‘The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music‘
Custer, South Dakota, for those unfamiliar, is a small town nestled in the beautiful Black Hills and founded in the late 19th century when gold was discovered in the river there. It is located about 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore and is home to the filming location of the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by North West starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
I stayed here when I visited Sturgis on my Sleeping Around in America tour because it is only 69 miles up the road. Custer isn’t a big town, with a population of just 2,000 souls, but it a must stop if you are a vintage motel enthusiast. In addition to the Chief Motel and the 1950s-themed Rocket Motel you will find the Chalet Motel.
The Chalet Motel, set against the backdrop of the Black Hills, immediately conjures up images of an Austrian village. The Black Hills are known for scenic motorcycle riding and there is a constant hum of bikes passing in the summer. Like an American Sound of Music, of sorts. The Chalet Motel’s cutely adorned cabins, all built in 1937, have coloured neon lighting lining each of the peak roofs welcoming motelorcyclists and giving it a cool retro touch that Michelle Lamphere likes. Not only is Michelle the owner, she is the author of The Butterfly Route, which recounts her motorcycle journey to South America. So, here we need to pause and tell you a little about Michelle.
Michelle Lamphere grew up on a farm outside of Sturgis, SD and as she puts it “You can’t grow up in Sturgis and not like motorcycles.” In college she began working at the local Best Western – a little hotel that gets very busy for a three-week period in August then hibernates for the balance of the year. But something in that Best Western experience prompted Michelle to want to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. After graduation, Michelle went to work for a hotel company in Rapid City, SD. Like most in the hotel industry, you start at the bottom and work your way up. So that’s what she did. Working in every department, she eventually rose to the rank of general manager and spent twenty years managing various properties in Rapid City.
The hotel industry is unlike many other sectors of the economy. It operates 24/7/365 and managing a hotel often requires you to work incredibly long hours, work on holidays, give up summer vacation. After twenty years, Michelle had had enough. She sold all her worldly possessions, bought a KLR650 and set her mind to spend the next six months riding south from Sturgis to Ushuaia, Argentina…via Labrador where disaster struck.
To help those who are geographically challenged, Labrador is 2,700 miles north east of Sturgis and in the opposite direction of South America. Michelle tells that story better than I can do it justice. Anyway, while riding along a gravel stretch of the Trans-Labrador highway, Michelle succumbed to a strong easterly gust, lost control of her bike and went down breaking both her fibia and tibia, leaving her stranded. “I wasn’t just in the middle of nowhere,” she says, “I was stranded on the outskirts of nowhere.”
Her recovery took more than three months in a Canadian hospital but when able she continued her journey. From the beginning through to the end, Michelle maintained a detailed journal documenting her experiences, emotions, the people she met and places she visited. When she finally returned to Sturgis, and at the urging of friends, she decided to publish her travelogue – The Butterfly Route.
After the release of the book, Michelle quickly realized she needed to go back to work. And for Michelle that meant returning to hospitality industry. But this time instead of managing someone else’s hotel, she wanted to buy her own place and run it.
A friend living in Custer gave Michelle a tip that a little motel was coming up for sale. The owners were turning eighty and after having run it for the past twenty-five years wanted out. Michelle took what remained of her savings and jumped at the opportunity.
Today, the Chalet Motel loves to welcome motorcyclists from all around the world. And perhaps it’s those incredible riding routes, forever a favourite of motorcyclists, that was music to Cary Grant’s ears too. Because in the 1959 classic North by Northwest Cary Grant said “…I have tickets to the theatre to this evening, to a show I was looking forward to…”. And what premiered on Broadway in 1959? It was The Sound of Music.
This piece was published in the September 2020 edition of BMW Owners News Magazine. Click on the link below to view the published version of this piece.