2004 Bike Trip: Prairie

Leif Johnson — 06 Jul 2004, 16:07

the prairies of the middle west have streamed under our tires this past week as pete and i rode like gangbusters from sioux city, iowa up to nemo, south dakota. somehow the time (seven days) and distance (between 800 and 900 km) seem to be both long and short, but in the past few days we've covered lots of ground ... i'll try to cover the highlights here from the belle fourche public library, while i wait for my laundry to finish drying down the street.

border crossings

sometimes borders are just the lines on the map, but as pete and i crossed the missouri a week ago from iowa into nebraska, this border really did feel like the dividing line between two different places : the midwest and the west. almost as soon as we started west on nebraska highway 12, the land flattened out, the road quality improved, the vistas seemed more impressive ... and, definitely not least, the wind shifted in from the southeast, pushing us along at a mighty rate !

the wind affects a trip like this in ways that are hard to express with words. riding 60 km through some of the hilly, windy hay farms in iowa felt like riding 120 km through some of the breezy, gently rising ranches in northeastern nebraska ; the difference in the day's mileage shifts from 100 km to 140 km with a suitable wind, so the beautiful views, lucky winds, and friendly folks in nebraska really helped us out as we pedaled 180 km our first day, then averaged about 120 km a day for the next six days.

unexpected nice places

nebraska really impressed me in many ways as we pedaled on highway 12 through the northern edge of the state. the people suddenly started to wave as we passed on the road, the pie in ponca was fantastic, and the views expanded as we rode into more of the prairie proper. the land changed around us, bringing in more cattle farms and a few prickly pears here and there, and things just got a lot more spread out : a few times we missed towns marked on the map because—as far as we can figure—they were just a couple of buildings along the road.

we passed through springview, nebraska, where two experimental wind power stations generate enough electricity to run the 400 homes in the entire county. we spent one night camping between two pastures, and camped another night in south dakota between two hills near the badlands. beautiful territory out here. and luckily, the weather held out for us the entire time.

reservations and grasslands

we picked a lucky day to head north from valentine, nebraska to white river, south dakota : a beautiful wind from the south pushed us 80 km in three hours, when we finally stopped and got to use the internet at the county newspaper office. (the library was a tiny one-room building with probably 600 books total ; definitely no internet access there.) the reporter there was pretty excited about two cyclists rolling through town, so we got to sit out some of the afternoon heat in the air-conditioned office.

a lot of the land in southern south dakota is indian reservations ... and there sure isn't a lot of money flowing through these places. it was really awakening, in many ways, to ride through the reservations in the oppressive dakota heat, just looking at the land and the way the people deal with it. i'm so mad at our country for its history with the natives, and the reservations here just make it clear how little they received in the end.

we continued to roll west from white river, spending the night in a pasture surrounded (but not touched) by thunderstorms rolling off the black hills. the next day we rode up to the visitor's center in badlands national park, where we spent a few hours letting the afternoon thunderstorms pass by ... and finally we rolled past interior and scenic, south dakota into rapid city.

family reunions are the best

our day didn't end in the city, however nice it was to have a stout (lots of calories !) and a real bean burrito ... we pressed on into the black hills, climbing up some nicely paved inclines to some really beautiful alpine meadows populated by horse farms and log cabins. the road led eventually to nemo, south dakota—even though it ended up being more than twice the four miles that one driver estimated ... drivers have no idea how far things really are.

but as we headed onward, some of the afternoon thunderstorms started booming around us, and pretty soon we were riding in drizzle, then outright rain ... so when nemo finally appeared we were starting to get soaked. never in our wildest dreams, i think, could we have imagined a better group of people to occupy the “restaurant” that had a covered porch : the tail end of a family reunion, whose members asked us in for cake, invited us to dry off by the fires, and eventually let us stay in one of their empty cabins for the night ! it's really difficult to express how nice these people were to us, but such hospitality is really appreciated after riding through the rain.

parting ... for the time being

pete unfortunately couldn't take more time off work, so as we pulled out of the cabin in nemo, he headed east back to rapid city, and i pointed my handlebars west to ride up here to belle fourche, all day in the rain and gusting winds—definitely a night to hunker down in a motel !

it's going to be a different trip, once again solo—and having to carry the tent by myself. :) but thanks to pete's tenacity i've gotten a bit more acclimated to camping on the road, avoiding those expensive motel stops when i just feel like a wus ... and i might barely understand a bit more about the intricate process of cooking lentils and rice.

today's ride is getting shorter as i type, though, so i need to head out of town here and get on the road while the weather is beautiful, cool, and sunny. i hope to be in great falls, montana in about 8 days, then in whitefish three days later, then ... the last stage to the ocean !