Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Down Out of the Black Hills and into Wyoming

I have been riding in beautiful country the last few days; and if you have never driven across the United States, I recommend that once in your life you do so.  It's the only way to truly appreciate the diverse beauty and grandeur of this great country.

And I'd advise including the Black Hills of South Dakota on your itinerary.

It's a little different story on a bicycle:  so keep in mind, it's a steep climb up from Rapid City to see Mount Rushmore.  But I always like to see the mountain carvings.  I admire those four presidents greatly, and I like the idea that an immigrant, who appreciated what this country means, did the carving.  It did surprise me a little, however, to visit the gift shop.  I saw a nice carved stone egg...maybe a piece of South Dakota...and picked it up, to discover it was made in Pakistan.  How about that alabaster buffalo?  Made in Peru!  That cofee mug with all the American flags?

Oh, come on!  China???  The key chain?  The glasses?  The next ten items I looked at:  ALL CHINA.

Finally, I headed for the t-shirt counter.  There are stacks of Sturgis related gear, since this is the big week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which brings half a million riders to the Black Hills area.  And those t-shirts:  all made in HONDURAS.

Oh well, the four presidents were made in America.

If you haven't heard of the Sturgis rally, it has been going on for 71 years, or so.  It was small at first, 3,000 bikers in 1952, according to one man I talked to.  And it could get pretty wild and rowdy, with fights and drinking, and in the 60s drugs.  Some of the big gangs attended and from what I was told, still do, but today most of the riders are typical Americans, who like to ride, many of them I think trying to recapture their youth.  A lot of these guys are bald and fat and I don't think they could get off their bikes fast enough any more to start a good brawl, even if they wanted to.  Younger people, generally, aren't turned on by the idea of riding a motorcycle, so the average age of the attendees is probably 50+. 

Still, it has to be an interesting time.  One man I talked to at breakfast said Sturgis was tamer now, but still like "Halloween on steroids."  Everyplace you go in the Black Hills this week you see bikers.  So I did a little people watching on the sly.  In a random sampling I noted that 2/3rd's of the riders don't wear helmets.  Not macho, I guess.  I saw one biker chic who was anoerexic.  Didn't expect that.  At Mount Rushmore I noticed a biker with a leather jacket and an oxygen tube up his nose.

Really didn't expect that.

Generally, the riders struck me as a conservative (but friendly) lot.  One rider wore a t-shirt that said:  END THE FED on the back and carried the DON'T TREAD ON ME flag on the front.  African-American riders were as rare as African-American hockey players; and I saw one trailer with this slogan painted on the rear:


I was wondering:  did the driver of the trailer want to be discreet, putting that star there where the letter was missing?

If anything, the real dilemma in the Black Hills is deciding what to see and what you reluctantly have to skip.  If you go south you can enter Custer State Park and see the herd of 1,500 free-roaming buffalo (I skipped that).  You can ride the 1880 train from Keystone to Hill City (I pedaled up over the mountains instead).  You can swim in beautiful Horsetail Lake (which I did) and you can use the Mickelson Trail if you're on a bicycle.  So I did.

The Mickelson Trail is named after a South Dakota governor who died in a plane crash; an old railway turned to modern, two-wheeled use, it allows for a gorgeous ride through the mountains, amid peaks rising to six or seven thousand feet.  I was on it most of one day (it runs more than 100 miles), riding beside cold, rushing mountain steams, through beautiful meadows, with vast walls of stone lining the way in places and several old tunnels to pass through.

At one point I came across two young cross-country riders, taking a snack break.  Forest Almasi, 23, and Nic Brodine, 22, are recent graduates from Western Washington State, and started pedaling in Seattle headed for New York.  Forest is a philosophy major, but might like to build bicycles for a living when he settles down, or write, or possibly teach.

Nic was carrying a guitar, and says he can play the bass, drums and piano and also sing.  He might like to make a career in music; but he also expressed an interest in teaching.  I told them both it was a great job, if you really wanted to work hard.  "If you want to loaf, though, don't become a teacher because you won't be any good."

I think from their demeanor, and after talking to them both about their trip, they'd probably be good if they gave it a shot.

I'm still camping pretty much wherever I can find secluded spots; and I'm having a good time.  I camped just one mile from Rushmore and saw the mountain the next day, sneaking back an old forest road and bedding down amid tall pine trees.  A doe watched me set up camp that evening and four fawn watched me rise again the next day.  (I "showered" in the cold mountain waters of Horsetail Lake a few hours later.)  I spent another night in a field of high grass along the Mickelson Trail; and when I started off again in the morning, I came zooming around a bend and surprised a coyote or large fox that had just brought down and killed a fawn.  I've seen wild turkeys and eagles and during one snack break had a staredown with a chipmunk, who finally ran away.  At another point a red squirrel kept pace as I pedaled along the trail, racing along the top rail of a fence that bordered the old right of way.

Eventually, I passed a local man, out picking wild strawberries and he shared a few.  Even better, he advised me to get off the trail around Cheyenne Crossing and be sure to head down Spearfish Canyon.  I took his advice, and stopped for breakfast at Cheyenne Crossing.  With thousands of bikers flooding the area, all the restaurants were full.  So at breakfast the hostest asked everyone, "Do you mind sharing tables with someone you don't know?"  I said I'd be fine with that and ended up with two older gentleman, one a Vietnam vet.  I asked him about his experiences, but he laughed and said all he did in 1966-67 was drive a truck.  "They issued me 100 rounds of ammunition when I got there," he explained, "and when I left a year later I turned in the same 100 rounds."

I wish I could offer you pictures of Spearfish Canyon, but my Droid was out of battery power and you'll just have to see it someday for yourself.  A beautiful creek runs down the middle, cold, rushing water even this late in the year (someone says South Dakota had twice as much snow as normal this winter) and I "showered" again in Spearfish Creek.  Luckily, I was heading down the canyon, which meant coasting for more than twenty miles, and I could look around and appreciate the towering rock walls and thick green forests.

So, trust me:  it's a beautiful ride.

Right now, I'm waiting out a passing storm in the library at Moorcroft, Wyoming.  It's a cool day, outside, and I'm heading for Gillette next, 28 miles further west.

I'll add a few pictures as soon as I can.

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1 comment:

  1. John: I am eagerly reading, and following your exploits; sounds like wonderful, spectacular country. I sent you a FB post, wondering about your rough plan for next couple weeks, whether you plan a few rest/tour the area days, and, if you have a rough timeline to hope to make CA's border? I am not in great riding shape, so, wondering if I am going to get a chance to humiliate myself! Tim V.