Motorcycling USA… In The Pioneering Spirit

Although it is now all of forty-three years since the motion picture, Easy Rider, urged a generation to get their motors running and head out on the highway, those same American highways are still capable of providing discovery and adventure for today’s two-wheel travellers.

If you have the pioneering spirit and a motorcycle license, rental companies like Eagle Rider offer a range of bikes that can be picked up from just about any US city that has a flight link from the UK. BMW’s and Honda’s are included in that selection, but it is the iconic Harley Davidson that is most likely to strike a spiritual chord with the would-be saddle-tramp. Bike rental does not come cheap though, with Harley’s big tourer, the Electraglide, complete with stereo system, wrap-around passenger seat and plenty of enclosed luggage compartments, likely to knock a big hole in $2,000 for a fortnight’s hire. Expensive perhaps, but that tends to be the case with most vacations that offer this level of adventure.

Advanced plotting of the route that you are going to take from your starting point of choice is all part of the experience, incorporating as many of those must-see American landmarks as time and your geographic location will allow. Most of your accommodation is best booked once you are on the road though, allowing you a degree of spontaneity to truly give you the freedom of the open road. Between them, the Motel 6 and Super 8 budget hotel chains have in the region of 3,000 properties in North America, meaning that even the smaller and more out of the way destination towns on your itinerary are likely to have one or the other of them. Nightly room rates start at around $40.00, and you can pick up directories for both companies at the beginning of your trip, in case your smartphone connectivity lets you down in the wilds. Rooms tend to offer the basic comforts, including two double beds, and staff will generally be happy to book your next night’s stay at their properties on route.

Travellers booking their tour for August have the opportunity of including a few days at what is almost certainly the biggest motorcycle extravaganza in the world. For fifty-one weeks of the year the small town of Sturgis in the Black Hills of South Dakota provides a quiet and laid back retreat for its 6,000 plus population, then, for one week in August, Sturgis Bike Week boosts the population in the town and the surrounding area by 400,000, most of them arriving on two wheels. This is no new phenomenon, this year’s bike week, scheduled for August 6 to 12, will be the 72nd, and is a massive celebration of everything bike.

In addition to the bars, stalls, entertainment and the sheer spectacle of Main Street Sturgis, packed with bikes tightly parked in four banks for as far as the eye can see, every place of interest within 60 miles or so gets a large helping of the overspill. The Mount Rushmore memorial, featuring the heads of four revered US presidents carved into the mountainside, the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, famous as the UFO landing site in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the iconic western town of Deadwood, now a haven for gambling casinos, but with the graves of its legendary former residents, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane still well tended in its Mount Moriah cemetery, are all within a short ride of Sturgis.

Custer State Park is close by too, and it provides the opportunity to appreciate one of the last large herds of wild American Bison in the USA. The sign on the entrance gate tells you to keep your windows closed, an unnerving recommendation when you are on two wheels, but if you are fortunate enough to encounter the main herd and sit with your engine cut while a hundred or so of the 2000lb beasts amble across the road around you, you are more likely to reflect on the white man’s senseless destruction of the vast herds that roamed the western plains until the 1800’s, than any danger you are in.

Of course, with so many people converging on one comparatively small area, accommodation is a major priority. Most visitors camp on one of the many sites that spring up for the week. These range from fields with portable toilets, to the more professionally run sites with the sort of facilities that are more typical in Europe. Some sites also provide their own entertainment; this year the Buffalo Chip campground has vintage rockers Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining open-air shows on different nights.

Hotel accommodation is understandably at a premium in Sturgis, but there is more available a few miles down the highway in Rapid City, and it can be secured if you book well in advance.

One interesting itinerary to incorporate a few days in Sturgis begins with picking up your rental bike in Seattle, Washington State, 930 miles away from your destination. Even though you are so far away, the lure of the world’s biggest bike rally means that your guaranteed to see other travellers on their way there right from the off, growing steadily so that you become part of a virtual cavalcade by the time you reach your destination. This being the USA, the I90 highway that you pick up in Seattle is the same road that deposits you on the doorstep at Sturgis three days or so later.

You will travel through the picturesque countryside of Washington State, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming before reaching South Dakota, and there are interesting towns and stopping places along the way. One worthwhile detour in Montana’s Big Horn Mountains takes you to the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, scene of Custer’s last stand against the combined tribes of Native Americans. Poignant memorials on the hillside mark where combatants from both sides fell, including the ill-fated General.

Having had your fill of the Sturgis revelry, a more meandering and picturesque route can be enjoyed on the return journey to Seattle. Turning off the I90 to cross the Big Horn Mountains takes you to the town of Cody and then on to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s attractions are well documented and a stopover is recommended to fully appreciate the lakes, rivers, geysers and wildlife of one of the world’s great natural spectacles.

Striking south from Yellowstone brings you to Jackson Hole. A well-known winter ski resort set adjacent to the dramatic Grand Teton mountain range, Jackson has retained a lot of its frontier town buildings and charm. For a true Western atmosphere and live entertainment most nights, a visit to the Silver Dollar Bar is well recommended.

On leaving Jackson Hole the best route takes you west, across the foot of Idaho and back to Washington State, after a brief cruise through Oregon. Before returning to Seattle take a detour to Mount Ranier National Park. This is the last chance to ride through breathtaking scenery dominated by Mount Rainier, a sister peak to Mount St. Helens, the volcano famous for having erupted dramatically in 1980.

A half-day ride brings you back to Seattle, and it is worth leaving a day or two clear before your flight home to explore one of the USA’s most easy going cities and perhaps take a trip to the top of the Space Needle. At 605 feet high the Needle gives a panoramic view across the city, its coastal waterways and on to distant Mount Rainier.

This is just one suggestion for how a road trip in the USA could be structured, and with so many thousands of miles of road, and such a broad variation in climate, terrain and culture, the options are limitless. One thing is certain though, whether your cruising preference is for desert, prairie, mountain or forest, America will always provide a road that disappears into the horizon and a sunset for you to ride into.

Colin Gibson