For one week each summer, they create a noisy pop-up city unlike any other and as the nation closes in on midterm elections, they lay bare America’s political divides.
While the modern-day biker tribe is vast and varied, containing more middle-aged couples than brawling outlaws, one can go hours — or days — without seeing a person of color in the crowds here at one of the world’s largest biker rallies.
In Sturgis, the definition of diversity is a white guy on a foreign bike.
The shooting ranges and bikini contests operate free from debate over gun control and #MeToo. And while other parts of the country agonize over his tumultuous presidency, the leader of this pack is Donald Trump.
“I like what Trump’s doing but it seems like Congress and stuff is kinda’ fightin’ him,” John Sands tells me through a full-face skull mask. The postal worker rides up from Kentucky each year, dressed in skeleton garb, posing for pictures with a bony middle finger raised for comedic effect. “I think (Congress) should have some term limits,” he says. “Two, maybe four years.” Not allowing incumbents to run for re-election time after time would end the phenomenon of career politicians, he adds.
This is not the first time or place where perception trumps data, but while America wrestles with stagnant wages, spiraling health costs and income inequality, many here see the giant crowds as an indicator of booming consumer confidence.
“We got really a lot of people that are in private business and industry that camp here and what they’ll tell you is that it’s the Trump bump,” says Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip, a sprawling complex of campgrounds, bars and concert stages. “The economy is so good and people are feeling so good.”
He says his average camper makes $95,000 a year, owns his own home and more than one motorcycle. In a coveted section of luxury motor homes behind the Wolfman Jack stage, there are no signs of the much-analyzed “economic anxiety” that impacted the 2016 election, only utter devotion to President Trump.
“I personally love the man,” says James Bakalich, a Harley parts dealer from Florida. “I think he’s doing a wonderful job.” When I bring up the red flags and storm clouds of Russia’s attack on the election and the ongoing Mueller investigation, Mark Halvorson shrugs.
“They’re picking on him because he’s from the outside. If you look at the Clintons, how come they can do things and no one else can?” As he shows off his “Trump 2020” tattoo, Halvorson even pledges his allegiance to Trump over the holiest of brand names in Sturgis; Harley-Davidson.
Despite a massive tax break spent on stock buy-backs, Harley-Davidson blames the realities of global manufacturing and the President’s steel and aluminum tariffs for the move, but if forced to pick sides, Halvorson doesn’t hesitate. “I’m going to have to go with what’s going to make America better,” he says. “If Harley wants to choose to go somewhere else, then I’ll choose to buy different bikes.”
For a crowd this large and unapologetically rowdy, violence is rare at the Sturgis rally and over eight days, arrests typically number only in the dozens. One reason is that most folks here share the same values. Another reason is that those that don’t keep it to themselves.
“What I see here in motorcycling is a microcosm for the whole country,” renowned motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter tells me, surrounded by a museum-quality exhibit of custom bikes he curated for the Buffalo Chip. “I get the feeling sometimes that people that don’t believe in what’s going on is right can become very quiet.”
His views on the Second Amendment and environmental protection vary from the masses here but he worries that strains of patriotism and nationalism make it difficult to raise a debate in this particular tribe.
“I feel like this could be coming from the top,” he says. “That theory that you must be patriotic, do this, support this and you’re unpatriotic if you don’t. I don’t agree with that. And a lot of the younger people don’t either.”
“There are still some men who don’t like the idea of women riding big motorcycles,” Staci Wilt tells me, her Harley still ticking from her long ride from Colorado. “But most guys have accepted us. We’ve come a long way.”
She is part of a group of five self-proclaimed “gypsies” making the trek: young women who are part of a small but steady revolution in a pastime dominated by men at the handlebars with their ladies behind. One member expresses a fondness for Hilary Clinton, but won’t say so when the camera is rolling, and another groans when I bring up the topic of Trump.
“Because I’m a small business owner, I tend to keep my mouth shut about politics,” Mich George says. She runs Moto F.A.M., a nonprofit devoted to helping injured motorcycle riders through the generosity of strangers. “I feel like there’s so much hypocrisy going on in the country right now because everybody wants freedom and everybody wants rights but God forbid someone disagrees with you,” she says. “Because you’ll get your head bitten off.”
Standing at the corner of Main Street and Harley-Davidson Boulevard, I get a good-natured taste of just that. After spying my CNN T-shirt, Carson Davis, a self-proclaimed Fox News fan from Texas, begins heckling. “You are fake news!” he yells with a grin. “Just ask our lord and savior Donald Trump!”
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Bonnie from Nebraska pipes up in my defense. “I watch both. It’s too important not to know what’s really going on. I have a friend who’s very much Fox News and I go ‘Mmm-hmm. Yep. I agree with you. No problem.'” She leans in. “Everybody has their own opinion. They’re like a**holes, everyone has one.”
Just then, the impromptu sidewalk debate is interrupted by a true American hero falling from the sky. Sgt. Dana Bowman, a former Army Golden Knight who lost both legs in a midair collision lands on his prosthesis in the middle of the intersection, towing a giant American flag.
The crowd cheers, the anthem begins and for one sweet moment it feels like we’re all in this together.