Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Buffalo Chip 2009: A recap

The first time i went to the Sturgis Rally i was 15 or 16. My friend Linz and i drove her banged up Subaru up there from Rapid City, parking on a side street so we wouldn't be seen not rolling in on a motorcycle. We wore no hooched-out clothes and carried no cash. To us, black leather was stupid and the old sluts who wore mere clutches of it, barely covering their aging breasts, were stupider. We were Rally rookies -- besides experiencing the constant roar of motorcycles passing through Rapid every summer of our young lives.

And that's more or less the way it remained for me, until this year. Even when i worked in tv news in Rapid City, the closest i got to being at the Rally was coordinating live shots with our on-the-scene reporters. Not quite the same when you see the action from a ten-inch monitor.

So that's probably why i feel the need to catalogue a bit more about working at the Buffalo Chip Campground this past week. I don't relate to the signs at the massive biker mecca that read "Welcome Home Riders," but it's still one hell of an experience, and it has to be shared.

And there's just so damn much to tell.

This year, my time is my own, and the promise of banking a few grand and going home to see my sister, nephew and parents at the same time was too tempting to pass up. Plus... the stories...

So here it goes, day by day, starting with July 31st:

Day 1
Em and i roll into the campground, wearing the least hoochie of our hoochie Rally gear. That is is, if you call ripped-up leggings and a longish, ripped-up blue t-shirt "least hoochie." A mad gale of wind is blowing all through the center bowl of the campground, the dust cloud over the scene highlighting the fact that most of the bikers have yet to roll in. It's Friday, and many of them are still finishing off a week at the plant or the machine shop and packing up their gear. We haven't sold a single drink yet, but my sis is more than ready to spend some cash on a Buffalo Chip sweatshirt to keep warm in the wind. Soon all the bartenders' scant clothing is covered up by warm coats and even a few pairs of gloves. The Hawaiian Tropic/Miss Buffalo Chip bikini contest kicks off in spite of the cold weather. My favorite quote was from the model who said her interests were 'go-go dancing and shopping.' As the slow, cold night progresses, our most notable customers are a pair of short locals in ill-fitting bandanas, drunk as sailors by the time they reach our bar. They're enamored with the ripped leggings and ask more than once, "how much do you cost?" They also ask me to turn around at the end of the bar like i'm cruising a catwalk in Milan. Some of the other workers find a nest of newborn bunnies in a firepit near the bar, and cover it up with a picnic table to protect them from the soon-to-arrive throng of steel-toed biker boots.

Day 2
Sly and the Family Stone rock the main stage, minus the Sly. Em and i are assigned the "upper Steel" bar, where bikers can ride up above the crowd onto a metal deck and burn out their back tires in a haze of smelly black choke. We wear matching black shirts, white skirts, and get our picture taken incessantly. We get offered $100 to take the tops off, to reveal the matching bras underneath. We don't.

Day 3
Em and i work a day shift near the "beach" -- a manmade lagoon with a couple rope swings and a blow-up slide. Security starts regulating the women who decide to take a nude dip in the heat, telling them they can't go topless. Men strut around with big bellies and awful suntan lines, while the women fashion pasties out of duct tape to cover their 'offensive' parts. Margaritas and straight shots of Cuervo sell by the dozen, and a young Wyoming miner posts up at my bar, regaling me with tales of riding his friend's scooter to Sturgis after he fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck and wrecked both his motorcycle and truck in one fell swoop. A couple Vietnam vets in patch-heavy vests poke fun of the jailhouse tattoos on one of the women in pasties. Among other ill-done tats, she and her husband have the words "white" down the back of one arm, and "trash" down the other, with a little devil tail coming off the 'h'. People walk by my bar asking for directions to the pickle lickin' contest and the mechanical penis ride.

