The definition of romantic:
of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality
I was headed west on 90 past the endless Wall Drug brainwashing of South Dakota. The next stop was the 2017 Sturgis Bike Rally. The plan was to immerse myself in bike culture. The inspiration of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Easy Rider fueled me to investigate biker culture. After checking into my hotel in Rapid City, I debated what to wear. I decided on a Grateful dead T-shirt from the 10-year anniversary concert at Soldier Field and ripped jeans. I knew that even in populations of bikers there were Dead fans ( I was correct about this, I got three compliments on my t-shirt).
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started in 1938 by a man named Pappy Hoel. Nine people attended in 1938. The Rally has grown to 750,000 attendees over a ten-day period. Confident with my costume, not as confident with my ride, I got in my light blue colored Prius, and made the half-hour drive through winding hill terrain to Sturgis. I had no idea what to expect. Leather chaps and loud bikes seem intimidating, but what is more intimidating is the mystery behind it all. Is there danger? Or is it perceived danger?
I sought to investigate what happens behind all of the leather and beards.
Driving into Sturgis looked more like a Sunday before Church than a motorcycle rally. There were bikers scattered around, but nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. I had imagined a police state. I imagined the town to be flooded with bikers completely drunk out of their mind looting buildings and running around firing guns from the hip. Instead at 30 mph, I passed by the usual one or two-story houses, clean yards, and white picket fences. This all seemed orderly for the imagined fiasco in my mind. I found a parking spot near Main Street, strung my camera over my neck, and began to walk into Rally. Souped up shiny motorcycles lined the center of the streets for almost a mile.
I walked further and further into middle-aged men tattoos, balding, bearded world of Sturgis. I spotted a t-shirt with Trump in a leather jacket holding multiple rifles in his arms that said,
“Finally, a president who has some balls!”
My first stop was Bob’s Cafe. Unbelievably overpriced, I ordered the fish and chips and gave Bob my business. As I was handing over my cash I noticed a flyer for the Tattoo Cellar. The flyer said, “Clean and Sober Artist” and “The Only Shop In Sturgis Year Round…No Fly By Night Shop.” I asked the waitress, “They have to clarify the tattoo artist is sober?” The waitress, a beautiful brunette girl wearing hot pants and a shredded Journey t-shirt explained in what sounded like a southern accent,
“I never get tattoos during Rally, I like my artist to be sober. You never know what state of mind the person will be in during Rally.”
I went to sit down in the near empty restaurant. As I was eating my fish and chips I heard a waitress explaining to a patron why the food was so expensive. The fish and chips were 17 dollars. She said that Bob’s served big portions, that’s why it is so expensive. I appreciated her attempt at logic. Bob’s was a quiet place to think and eat before I headed out into the world of beards, leather, and Harleys.
I stumbled out onto Main Street overstimulated by the scene thinking that I was too sober. I needed some liquid armor. I wandered into the first bar I saw. It seemed to be a newer establishment because the walls were bare and it seemed overly clean. There was a Thomas Jefferson quote on the wall,
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776”
I ordered a Coors Light in a can from the bartender and sat sipping observing the scene around me. A less assuming version of Jean Claude Van Damme (I will call him Danny) with no facial hair and a noticeable amount of hair product sat down next to me and asked, “Is anybody sitting here?”
I said, “No.”
Looking around in all directions with a somber face, Danny said, “Good, I wanted to sit here so I don’t have my back to the door. You never know what’s going to happen around here, this is Sturgis.”
I was intrigued but I did not respond. He began to ask me some questions about myself, why I was there, where I was from. I noticed that when I was describing my job that he tried to use different, more descriptive words than the ones I was using. I recognized the tactic, Danny was showcasing his intelligence. I told him that I stopped in Sturgis on my way across the country.
When he realized I was alone he said, “Wow that’s ballsy.”
I heard Danny ask the bartender a question about a change of ownership in the bar we were at. I asked him why he had asked her that.
He told me that the bar we were at was the clubhouse of the Dirty Old Bastards. He said the DOBERS were a pay in club, you had to have a certain amount of money (I believe it was 10,000) in the bank to be a part of it and be above the age of 50. We talked more about that. I was curious what clubs were close to what I had seen on television with SOA.
He told me a story about the Banditos. They were rumored to have a clubhouse in a basement bar in the area. There was a rumor that they raped girls on the bar in this clubhouse. Then, he started to tell me about the Hells Angels and some of the politics involved. I sat listening and asking for details. Seeing my interest, he offered to show me a Hells Angels clubhouse.
At this point I was not entirely sure of what to think about Danny and if he was a safe person to follow around. I tested him by saying that I did not want to get raped. His response to that comment was boisterous laughter. Danny had a kind laugh and kind eyes despite having the appearance of a meathead. His muscular look made me judge him, but our rapport had built trust in me. I decided to take him up on the tour of the Hells Angels.
