Days 44-48: South Dakota, An Unexpected Love Affair – Part 1

This post, written one year after day 48, is drawn from the daily journal I kept, and is written as if it just happened.

July 5-July 9

Montevideo, MN >>> Pierre, SD

294 miles


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Obligatory state sign photos!  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro
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My thoughts:  1) Eeeeeee I can’t believe we made it to South Dakota!  2) Oh man, we’ve been dreading this state for years.  Hope it’s not too terrible….

Like all great love affairs, it started out hot and steamy.  After 37 miles on highway 212, we reached the South Dakota border and started climbing – quickly dispelling our preconception that SD is flat.  It was 96F – 101 with the heat index – sweat was rolling down my face and my arms, collecting on my fingers, and dripping onto my panniers.  Drip, drip.  I lagged.  Drip. I lagged a bit more…drip, drip…and a bit more…drip…until I suddenly felt like vomiting.  Fortunately, Carl and I were just about to pass a grove of cottonwood trees – a bit of shade among the endless farms.

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Cottonwood saviors.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

I laid down, grimacing a bit as the very hard, spiky grass poked my back.  Then I watched Carl grit his teeth, stretching the muscles around his broken rib, as he sat down.  I can’t believe he’s doing this…and, at the same time, I’m not at all surprised.

That first day into SD was our first without any amenities between breakfast and dinner.  Based on the map, we anticipated this and were prepared, but I think we were all surprised when there wasn’t even a gas station.  After cooling down a bit in the shade, I forced myself back on my bike – I didn’t want to get stuck in the thunderstorm headed our way.  We turned south and coasted into Clear Lake with a 15mph tailwind – the first tailwind strong enough to make a difference.  Carl and I ducked into the courthouse just as the skies opened.  Given the tornado watch, I was happy to be in a solid building.

IMG_8023We were given the grand tour of the beautiful old building by, I believe, it’s caretaker, Scott.  He was clearly very proud of the 100 year history.  I wish I had taken more pictures of it.  Something about all the frescoes…they were painted in an old timey style, but the subjects and themes were modern.

As the campground was underwater after the storm, we opted for the hotel at the edge of town.

Each day in SD somehow topped the day before.  South Dakotans are fantastic people, we’ve been cruising over some lovely rolling hills, and instead of becoming bored of the endless cornfields, I’m actually amazed at how vast the state is.  You can see water towers 5-10 miles before you reach them, passing trucks appear to drive to the horizon and then park as you can still see them after biking two more miles up the road, massive combines look like cows in the distance.  We rode 100 miles over two days without turning.  It’s just…vast.  I was not expecting any of this, and I love it.  The nearly constant tailwind all week didn’t hurt my favorable impression either.

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Vast SD.  Photo credit: Carl

Before SD, we rode in our pack of six – mainly for navigation purposes, making sure everyone made the easy to miss turns.  Now, in SD, we have one or two turns a day maybe, and they’re really obvious.  So instead of waiting for each other, we’re starting at different times and riding in pairs or groups of three, which has been a welcomed change.  This is how I envisioned the ride – I actually tried to get this going after the first week – and I think it’s really helped ease some tensions.  Plus, since I’m not constantly up front navigating, I finally got to ride with folks I’ve barely talked to – like Mike!  Did you know that Mike’s pretty great?  I mean, I had a feeling, but I didn’t really know until day 45, in SD.

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Mike and the fate of his nectarine after a day bouncing around in the pannier – at least it was in plastic!  Guess you’ll have to stick with the raisin bread today, Mike 🙂

Thanks to the aforementioned tailwind, we did our longest day so far – 110 miles!  After reaching Willow Lake, the planned 64 mile end point for the day, Carl and Rachel decided to push on to Huron – an additional 50ish miles!  I debated going with them.  Sure, there was a great tailwind, but there was nothing, NOTHING, between Willow Lake and Huron, and more severe thunderstorms were predicted for the night – what if we didn’t make it?  Carl promised to camp out in a field with me if it came to that.  That doesn’t help, Carl!  Then we’ll both be struck by lightning!  Despite my apprehension, the three of us headed out at 4PM.  The first 30 miles we sailed on a glorious 25mph tailwind.

