Have you noticed that with each entry I am progressively increasing the number of days I’m covering? I wonder if that trend with continue. If I were a betting man…
Remember I’m in Bonesteel. Pronounced with a whistle, like Bonehhsssteel…
From the rodent-sized prison-like window in the tight squeeze of the Bonesteel Motel room I could see that there wasn’t any sun pouring in. Weather Channel app says rain possible later but only clouds now – and it’s going to be cool again, high in the low 70s. Godsend! It’s difficult that morning to get everything packed up properly because all of Whiteys panniers are hard to get at and fold down and clip the latches closed. He’s really shoved between the wall and the bed. I’m a wall-bouncer from way back, but this is bouncing off the walls in hyperspace. No reason to dawdle. I wolf down the breakfast items procured from Cahoy’s General Store the previous eve, including a handful of the spinach I’m hoping will stay edible until I can find the next place that sells it. (Btw I keep buying a bag of spinach whenever I can find it; most of the time I end up trashing half of it cuz it rots – nay, it sort of steams, but not in a nice way – in my pannier. It’s almost like a security blanket – if I go into shock from lack of produce, then I could shove a handful of reasonably not-rotten greens in my gob, thereby returning me from the invisible and perhaps permanent threshold into darknesssssssss. Note: Dole must put some hefty preservatives in theirs. You’d be surprised how edible it is after stewing in itself for a few days).
It takes me five full minutes to guide Whitey out of the room. Even though the partiers next door kept me up, I’m not trying to give it back – but it’s slam/bang/crash central nonetheless.
Funny thing…when I get outside, it’s not not raining. I mean, it’s not raining raining, but it isn’t not raining. It’s wet, kind of all-around wet, rather than dripping wet. It doesn’t matter. The bumper sticker It Is What It is (that’s something I hear a lot in NA but it isn’t specific to 12-step – we’ve all heard it) bugs me, but it’s completely apt regarding weather. Daily, many, many times per day, I have to remind myself that I can’t do anything about the weather, or the hills. The weather changes. You can’t wait it out until it’s a perfect 67 and a mix of sun and clouds and a tailwind. I’d never get anywhere. And the hills don’t change, obviously…though I might. The Adventure Cycling maps do a decent job of presenting the elevation profile, but wind and weather (and especially mood and energy level!) are always factors that determine how easy or difficult a climb will be. The single most critical factor, I’ve found, is the quiet ease that comes from the release of fighting what are the inevitable realities: it’s challenging, and I will feel discomfort and pain. What’s that Buddhist saying? Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Is that even a Buddhist saying? (I just googled it, and it’s a Haruki Murakami quotation. Note: I like the books of his I’ve read; I just wish I understood them better. This quote, however, clear as a bell.) It is what it is.
No more rabbit-hole pop-philosophizing – let’s get down to the (wet) business of riding in the not-exactly-raining rain!
The goal of the day is about 90 miles to Chamberlain, SD, which at approximately pop. 2,000, is 10 times bigger than Bonesteel. Chamberlain is right on the Missouri which will mean that there will be more lodging and food options. There isn’t much between the two towns, and the latter half of the day is a stretch with no services at all. I have enough water and snacks to last the day. I’m good.
The not-rain turns out to be mist which as I traverse the rolling hills to the northwest gaining elevation, mutates into a thick blanket of fog. It’s one of those 90% wow, fun!/10% yikes! moments. For once, I’d remembered to charge my lights. The landscape here is all farms – alfalfa, corn ‘n beans, and cows.
“Hi, cows!” Not certain I haven’t mentioned this previously…but I often talk or sing to the cows I encounter. (I do this with sheep in England. Ask Ju.) The cows have mixed (mostly negative) reactions to my hollering, ranging from harrumphing curiosity (lifting their heads mid-munch with grass hanging from their maws) to terror (bounding away, running for their lives). When they bolt, I typically will call out, “Don’t go! I’m one of the good guys!” Well. On this trip, especially as time has gone by, I’ve certainly proved the opposite with my unhinged carnivorousness. The cows know. They all vibe me: You used to be a vegetarian! You’ve now proven yourself to be a craven accomplice in the torture of our kind. They got my number. On hot days, I’ve witnessed the cows crammed together in whatever water they can find to keep cool. On cooler days, especially in the wet, they are further apart, heads down in their own world which is only about consumption of grass. Despite slight guilt due to my expanded participation in the food system that is wasting untold millions of gallons of water and farting a giant methane hole in the universe, I comfort myself. At least I’m only seeing cows that are wandering around fields with their calves, grazing free. No corporate feed lots like the one on I-5 two hours north of LA that everybody knows is around the corner because the smell is equal to death and misery to the exponent of a zillion.
