After 47 years of selling T-shirts at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, Virginia Rhodes claims that she has decided to slow down a little.
But you wouldn’t believe that if you watched the so-called Red Truck Lady move through her family’s T-shirt stand this week.
The diminutive woman from Birmingham, Ala., moves faster than her customers, zipping between the tables of T-shirts she’s been selling since 1968.
Even at 74 years old, Rhodes far outpaces the slower-moving rallygoers. She flips and straightens shirts with ease. And she answers questions from potential buyers with a firm, confident voice. Most of the time, she’s doing all those things at once.
Rhodes is vendor No. 001 in the city of Sturgis' books. She has done business all over town but has parked the Red Truck on the corner of Junction Avenue and Lazelle Street for 35 years. She’s as much a piece of rally history as the saloons that tower above her business, but she would never acknowledge that.
“The only piece of rally history I can claim as mine is this corner,” Rhodes said.
Her duty used to be running the business for the long rally period. Now, she’s just a helping hand.
“I don’t think any of us know how she keeps going, but she’ll be doing this until the end,” Rhodes’ grandson, Alan Bohannon, said.
The Sturgis rally is not a vacation destination for Rhodes, but it is a family event.
She now has handed off ownership of the vendor stand to Bohannon, whom she brought to the rally just two weeks after he was born.
“One time, he was trying to reach up to grab a shirt when his diaper fell down. People from all over were taking pictures of it. He just kept reaching,” Rhodes said.
Not all of her experiences have been memories to laugh about.
“I have had a lot of heartache through Sturgis," Rhodes said. "My son died last year, and my daughter was young when she dropped down,” dying of a brain aneurysm. “That’s all happened here.”
If there’s one guarantee in Rhodes’ life, it’s that she’s booked and will be in South Dakota for at least one week of the year.
During rally week, she’s on her feet from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., sometimes later. And unlike some of her competition, she does the work with her clothes on.
She might not be running the show anymore, but she will always be at the show. “I’ll come back," she said, "if they keep buying from us.”