Day 32: Devil's Tower to Spearfish, SD

Here are a few things you might not know about Devil’s Tower. First, it is a site of major spiritual significance to several Plains Indian tribes. Native Americans regularly come to the Tower and tie prayer cloths on the trees around it. You’re not supposed to touch them.

We got to Devil’s Tower at 8am, before it was inundated by busloads of tourists, and walked around the base for a half hour. You might know that the Tower is a world class site for “crack” climbers, who shimmy up cracks in rock faces with the help of ropes and steel chocks. The second thing you might not know is that the Indians don’t like this activity. We counted ten people in four parties on the rock face, and several more were on their way to the base when we got back to the car. Look closely at the center of the close-up photo of the rock face and you can see two of them. A Sioux medicine man is quoted in the visitor’s center as saying, “When people climb on this sacred butte and hammer metal objects into it, the tower is defiled . . . It is like they pounded something into our bodies.” A climber is quoted next to the medicine man, saying something like, “We touch the monolith and measure it by our sweat.” I think the Indians should win this one. They were here first. But the National Parks Service merely asks climbers to stay off the rock during the month of June, and most do.

The third thing you might not know about Devil’s Tower is that it’s crumbling. It is a big hunk of granite, a volcanic intrusion that was originally several hundred feet below the earth’s surface. It emerged as the Belle Fourche River eroded the soft stone nearby, and the six-sided columns that run up its face are cracks that formed as the stone was exposed. The base of the Tower is surrounded by big boulder fields, and although geologists estimate that no big columns have fallen in the last 10,000 years, they are sloughing off. In several hundred thousand years they might be calling it Devil’s Pinkie.

Many buses and big RV’s were in the parking lot when we returned from our hike, including a load of kids from Great River Middle School in St. Paul. This is one of the only public Montessori schools in the country, explained a teacher, and part of their curriculum is taking kids on a three-week camping trip to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Black Hills. The kids stay in tents and have homework assignments every night. They were great kids. They cooed and made excited sounds when we told them about the bike trip. Jim and Sara, who spent their careers counseling young people, were enthralled.

We rode out of the campground around 10:30 am with 65 miles to go to Spearfish, a town about 10 miles east of the South Dakota line. The Black Hills really are black when viewed at a distance, and we rode up and down buttes and through lush green valleys. It was a day of low clouds, and they acted like an acoustic damper; everything was quiet and still. One section of State Route 24 had had its asphalt cracks painstakingly repaired with lines of tar that seemed to wiggle and squirm as you rode over them.

We went through Hulett, a compact village that has its own school, newspaper, medical clinic, and football field; and Alva, a hamlet that didn’t seem to have anything going for it except for seven adorable kittens living under the post office. Then we rode through a section of Black Hills National Forest that was even more stately and verdant than the cattle ranches had been. We paused for a fine lunch in Aladdin (pop. 15) at Cindy B’s Café, which was hopping. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they chatted easily with us. It was very pleasant, and it took a while. Cindy B. made me a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that had about a pound of incredibly tasty home-cured ham in it. It isn’t wise to eat a heavy meal before exercising and I felt like I had Silly Putty in my guts all afternoon, but it was worth it.

We rode south on state route 111 and then east on a frontage road that ran parallel to Interstate 90. On this road was the Vore Buffalo Jump, which was closed for the season. It is a sinkhole that was used by Plains Indians as a convenient way of killing lots of buffalo at once, in the days before they acquired horses. Several tribes would get together in the fall and collaborate. Scouts gently herded buffalo into a run that was bordered by natural and man-made barriers; sometimes an Indian wearing a calf skin imitated a wounded calf to get the herd to move closer. At a moment carefully chosen by the most skilled scout, everyone screamed and made the herd stampede, so that dozens or hundreds of them fell into the sinkhole. Arrows and spears quickly dispatched the buffalo that weren’t killed by the fall. Then the Indians did a mass skinning and butchering so they would have food, warmth, and all the other things buffalo provided them over the long winter. The sinkhole is now a 40 or 50-foot deep midden pile of buffalo bones, spear points, and other valuable Plains Indian artifacts. It is managed by a not-for-profit that hopes to build a big center on the site. I’d like to come back and see the dig.

