Refreshed! Enlivened! Abloom with openness and curiosity! Dying to move on! That, my friends, is how three nights at the Econo Lodge and two 8-hour days toiling away at the Rawlins Municipal Library in Pierre, S-Dak affect you.
I wasn’t clear on a destination goal for the day. It was going to be hot, but not that hot (high around 85). The winds are promising to be … [sit down if you’re not already sitting down] … FAVORABLE, because they are southerly, and, folks, we are traveling north today. Swoon! Kelly was proposing that she and Milo would try to make it to Akaska, a town of 42 people that has camping and cabins. It’s almost 90 miles away and they aren’t sure Mi is up to that long a ride after being ill the day before. I tell them I’ll get there first and make friends with all 42 of them. We’ll keep in touch throughout the day and check in on one another’s progress. With that, I’m gone and pedaling out of Pierre which has zero urban sprawl. No surprise since it’s not urban to begin with.
The route in this area of SD keeps you as close to the Missouri River as possible in order to mimic Lewis and Clark traversing upstream in their boat. Feels less like upstream with the wind at your back! Soon after Pierre, I pass the Oahe Dam which created Lake Oahe, one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the country. I’ll be riding alongside this section of the Missouri all the way to Bismarck, North Dakota. When the dam was built in the early 1960s, it flooded parts of the Cheyenne and Standing Rock Reservations, resulting in land loss and displacement of Native people. Surprise, surprise.
For the first 55 miles, I am on SD Route 1804, named for the year when L & C were exploring that particular area. Not much for me to explore but lots to appreciate. Rolling hills, grasses, and wildflowers, no people, barely any structures. It’s beautiful and calm and so clean. More and more cows grazing and less and less corn ‘n beans. And a herd of sheep that were just about to cross the road until they saw me coming and hightailed it out of there. There were a couple rams in there, with the big ol’ fancy horns, like a representation of Aries. I’d never seen one of those guys before! Also, tons of prairie dogs. (I don’t know what these animals are at the time of riding. They quickly disappear as I approach. What is that thing? It looks like a cross between a chipmunk and a lizard.) And deer of course (the ones with white and fluffy and longer tails than ones in the east, bounding over the fences meant to keep cows from straying).
I am making excellent time. I stop at a crossroads (literal, not metaphoric…or is it?!) eating the PB&J I made from the pickings at the Econo Lodge free breakfast. I don’t have much in the way of food for the day, but it’s fine. Like I said, wind at my back and not too hot. Did Diego say I should consume 40g of carbs every single hour? I mean, I’m not blowing out my legs or anything. I’m moving slowly. What could possibly go wrong?
When the turnoff to Akaska approaches, I am at a crossroads. I have two choices as I see it: (1) I adhere to the route, stay in Akaska, and tomorrow morning then have to traverse a 9.5-mile stretch of gravel. Ugh, bouncing around on my stiff-as-a-board never-softening Brooks saddle (I’m still wearing 2 pairs of bike shorts simultaneously most days, btw) for an hour first thing in the AM; or (2) Continue on the road I’m on (heading north, with tailwinds) for 12 more miles to the town of Selby and then go for the win, aka head west back toward the route until I hit Mobridge and crash at a hotel there = 120 miles. I haven’t broken a hundred miles since crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa. That day was 117.91 miles. Today will beat my record.
At mile 100 I’m in Shelby, and I stop for a vanilla-chocolate twist cone at a little hut. I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself, knowing that I’m going for the gold today, though slightly queasy because the wind has been picking up and diverting west, where I’m headed for the last 20 miles of the day’s ride. I don’t fill up all my bottles at the ice cream place, just one or two. I mean, it’s not that hot, I’d had a tailwind all day til now, and I only have 20 miles left. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll start being better about eating the right amount of carbs and drinking tons and tons. (Maybe you see where this might be going…?)
As I curve left/west on Route 12, it’s as if I’m unpeeling the lid off of a container of wind. It’s not that it’s that strong (maybe 15mph), it’s just late in the day for this kind of experience! Oh well, only 18 miles of dealing with this. I can do it! [*Inner monologue champion stance gesture*]
It’s a puzzle. Our bodies. Their limitations. The weather’s effects. Carbs. When riding gets difficult for whatever reason, sometimes it’s purely mental; the mind bonks. And sometimes it’s the body. At times, a positive attitude is actually denial in disguise, and denial may result in surprises that maybe shouldn’t be that surprising.
