As I exit my camper to the sound of motorcycles, ATVs, and camouflage-covered golf carts rumbling down dirt roads, I realize it’s taken a trip to see the 79th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to really appreciate a homegrown American festival. Living in New York City has given me a jaded view of celebrations. After all, it’s hard to feel a sense of pride when a block full of gyro carts and folding tables laden with cheap jewelry qualifies as an authentic street festival experience here.
But this is not the big city. This is Sturgis Buffalo Chip, a South Dakota campground surrounded by the state’s famed Black Hills, and located about five miles from the town of Sturgis. For 10 days in August, this patch of land plays host to one of America’s biggest parties. So what compels an estimated 500,000 attendees to descend upon a town of just under 7,000 residents every year? As I discovered, from the region’s rugged history to the joys of riding on the open road, a festival in the middle of nowhere is actually the only place visitors really feel at home.
Welcome to Deadwood: It’s Actually Pretty Lively
Strolling the streets of Deadwood, S.D., I take comfort in knowing the town’s rebellious nature is alive and well, at least for the next week. Though Wild Bill Hickok and his assassin Jack McCall are long gone, the streets are still filled with characters that even HBO might not be able to conjure up.
“The Hamsters wear yellow,” advises a giant of a man who sits down next to me at the Historic Franklin Hotel. He’s giving me a rundown of the Hamsters Motorcycle Club, among other groups that make the annual pilgrimage to Sturgis. It’s a great conversation that I’m enjoying because I rarely get the chance to genuinely connect with strangers. Perhaps it’s the sight of rock star Dee Snider and actor Tom Berenger who are heading up the annual Legends Ride that has everyone feeling talkative.
More than likely, it’s the fact that for 79 years, bikers have been coming to race, ride, and feel a sense of community. And they’re happy to share their annual celebration with anyone who respects tradition.
Indian Fry Bread Tacos, Cheeseburger Burritos, and Gluten-Free Doughnuts
Letting loose with my diet is the one activity in which I’ve got a lot of experience. That’s why I’m on a mission to find out what people eat when they want to party for a week straight. After attending New York City food festivals such as Smorgasburg, I’ve grown accustomed to ordering anything I can dream up.
But Buffalo Chip is full of surprises too, and a sign that advertises Indian fry bread tacos captures my attention. Fry bread is one of the few foods I can’t find back home in a city that claims to offer everything. And when I devour the chewy dough covered in spicy jalapeños, salsa, and cheese, I feel confident knowing my stomach will be well protected for the rum and coke to come.
The Sweeto Burrito truck is next on my bucket list as I head into town. According to South Dakota’s Department of Transportation, approximately 499,654 vehicles were recorded as having visited Sturgis this year, but this might be the one that attracts the most visitors.
For less than $10, I snag a burrito that’s stuffed with hamburger, bacon, fries, American cheese, and fry sauce, a ketchup and mayo mixture with some heat. The late lunch turns into an immediate nap back home, which makes me curious to see if slightly healthier options have made their way into the heartland.
I learn the following day while searching for lunch at Bonafide Foods that at least there are gluten-free doughnuts and a juice bar, but I wind up ordering a chicken burrito covered in queso. After all, there’s plenty of time to get my diet back on track once the party is over.
Cold Drinks, Happy Bartenders, and Big Sales
“The fact that the entire 640 acres of the Buffalo Chip is a bar, which allows guests to wander with their beer or cocktail, is a big part of the festival,” notes Rod Woodruff, president of Sturgis Buffalo Chip.
Whether it’s the fresh air or the possibility that a bartender can make a killing over 10 days, the camaraderie among staff here is evident. A shirtless barback who can be seen smashing bags of ice throughout the night remarks what a great workout this is. He’s clearly making the most of the gig. “After two weeks of working long hours and camping together, you form friendships that last a lifetime,” notes Ashley Thomas, the West Coast brand ambassador for Sailor Jerry rum who previously bartended at Buffalo Chip.
Though you might have pegged Fleet Week as Sailor Jerry’s Super Bowl, it’s actually Sturgis that represents the brand’s biggest event of the year. “By the end of the festival we are expecting 40,000 drinks sold and over 200 cases sold,” says Thomas. The rum maker has already sold 20,000 cocktails through the halfway point of the festival and took advantage of the massive turnout to introduce consumers to its latest product, a spiced rum called Savage Apple.
But at the end of the day, sales are only part of the story. The mixture of musical acts and heavy machinery are really what has carried this tradition over to the next generation of rally attendees. Woodruff asks, “Where else do bikers arrive early in the morning to park their bikes along the front of the stage so they can rev their engines in appreciation of performances?”
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