The summer solstice has delivered longer days and brighter sunshine, and although I don’t leave for Sturgis until next month, I’m already daydreaming about my annual pilgrimage to South Dakota. Since my first ride there in 2003, every year has been a mystical adventure, with more than a decade’s worth of people, places and experiences stored in my psyche.
Most years it’s a solitary ride, and sometimes I barely speak with anyone except waitresses and innkeepers for the entire 1,800-mile journey. But last year stands out because, despite my best intentions to make my usual solo dash past Chicago as quickly as possible, that mysterious entity called “the road” had other plans for me.
The first night of my sojourn saw me staying at a Super 8 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. More often than not, no matter my departure time, I end up at this central Pennsy town around dusk. I stay at the Super 8 because it’s cheap and because there’s a Dutch Pantry across the road so I can dine there before I sleep. It’s become something of a routine; I check into the motel and don’t even unpack first because I know the restaurant doesn’t stay open very late.
But I always seem to forget the mediocrity of their dinner offerings. This time they outdid themselves in the bad food department. I was sitting there poking at my hot turkey dinner, making faces and giving the waitress a hard time (“This is supposed to be fresh? It looks like cold cuts!”) when I noticed a guy a few tables over, staring at me. He tried to get my attention but my foul mood caused me to ignore him and the woman seated with him. Finally I gave in and addressed his, “I see you don’t like your dinner very much” with, “It really sucks.”
That opened the door to a full-on conversation with John Strong and his lovely wife Candy. John is a third-generation showman and was in town for the Clearfield County Fair. The John Strong Show is one of, if not the, largest sideshows in the U.S. (maybe the world), and John himself had story after story to tell. My favorite was probably when he told me about the days when he and Candy started dating: “I knew she was the one when she let me put my two-headed turtle in her bathtub.”
John invited me to see the sideshow the next morning, but unfortunately I had to get an early start. We became Facebook friends and have remained in communication ever since. John is a prolific writer and posts many stories, photos of freak animals and people, historical pieces, circus memorabilia, and just about anything having to do with the circus sideshow entertainment realm. It’s all fascinating to me, and he’s one of the most interesting and knowledgeable friends, Facebook or otherwise, that I have. While I’m on my way to Sturgis and back, I’m gonna try to track down his show which has performances all over the country.
My next chance encounter was the very next day at the Blue Heron service area in northwest Ohio. Again, I sought solitude but there were no free tables outside. I stood there looking around, thinking I might just eat lunch on my bike, when a guy flying colors and wearing big, chunky silver rings on every finger motioned me over to sit with him.
He introduced himself as Art John who I learned is from the Seneca Nation in upstate New York and a member of the Redrum MC, a Native American-based motorcycle club which is focused on First Nations traditions. We swapped travel tales, admired each other’s bikes, and learned that we had similar philosophies about the road and things in general. It seemed like we’d known each other before… past life stuff, I’m sure. Art was waiting for one of his friends to catch up to him so they could continue on their ride to Sturgis. I thought I might run into him once I arrived but I never saw him after that first meeting. Through the magic of Facebook, though, we have continued our friendship and I am sure we will cross paths again.
Much later that afternoon, I stopped for the night at the South Bend/Elkhart North KOA in Granger, Indiana. It was my third or fourth time there, and it’s probably my favorite KOA in North America. The first time I stayed there was in 2008 when I found that I’d arrived at the start of their very first Vintage Trailer Rally. Campground owners Patricia Schenk and Thomas Jetzer are vintage trailer aficionados and own a ’73 GMC motorhome, so hosting an event like that was a natural for them. Plus Elkhart seems to be a stronghold of the RV industry, being the home of the RV Museum and all. The group of folks participating in the Vintage Trailer Rally were friendly, quirky, and full of great road stories that they were happy to share when they invited me over to their community campfire. Sadly, I was never able to plan a visit to coincide with the rally after that first year, but I still enjoy my stays there and my conversations with Patricia.
There are other places along the way where I’ve made friends—Brandy and Dan Vuich who own the Blue Highway Motorcycle Lodge near Hillsboro, Wisconsin, and Charlie Moe and J.J. that own Salt Camp Cabins and B&B on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota are a few that come to mind. It’s all part of my magical journey to the Mount Rushmore State.
The Sturgis rally is always a lot of fun but it’s my time on the road that truly remains within me, refilling my metaphysical batteries and rejuvenating my spirit. I’m reminded of a line from the song “Travelin’ Man” by Bob Seger: “Those are the memories that make me a wealthy soul.”