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Beat the crosswind, beat the storm.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

For the final 20 miles we had to turn south, and our glorious tailwind turned into a wicked cross wind.  I couldn’t top 8mph as I was blown off the road multiple times (better to be blown off the road than into traffic).  Ten miles short of Huron, we took a break in front of a house.  A couple chickens came to investigate but were blown around so violently, they gave up and returned to the shelter of the bushes.

A while later we were safe and sound in a Huron, SD hotel.  Huron.  The halfway point.  We’d made it halfway across the country in 45 days.  Right on schedule.IMG_8028

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A toast!  Here’s to making it halfway across….zzzzzzzzzzz.  Photo credit: Carl

The following morning, Mike shared some information regarding our planned route once he, Abby, and Craig met us in Huron.  Apparently the lovely, low traffic roads south of hwy 90 were home to some serious meth activity.  Back in Willow Lake, a utility worker told them a story of his car windows getting shot out as he was laying fiber optics in the area.  This was quite alarming, but I was hesitant to change three days worth of the route based on one person’s story – I didn’t know this person, did this really happen to him, was it exaggerated, etc?  Back home, Joel and I frequently host riders who have plans to ride through Detroit but are hesitant once they reach us – as they get closer they start hearing crazy stories of the dangers of the city.  Yes, Detroit has bad areas, and the city has some major problems, but the “dangers” the bikers hear about seem to be echos of the white flight era – outdated or flat out racist.  As half of the unsafe area south of 90 held an Indian Reservation, I wondered if stigma drove the stories of the supposed dangers – as they seem to in the suburbs around Detroit.  I wasn’t yet convinced of the utility man’s story legitimacy.  Mileage-wise, riding south of 90 was out of our way, I chose it because, according to SD’s traffic and shoulder maps, staying north of 90 could put us on some dangerous roads.  I wasn’t ready to trade known road safety for other, unconfirmed dangers.  I messaged two guys Joel and I hosted last year – they had followed my route, and I wanted to get their take.  One reported the area south of 90 was a bit sketchy – they didn’t have any problems during the day, but locals emphasized they shouldn’t camp.  They stayed with someone in Winner who passed them off to a friend in White River, but that would be impossible for a group our size.  The other mentioned that drunk diving was an issue in the area.  That settled it, we needed a new route.

Craig, Abby, Mike and I spent a good deal of time figuring out alternate options that would route us through Pierre (pronounced Peer), SD’s capitol.  Taking US 14 straight to Pierre was the favorite, and with that we headed out.  Now, sitting in Pierre, I’m so glad we came this way.  US 14 turned out to be a fine road to bike – not my favorite, but I’d ride it again without reservation.  Plus, had we gone south, we would have missed out on Wessington and the lovely capitol!

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US 14, if only that shoulder could have remained all the way to Pierre.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

Our first night off the planned route landed us in the tiny town of Wessington, SD – best night of the trip.  They let us camp in their park and use the community pool!  After far too much fun on the water slide, we headed to the Sunset Bar – the town watering hole – for some food.  The place was run by Legendary Larry, a man who fully lives up to his name.  He was an incredible host who also cooked up a mean Ruben.  He had Abby pouring beers and locals chatting with us as if we were regulars.  The night was a major high for the group.

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Larry’s behind the bar, but he won’t be there long…
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…because Abby can take over.
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The man, the myth, the legend.  It’s blurry b/c he was never in one place for long enough to get a good photo 🙂
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Rachel and a new friend

Yesterday we rode 90 straight miles on US 14 to Pierre – not a single turn – and coasted down into the Missouri River Valley at the end of the day.

