Crowds are gathering

In preparation for a minor outpatient medical procedure we are practicing strict isolation for a few more days. As a result we decided to head a bit higher into the hills to walk yesterday, where we knew we would be away from other people. we encountered only a half dozen others during our walk and they were careful to maintain distance. In addition to beautiful weather, our walk was enhanced by the solitude of the hills. As we wound our way along the Mickelson Trail, we were surrounded by wildflowers that are a product of the slightly higher elevation. Summer is short and sweet in the high country. It is also intense and vibrant.

Between our home and our hiking spot we went through Hill City. I don’t know if South Dakota is unique in how cities and towns are named, but we have a lot of places that add the name “city” to their official location name. We have Rapid City, North Sioux City, Hill City, Big Stone City, Central City, Claire City, Mound City, Garden City, Lake City and Prairie City. Most of them probably wouldn’t be considered to be “cities” in other parts of the world. After all, Prairie City is unincorporated and has about 20 residents. Hill City has only about a thousand. Rapid City is the only one with more than 3,000 with a whopping 77,503, which isn’t a “big” city in other states.

Nonetheless, we like Hill City, our close neighbor to the southwest of our home. It is the home of the 1880’s Train, a fun ride and a great attraction for guests who come to visit. Hill City is also the oldest existing community in our county, organized before Rapid City. We decided to take a quick drive down main street to see if there were any motorcycles in the build-up to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally which officially begins on August 7. In a typical year, the hills fill up with motorcycles a couple of weeks before the rally and remain full of bikes for a couple of weeks afterward. The towns in the hills have motorcycles lining main street parked as closely as possible and the sidewalks are filled with riders who are checking out the shops and the vendors who are set up on nearly every available space. Of course 2020 is not a typical year.

There were, however, plenty of motorcycles parked on main street in Hill City yesterday. The beautiful weather invited riders to go out and explore the beautiful winding roads of the hills and Hill City is a good place to take a break and get an ice cream and talk with other riders. We knew, before we got to Hill City that there would be plenty of bikes, because we had seen them on the road and there were plenty of bikes parked and people wandering through the tents and shelters where highways 385 and 16 come together before you get to Hill City.

The City of Sturgis, which is incorporated as a city and boasts nearly 7,000 residents, bills the annual motorcycle rally as “10 days/nights of riding, food and music.” The decision was made, in the late spring, to proceed with the rally despite the pandemic. 2020 is the 80th annual rally and anniversary years usually bring big numbers. The 75th event in 2015 boasted more than 750,000 people. If you just do the math on that one, putting more than 100 times the population of any town or city will result in a bit of crowding and a bit of overflow. No matter how crowded some of the concert venues became, there were lots of people in all of the nearby towns that August. There is always plenty of spillover when there is a rally. And, of course, people who are drawn to a motorcycle rally love to ride their bikes and so they don’t want to stay in town all of the time. The hills offer some great roads for motorcycles and the rally attendees take advantage of those roads for organized rides as well as independent trips.

So we are headed into a couple of weeks where a whole lot of people won’t be practicing physical distancing in the hills. And we weren’t seeing many face coverings as we drove down main street in Hill City last week.

All of that means that practicing strict isolation will be a challenge for us this week. It isn’t hard for us to stay at home. We have plenty of groceries in the freezer and pantry. We don’t need to go shopping. But Susan’s procedure will take place at Monument Health, the largest hospital in the region on the day before the official start of the rally. With the total population of the entire region at less than 200,000, our regional hospital is big enough to provide a full range of medical services, including outpatient surgery. There are certain types of care, such as cardiac care where the hospital serves an area with a radius of about 250 miles. Most of that space isn’t heavily populated, so it is possible that the hospital’s primary service area includes 250.000 people. Invite guests at the rate of the 2015 rally and that quadruples the number of people that the hospital needs to serve. And, three quarters of those people are riding motorcycles on winding roads, most of them not wearing helmets. You get the picture. No one who works at the hospital gets to go on vacation during the rally.

Since it can take a couple of weeks for a coronavirus infection to express itself in symptoms, it is likely that a spike in infections as a result of the rally will result in many people not knowing they are infected until after they have gone home and the hills have returned to our usual population. For those of us who live here, however, being diligent and doing what we can to avoid infection means staying away from crowds. And the crowds are starting to gather all over the hills.

So be careful out there. Wash your hands, cover your face, and avoid touching your face. We will be staying at home and hoping for the best.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!