Week 2: The Black Hills

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Day 8 — June 20 The motel hosts breakfast in the office, around a little table. A menagerie of travelers filters through. Forced to eat next to each other, we talk origins and destinations. One man, who looks like a character out of a western (like many men here) is moving from Tuscon to Wisconsin (“too much traffic now, you can’t live there”). A family with three young children is headed from Wisconsin to Montana for the summer (“can you pass the napkins, he just spilled”). A tall thin man with white hair is on his motorcycle headed home to Vancouver from a niece’s wedding in Iowa (“no, I didn’t stay at any hog farms”). An older couple with tattoos and Sturgis tees are on their way from Wyoming to Pennsylvania. We chat about Wyoming. They tell me to avoid beartooth mountain pass, tiny road with lots of switchbacks. When I say I’m on a bicycle, the big man leans back in his chair and declares “I respect that.”

The affinity between motorcyclists (“bikers” out west) and bicycle tourists is unclear, but it is there. I find that bikers are the most likely to wave at me of any motorized traffic. (A close second are pickup trucks, then — rarely — cars. I don’t think an SUV has ever waved.) Sometimes an entire passing gang will remove their left hand from the handlebars and produce peace signs, pointed low. A little thing but I love this.

Forty miles to Murdo today. Taking it easy.

Day 9 5:30 departure. Again I have the moon setting in the west to guide my way. The air is cool and there is a slight breeze from the south. For the first thirty miles or so, riding on the service road along I90, no cars pass me.

After many miles of gently rolling hills, I come to Cactus Flat — not really a town, just an RV park and a general store at the entrance to the Badlands.

Families are rolling through at a steady pace on their way to the Badlands. I sit on a bench in front of the store for a while and listen to them. Nearly everyone seems to be having a bad time. A father calls his daughter a “little turd” and “she can stay in the car and sweat.” A mother berates her two sons for running. The children are annoyed. The parents are exasperated. This is how people spend their vacations: for the most part, driving, and bored.

I stay at the RV park. Before I set up my tent, clouds form in the west, frothy and dark. Soon a storm comes through and rains heavily with strong winds. I watch from the office. After the rain lets up, the ground dries instantly. The water seems to fall straight through the soil. The storms head east and the billowing thunderheads catch the setting sun. As the light dims in the dusk I watch the lightning strobe in the distance.

Day 10 A strong north wind howls all night, gusting up to 40mph. I keep checking outside my tent for storms, but the skies are clear. I leave the campground at 6.

In the distance, a jagged line of sand-colored spires glowing in the sun. The Badlands. I stop to take a quiet hike. A few other people are up now. The entire landscape has transformed: severe, either nearly flat and walkable or vertical and crumbling, towers of strata sculpted by erosion.

In the middle of the day I climb the steep, dusty soil to the high prairie, then walk through the grasses and watch out for cacti. The wind is calm, the heat of the day is not quite oppressive, and all is quiet, save for one friendly western meadowlark. There are the track of bighorn sheep in the path but I don’t see any. In a hole next to the path, I see a rattlesnake curled up. It seems small, probably young, and doesn’t move.

I set up tent at the busy Cedar Pass campground. A few other bicyclists arrive and we talk for a bit. Nate and Martha have come from New Hampshire, some 2,000 miles. They are feeling down about headwinds. We’re thinking of catching a bus from Rapid through Wyoming, Nate says. Just skip the prairie. He points to a section of my Wyoming map I’ve spread out. I don’t think there’s anything here, for 80 miles. Are you worried about water? No, it’s just boring!

I take a shower and begin to organize for an early morning departure, but a voice calls out, You want some hot food? I sit down for a meal with Wayne and Sally, two friendly East Tennesseans (they are sure to specify East). Wayne is a hiker, and he dreams of some day taking six months for the US continental divide trail. He looks at my bike with admiration and perhaps some envy. You’re doing exactly what he wants to do, Sally says. Wayne hands me a beer. We’ve got to get rid of these anyway. Then another. By the third beer he doesn’t say anything, just puts it in my hand. You’ve got to come to the Smokies. We shut down an entire road — the major road going through the mountains — for a day in October. The New River Gorge Bridge, 1,000 feet over the New River rapids. And do you know what happens? Base jumpers and rappellers, going off the bridge the whole day. Fucking great. You’ve got to come see it. That’d be perfect if you were biking the blue ridge.

Well-fed and inebriated, I hit the tent. In the dimming light comes a beautiful bird call, piercing, warbling but precise. A whip-poor-will? The meadowlark? I don’t know my birds around here.

Day 11 I leave the campground at 5. Puffs of clouds move in from the south and the sun ignites their tops. There is no wind and I move through the dark spires in peace. This is how to see the badlands: on a bike, early in the morning, before the sun, heat, and mobs of tourists.

I exit the park, and head back to I90. I take the interstate for twenty miles or so, until the next service road. A tailwind develops and I sail along on the wide, smooth shoulders. Passing semis give me even more boost.

In the horizon a dark band grows larger: the Black Hills. The hills are covered in pine trees, ponderosa pine. There is no transition: the plains end, and then they start.