There was no welcome sign when we crossed the state line, which is a minor disadvantage of following low-traffic routes. However, we did notice rain clouds to the south. The rain started with about ten miles to go, and by the time we got to the campground we were soaked. It continued until we went to bed. The weather forecast had been for a 20 percent chance of rain. Jim says that with the luck we’re having, this means that it will rain 20 percent of the time. Tomorrow we head deeper into the Black Hills.

Through South Dakota, Sept. 12 to 19

Belle Fourche, a small town at the western edge of South Dakota, says that it is exactly halfway between the East Coast and the West Coast. We passed just south of it when we crossed the state line on Friday, September 12. Our trip is ten weeks long, and we completed the fifth week on Monday the 15th, so at the halfway point we were on schedule. South Dakota marked the beginning of the second half of the trip in another way, too. Between Glacier and the Black Hills, we followed a zig-zag line that ran south and east. After Rapid City we headed more or less straight east, to dip our tires in the Atlantic Ocean on October 22.

South Dakota is about 400 miles from end to end. We entered the state on on a frontage road that might have been U.S. 14, but was definitely just a few yards north of I-90. We continued on Saturday (Day 32) south on U.S. 14A thorough Spearfish Canyon, then climbed Icebox Canyon on US 85. After an unsuccessful attempt to ride on the Mickelson Bike Trail, we finished the day on US 385 South to a campground near Hill City. Sunday was a rest day.

On Monday the 15th (Day 34) we started at the intersection of US 385 and State Route 44, which runs the length of the state between 20 and 60 miles south of I-90. Route 44 was originally built to follow a rail line in 1907, and most of the small towns along it have stayed small. We drove through Rapid City on Monday and rode from the east end of town through the Badlands to Interior, the commercial center for Badlands National Park. On Tuesday we continued to the town of White River; on Wednesday, we camped on the west bank of the Missouri River; and on Thursday, battling a vicious crosswind, we rode to Parkston and drove the last few miles to Freeman. On Friday the 19th (Day 38), we crossed into Iowa and stayed in Rock Rapids.

Days 33 & 34: Spearfish to Crazy Horse Monument, SD

The rain had passed by the time we woke up. Shortly after sunrise we spread our soaked bike clothes and gear out to dry. We set off about 9am for a seventh straight day of riding.

The Biblical injunction to rest on the Sabbath really starts to make sense when you’re doing menial labor. Things wear out fast on a march. There isn’t much snap left in your legs after a week, the scenery isn’t quite as beautiful as it was on the first day, you need to sleep late, and a hundred little things need repair. Our ride on September 13 went south through the Black Hills. One of the things that had shaken loose in the last week was planning. The route we had plotted out was another butt-kicker, but we didn’t know it until it was too late to turn back.

Spearfish is at the northern end of the Black Hills, at an elevation of about 3,600 feet. When we started up Spearfish Canyon, we didn’t know that the “hills” include Custer Peak, elevation 6,800, and that we were going to damn near climb it. The South Dakota Guide, compiled by locals hired by the Federal Writers Project and published by the WPA in 1938, raves about this canyon: “The upper portion of the canyon is comparatively shallow and open, but, farther down, the rock walls on both sides are higher and steeper; in the very depths of the canyon, the sun strikes the road and the creek bed for only a brief interval each day. This region lies in the so-called Deadwood Formation, made up of gray to red sandstone, greenish shale, and both slab and pebble limestone. The canyon, lined on both sides with cliffs of this material or at least a rimrock, is filled with constantly changing color, which varies still further in different lights. Here also is green pine, interspersed with the slim white trunks of birch, poplar, and quaking-asp. Private cabins, in the woods on both sides of the road for most of the distance, often can be rented for extended periods at very reasonable terms. Fishing is good at many points throughout the canyon and, for those who are not deterred by the temperature of mountain streams, swimming is available.”