There’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced a lot lately in the wind. Fighting the wind physically has an organic and usually immediate impact on my thoughts. Simply, I involuntarily start thinking about random negative things. For example, my mind will flash on a resentment I have toward a person in my life, someone who I think owes me an apology! Grrrrrr! And I play out that scenario in my mind. Or I think about traumatic experiences I’ve had in my life and what an unfair hand I’ve been dealt and such experiences have made life so hard!! I think about getting injured and how fucked up that would be! I imagine a pickup running me off the road and the guys who did it laughing and there being a woman among my attackers and she’s laughing too which makes it a million times worse, because I’ve almost always had the most trusting, unquestioningly and mutually supportive, loyal and intimate relationships with women and in this imaginary scenario she’s the actual ringleader! I imagine memorizing the license plate of this Dodge Ram (it’s always a Dodge Fucking Ram!!) and locating the sheriff who of course does nothing about it because everybody out here belongs to everybody else and I’m a vulnerable stranger, a nothing, and if I want to do something about it, then I have to go into the local bar and find some weapon (??) (that I am able to figure out how to work immediately) that will flatten every person in there, so no one is left to come after me, and then I steal the keys of that Dodge Fucking Ram and drive it off a cliff Thelma-and-Louise style. Or, screw Thelma and Louise! Women are betrayers, too!
Anything that I may have (real or imagined!) unresolved anger or fear about is game to pop into my mind during these moments of duress. Once I realize that is happening, I will undergo a shame spiral (like, why am I so negative?!) I will only spiral briefly, because I now have experienced this phenom often enough to recognize it as a direct result of physical stress of the wind (AND HOW FUCKING UNFAIR IT IS). And I can then of course laugh (just a little – don’t get crazy now!) at myself for being at the mercy of what I can’t control. And it’s okay that I’m not joyous and grateful every fucking second of this journey!
Because I’m off-route, I don’t have any idea about what sort of elevation to expect. Route 12 isn’t busy. It’s Friday late afternoon; there are a few trucks now and again, and would-be travelers heading to the river in RVs towing cars and motorboats and horses (I think that’s what’s in those trailers…hmmm). The road is wide and there’s an uphill slope that feels like it won’t end. It’s not steep, really it isn’t, but then why am I so out of breath? A glance at my watch. I’m going 4.2mph, oddly slow even for a situation like this (headwind, incline, 100+ miles, hot-but-not-that-hot). The shoulder narrows as the westbound side of the road expands to two lanes – Aha! It is a hill! But I’m having trouble avoiding the rumble strips with less room within the shoulder. Fuck, should I rest? I’m only 3 miles out! Let’s get ‘em, done! Kum n git it!
At this pace, I am frustrated that I can’t manage the narrow shoulder. The eastbound side’s shoulder is wide. I cross the highway and continue riding. For about a minute. I need to stop. What’s wrong with me? I stop. The world seems sort of bent. I’ve been listening to music with earbuds (not common for me on this journey) to help me through the last 20 miles to Mobridge. To keep me fierce, I’d settled on a playlist I entitled “Punkish,” and The Julie Ruin’s Stay Monkey is on, Kathleen Hanna at her most cooing Don’t go don’t go don’t go I want you to stay monkey with me don’t go don’t go. I can’t bear this music on for one more nanosecond. I’m itching to take off my cycling jersey and go to sleep. I have some electrolyte-infused water left, which I drink. I’ll rest. A tsunami of nausea. Oh, fuck. Now my imaginary scenario is a hospital bed and an IV and a No seriously I’m okay don’t tell either parent conversation with Natalie. I desperately want to strip off everything and just take a nap. But wait, will I die if I go to sleep, or is that just with head injuries?! I physically try to shake off the ponderousness and say aloud, “Oh please god, no, please don’t let me pass out here! Please!” My voice is tiny and airless, buried inside my ear canal. There’s something wrong with my hearing? If I were on drugs, I’d be overdosing, unable to turn back from a terrible, terrible mistake that will have grave consequences. An SUV approaches. I make a half-hearted effort to wave them down; not having the strength to do it vigorously is fueled by my hesitation to be vulnerable, be caught out bonking on the side of Route 12, three miles from my record of the trip, from my destination: a motel in Mobridge, South Dakota, where I can (in private) wait out this onslaught of bonk.
