While strolling along Main Street in Sturgis last year, it hit me: there is no difference between the nearly quarter-million riders at the granddaddy of bike rallies and the few hundred who congregate at events like Slab City. They are the same folks, merely in different plumage. The Sturgis biker crowd prefers shiny baggers, ‘do rags and an almost complete lack of personal fitness. On the other hand, bikeriders at Slab City choose oily old bikes that periodically break down, retro metal flake helmets and fit bodies hidden by copious layers of dirty flannel. Folks in each group happy assimilate to those around them. They are clones. One look at either side’s events proves this by countless people donning near identical clothing, tattoos and bikes. Any standouts are seen as outsiders and usually treated as such.
But hey, exclusion of those who are different is human nature. Monkeys do it too. In all this rigmarole a simple truth has been lost: any event is what you make out of it. Crappy folks need to be waded through to find the good ones. It is up to us to find them. And once discovered, there is fun to be had that bridges taste and viewpoint. I witnessed this years back at the Broken Spoke Saloon in Sturgis. Outside the bar was one of those old-time contraptions where a large hammer is used to drive a metal puck up a tower in hopes of hitting a bell. It is a device rubes use to validate themselves by proving to others just how strong they are. As we sat at a picnic table drinking beer, two guys in leathers and rainbow lens wraparound sunglasses appeared. Ready and willing to exhibit their brawn, they talked a bunch then each tried smashing the striker with all their muscle. Both failed.
They began blaming the machine and everything else their inebriated minds could conjure as a possible scapegoat. JD King—a lanky fellow who soaking wet and tethered to a sack of depleted uranium might weight 130 pounds—quietly watched the event unfold. After the drunken bikers ran out of energy and excuses, JD stepped into the sea of onlookers. Among the Sturgis crowd JD appeared like a man suddenly transported through a wormhole from 1974. Through the hecklers could be heard, “No way that skinny bastard’ll do it!”
Paying no attention to their scoffing, JD lofted the hammer and let it fly. It was immediately clear that he knew what the other men did not: Strength did not ring the striker, but speed of the hammer. It was about momentum. The hammer streaked through the air as it moved towards the impact pad. A thunderous clang! erupted as it made contact with the lever, catapulting the puck skyward. It was a sight to behold. The lanky and quiet man in bell-bottom pants garnered the attention of the entire bar. While the bell did not technically ring, it did not matter. The blow was strong enough and the puck close enough that folks cheered, patted him on the back and offered to buy him a beer. Everyone from our table jumped up to join the celebration. Gilby Clarke happily shuffled around on a gimp leg near a chubby biker in a denim Sturgis shirt. Our friend Grant smiled above the navy blue handkerchief tied neatly about his neck as a toothless old biker spilled his beer in all the excitement.
And there it was. The Jets and the Sharks united. Boundaries evaporated, and for a brief moment we all stood together celebrating a scrawny guy’s victory over a carnival contraption. On our ride home we stopped at a convenience store in Wyoming that likely saw few folks beyond locals. It was overrun with bikers returning home from a week of burnouts and tired rock n’ roll shows. While waiting to fill up my bike, a dude on a Harley slid in front of me and took the pump as the last guy finished. He was a beast of a man with a tough guy appearance obviously honed over years of riding. His jacket proudly exhibited a patch, something about Satan, or Killer or Bandit. Countless others wearing the patch spread around the lot and piled into the store. To myself I thought, “what a douche bag,” then quietly pushed my bike to another pump.