Cross-country: Founders in the rearview

Campaign 2010

When launching this cross-country tour one week ago, I didn't realize I would be receiving unsolicited motorcycle escorts.

But that is just what happened along the highways leading to South Dakota: the roar of Harley-Davison engines ran roughshod over my overmatched Toyota Camry.

The packs of motorcyclists weaved in and out of traffic heading West. Bikers took over the Badlands and the Black Hills with Monday's start of the 70th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

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The six-day event is expected to draw between 500,000 to 750,000 people. Yes, 750,000 people, nearly doubling South Dakota's population of 800,000. This army of bikers means the world's largest motorcycle rally is overtaking this normally quiet town of 7,000 near Rapid City.

More than 700 vendors have set up shops and the likes of Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osborne, Kid Rock, and ZZ Top are slated to perform. Even Pee Wee Herman is supposed to be here.

But the main attractions are the motorcycles of all makes and models (some custom bikes costing as much as $150,000) and the riders of all shapes, sizes, ages, and incomes. Women riders, many sporting "I ride my own" patches, far outnumber women passengers.

With most bikers content remaining on their rides and motoring through town, it is often hard to catch up with them before they rev up and drive away.

But I finally met up with some dismounted bikers at Mt. Rushmore. Officials here say the Sturgis rally marks the busiest time of the year for this stone ode to four presidents.

The motorcycle crowd seems to be a patriotic bunch: Most sport some sort of patriotic symbol on hats, helmets, jackets, t-shirts, or even skin.

So, not surprisingly, the bikers I met eagerly agreed to discuss the current state of the country while standing in the shadow of the nation's past.

"Those are our fathers, and we've lost it," said David Simmons, 60, of Vancouver, Wash., pointing at Mt. Rushmore in the distance. Making his first trip to the Sturgis rally, Simmons, a retired fireman, said he had mixed emotions while gazing upon the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. "I'm proud to be here. But it almost makes you sad, to tell you the truth. You think about our forefathers and what they did to get us here. We are now going the other way."

Simmons' riding buddy, Corky Hollingsworth, added that few lawmakers today seem to be on track to getting their own Mount Rushmore addition. He said some should be in line for mug shots rather than mountain carvings. Simmons, a 56-year-old machinist also from Vancouver, is fed up with continued charges of ethical violations and abuse of power among the current crop of Washington power brokers.

"I want to call up my politicians and ask them, 'What laws can I ignore now?'"

John Warnest of Grantsburg, Wis., may have driven to Sturgis from the opposite end of the country from Simmons and Hollingsworth. But Warnest holds similar views on the current state of politics. His anger is bipartisan.

"Why do we have to have all these split parties? he asked me. "We are supposed to be 'We the People,' not 'We the Republicans.' or 'We the Democrats.'"

No doubt that similar discourses on the nation will be occurring all week among this sea of leather-clad riders.

Follow Lee's reports as he travels from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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