Seventy years later, it’s still an apt description. We saw the rental cabins; we even saw people fly fishing in the bright sunshine. Things changed near the top, though. A big smudge of bruise-colored clouds swept across from the west, and the temperature dropped from 70 to 48 in a half hour. We stopped to put on warmer clothes and curse our luck. The forecast had said there was a 30 percent chance of rain as a northern cold front came through, and it looked like our bad luck was holding. Then the Trickster God who controls these things put an exclamation point on our situation. At the top of Spearfish Canyon is Icebox Canyon, a three-mile pull that is straight uphill with no breaks. It was sweaty when we were climbing and cold as soon as we stopped. At the top, the wind was howling and rain was clearly on the way.

We turned south at the top of the ridge and caught the tailwind. Our plan was to get on the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rail bed converted to a bike path that runs the length of the Black Hills. Next to the trail is a county road that is paved except for one 15-mile gravel stretch. The Mickelson was good-looking but slow, with a soft pea gravel surface. We needed to make time to beat the rain, so we stuck to the pavement. After about 8 miles we stopped at a trailhead and found a warming hut. It was for skiers, but hey. I built a fire and we put on even more clothes. When we went back out, it was starting to rain.

The spine of the Black Hills is just east of the Mickelson trail. After a few miles of rain and high wind, we decided to take a five-mile gravel road over the top to get to State Route 385, which would be paved all the way to camp. We wanted to avoid doing 15 miles of gravel in the rain. This snap decision might have been correct, but it also lengthened the trip considerably and added even more climbing. The gravel road was pretty, with pastoral scenes of heifers and cows, pine forests, and a bluebird that flew across the road in front of me. But it was 3pm when we finally hit the paved road. We found grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate at the Last Stand Bar and Grill, along with three ancient locals who were sitting in the warmth biding their time. “You ever just want to get in the truck?,” asked one of them. “I sure would. Icebox canyon would be the deal-breaker for me.” He added that weather like this was not unusual for the Black Hills. He remembered a year when there was five feet of snow on the ground on October 19.

We continued south on 385, pushed by the wind. The rain stayed on the other side of the ridge, and as the afternoon wore on the sky lightened and patches of sunshine broke through. The route turned east on state highway 44, which we will follow all the way to Minnesota, but the Trickster wasn’t finished with us yet: our campsite was still 17 miles south. We might have called Sara to pick us up, but the cell phones weren’t working. We pushed on. We rode up and down several more big hills. In times like these, Jim tends to get an adrenaline rush and push harder, like a horse trying to get back to the barn. I, on the other hand, turn into a robot and slog along in low gear, thinking dark thoughts.

The cell phones started to work just north of Hill City. I was whipped and not in the mood for any more recreational riding. We called Sara and took refuge in a convenience store, drinking chocolate milk and reading the papers. By the time we got to the Rafter J Bar Ranch Campground, we had put in another 65 miles and had probably climbed 5,000 feet. But Sara had done it again, bless her heart. The campground is a luxury outfit that had slashed its prices for the off-season. We soaked in a hot tub, cooked and ate dinner in a real kitchen, and slept in heated cabins as the rain played itself out.

Day 34: Two Monuments At Rest
Rest days are a different kind of challenge. There is still a lot to do – laundry, repairs, writing – but once you start to relax, you’re even more tired than you are during a work day. I spent the morning sleepwalking through various chores, then met up with Jim and Sara to go visit the Crazy Horse Memorial.

It was a beautiful day. We sat on the viewing platform in front of this massive project — 563 feet high, 641 feet long – and Sara reminded me of psychologist Erik Erikson’s model of the developmental stages in human lives. Erikson says that in late middle age (i.e., after the kids leave home) people tend to find strength by working for something that contributes to the betterment of society. People who are motivated by what Erikson calls “generativity” don’t care so much whether or not the project gets finished during their lifetime. This kind of thinking also tends to produce social change at the deepest level. Land Trusts are good examples of institutions driven by generativity. The Crazy Horse Monument is another.

Korczak Ziolkowski, a talented Boston sculptor fresh from World War II, started working on the monument 61 years ago with no funding to speak of. He was recruited in 1939 by a Sioux chief named Henry Standing Bear, back when Mount Rushmore was brand new. The photo shows the two of them at the first “visitor’s center.” “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” said Standing Bear. He was no fool. His brother Luther was a national Indian leader who had negotiated major reforms with Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. Luther had also toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And those Standing Bears gave us quite a show.

