We weren’t cheating, really. The 70 miles we rode from Spearfish to the Crazy Horse Monument were not exactly on the route; they were extra. This is the justification we used to avoid the schlocky billboards, tourist traffic, and sprawl of state highway 44 between the Black Hills and Rapid City. Sara drove us to the east end of the city, where the road is being four-laned through farms to an airport several miles out of town. This move virtually guarantees further sprawl on the Denver model, and it was sad to see. Forty-four became a two-lane road as soon as we were past the airport. We set off at 9:45 am.
Although the mountains were behind us, the road was far from flat. There was a nice stiff tailwind, though, and we cruised at about 20 miles per hour through fenced grassland. After 90 minutes of this, I told Jim that I loved this fast, effortless riding and could go all day. There was a slight pause.
“There is a boredom factor,” he said.
“Then you just have to retreat into your inner life,” I said.
“I tried that,” he said. “After 45 minutes, I was done.”
I tend to go into a trance on long rides. I lose track of time and notice less and less of the countryside until I shake myself out of it. Jim doesn’t do trances. He is a highly observant person, and when the landscape doesn’t change much, his focus shifts to the micro level. I noticed a nice steel dinner fork lying on the side of the road. I wondered whether it was thrown there intentionally (a domestic argument?), dropped off the back of a load (a self-move?), or was the fault of a thoughtless litterbug who threw his empty lunch bag out the window and is going to catch hell from the wife when he gets home. While I was musing in this manner, Jim found a ruby red stone that looked like a game piece, a cell phone with a dead battery, and a pair of size 9 women’s cut-off jeans, freshly washed. He put them all in his bulging bike bag.
The road rose up and down, climbing in and out of swales and gulches. Waving grass lined both sides of the pavement. “The grass was the country, as the water is the sea,” wrote Willa Cather in her novel of the prairie, My Antonia. “The red of the grass made all the great pasture the color of a wine stain . . . and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seems, somehow, to be running.”
Then I saw something so weird even I noticed. It was a green concrete brontosaurus, perhaps 40 feet long, alone in a horse pasture with no sign, no nothing. It took me a moment to realize that this was the famous Creston Dino. Mike Bedeau of the Society for Commercial Archeology, in his 1994 guide to the Black Hills and Badlands, explains that state route 44 was built parallel to a 1907 rail line called the Milwaukee Road. When automobiles started multiplying in the early 1920s, the owners of the Creston Store decided to try some advertising and built the beast by covering an iron framework in concrete. The store fell down a long time ago, but fans of the dinosaur keep it in fresh paint and plaster.
We coasted downhill through a big grove of cottonwoods and crossed the Cheyenne River, then climbed a long way out of the valley. If all you know of South Dakota is driving through on I-90, you might think the state is flat. It is not. They built I-90 up there because that one transect is flat. We kept climbing and coasting all day. After 25 miles we came to one of only two settlements we’d see that day: Scenic, which is named for the scenery of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and Badlands National Park. Scenic used to be the second-biggest voting precinct in the county, according to Bedeau, but it has withered until all that remains is a solitary, dilapidated gas station and several stores that may or may not ever be open. One of these is the Longhorn Saloon, which dates to 1906. The sign used to read “No Indians Allowed” because a Federal law prohibited serving alcohol to Indians. It was ignored. A message in Lakota on the other side of the sign translates as, “welcome.” Scenic also has its own concrete dinosaur. He is a cute black pterodactyl with a five-foot wingspan in front of a homemade obelisk.
We filled our water bottles and started the last 30 miles through federal land. The Badlands are made of soft sedimentary rock laid down after the dinosaurs became extinct, so the concrete dinos are all the remains you’ll see of those animals. But they are still a world-class fossil site. They are eroded into fantastic shapes by rains in the winter and spring, and whenever pieces of the canyons wash away, bones are exposed from creatures that lived here over the last 70 million years. The jaw of a rhinoceros-like creature was discovered in 1843. The region was first recgnized when a paper describing this creature, a “titanothere,” was published in 1846. Paleontologists have been walking up and down the washes ever since. The talk at the visitor center was about a huge dig for the remains of pig-like animals that had been triggered when hikers noticed bones sticking out of the side of a wash.