The fog keeps thickening, and visibility decreases. It still isn’t quite raining. At least it’s damp and cool and the winds aren’t terrible. If I get hit by a car, I’ll die with a decent attitude. It is what it is! (My sister Natalie, as she reads this is thinking or saying aloud: LALALALALALA, à la hands covered over ears.)
In the (very) near distance, I see the flashing light of a bicycle going the other direction. Can’t remember the woman’s name now, but she and her husband are from Columbus, Ohio, and are cycling east from the Pacific Northwest to New York City. I give her my blog info. She doesn’t record her trip online, just sends an email daily to her people. Her explanation is pretty simple: you can talk smack about anyone you meet, and they’ll never know. [Note: Not a direct quote. Author’s capable assessment of her rationale.] “Enjoy the downhill you’re just about to hit. You’ll pass my husband. He’s a real slowpoke.”
The downhill from 2,100 to 1,300 feet within a mile distance is incredible. The cows don’t even have time to run away as I zoom past them, as well as the Columbus woman’s husband, who is indeed struggling up the hill far behind his wife. When the downhill ends at the Missouri, I stop at the Snake Creek Recreation Area to fill up water bottles and piss in the Visitor Center bathroom. I’m halfway to Chamberlain, and I have to climb back up from the river now. The Columbus woman assured me that the sky was clearer on the other side, and she was right.
At 60-something miles in, the route rejoins the main road that I’d been on the previous day in Pickstown (where I’d stopped for lunch and where my new friends Kelly and Milo had stopped about 30 miles behind me). And there they were, the pair of them! Kelly is not one to follow the maps with utter exactitude, and they’ve been on the road since the end of March (it’s now mid-June), so she sometimes finds alternate routes that cut out some mileage and perhaps climbs. We decide to share a hotel room in Chamberlain that night and get on with riding the remaining 25 miles or so.
I’m hungry, but I pedal on. Which I know is kind of stupid. Even though it isn’t sunny, I’m still working and sweating and burning off the glycogen reserves. Also, I find it difficult to cycle with others, and less preferable. And I just mean the riding part, not the cohabiting or post-ride socializing or pre-ride breakfasting. From the future I can say this with much more certainty and without apology (having met someone later who articulated that with such assuredness and lack of guilt). Well, I don’t know if I can say it, but I sure can write it! When I ride with others, all of a sudden I don’t know what’s comfortable for me – pace-wise, photo-worthiness-wise, pee-wise, etc. There is a lot of silent communication, body language that happens when you ride with others. I find it hard to read pretty often (Am I going too slow/fast for them? Is that vista something I should be taking a picture of since seem to be wowed by it and are stopping to point and shoot? Are they having a bad time because of me? When they said they aren’t hungry does that mean it’s ok if I stop to eat something and then they can ride ahead, or will they feel like they have to wait for me?). And on. And on. (If you’ve been reading this blog before now, you know my drill.) This drain-spiraling can be more treacherous than storms and more fatiguing than hills.
I say to Kelly and Milo, “Hey, are you guys hungry?”
Kelly says, “We stopped not too long before we saw you.”
I say, “Okay, I’m going to stop and eat something.”
Kelly says, “Cool. I’m sure you’ll catch up.”
And I stop for ten minutes, eat some almonds and a Clif Bar.
We arrive in Chamberlain at the same time, split a Best Western 3 ways, eat pizza (not my favorite thing but sometimes you gotta do what the group wants and what’s convenient), and listen to the pounding rain we narrowly escaped getting stuck in the middle of. I’m awed by the amount of pizza they are able to consume. Since Milo braved the rain to grab dinner, Kelly and I hit the C-Store for well-deserved treats and bike-aboard snacks for the next day. Both of them are surprised that I can still stomach Clif Bars.
“But there are new flavors,” I say. “Look, a banana and dark chocolate one!”
They are unmoved.
“Well,” I say, “I’m not sick of it yet.” (Note [from the future]: I gag every time I have to eat one now, though I still manage to get it down. Note [from the past]: Clif Bars were not so abundant on the road in 2009, and my heart double-skipped a beat of relief every time I saw the packaging along the Transamerica Trail. Back then, a total score. Now, de rigeur.)
