A ROAD TRIP FROM JACKSON, Wyoming to Sturgis, South Dakota doesn't take that long if you keep the truck at a steady 80 miles per hour. Which is exactly what we've done to make it to the 2014 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally by nightfall.
Arnica (of Arnica Spring Photography) and I were hoping to catch the ZZ Top concert but we make it in time only to hear the closing cords of "Gimme All Your Lovin'." We opt for a Ted Nugent concert instead. At the end, we find dinner -- a bag of French fries with a side of ranch from a burrito truck outside the bar. It's 1:00 AM and we don’t know where we’re sleeping.
“I saw a sign for a campground, The Cabbage Patch. It’s too crowded at the main campgrounds. This place seemed a little more off-the-grid,” Arnica offers.
We drive past crowded campgrounds, RVs parked inches apart, tents filling every nook. The rare exposed patches of ground look as though herds of elk bedded down for a season. Arnica turns down a dirt road winding through empty fields.
“You saw a sign for this place? We’re heading into the Dakota boonies.”
We ride in silence and pluck fries from the greasy bag on the console, watching the movie of night unfold through the windshield.
“Here we are,” she announces, turning into a mowed field.
The Jolly Roger flies above the American flag, billowing menacingly in the light breeze.
“Pirates,” I whisper.
A pavilion serves as port of entry. A sign with a vintage motorcycle frame strapped to it reads: “Welcome to The Cabbage Patch, Home to the Nation’s Most Famous Cole Slaw Wrestling Competition, $10 per person per night.” The campsites are marked with flaking outhouses with glowing interiors. We head for a site at the far end, where the short grass meets prairie.
“Are you sure this isn’t a meth compound?”
“It’s not a meth compound. Look, there are a few campers and a tent. Do you want to go back to one of those Woodstock sites?”
I don’t. I want to sleep as a coyote in the tall grass and awaken dry as a bone, surrounded in a nest of billowing grass that moves like crow’s wings, filtering sun and shadow in trembling waves.
We set up a toiletry counter on the tailgate, pouring water from a jug to wash our faces. It’s almost the Super Moon. I see well enough to place my contact lenses in the case without a lantern. Without sight, the landscape becomes a Rothko painting, a sage-blue rectangle of ground crowned with endless navy.
I cautiously open the door of the outhouse. In the green glow, the cracked dirt floor is reminiscent of foundation caked on a sozzled mime’s face. I shut the door and squat before the truck.
Arnica drops the seat between the cab and the covered truck bed, unrolls a mattress and inflates it, plugging the air pump into the inverter. You could charge a computer, vacuum the cab, blow-dry your hair off pure Chevy power with that thing. Arnica sleeps in her truck wherever she goes. She’ll disappear and we’ll find out she’s road tripping through New Mexico. She sleeps in her truck in parking lots, campgrounds, shoulders off the side of the road. Some would call her reckless. I would just say she’s a true Pisces.
Why should we feel like targets for the unfathomable horrific in our own first-world country? How free are we if we can’t pull off our meticulously paved five-lane highways without fear? Oh America, your perverts and pedophiles, your rapists and traffickers, just a figment of the imagination, a whisper in the other room, a disruption in the universe to touch upon such profanity.
I stuff ten bucks under the windshield wiper and leave a note for the instance of a visit by a diligent campground host: “Here’s a down payment. We’ll settle up in the morning. Promise.”
* * *
I awaken early, feeling clammy and trapped in the enclosed truck. Arnica is out cold. I wriggle from my bag and get out to survey the outhouse kingdom in long johns and boots. A band of clouds sit low on the horizon before evaporating to blue vacuum. Ten miles to the north rises a lone leather-faced mountain, Bear Butte, in the silhouette of a reclining pregnant woman. The sun climbs, bringing light to the peel and crumble of the campground.
A defunct ’78 tractor has rusted to a halt yards from our camp. A dirt-cream camping trailer is the nearest habitation to our outpost, tall grass covering the wheels and hitch, untouched since ’85. Scattered well pumps, a water tank and the flaking mint-green outhouse shacks make up the geography across flat grass. Next to our john, a lid-less trashcan filled with garbage bakes in the sun. Flies stir and buzz.
A shirtless man in jeans and bike boots saunters from the doorway of a distant Airstream. His lady appears in the doorway in cut-offs and a bra, leaning down to wrap her arms around his tattooed back. With foreheads together, they talk. They kiss and he walks to his bike, leaning on it as he makes a phone call and pulls on a cigarette.
Arnica rolls out the cab door. We change behind the truck.
Someone’s detected us. A black ’92 GMC Sierra with a missing grill and headlights--the vehicle of the Grim Reaper-- ambles toward our isolated camp. A scraggly fellow with greasy brown-gray hair and three day’s beard hops out. In thick glasses, loose jeans and a Panama Jack short sleeve shirt, he reminds me of the high school shop teacher who taught us plastic injection molding, at least a hung-over version of Mr. Stratton. He moves like a live worm on a hook.
