South Dakota: Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

I just left a hot tub.

The last six days have been full of coincidences and fate, leading me exactly where I’m supposed to be.

I resumed my bicycle travel on Friday. The same day I left Jackson, Harrison found me on the bike path leading out of town. About two months ago, we rode together for two days. We’d exchanged brief Facebook messages and knew that we might be in the same area at the same time, but neither of us had made more recent contact. It was pretty exciting, then to have him ride up to me while I was stopped.

IMG_5773I proceeded to cross Togwotee Pass, which was my last major mountain pass of the Rocky Mountains. It was one of the longer passes, and for the first time I decided to camp before reaching the summit. I was only half a mile away from it, but it seemed like camping at the Continental Divide would be easy and flat, so I shivered through a night at the top. (For all those critical OTHER bike tourists, this was one of the only nights I wish I’d had a sleeping pad for warmth.)

IMG_5793The next day, I descended into the Wind River Indian Reservation, with long stretches of gorgeous red, golden, green, and purple rock formations. Throughout this section, there was little habitation. I had a tailwind and sailed into Riverton, riding my longest day yet in shockingly few hours.

IMG_5839IMG_5864The rock formations continued to be fun to ride by, but there is little else out here. It also seems like Wyoming is making shockingly little use of its incredible natural beauty. A lot of the land I’ve passed has been reservation land, but a lot of it is just privately owned ranches. I rode through hundred-mile stretches of highway with either side of the road casually fenced off. But there are incredible sights to be seen here! The cattle get to explore more than the people here.

IMG_5899In 4,000 miles, I had never experienced anything quite like riding through Wyoming. In a one-hundred mile stretch, the map indicates that there are several towns. When you ask locals, though, they’ve never heard of these towns. There is no gas station. There is no rest area or convenience store. There is simply nothing there.

IMG_5916In one “town”, a friendly man sold ice cream bars for $1. I ate it and chatted with him; he told me about Hell’s Half Acre, about 15 miles away. Hell’s Half Acre is a perfect example of an incredible place that Wyoming keeps to itself. It is one of the single most incredible things I have had the opportunity to see–and yet, there is barely any information when you get to it. The area is fenced off, but of course people have made a hole in the fence to walk through. I would have loved to hike down the canyon or scramble down rocks, but I’m wary of doing that alone. If anyone outside of Wyoming knew about this incredible place, they would come in droves–and that’s why Wyoming doesn’t brag. (One thing they do tell you, though, is that this is where Starship Troopers was filmed.)

IMG_5971IMG_5976(I promise to share more photos of Hell’s Half Acre later.)

I eventually reached Casper, and from there I experienced an America I had not fully known. My cousin Allysha called Wyoming, “Cheney country” and I now have seen this in full force. I rode through Casper. Instead of auto repair shops on the outskirts of town, there are “Oil Field Equipment” shops. The entire town smells of an oil refinery.

IMG_5996After Casper, I actually rode through the oil fields and historic oil fields. At the town of Wright, the landscape transitioned from one form of energy extraction to another. From the map, I thought I’d be riding through the Thunder Basin National Grassland. I expected hiking. And campgrounds. Instead, I rode through the Thunder Basin Black Coal Mine, which is the largest coal mine in the world. I had never seen anything like it: vehicles, five times the size of an army tank, transporting excavated earth, and freight trains full of coal that stretched more than a mile long.

IMG_6029IMG_6041I’m told that I rode where “the jackrabbits wear canteens of water strapped to their backs” because it’s so dry. But I have left Wyoming’s dry heat, survived, and never came remotely close to dehydration or starvation.

Today, I had a vague goal of reaching Mount Rushmore. At around noon, I ran into a friend from high school.

Yes. A friend from high school in New Jersey and I met in South Dakota.

IMG_6063Soon after we parted, I found myself at the resurfacing section of Hwy 16. I was offered a ride in a pick-up by a friendly driver named Dave, who told me that he and his wife Mary could host me in their quiet, secluded home five miles away from Custer. Dave told me that they have a hot tub, could feed me dinner, and could introduce me to the deer who they feed twice a day. I was sold. He dropped me off at Jewel Cave, where I went on a cave tour.

IMG_6117I then rode to Dave and Mary’s home. They fed me a delicious dinner and a milkshake. I met the deer and heard a deer sneeze for the first time in my life. I soaked in the hot tub. I refreshed and renewed.

On this bike tour, I have found myself wondering what things would be like if I made more or less miles one day or another. This past week, my solitude in the US’s least densely populated state has been sprinkled with run-ins, happy coincidences, and the kindness of strangers. I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

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