Ziolkowski died in 1982. His widow and seven of their ten children continue the work. The project has a staff of 60 and is directed by a nonprofit foundation that has an annual budget of $5 million. It has never accepted state or federal funds, and there is no word yet of when it will be finished. The project is in the hands of the people and private enterprise. It costs $27 a carload to get in, and admission includes a 40,000 square foot complex of museum exhibits, Indian art, a theater, the sculptor’s log home studio, and of course a restaurant and gift shop. Most of the art was heartfelt but not very good. The museum tells an incredible story about Ziolkowski’s persistence and vision, but it needs a better curator. The monument, however, is the real deal. It’s worth taking a long drive just to see it.

The completed memorial will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, pointing to the east. The story goes that after Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, and his own capture, a white man taunted the great warrior by asking, “where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse replied by pointing and said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” I’d like to believe that the four fellows on Mount Rushmore blink every time they hear that one.

We continued into Custer to eat lunch and bag another monument. My wife Tania is a former Board member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, a group dedicated to the study and preservation of roadside architecture and diner french fries. She had tipped me off to the existence of a 60-foot sculpture of Dino the Dinosaur at Flintstones Bedrock City Theme Park and Campground. It is a 1964 concrete gem, and I am pleased to report that it is freshly painted and perky as ever. In my opinion, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were fine actors whose talents were sadly unrecognized during their lifetimes. It was an honor to visit this must-see memorial to cartoon history. I would like the white man to know that baby boomers have great heroes, too. Then it was home to the hot tub, dinner, and an early bedtime. Tomorrow we ride through the Badlands.

Days 35 & 36: Rapid City to White River

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.

Days 37 & 38: White River to Freeman

On Wednesday, September 17 we left the West and entered the Midwest. I had always wanted to see this transition. It began on Tuesday, when we crossed from the Mountain time zone into Central time. Today we passed the 100th Meridian, the longitudinal line west of which, I had always heard, you cannot grow field crops without irrigation. In reality, this rain line isn’t always exactly on the Meridian. In Nebraska it’s reliably to the west, and in wet years you might get a good corn crop in White River, South Dakota. But I did see the transition today.

We left the free city campsite in White River around 9am. The first thing I noticed was more water, and more animals. There were ponds in the pastures that had been dry before. There was also a lot more birdsong in the early morning; meadowlarks, robins, and other creatures that hadn’t started flying south yet were singing their heads off and making a beautiful racket. We would startle pheasants in the tall grass on the roadside and they’d explode into the sky. This delighted Jim, who pointed his finger at them and yelled “BANG!” Grasshoppers also covered the roadbed. They jumped as we approached, frequently bouncing off our spokes and shins. The landscape was also flatter, with less rising and falling and more straight roads extending to the horizon.

Insurance companies created the rule of the 100th Meridian. They would not write crop insurance policies for farms west of it, which meant that agriculture was much riskier in the west and the land much more likely to be used for grazing. I didn’t see any field crops before today, but as the morning heated up I saw fields of milo, corn, sunflowers, and hay. The balers and combines got bigger. Jim saw the first “no trespassing” sign he had seen in quite a while.

The wind kicked up as the day got warmer. It was a 10 mph crosswind, which is not as good as a tailwind or no wind, but is better than a headwind. A crosswind wears at you with constant noise and grit. The sun and heat added to it. We reached the actual 100th Meridian at route 381, and turned south, riding directly into the wind. That wasn’t good. At the far end of the turn I got a flat tire. Panting and hot, we dragged ourselves into Winner, where Sara joined us for a proper lunch break (sandwiches and milk shakes). We had done 50 miles, and it was 3pm. We had 40 more miles before the campsite.

Another mark of the Midwest is the beginning of platting. On maps you can see that township boundaries west of the Meridian follow river beds, ridges, and who knows what else. East of it everything is carved into neat one-mile squares. Roads run between each of these squares, and many of them have numbered road signs. Out in the middle of a cornfield with no one around, you’ll be at the intersection of 300th Avenue and 271st Street. How long would you have to wait for a bus to come to that corner? And where is Main Street?

