About This Festival
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may be one of the most misunderstood festivals in the world. Yes, it's a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, many looking like they would be at home on stage with ZZ Top. Yes, this is a rural Podunk town nestled in the Black Hills representing some of the most desolate and beautiful prairie in the world. And, yes, your ears will get a workout (Harleys are not quiet) and your stomach will grow a couple of inches (lots of beer).
But beyond the beer, biker babes, and bikini bike washes (don't you just love the pictures?), there's a sociological ritual going on that tells you quite a bit about the United States. Sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the phrase "collective effervescence" to describe why pilgrimages exist. People take a journey to what they consider a sacred place as a means of connecting with some communal nectar that will help to make their everyday secular life all the more special. When you wear this lens to observe the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, you recognize that this marathon of myth and merriment is more than a party. It represents a longing for freedom, independence, and rugged individualism. Their hog (slang for Harley) is the symbol of their originality and their liberty. You're likely to see as many tattooed American eagles on aging biceps as you will see Harley logos. You know it's a pilgrimage when you hear someone erupt and break into tears, "I finally made it to Sturgis!"
Something For Everyone at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Yet, just like it's inaccurate to say Burning Man is full of naked people on ecstasy, Sturgis is more complex than being a Hell's Angels convention on the open prairie. You may meet the fifty-something accountant from southern France who has a baguette sticking out of his backpack. You'll meet all kinds of families who love the free pancake breakfasts, the wide variety of entertainment, and the ability to do a summer camping expedition near where Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and General Custer spent some time. You may meet a few politicians as U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain stumped here with his family in 2008. There are hill climbs, drag races, and even big-time concerts in nearby Rapid City.
This all started in 1938 when nine members of the local Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club raced through town. Now, Sturgis—with a population just over 6,000—hosts nearly a half-million people during this summer event. The size of the event crested a decade ago and some suggest Sturgis' better days may be behind it. But, don't say that to the enthusiasts who've come here to marvel at the rebuilt Harleys, the futuristic space-age two-wheeled inventions, and more motorcycle gear and paraphernalia than you've ever seen in your life.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Rituals
Any pilgrimage is going to have a certain number of rituals. The most common one is doing a "ride-through" the main street of Sturgis. This street is blocked for all traffic but motorcycles and pedestrians so people drive slowly down the street casually looking for a place to park their bike amongst the others that are four thick at the curb. Then, they'll hang a U-turn and drive the opposite direction down the strip. It's a beauty pageant with Main Street as the catwalk as the riders show off.
Because Sturgis can handle only so many people, the real action happens in the various camping venues. That's where you build the bonds of connection, and it's also where you'll witness some serious bravado. There's a clear-cut distinction between those who "made the ride" and those who shipped their bike to Sturgis or just came for the festivities. The director of the Sturgis rally estimated that half the attendees actually rode there. The two most prevalent questions you'll hear are "Where are you from?" and "Did you ride here?" with kudos being given to those who made the longest ride. And, yes, if you talk to those who go annually, they'll tell you that the best experience (true in many parts of our life) was the journey not the arrival. But, beyond the bravado, there's a deep sense of community at Sturgis and, whether you're a motorcycle maniac or not, just showing up means that you're now part of the extended family. As disparate as the Sturgis libertarians may be, there's a strong sense of belonging.