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Bikers in the Badlands

A Mother and Daughter Encounter Unexpected Wildlife



The annual Sturgis Motorcyle Rally started in 1938 and attracts motorcyle enthusiasts from around the world to Sturgis, South Dakota. Vrrooom!

On a hot day last May, I watched my only daughter, Kate, walk across a stage to pick up a little black folder with her future inside. There may have been a prouder parent at the graduation ceremony that day, but I doubt it. “So where to?” I asked.

For a graduation gift I had promised to take her on a trip anywhere she wanted to go. My brain was already planning fantasy itineraries to London, Paris, Rome ...

“How about a hike through the Badlands?” she suggested. 

“The what?” 

“They’re in South Dakota.”

My daydreams evaporated. A promise was a promise.

In the weeks leading up to our departure I did a crash course on that part of the country, and developed a secret fascination with bison. An encounter with one of those majestic creatures might even make up for my missed visit to Notre Dame cathedral. 

“Are you going to the rally?” 

It was the first thing the rosy-cheeked girl at the hotel asked. She was adorable. Then my gaze fell upon the creepy skeleton on the front of her Harley Davidson T-shirt.

“What rally?” I asked.
“The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.”

We stared at her blankly. “This is the 75th anniversary,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands of bikers are expected this week.” 

“Hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders are coming here?” Kate asked, her eyes wide. She recovered quickly. “South Dakota is a big state. How bad could it be?”

On our way to the elevator I tried to erase images of menacing Hell’s Angels from my mind.

The next day we oohed and ahhed over the four famous faces carved on the side of Mount Rushmore as we gazed up at it from every possible angle. We weren’t alone. There were bikers at every viewing stop doing the same thing. One of them asked Kate to get a shot of him and his friends in matching leather vests as they posed with George Washington’s nose poking out from behind them. 

Later when we headed back to the hotel, we passed row upon row of gleaming motorcycles lined up along streets and crowding every available lot. The constant rumble of revving engines never let us forget how many bikers surrounded us. Nor did the powerful smell of exhaust. It filled the air the next day as we climbed the Needles Highway with one group of bikers in front and another behind.

The road twists its way up the Black Hills for 14 picturesque miles, offering amazing views of Ponderosa pines and thin spirals of rock pointing skyward. On our way down the mountain, we saw a cluster of motorcycles stopped up ahead. Uh oh. My first thought was: an accident. Then I got closer.

A lone bison—in all his hulking glory—lumbered down one side of the street while a crowd of awestruck onlookers watched from the other side. 

A real live bison. We got to see it. Up close. Kate and I. And about a hundred bikers. 

Kate had chosen to save the Badlands National Park for last, and its eerie beauty did not disappoint. While we gazed out at the multi-colored rock formations and the vast empty plains, I had the feeling that we could be the last people left on earth … if not for the steady parade of motorcycles that droned along the road behind us.

When Kate suggested we hike into the park’s interior in search of the quiet that had eluded us all week, I agreed, despite the rattlesnake warnings. 

She led and I followed along a trail that took us deep into a world of sand dune-color hills dotted by occasional wildflowers. Something else caught my attention, too. The silence. No motorcycle engines! I didn’t hear a thing. Kate had gone on ahead, leaving me alone. 

I stopped to look around. The circle of sand dune hills that surrounded me looked like a giant outdoor cathedral—one that no one in the world got to see that day except me. One that might even put Notre Dame to shame. 

For the first time all week I was sorry none of the bikers were close by. The place was too splendid to keep all to myself. 


Photo: Kate Marcal and her mother, Liz, explore Badlands National Park, the former hunting grounds of the Lakota Indians and their descendants for over 11,000 years.

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