Our water bottles were running low at the intersection of state routes 44 and 47. Eleven miles south of that intersection was the town of Gregory, which sounded cool. “With a varied population, comprising a mixed Indian, ranching, and farming group, Gregory has the distinction of being a melting pot for different kinds of people,” says the South Dakota WPA Guide. “Western flavor is mixed with modern, eastern customs. The frontier spirit of the West still dominates, and the people are noted for their liberal tendencies. When they have money, they are willing to spend it; when hard times come, they accept their plight without murmuring.”

Gregory was also the boyhood home of Oscar Micheaux, a writer who is usually cited as the first African-American filmmaker. As a young man in the 1900s, Micheaux successfully homesteaded a farm in Gregory and began writing stories. To get them published, he formed his own publishing company and sold books door-to-door. In 1919 he wrote, directed and produced the silent motion picture “The Homesteader, “starring the pioneering African American actress Evelyn Preer and based on his novel. Micheaux wrote, produced and directed 44 feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. He also wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller. But we didn’t have time to see Gregory. We needed water.

Luckily for us, Ray’s Northstar Saloon was open at the corner. Ray’s was cool and dark, and Ray was friendly. We drank sodas at the bar. “What’s the big bottle for?”, asked Jim.

“It’s a collection for a local woman who wants to go see her grandkids in Egypt,” said Ray.

Jim took out the dollar bill he’d plucked off the road the day before. “This is my lucky dollar,” he said, and he put it in the bottle. Immediately a yellow Labrador Retriever got up off the floor of the bar and put her head in Jim’s lap, looking at him with big brown eyes.

“Olga the Wonder Dog is working you,” said Ray. “Whenever she sees someone get out a bill, she comes over. Give her a dollar and see what happens.”

Jim put another dollar in Olga’s mouth. The dog trotted around the far end of the bar and gave the bill to Ray, who reached up, got a stick of beef jerky out of a jar, and gave it to Olga. “We sell a lot of beef jerky that way,” he said. It was clear to all that karmic balance had been restored.

There was one more sign today that we were leaving the West. We struggled as five o-clock turned into six o’clock to reach our campsite, which was on the west bank of the Missouri River. The last ten miles were beautiful but hilly, as we rode through valleys the Missouri had carved during ice-age floods the likes of which we couldn’t imagine. “We’re like pioneers in reverse,” said Sara. “They knew they were making progress when they crossed the Missouri because they were finally getting to the West. We know it because we’re crossing it headed east.”

We stopped at a spectacular, secluded campsite three miles down a gravel road. It had an expansive view of a completely undeveloped riverbank on the east side, and as night fell a full moon rose over the water. The wind got stronger, too. We had ridden 92 miles, our longest day so far, and we were whipped.

Day 38: Missouri River to Freeman, SD

Psychologists will tell you that the quickest way to drive someone insane is to administer negative stimulus in a random way, so the person never knows when the next jolt is coming. This is what the wind did to us on Thursday the 18th. We started off at 9:30 am. We crossed the river and rode straight east through flat cropland, and the wind was more or less straight from the south. It was maybe a constant 15 mph wind, but as the day wore on it got gusty, and some of the gusts hit (we later learned) 35 mph. “When I saw you ride in here, I shook my head,” said the guy who served Jim his end-of-the-day milkshake. “You guys are really strong. And you’re nuts, too.”

Corn, dry beans, hay, milo, soybeans, sunflowers, more corn. Mile upon mile. “Hey, I saw a gumdrop,” said Jim. “A big green gumdrop lying in the middle of the road.”

“Don’t you dare stop,” I said. “If you stop and eat that, I will call Sara and we’ll drive you to the nearest psych ward.”

After two or three hours we rode into the tidy little town of Platte, which had just celebrated its high school homecoming. We got sticky buns at a café with scripture written on the walls, and listened to locals discussing their Bible study classes. Later we rode past a big school, which looked like a large public school, but was in fact the Dakota Christian Academy. The football team in Platte is called the Black Panthers. We were a long, long way from Oakland.

