Bad lands, bad weather 

I’ll keep the text short as I’ve got to get to another campsite 35 miles from here by tonight. I’ve just done a few short but stunning hikes in Badlands Nat’l Park. Yesterday I rode 95 miles through the Pine Ridge reservation, which has a bit of a reputation. People refer to it similarly to how they might mention Camden, NJ. No problems for me, other than a few chasey dogs and some hot weather, until the very end. 

The landscape got steadily more exciting yesterday. Hints of limestone bluffs began to poke their heads out from the rolling plains, and soon mesas, buttes, and copses of line were dotting the landscape. I was buffeted by crosswinds most of the day, until I finally turned north for the final push to the Cedar Pass Campground just nside the national park. A fantastic tailwind propelled me to the top of a ridge, where the ghostly white profile of the main badlands ridge stood out against a dark blue sky. 

Dark blue…hang on, that’s not a great sign, especially when heading straight into it. Well, nothing to do but forge ahead. The light coming through distant rain showers looked incredible – riding with a tailwind across rolling plains, with a range of spectacular mountains on the horizon, and beautiful evening light filtering through the clouds is pretty much the real an why I wanted to do this bike trip. 

Then in about five minutes, the wind reversed direction and sped up to about 70mph, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and even with no knowledge of Great Plains meteorology, I could tell I was in for trouble. It had suddenly become impossible to ride a bike in any direction but that of the wind, and anything from hail to a tornado might be on its way. I had seen a lone farmhouse just a short distance back, and decided I would duck into one of its buildings to wait out the storm. I pulled into a barn full of farm detritus and some cats and began to wonder just how long this would last, and how likely I was to get shot. 

Then a pickup truck pulled in. It was driven by the owner, a lady who I later learned would have no problem shooting a potential home invader, though at age 74 she wasn’t sure she’d be able to drop them in time. (“I’m veeeeerrrrry conservative,” I also learned. Luckily she invited me inside to wait for the wind to pass, and fed me hamburger, rather than blowing me away with a shotgun. Coincidentally that would also have been my favored option, given the choice. We hung out and had nice conversation until about an hour later when, having unloaded some much-needed rain, the storm had passed through. I couldn’t get w clear answer on how typical winds like that were, but I think that squall was at least somewhat remarkable. Good to know they’re not an everyday occurrence. 

It was getting late enough that I didn’t make it into he park as planned, but stopped at another campground a few miles out. The post-storm light was even better and I think I got some nice shots of the scenery. 


I got very excited by the first sights of geography like this. 


Approaching the Badlands and a hefty storm. 


Post-storm. 


Enjoying the last light of the day with a tailwind once again. 


The main ridge. I’m standing just under it as I type this. 


I’m sure this guy would love to have this shot as a profile picture, except that he’s probably too cool to have a profile. 


A few selected shots from today’s hikes. 


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State #8 Down

I just crossed the South Dakota line and am posted up at a Warmshowers in Mission, SD in the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Two days from now, I should be in Badlands National Park! Unfortunately my hopes of getting in and out of there before the weekend are dashed, thanks in part to knee-related delays. Just my luck to hit two national parks right on major holiday weekends. If I’d planned more carefully, I may have chosen not to take those short days this past weekend, refreshing as they were. Oh well. 

I’m definitely in the prairie now, and the landscape is rolling plains, big skies full of theatrical cloud displays, and – hopefully soon – maybe some antelope and bison that I can get a look at. 

Distant rain. I’ve dodged most of it, though I had some showers today. It’s warm enough (when it isn’t hot) that the rain feels kind of refreshing. 


I actually do like these open plains enough that the views are not boring, at least not after just a couple days. However, the clouds are often where the real views are. They also offer more variety, given that they move and all. 


I mostly didn’t ride the Cowboy Trail the last two days, due to not wanting to ride 90 miles on gravel and, today, to some less than stellar trail conditions. This bridge over the Elkhorn River, though, was worth some rough riding. 


We’re out of farm country and into pasture and range land now. 

