I think about South Dakota a lot.
The day I left Newcastle, Wyoming, I slowly packed my things up at the motel where I’d spent the night. It was the first motel I had paid for, after biking for almost four months. I had spent the last 6 days biking across a hot, dry desert as I descended out of the Rocky Mountains. Those days were fast, with a tailwind that increased my mileage. I rode about 100 miles for three of the days, biking my three first centuries ever. When I arrived in Newcastle, I was exhausted. There had been no services in the last thirty miles, causing me to informally ration my water and Gatorade supplies. I didn’t have a lot of snack food because gas stations in Eastern Wyoming don’t have much other than candy, ice cream, and beer. I had pitched my tent on the side of the road and informally on public land more than once in the last six days. I hadn’t had a single shower, and the terrain was so dry that I hadn’t seen a single river or lake to bathe in. So on my way into Newcastle, my mind started wandering towards the potential bliss a motel could bring: a BED. Wifi access. A shower. Laundry?! What more could I ask for in life! I called a few places until I found one with a vacancy, and decided to break my streak of free-camping and pay for comfort.
I settled in at the motel, showered and did laundry with the water running, and went across the street to the gas station. I bought a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a cold tall boy for a treat. I went back to my room and indulged in electricity. I kept all the lights on, I charged my camera, my phone, and my laptop. I went on facebook. I stayed up late.
While on facebook, I learned that a friend from high school was passing through South Dakota. We messaged about the possibility of meeting. He said that he would probably be crossing into Wyoming around 11 AM, I told him that I probably wouldn’t leave until around then, but that he should keep his eyes open for me.
I packed and repacked my panniers. After all these months, I still never got packing up right on the first try. I would put everything I thought I needed to in one pannier, and then start packing the other pannier, only to find that I needed something from the very bottom of the first pannier to continue. Or that I had forgotten to slip something to the bottom of the first pannier. I would roll and unroll the tops of the panniers at least three times before I got it right. When I finally put my things on my bike, I would always question whether I really packed everything and take a mental inventory. Did I physically touch my rain jacket to put it away? Do I remember pushing down on my sleeping bag to stuff it in? Did the tent poles jab me, as they usually do, while I try to maneuver things around them?
Oh, right. There are stairs out of this motel. I proceeded to take everything back off my bike to bring it down the stairs. After months, I still couldn’t lift my loaded touring bike.
As I struggled with my things, a couple who I met last night was in the lobby. The man was British, the woman was from the Midwest. Every year, they come to the States to see her family and go on a tourist trip. They had just driven across the Badlands and couldn’t stop gushing about it. “You won’t regret it. You’ll wonder how these things could possibly exist.”
“But what are the Badlands? I haven’t been able to figure it out. Like, rock formations?” I asked naively.
“I can’t explain them. Just go.” I logged their advice in my mind.
The husband cautioned, “On your way out there, though, there’s construction. There’s a 9-mile section of construction, and then another 4 mile section further out. They’re pretty bad.”
I finally left the motel, ran in to use the bathroom one more time, and then really left. I found my way out of Newcastle easily enough and also found the construction easily enough. The nine-mile stretch started almost immediately after leaving Newcastle. For the most part, there was a small stretch of paved road in the middle of the construction, with gravel and unpaved road on the sides. With the low-traffic, I was able to ride in the middle of the road and just scooted over when a truck came by. Not a single car honked; they knew they weren’t going anywhere fast. It was during this stretch of construction that I left Wyoming and entered South Dakota. I caught a picture of the Welcome sign and noted that the ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ sign had been taken down with the construction. I was glad to get the South Dakota shot; the only state that I missed a picture of the Welcome sign for was Wyoming. I didn’t want to miss another one.
The construction ended soon after the state line. I kept pedaling and the terrain started to introduce some ups-and-downs. There were more downs than ups, though, so I was happily smiling. The ecology changed dramatically, though, and the dry brown dirt suddenly gave way to tan tall grasses and tall pine trees dotting the landscape. The hills undulated on all sides of me as the road brought me through a series of mini-mountains. I noted a steady climb uphill, and also took note of a familiar pattern of traffic: none at all for 10 minutes at a time, and then long lines of cars flowing from behind me and coming towards me. Construction traffic. It meant I was getting closer to the second stretch.
I climbed the mini-mountain pass slowly. The sun was beating down hot and heavy, so I stopped to drink water, calm by pounding heart, and just to take pictures. Any time I started to get frustrated, annoyed, or think “This is taking forever!”, I stopped to take a picture and reset myself.
Soon, I could see the end of the line of cars. It was only half a mile away, but probably took ten minutes for me to get to. As I approached the woman flagging cars, she told me that I could probably get a ride in the pilot car. Yeah, right, I thought. I don’t need a ride in a pilot car!
And then a car started honking like crazy at me from the other side. I looked up, assumed it was just an enthusiastic passerby. I looked back and saw the driver sticking his head out of the window. Andy!! A grin grew across my face. As I leave Wyoming, a state that for me, was characterized by enjoying beauty alone, South Dakota welcomes me by bringing me a friend from the East. I watched him make a U-turn among the construction traffic and drive up to me on the shoulder. I dropped my bike and ran up to the car. We squealed, we hugged, and we marveled at our fortune as travelers. We exchanged stories; Andy had biked across the country several years ago. We explained the story to the flagger and asked her to catch a picture of us. Andy confirmed that I should definitely get a ride in the pilot car. As we parted, continuing in opposite directions, I wondered, as I often wonder, How did I get here?