The topic of recovery arises, and it turns out that Kelly’s dad is an NA guy with over 30 years clean. Kelly was one of those kids who grew up in the rooms of NA, coloring on the floor with her sisters, absorbing how adults are bettering their lives, how people struggle, flourish and tumble down. Milo and I have several significant similarities: UC Santa Cruz, nonprofit work (including and especially grant writer), and she’s a writer, too. (They write a blog as well, Appetite for Adventures that chronicles their cycling and non-cycling travels.) Kelly and Mi’s relationship origin story is fascinating queerteenageforbiddenlove drama at its most intense. High school! Stealing into second story bedrooms by climbing on roof! Hiding on the roof when dad barges in! Police! A chance meeting years later! …though it’s not my story to tell…
There’s still some daylight peeking through the slit in the curtains when we turn off the lights and only the glow from our screens remain. It’s comforting to be in the presence of other humans.
The complimentary breakfasts at Best Westerns receive high marks, and we are ready to roll at the same time. Kelly assures me that she and Mi will be cool with me riding ahead of them, should that occur. We have a day of hills, a shared plan to make it the 80 miles to Pierre, capital city of South Dakota, where the three of us will take a rest day tomorrow. I have lots of blogging to do. At this point handlebarconfessional.com is four state border crossings behind the current moment, and as non-stressed as I want to be about it, I’m finding the task of catching-up to be looming in my rearview like yesterday’s clouds.
It’s cloudy/cool again today, and the wind blowing hard from the NNE which will be shit for most of the day, since the route is mostly north but will be better in the afternoon with a more easterly wind and heading due west to Pierre. It’s another day of climbing out from the river level and down and up again. The Best Western is at the west end of town, right on the Missouri. It was fun riding downhill at the end of yesterday’s ride but that means we start with a climb straightaway. Kelly is more the planner/guide of the two of them, but I’m the one with the Adventure Cycling app, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is easy as pie: blue dot (us) stays on the pink line (route).
A little over 1.5 miles up the steep hill on the other side of the bridge, Kelly says, “I’m not sure we’re going the right way.”
I look down. Blue dot (us) is hovering over the pink line (not the route). “Shit.”
“We were supposed to make that right turn,” says Kelly.
“Oops, I’m sorry. I was just blindly cranking.”
“Not your fault.”
“Well,” I say, turning my frown upside-down, “…at least we got a warmup…?”
We get back on track pedaling up the correct hills this time. I’m considerably ahead of Kelly and Milo when I get to Fort Thompson on the edge of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation; I can see at least a mile up the hill behind me and they aren’t visible. I use the toilet and chat with a few locals who ask me questions about my trip. There are a mix of Natives and white people around. The town is about 1,200 in size. It’s manifestly a depressed place. There is a health center that looks pretty new, but most of the other buildings, especially the houses, are dilapidated, with tattered sheets covering glass-less windows, screen-less screen doors, stray dogs, people drinking at 10am. (Later, I’ll look online and read that Buffalo County, SD is one of the poorest counties in the nation with conditions akin to those in a developing nation.)
I head back into the headwinds; it’s only another 25 miles or so until Happy Hour starts, aka tailwinds!!!
At about four miles to go before I turn west, a pickup zooms past me and makes a U-turn. It’s Kelly and Milo being driven by a local fella. They’d had bike trouble and though Milo had already rectified the situation (it was mud caked under her fender – oh, how I know about this!), their ride summoned by the sheriff’s deputy to take them the remaining 60 miles to Pierre arrived, and they decided to shell out a few bucks to pay the dude to cart them and their gear and skip the rest of the day’s bike ride. (More about this in the previous post!) “Do you want to come with us or continue riding?”
Ummmm. “Well, I am just coming up to the tailwind part…”
Kelly says, “I knew it! I said you were too much of a purist to take a ride!”
I say, “If I needed one, I would but…”
“We can take your stuff for you, if you want.”
If I am a ‘purist,’ I am not that much of one! “Hell yeah!” I stripped Whitey of the four panniers but kept the rear rack top-bag.“I hope I can remember how to ride without all this weight.”
I remembered. And the tailwind was so perfect that I averaged 19mph for about 10 miles. I was even able to get my heart rate up, which rarely seems to happen unless I’m going up a hill (always unconsciously preserving energy, I suppose), so I got a strapping cardiovascular workout for the remainder of the day. Burn it out, cuz tomorrow is a rest day!
