We stopped for gas and food in Chamberlain, perched on a bluff above the grand Missouri River. A clear late summer Thursday evening in South Dakota, and we were halfway to the Black Hills, where on Saturday the 55th annual Sturgis Rally and Races—one of the world’s largest congregations of Harley Davidson aficionados—would kick off.

Having spent, more or less by accident, the first two months of the summer working in sleepy Sioux Falls, I had jumped at the chance to accompany a coworker and his girlfriend on a long weekend of camping and voyeurism in the old West. And now, as Mike and Jill refueled on coney dogs and root beer at the hilltop A & W, I was sitting on a peeling wooden slat fence, watching the sun expire behind the bluffs on the western bank of the river and listening to the roar of Harley engines washing up from the exit ramp 100 feet below.

I was thinking that when Americans travel these days they prefer the jetliner or the recreational vehicle, hermetically sealed machines in which one can voyage from coast to coast without ever having to expose oneself to the elements save on those long walks to the shuttle bus or through the McDonald’s parking lot. A perfect yellow half moon was riding low over my left shoulder, and on the swaybacked bridge below, a succession of disembodied red taillights dimmed and were swallowed up by the black mass of hillside on the western shore; I found myself humming the lines from an old Willie Nelson song; “Cowboys are special / With their own brand of misery / From being alone too long.”

Saturday morning finds me still in the backseat of Jill’s Toyota, seat belt fastened, as we roll through Hill City, where squat brick buildings with wooden verandas and facades painted green, red, yellow, crowd together along the main street. To the Easterner it looks like the set of a cowboy movie, only where the horses should be tied outside the local saloon, some two dozen Harleys push up against the wooden sidewalk. The anticipation builds as we roll on, skirting Rapid City, and majestic silver-white thunderheads 1,000 feet high roll across the sky from the southeast.

A ten-minute crawl through two-wheeled traffic—this year’s rally was expected to draw more than 300,000 people in nine days—takes us from the off-ramp to within three blocks of Main and Junction. We find a place to park and promptly lock the keys inside Jill’s Toyota, a blunder from which, to believe the pre-trip hype—and the T-shirt stretched across an extremely broad back which informs us that “Friends Don’t Let Friends Ride Jap Bikes”—we should be lucky to escape alive. But the biker gal behind us promptly offers us the use of her AAA insurance.

Our car troubles sorted out, we thank our tattooed benefactress and walk down Junction past bars, a makeshift tattoo salon, and stalls hawking leather gear, helmets, and commemorative T-shirts to Main Street, where hundreds of bikes back up to the sidewalks and hundreds more rumble slowly up and down the street. The scope of personal philosophies emblazoned on T-shirts is as impressive as the number of Stars and Stripes flying from rear fenders, covering everything from polities (“Gun Control Means Hitting Your Target”) to pets (I Love Cats: They Taste Just Like Chicken”) to parenthood (on a tike-sized T-shirt, “Lm Here Because Mommy Missed Her Cycle”).

The mid-afternoon heat reaches 100 degrees, but despite our hunger we pass up the open-air food vendors on Main Street, holding out for a cool bar with biker-sized burgers. Lured by some Texas blues spilling into the street from a loud-speaker mounted above the door, we tumble into the Fireside Lounge, a brick building with black-tinted windows and neon beer signs.

The Fireside offers no food, but it looks as good a place as any to regroup, so we order beers and—discreetly—survey the clientele. One hundred and fifty bikers, of all types: yuppie bikers with neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beards and graying, well-coiffed hair; young wannabes whose profusion of leather and denim fails to hide their smooth skin; and the real McCoys, burly older men in gut-length beards, their arms and mostly bare chests covered with tattoos, faces furrowed by the sun and wind. Ride to Live/Live to Ride—all drinking more or less amiably elbow to elbow.

Spilling out of the dark cool of the Fireside into the heat of Main Street, the eye is blinded by sunlight splintering off 1,000 pieces of chrome. The thunder of pure, high-octane horsepower crosses the babble of the crowd roiling between the parked bikes and shop windows. The smell of exhaust and superheated rubber mixes with the aromas of Italian sausage, frying onions, and Indian tacos, and it hits me that I have, indeed, stumbled upon some latter-day Mecca of Americana, a divine melange of the sacred and the profane worth 10,000 Contracts With America.

