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.