This is Part 2 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 1, click here to check it out. This section covers from Spearfish, South Dakota all the way to the Indiana border. Straight through the heart of the Midwest in summer like true masochists.
We didn’t plan to bike through the Midwest in August. It just worked out that way. Our timing, framed around hitting New England during peak fall colors, meant we had to spend some time in the sweltering summer. To echo Vonnegut, so it goes… Trade-offs are part of living.
After clearing Montana, we headed south through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Instead of highways, we spent a few days on the Mickelson Trail, which is a 110-mile gravel trail that cuts right through the heart of the area near Mt. Rushmore. Timing it perfectly (not), we managed to hit the area just as 500,000 motorcycles descended like loud, buzzing bees for the Sturgis Rally. I think I heard, “Put an engine on that thing!” almost as much as “I could never do what you’re doing.”
Foggy morning in Nebraska in the corn fields.
I asked a bartender in Cody, NE (pop 154) if they knew anyone who might take us in for the night since a big storm was rolling in. Isla helped us out and her cheery granddaughter made us laugh and laugh.
The Midwest gets a bad rap sometimes, and part of it is a bit undeserved. Take Nebraska, for instance. I think most people picture horribly flat, ugly terrain stretching for miles. Flat? On the highways, yes. Country roads were rolling and nice. Ugly? Not in the NW part of the state in the pretty, rolling Sand Hills region. We lucked out and fog was more prevalent than crushing sun for the first half of Nebraska. Clear, hot skies came as we neared Omaha, as did gnarly traffic. My advice is to avoid big cities whenever possible if you go touring because navigating them on bicycle is often difficult or just plain nerve-wracking.
Iowa’s surprise was constant rolling steep hills, not flat corn country. We toiled up them through temperatures soaring into the high 90’s in humidity so thick we could have backstroked in it. Locals were kind, generous and excited to talk to us. A new idea (to us) was Casey’s, a gas station chain also featuring pizza ovens. We ate no-cheese, veggie pizza ($12.74 with tax) and scored ice cubes for our water bottles frequently to survive. That convenience was unfortunately offset by the stink of factory farms and the doomed animals inside them that permeated the air in many stretches of the state. An up-close, visceral look at the underbelly of our food system.
Up close and personal with a soy bean field.
In eastern Iowa, road shoulders were 10 feet wide to accommodate the large Amish population and their buggies, which whisk along behind quickly trotting horses. We stopped at Stringtown Grocery, an Amish establishment featuring re-bagged bulk goods branded under the store’s name. And then we hit a big milestone – The Mississippi River! I stared at the flat brown flowing waters and thought of the Louisiana Purchase. To think that a huge chunk of land west of this grand body of water at one point wasn’t even part of the United States before France sold it to us. 2,300 miles on our bikes to get here and we were barely half way to Maine.
Scenery past the Mississippi was the cliche Midwest fare. Rather non-descript days pedaling through the corn and soy fields of Illinois blend together into podcasts and audiobooks that curbed the monotony a bit. Long days in the sun melded into one big mass of states starting with I as we left Iowa for Illinois and Indiana.
Corn fields and a rusty silo to hold the bounty.
Our ability to forget difficult trials is powerful. This portion of our tour is scarcely three months ago and yet feels so long ago. The events of August in the Midwest are already softer in my mind. Memories of days where we had to linger in a gas station to let our internal temperatures cool down are slipping away. The sun’s fangs are blunted and the sauna of the humidity diminishes. Even the sameness of the landscape – corn, soy, repeat – looks better in the pictures.
What remains etched in stone is a mental confidence that we persevered as a team, pushing through conditions we normally would choose to avoid at all costs. The crucible of the Midwest forged our relationship into a stronger bond. For that reason alone, this tough section of the tour was worth it.
Enough chit chat. How about that video?! Email subscribers: click here for Part 2 of 4. Visitors to the website, just click play below in the embedded video. Enjoy…and see you shortly in Part 3!