I sit on the ground facing away from the road and put my head between my knees. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Or is that just for hyperventilating? The wave starts to subside.
I don’t hear the pickup truck pull up about 20 feet away.
An invisible man calls out to me. “Are you okay?”
I’m half-relieved, half-mortified. … Well, maybe slightly more on the mortified end, which must mean I am indeed feeling better.
My voice is still trapped up in my head, but I manage: “I think I am.”
“You probably overheated. How long have you been going?”
“But it’s not that hot…? It’s only like 83. I don’t understand.”
The man tells me it doesn’t matter, it’s the humidity, he was outside working all week in it, and the same thing happened to him.
He and his wife [their names have escaped me; I may not have ever absorbed them] offer me a ride to Mobridge. I take it. I’m turning over a new leaf of not being so invincible starting now. I tell them that my plan was to beat my highest mileage day.
“You know what’s funny?” I don’t. “You were almost to the top, and it’s all downhill 3 miles to Mobridge.”
That is funny, I guess. Or will be tomorrow. He asks if I want to be dropped off at the crest of the hill. I’m tempted, of course, but today is the day that I just call it a day. Nothing is ever ‘all downhill,’ just like nothing in life is free, really.
“Nope,” I say, trying to be at full voice, hoping it doesn’t come out too loudly. “I think I’m good.” I want to tell them that this isn’t my first time cross-country, that my highest mileage last time was 138 in a day, so it’s not that I can’t ride or have never ridden 120 miles.
The pair inquires about my ride, the usual questions, but just before arriving at the motel, the man asks, “You aren’t one of those people that came here because of the pipeline, are you? It’s okay if you were, I’d still give you a ride.”
Oh, right. Mobridge is located just across the river from Standing Rock Reservation. I remember that from the map, planned to mark that in some way, even if it was merely acknowledging its presence. “No, I wasn’t.” I didn’t say that I completely supported the protesters, sent donations, followed what was happening on the ground via my friend Mary’s postings on Facebook. Clearly this wasn’t the time… “Are you construction or an oil worker?” I figure that even though I think the Dakota Access Pipeline is an environmental disaster happening as we speak and an affront to the Standing Rock Sioux, as the project will affect their burial grounds, if the guy had promise of employment to support his family that was delayed due to the protests, I have empathy for that. Even though he doesn’t seem to for people who were attacked by pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and teargas for peacefully protesting.
“No,” he says, “But there were a lot of not good people who came here, weird people, and they threw a lot of garbage, they were the ones making the environmental hazard. The media only reported on one side of the story. There were a lot of stupid people that came and did some damage.”
Still unsatisfied (I guess!) with my answer, he asks me another time if I was one of the protesters. “No.” I said again, “This definitely my first time to South Dakota, and I’m loving it so far.” And I’m not German either! I guess people around there aren’t used to strangers coming to their area, and clearly there are wounds still open from the influx of protesters, though I didn’t get the chance to really explore how this affected him and why almost two years later it’s still so raw that he brings it up with a random guy on a bike. I avoid getting into the thick of it by acknowledging that visitors shouldn’t trash other people’s land. I say this without a hint of irony. (It’s difficult to inflect when you’re still crawling back from death’s door and you barely have an audible voice.)
After profuse and humble thanks, I check into the Wrangler Inn, which ain’t cheap.
Safe in my room, I start googling heatstroke vs. bonking, and it seems like what I experienced was more the beginnings of the former, which is not good. I still felt awful then, to be honest, and the tinny voice sensation persisted. It freaks me out a little to think of myself up on that highway not actively flagging down someone for help out of pride when it could really have been dangerous, actually was dangerous. I really wanted to go to sleep, but I was a teeny bit afraid I’d never wake up. Just so someone would be aware of the reason should I die in the night, I text my sister (who is a physician).