On this long straight road, I discussed with Carl the unexpected stress over picking a new route.  I felt like I’d been making a lot of bad calls recently, and a major route change was an important decision.  As I’d spent years choosing and reviewing potential roads using DOT maps and Google street view, and as traffic related safety was my biggest concern, it felt like a gamble to throw everything out and pick a new road based solely on one road characteristics map.  Our new road appeared less biker friendly, and once we started down it, there were no side roads or alternate options.  We’d be stuck on it for three days.  Carl’s take was, even if switching to US 14 wasn’t the best call (compared to continuing on the original route or taking a longer route to Pierre) it was still a good call.  It’s impossible to know what the absolute best decision is without doing all of them simultaneously.  So, if you do your research, collect all your facts, and make the most informed choice possible with the given resources, it’s never a bad call – even if it doesn’t turn out ideal or how you expected.  In a coin flip, calling head or tails are both good calls – one will be correct, but you won’t know which until it’s over.  The only bad call is edge.  I ribbed him a bit by reminding him that in statistics if you want to know the probability of heads, every time tails comes up, it’s called a “failure”, but I assured him I understood his point.  “The only bad call is edge” is tucked away as Carl’s useful life lesson number…uh…I’ve lost track.  I have no idea how he comes up with these on the spot, but in the two years we’ve been riding together there have been quite a few.

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US 14, you’re one straight road.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

Last night, we had a lovely dinner in Pierre – there was salad!  The good night in Wessington and riding at our own paces/in pairs really seems to have lifted all the tension.  SD is a magical place.

Today, we took a day off to explore the capitol.  I’m realizing I should have included more small cities on our route – I avoided them while planning, but small cities are great for getting vegetables, and stocking up on hard to find items – like vegetables.  I never thought I’d miss greens so much.  Anyway, Pierre is great.  All over town there are statues of the state’s governors posed doing their jobs before (or possibly concurrently with) their governorship – ranchers, shopkeepers, real salt of the earth types.  Inside the capitol building (which is stunning) there are a few display cases with short bios and doll size replicas of the gowns the first ladies of South Dakota wore to the gubernatorial inaugural balls.  It was both ridiculous and intriguing.  I wondered how the 1923 national collegiate javelin champion felt about being represented by a doll dress.  Also, if South Dakota ever elects a female governor, are they going to put a little doll sized tux in the case to represent her husband?20160709_121417

On our walk to the heritage museum, Carl got us lost – it’s 102F out without the heat index, we can’t afford that – but our wrong turn did take us by an civil war memorial.  It touted the brave men of South Dakota who fought for the union.  Both Carl and I found this interesting as South Dakota was not yet a state during the civil war.

20160709_134057Just when I thought the pavement would melt through the soles of my shoes, we made it to the heritage museum.  I would have loved it solely for the air conditioning, but it was also a great museum.  It covered several topics of South Dakota’s history, and it didn’t shy away from shameful aspects.  On the lighter side of things, Carl got to milk a robotic cow, and I learned all about Deadwood and the larger than life characters who inhabited the settlement.  I also learned that the Lakota Indians worked communication lines during one of the world wars.  They just spoke their language, a “code” the enemy was never able to break.  Since I struggle with Spanish, I guess learning an American Indian language is out of the question.

Uncle Larry (Abby’s uncle) arrived in Pierre today – perfect timing!  He’s going to ride with us this week.  It’s his first tour.  He’s so excited, and I’m so excited for him.  Hope the heat doesn’t scare him off.  It’s supposed to be 106 tomorrow (sans heat index).


Hindsight notes:  There were several this week.  The most important being our reroute.  

I’m glad we went through Pierre.  The Pine Ridge Reservation, which we avoided, is facing a meth epidemic, and the murder rate in 2016 nearly doubled.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on the social and economic effects of Reservations, or the damage the US has done by breaking (or amending to the point of nonrecognition) every single treaty ever made with American Indians (yes, every single one – look it up), but in general, when drugs are present in an isolated, systematically oppressed region, the outcome usually isn’t positive.  During much of our time in SD, my thoughts kept returning to this video: https://www.ted.com/talks/aaron_huey which I watched in 2011 when it came out. It is a short overview of the broken treaties and massacres presented by a photographer who has spent years photographing the people living on Pine Ridge.  Pine Ridge was the only Reservation we avoided.  The several Reservations and First Nation lands we did travel through were filled with friendly people and lovely communities.  In every one, I thought of this history and wondered its affect on that particular group.

As for positive hindsight notes: Wessington, SD was the best night of the whole trip – places like that are the reason we travel by bike.  After Carl’s pep talk regarding coin flips and good calls, I ceased to be anxious about any decision making for the rest of the trip.  A welcome change after a shaky two weeks.  Also, how had I never head of Deadwood or Calamity Jane?!  I see them everywhere now.

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