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/5-DSC02452.jpg7991200Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2014-10-30 17:52:442015-09-02 13:24:58Punching Through the Midwest - Bike Touring Video (Part 2)
Hill City, SD is overrun by bikers, plus the lone cyclist.
The ragged, messy edge of human interaction is my favorite. When people who might not cross paths do so, life gets interesting. Or perhaps annoying at the outset, then interesting. At the very least, it’s a fun story for later. A perfect example is the craziness surrounding the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota.
This is not the time I would choose to visit the Black Hills. Heck, many of the locals rent out their homes and hit the road for a vacation this time of year to escape the 500,000-strong deluge of bwap bwap bwap bikes raining down like hungry locusts from all directions. Some bikers even avoid the main rally, showing up the week before it starts to meet up with friends and then zooming off before “things get too crazy.” Coming from a brawny, tattooed badass riding a giant Harley, that’s saying something (her boyfriend looked tough too). We had no idea this onslaught was in our future when we diverted our planned route from North Dakota to its southern neighbor.
Not gonna lie: the Rally cramped our free-wheeling style a bit. For one, bikers (we are now cyclists, they get the b-word) like to ride the same back roads that we do. What usually would be a silent cruise up twisty Spearfish Canyon, gateway to the Black Hills, was instead a cacophony of echoing tailpipes blasting off the canyon walls. Locals told us the deep thrum of Harley engines literally never stops for two weeks around the Rally. Throw in the fact that all the campgrounds and hotels are booked up, with rates 2x+ higher than usual, and it’s a serious pain in the ass to be an unsuspecting visitor at this time.
And yet… I love the counterpoint the Rally gave to our cozy bubble of happy cycling routine. Someone wise said growth happens when you hit your edge and get out of your comfort zone. That seems accurate when we roll up in full spandex to a saloon with 15 burly bikers lounging on the sagging front porch drinking Bud Lite. I’m still waiting to get a beer can and derogatory language hurled my way, but instead there’s a camaraderie between two-wheeled riders. I’m like the next Hunter S. Thompson, infiltrating the ranks of the Hells Angels while clad in Lycra, minus the quaaludes and heavy drinking. (Ok, so I’m not even close.)
I can only call this shot “Mt. Rushmore and Bikers.”
Living on the edge of our comfort zone reaffirms that this world is populated with all types. On a bicycle, there’s no windshield between us and the world – we’re exposed to the weather and any loony that wants to talk to us. (And vice versa!) Still, there is an inherent respect we gain since we’re doing something challenging. The dozens of bikers told us to “be safe out there” and “wow, I could never do that!” mixed in with “you should put an engine on that thing” or “Wanna race?” To the latter, I responded “Nah, I don’t want to humiliate you.” Boom…not a punch to my face, just a big laugh from the guy. I also enjoyed fist-punching the air with a “WOOOOO” going by groups of parked bikers. Always good for shouts in response and revving engines. Ah, the simple yet fun things in life.
While it’s motorcyclists in this example, it could be truck drivers, ardent NASCAR fans, a conservative retired stockbroker from Florida or anything in between. It’s all context, a framework to reinforce or test our values and keep things interesting. BSing with people along our route is one of my favorite pastimes and I always learn something about what makes us tick as humans. This fun little expedition into the Black Hills was no different…but there’s still no way I’m parking my bicycle to ride a Harley.
My own Harley phalanx. This group cracked up when I pulled up next to them and yelled “Where are we going?”
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/1-photo.jpg7511200Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2014-08-08 05:49:352014-10-14 10:18:02Riding the Edge - Two Cyclists at a Motorcycle Rally
Chelsea climbs a long hill in the plains somewhere near the Lewis and Clark trail.
