For a father-daughter pair who've built a tradition around riding, going to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is sacred and worth the risk, even during the pandemic

horecchio@businessinsider.com (Haven Orecchio-Egresitz)
·7 mins read
Mercedes and Art Raya bond over their love of riding. <p class="copyright">Mercedes Raya</p>
Mercedes and Art Raya bond over their love of riding.
  • Hundreds of thousands of bikers from around the world flock to the small town of Sturgis, South Dakota, each year for its 10-day motorcycle rally.

  • Even in the middle of a pandemic, droves of riders, mostly unmasked, showed up in town for this year's event.

  • For some riders, like father-daughter team Art and Mercedes Raya, the trip is a sacred event that can't be missed.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Mercedes Raya was 19-years-old the first time she and her dad boarded their Harleys and embarked on a two-week trek from their home in San Diego to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

Art Raya, an avid biker who raised his daugher on his own, taught her to ride two years earlier in the parking lot of SeaWorld. Riding instantly became her passion, and when she graduated high school, Art bought her first motorcycle.

Related: The rise and fall of Harley-Davidson

It's been 16 years since that first trip, and the pair consider the ride a sacred rite that they've made eight times together. Each trip, Mercedes, now 35, and Art map out remote routes on small back roads through rural towns and get to experience pieces of America that are overlooked by so many.

To them, the journey is something so special that even a pandemic couldn't interrupt.

"We were planning on coming this year whether the rally was held or not. It just means so much to us, to be father-daughter and to have the relationship that we do, and the same passion that we have for riding," Art Raya, 70, told Insider, fighting back tears. "She's had that passion from the time that I sat her on the back of my motorcycle and hit the throttle and boom, it just blossomed from there."

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally draws hundreds of thousands of bikers from around the world to the small South Dakota city and surrounding communities. After passing though the scenic Black Hills, visitors arrive at a 10-day party that celebrates riding culture.

This year the city of Sturgis, which hosts the event, considered calling it off over the risks of the novel coronavirus. Officials realized that even if the official event wasn't held, many of those dedicated riders who travel to the community each year would still show up.

Mercedes and Art are among that crowd. They know the possible dangers of the coronavirus, but felt the memories together were worth the risk.

While the crowds are considerably smaller than previous years, uninhibited clusters of mostly unmasked riders filled the city during opening weekend.

There's more parking available and some bars are less busy, but Mercedes said the gathering is no less of a celebration.

"I mean my dad is 70-years-old, of course I'm going to worry a little bit. The thing is, you can't stop living," Mercedes said. "If you want to wear a mask, wear one. And if you're super worried about the virus, then you shouldn't be here."

Mercedes Raya was 19 the first time she rode to Sturgis with her dad. Now 35, she still looks forward to the 3 and a half day trek with him. <p class="copyright">Mercedes Raya</p>
Mercedes Raya was 19 the first time she rode to Sturgis with her dad. Now 35, she still looks forward to the 3 and a half day trek with him.

With every ride, Mercedes and Raya have grown closer

When Mercedes took her first motorcycle safety course as a teenager, " she did horrible," her father told Insider, laughing.

"She couldn't get the hand-eye coordination thing, and I was freaking out," he said.

Art was worried that his daughter might not pick riding up easily, but as soon as he took her out for her first few figure-eights in a parking lot, she became a natural and never looked back.

"Just the smile on her face, it gives me chills right now to even thinking about it," he said. "I said 'I'll never take you anywhere I don't think you can handle'"

That included Sturgis.

While most riders are there for the ride, not the rowdiness, it can draw a tough crowd too.

In the opening weekend this year there were nearly 90 drug arrests and 286 total citations within city limits.

"Bringing up a young woman in a motorcycle world, it's male dominated. There's just no ifs, ands, or buts about it," Art said. " Sturgis at that time it was a pretty different world. Having a 19-year-old daughter there, and going into bars and stuff, it was me being the dad always, always trying to protect her, or shield her at least."

Now a grown woman, psychologist, and experienced rider, Mercedes says that she still feels like she's forced to prove herself among groups of mostly men.

Some women at the event lean into the age-old role of being eye candy, dressed in string bikinis or no tops at all. For Mercedes, that culture can be frustrating at times.

"I've been trying to be taken seriously as a rider for years," she said. "I'm trying to break into the man's world. It's hard to play in the man's sandbox without being naked."

"I've taught her to be a strong, independent woman from the very beginning. She really holds her own and I'm so happy," Art said.

Art and Mercedes Raya feel that their 3-day rides from San Diego to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are spiritual. <p class="copyright">Mercedes Raya</p>
Art and Mercedes Raya feel that their 3-day rides from San Diego to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are spiritual.

Riding is spiritual to the Raya family and others at Sturgis

Art, who retired in 2012, has ridden his motorcycle all over the United States.

His trips with Mercedes, though, are especially meaningful.

For two weeks, they will ride 12-hour days, taking in spectacular views, sounds and smells that can only be experienced on a bike, Art said.

"It's spiritual for us. You're smelling everything, he said. "We always say, 'I'd rather be riding and thinking about God than in church thinking about riding."

"We take 3 and a half days because we want to see roads we've never seen before," Mercedes said.

When they arrive at the rally, they stay in Deadwood, South Dakota, about a 30-minute drive outside of the event center.

Neither one of them are heavy drinkers, but they will visit local bars, spend time at a cigar shop, and listen to live music, Mercedes said.

This year, the event took on a more political vibe than normal, with vendors selling merchandise supporting President Donald Trump on every corner, she said.

Shops also leaned into merchandise poking fun at coronavirus fears and social distancing.

"There's definitely a political feel," Mercedes said. "I don't do politics personally, so it doesn't matter to me."

For them, it's all about the riding.

She and her dad will spend maybe one full day in Sturgis itself and the rest of the time exploring the Black Hills on the backs of their 2016 Harley Davidson Road Glides with Art's 11-pound chihuahua, Chi Chi.

"I think we're so fortunate. I really think I'm one of the most fortunate dads ever to have this relationship with my daughter," Art said. "Our relationship matured, as it should, but the passion for this has never, ever left us."

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally continues through August 16.

Read the original article on Insider