After a fine Cajun chicken dished up by a black family from Portland, Oregon, we head for the Broken Spoke Saloon, an open-air, converted lumberyard where several hundred bikers drink at wobbly picnic tables, watch the two or three obese couples stumbling lovingly across the wooden dance floor, and stare admiringly at the vintage Harleys and Indians ranged beneath the timbered ceiling.

Walking down the street I am surprised to find that, in a segment of the populace widely feared and reviled by mainstream America, Jesus is a pretty en vogue fellow. “His Pain, Your Cain,” screams one T-shirt adorned by heavy metal graphics depicting a skeletal, spike-pierced hand dripping great red drops of blood. Another reminds us that “By His Stripes We Are Healed.” And, just a block from the corner of Main and Junction, a painted iron sign designed to look like a historical marker proclaims, “Jesus Was A Biker,” explaining how Jesus was considered a threat and persecuted by the government, “just like you,” and how He was cast out by society as a freak, “just like you.”

At the Broken Spoke the ambiance is almost familial; tables full of middle-aged couples sit chatting as the band plays blues and countrified Southern rock. Take away the biker gear and the place looks more like the Fourth of July picnic than a gathering of anarchist freaks. Some 100 couples tie the knot here each year, attired in their finest leather and tattoos.

After the Broken Spoke the night fades into a friendly blur. I share tables with guys who would inspire bladder control problems in any other setting. We talk about bikes, about places to see in the Black Hills, about where we hail from. In fact, the conversation is unfailingly congenial until I make the mistake of asking a 40-ish couple what they do for the rest of the year. “We’re independently wealthy,” the husband says pointedly—end of conversation. For the rest of the night I let Sturgis be Sturgis.

Our Saturday night zeal considerably dampened the next morning, we spent Sunday driving through the hills in search of more local color. But the genuineness of the previous day weighed heavily on my impressions of the trumped up, tourist-trap kitsch that plagues the highways of the West. The bastard offspring of Captain John Smith’s promotional tracts—the fantastic accounts of colonial America as an earthly paradise which lured the first settlers to the New World—hand-painted billboards strung out across the land in the style of the old Burma Shave placards attempt to sucker the unwary tourist into any number of dubious propositions. We managed to avoid “Trout Haven—You Catch/We Fry; 1-1/2 Million Caught,” but stumbled accidentally across Black Hills Holy Land (Life of Christ). A three-acre lot off the highway between Custer and Rapid City, Holy Land consists of a barnlike church/museum nestled next to Noah’s Gift Shop; from the road its most notable feature, save the utter absence of visitors, is a larger-than-life horned buffalo lawn ornament, whose biblical significance continues to escape me.

As evening fell soft and blue on top of another scorching day, we turned unwillingly back toward the flatlands and the long, featureless drive to Sioux Ellis. Detouring slightly for the touristic equivalent of a drive-by on Mt. Rushmore, we were surprised by a traffic jam: on a rock face pressed hard against the road, two baby mountain goats clambered awkwardly as a dozen grizzled bikers pulled over to snap photographs.

The scene left us unprepared for what happened next. Five miles out of Keystone on a curving, divided four-lane, a biker in a loose pack of ten lost control and slid into the gravel-strewn median. He laid his bike down in a shower of sparks, flipped over the handlebars like a 230-pound rag doll, and bounced twice, narrowly missing our front quarterpanel before coming to a stop on the oncoming shoulder.

One leg was crushed, and a pool of blood was forming around the man’s head. Mike and I set up flares while several bikers tried to keep the man from moving, but there was really nothing to do but pray; it would take three-quarters of an hour for the ambulance to arrive from Rapid City.

Back on the road I could not shake the sight of this large man, Minnesota John, whimpering on the pavement. At Rally Headquarters in Sturgis, we had visited a booth agitating for helmet law freedom (South Dakota is one of several states without a mandatory helmet law). Faced with the gory reality of a motorcycle crash, the refusal to wear a helmet seemed ridiculous—the more so the next morning, when Monday’s paper announced that three bikers had died in crashes in just the first weekend of the rally.

All we could do for Minnesota John was pray that he would live to ride again. And still, I cannot help but agree with Charles Olson: “O kill kill kill kill kill / those who would legislate you out.” For to all those who stay behind, preferring the comforts of home to the hazards of the road, the pilgrims, pioneers, and gold rushers of this land must always be written off as crazies. Yet it’s this craziness which is quintessentially American—the freedom to take stupid risks and to strike out alone in the night for unknown territory, knowing that the risk of sudden death is at least as great as the chance for fame or riches. That this sentiment strikes us as odd today is a sign of just how far we have fallen.