Next month the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will take place and current estimates of the turnout for the event are in the 800,000 to 1.2 million range. Many attendees will doubtless be “Sturgins”—i.e., Sturgis virgins—and it with those riders touring the Black Hills for the first time in mind that I offer up this cautionary tale.
Deep in the Black Hills, a few miles south of Pactola Lake, a roadkill buck lay in the ditch beside the highway, eviscerated by the collision—probably no more than a few hours earlier—and mouth black and gaping. Slow down, he warned mutely, and I did. Every year at least a few bikers tangle with deer during the Sturgis rally, too often with catastrophic result, and I, like many, tend to lose sight of that statistic while zipping along in the throes of road euphoria; riding real fast in back country until a close call or a wake up call in the form of a seven-point heap of decomposition snaps me out of it.
Snap out of it I did. Like the Buddhist monk practicing the ancient “meditations upon a corpse” to hammer home the fact of earthly transience, the grisly carcass had me reflecting and easing off the throttle and slacking off the pace. And shortly thereafter I entered a sharp curve where the road had been cut through an imposing rock formation. There was no shoulder now, just the roadbed bordered by narrow ditches and hemmed in by sheer rock walls. It was a good place to be alert for fallen rock. I surveyed the way ahead as I leaned into the long curve but saw no fallen rock. Just the road, the ditch, the rock walls…and the Ovis Canadensis; The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
I’d never seen a bighorn in the wild before except once in the Colorado Rockies through binoculars, so this sighting gave me a thrill; a thrill that lasted all of the nanosecond it took for my immediate plight to sink in. A bighorn didn’t belong here. They’re high country recluses and generally too terrain-savvy to find themselves in a situation such as this—roadside with no apparent means of escape except down the highway.
Here’s some other stuff I know about the bighorn: They have massive horns that can weigh thirty pounds apiece, and the whole animal can scale out at a hard-muscled 330 pounds. The specimen dead ahead wasn’t that big. This specimen couldn’t have weighed more than 320, 325 tops. Bighorns are also known for their prodigious head-butting contests as rutting season approaches. Those sessions, in which rival rams repeatedly bash into each other at combined speeds of up to 70 mph, can last over 20 hours. Rutting season was approaching.
I’ve often been accused of being a hard-headed Dutchman, but even at that I figured I wouldn’t be much good after about the first hour of bashing skulls with this palooka, so I braked hard and made a conscious effort not to look like a rival suitor. I adopted a submissive aspect and cooed, You the ram, baby! You the alpha! I don’t even like ewes!…Despite what you may have heard…
It seemed to work and the bighorn stepped into the ditch as I approached and stood studying the rock wall with his butt to the highway. I rolled cautiously past his hindquarters so close I could count the ticks on his bighorn ass (17). The bighorn didn’t flinch. He remained intent in his gaze upon that impossibly sheer wall, doubtless asking himself how in hell he’s managed to snooker himself so preposterously. Stupid alpha.
I got back on the gas and as I emerged from the rocky defile I felt a huge relief. But only for a moment. Coming on fast from the opposite direction was a long pack of bikes and I was suddenly confronted with a quandary. How could I warn those unsuspecting riders of the potential peril ahead? There was no time to pull over and start screaming like a lunatic. The best I could do was to ride on gesticulating like a lunatic. Only problem was, I didn’t know what gesticulation was appropriate to the circumstances. There is a limited lexicon of hand signals that most riders know, more or less, but none of them specifically indicates the presence of 300 pounds of heavily-horned and befuddled ruminant in a blind curve ahead. There ought to be, but there ain’t.
I stuck my arm straight out, palm forward, in the universal “halt” gesture, and somebody waved at me. I stuck my arm out to the side, palm forward, and waved it up and down, the sign for “slow down.” Somebody else waved at me. Desperate, I started patting the top of my head, the signal for “cop ahead” figuring that might at least slow the pack down. Somebody laughed, waved, and blew past.
And people say bikers don’t wave.
It’s all right here in the diaries.