I camped last night in Wood Lake, pop. 64. They let campers use their little town park, which was very convenient with picnic tables, bathrooms, a water pump – and a little guestbook for travelers (mostly from the Cowboy Trail) to sign in. Around sunset I walked around town, hemmed in by cottonwoods, to see among other things a school building that suggested the town had in the railroad days been much bigger. A lot of its streets were empty of buildings; presumably houses had been torn downafter abandonment. Then I noticed a nice glow in the western sky and walked a ways out on the trail to find one of the most spectacular sunsets I can remember. 

More gray skies in this morning’s rain showers. The views are so long that you can see the weather for miles and miles around. 

Second high bridge, over the Niobrara near Valentine. This town felt yet more western; a high proportion of the men were rocking cowboy hats. And there was a giant , tacky looking “Western Wear” store. It would have been fun to browse, I’m sure, and I should have taken the time. 

Into state #9. The Rosebud reservation begins at the state line and, stereotypically I guess, the casino is right there. The next 20 miles to Mission were sparsely inhabited. 

The terrain is more rugged than you might expect of plains. Hints of limestone peeking out almost suggested the Judean Desert in spring. This would be a heck of a place to get lost in the days before maps, roads and horses. 

A Bike with No Name

Yet another motel. Hopefully the last one for a while – although in the first month of the trip I was successful in my goal of keeping my accommodation budget lower than what I’d spend on a month’s rent in Philly, I’m hoping to keep it even lower during the rest of the trip. It’ll help make up for how much I spend on calories to fuel the eternally hungry engine. The occasion for this motel? The Game of Thrones season finale. All aboard, cause the hype train is leaving the station, next stop Cleganebowl and continuing on to Cersei Blows Up King’s Landing and The Wall Comes Down. I assume. 

Until then I have some time to walk around the Irish Capital of Nebraska, which I’m sure is just as worthy of the title as were the self-proclaimed Czech and Danish villages I’ve passed. 

I’m riding the Cowboy Trail, one of the longest continuous rail trails in the country. I’ve read very mixed information on it – there have been reports of terrible surface conditions and of what sounded like layers and layers of Texas sand burs, also known as goatheads – thorns which are so bad for bike tires that they may have been the single greatest catalyst for the invention of fire sealant and tubeless wheel technology. However, the information I found was all patchy and much of it several years out of date, and none seemed to be from anyone who’d ridden more than a quarter or so of the trail. So I entered with slight trepidation, but not too much, knowing that the trail mostly parallels highways with good shoulders and low traffic.

So far, no bad surface conditions have materialized for any length of time, and I’ve yet to see a thorn, much less get a flat tire. The fact that I’m running some very tough tires with the recent addition of tire liners and inner tube sealant may be part of why, but from what I’ve heard of goatheads, they should be sticking out of my tires by the dozens even if they fail to pierce my tubes. No sign of any yet. Not bad!

Of course, the trail’s reason for existence seems a bit in question given that almost its entire length parallels roads that are perfect for touring – five foot wide shoulders, no traffic, and virtually the same views as the trail itself, plus a much smoother surface to ride on by virtue of being paved. I’m planning an 88 mile day tomorrow and I don’t know if I want to do it all on crushed stone, even if it is in good shape like the trail has been so far. 

The trail has, appropriately, given me the chance to play cowboy. A herd of cattle were lounging in the trail east of Neligh yesterday, and I came to a stop, unsure of whether, if any bulls were present, I was about to be gored. If you’ve followed my hiking logs from Israel, you’ll be familiar with my apprehension about such bull-induced injuries. I tried some calls to move the cattle out of the way. “Soo-EEE!” Wait, that’s pigs , isn’t it? “Uh…get along little dogie!” That one didn’t really come natural to me. Despite my being a total poser, they did get along, and my first shot at cowpoking in the Old West was a success. 

The scenery out here is flat, agricultural, and spotted with cottonwood trees to the exclusion of almost all others. Have a look. 


A new feature, sandbars in the rivers. 


Big skies on the Cowboy Trail. 


Milkweed, one of a few familiar plants. 


Cottonwoods, the dominant, beautiful and allergenic tree. 





The cows I shooed off the trail – they went too quick to photograph while still occupying the thoroughfare. Yes I’m aware that cows are thoroughly docile and getting them to scatter is no achievement. Don’t rain on my parade. You have to make your own excitement out here on the plains. 