We rode through Interior, which had a store, two bars, two churches, a park, and somebody who cared about the place. A sign near the park gave the town itself a voice. “I was born of wagons west,” it read. “The oldest town in the Badlands. I have known drought and winter’s fierce storms. Three times fires have swept my streets. Yet my rodeos were known throughout the west. Jakima Knute, Stroud, Earl Thode. Champions all have ridden my arenas. The great Jim Thorpe has played my fields. The early music of Lawrence Welk has sounded in my nights. This is a land that bred great Indian chiefs and mighty warriors. Now it is a land of neighbors. WELCOME TRAVELER.”
Wow. Indian chiefs, Jim Thorpe, AND Lawrence Welk! Welk was a North Dakota native who honed his accordion-playing chops in small towns like this one before he hit the big time. We rode a few miles more and stayed the night in a “KOA Kampground,” which was clean and cheesy. By corporate order, within these property all the Cs in the alphabet had been eliminated and replaced by Ks. A full moon lit the night so brightly that you could read by it,
Day 36: Interior to White River, SD
The ride on Tuesday, September 16 took us though the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is known to its residents as the Ogalala Lakota Nation. Within this huge area is the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, which pretty much ended Sioux resistance to U.S. authority. But not completely. Eighty years later, it was also the site of a shootout between members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI. I would have liked to spend days here, riding around and investigating several signs of a Lakota renaissance, but we had to do another 70 miles. So once again I was forced to see what I could from the bike seat. Keep pumping, keep drinking, keep moving.
Shortly after we set off, we passed an elaborate roadside memorial cross. I rode right by it. Down the road Jim caught up to me and said,” I’m off to a good start. I found a dollar bill back there in the grass.”
“How far back?”, I asked.
“Right about where the cross was,” he said.
“Maybe it’s an offering,” I said. “You might be stealing from the dead.”
On the left side of the road stretched miles of 10-inch blue PVC water pipe. The ground next to it had been disturbed, in preparation for its burial. Ten years ago, the two counties that make up this reservation were among the places with the highest proportion of households that did not have indoor plumbing. Maybe that’s changing now. The pipe went on for miles and miles. We later saw a sign saying the project would deliver water all the way from Kyle to Wamblee, and was paid for by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Wamblee looked like it was built and paid for with federal funds. We saw a Head Start office, a Senior Center, a Health Clinic, a Lakota College office, a Food Distribution Site, and lots of neat modular houses scattered about the prairie. We rode by the Crazy Horse School in time to see the kids marching back inside from recess. Public schools in Indian country try to teach Indian culture as well as the three Rs. A newspaper told us that the Crazy Horse Middle School students had recently participated in a ritual killing and skinning of a buffalo. A 15-year-old boy won a drawing and was given the honor of pulling the trigger.
We stopped at the one store in Wanblee for water, and I was struck by how talkative the people in the parking lot were. Out on the highway, there were a lot more smilers and wavers in the cars. Indian country seemed like a friendly place.
“You might say that I saved the dollar bill from oblivion,” Jim said later. “It was not attached to the cross. Even if it did start there, it had blown into the path of the mowers. It was going to be chopped up into bits. So I think I saved it.”
After noon the temperature got into the 90s, the first time in many weeks that this had happened. We rode on through the grassland, still rising and falling but less than it had yesterday. Jim, who says he would have been a good detective (and I definitely agree), noticed a small sign behind the fence and pulled over. It read, “This famous old Indian trail from Leslie and Cherry Creek thru Midland then S.E. to Rosebud was used by Chief Sitting Bull and Chief Hump traveled from Leslie and Cherry Creek Territory to Rosebud Reservation (and) back.” I looked at the horizon and tried to see Sitting Bull and Hump on horseback, or maybe in a Model T, bumping along through the grass. It probably looked the same then as it does now, except that the road isn’t as easy to see.
Further on, we stopped in front of a store that looked from a distance as if it might be open, but which close up was revealed to be wrecked and abandoned. “Here’s how to make sure that this dollar bill does not do any damage to your karma,” I said. “Next time you’re in a store and there’s a charity bucket next to the cash register, to help the Humane Society of the school chorus or a boy who has leukemia, put the dollar in the bucket. It was given as a tribute, and you’ll be continuing in that spirit. Then you’ll be off the hook.”
“OK,” said Jim. “But I can’t go out of my way to do it. It has to be something I just come across.”
We exited the reservation and rode a few more miles. We pulled into White River, which is a few stores and a school at the intersection of two highways, and where most of the residents seem to be Indians. We found a nice municipal campground where we could stay for free. We were the only people there. The moon rose and dogs barked in the distance, but after riding 75 miles it’s easy to tune them out.