Me: I had a bit of, er, heatstroke today, I believe
Natalie: Uh oh? Do we need to discuss?
Me: I dunno.
My phone rings the next second. I don’t tell her precisely how bad it was, or how scared I was…though I do mention the nighttime expiration potential. I’m under strict orders to text her in the AM. I also speak to my friend Dustin that evening and promise the same, and text Diego my triathlon coach: Ok this time I really did bonk. I am cowed. I was actually scared! I guess I didn’t eat or drink enough. I feel like an amateur. (Cuz sometimes a good ol’ ‘I told you so’ is in order.)
Needless to say (or is it?!), I am not a ghost writing his memoir. I survived the night!
It’s gray and promises to rain in Mobridge, SD on the morning of Day 32. The North Dakota state line is in view, sort of. There’s a town along Route 1804 (which is again the Lewis and Clark Trail route alongside of or near to the Missouri) that’s less than 40 miles away, Pollock, which is the last stop in SD before the border to ND, 15 miles beyond the town. Although there were campgrounds reachable on a normal day (when I didn’t have heatstroke the day before) over into ND, but I decide to ride smart and not push myself, and although I did spray my tent seams with the waterproofing sealer that I bought at Walmart back in Napoleon, Ohio at the behest of my buddy Alex, I don’t feel like tonight’s the night to test out its efficacy. A short day it is.
Because it’s not hot out and because of nearly needing hospitalization, I take it easy in the morning and go next door to have a hearty breakfast at The Grand Oasis, which is darn grand with its deep mauve-painted walls, glittery mirrors, and taxidermy displays. Animal trophies are the new normal.
The rain is still holding back, evidently waiting to commence once I’m on the road, and I hop on Whitey at the late hour of 9:30. I’m no more than 5 miles out when the drops start falling. It’s raining. (Like actual rain-raining, not misting-or-drizzling-but-not-really-raining.) When it rains, I become wet. This is proven science! Let it suffice to say that while I prefer it to be cloudy, cool and not raining, I don’t mind getting wet. And it’s better than overheating. And the harder it rains and the further away I get from anywhere, the more ridiculous it gets and the more I enjoy it.
“Hi, cows!” They do their halting mid-munch or running away bit as I pedal closer. I serenade the cattle, thusly and with abandon since there are zero people to contend with my singing: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the Great Play-ains! THE RAIN IN SPAIN FALLS MAINLY ON THE GREAT PLAY-AINS!!!” I don’t know too many other words to that song (are there any?), but I do remember Rex Harrison from the movie going: “And where’s that blah-sted plain?!” and Audrey Hepburn responding, “In SPAIN! In SPAIN!!!!” Shh, cows, don’t tell anyone I’m gay!
At about 1:30pm, I arrive in Pollock, pop. 241. The rain has shifted gears to not-really-raining. There is a hotel on the west end of town. It looks deserted. The office is locked, and nothing is happening. The phone number is on my Adventure Cycling map, so I dial it. “We’re only opening for large groups this summer,” a man explains. “My son is heading to Afghanistan again, and we want to spend all the time we can with him before he’s deployed.”
I wish his family the best and sit down to a snack of almonds and bar named Clif. There aren’t other lodging options. There was a hunting and fishing lodge (with campgrounds) a few miles back, but I do not go backwards. I guess I could go further and camp over the border of North Dakota…But I don’t want to camp in the rain. I pedal back toward the cross with Route 1804. There’s a Pollock Visitors Center. Hmm. An elderly lady inside the storefront waves me in.
