As I shove my possessions into my bike bags, Dave comes out and offers, once again, for me to stay an extra night.
“It’s going to be an uphill ride to Mount Rushmore. The first section out will be on a bike path and you will just love it. You’ll go by the Crazy Horse carving and you’ll get a perfect view of it from the bike path. The ride on the bike path is a nice grade, Mary and I can do that. But after you get off that, it’ll be straight up to Mount Rushmore. So if you want to come back tonight, you’re definitely welcome. We can always pick you up from the top, too. Just give us a call, you’ve got our number.”
After four months of riding, there had only been one time that I took a host up on the offer of an extra night. I thought about it: riding to Mount Rushmore was going to be a detour, so to get back on my route I could easily go back to the Seversons’ at the end of the day. If I took a shortcut, though, I would have to ride what Dave and Mary warned were the steepest hills I’d ever encounter. As they described the ‘pig-tail bridges’ ahead of me, my eyes narrowed and I dreamed of conquering the mountains, hills, and the in-betweens that might be harder than them all.
As I leave, I assure them, “I’ll call if I need anything. But really, I want to bike as much as I can. Thank you so much for everything.”
I pedal towards the road. I am three miles away from a town called Custer, South Dakota, located near one of my few true destinations on this journey, Pine Ridge Reservation, where I will be volunteering with a non-profit that serves Oglala Lakota. At this point, my memory cannot match Custer with a historical event, but the fact that this town named Custer is so close to the reservation already feels like an insult.
Reaching town, I find the only grocery store and purchase food for the next few days. I’ll be biking through overlapping state and national parks and don’t want to kill a bison for my meals. As I pack my food bag with the new groceries, I thumb my tire. Shit. It’s soft. I remember pressing my thumb to the tire at the Seversons. How could I possibly have a flat already?
“I have a feeling we’ll see you again,” were Dave’s parting words.
He set me up. Does he think that I’m so ill prepared that he could let the air out of my tires and I will be stuck? My paranoia grows as I get out my pump. 30 psi?? No way. I pump up the tube. My heart rate quickens. Did he really deflate my tire? Is he really out to get me? Can I really not trust any white man in Rural America? There’s no way I’m going back. There’s no way I can stay in town.
I pump air and it seems like it’s holding. I exhale. I solidify a plan: I’ll pump up the tube. I’ll get onto the bike path and if it keeps deflating, I’ll change the tube. I can change a tube. If it holds air, I learn never to trust gentle-seeming white men.
As I work on my bike, I’m once again surprised by the lack of help offered on this small-town road. I always expect that a woman in short bike shorts with her bike flipped over, struggling to pump air through a mini-pump, will elicit more attention. Macho men will come to the scene and ask to help, or offer to do everything for me. Most of the time, though, no one asks if I need help. Here, no one even makes eye contact. My brown skin means that I can’t be a damsel in distress.
I flip my bike back over, get all my bags back on, and pedal forward. On the bike path, I warm up to the beauty before me. The path is a perfect 2-4% uphill grade. I break out my headphones, pull of my helmet, and sing with the music in my ears. It starts to rain.
Every ten minutes, I thumb the tires. The air seems to hold. My suspicion grows, thinking that the tire just needed a little air, thinking that Dave let it out. I’m aware, though, that I’m being perfectly paranoid and I could just have a slow leak. Maybe I should just enjoy the ride.
Wyoming’s wide desert is a distant memory. To my right is a field with a gigantic boulder towering above me. There is a family of deer enjoying the field and they run away as soon as I approach. I take out my camera and learn from the historical marker that this boulder has been repeatedly photographed for over a hundred years. I eat some snacks. A family on horseback passes me, leaving gigantic piles of horse shit on my perfect bike path. I get back on the bike, dodging horse shit, and continue to ride.
I come to the view of the Crazy Horse Monument. There’s some information; all of it implies that the sculpture will never be completed. I take some pictures from an awkward angle and continue towards the four dead white dudes.