Montana is officially giant. Especially if you ride across it like a drunken sailor rollicking on a ship’s deck. Instead of a straight shot across and 500 miles, it took us 25 days and 1,080 miles of pedaling from the time we hit the border in the SW corner and then up into Canada before cutting SE (check map below). We’re averaging 51 miles/day with six days resting or exploring towns along the way, right where we want to be. And now that we’ve crossed into Nebraska, we’ve officially hit the plains! Verdict still out on how interesting they are… I’ll say this: We in the northwest are very spoiled with our gorgeous landscapes and green scenery.
ID-WA-ID-MT-Canada-MT-SD-NE. Vroooom! 38 days on the road so far.
With that many miles, we covered a vast amount of terrain in Montucky (as my friend Margi lovingly calls it). Rivers cutting through forested valleys were gobbled up by the magnificent Rocky Mountains of Glacier and Waterton Parks, which then turned into rolling hills of wheat fields as we hit north-central Montana coming out of Canada. Heading south, we crossed through deep river valleys at the headwaters of the the Missouri River, spinning past the same route Lewis and Clark trudged and floated through 150+ years ago. Pointing our wheels east, we hit long climbs and dry landscapes seared by wind that tossed us about like two plastic bags in a parking lot. A few days of 80+ miles through the middle of nowhere, marked only by the occasional unoccupied rural post office with peeling paint, and we finally hit South Dakota, our fifth state of the tour. From there, we climbed up to 6,500′ elevation into the Black Hills while hanging with motorcyclists heading to the Sturgis Rally while making our way into (as it says on the sign) “Nebraska: The Good Life.”
A sample rest stop in a “town” in the middle of nowhere: flaky paint on a post office (closed) in the midst of an 80 mile ride.
It is hard to believe it has already been more than 30 days on the bikes. Time slows down out here, that’s for sure. In a good way, and sometimes in a is-this-FrakkZore-of-a-hellhole-hill-ever-going-to-end kinda way. Headwinds, especially uphill into them, are officially more difficult than mountain passes and I’d trade gusts in the face for a giant climb over Glacier any day. Emotionally weak and scrambling to rationalize things, I remind myself that I chose to be here while taking zero comfort in the fact that everyone we meet tells us, “Wow, these winds are rare. They almost always blow to the east.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’ve had a couple screaming outbursts at the wind, yelling obscenities into their uncaring Maw of Cyclist Hate. Bike touring is a moving meditation with occasional reminders that I’m so very human. Back to my breath, pedal pedal pedal. Praise the cycling gods for podcasts and audiobooks because too much time alone in my head out here and I’d be chewing bar tape off my handlebars like a psychotic rat.
Meth: You’ve been warned! Lots of scary signs and murals like this were found in small towns along the way. One motel employee told us she had moved from another town because her son’s friends were starting to deal meth…because their parents hooked them up to avoid getting busted themselves. WHAT?!
What to say about a month+ of touring? In July, we spent almost 120 hours pedaling, by far the most I’ve spent on a bike in a month. Not a full time job, but close enough at anywhere from 5-8 hours/day cranking away to deserve benefits or at least a support vehicle with a water cooler (any volunteers?). As my muscles steel themselves to cycling, I’m finding that I’m more mentally tired than physically exhausted at the end of a day, though Chelsea might vote differently. It is exhausting, and slow going compared to the full expanse we will eventually cover, but the reality is that we’re within 45-60 days of hitting the east coast, which is pretty crazy to think about. Day by day, we pedal and chip away at our goal.
Mailbox ornamentation and Chelsea receding into the plains behind on her steed.
A landmark in central Montana, Square Butte, next to a town of the same name where a surly waitress made us amazing salads.
Of course I must mention the characters and cool people from all over the states that we meet at every rest stop and restaurant. We loved a dinner with a nice couple (hi Jim and Shawn!) in “pre-tirement.” They quit their jobs to cycle west on a tandem on a trip Shawn was first inspired to do 40 years earlier in 1976 when she heard of the Trans-America Bi-Centennial ride. We met a cheery and fun Swiss woman named Regi dressed for tennis riding from NYC to San Francisco. Beyond that, countless people approach at various stops to chat about our trip and offer their blessings for safe travel. We also loved a stay with two young, forward-thinking farmers (hi Casey and Kelsey!) who we stayed with for a couple days, playing around and pretending we were helping out while I pretty much just got in the way I’m sure. I rode in the combine and jumped some hay bales…it almost felt like work! Man oh man do farmers work hard – makes me appreciate, once again, where our food comes from. And a special shout out to the Warm Showers hosts that we’ve stayed with – thanks mucho Alan Da Man and John+Rebecca.
