“Wild” did not make its way “West” inadvertently. The road to that particular hell was paved with a turbulent mix of saloons, debauchery and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of guns to ensure lawlessness became the order of the day on the open frontier. Places like Dodge City, Tombstone and Ellsworth were categorically violent. And Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang and Jesse James were real people who conducted dispute resolution by way of bullets. Those making their way west on the Oregon Trail were sagely advised in 1845’s The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California to pack iron alongside their flour, bacon, coffee and other sundries.
Karen Jones is a senior lecturer in American and environmental history at the University of Kent. She’s studied the frontier extensively and has written of its romantic reputation: “Cowboys were, for the most part, itinerant laborers under the control of the ranch boss, working 14-hour days for little pay. Most only worked for a season. It was true that many developed a proclivity for drinking coffee, eating beans and carousing in saloons, but cowboys were often malnourished, living a lonesome existence. And many were far from the blue-eyed American boys of legend. They numbered Mexicans, Britons and American Indians. One in seven was African-American.”
On a more practical level, the advent of barbed wire and a new sheriff in every town mitigated the mayhem. In the years 1875-84, its heyday years as a cattle town, Ogallala, Nebraska, known as the ‘Gomorrah of the Cattle Trail’, recorded all of six killings. But what fun is that if you’re a dime store novelist or Hollywood producer? It was the images painted in fiction that truly won the west over as an icon of American rebellion.
Fast forward to the twentieth century and another icon of American rebellion, the motorcycle, was about to stake a claim on the west. Enter Clarence “Pappy” Hoel and his 1936 purchase of an Indian Motorcycle franchise destination, Sturgis, South Dakota, backdropped by those wild Black Hills and Badlands. With franchise in hand, he promptly founded the Jackpine Gypsies Club and secured an official American Motor Association (AMA) charter the following year. In the name of promoting racing events, the AMA sponsored the first Rally in Sturgis on August 14, 1938. Though there were only nine racers and a tiny audience, the event quickly gained a cult following. In 2015, a record 739,000 attended the rally’s 75th anniversary. Entire families traveled in their RVs and rode the few last miles to Sturgis on their motorcycles. The only time, no not 2020, that the event was cancelled was the year 1942, at the height of World War II.
At 1.35, South Dakota today has the highest COVID-19 transmission rate of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Though there was a sprinkling of masks here and there, at this year’s Rally which attracted 250,000 — about half the norm — face coverings were the rare exception. What’s incontrovertible is the pride with which precautions were nottaken. At its lowest point last week (low is good), the transmission rate across the full spectrum of states was 15; it has since once again risen to 26.
Though we still can’t draw any hard conclusions about this novel virus, what we can say is that rising case counts are sufficient to hold companies back from pulling the trigger on capital expenditures and allowing business travel. Increases in case counts are also just enough to keep convention planners in a holding pattern and hold back a huge swath of cities that rely on traveler revenue streams. While high transmission rates no longer threaten shutdowns – a testament to treatment improvements and widespread precautionary behaviors bringing the decreased death rates – they do, and will continue to, retard economic growth, especially in the U.S. labor market.