Days 49-55: South Dakota, An Unexpected Love Affair – Part 2

This post, written one year after day 55, is drawn from the daily journal I kept, and is written as if it just happened.

July 10-July 16

Pierre, SD >>> Newcastle, WY

366 miles


…and the infatuation continues.

Carl and I were the last duo to leave Pierre at 6:45AM.  Everyone wanted to reach Midland, 63 miles away, before the temperature hit 106F.  We were supposed to face 23mph head/crosswinds, but we enjoyed a tailwind for our first 40 miles.

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Climbing out of the Missouri River Valley at 7AM
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No turns for 40 miles…which means great tail wind for 40 miles!

After we reunited for an early lunch in Midland – during which the surly staff told Rachel she was “SOL” if she didn’t eat meat – Carl, Craig, Rachel, and I decided to take advantage of the west-blowing tailwind, and our extra hour (we crossed into mountain time!) to ride another 26 miles to Philip.  Bad idea.  Five to ten miles down the road, the wind switched and the temperature spiked.  I welcomed the headwind as, when it was blocked by a hill, I felt like I was in an oven baking – heat was radiating from above and below.

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I thought switching to flip flops could help my feet stay cool.  They did nothing.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

We soaked up the A/C at the Philip gas station and pounded cold beverages.  Once I was good and freezing, Craig and I headed into town to find a place to stay.  There was a lot of activity at the fire station – a bunch of firemen were sitting outside talking about the the wheat field that had recently gone up.  I anticipated forest fires, but I never thought of field/farm fires and how fast they can sweep across a road.  As they were the only living beings out in the heat, we asked them about camping in the city park – we’d heard it was allowed.  It was, but Marty, the former fire chief offered to put us up in his finished garage/hunting lodge instead!  Two bedrooms, a full bath, and, most importantly, A/C.

We spent the next several hours at the pizza place – food, drinks, and A/C.  Around 7 we’d finished eating but didn’t leave until they closed at 9 just to avoid the heat for the 200 yard walk back to Marty’s.  I’m so glad we’re not camping!  Marty was on call all night, so we didn’t see him again that night or the next morning.  Hopefully we thanked him profusely enough.

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Leaving Philip, SD.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

The next morning we all took different routes to the Badlands.  I wanted to avoid riding on 90 (the expressway) so Carl and I continued west on US 14 (yup, still on 14) to Cottonwood where we turned south onto a dirt road.  We crested the first hill, and we could see them!  20 miles out we could see the Badlands!  I always thought they were just canyons, but no!  They rise up in these mini mountain formations!  The gravel road was well packed and we rolled over the hills, catching a glimpse of the Badlands every time we crested.IMG_8069

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Camping in the overflow section – there’s a place for everyone, even when the “Campground’s Full”.  Photo credit: Rachel

The Badlands are amazing.  There were lots of signs explaining the name – the french fur traders called it “bad lands to travel across”, but learning how they formed took some piecing together.  Basically, what we figured out over the day was the area used to be a shallow sea.  Then plates shifted forming the Rockies and Black Hills to the west.  This angled the land and drained the sea.  Some amount of time following the sea drain, it was extremely hot and humid, and sediment from the eroding Black Hills formed the foundation for a rainforest which lasted millions of years.  Then came the period of mega volcanoes, ash covered everything, and most stuff died.  With no vegetation, the erosion began.  When the Black Hills rose up, it seems like areas of the Badlands broke into various levels which then eroded creating the mountain shaped hills and canyons.

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Layers of ancient soil.  I’m guessing there were cycles of lush and dry periods.

We spent a day exploring this unique place.  Abby’s parents, who had arrived the night before with a cooler of beer, fruit, cheese and crackers – best people ever – could take all but two in their car.  Carl and I happily volunteered to bike – riding through the canyons the day before was incredible, and I didn’t want to be confined to a car.  We headed towards Pinnacle overlook nearly making it the entire way.  Like the day before, we stopped to walk along the side trails/boardwalks.20160712_10310120160712_111135

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See the big horned sheep?
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I broke out my favorite Biostation hat for the sunny occasion. Photo credit: Carl
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See me at the edge of the path (center right)?  Photo credit: Carl

We stopped at every turn out except “Parrie Winds”.  With the head/cross wind we were riding through, we felt we got the full experience.  Fortunately all the drivers were very courteous and gave a wide birth as the wind tossed us around.