Clearwater’s Big Rodeo was on this weekend, according to the sign. I smelled a life experience. Unfortunately it wasn’t to start until 7pm, and I was passing in the morning with 30 miles yet to cover. At least it wasn’t my first rodeo, so to speak – but only if you count the cow-shooing mentioned above. I’m keeping an eye out for further opportunities to watch an event like this live. 





Inman, NE, population 129. I haven’t seen a proper ghost town yet, but a lot of these tiny villages are not far off. No more than one or two businesses still open along a Main Street and an average age that can’t be below 60. As the aquifer dries up and mechanization of farming advances, I assume this trend will continue. Hopefully some prairie habitat can be restored as that happens. I know of at least two organizations working to do that, and bring back herds of bison to the plains. I hope I live long enough to see something like that. 

I published this post without remembering to give it a title. So I named it after the fact that my bike, alone among all those I’ve owned, still does not have a name. I guess I need suggestions. 

Across the Wide Missouri

State #7 down, and I’m on to Nebraska. I stayed Wednesday night with Warmshowers hosts Dan and Penny in Brayton, Iowa, on a beautiful farmhouse down a gravel road. As we sat around chatting in the evening, two longhorn cattle and a calf came wandering down the road, escapees from a neighbor’s farm. While I and the rest of the family watched, Dan got his shoes on and took off into the cornfield to help the neighbor, who’d just arrived, try to corral the beasts back onto the right path.

That was a long, hot day. I probably rode 6 or 8 extra miles, to downtown Atlantic to a bike shop which didn’t end up having the things I was looking for, and the day was full of hills and headwinds. 94.1 miles in all. The next day was longer. I was aiming for Onawa, IA or perhaps Turin, having been warned about how hilly the terrain was going to be as I approached the Missouri Valley. At some point in the late afternoon, I saw a sign – Decatur, NE: 15. The wind had shifted by then and I almost automatically decided to push onward to wrap up Iowa by sunset. The last miles across the river valley were perfectly flat and with the tailwind, I cranked out the miles while glancing back at the sunset on the Loess Hills, and dodging the white tufts that drifted off the cottonwood trees. I felt like some cinematic music, the only sample of which I had was the soundtrack from The Fellowship of the Ring. The album ended right as I got to the bridge over the Missouri River to Decatur. Clearly choosing to ride onward was the right decision. I gobbled down dinner and chatted with local old-timers at the first restaurant I saw, then set up a tent after dark in the town’s RV campsite right on the river. I was too exhausted to take the time to shower.

In the morning I started wondering whether pushing through so many miles had been a good idea. A stuffy nose and sore throat, accompanied by a fair amount of lethargy, made it tough going through Nebraska’s hills, which were just like Iowa’s – less steep than Pennsylvania climbs, but just as relentless. Nebraska, if anything, had even taller hills. Then once the terrain flattened out, I saw a bad sign. “Road Work: Next 13 Miles.” Then another. “Milled Surface.” This means they tore the road surface apart and left it that way. The next 13 miles were fairly horrible, but at least the wind was helping somewhat.

Somehow I powered through all the way to Norfolk, covered in sweat and totally out of gas, to two more very nice hosts, Jackie and Doug. I was their first guest – their son is in the middle of the TransAmerica Trail and they signed up to reciprocate the hospitality he’s getting. As usual, the shower was blissful and I was fed dinner – fantastic.Now I’m typing up a quick post on their computer, where I could write a novel in the time it would take me to finish an average post on my phone.

I’m planning some more short, relatively relaxing days for the weekend. I’m pretty sure my body needs it. On the plus side, my knee is not hurting while I ride anymore, though it still is quite stiff and can get a jolt of pain when I get up to a standing position. I know the smart thing to do would have been to take a few days of downtime back when it started hurting and do nothing but elevate and ice it, but…I didn’t, because the only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on, like a bird that fleeeeeeeeeeeeew. That’s a reference for you, Dad.

Going to get some photos up and probably be asleep before too long:

 

Small-town scenes.

Country scenes. Is my Uncle Michael reading this blog? If not, somebody get him to tell me what those birds are.

