For those of you who may not be familiar with me or my photography, I look forward to introducing myself to you through this and future blog posts as part of my new relationship with Dennis Kirk. In recent years, Dennis Kirk developed their “Garage Build” program to support and encourage a new generation of amateur builders. They understand motorcycles are your passion and they know what it takes to get you everything you want and need. They also want to share the stories that have gotten us to where we are today, and to that end, they have invited me to share my 40+ year passion for custom bikes and motorcycle culture with you.
My own history with motorcycles goes loosely back to when I was a kid, even though I never did have my own bike. I rode friends’ bikes whenever there was an opportunity, and it was a friend’s mom that took me to see “Easy Rider” when it came out. (I wasn’t old enough in 1969 to get into the theater on my own!) Like many, I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the “moment” for me was when my good friend Grosvenor let me ride his 1947 Knucklehead chopper back in 1976.
Something changed when I took off down the road on that light, sexy, fast bike. I felt the wind in my face, every little bump and pothole through the light rigid frame, the power of the 74” engine, and in front of me was the oh so cool peanut tank and long springer front end. What an absolute blast to ride!
It was just before Halloween when Gros’ brother Van found me a good deal on a mildly customized 1971 Shovelhead in San Francisco. A perfectly timed whirlwind trip was planned, so Grosvenor and I headed west on the Rio Grande’s California Zephyr out of Denver, replete with its art deco “Vista Cars.” Van not only had the bike waiting, he also scored some very sought after tickets to the annual Hookers’ Ball fund raiser put on by Coyote (the sex workers’ rights organization) in the Cow Palace, with fantastic bands simultaneously playing in all 3-ballrooms. The memories are a bit fuzzy, as was my mind at the time, but I do remember it was the most amazing party I’d ever been to. With everyone in full costume, it took a moment for me to realize it really was the Stanford Marching Band in full regalia that marched by me as they played in the crowded hall. I also remember walking back to Van’s apartment by myself, half-lost and arriving as the sun was coming up.
After riding the Shovel back home with Grosvenor, I started taking photos of my new bike right away. Back in Colorado, I went to swap meets, bike shows and the infamous 2-Wheelers Steak Fry in the mountains. The more I went out and photographed, the more I heard about Sturgis, and the more I knew I had to get there. It became my Holy Grail, but was still a few years off. I made an attempt in 1978, but my bike wasn’t ready until a week after the event. I rode up anyway, was disappointed at never seeing a bike in Sturgis and so just kept riding north, up over the Canadian border and all the way across to Niagara Falls where I dropped down to New York.
Finally in 1979, with my Shovel ready, I headed through Nebraska (Wyoming’s helmet law wasn’t repealed until 1983) with a small group of guys from my hometown, Boulder, CO. Some friends left on Thursday to grab a good campsite and to be in the Hills for all of Friday, but most of the guys from the area, including me and the group I was with, just took Friday off to ride up. I was being drawn like a magnet to the epicenter of the bike world. Little could I imagine that I’d make this journey 40 more times over the next 40-years and that these trips to Sturgis would become such an important part of my life.
The goal was to get to Sturgis in time for the big party in City Park on the East side of town just off Lazelle. Most of us would camp right there on this City run property where they would charge us a few dollars a night to supposedly cover basic services. Calling these services “basic” may have been an overstatement, but they did include some portable toilets made from plywood. (This is a whole other story that I’ll get into in my Sturgis post on the 1980’s!)
While we arrived too late for me to see the lay of the land, we did pull in as the party was just getting into gear. Areas had already been staked out by riders identified with different towns, states, clubs and even models like that of the “Knucklehead Company.” I pitched a tent by the rest of the Boulder contingency, right next to a group from Pocatello, Idaho and near the Minnesota crew that included Donnie and Happy Smith of Smith Brothers & Fetrow fame.
It’s not like there were fancy RV’s and hookups in this campground. Pup tents were standard issue. As small and tight knit as the park was, you got to meet lots of characters from LA all the way to Laconia, and they were there with wonderful stories and interesting pasts. How can I forget the names like Animal, Bull, Half-breed, Big Mouse, Sunshine, Little Mouse, Fat Albert, Little Pete, Big Pete, Mr. Tramp, Schultz, and Magoo? The bikes were as characterful as their owners, whether they be the rare Brit or Japanese bike chopped in the style of the day, or as was mostly the case, Shovels, Pans, Knuckles and Flatheads. Obviously, Evo motors were still a few years away, but to better put this in perspective, consider that seeing a ’47 Knuckle in the park back then would be like going to Sturgis this summer and seeing a 31-year-old 1990 Evo. (Sorry, but no contest here!)
