Is that thunder? An earthquake? No. It’s just the near-constant roar of thousands of motorcycles as the 78th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally hits its midpoint. And while the epicenter of the event is 60 miles away, the Custer area is definitely feeling the effects, although perhaps not as much as in recent years.
Official numbers show an increase in traffic for this year’s rally. The South Dakota Department of Transportation reports traffic was up an average of almost three percent for the first three days of this year’s rally compared to the same time last year. The Saturday traffic into Sturgis totaled 60,119 vehicles, which is almost an 11 percent increase from the rally’s first Saturday last year.
However, in Custer opinions differ with regard to this year’s turnout. Mitch McLain, who greets visitors on the street as Gen. Custer, said it was “a weird Monday for us.”
He said the day started off a little slower than previous years. However, by the noon hour hundreds of bikes were parked in the center lanes of Mt. Rushmore Road which have been blocked off for motorcycle parking since before the weekend.
Local motels and campgrounds are reporting they are at or near capacity, but as of mid-morning on Tuesday, Don Herron of the Rocket Motel said he still had six rooms open for Wednesday night and believes numbers are down from last year. He says he is not even charging the usual “rally rates” for rooms.
Marcel Wahlstrom, owner of the Bavarian Inn, said his rooms have been filled or close to full every night this week and Kim Reifschneider, manager at Holiday Inn Express, is seeing similar occupancy. However, their guests are not predominately bikers.
Typically families have avoided coming to the Hills during rally week because of the congestion and higher lodging rates, but Wahlstrom and Reifschneider say a new trend appears to be emerging. Reifschneider said only about half of her guests appear to be bikers, and Wahlstrom said he has noticed more families are staying in the area during the rally than in previous years.
Reifschneider observed that those wishing to visit family-oriented attractions such as caves or swimming areas will find smaller crowds and shorter lines this week.
Rally-related vendors set up on 6th Street downtown are also mixed in their opinions about this year’s numbers. Kay Reese of Texas has been operating a booth selling leather conditioner in Custer during the rally for four years and said she believes there is more traffic this year than last. She’s playing music over a speaker system to liven the mood and attract customers and said she has even seen people dancing to the music.
Meanwhile, other vendors said, while the opening weekend seemed slower, the numbers have been steadily increasing.
As always, law enforcement is highly visible during the rally and it has been a busy time for officers. Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said accidents have been down the first weekend compared to previous years. There were six accidents in the county between Friday and Sunday and only one of those involved injuries. There were also 69 traffic stops made by deputies during that period, with the majority being speed related.
Deputies wearing yellow uniform shirts have been making foot patrols on the streets and in local bars and restaurants, making their presence known and keeping an eye on any outlaw gang activity.
No matter the numbers, most of the visitors rolling though town this week will receive a friendly greeting from McLain or other local residents dressed in 19th century costumes. On Tuesday morning five greeters stood at the intersection of Mt. Rushmore Road and Highway 16/385 waving and shouting, “Welcome to Custer,” to folks entering downtown both on motorcycles and in cars and RVs. And the show of hospitality seems to be paying off.
“We hear it from people every year,” says McLain. “People say they stopped in Custer because they were greeted so hospitably.”