Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Study: My Journey to the Black Hills of South Dakota

It has been a long time since my last post, as usual.  Up until two weeks ago I wouldn't have had anything to post anyway.  Grad school is keeping me quite busy.  Studying, writing, grading, teaching... Yeah.  Now that I've made it through midterms intact, I have found some time to make an entry.  I had an excellent get away over spring break.  Agatha happens to have an aunt who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota so Saturday, March 9th at about 6AM we left DeKalb making tracks west with the Black Hills in our sights.

It is very easy to get to Rapid City, in fact we only had to make two turns--one north onto I39 and then one west onto I90.  Unfortunately our trip was complicated by some pretty awful winter weather.  It got so bad while in the central part of SD we were going as slow as 30 mph on a snow packed interstate, unable to take any exits as they were all packed with feet of snow.  Without any other options, we kept driving until we made it through the storm.  By this point, Agatha had been behind the wheel for a long time and it was getting dark.  We decided it would be best to call it a day, and stayed at a Super 8 in Murdo.  It was at this point I found one of my tire sidewalls had mysteriously been slashed open by something on the road.  This was a frustrating development, but we knew there were bike shops in Rapid City where I could get new tires.  Sunday morning we got up and set out for Rapid City again, with a plan to stop in Badlands National Park.  Badlands was spectacular, like a science fiction movie set.  No signs of life--just gullies and ravines, erosion exemplified.  The colors and strata of the landscape especially caught my eye.  We ran around exploring for a few hours, but the wind was howling (which would become a theme of the trip) and we still had to get to Rapid.

Upon arriving in Rapid City, we stopped at a bike shop called Cranky Jeff's.  It was a Sunday, but the owner was in the store and after explaining our situation he allowed us to come in and talked to us for a while.  I bought new tires, and we got a little bit of local advice.  It turned out we had come at the perfect time of year--early enough to avoid the tourists who show up and clog all the roads with RV's and mini-vans, but late enough that the snow was beginning to melt and the higher elevation roads were accessible.  Excited for the week to come, Agatha and I headed to her Aunt's house, unpacked, and settled in.

Monday morning we awoke and after breakfast of oatmeal, fruit, and coffee, packed up the car and headed into the hills.  We parked in Hill City near a trailhead of the Mickelson Trail, a rail trail and the Black Hills version of the Great Western.  We started off riding the Mickelson but soon found it to still be snowy/icy in some areas, and super soft and sandy everywhere, which combined with a headwind made progress feel really slow.  We soon hopped off onto a gravel road and got our first taste of the real riding potential of the Black Hills.  Perfectly textured, long, winding, wide, steep... The gravel was excellent.  Monday we also got a taste of how fast mountain weather can change, as a snow storm blew up on us in the middle of what was supposed to be a sunny day.  We were prepared for the cold, but it was still an eye opener.  We ended the day by crusing back to the car on pavement and making a detour for some single track (which ended up being too snowy) at Sheridan Lake.  With a little over 50 miles down, we felt pretty good for the first day.

Tuesday, we decided we wanted to climb.  Fortunately, it is not difficult to find long and steep roads in the Black Hills.  We started from the Sylvan Lake Trail Head in Custer State Park.  We began the day by riding Needles Highway, which we were amazed to find was still closed to car traffic.  We had the road to ourselves.  I will not soon forget the experience of riding my bicycle on a road with such a combination of quality and scenery without having to worry about vehicles once!  After descending Needles Highway, we turned off the pavement and onto some gravel, which eventually lead us to a trail taking us into the Black Elk Wilderness where bicycle riding is prohibited.  We hiked our bikes about two miles through the woods until emerging on Iron Mountain Road, which would take us to Mt. Rushmore.  Iron Mountain Road is known for its pigtail/corkscrew features, where the road traverses terrain so steep it must loop over itself.  This was another fantastic road and I'm more than a little glad we went down it as opposed to up.  Once up the climb to Rushmore, we did not linger long with the tour groups and bus loads of people.  We kept riding, back up a punishing seven mile climb to Sylvan Lake.  We had made it back to the car, but there was still a lot of day light left, so we hiked some trails to the top of a formation called Little Devils Tower, one of the tallest things east of the Rockies at about 7,000 feet.  It was a real beautiful hike with fun scrambling to gain the summit.  While up there, we saw a small group of wild mountain goats who could not be bothered to pay any attention to us.  Agatha and I both agreed this was one of the single greatest days we had ever spent outdoors.  We covered about 32 miles with 4,600 feet of climbing on the bikes and including the hike at the end of the day, we were cooked.

