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Drifters And Cripples Creek
Originally Published In The June 2018 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
The rally was over, and Sturgis had rapidly reverted back into a little nowhere South Dakota town. It was time to go. My next destination would be the Veteran’s Rally in Cripple Creek Colorado, about five hundred miles south. Some of the guys who’d stayed with us at Camp-5 were already in route. I’d see them there. Summer’s sunshine warmed the air as the small road twisted through the beautiful forests of the Black Hills. After all the rally noise, it was good to be free and on the road again. For many years I’ve enjoyed exploring abandoned houses while in route. Each is like a living museum of a life that’s over now. A couple of ancient log cabins lay alongside this highway and, although I’d ridden past them for years, I’d never stopped to explore them. This was the day. It had always seemed possible that I might run across a dead body in one of these places, yet never had. That was about to change. I entered the tiny home to find its interior a complete shamble from many years of neglect. In one bedroom an old bed stood near the wall. In it lay one large skeleton. Freaky. A closer look revealed it was just a large animal that had settled there to die. A strange sight to be sure.
Eventually,I came to the town of New Castle. From there I took Highway 85 South and the Great Plains quickly opened up. A few miles later, an old one-room schoolhouse came into view. It sat alone in a vast sea of prairie. The first year I’d stopped to explore this place was 2003. Back then, its interior had been as perfect as the day class had been in session. Upon entering, I’d leafed through a stack of learning magazines dating back to the 80s. As I moved on I saw how so many other abandoned schoolhouse explorers had written their names and dates of passage on the blackboard. I was moved to do the same. Since then, stopping to add a new date every year had become tradition. Last year, however, I’d noted that the extreme winds that are typical to this land had blown one wall in and the building was starting to come apart. Exploring these old places has always vividly affirmed the stark realization that all the ‘things’ in one’s life serve as only the backdrop necessary to make the human movie possible. When the people leave, Mother Nature systematically, immediately (by her ledger), and completely, destroys everything left behind. This always reminds me that, although my possessions are very important, they are not the reason for my existence. When I leave this earth, the only thing going with me will be what’s inside that makes me alive, and that which is inside everyone else to make them alive as well. We’ll be leaving together, while everything left behind immediately turns back into dirt. So, as I see it, the only thing real in this world is the spirit. Therefore, what seems of greatest importance is how my soul is changed (hopefully for the better), and how I affect the spirits of others. If this philosophy seems crazy to you…well…consider the source.
After a night’s camp near the roadside, I came to the town of Boulder, Colorado. From here I would climb into the Rocky Mountains then travel through their stunning beauty until I eventually reached my destination. Evening was again falling when I arrived in the town of Florissant. Florissant sits just 20-miles from Cripple Creek, and Panhead Billy, a full-time motorcycle drifter of 33 years, had invited me here to stay with him and a few friends who make camp behind a local biker bar. Behind the saloon, I found a few motorcycles and RVs already set up. The folks were uncommonly friendly, and I sat to enjoy a lengthy bullshit session. Billy showed up just after dark. Upon his arrival, a fire was built as a band played inside the bar. The party lasted well into the night, and it was very late when I finally set camp farther away to avoid the noise. After repacking in the morning, I set out along a forgotten road lined with the pine forest beauty of this place. Eventually, Cripple Creek came into view. This little mining town sits at an altitude of 9,500 feet, which makes it one of the highest communities in the country. Many of the houses appeared painfully weather-beaten; for way up here the winter storms are often quite severe.
