Trip Log – Day 55 –Buffalo, SD to Spearfish, SD

Buffalo SD to Spearfish SDJune 29, 2015 – Sunny, 95 degrees

Miles Today: 84

Miles to Date: 3,365

States to Date: 15

Buffalo, SD was hopping at 6 a.m. with guys wanting to play in dirt. When I came down early for breakfast at the Tipperary Motel, two Mexican-American laborers were having breakfast before heading out to dig the foundation for a carport and three paleontologists from Toronto were packing a pick-up with supplies to drive ten miles outside of town and scrape at fossils all day. On the way out of town I passed the five dirt bikers I met at lunch yesterday, rousing from their night of sleep in the park and preparing to ride their bikes in mud again all day. I strive to stay vertical on pavement, but maybe I’m missing something.

IMG_2614Still, I was happy to avoid dirt in the longest unsupported ride of my trip – seventy miles without a soul through a gorgeous Western landscape under still, sweltering skies. Folks in Buffalo told me there was a gas station twenty miles out. When I came to Reding I found a collection of three-dozen abandoned vehicles, two mobile home shells, and a small building with the words ‘Pop and snacks’ painted on the side. I propped my bike in the structure’s shade and entered. No one. Just the remnants of a Post Office and a well-stocked refrigerator with water, pop, and tea. I drank a tea and left a buck and my card on the counter.

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Then I pedaled for fifty miles; spinning, singing, and enjoying the amazing countryside; free-grazing herds of cattle and sheep, narrow creeks, and broad plains. Not a cloud in the sky except for the bed toupee poofs above distant buttes. At one point I stopped to absorb the silence. Beyond a distant butte I heard a chorus of cattle, their bellows like ancestral vibrations.

The shoulder was rough, so I kept to the road as much as possible, which meant a lot of ‘defensive friendliness’ in the form of waving to everyone in both directions. It’s easier to hear oncoming vehicles, especially after they pass, than the ones approaching from behind. Ever so slowly, the buttes were replaced by the outline of distant mountains.

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IMG_2620I rolled into Belle Fourche before two, which was good time. I pedaled along Main Street looking for a cafe, but instead found the Green Bean Coffeehouse, which made a pleasant stop for a few hours. I left about five to cycle the fifteen miles to Spearfish.

Belle Fourche is the demarcation between barren plains and the Black Hills. Suddenly there was topography, trees, and many more signs of life. Spearfish is a cool ranching turned college and tourist town. My warmshowers host, Chad, lives in a century old house that has had dozens of additions large and small. I had the entire basement, complete with real pine paneling and a stone fireplace, to myself. We walked down the hill to a bar where that served great microbrew drafts; my first beer in week. I slept like a log in my cool basement with the windows open and gentle breeze all night.

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Trip Log – Day 54 – Bowman, ND to Buffalo, SD

Bowman ND to Buffalo SDJune 28, 2015 – Sunny, 95 degrees

Miles Today: 46

Miles to Date: 3,281

States to Date: 15

Bowman has more going for it on Sunday morning than Saturday night. The Sunday church crowd at Jabbers Family Restaurant was large, well–scrubbed, and looked like they’d enjoyed many ‘Meat Lover’s Skillet’ breakfasts. I certainly enjoyed mine.

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It was 10:30 before I began my short ride to Buffalo, South Dakota. Even the wind took a rest day. Sixteen miles in I crossed the state line and the topography changed. No more farms, just grazing land and buttes without a spec of shade. Riding was easy and I was happy to find Suzette’s Crooked Creek Bar along the road in Ludlow. Suzette is the owner and bar mistress, her husband runs the grille, and she has all cyclists sign her counter, in exchange for free pop. I stayed an hour because Suzette and her place were tons of fun.

IMG_2612My last twenty miles were uneventful. Buffalo, population 390, is the smallest town I’ve stayed to date. City Hall (which is also Police and Fire and Water) is a metal building. But 3 Saloons was open on Sunday afternoon with good burgers, beer and Internet. I met a group of guys who were doing a four day motorcycle off-road crawl. They were wearing full cover suits and were a heck of a lot hotter than me. The Tipperary Motel, named for a bucking horse and not the place in Ireland, is very nice, though it’s the first motel that had a cattle grate at its driveway. I had to walk my bike across the threshold.