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This replica of a famous statue of the Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Andersen version, apparently) from Copenhagen was the centerpiece of a tiny hamlet in Iowa – Hamlin. There were also sculptures representing other of his stories. The main street proclaimed itself a “Danish Village,” but aside from a few Danish flags, I didn’t see what that was supposed to mean. At least the Czech Village back in Cedar Rapid had a few kitsch shops full of genuine glassware from Czechoslovakia.

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As I headed west in Iowa, more pastures appeared among the cornfields. Still not feeling like I’m really in the West, though…

Then I dropped into the Missouri Valley after a long day of endless climbing, and the Loess Hills were the first scenery to look western. After all, the Missouri is the beginning of the West. It’s all going to get more exciting from here! I think.

Across the river and my 105-mile day was finally over. Well, after I guzzled down a massive double cheeseburger to the admiration of the tall-tale-telling old timers in the local bar.

 

Knee update: Looking good

Just a quick check-in from outside Des Moines, IA. Last night’s rest in a motel seems to have done its job and my knee is much better. I rode 85 miles today and feel fine. I’m pretty sure the knee was just hurting from too much use right after some time off the bike, and is fixing itself like my left knee did a month and a half ago.

I should be crossing to Nebraska in a couple of days, and ready to start the Cowboy Trail by Saturday. Then South Dakota early the next week, and in and out of Badlands National Park by or before the time it’ll presumably start to fill up with crowds on Friday, July 1.

Happy Solstice!

Longest day of the year. Being on bike touring time and energy level, I’ll probably be asleep before its fully dark rather than enjoying the late daylight. Oh well. Welcome to summer!

My progress continues to be slowed by bad knee pain. This time it’s my right knee. A few days into the trip, back in Pennsylvania, I started having some pretty bad pain in my left knee, which started after I climbed over a mountain with a crazy grade on the roads. Probably it didn’t help that I had just dived into loaded touring with very little preparation for key body parts. Now the other knee is acting up, after I was off the bike for a week and started pushing fairly hard right out the gate. Related? Seems plausible. 

As before, it’s gotten so bad that the good leg is taking over pedaling duty while the other one attempts to exert no effort. Lefty, having been through the injury a month prior and fully recovered, is now going strong and carrying his bro without even complaining. However, I’m still kind of worried. Not too worried though. Worst case, I’ll have to take a few rest days, unless it’s really a lot more serious than it feels. Even now it feels a lot better than it did this morning, and I’m optimistic it’ll be operational again by tomorrow. I’m in a motel because it’s there and because I think that greatly increases my odds of getting s long night of sleep, something I have been deprived of a lot lately. 

Last night I stayed in Newhall, after riding just 25 miles. I stopped due to the pain and decided to see how true it was that it’s easy to camp in tiny Midwestern towns. I asked at the gas station about places I might pitch a tent, suggesting the town park. Immediately one lady working there offered her farm two miles up the road. As I was getting directions, another guy walked in and offered his front yard just up the street. Thinking of my joints, I opted for the second option and spent the rest of the day blissfully loafing and reading. Then I watched Game of Thrones on my phone under a full moon. 

I still haven’t even reached the town I was going to try and get to yesterday, but assuming my knee is better tomorrow, I should only be a day or so behind the schedule I sketched out yesterday. I have no time constraints now, which is nice, but I do want to get through the Badlands before (or in case of major delays, after) the July 4th weekend. Just my luck that my projected pace will have me in yet another national park right on a holiday weekend. 

A few photos I managed to take despite the pain:


Very urban farm on the edge of Cedar Rapids. 


Blue skies and rolling hills giving way rolling plains. The heat is not too bad despite it being in the low 90s. There’s always a breeze and I have not yet had the west winds that people on bike forums swear should be blasting me every day. Knock on wood. Thunderstorms may be coming in, according to the radio. Hopefully no tornadoes.

Into the plains

As of three days ago, I’m back on the bike. Hawaii was fun, but I’ll save the photos from there for another time. Now I’ve gone from sleep deprivation due to too many activities with the wedding party to sleep deprivation due to needing more sleep than there’s time for thanks to how much more rest my body wants while cycling. 

