More Important Than the Destination: A Journey to Sturgis

Alfonse Palaima
by Alfonse Palaima

Five days and 1500 miles from LA to Sturgis

The Black Hills Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, SD, is the only place I want to be each August. The ride there, however, should not be overlooked. So load your saddlebags with gear, your smartphone with a few helpful apps and clear your camera’s memory cards, there’s a ton of America to see along the way. Kickstands up boys and girls, lets ride!

Day 1: Los Angeles to Flagstaff, AZ: 470 miles

Having ridden nearly every road worth riding between LA and the California/Nevada/Arizona borders, the first day’s ride is one of highway slogs.

Departing LA on I-10 and splitting North on I-15 and east again on Route 40, it’s a game of numbers versus boredom. How many miles can I go before needing to stop for food and fuel? When will I arrive? How fast can I go? What time will I get to Sturgis? What day? It’s headgames time in the helmet, mental hopscotch. Tomorrow will be way better!

Paralleling Route 40 near Ludlow, California, is historic Route 66 – a welcome sidetrack to relieve some of the straight-line blues. Not only unburdened with signage and urban sprawl, but also, care and attention. Being such a praised roadway, I was surprised to find the Mother Road in such rough condition. Desert heat can be brutal on the road’s surface, but I’ve seen better pavement in places that get heat, snow and ice.

With the full moon rising in the east and the simultaneously setting sun in the west, I stop to photograph the golf ball building in Yucca and stretch my legs. With nearly 200 miles to my goal, however, I better pour it on if I’m going to make Flagstaff before it gets too late.

I check-in at the Roadway Inn on Highway 89 around midnight. Being a college town, the nightclubs are open, but this crusty dog needs rest. So I opt to save the partying for the Chip and take the shut-eye.

Day 2: Flagstaff, AZ to Durango, CO: 310 miles

Little known fact, the famous rocky buttes of Monument Valley are painted on the side of this native Indian gift shop outside Flagstaff!

As the gateway to everywhere cool in Arizona, the high-plateau city of Flagstaff is a welcome sight for sore eyes. Colorful and relaxing, with a strong western history, this mountain town is well worth looking around and spending some time. With a direct path to the Grand Canyon running to the North, it’s our starting point for day two.

The morning’s adventure doesn’t start out too happy however, just a few miles out of town on Route 89, the cute and fluffy white clouds disguise the dark and damp ones hiding around the corner. Luckily it was just a quick soaking. Just long enough to make me think its time to stop and put on the rain gear when it lets up – and just long enough to soak my non-waterproof gear.

Rolling red landscapes draped in ribbons of hot black asphalt lead you through iconic landscapes of nothing more than dirt, rocks and sky. Before reaching the earth’s most photographed hole in the ground, this journey makes a right turn off Route 89 on to 160 east bound for lunch in Tuba City, but not before checking out the Little Colorado River Gorge.

The Navajo name for Tuba City is Tó Naneesdizí, meaning “tangled waters” in reference to it’s many underground springs. On the highway, they’ve got everything society needs; from a Denny’s Restaurant to a drive-through smoke shop. Tuba City began as Native American cropland, named for the Hopi leader turned Mormon, Tuuvi, and later grew into a Uranium boomtown in the ’50s. Today, tourists flock to this part of the painted desert to find dinosaur tracks and to see the stunning Coal Mine Canyon.

The next stop is a place I’ve wanted to see for a long time, Four Corners USA. But first, another soaking rain near Kayenta, AZ. I could barely see the car in front me it was so strong – navigating only by riding close to the white line.

It’s not the Snake River Canyon and no, I’m not going to jump it!

This is where the scenery gets interesting, with massive columns of rock thrusting straight up from the earth, rippling with drippy textures in a million shades of red. On bright sunny days, the clouds in the sky take on a reflective red light creating wild looking photographs.

At the Four Corners Monument the four neighboring states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, come together on a Colorado plateau with deliberate precision. Before the US government came along, however, the natives had their own state borders, some of which still stand today. The point where four US states come together also shares an original line between two Native American reservations, the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

From the monument we’re back on Route 160, aka the Trail of the Ancients Byway, and soon crossing into Colorado and onward towards Cortez and Durango. Given more time to explore the great state of Colorado, the nearby Mesa Grande National Park is home to some ancient Pueblo ruins but we’re on a mission, bound for Durango and a beer at the Steamworks Brewery.

Day 3: Durango, CO to Buena Vista, CO: 220 miles

Day three begins with a healthy heaping of green chile and a breakfast burrito at the Durango Diner, thanks to a Yelp recommendation. If you like to eat where the locals have been eating for decades, I’ll pass on the recommendation to circle around the block once more to find it. The sign is small and everything else is bigger and brighter, but it’s there, just follow your nose.