Pierre (pronounced ‘peer’ by the locals) isn’t much of a city. … Well, that’s not fair. It is tiny for a capital city with only about 13,000 people (2ndsmallest capital city in the US and 7thlargest city in SD…so, yeah, truly not much of a city). Kelly and Milo have booked a room for the three of us at Econo Lodge right off the route. That evening we try the local Mexican joint (ok), take photos interacting with the statues of South Dakota’s governors (more fascinating than ya’d think) posed all around the city, and are directed to Zesto for ice cream by a local woman. I have a huge strawberry shortcake/vanilla ice cream concoction that was the besto! (Ever since I had strawberry shortcake at Jodi and Chris’s in Rensselaer, Indiana, I’ve been craving it.)
In the morning, while Kelly and Milo lounge in the room watching the World Cup and do laundry and errands, I walk a mile to the public library to get writing done, arriving right at 10 when it opens. I spend most of the day there, but at about 3pm, I’m so hungry that I’m about to kill someone. I could murder a Clif Bar right now! Bad planning. There’s nothing around, not even a vending machine. I haven’t gotten as much done as I’d planned (of course!) and I’m crabapple central. I’m just about to step outside for the walk back, and it starts to pour. I have my rain jacket, but I’m also carrying my laptop in its non-waterproof sleeve. So, no go. One of the librarians I smiled at earlier sees my dilemma. She also recognizes me as a traveling cyclist. I guess I stick out in Pierre, South Dakota. “Do you need a ride? I can drive you when I get out at 5.”
We all know by now that I’ve had enough experience in this arena to just except the offer without fussing. This is what people do in small towns and cities. If you need a ride, you say yes. If you don’t, you say no. No one is stressing about how to define ‘need’! Wanda the librarian is from a tiny town somewhere else in the state. After college, she moved to Pierre and was completely overwhelmed by how HUGE it was. She tells me, “I can’t even drive in Rapid City [SD’s 2ndlargest city] anymore. They have lanes that go this way and that way! I don’t know how to do it.” Wanda can’t even imagine driving in Los Angeles; she wouldn’t ever want to. In fact, she has no interest in traveling to LA, or anywhere big.
I’m still in culture shock, even after four weeks of this. Listen, if you asked me directly, “Do people who live in small towns secretly want to move to the big city?” I’d say, “Of course not!” But, why am I consistently surprised that people in small towns wouldn’t have it any other way? This is something I haven’t quite figured out. I mean, I know – or at least I think I know – why I live in a big city. Heterogenous. Multi-cultural. The arts. The food. The choices. The beach? Angelenos are my people. It’s where I feel safe, which probably sounds bonkers to someone like Wanda for whom driving in Rapid City is a gosh darn nightmare. It’s true that I can’t leave my bicycle unlocked for two seconds anywhere in LA (I haven’t used a bike lock one single time this whole trip). There’s more crime where I live and way more poverty (Though the deep poverty affecting Buffalo County, SD certainly is worse by many measures, it affects far fewer individuals, in the hundreds of thousands in my city alone). But I feel safer obscured by the anonymity of a large metropolis. People are progressive, for the most part. I mean, right? Fewer than one in ten people in my district voted for that treasonous Russian oligarch wannabe who occupies the White House. So there’s that. I can walk pretty much anywhere in LA holding hands with my partner (imaginarily, I mean, since he doesn’t exist). Or can I? Did Donny and I easily, without a care in the world, skip down every street, lane and boulevard clutching paws?
Is my city safe? I am constantly looking at data that shows just the opposite. Many residents living in neighborhoods targeted by the services I write grant proposals for do not feel safe in their communities. I do not live in those neighborhoods. … I’m feeling a rush of white/class privilege realization coming on…
I’ve wondered during the course of this journey if I long for something different from urban life. Are my reasons for living in a city 100% authentic? Do I live where I live because it’s home? What does that even mean? Is my assumption that small-town folks want to be somewhere different more about being truly desirous of something different for myself, or is it just evidence of a ‘grass is greener’ aspect of my personality?
It is authentic for me to say that I am drawn to the work I do and that the inherent risks of city life (e.g., stolen bicycles) and the elective ones (e.g., riding a bicycle everywhere in LA) are ones I’m willing to take. The future is unknown. In the meantime, I’ll stay where I’m at, and so will Wanda. Damn, I wish I’d taken a picture of her. She is sweet.
Wanda didn’t drive me back to the hotel the next day, because I’m at the library longer than she is. I decide to take an extra day in Pierre and write more. Mi isn’t feeling well, so my buddies stay, too.
Next up: I defy all logic and advice and get a touch o’ the heatstroke for reals, and then spend an evening infused with friendly-fire testosterone at a bait-and-tackle-shop cum lodge cum mancave talking about hunting, ice fishing and Sturgis, the SD hamlet that transforms into a lawless motorcycle rally of about 500,000 bikers every August!