 

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Trip Log – Day 52 – Dickinson, ND

Mandan to Dickinson NDJune 26, 2015 – Sunny, 90 degrees

Miles Today: 7

Miles to Date: 3,152

States to Date: 14

Rest day in Dickinson. I spent the morning relaxing at the Oasis, my new favorite motel. Had a terrific motel breakfast – with five kinds of fresh fruit – and met other guests. They prayed for me; I am getting used to that. I had a 1 p.m. meeting with Blaine Hoffman of Whiting Oil and Gas where I got a great overview of the North Dakota energy business, the recent boom, and how it is settling down. On the way back to the Oasis I scoped out Dickinson, a city divided in time and space by I-94. The north side is all new – big box stores, chain restaurants imgresthe usual highway motels. The south side is the original town; a gird of streets with small houses and a dusty looking downtown. The main east/west route parallels the railroad tracks and is more about automobiles than people. I spotted one restaurant within walking distance of the Oasis, which looked no better or worse than any other.

When I got back to my room, tomorrow was sitting there, staring me in the face! Zachery Shiner is a cyclist traveling from Chicago to Seattle who landed at warmshowers hosts one night behind me through Wisconsin and Minnesota. He wrote a clever email response to my question (I am tomorrow), which inspired me to give him my North Dakota itinerary and offer to warmshowers host him in my motel if he caught up along the way. Today he did, and so I had a fellow cyclist to share the evening. We walked to the sole restaurant, had some mighty good fried chicken, and set up a cot for Zach in my room. My first opportunity to host a warmshowers person; it always feels good to give back.

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Trip Log – Day 51 –Mandan, ND to Dickinson, ND

Mandan to Dickinson NDJune 25, 2015 – Sun and rain, 80 degrees

Miles Today: 97

Miles to Date: 3,145

States to Date: 14

Today’s the day! I am now on officially on my longest bike trip to date. In 2011 I cycled 3,050 miles from Denver to Boston in 42 days (blog links). I averaged over 72 miles a day. This trip, due to its length and my question, my objective is 50 miles per day; though so far, due to my good weather, I’m ahead of that target.

IMG_2579The 3,050-mile milestone is a good point to consider how bicycle travel has changed for me in the past four years. There are many similarities. Cafes serve uniformly solid food. My hunger is often more persistent than my interest in food; sometimes I just can’t bother eating more. I still manage to never pay more than $100 a might for a motel room, and I like the $50 rooms better. Cows still like me; every head of every herd turns to watch me pass. And Murphy’s Law of Wind still applies – the wind is always in my face.

But there are significant differences. The biggest is technology. Four years ago I carried a camera, a flip phone and a parcel of paper maps. My iPhone 5S replaces all that. Last trip I rolled into a town and hoped for a motel, now I have reservations. Considering my question, I spend much more time on logistics than last trip. I contact warmshowers hosts and organizations to interview three to five days in advance. It’s a constant stream of inquiry, scheduling, and thank you’s; all impossible without handy Internet access.

Indians named Patel have cemented their lock on the independent motel market, and moved into the low-end chains. Outside of the Upper Mid-west, Patel’s rule my lodging world, and have done a lot to ramp up the typical Super 8. Why aren’t they in North Dakota, where there are so many jobs? Four years ago I managed to stay in independent places over 90% of the time. Now, there are many fewer left; about half my motel time is in chains. However, half my nights aren’t in motels at all – thanks to warmshowers. Although the site has been around over twenty years ago, I learned about it just before my trip and meeting so many gracious, incredible people has rocketed my personal experience and deepened the discussions of my question. Warmshowers takes the ‘economy’ out the ‘sharing economy’. It’s just about sharing. I’m warmshowers biggest fan.

The changes are significant, but the fundamental truths of cycle touring are intact. More motorists are nice than not. The two-wheel view of the country is amazing, and I meet people at their best.

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Despite the banner mileage, my day progressed with the challenges and rewards North Dakota offers. The Ridge Motel in Mandan didn’t even offer coffee, so I stopped at the adjacent convenience store. Amazing to see the diet of oil workers: a fistful of 20 ounces Mountain Dews, a pack of Marlboro’s and a bag of chips. I am such a lightweight with my trial mix and Diet Coke.

IMG_2586My proposed route of vintage highways that paralleled I-94 went bust after three stints on gravel. Beyond New Salem (with name painted on hillside in typical Western fashion) I buckled under and rode the Interstate forty miles. No services anywhere, not a lick of shade, not much fun. I took a break under a highway overpass. How lame.

Since there was no place to stop, I made good time. But I needed a real break and the afternoon sky threatened, so I exited at Richardton where Google cited a cafe. No cafe, but something much better: a newish grocery store with a prepared food section, seating and free Wi-Fi. If Whole Foods entered the rural market, this is what it would look like, though they’d probably modify the special of the day: two fried chicken breasts, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried rice, whole wheat roll and fruit chunks for dessert. $7.49. The food lady told me, “There are vegetables in the fried rice.” Maybe three peas and two diced carrots.

