STURGIS, S.D. — At the center of a dozen boot-clad women stood the shortest of them all, in one hand an owl’s wing that she harvested herself, in the other a bundle of burning sage.
“Great spirit, we thank you for your many blessings upon this beautiful circle of women,” she began, batting the skunky smoke across their bodies in turn. The impromptu, early-morning blessing was a gift from fifth-generation medicine woman Antonia Evenstar Armenta-Miller, intended to keep the women safe as they mounted their motorcycles for the Wild Gypsy Tour and rode away toward Mount Rushmore, the smell of sage lost on the wind somewhere in the Black Hills.
Every August, South Dakota’s population grows by about 50% as half a million riders descend on its vast grasslands and craggy mountains for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the world’s largest motorcycle event. Part riding, part racing and part party, it’s a celebration of American motorcycle culture. The state tourism board hosted me on a trip to witness the festivities at the Buffalo Chip campground and amphitheater, the main site of the 78th annual rally.
In this two-wheeled, male-dominated world, women have historically been most visible on the back of a bike or across the pages of a calendar. But women have played an understated, integral role in the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as well. It was Pearl Hoel, wife of founder J.C. Hoel, who introduced the touring aspect now intrinsic to the rally. Without women, the rally never would have grown to what it is — and more women participants will ensure there’s a culture to rally around in decades to come.
The Wild Gypsy Tour, a women’s-only motorcycle festival that takes place in tandem with Sturgis, is dedicated to challenging prevailing stereotypes. It’s one of a number of all-women groups to crop up in the biker world as female ridership increases. “I want to provide a platform for women motorcyclists to experience one of the most historical and legendary motorcycle events in the entire world,” said tour founder Kelly Yazdi. “They’ve never been supported in the way that men have. They just need the invitation — but they need the right invitation, the right tribe.”
This year, Yazdi’s five-day festival attracted some 50 women — more than a 60% increase in turnout since the inaugural festival in 2017. Most of them new to Sturgis, they came from across the United States and Canada to attend the famed rally at the Chip, celebrate riding and connect with other women doing the same. “All my life, I rode with men,” said Tanya Horn, who spent the 2018 rally — her 23rd one — with the Wild Gypsy Tour. “This gave me the chance to focus on my feminine self, which I don’t do very often. I made connections that will last a lifetime.”
Though in the heart of the Buffalo Chip, the Wild Gypsy compound bears a stark contrast to its surroundings, with rows of glamping-style canvas tents to either side, a large barn for oil-change and patch-sewing workshops at the back, an old wooden stage at the front and a private bar at center. Yazdi brought in everything the participants needed, including real beds, a healthful food option in Armenta-Miller’s Bonafide food truck, hosted happy hours and special concerts.
When the inaugural rally kicked off in 1938, Sturgis was little more than a sparsely attended series of races put together by local Indian Motorcycle dealership owner J.C. “Pappy” Hoel, a founding member of the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club. But it was Pappy’s wife, Pearl, who encouraged longer rides by mapping out routes for the bikers, and it was her reputation as a responsible citizen and active church member that garnered the approval of community members and inevitably granted the rally its place in Sturgis, South Dakota.
But as the rally grew, so did community disapproval. When the city sought to shut it all down in the early 1980s, born-and-raised South Dakotan Rod Woodruff offered to host the rally at the nearby Buffalo Chip campground. “Just seemed like if they didn’t want [the bikers] in town then maybe you just have it some place outside of town where people are welcome to go,” Woodruff said. “And really, I used to throw keg parties in high school. It’s a natural outgrowth.”
After a while, Woodruff realized that to make any sort of business out of the Buffalo Chip, he had to find a way to make the rally more attractive to women. He made the rally more accessible by drilling a well for water, offering food and providing comfortable alternatives to tent camping, all of which drove the evolution of the Chip and resulted in the continued growth of Sturgis — much of which was, in effect, driven by women.
“The party started growing exponentially when some ladies came along,” Woodruff said. “Along the way, more and more women started actually riding, you know, first on the back, and then more and more women wanted a little bit more independence.” Previously, long-distance rides on older, complex bikes required mechanical knowledge if a motorcycle broke down on the road. Advancements in the quality of the motorcycles themselves helped make riding more accessible to newcomers, including women.
Though the rally is still where people go to let loose, to feel free, to never grow up, it’s notably tamer today than in years past. Perhaps that’s because despite catering to the young at heart, Sturgis is not Neverland — its participants are aging. According to a survey conducted by Community Builders, Inc. for the Sturgis Motorcycle rally, nearly half of all rallygoers were 54 or older in 2013, a statistic that’s reflective of current U.S. ridership as well. What’s more, the industry consistently fails to attract new riders — like women, minorities and millennials — and the implications are serious.
“The reality of the motorcycle industry is that it’s dying,” said Lindsey Lock. She manages the Scrambler Road Trip, a Ducati motorcycle pop-up that supported the Wild Gypsy Tour at Sturgis — a sign that some corporations are very much aware of the importance of marketing to women. “Kids aren’t learning to ride,” Lock said. “They’re playing video games or stuck inside. Getting more women on bikes means getting more kids on bikes. Then it becomes a family activity, and our world doesn’t die.”
In empowering women to ride, Yazdi hopes to do her part in preserving that world. “The overall point of what I do as an events creator is to keep this industry alive,” she said. “It’s surprising how all of the accredited motorcycle organizations acknowledge that women are the fastest-growing niche in this industry, yet I find it extremely challenging to get the support I need to put on a women’s event.”
Within the pasture-fenced perimeter of the Wild Gypsy Tour, Yazdi has succeeded at creating a haven for female riders, many of whom have never shared the road in this way. “I came here to make connections with other women because I feel like sisterhood is really important,” Morgan Hautala, who’s been riding seriously for less than a year, said. “I’d never even ridden with women before. It just felt really indescribable, honestly — really magical and special. I might have cried a little.”