Danny and I walked out onto the bustling fanfare of teenage pregnancy, tattoos people might regret one day and embroidered jean pockets. First, we stopped by a store where a Hells Angel VP was selling merchandise, signing autographs, and taking pictures with fans. No crime here, other than the prices of the merchandise.
As we were walked towards the location of the Hells Angel clubhouse, Danny said, “For some reason, people always want to pick fights with me.”
I thought about this comment for a moment and his motivation to tell me such a thing. As I mentioned before, Danny seemed like a nice guy for the sprinkle of time we had spoken.
I decided to level with him. “You look like the kind of guy people would pick fights with. You just have that kind of face and build. With that being said, you are an intelligent and nice person.” In response to my observation of his appearance and personality, he ejected a symphony of heartfelt chuckles.
We strode up to a two-story house next to One Eyed Jacks. There was red trim painted on the otherwise brown house. He told me that anything in red and white is Hells Angel’s colors.
I lifted my camera up to take a picture, and he Danny said with fear in his voice, “Don’t take a picture with me nearby, there are people watching.” He walked briskly away from me. I snapped a shot and walked over to him. He told me that there are always Hells Angels posted up watching, he said he didn’t want trouble so he needed to be careful.
Danny asked if I wanted to get a whiskey shot at One Eyed Jacks. We walked in and sat down at the bar. The bartender was a tall brunette wearing black lace lingerie. She served us a shot of whiskey and two Coors Lights in bottles and told us she would be busy for the next half hour doing her friend’s hair in preparation for her wedding. As we watched the bartender straighten her friend’s waist long blonde hair, tease, then start to curl it, spraying each piece of hair, Danny and I ordered jello shots and began to have a conversation about drugs.
He told me that he currently is not doing any drugs. It had been five days since he took Adderall. He spoke of how he needs it because he needs focus. We talked about how I had quit smoking cigarettes for seven years and he said, “Congratulations, you quit the most difficult drug to quit.”
Danny is a salesman and he told me a bit about that and his personal life. He said he was not in a club because he didn’t want people to dictate what he does with his time and how he lives his life. He stated,
“When you become part of a club, especially a club like the Hells Angels, you will experience brotherhood like you never have before, but your life is theirs.”
Danny said he thought he was intelligent, and more than anything wants to be free.
After we finished our beer and not long after I had offered the information that I have a boyfriend, Danny said, “I have to drive back tonight before it gets dark. Seven p.m. is the witching hour for cops. If you leave around that time your chances of getting pulled over are greater. You also have a greater chance of getting pulled over if you are riding alone. If you are in a group of riders the soberest one is typically in the back in the case of getting pulled over.”
I thanked him for the beer and information, wished him luck on his ride, and we parted ways.
I used the bathroom at One Eyed Jacks and contemplated where to go next. I decided to walk down Main Street. I walked by where the VP of the Hells Angels San Berdoo Chapter was selling merchandise. I asked him if I could take his picture, and he responded kindly, “Sure.”
I took some shots, thanked him, and walked away being surprised at how easy it was to talk to him. I started to think, maybe I should talk to this man, to get more of the story behind the two sides of bike culture I am seeing.
I went to get another drink to contemplate my next move. As I sipped on my Coors Light I contemplated the good and bad sides of Sturgis and bike culture. There was the dark side of women being raped on a table by the Banditos. Then, there was the romance and freedom of the road. Where does the cost of personal freedom to be part of a club on the spectrum? To give it all up for brotherhood?
You gain the freedom of not living within societal norms but in return, you give up your personal freedom.
I wanted to know more of the danger. I had not seen anything close to what I had imagined being the danger of the biker lifestyle in Sturgis. The Hells Angels clubhouse was the closest and there was little noticeable action going on outside of it. As I was thinking a man started to talk to me at the bar. I got to chatting with him and he was a friendly middle aged man from California. He was with his two friends and they were all Engineers. He said, “ You need money to own a nice bike. Most of the guys here are normal guys who like to ride.”
I paid my tab and walked back to the store to approach the VP of the Hells Angel.
I walked up to him and gave him my card with my phone number written on back. I told him I wanted to ask some questions, to understand the truth. He invited me to hang out with the club after ten p.m. that night at the VFW.
I walked away once again stunned at how friendly this man was. My heart was pounding in my chest. The question of the night formed in my head, “Should I go to the VFW to hang out with the Hells Angels?” I decided to go to my car to drink some coffee, sober up, charge my phone, and consult with some friends about whether or not to pursue the Hells Angels. I consulted three journalist friends about whether or not to go. One said, “I would go, but I know that I do dangerous things.” Another friend played out different scenarios, good and bad. He told me to be safe, and that it did not sound like I had the whole story. My third friend did not respond back until the following day.