Vina LaFave is 86 and in good health after surviving cancer and outliving her husband, brothers, a son, everyone she knew growing up Pollock. “I don’t know why God has seen for me to stay on this earth, but you don’t know when He will call for you.” Vina is the manager and curator of the center. From her desk in the storefront’s window, with her year-round Xmas tree decorated for the 4th of July behind her, she directs me around the center explaining that people think what they have is junk and they want to either throw it out or make money selling it. She is a seemingly a one-woman effort to preserve the history of the town, through displaying of Lewis and Clark-related items, paintings of the area by local artists, Pollock High School memorabilia (PHS closed years ago, not enough students), the now-shuttered Pollock Pharmacy’s giant silver cash register from the early 1900s that someone found in a dumpster, and personal items, like her grandmother’s wedding ring. (And of course the requisite Native artifacts.) Like the reservations, ‘old’ Pollock was flooded. The town had to either disband or move. They moved it. Their town motto is “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
When I ask Vina her name, she, like many people I’ve met in the small towns I’ve traveled through, says it like this: “LaFave. Vina LaFave.” I’m guessing that your last name identifies you, gives you a local context, a belonging. A couple times I tried it out, but it didn’t really work. People called me “Dan” – not my name unless you’re my sister or father or to some of the people I went to high school with – whether I introduced myself as Danny or Daniel. And each time I started with “Getzoff” the person responded with a “What?!”
“Is that German,” Vena asks me, I believe, hopefully.
“Where are your people from?”
I want to say Gayville, which is believable since that’s in South Dakota (read about my brief stop in that town here). Or Philly and New Jersey. Instead I say, “Well, that great-grandfather was from what’s now Ukraine. But he wasn’t really Ukrainian. Or Russian. To the Ukrainians or Russians, anyway.”
Vina is confused. So, I give her my spiel I’ve developed to explain shit about how Jews who emigrated here in the late 19th/early 20thcentury had a common language and culture but they weren’t assimilated into the culture of the nations or states where they came from, because they were, well, Jews.
“I read something in a book about that. But I’m not sure how much of it was true.” Vina says, adding, “It was before Hitler.”
I don’t know exactly what she means, but I don’t think it’s a deep dive into how history is traditionally written through the white, male, privileged lens of hegemony. I’m hoping she’s not fake-newsing me. I think I’ve caught her off-guard, not being German. She seems to really want me to be, asking me again about my name and if any of my people were German. The truth is I don’t know anything about my name, whether it’s the precise name that my great-grandfather had growing up with in Kiev or if it got altered at Ellis Island, or whether it’s just a patronymic for “Getz” which does sound German (and maybe my ancestors decided that Germany sucked and you could grow beets and potatoes better in the Russian soil). I mean, who knows? Let’s face it. It ain’t a common name. (Side story: When I moved to LA to pursue my now long-dead acting career, many, many, many people told me to change my name. My dad did not want me to shorten it to ‘Getz.’ “I don’t want anyone thinking you’re Stan Getz’s kid,” my pops said. Stan Getz, who’s real name was ‘Gayetski,’ was born in Philly to Ukrainian Jewish parents, like my grandfather. Imagine if Gayetski had been my name. My childhood was hard enough!)
I did not tell Vina LaFave that her name sounded like a pre-Stonewall era drag queen’s.
I spent a few more minutes chatting with Vina about her family. I tell her how I am continually amazed at how people chip in to help each other out in these small towns, how community members rely on each other. I tell her my theory that it isn’t just that people are good-hearted and kind but it’s also out of necessity, there being so few people around. “That’s about right,” Vena says. She tells me about a winter storm a couple of years ago that blew the power out and how her children couldn’t get to her quickly enough, so a friend of her son’s who lives in town, brought her enough wood to keep warm until the power came on. Powerful. Power fuel! She tells me that the building we are standing in was built during a single weekend. A community effort to realize the town’s goal of opening the Pollock Visitors Center.
After a while, I bid Vina farewell. I’d been hoping that she’d say, “Oh, you can crash here, just shut out the lights and lock the door when you’re done.” But she sent me across the street to a…place. I can’t quite categorize Pollock Lodge Fishing Bait. I’ve never been a patron of this, er, category of business. It’s a storefront that sells hunting and fishing supplies and provides lodging for groups who come to the Pollock/Lake Oahe area to hunt and fish. Also, Rick, the owner, and his son Travis take groups out fishing in their boat year-round. Travis says that they currently have a group of Iowa farmers here in Pollock taking up most of the rooms, but they do have one available. The room is windowless with two beds, facing one another. Décor is all about hunting. Wallpaper, bedspread, sheets are patterned with elks, ducks, ponds, and trees, and are Native art-inspired and camo-colored.
Smells like I’m not in a non-smoking establishment, which is the only negative. Travis tells me that the guys fishing walleye are coming back soon, and they’ll be cooking their catch. I didn’t know if that implied that I’d be invited to eat with them, and of course my first reaction was how do I escape?
