It turns out I've been using the phrase "in the middle of nowhere" incorrectly my whole life. I used to mean it as a put-down, but I've discovered that it's actually a good thing. And now that I've found the middle of nowhere, it turns out to be more remote than I could have imagined: on a rural mail route way outside of Philip, S.D., population 750.
That is where you'll find the Triangle Ranch Bed and Breakfast, eight miles down a gravel road from a spot between two exits on Interstate 90, and if you see a soul during that bumpy stretch, you either got quite lucky or believe that cows have souls. Just rolling plains of pasture and already rolled bales of hay line the route there -- beautiful, spare land, a sort of fantasy Dakota that would be hard for outsiders to imagine living in permanently and (I imagine) hard for anyone who grew up there to leave. Eventually the road leads to a house, and not any old house: a Sears prefab from the catalog, a Mission Revival model, with all its original wood and barely altered since it was completed in 1923.
I rarely find a full-on bed-and-breakfast I can afford, and this one was particularly miraculous. For most of my monthlong trip, I've been spending the night in $50 or $60 motel rooms, all of which have been perfectly acceptable, but also (and this is almost part of their charm) lonely. But I had come to South Dakota just as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began, bringing in something like 400,000 bikers on twice as many wheels. If you're at all familiar with the laws of supply and demand, you can imagine what happens to motel prices.
Yet when I made a reservation about two weeks in advance at Triangle Ranch, the price was still the regular $89 a night for a single. I was assigned Mathilda's room, which had twin beds, a rocking chair and a handmade China doll laid out on the beds -- and exclusive access to the original, wood-paneled second-floor bathroom with claw-foot tub. The place, run by Lyndy Ireland and her rancher husband, Kenny, was built on land Ms. Ireland's great-grandfather had first settled in 1904 when he bribed a squatter with a team of horses and a carriage to clear out.
The room was still available because the gravel road approach is not very popular among bikers, Ms. Ireland told me. It's also about two hours from Sturgis -- though some bikers stay even farther away -- but it is only 30 minutes from the entrance to Badlands National Park ($15 for a week pass), with its stark buttes and pinnacles that look like a giant kid built a sand castle 500,000 years ago and it stuck.
In case you haven't guessed, I am not a motorcycle enthusiast; the closest I've come to riding on a Harley-Davidson is clinging on the back of sputtering moto-taxis in Latin America. I'm guessing that would impress the Sturgis crowd about as much as tales of miniature golf experience impresses the PGA leader board.
But I had come to be an outsider, to spend a few days in a culture easily more foreign to me than many foreign countries. The organized mayhem of Sturgis, once I made it through miles of two-wheeled traffic jams and found a rare four-wheel parking place, was vaguely like Mardi Gras, though, with leather and much more engine-revving. Mammoth venues like the Knuckle Saloon filled with Bud Light drinkers comparing notes on their bikes, eating beef tips and watching live bands. When I stopped by, the concert area had been converted into an Extreme Sport Fighting ring that was featuring what the announcer billed a "chick fight!" the day that I was there.
Booths throughout the town showcased every possible accessory, from helmets adorned with Viking horns to custom-designed console inserts. There were a few political signs mounted on bikes, including one belonging to a woman wearing an "I feel a sin coming on" tank top; it is unprintable here but used the same curse word to denigrate both the president and anyone who put their bikes in trailers to come to Sturgis instead of riding the open road. Still, the most common activity for us all was admiring the endless rows of bikes, from the custom specials to the simply well shined.
That, and conversations about motorcycle culture, kept me more than entertained. What New Yorker knew there was a whole industry of motorcycle lawyers, who represent riders in personal injury cases? And I heard a mouthful about helmet laws ("It's a freedom of choice thing!"), which are far more restrictive on the coasts than in the center of the country. I also got a kick out of a North Dakota couple who had matching HSBIKE and HRBIKE vanity plates, and heard more about the TV show "Duck Dynasty" than I had in its first three seasons combined (during which I had heard nothing). Even churches pandered. The sign outside the First Baptist Church in nearby Deadwood read "Jesus likes bikers too" alongside an offer of free coffee.
Fleeing the motorcycle madness and returning to Triangle Ranch at the end of each day could not have been more perfect -- as I'm guessing it was even for the biker guests who joined me every morning at the communal table for an elaborate yet down-home breakfast of sausage quiche or raspberry cream cheese French toast. Everyone was in that relaxed, friendly B&B breakfast table mood; I used the time to ask the bikers who were staying at the ranch to explain some unresolved mysteries: for example, what was up with the three-wheeled cycles, or trikes, that I had seen a number of. A guest from Michigan explained that they're popular among riders with physical conditions that make riding a two-wheeler difficult, but that they had become a culture unto themselves. We had both seen ones that were built to look like semis. "We took some pictures of them at the Badlands the other day," he said. "Of course, I got friends who are truckers back home and they're going to go crazy."
A nonbiker shouldn't spend more than a day at the Sturgis motorcycle rally any more than a baseball-oblivious foreigner should stick out a doubleheader. So after a day and a half with the big chopper set, I set off to explore other parts of western South Dakota, which is so stuffed with tourist draws that I ended up doing a rushed tour of the major highlights.
Just south of Sturgis are the Black Hills (or Paha Sapa in Lakota), named for the spruce trees that are such a deep, dark green that even on a sunny day it seems a thundercloud must be hovering above. Those hills are home to Mount Rushmore, too. I'm no fan of one-trick tourist attractions, but four presidents carved into a cliff is, admittedly, riveting -- and the Sturgis attendees seemed to agree. Dozens of bikers had pulled over on the shoulder at the point where the winding mountain road leading there revealed a view of the monument, thus avoiding the $11 parking fee (and worthwhile visitors' center) at the monument itself.
I forked over my $11 -- a bargain by Manhattan parking garage standards -- and entered the park only to discover that I had not left the bikers behind; there were so many there that they vastly outnumbered the camera-laden foreign tourists and Americans with kids in tow.
Right after that, I made a quick trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial, the still-in-progress tribute to the Lakota leader. Work began in 1948 and continues today in the hands of the children of the original sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. When and if it is completed, it will dwarf Mount Rushmore. The cost is $10 to enter the site (though free to Native Americans and military personnel), which in addition to a partly finished sculpture buys you entry to the Indian Museum of North America, which displays enough art and artifacts to take up the better part of your day, and to the home and studio of Mr. Ziolkowski, who died in 1982. At a presentation outside the museum, a crowd of bikers and others listened as two charismatic Native Americans in traditional dress spoke about misconceptions of their peoples. "Some of the more frequently asked questions we get," said one, is 'Do your people still live in tepees?'? No, we don't. 'What kind of food do you people eat?' We like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell like everybody else. Also, our cellphones do not send smoke signals." A bit cringeworthy, but perhaps news to some.
I much preferred the folksy tales that Mr. Ireland told us back on the ranch during breakfasts -- when he was not making token efforts to help in the kitchen. (In his defense, he also has to run the 2,000-acre ranch, caring for 40 head of Black Angus cattle, baling hay and mending fences.) One morning he told of how, as a young man, he used to drag race his '59 Dodge Coronet against his friend's '61 Chevy along the winding roads of the Badlands. He won, or so he said, because his car could hold the curves. That story particularly struck me, perhaps because though I could certainly relate to a South Dakota of wide-open roads with not another vehicle for miles, it was odd to imagine a time where four-wheeled vehicles reigned supreme.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.