At this juncture, I had to use the bathroom. There was no place to pop a squat so I decided to head back to Main Street, go to the bathroom, and try to ask someone what they thought of the plan to hang out with the Hells Angels. I walked into the first bar I saw, I had to go to the bathroom, bad.
I walked downstairs into a basement bar and immediately the thought of accidentally walking into the Banditos rape bar crossed my mind. I put the thought out of my head and raced to find the bathroom. Two girls walked in right before me, I sighed. This would probably be a long wait. I started to get a grasp on my surroundings. There were bras hanging everywhere in this place. From the ceiling, the walls, every crevice, and corner had a bra hanging from it. There was dim red lighting, the music was your typical Sturgis ACDC fare. The bartenders had minimal clothing on.
A thought drifted into my head, “This is a bat cave from hell.”
I looked over and saw two girls making out at the bar while what appeared to be one of the girl’s boyfriends stared expectantly and with a glint of jealousy in his eyes. I saw a couple sit down near to the making out girls, the girl nodded in approval at the two making out girls with a smile on her face. Alas, I achieved going to the bathroom. I decided to take a seat at the bar and order a Coors Light. I ordered the beer asked the male bartender working what he thought about my Hells Angels plan that evening. I specifically asked, “Would I get killed or raped if I went to hang out with the Hells Angels. He said,
“I just moved here from LA, I’m completely out of my element.”
“My co-worker, the brunette over there, she is the one to ask. I know that she has hung out with the Angels before.”
He went over to inquire if she would talk to me. She walked over to me, I introduced myself and asked her the big ticket question.
“Is it safe to hang out with the Hells Angels?”
She said with a good dose of enthusiasm, “Yeah!” I have hung out with them a bunch at their clubhouse. Right now it’s Rally, so they won’t mess with you because they are being watched.” I looked over and noted that the girl in the couple who had sat down next to the the two girls making out, was included in what was now a three-way makeout session.
I asked her for directions to the VFW and she gave me what seemed to be a simple instruction of taking a right out the back door down the alley to the clubhouse which is right behind One Eyed Jacks. I felt confident based on her appraisal of the situation that I could handle hanging out with one of the most notorious biker gangs in the United States for a night at the VFW. I decided that my camera would come, and if that was not allowed that I would leave.
I walked out into the dark alley, following the bartenders directions to go to the house that was directly behind One Eyed Jacks and then tell the Angel outside who I was. I thought it was odd that the VP had told me they would be at the VFW because based on the bartender’s instructions it sounded like I was going to the Hells Angel’s clubhouse that Danny had showed me earlier. As I was walking down the alley I saw two men in leather, one said with a slight stutter, “You are beautiful.” I said thank you and continued on. Even seven foot muscular men dressed in leather get nervous sometimes, I thought.
I approached the clubhouse behind One Eyed Jacks. There was a Prospect Angel outside. I told him that the VP had invited me to come over.
The prospect said with slurred words stumbling, “You better get the fuck outta here before something happens.” I said, “Ok.”
I walked away feeling slightly relieved and defeated at the same time. I walked back through the alley way wondering what to do next, get another drink or head back to my hotel. I wandered by the same man who had called me beautiful earlier and he asked if he could buy me a drink. I decided I had nothing to lose so said yes. As he started to walk towards the bar I realized he was a Hells Angel. I got excited at my luck.
He bought me a drink and I started to explain that I had been invited to the VFW by the VP (I confessed that I had forgotten his name and he said, “I am not allowed to say his name out loud anyway). He offered to take me to the VFW which was in the opposite direction of what the waitress had described to me. I gladly accepted, we finished our beers and stepped once more into the dark alley. This Hells Angels was extremely tall, built with pure muscle, and had dreadlocks down to his waist. He seemed as gentle as a teddy bear. He was a prospect.
We stepped into the VFW. He whispered with authority, “Go say hello to the person who invited you.” I looked around and saw the VP sitting at a long table surrounded by people with one chair open to his right. I walked up to him and said hello.
I had received some text messages earlier and I had not looked as I as in the midst of deciding on whether or not to go. The VP welcomed me and asked if I had received my text messages and I said, ‘no.’ He told me he was curious if the card I had gave him information about my photography. I explained to him he could find samples on instagram at the moment.
He welcomed me to sit down next to him. He introduced me to his daughter who had short brown hair and looked like a well put together typical college girl and looked in her twenties.
The VP proudly explained that she is in college and studying English. I spoke with his daughter for a while about writing and the benefits and supposed disadvantages of getting a degree in the liberal arts. It did not seem like a conversation one would have with the daughter of a Hells Angel. Small talk continued in a sea of Angels drinking and listening to old rock jams on the jukebox. The VP spoke fondly of his daughter, and how he was proud of her that she got the experience of hanging out with the Hells Angels when she was growing up.