The wind wore and wore and wore at us, with no shelter possible until at last we saw a Lutheran church and lay down in its shadow. We lay there for five minutes or so in silence. “I guess nobody is going to bring us lemonade,” said Jim. We pushed on.

Jim admitted to feeling kind of depressed because his roadside treasure hunt wasn’t going well. He had seen a baseball cap from a dairy that was too dirty to pick up; assorted Bic lighters; and the gumdrop. I saw a beat-up aluminum cooking pot. But that isn’t much for 60 miles. It wouldn’t have been so dull had it not been for the wind. When you’re speeding along with your head up, you can see more. But we had kept our heads down all day bedause we had to focus on not being blown over. The reward came at the end of the ride in Parkston, where we encountered a large, cheerful fiberglass chicken and the milkshake referenced above.

It was a hard day, but the wind is forecast to be lighter tomorrow. The Parkston campground was horrid, and we were in no mood to ride further, so Sara, as usual, had a solution. We drove 30 miles further to Freeman, where a fine municipal campground awaited us. Calling ahead about it, Sara had gotten into a conversation with a town employee who invited us over to breakfast at his house on Friday. And on Friday afternoon, Tania flies into Sioux Falls to visit for the weekend. Things are looking up.

Days 39 & 40: Freeman, SD to Okoboji, IA

We had breakfast on Friday the 19th at the home of Jeff Tanner, the newly hired assistant city manager of Freeman, South Dakota. Sara had met him on the phone the day before, and he wanted to learn about the ride. We did the best we could to pack six weeks of stories into the hour we had together, and in return we met an interesting guy in an unusually progressive small town. Freeman has a clock tower that chimes every 15 minutes until 11pm, when it thoughtfully stops. The central business district is getting a facelift. As we left, volunteers were gathering in the city park to build a playground. Jeff is starting his career in public administration here, working on a Ph.D at night, shuttling back and forth to Denver to see his girlfriend, and riding his bike whenever he can fit it in. Jim and I coveted his youthful energy. He had good tips on county roads we could use instead of the state highway, too.

The south wind was still there but it wasn’t as fierce. We turned onto route 44 with a 70-mile ride before us. Flat and straight; corn, soybeans, corn. Jim coped in his usual way, by hunting for roadside treasures. The day before, he had found a heavy pair of pliers painted DOT orange. Today he started off by bagging a plastic tractor grille (he didn’t keep it). We rode for an hour and came into Parker, the seat of Turner County, which has a beautiful 1902 Courthouse and also beautiful donuts on display just down the street. We gorged on peanut logs and fritters at Herding’s Bakery and decided that we would add a pastry survey of the Upper Midwest to our work list. Five miles down the road I started having second thoughts about this plan. Eating donuts before a workout is probably similar to getting drunk before going to work at a convenience store. It seems like a good idea until your stomach gets back to your brain.

The county road we found was so quiet that we could ride down the middle of the asphalt for long stretches with no hands on the handebars. We stopped to inspect abandoned schoolhouses and farms once or twice. Mostly we kept going until we reached the City of Tea, SD. Really. The story is that the locals had a hard time coming up with a name when they applied for a post office at the turn of the century. They were German immigrants who saw afternoon tea as a necessity. Now there is a teapot collection in City Hall and the annual Teapot Days festival features fair food, fireworks, a mock bank robbery, and mud volleyball. We met up with Sara at a donut shop. The iced tea was strong and home-brewed.

Tea is a few exits south of Sioux Falls on Interstate 29, and we clipped the southeast edge of the metro’s sprawl as we continued east. The traffic difference is noticeable when you get to outer suburbs. City drivers don’t pay attention as well as rural drivers do, or maybe they’re just meaner. They are more likely to pull out in front of you, or to pass you at highway speed without moving over. We rode past the construction site for Harrisburg High School, which is clearly planning to be engulfed by the housing tracts that loom just over the northwest horizon. “I’m not ready for this,” said Jim. “Let’s get back to the country.”