Wednesday we headed north to Spearfish Canyon.  I have heard about the amazing mountain biking and rock climbing to be had in and around Spearfish, but we had to ignore all that on this trip.  We had decided to do an out and back--thirty miles straight up the canyon, and then thirty miles back down.  Wednesday was the day the weather started to take a change for the better on our trip.  At the beginning of the day while we were climbing and at lower elevation we were in summer jerseys and just soaking up the sunshine.  We climbed and climbed the up the gentle grade of the road, and also into the wind.  The last ten miles of the climb really started to break me down.  I was in my granny gear, struggling to keep moving forward.  It was a great relief when we reached the halfway point and turned our bikes around.  Going down made up for the suffering it took to get up.  If I remember correctly it took us about 2hrs45min to ascend, and only 1hr15min to descend.  It was a laugh to speed down the perfect canyon road, effortlessly maintaining speeds around 20mph.  We were just cruising, joking, and taking in all the beauty around us.  Spearfish Canyon might have had some of the most beautiful sights of the whole trip.  This area is host to the annual Dakota 5-0 mountain bike race, and I bet that thing is no joke.  Some day I would love to come back and participate.  We ended the day with 60 miles and huge burritos in town before heading back to Rapid.

Thursday and Friday will be covered together in this report, as we chose the last two days of our trip to attempt one long ride with the plan to camp overnight.  Earlier in the week when we had stopped at Cranky Jeff's, we were given a piece of information about a man who lived south of Rapid and told he welcomed all touring cyclists to camp on his land free of charge.  Agatha and I thought this sounded like something not to be missed, so we made his location our halfway point for the overnighter.  We orginally planned to ride about 70 miles the first day, but due to a bit of a late start and some route-finding issues we only completed around 40.  Forest service roads are much harder to navigate than our wide open farm roads, and we ended up getting quite lost for about two hours on Thursday.  I lost my temper while trying to find the way, and I regret that.  Our whole trip was in the spirit of adventure and exploration, and I failed to remember that while we were pushing our bikes around out there.  One thing I must work on is my patience and ability to see beyond small mistakes.  It would make my own and others experiences more pleasant I'm sure.  Anyway, we ended up back tracking and taking more easily navigable to reach our destination.  When we arrived, our host John was incredibly welcoming.  He showed us around his property, insisted that we sleep in a camper instead of outside, fed us, gave us beer, told us stories, showed us his bike collection (which included at least three Rivendells, Bridstone XO-1 and XO-2, Eddy Merckx, and Holdsworth) invited friends over...  It was unbelieveable!  I don't think I'll truly be able to do justice to our experience, but I must emphasize how nice John was to us and how inspiring I found the lifestyle he had established.  Also, he drank Templeton Rye, which probably says enough right there.

The next morning, we woke up to a breakfast of freshly baked bread, eggs laid not more than one hundred feet away from the stovetop, and coffee prepared by John.  He then took us out on ride of some gravel roads and the Wildlife Loop in Custer.  This area was mostly off of the national forest land and was comprised of open pastures and ranches.  The hills were more rolling, and overall I was reminded a bit of some of my favorite areas out in Jo Daviess County.  We saw a few wild buffalo roaming unrestricted not far off the road, and Agatha found a tuft of buffalo hair which is supposedly rather rare and pleased John quite a bit.  We finished the loop and made our way back to John's residence.  It was not easy to say goodbye.  We wanted to stay and it seemed like John wanted us to as well.  There was lots of chatting about this and that and shuffling about, but we could not avoid it forever, so Agatha and I set off for Rapid City with the very sincere intentions to return again someday.  It was only about 20 miles back to town, but we faced 25mph head winds the whole way, with gusts up to 40mph.  I have never ridden in stronger wind than on that day.  It seemed as if we would never make it, and once again I started to lose my temper.  To make matters worse, we were on a large highway which was essentially the same as riding on an interstate shoulder.  When we made it back to Rapid, I was rather happy to know I was going to be off my bike for a while. 

This trip to South Dakota far exceeded my expectations.  The Black Hills are a place of overwhelming beauty, amplified by the feeling of isolation, wildness, and relative obscurity they exude.  For many reasons, I can understand why such a place stands seemingly undiscovered by outdoor enthusiasts.  It is not a place to make a fashion statement.  There is no one to show off to.  The city of Chicago is home to 2,707,120 humans, while the state of South Dakota as a whole is inhabited by just 833,354. I did not see any fake suburban REI outdoorsmen parading around in fresh shiny new Patagucci and North Face ensembles with a brand new space age material layer for every temperature interval and condition.  I don't think talk amounts to much out west, people actually get stuff done.  And if you are all talk, I think people figure you out real quick.  It was great to spend five days in a row riding hard after a slow winter of school and laziness.  It was great to spend that time with Agatha, a partner who I love, and is way tougher than I'll ever be--on and off the bike.  It was inspiring to meet John, another individual who has shown a complete stranger like me great kindness just because of a shared love of bicycling.  And most of all, it was great to be outside exploring a new place from the saddle of my bike, which by this point I am quite sure is the best way to explore.  If you managed to read this whole thing, thanks.  Now go ride!