Departing Durango north on Route 550, you immediately enter the San Juan National Forest and although the landscape is covered with trees, the ground underneath is still somewhat volatile. More importantly, the road gets bendy and the sporting riders will find today’s stretch the most interesting.

Fifty miles to the North is Silverton. Forever a tourist haven, this now living ghost town has everything from a biker stop called Handlebars to jailhouses dating to 1883, to brothels converted into modern-day diners. Cool town to spend an hour or two – if not a night camped under the stars – before riding up the most expensive highway every built.

This roadside attraction was built by the DOT to gurgle alongside the highway near the Pinkerton Hot Springs releasing hot gases and protecting local vegetation and property. Unprotected yet awesome, be aware, the water is actually hot.

To the north lies the Million Dollar Highway, my path to a stop at a bar I used to visit long ago in Ouray, CO, the Outlaw. Otto Mears built this toll way in 1883, which collected well into the 1920’s. With theories on the name running rampant, the roadway continues to inspire awe and is consistently named one of America’s most scenic routes.

On the north end of the Highway is the box-canyon community of Ouray. Popular with the ice climbing crowd in the winter and 2- and 4-wheel off roaders in the summer. Being a tiny little place, there’s only two bars to serve all these hungry travelers and the Outlaw is the oldest. Famed for its eclectic interior shingling, drunkenly built by brave patrons. While it’s only mid-day, there’s only time for photos and a chat. John Wayne ate here during the filming of True Grit as well as a few famous motorcycle racers.

Connecting with Route 50 in Montrose and traveling east now towards Gunnison, its time for dinner and a decision; press on, or stay here for the night. I decide to press on towards Buena Vista after a brilliant sunset photo session.

Overshadowed by the Go Big Ride, one of our many shingles from my 4-wheeling days still hangs in the Outlaw 15 years later.

Day 4: Buena Vista, CO to Cheyenne, WY: 220 miles

I snag a quick breakfast at the mom-n-pop home of the Tiny Texas Donut, Loback’s Bakery. From there it was back on the road, climbing peaks and crossing valleys, cresting winding roads 10,000-feet high, coming to along the way. Eventually I come upon a party right in the middle of the road in Climax, CO, the Leadville Boom Days celebration. An annual and accidental find along the way. Boom Days is a must for the Americana fan, and only 40 miles south of Vail, Colorado on the Top of The Rockies Byway.

The next 35 miles east will take you past Vail and to our next byway exit in Silverthorne. Every conceivable meal and lodge can be found on this stretch if you need to stop for the night. I head North on Route 9, then Route 40 to Steamboat Springs.

Shy of the springs, I split off onto Route 14 at the crossing of the Continental Divide at along highway 40, and 8,772 feet above sea-level. North I roll through the elk-spotting capital of Wyoming, Walden, and across the border to Laramie, Wyoming for some fuel and a realization that I’m getting close to South Dakota. My planned stop for the night, on the southern border in Cheyenne, is only 50 miles away.

The Lincoln Monument Rest Stop, at exit 323, commemorates the first transcontinental automobile road and its builder, Henry Bourne Joy. Crossing from New York City to San Francisco, the Lincoln Highway is worthy of its own journey, alas it’s only a tiny portion of our ride. Another time perhaps.

Day 5: Cheyenne, WY to Sturgis, SD: 290 miles

Awakened too early by the screeching iron of the overhead railway, enough to wake and snap a few pics, but not enough to keep me awake. Last night’s post-ride walk lead to a street festival with a live bluegrass band in the town square and plenty of open bars, with the BIG party drawing closer every mile.

Today began on highway 25 North, but by the time I turn onto the next byway, I’m seeing packs of bikes to ride with… or not. One train of twenty bikes blazed by in the high plains of the Thunderbasin and Oglala National Grasslands to the tune of a ton, flying the jack and stars of the Australian flag. I hopped on their tail to see what I might be getting into but didn’t stay long.

Route 85 from the 25 freeway goes all the way to Lead, South Dakota. Only 300 miles to ride today should seem easy by this point. If not, will power or the flow of iron horses on pilgrimage will carry you along.

Catching up with traffic in Deadwood… I know I have arrived!

For those who believe in A-to-B rides, taking you from here to there with nothing but food and fuel stops in between, allow me to ask you this. Why beat yourself up with epic slogs on the way to the world’s biggest party? Take your time, enjoy the ride, and let the party break you down when you get there. You know it’s going to happen anyway!

Alfonse Palaima
Alfonse Palaima

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  • John Winker John Winker on Aug 09, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your venture. It's a fantastic read and the pictures are beautiful.