Our hosts on a farm near Ft. Benton (headwaters of the Missouri River), Casey and his dad Bob, hanging out on the combine. We had a fantastic two days exploring their big wheat and cattle operation.
Montana: Big Sky Country.
I think the biggest takeaway so far is that our bodies and minds are powerful machines when given the opportunity to shine. Both are working hard these days while stepping up to the plate to crank some home runs. (Except when I’m swearing at the wind. That’s more like a mental ground-out to the shortstop.) We’ve come a fair piece, yet it is slightly daunting to think how far we still have to go, about 2,500 miles more to Maine after 1,400 traversed in total so far. I know we can do it, though I’ve come to realize this is no small undertaking. Perhaps I was a bit flippant up front, but I’m gaining more respect for how difficult this trip is and just how long it takes. A quarter of a year, third of a pregnancy or an entire summer is a big commitment to one adventure!
The toughest thing as of late is no downtime. We get up, pack up our paltry few possessions and ride. Get to our destination, unpack, shower (hopefully), find food to eat for that night and the next day. Sleep like the dead (unless surrounded by idling semis), though with muscles that hurt more than a mummy’s. Repeat, ad nauseum. Whew! It was easier with breathtaking scenery. Rolling fields are a bit less inspiring, and the aforementioned winds tax both body and mind like a fat anchor clanging along tied to our bikes.
Still, we are having fun and carrying on with lots of laughs with people we meet and one another! Any journey has its headwinds and I feel truly lucky to have created the space to spend with Chelsea to test our will together while exploring this great country. We’re spending tons of quality time together, as well as plenty apart in headphone-land to keep sane. I feel closer to my wife than I have in years as we pedal together each day with only one another (and Danielle Steele bodice-rippers for me) for support. It’s a powerful bonding experience, one I know we will both draw on in the future as a source of strength in the face of something “difficult” that is really just something we don’t want to do. “Remember that impossibly tough day biking from Broadus to Alzada?” we can ask ourselves, and just smile because we NEVER have to do that ride again.
A “cozy” camp site in Alzada, MT near B&J’s convenience store. At least they had showers inside, though the crazy wind and trucks nearby weren’t the best sleeping companions.
Our first day in the plains coming out of Canada into the U.S. This shot was taken as the sun was cresting behind us, casting light on the fields and our last real view of the Rockies.
We are now heading east on Nebraska’s Highway 20 through the Sand Hills, just below South Dakota. A weathered bike tourist in middle-of-nowhere Montana whom we ran into said said 1) “Hooray! I haven’t seen another cyclist in a month!” and 2) the Sand Hills of Nebraska are awesome compared to eastern South Dakota. And so here we are, in the state from which Chelsea’s grandparents hail and where Warren Buffet lives in the house he bought for $31,500 decades ago.
Be it headwinds, monotony or thunderstorms (we’ve out-sprinted one already), onward through the plains!
Glowing embers of a smoky sunset with wheat in the foreground. (Ft. Benton)
A weather-beaten fence in the middle of nowhere Montana, wheat fields and sky stretching for miles.
Two buddies on a farm.
Baby owlets fluffed up and hanging out on a chimney in Waterton, Alberta.
A mother owl hangs with her wee three.
A (very calm) deer in Alberta lounging in the grass.
And one more: skipping rocks in Waterton, Alberta at sunset.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/05-DSC02296.jpg7501200Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2014-08-05 06:20:172014-10-14 10:19:48Out of the Mountains and Into the Plains