After leaving Andy, I still had to deal with the construction. The flagger had moved her car up the road so now she was in front of me. As I bike up, she says, “I talked to the pilot car, they’ll take you.” I smile and thank her in response as I approach the line of stopped cars.
A man in a white pick-up steps out of his car to stretch, but then walks around to the back. “You want a ride?”
“Well, I was going to go in the pilot car–but sure!” I bring my bike around to the back of the pick-up as he lets down the door. I offer to take all of my stuff off of the bike to put it in the truck, because I know I can’t lift my loaded bike. Usually when I offer, the instinct that I call, “White-dudes-being-macho” kicks in. These men lift my loaded bike, huffing and puffing, while telling me how incredibly heavy it is. I watch their faces turn red, conceal my laughter, and say, “Yeah, I know. It has everything I need to live in it! Of course it’s heavy.” This guy, who later introduced himself as Dave, didn’t ask me to take my stuff of my bike, but he also didn’t get macho. He stepped up onto the bed of the truck and asked me to pass the bike to him.
“Uhh…” Now or never, I said to myself. I grab the base of the rear rack and bend my knees low. Lift! I grunt as I try to hoist the bike up. He sees me struggling and bends down to help me, and eventually we get the bike onto the pick up. Never, the answer is never do that again, I resolved.
We walk around to the front and got in the car. Dave offers me a cold, red Gatorade and we chat. With fading gray hair and a genuine smile, Dave still has the air of a small town boy, open to the world with wide eyes, but choosing to stay in a place and job he knows. He grew up in South Dakota and lived there most of his life. He still lives on the same property, bordering national forest land, that he grew up on. When he was a teenager, he helped his dad convert the land to a few rows of houses and a campground. He loves to hunt and get on way back country forest roads. He and his wife take ATV’s on any 2-track they can get on and stay away from cities. He asked me about my journey and with every answer, sounded more excited.
“I really respect strong, independent women. Really! My wife is one of you. I really respect a woman on a trip alone like this.”
Even though they could have seemed patronizing, his words were refreshing to hear. He stood in stark contrast to the people who question my sanity for biking across the country alone. I smiled and accepted the compliment. Soon, the traffic started moving again.
“Oh, so I actually wanted to go to Jewel Cave, but the entrance is in this stretch of construction, right?”
“Yeah, but I can drop you off at the cave. You can take a tour and then get a ride in the pilot car on the way out. This construction is all gravel and uphill for 4 miles. It’d be near impossible to ride on. But the cave is pretty interesting. And if you want, we live about 3 miles outside of Custer. You can stay with us tonight. You can pitch your tent in our yard, or we have a guest house. We also have an outdoor hot tub. And we feed the deer every night and morning.
“You feed the deer?”
“Yep. We just rattle a can of corn and up to 28 deer come running, from all corners of the forest.”
In my head, it was decided. I was feeding the deer tonight.
Dave drops me off at Jewel Cave. I ride downhill for about a half mile and curse my luck. Of course a cave is at the bottom of a hill, I think. A tour starts in fifteen minutes, so I park my bike and grab my food bag to quickly eat some lunch. There are families sitting and waiting in the outdoor waiting area. Parents and children smile and stare as I make tuna wraps, which fall apart onto my sweaty legs. I pour potato chips in my mouth; the tiny crumbs litter the concrete bench. Fortunately, I’ve gotten used to being half-naked, in bike shorts, and eating a thousand calories in public when no one else is eating.
“Everyone for the 2:15!” the ranger called. She introduces herself as Julie, a recent geology major threatening to bore us to death in a cave with facts about rocks. Her perkiness displays how new the job is for her. She is one of a rare breed of genuinely nice people who love their jobs.
We pile into an elevator that took us over 300 vertical feet into the earth. As we exit the elevator into the cave, a chill creeps across my skin. I savor the cool, dark air; a respite from the hot summer sun. I look around and assess my fellow cave tourers: the family in front of me with two kids who are excited, but terrified of the dark; the family in back of me with a mom who is claustrophobic and trying to show her daughter how to face her fears; the oldest people on the tour who volunteer to bring up the rear, which also means they are the bravest. The ones in the back can always look back and see into the darkness behind them. There are no other single women on this tour, I thought, but also, no other single adults at all.
Julie leads us into the cave. She explains how and why the stalactites and stalagmites form the way they do: some of them in beautiful, unique, circular formations; some reaching for a partner on the ceiling or the floor and connecting with one; some thin strips jutting out of the wall, like a strip of bacon lined up perfectly against the cave. Some are frost-colored; in other places, rust-red seems to pour out of the crevices and Julie tells us that is iron. I eat up her every word, I follow her through dimly lit narrow passageways, I imagine exploring the cave for the first time and being, possibly, the first human to step inside and underground palace. I imagine crawling through dark spaces with kerosene lamps, or climbing up walls trying to get to an opening at the top. I imagine my fear when my last lights go out, trying to find my way out of the cave and into the light. I can’t stop repeating to myself: “I want to be a cave explorer when I grow up, I want to be a cave explorer when I grow up, I want…”. The experience fills me with desire for my own future, but I am simultaneously filled with an internal calm. Standing in darkness, underneath the ground, exploring simply to explore. Breathing underground, simply because I can. Learning about the lives of these rocks, a life that no human will ever see the beginning or end of, and feeling a geological history that has nothing to do with humans. The appeal is overwhelming.
Julie announces that it’s time to turn off all of the lights, including cell phones. She will turn the cave lights off when it’s time. The kids grab their parents, and I grab a rail to keep my balance. Out. Darkness. I open and close my eyes a few times to come to terms with this. Darkness. Where does my face begin and end? How do my hands know what I’m touching? How do I know I’m here?
And then, as suddenly as they went off, Julie brings the lights back on. The claustrophobic mom exhales; the older couple smiles. I take this calm, the calm of the caves, up the elevator. I take the chilly air against my skin up, even as the temperatures increase. I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
Until the uphill bike ride to the road.
After biking in my lowest gear slowly up the hill, I finally reach the road. I ride up to the flagger at the intersection. She assures me that they prefer bikers to take a ride in the pilot car; they get scared when bikers are on the road with the big resurfacing machines. But it’ll be about half an hour until the pilot car is going in the direction I want, so I sit in the shade and watch. I grew up driving on highways, but never before spent time watching a highway surface being created. I watch teenagers, mostly boys, goofing around while directing the trucks dumping asphalt. I watch a middle-aged woman with fissures written across her face chain smoke as she drives the machine that rolls the asphalt into a level surface. I watch everyone crack jokes and wonder what it’s like to grow up somewhere where a ‘normal job’ is building highways.
When the pilot car comes, the chain-smoking woman driver opens the bed of the pick up and steps onto it. She reaches her arms towards me, expecting me to lift my bike.
Oh no, not again…lift with the knees!