HULETT — The first thing that hits you at the Ham-N-Jam is the sound.
It’s like a wave of nonstop thunder rolling through the streets.
There are no storm clouds to be seen. It’s a beautiful bluebird day. The thunder isn’t from the sky.
It’s bike after bike after bike, piling up by the thousands in this tiny Wyoming town.
Main Street Is Ground Zero
Any other day of the year, Hulett has a population of just over 300 people. But for Ham-N-Jam day, the town blows up. Twenty-five thousand newcomers — sometimes more — drop in for a spell.
By noon, bikes are parked on both sides of the main street and on either side of the center line, right in the middle of the main road through town.
There’s just enough room left for bikes to travel up and down the central area of main street, and not much else. Some of the bikes are joining the party, while others are leaving for the next town on the Devils Tower loop.
The riders come from all walks of life and all parts of the country.
They’re doctors. They’re lawyers. They’re combat veterans.
They’re young, they’re old, and in between.
They’re from Texas, they’re from Minnesota, they’re from North Carolina. They’re even from foreign countries.
But for Ham-N-Jam, none of those details really matter.
Everyone rides into town under the same blue sky.
Not Even A Note
Two hundred miles away from his home in Minneapolis on Monday, Tony DeVito got the call he was expecting, right about when he was expecting it.
His wife was awake and had figured out that he and his motorcycle were gone.
“I didn’t even leave her a note this time,” he said, grinning a bit sheepishly as he ate a free pork sandwich from Captain Ron’s Rodeo Bar & Lounge.
DeVito’s wife told him that he’d better not be at Sturgis, even though she already knew that’s exactly where he was heading.
“I told her I wasn’t at Sturgis,” DeVito said. “Because technically I wasn’t. At least, not yet.”
DeVito’s first order of business was stopping at Spearfish Canyon to take a photo of the exact spot where he and his wife had spread her brother’s ashes a couple of years ago.
“He had always wanted to go to Sturgis,” DeVito said, a faraway look in his eye. “But he never made it.”
DeVito texted several photos to his wife once he reached Spearfish Canyon. She sent back several heart emoticons — but no words.
“I haven’t talked to her yet,” he admitted. “She’s still mad at me for being here.”
Despite that, DeVito is already making plans for Sturgis 2024.
“I ran into this friend of mine that owns a shop. He’s from California,” DeVito said. “He’s Korean and he invited my wife and I out next year. He’s got 30 of his friends from Korea coming. They’re renting Harleys in Los Angeles and coming out here. They’re renting a house for $3,500 a night and he invited us to have dinner with him and his wife and his 30 friends.”
DeVito isn’t worried that he hasn’t yet been forgiven for Sturgis 2023.
“We’ll be fine,” he says, grinning as he finishes off his sandwich.
Hulett’s Ham-N-Jam is famous — and infamous — among old-timers in the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally crowd who remember it by a different name.
No Panties Wednesday.
“The old story is that the women in Hulett revolted and threw their panties in the trees,” DeVito said. “That’s kind of what started it, or made it famous at one time. Now it’s a big barbecue and people show up and have a good time.”
In the Ponderosa Cafe, there are wild animal trophies that have bras and panties hanging from them, relics of the bygone No Panties Wednesday. Some of the T-shirts for sale in the nearby tents with Sturgis memorabilia also say “No Panties Wednesday” on them.
But police on horseback and foot are patrolling the town these days, making sure nothing gets too wild and crazy.
There are those who still remember those days, though. Bob Richey and his wife, Gidget, who moved to Hulett from Texas, are among them.
“In 2000, the Sturgis women would wear chaps. That’s it. No panties. No little shorts. No top, nothing,” Richey said. “They’ve toned it down since then.”
Sturgis is growing up, Richey acknowledged, as are many of the rally participants.
Richey used to ride a Limited Harley, a really big bike, but he has since bought a three-wheel trike motorcycle instead.
“I can’t manhandle this stuff like I used to,” he said.
Sturgis, he added, isn’t what people think.
“It’s doctors, lawyers, accountants,” he said. “They’re all old farts, and most of them are professionals. You’d be surprised how many people are professionals.”
For Some, It’s One Last Ride
DeVito spent some time talking with a fellow rally-goer who knows this will be his last Sturgis event.
It was a conversation that couldn’t help but hit home.
A few months before coming out to Sturgis, DeVito found out he has kidney cancer.
“I went in for kidney stones,” he said. “And they said, ‘Oh, by the way, you got kidney cancer in both kidneys.’”
Doctors aren’t sure what caused the cancer, though DeVito suspects it’s related to his military service.
“It doesn’t run in the family,” he said.
Doctors think they’ve gotten all the cancer using a technique called cryoablation.
“They go in there with a bunch of needles and they freeze all the cancer in the kidney,” DeVito said. “The frozen part kind of shrivels up and kills all of the kidney cancer cells.”
Tests so far are looking good, DeVito added.
“The function of the remaining kidney is perfect,” he said. “I’ll go in again at the end of the month to find out if they got, if they actually killed all the cancer in that kidney.”
After that, he’ll be scanned every six months to monitor for any resurgence of cancer.
“Is this my last trip? I sure hope not,” he said.
Not All ‘Old Farts’
Not everyone at the Ham-N-Jam is a Baby Boomer, or even a Millennial.
Some are much younger.
Kay Dubrock, for example, with a sparkly, diamond-looking helmet and a brand new ride, is part of the much younger demographic that’s stumbled onto the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
That it’s a little tamer than it has been in year’s past? That’s a plus, in her book.
She went to her first Sturgis rally three years ago.
“It was better than I expected and more fun and people are so respectful,” she said. “This is a good time. It wasn’t as wild as I thought it was going to be.”
Right after that first rally, she decided to buy a bike so she could ride in it herself.
She’s been to every rally since that one with friends she met that first year.
This year, she and those new friends decided to head to Hulett for the first time to check out Devils Tower and the Ham-N-Jam.
“I loved (the Ham-N-Jam),” she said. “It was super fun to see all the people and all the bikes.”
The Road Goes Ever On
The fact that a new generation is finding its way to America’s greatest road trip is heart-warming to DeVito.
“Food brings people together,” he said, his eyes taking in the scene of thousands of people walking around small-town America, all having a great time.
No one was getting into any fights.
Happy, smiling people were everywhere.
Even the waitresses and restaurant staff were smiling, despite the brutal pace of serving thousands of sudden drop-in customers.
“This gives me hope for humanity,” DeVito said. “I hope it never dies. It’s a great American road trip. People come from all over the country.
“It’s good to see that the young kids are keeping it going. It’s a great, great event. It’s American freedom at its best.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.