning, when I was having some breakfast at the picnic tables outside the main tent, a couple of guys complemented me. “I liked your song. And that gruff voice. The butchest voice at the Rendezvous!”
So that’s what I sound like when I’m scared. Maybe I ought to stay scared all the time!
The Rendezvous was in a beautiful setting. Swatches of Ponderosa Pine woods gave way to meadows and rolling open land sprinkled in tiny flowers. There was a clear, shallow lake, though nobody else but me ever seemed to swim in it. Set about like small hills were mounds of stones stacked on top of each other. It was like a more softly sculpted version of the Wonderland of Rocks in Joshua Tree the rock climbers love to swarm over.
I went on long hikes, and took it easy. It was what I needed, after the bustle of Sturgis, and marathon driving. I was there alone, as Mark needed to get back for work at the ranch. I looked at the displays, but was discouraged from buying anything by the already hefty bulk and weight of my backpack. Who knows how far I’d have to lug it? I allowed myself to be roped into volleyball games, and got too much sun, and dallied in some free two-step dance lessons.
One of the unreal dimensions of Rendezvous was that this was the eye of the hurricane. Before coming down to the Rockies, I of course had heard of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard. Another horrible gay murder out there. Blah, blah, like I live with every day.
Well, being here, it was getting through to me that that murder had happened in an actual place, and that place was here. People I met at Rendezvous had known Matthew Shepard. “He was a nice guy. Very open about being gay.”
Sometimes, I looked around at the crowd, all the men and women in their plain ordinaryness and diversity. And I thought, it could have been any one of us. Any one. I decided it was not so cloying, the tight attentiveness the sweet little old ladies working the gate gave, to see that everyone coming in had their bright green wristband.
As I was leaving at the end of the weekend, the guy I was getting a ride with down to Fort Collins pointed north of I-80. I looked across the fields and beginning scatters of suburban sprawl on the east edge of Laramie. “Over there’s the fence Matthew was tied to,” he said.
It could’ve been any one of us. Any one.