“Holy shit, a blonde and a brunette--had I known what was in my patch last night! How’d ya’ sleep, ladies?”
He introduces himself as George, Proprietor of The Patch.
“I bought this place in my outlaw days. Came out here to escape from it all and do whatever the hell I wanted. The land was dirt-cheap and the shitters were already here. Only campground around with private shitters for every site that are lit all night. Not bad, huh?”
George is just the guy we need. We pay up in full, handing over twenty bucks.
“Where can we go dancing, George?” We wanted to party with the descendants of Gram Parsons, the grandson of Steppenwolf, the illegitimate children of Van Halen. We wanted to be two-stepped, spun, and dipped while some half-ass honky-tonk band sang a somewhat decent cover of “Call Me the Breeze,” where the dancing girls were shimmying to Free and not Katy Perry.
“George, do you know of this place? Does it exist?”
“There used to be The Broken Spoke and The Pyramid. But you know, they’ve torn down all the old places or rebuilt them. They’re all a bunch of circuses. Anymore, I just stay out here and let the party come to me. That’s the special thing about this place.” He draws a line in the air, as if envisioning his masterpiece in the marquee, and says: “The Patch: You Have To Find It.”
“What’s the deal with the slaw wrestling? It’s today, isn’t it?” Arnica inquires.
“I buy 250 pounds of the shit every year, throw it in a heap out in the field and let ‘em go at it. Sometimes it gets really rough. Last year a big-ass chick tugged on the nut sack of the only guy who dared to enter. He went down fast. Dirtiest match I’ve ever hosted. But I’m sick of it. I’m not doing it again after this year.”
“You don’t mean that George.”
“This is The Patch. You have to offer slaw wrestling.”
“No, I mean it. Never again. I can’t get anyone to do it this year. The only person I’ve got signed up so far is the bus driver.” He points and waves to the The Cabbage Patch complimentary shuttle, a short-bus with airbrushed cabbage heads on its sides, which has just made the first morning swing through to drop off no one and pick up no one. The bus driver beeps hello, her flank-steak arm swinging out the window.
“Tell you what, if you girls slaw wrestle this afternoon you can stay free tonight. No one will f**k with ya’ here.”
“We’ll think on it. Thanks, George.”
“Swing by the bar before you head out for the day,” he points to the garage lean-to at the entry. He hops back in his rig, lifts an Intoxalock from the console and blows into the tube, shrugging his shoulders sheepishly as he passes the test and fires the engine.
We eat granola bars and sit at a picnic table next to the outhouse, carefully arranging a nail painting station between blotches of bird droppings. I set my hands on the pock-marked particleboard and Arnica paints my nails fire-engine red. I let them air dry as she does hers.
We have no one to call, no one to report to. We have all the time in the world, the freedom to sit in the sun and say nothing while a friend paints her nails a vixen shade. We’re at that age at which there lingers a tacit understanding that this may be the last time we find ourselves thus.
“Shall we?” she asks.
We saunter to the open-air pavilion, where George invites us into the enclosed bar area. A stripper pole serves as centerpiece in the floor plan. We sit in wooden chairs with scratched leather-upholstered seat. Miller Lite flags hang like stalactites from the ceiling; the faux-maple paneling of the walls are covered in Sharpie messages.
“This place rocks.”
“Live to ride, ride to live, 2000.”
“George--I f****d your mom.”
Rubber burn marks streak the floor from burnout competitions, in which a rider straddles a bike and holds it stationary while gunning the throttle. The back wheel spins and burns off the tire tread, which spews white smoke and fills the room as the tailpipes fan the fumes. Whoever holds it longest without tipping over or the engine catching fire wins. George offers us coffee, biscuits and gravy from a Crock-Pot.
“I built this place when I was tweaking. I used to be a crazy bastard. But that’s all behind me now.”
He came to Sturgis by way of Illinois, where he ran an auto body shop with his son. But that fell to the wayside.
“I dated my son’s ex-girlfriend after they broke up. That kinda’ pissed off my boy. She was 18 and I was 47. She had a baby a few years ago with her new guy and I was the one who had to go to the delivery room with her. Paid for her hospital bills and everything. I’m always the person people come crying to.”
“He’s full of shit,” one of his buddies walks in. The man pulls a few biscuits from the plastic bag and ladles gravy over them.
“No, I’m not. After her, I decided I was done being a wild man.” He holds up his left hand to show us a gold band. “I married a woman who’s in prison. We started off as pen pals and just a few months ago we said our vows over the phone. I check in with her once a week. She keeps me honest.”
“He’s tellin’ the truth on that,” the friend interjects.
“How much time does she have to go, George?”
“Five years. That’s not too long to wait for true love, right?”
Sturgis, South Dakota