It was Saturday again, which means time for weekly call with Alex. My phone rings at the appointed time. He is driving with his wife Tarah, so I’m on speakerphone, which is cool because I love Tarah too. They’ve been away celebrating their 2ndanniversary. We chat for a while. I catch them up on my whereabouts and take a picture of the sheets to text them, (see above), and the call gets dropped. I’m starving by this time. My room is right by the main part of the shop, and I can hear that the fishing party is back. Travis had mentioned the bar next door served food. I crack open the door to my room. I’m sure if I just slip out quietly, no one will—
“Hey, there he is! We were beginning to think that this guy [Travis] was making it up some guy staying here that’s riding a bike across the U.S.A.”
“Yup, I’m him.”
“Sure…but I have nothing to bring to the party, except some bars and a couple bananas.”
But that, of course, doesn’t matter. I’m invited to join. And I’m not going anywhere.
The group (Jim, Calvin, Rod, Denny, and someone else whose name escapes) is from near Ames, Iowa. They’re all guys, farmers or retired farmers, in their sixties who have been fishing together for decades. Pollock is their destination at least once per year. My dad is a fisherman, and I went with him a bunch of times as a kid, but I never liked it that much. Patience and sitting still are required, and those are not my virtues. And being on the ocean but unable to jump in the water runs against the very fiber of my being. Fishing with my dad and his friends as a kid was the first time I ever heard men bust each other’s balls as a way of expressing love and having fun with each other. I could curse as much as I wanted. “Don’t tell your mother.”
I don’t tell the group about my failed history of communing with my dad beyond my childhood years in a way that would have made him very happy. Instead, declining the offer of beer and whiskey and vodka, I hold up my water bottle in solidarity with these men already in a well-lubricated condition having spent all day on a boat. The fish is being cooked by Karina who I gather works at the Lodge, housekeeping and such. Besides Vina, she’s the only other female I’ve seen today. I’ve never had walleye. It’s good, coated in salty batter. There are potatoes, too. I’m hungry, I’m invited, so I eat. There is a lot of ball-busting that goes on that evening, particularly toward Calvin, who’s the youngest of the group by a few years and the one who has a history of drinking himself into oblivion.
Everyone is friendly, but I feel more like a fish out of water (haha) or, more accurately, like I’m from another planet on this night than any others thus far. I can’t hide my open-mouthed fascination with all matter of conversation topics. For example, ice fishing—which sounds like a total nightmare of an activity to me. Travis goes up to Winnipeg several times during the winter to ice fish as well as right here on the Missouri. They drive their giant pickups right on the ice and cut a hole in it. There are competitions. Travis and his dad Rick sometimes win, taking home prize money and a plaque.
Wait a second. A river can freeze?? “The Missouri actually freezes?” I ask.
It takes me a while to understand that just a few feet, a top layer of the water freezes. I was thinking: how can it be that cold that the river stops flowing? Light bulb. It flows underneaththe layer of ice. Aha!
There was also lots of gun talk. And Travis regaled us (well, me) with stories of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in western South Dakota that brings like 500,000 motorcyclists to that town every August for lawless debauchery, drunkenness, dope, fighting, and riding. I google later and learn that it brings $800 million to the economy of South Dakota annually, and 95% of the town’s economy is derived from the event. People rent out their houses for thousands of dollars per night! The whole sounds a little bit like Burning Man but with different costumes. Just a little bit.
I’m tired. Eventually, I stop understanding what people are saying, because it’s been such a mindfuck to be in that whitemaleheterobaittacklegunbeerspace all night – a guest, a fly on the wall, a space invader. When you’re sober and everyone else is drinking, they alter and you stay the same. And then it’s time to go. I buy a Snickers from the candy rack (not my favorite but…) and head back to my room.
Tomorrow, it’s a state line crossing to North Dakota! I communicate with Mark, a warmshowers host in Mandan (adjacent to Bismarck, the capital), and he’s down to host me as well as another dude from Sweden. It’s going to be windy (against me!) but after a shorter day and a couple rest days in the recent past, 90 miles shouldn’t be a big deal.