I stayed at Springfield Market three hours while storms swirled all around but never quite hit. When the western sky looked as good as it was going to get, I tackled the last 24 miles. This was great riding, on a rural road with a nice breeze and an incredible sky. For ten miles my poker straight path headed right to the clear spot between two storms. As I approached, the northern storm crept into my path and I got rained on for a few miles. Then all cleared and I was dry when I arrived in Dickinson.

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I will be here two nights, and was pleasantly surprised when my motel on the unpromising main drag turned out to be the BEST of the trip! Dual access room, for easy bike entry, cookies in the evening, nice dining room and full breakfast tomorrow. There’s an architectural rendering of the motel from the 1960’s in the lobby, when it must have been considered the height of style. The proprietress was very nice, though she dodged my question. Most people in North Dakota do. They acknowledge when I ask it, but act like I can’t possibly be directing it to them.

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Trip Log – Day 50 –McClusky, ND to Mandan, ND

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.38.50 AMJune 24, 2015 – Overcast, 75 degrees

Miles Today: 74

Miles to Date: 2,948

States to Date: 14

IMG_2549Passing storms through the night left a calm quiet morning. I pedaled west, and then south to Bismarck with great ease. The ponds on the side of the road were like glass, the fowl floating on the surface like they’re on vacation.

IMG_2547I cycled past Center Line Road; I am halfway through North Dakota. It looks more and more like the west, wide swales and more arid land. I came upon a Bureau of Reclamation project and know I am truly in the West. After seeing one, I realized how much engineering there is in this seemingly wild land: not only the straight roads and long power lines, but also the ponds along the road, usually at intersections. They’ve developed tall grass and a natural look, but they’re not natural.

IMG_254638 miles in I stopped for a late breakfast at Wilton. The County Line cafe was quiet mid morning. As I ate my bacon and eggs a solid guy walked in, landed at a table and ordered with a sigh. The waitress sat down and drew him out. His wife of 56 years is in the hospital with cancer. “I walk into the house and the quiet hits me. I know it hasn’t really hit me yet, but it will.” Kelly told him to come anytime he feels alone and suggested she and her children would come visit him. It was an intimate scene for a public place, but touching. I was too close to pretend I didn’t hear, so I introduced myself to the man and expressed sympathy. I didn’t ask him about tomorrow.

When I came out the weather had shifted. The wind picked up, clouds gathered, and light ran fell on my twenty miles to Bismarck. By the time I arrived at the North Dakota Heritage Center the weather lifted. I spent the afternoon interviewing Beth Campbell, Visitor Coordinator, viewing the exhibits and visiting the State Capital Building, surely the most unique in the land. Built in the 1930’s after the original capital burned, the Deco structure has no dome and isn’t even symmetrical. Imagine Rockefeller Center transported to the Prairie and used for government offices. I ran into James McPherson, AP Reporter, who gave me more background on this boom. “You have to see it to believe it. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the country. Of course, booms, by their nature, go bust.”

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I pedalede through downtown Bismarck, followed the bike trail along the Missouri River, and crossed over to Mandan. For dinner I tried Fleischkeuchle, a seasoned hamburger in a puff pastry. Once is an experience; I don’t need to order it again.

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Trip Log – Day 49 – Carrington, ND to McClusky, ND

Cooperstown ND to McClusky NDJune 23, 2015 – Blue skies, 80 degrees

Miles Today: 67

Miles to Date: 2,974

States to Date: 14

North Dakota is a big land but a small world. I met the same woman in two cafes a day apart. Then yesterday, while taking a break at a country church, I watched big trucks haul hay to a nearby clearing, where a huge funnel machine accepted the load and forced it into giant white plastic tubes, over one hundred feet long, that were clipped into protected bales. This morning, at motel breakfast, a guy approaches me, “Are you the guy on the bike at the church yesterday?” Lyle Orth and his two hands, from South Africa, had seen me while hauling hay. Lyle owns the baling equipment and contracts from farm to farm. Farmers get three or four hay crops a year, which they cut in the field. Lyle and his crew do the rest.

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I was on the road by 7:30. Sixty-five miles straight down North Dakota Route 200 to McClusky sounds so easy, but wind foils that notion. Still, I didn’t suffer any of yesterday’s frustration. I had all day and gave it over to pedaling slow and steady. Google told me there were towns with services at 14 and 28 miles out, though I was prepared to go the distance. One of the odd things about North Dakota geography is that highways don’t go through towns; they go near them. A highway in Ohio or Wisconsin almost always turns into Main Street. A North Dakota town might edge on a highway, or even be a mile off. I bypassed the 14 miles town; too soon to need a break, and did the same at 28 miles when Bowdon was a mile off Route 200. When I’m working this hard, I need a good reason to lengthen my route.

