GILLETTE, WYOMING—Plotting our way out of the Sturgis vortex of unmuffled chaos, we decided to give the Badlands one more shot. Our passes were good for a week, and the CD 240 loop through the park was, on the map, an inviting serpentine challenge. The ranger who checked our passes complimented us on our early start. When we asked where all the bikers were, he said the didn’t start showing up in mass until just before noon.
It was just Ed and me and a few four-wheeled tourists in their cars, minivans, and pickup truck towed RVs. So Ed wouldn’t leave me when I stopped for photos, I led, and I kept an eye out for the big horn sheep that the ranger said he’d seen feeding along side the road. They must have been some really fleet sheep because we found them on the other side of the loop, as it was running north to reconnect with I-90. They were just ambling along, nibbling on the grass, unconcerned by the two-wheeled gawkers.
The panorama from the Cliff Shelf was spectacular, even with the overcast. The White River carved the valley before us, and the road descending from the cliff was a twisty challenge, but foot-peg dragging scary. There were a number of turn-offs, and we visited a few of them, but mostly we rode at a speed that let us gawk with swiveling heads without taking off across the bad land that looked, in places, like the Jolly Green Giant filled a field with mud-dripped conical stalagmites.
On a seemingly endless run on I-90, as we approached the Sturgis exit the land bordering both sides of the Interstate were packed with bikes, campers, and temporary sales emporiums. One was built around several semi-trailers, with a sign advertising Harley demo rides. The line of bikes to get in stretched nearly half a mile. Catching a quick glance of Sturgis proper as we moaned by at the 75 mph speed limit, every street I saw was lined with bikes in between clusters of the white-topped sales tents selling t-shirts and turkey lets, I’m sure.
After Sturgis and before Spearfish we turned onto the welcoming two-lane WY 34. There weren’t any small towns per se, but about every 10 miles or so there was a ranch-like party palace saloon. At each of them a clot of riders would either get on or off the road. Ed, I sensed, was getting frustrated with our modulating speed, especially when a pack of a dozen riders roared onto the road ahead of us. To a rider they got off the road at the next saloon. And we increased our cruising speed, until we caught up the next herd of Harleys.
Across the state line the road became WY 24, and cresting a hill the famous geologic prop from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, suddenly appeared. At a safe spot, we stopped for a photo of Devils Tower. Ready for lunch, we didn’t hang around for an encounter of our own. Still in the Sturgis Vortex, we didn’t stop for a turkey leg in Hulett.
Patience paid off in Moorcroft, just west of the intersection of WY24 and US 14. The Sturgiscites? Sturgonians? turned left on US 14 to return to their homeplace, and we turned right, and then right again at Donna’s Diner. It was an iced tea heaven, with lemon! The locals at the next table were talking about riding, horses, not motorcycles. But we were still in the realm of Sturgis. The napkin holder advertised the event and urged people to “Please Drive Safely and watch for motorcycles.”
Avoiding the Interstate, the two-lane WY 51 brought us to Gillette and another America’s Best Value Inn. It’s desk clerk could accurately gauge distance, and the family restaurant she recommended was, in deed, two blocks away. Stopping at a convenience store for some beer for one of the two fridges in our room, the clerk said that we needed to visit on of the three liquor stores that were two blocks away in three different directions. Then a patron, bless his soul, mentioned the new microbrewery.
The Prairie Fire Brewing Company opened last week, said Colie, our effervescent server. So far they’d brewed six different beers. The IPA was excellent, a perfect blend of bitter hops and a fruitiness that was refreshing but not overpowering. I’d rank it in my Top 10. The porter started out okay. It got better as it washed away the IPA, and the last half of the pint was really good.
Filled with two beers each, we stopped at Hardy’s, which was between the brewery and motel. There we noshed on burgers and listened to Scott, a retired California Highway Patrol officer from Lancaster, who was on his way to Sturgis. Ed as done some time in Lancaster, which is near Mojave, home of the National Test Pilot School, where Ed has spent some time during his flying career. Now geographically connected, Scott regaled us with stories for about an hour without taking a breath. He had a nice looking Harley, too.
Over the coming days, as we wend our way west, through Yellowstone, where we’ll wait on Old Faithful, and then into Montana, I’m sure we’ll see more bikers riding off to join their tribe. Me, I’ll keep an eye on the horizon where the sun sets, and will ask people at every night’s stop if they know of any new microbreweries that have opened in town. Such serendipity gives life the proper perspective. And I will never again leave the room without my notebook and camera. Lesson learned.