Mention Gillette, Wyoming, to most people and you'll get a blank stare. Motorcyclists may show a glimmer of recognition and a puzzled frown. When you add "90 miles west of Sturgis," the lights come on. Western-based bikers frequently stop for gas here, northeast Wyoming's last major town en route to the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally.
It's mid-September and I'm riding I-25 north to Gillette on a 2004 Electra Glide from Eaglerider's Denver rental fleet. Late summer is unusually cool, and I'm leaving Colorado's high passes before a forecasted early dump of the white stuff comes true. I ride through Denver's dormitory towns in sunshine, but ahead is a steel-gray canopy flowing down from Canada.
Beyond Cheyenne, communities drift farther apart, until I wonder if I'll see another turnoff. I gas up in tiny Chugwater and fight the galloping prairie wind over rolling hills to Douglas where I turn north on 59. The Glide's tank shows less than half, and I plan to gas up in the town of Bill, 20 miles ahead. I'm reminded that Wyoming is the least densely populated state of the lower 48, with two-thirds the landmass of California and fewer than half a million people. Bill consists of a weather-beaten clapboard general store the size of a garden shed and one non-functional vintage gas pump. The nearest gas? "Wright: 40 miles up the road."
Running on fumes, the Glide rumbles into a shopping mall-sized truck stop in Wright. The bronzed, tufted-grass prairie is dotted with nodding oil donkeys, and as I roll on toward Gillette, the conveyors and earthmovers of massive open-pit coalmines line the road. A caravan of mile-long trains, spaced only hundreds of yards apart, thunders south, each car piled high with coal. It's an impressive sight against the empty plains and the big sky.
Day one: Black Hills
Thanks to my local contact, Rex Brown, I have a riding "buddy" for each of my four one-day excursions. Lawyer Stan Wolfe meets me at my hotel, the Wingate, at 8:00 the next morning. It's a cool, gray Sunday, so we have the business route that parallels I-90 east to Moorcroft to ourselves. Stan, also riding a Glide, suggests we cover as many of the local sights as we can while the weather holds. First stop, the Devil's Tower, north on 14.
Though unspectacular, the rolling plains we ride are pleasantly pastoral: cattle graze calmly and a flock of wild turkeys shuffles from the roadside as we pass. The Tower is the largest landmark for miles, and its familiar shape soon pops up on the horizon. Though now 1,267-feet high, the tower was once at ground level: erosion stripped soil away from around it. And in spite of its sinister appellation, the Tower is an important monument in Plains Indian culture, known as the "Bear's house," and it figures prominently in many Indian legends. It certainly has impressive bulk at close quarters, a giant's thimble thrusting from the surrounding plain; and like Australia's Ayers Rock, it has an eerie supernatural presence.
We're quietly appreciating the Tower's ambience when a gang of tough-looking biker dudes pulls into the parking lot, all leather vests, bandanas and dark glasses. But they're just buddies of Stan's out for a Sunday ride - including two bankers and the Gillette courthouse security officer!
We cruise toward Hulett, home during each Sturgis of the Ham and Jam Rally, when the Rodeo Bar & Grill dispenses half a ton of "the other white meat" to bikers who "jam" the main street for the day. Out of rally season, Hulett is a charming one-street town of refurbished western storefronts and boardwalks. The surrounding towns, some fifty miles or so distant, hold many of the events that cater to the 300,000 visitors to the Sturgis rally each year. Our next stop is Cheyenne Crossing, a barn-size biker bar with an overflowing parking lot - and this on a regular September Sunday. "Could be the last riding weekend of the season," explains Stan.
Highway 14A runs south through Spearfish Canyon. Stark, mustard-colored bluffs line the road, patched with early fall colors, lemon yellows and golds. The perfect relaxing Sunday ride: dozens of other riders obviously think so, too.
We detour west to Lead (pronounced Leed), where Stan shows me a worked-out goldmine, a vast round pit like an inverted beehive. As in many parts of the U.S., the lure of the yellow metal built Lead and its near neighbor, Deadwood City. The establishment of the gold towns in the Black Hills - sacred to the Sioux - precipitated the Indian wars of 1876. Deadwood declined with the mining industry, but revived after gambling was legalized in 1989. Now a major gaming destination and tourist stop, the influx of cash financed a makeover for the city's heritage buildings.
Leaving the Black Hills, we cruise southwest on 85, meandering over the 6,900 ft. O'Neill Pass through stands of evergreens, before we turn north on 585 to Sundance. Pennsylvania native Harry Longabaugh spent 18 months in the Crook County Jail here in 1887 for horse theft, acquiring the name "Sundance Kid..."
It's here that the weather finally breaks. A blustery wind heralds heavy showers. Stan and I pull under a bridge to scramble into raingear before braving I-90. The Glide handles the buffeting gusts well, maintaining a solid line through the sluicing water; but the strong headwind cuts its top speed to under 80 mph, and I struggle to keep pace with the thundering semi-trailers. Stan heads for home and I retreat to the Wingate to dry out.