I headed for the little town’s main drag, which is Bennett Road. I believe it may be because the mining industry played out years ago that this street is now lined with the many casinos that occupy ancient buildings and create income for the town. Quite a few bikes already lined the road, but the rally would not begin for a day or two. I watched as vendors scurried around setting up their tents in anticipation of a big crowd. My first concern when entering any new town is locating a place to set camp. After checking the campground and finding it too expensive. I took a short ride out Shelf Road, whose dirt surface winds out of town and goes on for many miles, and soon found a suitable spot. That done, I headed back into Cripple Creek. On the Bennett Road again, I spotted the parked motorcycles of my campmates from Sturgis. Pulling to their curb, I saw that everyone was sitting on a nearby bench. It was good to see this rag-tag pack of wayward wonderers again. There was Chip, who’d recently moved onto his bike permanently. Back in Sturgis, he’d teamed up with Mike who, although not permanent, had no time constraints and would return home whenever the spirit moved him. Then there was Jed— just out for a while. And Cody, the quiet young guy who’d grabbed his ancient, falling apart, 500cc Honda then came to camp with us at Sturgis. Everyone was traveling on financial fumes, taking camp wherever they found it, unconcerned with luxuries or convenience, and merely following any adventure to wherever it led. This seems an uncommon thing in this day and age, and I was reminded of my roots.
Handshakes and hugs went around. Their enthusiasm was infectious. I knew these were times that would never be forgotten, and possibly become stories passed on to grandchildren. The guys had already nailed down all the stupidly inexpensive meals the casinos had to offer. I took note as they laid out the details. We hung out a long while, but the boys were anxious to go burn off some tire rubber. I remembered those days. In a big hurry to see the world. Great times, but for me that was long ago. So they mounted up and scurried off. After all, this place did offer an unlimited supply of fantastic riding. Checking the cell phone for info, I soon learned of the town’s recreation center. It was located just one short block away. I walked over, bought a 3-day pass, then ambled upstairs to use the gym, shower, and throw on clean clothes. I’d long ago learned that road-life is often made up of inactive, or even dull, times broken up by often outrageous adventures. If one is unable to master the art-of-hangingout, I don’t see how he can last long out here. So the day passed easily as I walked the streets, ate casino meals, sat in coffee shops, and explored the town by bike. Although tough to get a big motorcycle into, my Shelf Road spot was a very comfortable camp. By morning I sat home drinking coffee and worked on the computer for hours before eventually making ready for the ride into town. Having long ago become accustomed to staying on the land rather than paid campgrounds, my equipment is always repacked by morning, then re-erected in the evening. With practice, this had become a quick, if not pain-in-the-ass, routine.
Today, the town was crowded with people and all manner of motorcycles lining the streets. Noting Panhead Billy’s bike, I parked beside it. He and Tater, who’s always at Sturgis working for vendors, occupied one of the nearby benches. I sat to hang with them for a while. Folks constantly stop to gawk at Billy’s beat up, loaded down, Panhead and this makes for almost constant conversation with passers-by. Eventually, my Sturgis campmates showed up. Later in the afternoon, they’d be attending a little concert held by Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of the late Johnny Cash, at a bar in the nearby town of Victor. I was invited. After a few hours of carousing Cripple Creek, we saddled up for the short five-mile ride. The ride in revealed that, as are most in the Rocky Mountains, Victor is a tiny town. The little bar was packed with bodies as Rosanne, and her band played for hours. It was near dark when we decided to leave the bar and Chip invited me to camp with them that night. I agreed to check it out… The little road running back to Cripple Creek wound high along the side of a mountain. At its cliffside was a large paved turnout and we pulled in. The view was breathtaking as it rolled across the hills to the setting sun. Having checked the internet, the guys had chosen this spot because it’s legal to camp here. Chip showed me how, for the last few nights, they’d been simply stretching a tarp over the guardrail, staking it out like a leanto, and then sliding sleeping bags beneath. I thought of all the snoring and farting that would be going on under there. Didn’t seem appealing so I opted out, then offered an invitation that they try a spot on Shelf Road sometime. With that, I went home. Next day the rally was winding down. I passed the time with friends, food, my favorite coffee shop, some riding, gym, and a shower. All in all, it was an easy time. After calling Chip the next morning, I took a short jaunt farther down Shelf Road and found the guys set up in a nice turnout. This was the day of departure, and all would be going separate ways soon. Chip and Mike were bound for California, while Jed went for Fort Collins. This left Cody and I to team up for an easterly ride across Kansas. Cody, I thought, the quiet guy on his falling apart 500cc Honda. I’ve hardly come to know him. That was about to change. By the time all the packing, casino breakfasts, and goodbyes were finally over, late afternoon had settled in as Cody, and I set out through the mountains…