Day 4
Country demigod Toby Keith headlines on the main stage. Cowboy boots outnumber biker boots, and the place is packed. The singer scores major points with the crowd with two 'we love our troops' songs and two 'America rules' songs. I get assigned the Top Shelf bar -- a private party with a great view of the stage. A legion of short-haired middle-aged South Dakota women stomp their boots to the music and try to extract their own cans of Coors Light from my beer tub. They tip quite well though.

Day 5
It's been raining off and on all week, but this time it dumps ten-gallon buckets just as Cheech and Chong are set to light up on stage. The stoner crowd is already mellower than most, but the thunderstorm puts a big damper on things. I work an outside beer tub with one of the Hawaiian Tropic models. She becomes my best friend ('o my god, i totally love you!!') when i score two yellow plastic ponchos off the Geico reps who are passing them out -- throwing them from their covered golf cart the way small town beauty queens toss roses to an adoring crowd. Somehow the Tropic model's ass still looks glorious, even while wearing plastic. I am more of the drowned-rat type of girl. I head home early, my cowboy-booted feet about the only thing that stays dry.

Day 6
I already did this one, and it was a doozy. See the highlights here.

Day 7
Em and i sleep well past one o'clock and wake to shower and reapply our now-caked makeup and dash back to the Chip. We work together in a bar fashioned out of an old school bus. A national champion Lakota hoop dancer gets a handful of beer-bellied, middle aged bikers to hoop dance with her, until one by one they drop out of the festivities -- on account of the thin air and the higher elevation than they're used to back in Missouri. A Christian rock band takes the bus bar stage next -- their pack of adoring teenage fans testifying with their hands in the air. No one buys beer or anything else until about one o'clock in the morning, when the main stage closes. We spend about 11 hours standing, and about 45 minutes sweating. Earlier on the main stage, hair band Tesla asks the crowd whether they want to go back to 1986. A few hands clap in affirmation. A man's girlfriend falls in love with us as bartenders and sisters, and advises her man to give us an extra tip. He openly refuses, because after another round of storms we're wearing jackets that cover our skimpy clothes. Truth be told we are beginning to give up on getting decked out each night.

Day 8
We are beginning to realize this year won't be quite as lucrative as most, with the incessant rain soaking the ground and leaving the bikers to hunker down in their campers and tents. Then the big shit hits. Golf-ball size hail slams down on the metal roof of the bar we are working. We close the bar windows and try to stay dry. Somehow Em gets pelted with a huge hail ball, even though we are essentially inside. There's talk of a tornado and i whisper to my sister that we will be the first to take shelter in the walk-in beer cooler if anything serious goes down. We are working with a Hawaiian Tropic girl from California who believes we're going through a war in this storm. She stares at us in awe, with our local-girl cool about the whole thing. When the clouds pass it looks like it's snowed outside, and both my sister's car and our dad's truck have cracked windshields. We are some of the luckier ones though. Other people who took refuge in their motorhomes had to hunker under blankets when their windows started busting out one by one. Balls of hail leave windshields with clean round holes, and people's tents lie on the ground in sad sloshy heaps. We hear that bikers who were out on the road had to hop into friendly people's cars on the Interstate, watching their Harleys take a beating while their heads got spared.

Day 9
LAST DAY. Hoochie outfits are more than over with. We've even stopped taking pictures of our getups, because we're too tired to dress alike and even more tired of smiling for photos. Instead we take unsmiling photos of the pack of us hunkering down in the bar, when yet ANOTHER round of thunderheads boom through our vicinity. Two words: Over It. We beg our boss to let three of the four of us check out from the bar, so the one who is left can try to make some money off the boot-wearing bikers who brave Lake Buffalo Chip to get to our bar.

It's our turn to drink booze aplenty, count our money, and dream of the trip back home.


incalculable said...

So fun! One more benefit of self/un-employment: being able to up and go bartend at some crazy biker festival... Love it!

Nicole Vulcan said...

Yep. Not really my scene, but the money was worth it even on a bad year...

kennrod said...

As an old Hippie, Biker who never made it to Sturgis, I really enjoyed reading this, you're a good descriptive writer, thanks for sharing.