Rally spectacles at the Full Throttle Saloon
I’m boxed in on all four sides and moving forward at less than 5 miles an hour. But instead of snarling under my breath and cursing the traffic gods, I’m craning my neck for a better glimpse of the flaming redhead in her 70s riding a scooter with her two pocket dogs. And over on my right is a rather nicely built fellow wearing a pink bra. Guess he borrowed it from his lady friend, cause hers is missing. On this hot Monday evening, it’s partly nerve-wracking and partly exhilarating – but mostly just odd – to be a part of South Dakota’s great annual pilgrimage – the world-famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
I am in the middle of the slow nightly crawl out to where all true rally goers must go at least once during the official seven days. For sprawled out east of town where the prairie begins are the huge camping conglomerations and entertainment venues: the Buffalo Chip, Glencoe Camp Resort and the Full Throttle Saloon. Tonight, my destination is the Full Throttle where country-rocker Travis Tritt is the star attraction.
The traffic is moving at a slow but steady pace by the time I turn off and find a parking spot that will hopefully allow for a quick getaway. I jam all my money, IDs, camera and phone into a tiny carrying bag and follow a couple who looks like they know where they are going along a good length of field lined with motorcycles and eventually reach the paved area in front of the saloon. More bikes, of course, fill most of the space, along with a T-shirt booth, a motorcycle repair area and two wild rides for those who haven’t scared themselves enough already. One is a whirling centrifuge of some sort and the other is the Slingshot. I tuck myself away into a corner and spend the next two hours watching every make and model of bike, biker and biker babe – along with a local hodgepodge of what I take to be Travis Tritt fans – rumble, stumble, swagger and stagger as they make their way to the ticket booth outside the saloon doors. That’s when I’m not watching some couple get flung into the heavens with the Slingshot. My question of the hour: Does beer make that ride better or worse?
It’s almost dark by the time I get my ticket and make my way into what I soon discover is an amazing multi-level wooden structure. It’s set up somewhat like a town square, but we are not talking Mayberry R.F.D.
There is a little “downtown” shopping area on one side where you can buy a warthog head for your den or maybe a coyote skin to cover the seat of your bike. Need a tattoo? No problem. There’s an ice cream stand, and apparently lots of food is available because people are eating at picnic tables or carrying platefuls up various wooden staircases leading to bars and seating with views down into the beaten grass arena in front of the main stage.
I pick some stairs and up I go towards the highest area of seating – an iron bridge that once crossed the Belle Fourche River on a country road near Newell. It’s pretty much wall-to-wall people, so I settle for a little corner post position that I am lucky enough to spot and occupy before anyone else beats me to it.
After scanning all sides, I decide the view is excellent. Hanging above the arena bar on my left is a globe-type structure with two rocket bikes inside. On my right, a sign saying “Smoking is Mandatory” hangs over what later turns out to be the burnout pit. Stretched above from one side to the other is the zip line, and directly in front but at a distance is the main stage, where a young band from Houston is doing its best to warm up the crowd.
Things certainly heat up over the next hour or so, but not because of the band. Somewhere a gate must be open, because every 10 minutes big bikes roar into the arena below and big bikers dismount. Are these VIP-type folks or can you pay to make an entrance, I wonder? But my thoughts are soon distracted by the rocket bike act, as daredevil riders climb into the globe and race sideways and upside-down. Next up: the burnout pit. Massive bikers coast their crackling and popping monster machines into the pit, followed by incredible roars and topped off by unbelievable billows of smoke that blot out the crowds on the bridge above. Meanwhile, the zip line operates full tilt, the band works hard to blow up its amps and the arena crowd surges back and forth from spectacle to spectacle.
I veer from pop-eyed stupefaction to fretfully wishing I’d brought earplugs. I check the time, and Good Lord; it is absolutely past my bedtime and just where is Travis Tritt?
The whole scene is becoming more dreamlike by the minute. The Houston boys reach a final crescendo, and there’s a lull in the music – although the overall decibel level doesn’t noticeably diminish. From what I can tell, few in the crowd share my concern about Tritt’s whereabouts. By the time he appears, I’ve decided it’s going to be a 15-minute concert for me.
No way around it, I’m not a good candidate for the party-hardy biker life. I head out, ducking around and through the leather-clad legions crowding the bars and howling at the moon. I think about my astounding evening as I settle into my car and head down Vanocker Canyon towards my quiet, peaceful home. Now that it’s over, I’m glad I went. The whole evening was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but for me, once is more than likely going to be enough.