There was no pretense and no preconception about these bikes nor the riders. I photographed what I saw, etching the images and attitudes into my mind’s eye. With a camera as an introduction, I got to meet so many people and formed friendships that have continued to this day. We partied late into the night as campfires raged, bikes drag raced side-by-side down between the tents, there was mud wrestling in Bear Butte Creek and an impromptu wet-T competition on the roof of a school bus. Citizens lined Lazelle with binoculars while others lobbied City Hall to shut us down for the immoral behavior they believed was going on within its gates. For the most part, it was harmless, but that’s not to say there weren’t accidents and no one got hurt even if we did try to keep a lid on it. All the while knowing the City was looking for any excuse to shut us down.
Bikes revved through the night and as I was restless with my mind racing, I never could actually fall asleep. Perhaps I was just too excited about all there was to experience. Before I knew it, the sky started to get light and I was wandering around with my camera. (a Nikon with a 35mm lens and loaded with my standard Plux-X black and white film in case anyone is wondering.) One of the first things I saw was a prosthetic leg leaning against a Panhead chopper right near where I was camped. Its owner was neatly rolled into a moving blanket next to it and the early morning light streamed through the trees behind. I took just two frames, but then that’s how I shot back then as film wasn’t cheap and I had to process it all in stainless tanks when I got home to my darkroom. I could have never imagined that one of those two frames, the one I deemed the better angle and titled “Early Morning,” would go on to become my most known image 40-years later and that along the way, I would get to know the owner of that prosthetic leg, Ed Rieken.
It was later that morning that I got my first glimpse of Main Street with bikes parked in four neat rows under the brilliant South Dakota sun. It was a dazzling array of chrome and enamel as far as the eye could see. Like any other newbie, “Wow” was written across my face. I had never seen anything like it before. Naturally, that “Wow” means something different to each of us, and so for me, it was that Sturgis was bigger than what was before me. It’s not a town; it is a phenomenon and a feeling inside. It was my destination, but it also represented the entire journey, and all that motorcycling is.
One thing I didn’t realize until years later was that the sidewalk venders hawking all the t-shirts and trinkets we have grown accustomed to seeing were simply not there. There wasn’t much more available beyond the official t-shirt sold in the rally headquarters on the corner of Main and Junction, but I did see someone wearing a shirt that said, “To Hell with the Races, I came to Party – Sturgis ’79.” (It seems so trite today, but I had never seen it before.) I was told I could get my own from a woman sitting in a booth in the very back of the Oasis bar, which is exactly what I did.
Yes, there were organized events like sanctioned tours of the hills, flat track racing, and a hill climb put on by the same Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club that founded the rally around racing in 1938. I actually went to the hillclimbs, but for the most part, I was in Sturgis with like-minded people to ride the hills, share two-wheeled tales over a drink, or to head out of town to catch grudge racing on Highway 79 near Bear Butte.
Speaking of Bear Butte, the spectacular landmark rising up 4,426 feet from the plains just 6-miles northeast of Sturgis, this site is known to the Lakota Sioux as “Mato Paha” or “Sacred Mountain,” a much more appropriate name as it isn’t a flat-topped butte at all and it acknowledges how special the place is. Native Americans continue to visit the site to fast and pray, for their “Vision Quests” and to tie their prayer cloths into the trees along its slopes. Many bikers realize how special it is as well, making annual treks to the top and planning weddings along its slopes. In fact, many bikers realize what the Lakota Sioux have known for thousands of years; that the entire Black Hills (“Paha Sapa”) are a place of extraordinary spiritual power. They’re drawn back to them year after year, to ride the beautiful windy roads, breath in the fresh pine scented air and to experience the sense of renewal that comes with it. I can vouch there’s nothing else quite like it, and it is what pulls me back year after year, always seeing new things, experiencing new adventures, and learning something new about myself along the way.
The images in this post are from my “Limited Edition” print series available through my website or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org