He inquired about my life and I told him and his daughter of my journey and my purpose in traveling across the United States. I was offered a drink and I politely accepted. Coors light.
At one point, the VP said, everyone, get up, let’s take a picture. I was able to snap a few shots of the group, and I thought how nice of him it was to make that happen. After the pictures, I got another beer and started talking to a couple at the bar. The woman had met her Hells Angel in Florida and had decided to jump on the back of his bike and take off in the wind with him. It sounded romantic. They had been all over the country the last few weeks.
They seemed close to one another, in physical proximity and emotionally but they claimed they were not together. The woman said that they had not been in one fight.
At one point the girl cornered me and tried to persuade me to sleep with the dreaded Angel. Noticing my hesitation she said, it would be fun for one night, but you should consider jumping on the back of the bike too.
Her persuasion was, “I did not regret it.”
Her man overheard our conversation and jumped in. “Yeah, you should do it. All I asked of her was that she chip in for gas 200 dollars.”
The Hells Angels are not known for having an abundance of money. It’s the freedom and danger of the road that sells them, but the brotherhood that keeps them intertwined with the club.
As this conversation was going on I noticed some conversing between Angels that seemed serious and I overhead one of them saying something about potential trouble outside the VFW. I saw somebody leave.
The Angel who I was talking with noticed that I was watching the action going on and asked me, “How do you feel about prostitution?”
My response stumbled out of my mouth, “I believe in woman having a right to do what they want with their own bodies.” He nodded and said nothing in response.
As the night continued, the dreaded Angel hit on me continuously but it seemed like he was doing it behind the VP’s back. I felt a connection with the VP. He had sadness in his eyes, but you could also see the depths of someone with a big heart and deep intelligence.
Before when I had been hanging out with Danny he told me the difference between being an old lady and a girlfriend of an angel. An old lady was a respected member of the club and nobody could fuck with her or fuck her. A girlfriend was up for grabs for the whole club. As in, if she was brought around other club members they had the right to take her.
I told the couple and the dreaded Angel that evening at the VFW that I was awful at casual relationships and they all seemed to listen and respect what I said wholeheartedly. It was not the reaction I had expected.
The night wore on, I put some music in the jukebox and as I came back to the table there were Domino’s pizza boxes strewn everywhere on the table. The VP offered me pizza and I gladly accepted. As I sat eating my piece of pepperoni, I thought how this was not what I had imagined as a night out with the Angels. Crack, cocaine, heroin, speed, but here I was eating pizza.
I decided after I ate that I was tired and it was time to go home. Things seemed to be winding down anyway, the VP was leaving with his daughter. The VP asked how far I was going and if I was ok to drive. I told him where I was going and said I was fine to drive and offered to text him when I got home to let him know I had arrived safely. He said that would be a good idea.
My goodbyes were a blur and I stepped out into the dark night of Sturgis, found my car, and drove to my hotel, exhausted and glad to be in bed. I texted the Angel thank you for the invitation and he responded, “glad you made it home safe.” I tossed and turned in bed that night even though I was exhausted. I could not believe I had hung out with the club. It was not at all what I had expected and I still did not feel like I had the whole story. It would be impossible for me to achieve that in one night. I had a mission out west though, so this was the best I could do at the moment.
The following day I decided to head westward with a heavy heart. I was not sure if it was the hangover or my emotions or a mixture, but I was sad. Part of me wanted to go back to Sturgis and jump on a bike and never look back.
I knew the danger, but the romance of the story was evoking me to abandon my logic, to jump on the bike.
This feeling in me is the struggle between the romantic and material world. The balance between the two. How can one live a life full of spirit and lust while dealing with the groceries every day? Do the Hells Angels have to buy groceries too? After eight long hours of driving, I checked into a hotel in Bozeman. I was exhausted.I still felt sad and the loneliness was exuded in the depressing hotel room. I kept thinking, maybe I should go back to Sturgis, maybe I should follow the Angels.
I decided to do a google search on the being a woman in the Hells Angels. There was a story about a girl who had dated a Hells Angel. She talked about how he was nice and charming but had a horrible temper and had physically abused her. The romance started to fade. The reality is biker gangs have a culture of male power. Of muscle and fear. And my commitment to freedom of the road would commit me to a life of leather, guns, and brotherhood. It then occurred to me how much I can romanticize life. The addiction to romance, to the appearance of pure beauty rather than the reality. This romanticization can be the demise of your material experience in this long, painful life.
On the other hand, without this romance would there be allure for anybody to be part of the Hells Angels? Would there be any purpose to living life? The hope of intangible purities are the poetry of life. My question is, is anything worth the romance?
As I fell asleep alone with a pizza box and detective shows playing on the television, I thought, it is not my place to answer this question, only to keep on riding forward.