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Photo Diary: Two Days at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Midst of a Pandemic

Nearly 400,000 people attended the annual South Dakota gathering

Sturgis crowd
Crowd at Sturgis, photo by Amy Harris
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The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been on my bucket list to attend for a long time. I never dreamed my first rally would be in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. As a photojournalist, I decided to make the trip for the second weekend of the rally after seeing the media coverage of weekend one. Reports came out that hundreds of thousands of bikers had descended upon the city in South Dakota for the 80th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, after every other major festival in America had canceled over pandemic concerns.

The annual pilgrimage attracts everyone from diehard motorcycle clubs to professional businessmen and women who simply want to escape daily life  to ride their bikes, socialize and see live music in the beautiful Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. Attendance was down a bit this year, but reports are that nearly 400,000 people attended, drawing big crowds for the major performances throughout the week.

Several of the bands that were originally scheduled to perform had canceled their performances out of concerns for safety for their fans since masks and social distancing was not going to be enforced during the rally. I spoke to Mixi Demner, lead singer of Stitched Up Heart, before I left for the rally and learned the band had decided to cancel their appearance at Iron Horse Saloon because some of their crew have pre-existing heart conditions and there were some concerns for fans that were planning to attend the show with their entire families. It just felt like too big of a risk to take for the band and crew. Comedian Andrew Dice Clay also pulled out the day of his performance at Full Throttle Saloon.

I didn’t know what to expect this year as I arrived to cover the rally in photos but I was met with mostly happy people and a welcoming attitude everywhere that I went. South Dakota has no laws regarding mandatory face coverings or indoor crowd size limits. Most of the bar activities and shows did take place in open air environments or outside during the rally. I definitely stood out in the crowd with the camera and as one of the few people in town wearing a face mask. No one that I spoke to during the entire weekend denied that the virus existed. They simply stated that they were willing to take the risk to get out of the house and see their friends for the annual trip.

Day 1 – Friday August 14, 2020

I touched down in Rapid City, South Dakota from San Francisco at 11 a.m. Friday morning. By 12:45 p.m. I had checked into my hotel in Sturgis and headed to Main Street to start my rally experience. It was everything I had expected to see. As I walked toward Main Street I saw girls in bikinis washing bikes and bars packed with bikers partying to classic rock hits. Main Street is lined down the middle with bikes and people admiring the custom creations. The street transforms with a series of pop-up stores with products targeting the attendees during the 10-day rally. Everything is sold from custom knives and guns to official Sturgis merchandise. The Harley Davidson shop was lined with bikes and crowds of people wanting to experience the store during the rally for custom Sturgis items.

My first stop was a few pop-up tattoo studios to see tattoos being done on riders who wanted to mark the event with a permanent souvenir. Many of the artists had created custom designs for the rally. I saw everything from Harley Davidson logo tattoos to intricate bike wheels with wings being done while visiting the shops. Trump gear was in high demand at the rally. I saw more Trump apparel being worn and sold at the event than I did while covering the Trump rally in Tulsa. Bikers for Trump was in town signing people up to vote.

Sturgis Bikers

As I made my way down the street I stopped into the Loud American and saw live bands performing to an audience of diners. I went into One Eyed Jacks and spoke to many people sitting at the bar enjoying the dancers on the bar and making new friends over Jell-O shots. The Iron Horse Saloon seemed like one of the most popular destinations as crowds gathered to see bikers do barrel-race competitions.

As I walked and shot street scenes, I learned that you shouldn’t photograph Hells Angels bikers from the back and display their colors. As with everyone I encountered they were all pretty friendly and told me that it is OK to photograph them from the front but that the back of the vest is off limits. I also saw signage saying that many bars did not allow bikers to wear their colors inside to prevent confrontations.

In the late afternoon I drove out to the Full Throttle Saloon. If you are in before 6 p.m. you do not have to pay a cover charge. I had only seen all the antics of the bar on the TruTV series that aired until 2015 but I wanted to see it all in person. After the bar burned down in 2015, the owner Michael Ballard rebuilt in a new location about 10 miles outside the city with a massive setup. I arrived to a live performance by Jesse Hammock, a singer-songwriter from Missouri. His mix of bluesy rock-n-roll provided a fitting soundtrack for the bar patrons enjoying the party atmosphere at the saloon.