The other geographic challenge is that the scale of North Dakota is huge. A water tower in Minnesota signals a town three miles away. That town might be five, even seven miles off in North Dakota. Landscape features hang in front of me for a long time. By mile 40 I was seeking shade, just to sit down, eat a bar, and have water. I saw a shape on the horizon that looked like a church. As I pedaled near I realized it was just a configuration of trees around a town too small to even have a water tower. But better than a church or a water tower, Hurdston has Dairy King, where I had a burger basket, Diet Coke, ice cream cone, and a cool break.

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I resumed before three and got to McClusky by six. The land got more varied, more Western, with many shallow lakes (marshes?) along the road, full of fowl. The motel is out of town, so I stopped by the three-aisle grocery and got cereal and milk. I always crave crunchy on the road, and this will do for dinner and breakfast.

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Trip Log – Day 48 –Cooperstown, ND to Carrington, ND

Cooperstown ND to Carrington NDJune 22, 2015 – Puffy clouds, 75 degrees

Miles Today: 55

Miles to Date: 2,907

States to Date: 14

There were three men sitting at separate tables when I entered the Coachman Cafe for breakfast on a grey post-storm morning. So I took a place at another table. I got a cup of coffee, ordered eggs, toast, and hash browns; then topped that off with more coffee, biscuits and gravy. While I ate, the room dynamic shifted, and seven men sat in the center table, talking, playing dice, cajoling one particularly jovial, simple guy. During the hour I enjoyed breakfast, more than a dozen men came and went and passed the time of day. The only woman in the Coachman Cafe was the waitress, who circulated with her coffee pot every few minutes. It’s more difficult for me to engage in conversation with men than women, especially established groups, especially so early in the morning. So instead of asking my question I just eavesdropped on the conversation: weather, corn, hail, pick-ups, rain, driving to Fargo, washouts, fertilizer, weather. By nine, all the men were gone and everything changed at the Coachman Cafe. The place was full of women. I even met one lady from lunch the previous day in Page.

IMG_2500I rolled north a few miles to visit the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site. Director Guinn Hinson gave me a two-hour tour of a sober but fascinating place.

Heading back into town I began to worry about tomorrow – not a good thing for a guy with my question. I was supposed to take a rest day, and then pedal 113 miles to my next motel. Instead, I found a place 48 miles away, checked out early, had a hearty lunch of beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy, and rolled out of town by 2:00 p.m.

IMG_2525Those 48 miles were the hardest, but perhaps most rewarding, of my trip. The day was fine, the air sweet, the road smooth, the drivers polite, the grass giant waves in a billowing green sea. But the wind hammered me. Ten miles an hour was tough, even though the terrain was flat. I struggled for miles. And then, I stopped the struggle. Cycling in North Dakota is a Zen thing. Give up expectations; give up the idea that flat is easy; give up the idea that I’ll cover ten miles an hour. Downshift and just pedal. That’s all. Breathe, hum, or even sing, but don’t keep checking the odometer.

IMG_2524I stretched at a railroad crossing – there are few places to prop my bike here. Around mile 36 I needed a real break, but there are no side roads, no shade, nothing but a single strip of asphalt and the immense wind whistling past my ears. It’s easy to see why so many pioneers went crazy out here – the wind is relentless. The earth is silent, but the wind is deafening. I couldn’t hear vehicles coming from behind. Fortunately, they all gave me wide berth. I was so tired I considered stopping at whatever house appeared, just to get off my bike, eat a power bar and do a forward bend. Then, a little church appeared, abandoned but quaint as any in a model train village under a Christmas tree. The first church I’ve seen in North Dakota, a solitary silhouette against the giant sky.

IMG_2526I rolled my bike up the church lawn, leaned Surly against its steps, and stretched out on the porch. I surveyed the world from my perch and wondered what the heck I was doing here, at six o’clock in the evening, absolutely nowhere. Then I realized why we do this, why humans push our endurance and test our fortitude. We take our measure against nature, to understand how we stack up against the great forces. But also to appreciate the majesty of creation; to discover nuance in a place a broad as North Dakota: hearing the shimmering grass, triggering the bird flocks that rise up as I pass, feeling the temperature dip when a cumulus cloud casts me in shade. From the stoop of this postcard church on the High Plains, the earth is formidable, but I’m invigorated by its energy.

IMG_2523I didn’t go any faster the last 18 miles, but they passed with great enjoyment. I sang and wove and laughed at the wind. It was eight o’clock by the time I got to Carrington; I averaged just eight miles an hour. Carrington offered a nice motel and a pleasant view for two more hours of sunlight, but it’s not such an outstanding destination. Today was all about the journey.

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