Rapid City lies at the base of the hills. I stop at a bike shop to replace my worn chain. The mechanic, Matt, talks to me for a bit. He’s from Kansas — couldn’t wait to leave — and never thought he would end up in South Dakota. When I moved here, I fell in love with the area, he said. The mountain biking is great. Winters are nice, the air is dry. Not like in the east. He lets me store my bags at the shop while I go run some errands, and points me to a brewery across the street. Much better than firehose, they just opened, really great. I stop in and have an early afternoon beer, a cactus saison, a little bitter and sour, delicious.

Matt’s right: it is drier here. It’s a hot day, mid 90s, but even in the midday sun the biking is tolerable. Sweat works well when it can evaporate.

I spend the night outside of Rapid with Fred and Sherry, who host on warmshowers. Their back porch has an incredible view into a steep gorge. Bighorn sheep watch us eat dinner from a nearby hill. They walk right below us, Sherry says, pointing off the railing. But that’s a cliff! I know, and I have no idea how they do it.

Day 12 Packing up my bike, Fred wonders what it all weighs. I’m not sure, and he brings out a scale. The bags weigh sixty pounds. The bike and equipment strapped to the rack is probably another twenty. I’m 142. All told, I’m pushing somewhere around 220 pounds.

Fred and Sherry ride up with me for a few miles. Fred rides a recumbent. It looks nice, easy on the back. We part ways at Norris Peak road, and I bike on into the hills and canyons of the Black Hills.

 
 

At some point I pull off on an old trail and relax under a tree. It’s nearly impossible to see me from the road, but a car stops right in front of me and starts to turn around. The driver sees me. Hey, you hungry? No, I’m OK, thanks. Want a banana? A banana? Sure! (A cyclist should never turn down a banana.) He hands me a business card. Blessing be upon you, he said, and drove off.

I coast into Deadwood. The canyon turns steep; sharp cliffs around the road. The town is nestled in the canyon, looking up at steep pine covered ridges. A thunderstorm passes over and produces three rainbows at once. I tent out in the yard of a warmshowers host, Jesse. It’s Jesse’s birthday and she takes me out to No. 10 Saloon with her friends and family for drinks. It’s absolutely packed. Slot machines and many men with cowboy hats.

Day 13 I get up early and make myself breakfast. Jesse’s parents, Bruce and Cheri, are soon up and we chat away for hours on the porch. Bruce, who looks a little like Tommy Lee Jones and has a much more soothing voice, loves to tell stories, and it’s hard to tear myself away, even though I need to get going.

It’s a long climb up into Lead, and then up over a pass into Cheyenne Crossing. There’s a cafe and I stop for a burger. When I go back outside, the canyon is filled with smoke. I ask around. Wildfires, west of Spearfish, a man says. Well, I’m headed to Spearfish, do you think it’s safe? Should be. I ask a few others and the consensus is that I’ll be fine. Spearfish is at the end of a twenty-mile descent through Spearfish Canyon, and the idea of arriving at the bottom only to turn around and flee from a fire made me nervous.

I descend into the gorge. Towering faces of exposed rock showcase the strata of the Black Hills. The creek runs over ancient and hard Precambrian rock, and the high walls it has cut through are limestone and shale, much with a red and pink tint. I swerve to avoid cars parked by the hundreds along the road for trout fishing.

The air clears in Spearfish. Heading north, I can see far to the origin of the smoke, a wildfire on the top of a mountain a few miles off.

I spend the night in Belle Fourche at a quiet campground.

Day 14 Bike is rolling at 6. Although the weather has been cooler and less humid, I still prefer to leave early. There is hardly any traffic on the road, the sun is weak, and the birds are out. I am thankful to be traveling to the west, with my back is to the rising sun. It’s 7am when I pass into Wyoming.

I arrive at Devil’s Tower later in the day. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. I take quite a few photos, biking and hiking around it.

Enormous hexagonal columns reach up into the sky. Devil’s Tower an intrusion of magma into the surrounding softer sedimentary rock, which has been eroded away. Geologists aren’t sure whether it’s the neck of an extinct volcano or a laccolith, which forms beneath the surface.

There appears to be a slight twist at the base visible from the western side, as though a giant hand reached down and, grasping the upper half of the tower, cranked slightly counter-clockwise.

I stay at Frank Sander’s compound. Take the second left once you’re in the park, he tells me on the phone. There aren’t any signs. If you get lost, just ask anyone where Crazy Frank is. Crazy Frank runs a bed and breakfast and also guides rock climbers up the tower. (The regular cracks in the columns running up the tower afford excellent climbing, so I’m told.) He also likes to give passing cyclists a place to tent. I arrive and introduce myself to a group of climbers. Turns out we’re all from Minneapolis. Ah, which route did you take? They’re attempting to summit tomorrow, and plan to leave at 2:30am. It’s a southern route and the rock bakes in the sun, so it’s advisable to do early.

I briefly consider waking up with them to photograph the light of their headlamps on the rock. On second thought: I made it to Wyoming. I’m sleeping in!