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.