We made it as far as the Yellow Mounds overlook – the oldest layer of exposed rock in the park.  Carl was wiped, I was running out of water (I brought double what I thought I’d use and ran out on the way back) and we didn’t feel the need to go down into the mounds and climb back out.  It was a lovely exploration day.  I especially enjoyed sailing back to the campground on the tailwind we’d fought all the way out.

Both nights the group was treated to comical winds, gorgeous sunsets, and clear night skies.  It was so dark and so quiet.  I have not idea why I couldn’t sleep either night in the Badlands, but I was dead the day we left.  Except Carl and I, everyone else was gone at 5:30AM.  I have no idea why they wanted to get on the road so early – it wasn’t supposed to get that hot that day.  I wanted breakfast from the restaurant which didn’t open until 7AM – I really don’t like eating out of my panniers.  Also, Abby’s parents carried all our stuff for the day – score! – so someone had to wait with the bags until they arrived.  I was happy for the slow morning.

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Six biker’s stuff packed in a trunk.
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The Badlands continues outside official park area.  We got to see more of the Yellow Mounds!
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“Entering known plague area”.  This is why you don’t pet the cute prairie dogs
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Welcome to Scenic, SD.  Population: 4.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro
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Scenic, SD.  Photo credit: Rachel

We stopped in Scenic to top off our water.  Scenic, SD population 4 – one family of 3 and a single woman who runs the trading post 3 months out of the year.  During the other nine months all her time is consumed with buffalo herding – those huge things can apparently jump clear over a pick-up truck!  If you’re in the area, go into the trading post and ask her about buffalo.  You’re likely to get her life story.  Meeting people like her is the reason I love traveling by bike.  As I’m terrible as striking up conversation with strangers, traveling with Carl is essential to get this experience as he talks to everyone 🙂

I dragged my exhausted butt the 75 miles to Rapid City.  We were attacked by locust, biked through the dry desert, watched thunderstorms pass in the distance, descended into a lush valley, and climbed back up into the deserty, brushy, grassland.  By the time we arrived, the others received permission to camp in the Rapid City KOA common area – $8 a person, showers, laundry, and all you can eat pancakes in the morning.  I was ready to crash, but Abby and her family rolled in to inform us they wanted to take everyone out to dinner.  Suddenly sleep was far less important.  Not only was it a lovely group outing, the food was amazing!  Thanks again, Bugas family!  I’m so glad you were able to meet up with us.

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Bikers in a line – the other three are tiny dots.  See them?

I slept like a rock at the KOA.  It’s a good thing I wasn’t tired the next day because we climbed straight up into the Black Hills.  They felt just as steep as the Appalachians but never seemed to end.  We climbed 1,500 feet over the 30 miles to Keystone, but half (~700ft) was gained in a wicked 2 miles stretch (>6% grade is tough after so many prairies and fields).  My legs struggled to remember how to handle the climbs.  Rachel and I quickly fell back into our road weaving method.

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Rachel and I weaving across the road – creating our own switchbacks.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro
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So steep!  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

In Keystone we stopped for lunch at Teddy’s, a top notch sandwich spot, where we avoided the Ruben as we knew it could never live up to legendary Larry’s.  After setting up camp at Kemp’s Kamp (highly recommend this place) we headed, unloaded, up to Mt. Rushmore.  The ride was another 2-3 miles of 6% grade, but bikes get in free – I guess they feel you’ve payed in effort.20160714_170821

Mt. Rushmore was a surprisingly neat place.  I had no idea the sculptor died before finishing it or that they caulk tons of cracks so things like Jefferson’s nose doesn’t fall off.  Early on in the trip planning process, I was just going to take ACA’s Northern Tier all the way across.  But as that would miss Missoula, MT (ACA’s headquarters) and Yellowstone, I created my own route that would pass through everything I wanted to see.  Neither the Badlands nor Mt. Rushmore were on my short list, but I figured, we have to pass near them to get from St. Paul to Yellowstone…may as well stop by.  I assumed I’d never go to South Dakota as a stand-alone vacation.  Now I can definitively say, I will be returning to South Dakota.  It deserves a designated vacation.  This state is incredible.