Tania’s flight landed in Sioux Falls around noon. She expertly commandeered a rental car, made cell phone contact, and caught up with us at the Iowa border. There was no sign on the county road welcoming us, but we knew it was Iowa because we rode across the Big Sioux River. The soil had gotten darker. There was more moisture, too — enough that we saw frogs and turtles for the first time. The corn was thicker and taller. After 20 miles, another flat tire, and a milkshake at a convenience store in Larchwood, we stopped for the night at the first real Iowa town, Rock Rapids.

We took rooms at the only motel in town (which was clean and a steal at $55) and went into recovery mode. Tania had brought anti-puncture liners from Cayuga Ski & Cyclery. I put them inside my tires while she sat nearby with Jim and Sara, drinking wine and amusing herself at my expense. Then we went for a walk downtown to the only local restaurant we could find. What a find it was.

The B&L Vintage Brew And Sugar Shack serves home-cooked meals in an antique store. It is family owned and run, and the woman who waited on us was eager to share her stories of Iowa’s Republican Primary. She told us about how many hands John McCain shook when he came through town in January (one, hers) and who was nicest (Mitt Romney and his wife). Her sister overheard and came out of the kitchen to tell us that Rudy Giuliani had given a speech standing right over there, but that nobody liked him much. The food was great and nobody was in a hurry. It was great to have Tania back on the crew.

Rock Rapids wasn’t a wealthy place, but its Craftsman houses and ornate commercial buildings evoked a much more genteel past. It has been the starting point for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) several times. The B&L Café people went on and on about how exciting and fun it was when the riders came through. We resolved to come back (for the umpteenth time), and the café owners said they’d remember us if we did. Stuffed and well-loved by local townsfolk, we waddled off to bed.

Day 40: Rock Rapids to Okoboji, IA

Saturday the 20th was the sixth straight day of rides averaging 70 miles or more, and Jim and I were tired. We were spurred on by the thought of back-to-back rest days on Sunday and Monday, along with Jim’s return to his hometown of Jackson, Minnesota. We also found a county road that would keep us off of State Route 9 for most of the day. We set off early and got off the state road before traffic built up, and soon we were riding the roads of Lyon County again. Every so often we’d see an abandoned farm and outbuildings that seemed to talk, although you had to stop and listen. And after an hour Jim stopped to announce that we’d ridden 2,000 miles. We banged fists and moved on.

We took a long lunch break in Sibley, where the High School football team (the Generals) was preparing for a big homecoming match against the Indians. Tania caught up with us there and excitedly ran into the local variety store, where she found flour-sack dishtowels and postcards that showed an ear of corn big enough to fill a flatbed.

Another unique aspect of riding through Iowa is the smell. Vertical integration is an economist’s term for the business practice of increasing one’s profits by centralizing the production and refining of a finished product. One example is putting a hog farm in the middle of a cornfield. Feed your corn to hogs and you can sell pork instead of corn. We saw a lot of this and the pork in Iowa is delicious, but the farms smell like a truck-stop bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned recently. We wondered where they put the poop.

Ethanol is another example of vertical integration. Many gas stations in Iowa sell something called “E-85” for about a dollar a gallon less than regular gasoline. It’s 85 percent ethanol and made from Iowa corn. And in many of these cornfields, we saw huge wind turbines that were just being installed. The heartland is turning into a new kind of power plant.

Jim struggled to the top of a 50-foot ridge that is near the highest point in the state of Iowa (1,670 feet). After a 30-mile slog through traffic on Route 9, we came into the region local people call the Great Lakes of Iowa. These are three large glacial lakes – Spirit, West Okiboji, and East Okiboji (pronounced Oh-Ka-BOH-Gee) clustered just south of the Minnesota border in Dickinson County. Okiboji is derived from a Dakota Sioux word meaning “place of rest.” Perfect.

Like the Finger Lakes, Iowa’s glacial lakes have been invaded by out-of-towners with money. And like the Finger Lakes, they boast a fine university, the University of Okoboji.  Except that this one is entirely made-up by local people who maintain the prank to fool tourists and then sell them t-shirts. Jim and Sara found a quiet RV park while Tania and I checked in at the Inn At Okoboji, which is a great old resort and a fine place if you avoid the drunken louts in the wedding party. The lake is beautiful and peaceful and quiet, and we are all exhausted.