The basic tenets of Islam are pretty simple; there are just five of them. Perhaps the most demanding is the last of the five, the Hajj. It involves a pilgrimage to Mecca that is to be conducted at least once in a lifetime if the person is financially and physically able. Perhaps because of its rigors, it has been estimated that about 10 percent of American Muslims make the trip during their lives. The figure is almost the same for Malaysians, where the challenges may be comparable.
What's in Mecca? It was the birthplace of Muhammad, the prophet, and is the location where God's revelations to Muhammad resulted in the Qur'an. Mecca also contains the Ka'aba, a large stone cube that is essentially a monument to monotheism and Muslim identity. It may have been built by Abraham. All of this makes Mecca the holiest site in Islam.
Not to be outdone by a great world religion, bikers have their equivalent -- it's called Sturgis. Sturgis is a small tourist town on the northeast edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's right on I-90, so you can't miss it. Sturgis is just one of several locations where motorcyclists gather in large numbers to celebrate life, bond with each other, make noise, pee on each other's bikes, and perform a variety of bewildering rituals. There's some mud and Jell-O, and there's even a bit of riding. Unlike in Mecca, alcohol and other recreational drugs flow freely, so Sturgis offers a very different kind of
We have two versions of Sturgis here in the northeast, Americade in early June in Lake George, New York, and Bike Week in Laconia, New Hampshire. The later is going on as I write. Hundreds of motorcycles have been heading east on Route 9 this week, and, in a couple of days, that same river will flow back west. In spite of a lot of water and aspirin, more than a few heads will still be spinning on the return trip.
In my view, all other motorcycle gatherings pale compared to Sturgis. For starters, it's in the middle of nowhere (sorry, South Dakota), so only true believers make the journey. And journey they do -- in 2010, about 7 percent of all registered motorcycles in America rolled on in (visitation statistics are a bit squishy). I've never been to the event, but I've been to the town several times, most recently to get a front tire on my way back from Montana. It's not a big place, but the motorcycle amenities extend for a few miles outside the town. There are more biker bars per block than any other place I've seen. The Full Throttle Saloon, Knuckle Saloon, and Loud American Roadhouse are typical of the watering holes where you can hang out with your "affinity group." Then you can bed down next to your bike at The Buffalo Chip or at Hog Heaven. Bed down? A lot of people don't sleep for several days. A variety of meaningful revelations can ensue.
I have a friend who decided he "had to experience it just once." So he and his wife and their two sons climbed on their four bikes -- he was pulling a trailer - and headed west. They did it, there and back, in two weeks. His only comment was that it was "all about noise." Maybe he's just getting a little grumpy as he ages.
I love riding in the West, and there are nothing but great rides around Sturgis. Every road, paved or not, flows majestically and intimately through beautiful country. One common trip involves finding your way to Wyoming 24 and then, like a lot of other people who wanted a Close Encounter of a different kind, cruising west to Devils Tower National Monument. It really is an impressive monolith, with or without space aliens. But there's no need to go to Wyoming: all the riding is great in the Black Hills and nearby Badlands, and even some beautiful grasslands are also within reach. In a sense, the area is situated about where the Rockies are trying to decide whether to quit and the Great Plains are thinking about taking over. It's a world in transition.
I'm pretty sure that I'll never get to Sturgis when it's given over to bikers in early August. It was dead when I was last there in June. For that matter, I've never been to a motorcycle rally of any kind. Once I thought about joining the "Frosty Nuts" in April for an overnight in Jamaica State Park, and there is a little event in Bennington I've wondered about. It's not that I'm antisocial, I just prefer to ride alone. But there's also the "large party effect" where older people have problems following conversations.
Recently, I was asked if I were a biker or a birder. Well, both, and maybe even a little more. It is interesting that the motorcycle stereotype is still as strong as it is, but I think it's even stronger among motorcyclists themselves. I don't get return waves from most Harley riders these days. They appear to have largely given up on "rice burners" and beemers, and I have yet to see one wearing a hi-viz jacket. Basic black seems to provide all the conspicuity most of these riders need. Well fine, they must have bigger first-aid kits than I do. I'll just have a microbrew by myself and see if that really was a red-headed woodpecker yonder past the Buffalo Chip. Older chips make a tolerable campfire, by the way.
Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.