Sturgis - Full Throttle sign

Outside at the bar, tattoos were being done and a motorcycle high wire act took place while fans waited for Trilogy to perform on the main stage outside. On the inside bar stage, South of Eden from Columbus, Ohio were playing so I stopped for a few songs on my way out.

I moved on to the Iron Horse back in downtown to see the rock performances in the evening. When I arrived, SAUL was onstage playing for a crowded house. I was very surprised to hear the lead singer of the band introduce their song “Brother” and discuss how he had lost his brother to H1N1 during the last pandemic. It was shocking to see them performing during this current situation after hearing the story. Hinder closed out the night at the Iron Horse with a performance of their hits for the large crowd of fans eager to see live music for the first time in many months at the rally.

While watching the bands I spoke to a few concertgoers who told me that they had expected Antifa to make their presence known at the rally, and lo and behold, a few protesters identifying themselves as Antifa made an appearance on Main Street.

After the bars closed, I headed back to the Full Throttle to a campground bluegrass picking session under the stars with Jesse Hammock and Kemp’s Kropdusters. Cecil Tinnon, the mandolin player of the group, told me a story about writing their song “Rain” about his mother telling him she only cried when it rained. A poignant ending to my 24-hour day.

Day 1 Photo Gallery:

Day 2 – Saturday August 15, 2020

I started my second day walking through Main Street seeing everyone taking time to buy last minute merchandise and souvenirs. On Saturday afternoon, a small group of protesters did arrive at the rally and were met with force and dispersed by the police and taunted by the crowd. Various conservative media outlets announced that Antifa had indeed arrived at the rally.

I traveled back to the Full Throttle to catch the full sets of Kemp’s Kropdusters and Jesse Hammock before heading to the famous Buffalo Chip for the evening. I arrived at the Buffalo Chip around 8 p.m. just in time to see the Miss Buffalo Chip Beauty Pageant, where contestants competed for a chance at the crown. Attendees lined up motorcycles in front of the outdoor amphitheater stage to see the show for the evening. This did provide some social distancing as concertgoers sat on their bikes and golf carts to watch the show in the open field.

The Flaunt Girls performed a high energy set that was a crowd pleaser with fire acts, high wire stunts, and dancing. The ladies encouraged the crowd to live their life and have fun as they closed out their set.

Reverend Horton Heat at Sturgis

I went to the Buffalo Chip for the evening to cover The Reverend Horton Heat. The psychobilly vets did not disappoint, as they delivered a rousing set. RHH went on stage early so I was able to also make Bone Thug-n-Harmony’s headlining set at the Iron Horse down the road.

I was very torn at the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony show. The veteran hip-hop group was putting on a great show and I have loved this Cleveland outfit for decades but it was the most packed crowd of the weekend at the bar and I became extremely anxious. The crowd was all in and loving every minute and I seemed to be the only one who was uncomfortable with the tightly packed space (see pic below). The attendees let me pass and pushed me to the front so I could get my photos, and I was really happy to be taking concert photos for the first time in five months, but in the end, I only stayed a few minutes before heading out of the show.

Bone Thugs crowd Sturgis

On my way back to the hotel I stopped to take photos of the carnival rides as bikers were packed up and already hitting the road homeward bound.

I left hoping that this mass gathering in Sturgis does not cause a COVID-19 outbreak as attendees travel back to their respective homes across the United States. However, while writing this recap, the South Dakota Department of Health issued a warning on Tuesday (August 18th) that a person who spent several hours at a bar on Main Street in Sturgis tested positive for COVID-19. Overall, the lack of social distancing and face protection made me quite uncomfortable during my visit. It would be nice to pretend that this is all not happening and go about our lives but unfortunately this virus is real and does not seem to discriminate. We all miss seeing friends and live music and I hope to visit Sturgis again in the future and enjoy the rally activities without fear of the virus.

Day 2 Photo Gallery:

All photos by Amy Harris

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