Our final day in the best state (yesterday) took us along Iron Mountain Rd and Needles Highway.  Only Rachel, Carl and I ventured to the peaks.  The others rode straight to Newcastle, WY.  Abby’s family headed out that morning.  I was hoping their visit would rejuvenate her (like Joel’s visit helped me) but, unfortunately, it just seemed to make her more homesick.

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The first corkscrew on Iron Mountain Rd.

I’ve been looking forward to riding these roads since I stumbled across photos of them during the planning stages.  I was all jittery after breakfast – excited for the sights and a bit nervous for the climb.  Starting at 4,300ft in Keystone, we would climb to Norbeck Overlook on the Iron Mountain road at 5,400ft over 7 miles.  After coasting back down to 4,400ft at the base of Needles Highway, we’d climb another 6,500ft to the Needle Eye.  The 2,000ft in elevation would be gained in over just 8 miles.  It was surprisingly easy.  I felt strong and the climbs were so gradual.  The pavement was so smooth and the roads were empty early in the morning.  Not to mention, it was beautiful.  I was in heaven.  Yesterday was the happiest I’ve ever been on a bike.

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Iron Mountain Road
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Each tunnel frames Mt. Rushmore.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro
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All SD plaques were written like this.  They all made us smile as we read them out loud in our most dramatic voices.
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Descending the switchbacks of Norbeck Overlook
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Needles Highway
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Climbing among billion year old rock.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

Apart from the 3 mile, 5 minute descent following Norbeck Overlook we climbed for 6 hours straight; somehow the hills felt like nothing.  Traffic picked up later in the morning, but every gave us plenty of room.  People gawked at our fully loaded bikes as we pulled into scenic overlooks near the peak.IMG_2348

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The Eye of the Needle.  Photo credit: Rachel

At the top we learned the needles/rock pillars were formed when molten rock was pushed to the surface, cooled slowly, and was shaped by wind.  They are billions of years old (the rock, not how long they’ve been exposed) and some of the oldest rocks on the surface of the planet.  It’s not a mystery why the Lakota people consider these hills sacred, believing life originated here.  Side reminder: we blew up their sacred hills into the shape of our presidents’ faces.

After much oooing and ahhing, we started our descent.  In 20 minutes we’d flown 8-9 miles back down to our original elevation.  This may seem like an extremely short descent after hours of climbing, but it was exhilarating.  Have you ever coasted, truly coasted, at 25+mph for 20 continuous minutes on perfect pavement?  I’ve never experienced it before yesterday, but now I know what I’ve been missing.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tried it.

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On Mickleson Trail.  Photo credit: Carl’s GoPro

At the bottom we hit Mickleson Trail – a rail trail from Deadwood to Edgemont.  I was looking forward to it, but 700ft of climbing on rough gravel/sand quickly turned me off.  It was jarring after such exquisitely paved roads.  The trail peaked at the Crazy Horse Memorial and we were able to coast (carefully to avoiding fishtailing) into Custer.  For anyone planning to ride Mickleson, I have 1.6in tires (cc700x42) and my wheels were spinning and fishtailing.

After a delicious early dinner in Custer at a bakery, we headed out of town around 4:30.  We still had 37 miles to Newcastle.  There were some more good hills leaving town; then a 15-20 mile descent into Wyoming where everything opened up into rocky shrub land.20160715_190051

We are in Wyoming.  I can’t believe it.  Standing at the Wyoming sign is when I think it finally sunk in.  I am going to ride my bicycle across the country.

We have a rest day in Newcastle, WY, and for once I’m actually spending it…resting.  Imagine that!  Well, I mean I rested after I planned out the week’s route, and found a warm showers host in Casper, and caught up on my journal, and talked to Joel about wedding stuff – I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet, but we’re getting married three weeks after the trip!


Hindsight notes:  The verdict is in.  South Dakota was everyone’s favorite state.  I wrote a gushing letter to SD’s tourism department a couple months ago and told ACA they have to map a route through there.  Everyone on the TransAm and Northern Tier have no idea what they’re missing!!  Even now, a year later, I find myself getting nostalgic about day one and our time in SD.  It was a beautiful and fascinating place, the group was really happy, and we had several great days – the night in Wessington still holds the title of best night, the ride along Iron Mountain Rd and Needles Highway was my favorite single day of riding during the entire 5,000 mile trip, the Badlands were beautiful, the vast prairies were surprisingly dramatic – I could gush on and on, but you should just go there.

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