Day 1 — June 13, 2016 I leave the lovely Omega house, Minneapolis, my home, around 8, with a warm send-off from my housemates. The Dakota Rail Trail takes me due west, miles of paved bicycling trails, out of the cities and into farmland. American toads are trilling in fields wet with rain. A red-winged blackbird mistakes me for a hawk and attacks my helmet.
Soon it’s just quiet county roads, an endless grid, some paved, most dirt. I stick to the paved. I zigzag my way southwest, headed for Sioux Falls. Long stretches of cornfields with pockets of trees, hiding houses, or impossibly large machinery and silos. It’s the opposite of, say, Maine; instead of clearing a yard of trees, you plant a yard of them, to have some shade and privacy.
Clouds are moving in gradients of light and dark, clear and fog. It looks like it’s raining nearby but I can’t tell. The sun peeks through occasionally. I make it to New Ulm, 100 miles.
Day 2 Thunderstorms. The sky is murky and it’s hard to see how close they are. When I hear thunder, I start to look for shelter. I don’t want to be caught out in miles of cornfields; I’m usually the tallest thing around. I stop at a farm that has an open shed, ring the doorbell, though there’s a cinder block in front of the door — truck in the driveway but seems like no one’s home. I park out in the shed for an hour as it passes over. Heavy rain, but not a lot of lightning. Surrounded by farm equipment, metal, big tires, tubing, hay. A cat scurries across the yard. Rain seems to let up, but then gets heavy again. Finally the thunder dies away and I start off in the rain, changing into my swimsuit first.
In the afternoon the sky looks bad again. Cumulonimbus peaks over dark horizons. Clouds moving fast west. Dark sky ahead. Soon I hear the distant thunder. I stop at the next house. A farmer greets me and says there’s a tornado watch. He offers to let me stay in the house but I insist the shed is fine, not wanting to bother them.
His father, Clark, meets me in the shed, and we talk for a bit. The rain picks up a little. Then harder. I see, suddenly, low clouds coming in fast from the south. “Looking a little green.” The wind hits like a hammer. His daughter had just arrived in a minivan. “Get in the house, take him with you.” “Who, the dog?” “Him!” pointing at me. We run across the yard, which has turned to complete chaos. I am drenched in seconds. Elgene, Clark’s wife, hands me a towel, and tells me about tornadoes in the past that came near the farm. One in the 70s through Mountain Lake. Another, called the Comfrey tornado, came right through the center of town, then continued on, through Hanska, all the way to St Peter and beyond. Her phone is blaring: the tornado watch has been upgraded to a warning.
The storm passes, and I end in Windom, about 60 miles, and stay with a generous warm showers host.
Day 3 Strong headwinds today. 60 miles, and they are tough. My right knee is a little sore by the end. I camp at Blue Mounds state park, in the southwest corner of Minnesota. It provides needed relief by way of relief. Out of the flat plains rise a hill, and then a quartzite cliff. Above the cliff are a herd of bison, kept by the park. Below the cliff, a large number of bison bones have been found. One theory is that Native Americans would hunt them by stampeding them off the cliff.
Day 4 Temps will be hitting the 90s today. I have a short 30 miles into Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and finish the day early. I meet up with Mark, a warm showers host, who helps me plan my South Dakota route. He points out the way I had been planning takes me into very remote territory with services few and far between. We agree that at some point I should head north, to I90, with its relative bounty of towns and twenty-four hour gas stations. For the most part I won’t need to ride the interstate (legal in South Dakota) as there is a parallel service road.
Mark generously drives me to the local bike shop, where I install a third water bottle cage. With the help of my steel insulated growler, I can easily carry 5.5 liters now.
Day 5 Rest day in Sioux Falls. Strong thunderstorm in the evening.
Day 6 I leave Sioux Falls at 6:30 to beat any Saturday morning traffic getting out of the city. Branches and some trees are down from last night. I wind my way down to Highway 44, which cuts a straight line west to the Missouri. And I mean straight.
My plan had been to end the day in Parkston. When I arrive there around noon, it’s not much of a town. There are two places to get a beer: Sud’s, and Boogs (pronounced more like “bugs”). Sud’s or Boogs. Boogs is a dimly lit biker bar that smells like urine. Sud’s is a little windowless shack, but they did have one beer that wasn’t Budweiser, so I stop there for a rest.
Meanwhile a tail wind picks up. It’s very difficult to pass up a tail wind here, so I gear up for another 45 miles to the next town, Platte. All told I bike 120 miles today. There are a few pretty river valleys on the way. Mostly, though, it’s corn.
South Dakota presents a few problems for a cyclist. There is no shade. There are simply no trees by the side of the road. You might find a patch that is sort of close to the road, or down a dirt road. I had only a few reasonable patches of shade between Parker and Platte, a distance of 86 miles.
There are also few services. Even when a town is listed on the map, it might only consist of one or two houses. And the houses along the way, where they exist, are generally not along the main road, but a half-mile down a dirt road. There’s often nowhere to stop and ask for water without a big detour.
Day 7 5:00am: The strawberry moon sets over the plains as I leave Platte and bike west. I keep my lights on until the sun breaks behind me. There’s little traffic except for trucks pulling boats to the river. I coast down into the river valley as the sun hits the hills on the far shore.
Crosswind from the south has picked up. Across the mile-long bridge over the Missouri it roars. I have to walk my bike across to avoid falling over. Whitecaps dance north. I look down and see… fish. Hundreds, thousands. No idea what they are.
West of the Missouri there are hills. Big hills. Over the course of the day I will have climbed more elevation than when I crossed the White Mountains on the Kancamagus highway. And much of it is steeper here. It’s a slog.
This is easily the most beautiful part of the trip so far, yet I can’t stop to enjoy it (sorry, no photos). I’m worried about the heat, which is forecast to hit 100F by early afternoon. It’s already hot. There is also nothing, no towns, along my ride today, some 70 miles. I’m pushing myself to beat the sun.
I start to run low on water still 15 miles from my destination — a gas station in a tiny town called Reliance. It’s around 11:00, and probably 95F. Lucky for me, I come across a house on the side of the road. Old cars and trucks are scattered around the property. An old man meets me at the door, Bob, in a swarm of barn swallows and wasps. The swallows are nesting in the roof above. I hold up two empty water bottles, and he brings me inside. The house is completely full of stuff, stacks and stacks, whatever it is (I am too hot and thirsty to pay attention). His wife Arlene greets me, fills my water bottles, and offers one last pancake from their breakfast, and an orange, delightfully refrigerated. We sit and chat a little while I guzzle water. Bob’s parents had built the house, and his mother wanted it near the road so she could meet people passing by. Bob and Arlene are in their seventies and still working, Bob at Ford, Arlene at a couple of jobs, still pulling sixty hour weeks. Bob says he works “part time” by which he means forty hours. They seem pleasantly surprised to meet me, but there’s something a little awkward in our conversation, like they don’t usually entertain guests. Arlene insists I have another orange as I leave.
I reach the gas station at around 1:30, completely spent and not feeling well. It’s 100F out. I buy three liters of gatorade. For about two hours, I am defeated. Given the option I would have caught the next bus home to Minneapolis. But that feeling fades, along with the heat of the day, as I nurse myself back to health in the air conditioned gas station. In the late afternoon I limp on another thirteen miles to the next town, Kennebec, to get a motel. The setting sun illuminates plumes of thunderheads to the distant east. I hear the next day there were storms in Sioux Falls. That’s looking two days away.