I sped across Illinois against headwinds in two days, worried that this weather pattern was a sign of things to come (not to mention the 90 degree temperatures, a new development since the first stage of the ride). Bike tourists hotly debate whether or not riding west across the country is a guaranteed way to have headwinds the majority of the time. Certainly in the Great Plains, you’re at the mercy of winds that have no landscape features to change their direction or give them pause. However, since I crossed into Iowa, the winds have reversed direction and propelled me westward – when I’m riding westward – at a comfortable pace. 

On the other hand, my longest day of the trip to date was from Chicago to a Warmshowers host in rural Illinois, outside the belt of suburban sprawl that surrounded the city for the better part of the day. This day’s ride was extended by 10.6 miles thanks to my forgetting my camera on Monica and Steve’s counter when I left, due to not sleeping enough. The forced backtracking did some serious damage to morale, and that along with the new heat and the mild sleep-deprivation headache made day 1 back on the bike into quite a 98.7 mile trial – so much so that I didn’t even have the energy, arriving after sunset, to ride the extra 1.3 miles to make it a full century. 

Fortunes have improved. I reached Iowa, for one; rolling over the Mississippi after a tough day brought the excitement of a new state (#7) and a new geographic milestone. Also, what I’ve heard about Iowa has been good – the riding is great and the people are friendly, is the talk. Even when not on an established bike route, you’ll likely be able to roll into most small towns and camp in the town park or a similar spot after asking around a bit. I plan on trying this for the first time tomorrow. 

I was greeted by the new state by the chatty staff and patrons of the diner where I went for dinner (I have to remember not to eat burgers any time there is the option not to. Often there is no such option). A couple grandparently folks asked about my trip and shared stories of going down the Grand Canyon on mules in their day. When I finished the meal I was informed they had already paid for it.  Iowa quickly shot up in the rankings of the “best state” contest for this trip. 

It maintained that progress when the next day featured a brisk northeast wind, making my west-southwest-direction the best one I could have chosen. I camped at the bottom of a dam near Iowa City with Warmshowers hosts who’d invited me to join them – great conversation and more of the scoop on Iowa cycling. They were RAGBRAI veterans – that’s the annual madhouse in which no fewer than 20,000 people on bikes descend on Iowa town after Iowa town in 45-75 mile increments, exploding the towns’ population for a night and somehow finding space to sleep, then moving on from the Missouri to the Mississippi. 

I did a short day today, to Cedar Rapids where I had contacted another Warmshowers host but hadn’t heard back in time. I wanted a rest day to make sure my right ACL was not going to wear out, but it felt fine all through today’s ride. Which ride was hilly – at first I was thinking of describing this part of Iowa as Pennsylvania Lite, but at times the Lite began seeming unnecessary. I actually had to walk up a hill. The middle of the state should be flat, followed by more hills near the Missouri, followed by very flat Nebraska (an obscure state you might know as North Kansas). I’m actually aiming for a long rail trail there which should take me through the mind numbing flat farm country and into some vestiges of prairie and then part of the Sand Hills. But more on Nebraska’s scenic secrets later, when I actually get there. 

I should mention my experience in Cedar Rapids. I got a flat tire just before the Warmshowers host and walked the last mile and a half, and googled the nearest shop. I lucked out with the brand new Goldfinch Cyclery downtown. I spotted a model bike in the window with Revelate bikepacking gear, and guys inside working on Surly and Trek touring bikes. Good sign. They turned out to be hardened tourists and gravel-road riders as well, and we spent a while talking about bike and bike touring stuff. What better topic? Especially as they gave me lots of tips on the way to and through South Dakota. Then, they didn’t charge me for the tube and patch I had come for (thanks and a shout out to Andy, Logan and Thad), and directed me to a very nice bike trail that took me right along the river back to my digs for the night. Here I am trying to get this post wrapped up in a reasonable amount of time so I can get more mich-needed sleep. 
Photos!


First drive-in I’ve ever seen. A true historical artifact!


Sometimes out here it seems like the dead outnumber the living. 


Looks like a tel. An artifact of the “mound builder” civilization? I haven’t had time to read up on such things. 


Crossing the mighty Mississippi into Clinton, home of nice bike trails , a repurposed riverboat (now theatre) and a city campground where i set up my new and very roomy tent  


I’ve uploaded enough photos that typing on this phone app is now impossibl. These are photos.