The Last Pioneers

We stopped for gas and food in Chamberlain, perched on a bluff above the grand Missouri River. A clear late summer Thursday evening in South Dakota, and we were halfway to the Black Hills, where on Saturday the 55th annual Sturgis Rally and Races—one of the world's largest congregations of Harley Davidson aficionados—would kick off.

Having spent, more or less by accident, the first two months of the summer working in sleepy Sioux Falls, I had jumped at the chance to accompany a coworker and his girlfriend on a long weekend of camping and voyeurism in the old West. And now, as Mike and Jill refueled on coney dogs and root beer at the hilltop A & W, I was sitting on a peeling wooden slat fence, watching the sun expire behind the bluffs on the western bank of the river and listening to the roar of Harley engines washing up from the exit ramp 100 feet below.

I was thinking that when Americans travel these days they prefer the jetliner or the recreational vehicle, hermetically sealed machines in which one can voyage from coast to coast without ever having to expose oneself to the elements save on those long walks to the shuttle bus or through the McDonald's parking lot. A perfect yellow half moon was riding low over my left shoulder, and on the swaybacked bridge below, a succession of disembodied red taillights dimmed and were swallowed up by the black mass of hillside on the western shore; I found myself...

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