The ride is, as warned, steep and slow. I take frequent breaks, with my head towards the sky, in awe of the uncarved rock faces that careen upwards. There is a parking lot for rock-climbers. There is a French bicyclist who flies downhill, stops to talk for a minute, but doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French, so he continues. There are views out across what is now a valley, the valley that I pushed myself up from on my bike. There is George Washington’s face peeking out from behind another rock face.
Well, this is anti-climactic, I think. I approach the main site. Parking is $11/car, so I’m glad that I’m riding a bike. It took hours of uphill riding, but I finally made it to a giant tourist trap. First, I messily eat lunch while other visitors avoid eye contact. I then walk to the base of Mount Rushmore. I felt an obligation to come to Mount Rushmore—less of a patriotic duty than as an duty to my East Coast family, who will likely never come to rural South Dakota to visit these dead president’s heads. From the bottom, it’s almost impressive. I go on a free ranger tour, which is usually my favorite kind of tour, but find it horribly boring. Also, there are signs saying no one is supposed to climb the rocks. Rocks that no one can climb? But why? I think, confused and frustrated.
Having done my duty as a tourist, I ride out of the parking lot. Almost immediately, I see warnings for steep downill grades. I veer into the middle of the lane and stay there. I gain speed. I feel my glasses threaten to fall off and my helmet straps pull at my chin as air gets under it. I pump the brakes cautiously, having heard too many stories of bike tires exploding because the rim heats up on a mountain descent. I am shooting down the mountain, with no time to think or feel or plan, only brake and release.
Too soon, I reach the start of Iron Mountain Road. Immediately, this is steeper than anything I have biked…ever. Signs inform that trucks, RV’s, and trailers are not allowed. The road narrows to barely the width of a Mini-Cooper. It twists. It attempts to climb up the mountain gracefully via a series of aptly-named pigtail bridges, which curl higher and higher by going around overlapping large circles. They are shaped like a pig’s tail, built vertically. For the first time on this bike trip, I am standing while pedaling in my lowest gears and am completely out of breath. With each downward stroke, I think to myself, If you stop, it’s over. You’re going to have to walk this hill, you won’t be able to start again. If you walk this hill, you’re going to walk all the hills. In thousands of miles across America, you haven’t walked any hills. Don’t stop. Just keep. The. Momentum.
I push and push and push and finally reach the top of Iron Mountain. There are a few narrow turns with gorgeous look-outs of beautiful sprawling greens and undulating hillsides, protected from becoming concrete jungle. I gaze, capture those sights in my mind, and refuse to stop for a picture. As I begin my descent, I remember, once again, that I’m not in the Rockies anymore. The Rockies spoiled me with their few dozen miles of steep ascent, followed by a few dozen miles of quick, breathtaking descent. South Dakota refuses to give me the speed, the distance, the instant gratification of the Rockies. Instead, I encounter multiple layers of hills. I go down only to come back up for a few miles; there is no sweet descent.
And so I have time to think, as I bike slowly, and to dream. South Dakota refuses to give me what I want: ease, human interaction, smiles. It pushes what I need: wind, steep hills, work, sweat, isolation, and time. Later, South Dakota will teach me some of the most important lessons of my bike trip: how to change a flat over and over and over again, how to keep my cool among ignorant white people, how to accept kindness, how to check, and change plans around the weather. But now, with time stretched across multi-layered green hills, with few people to interrupt or interact with, I pedal past red barns and tourist traps that sell $2 ice cream bars and signs that show me alternate routes. I pedal past many incredible varieties of greens and I follow signs to Wind Cave National Park. I check directions more times than I need to, simply to get the break afforded by looking at my phone. In truth, I am exhausted and looking forward to the exact moment when I can safely pitch my tent.
Dusk approaches and I am still miles away from the park. Dusk is stress: I have no desire to camp in a national park that boasts of bison and does not allow camping outside of the campground. (If I had to pick a side, I would say I am a rule-follower, despite breaking rules almost every day.) Dusk is beauty: the graying light of a day that resists its end. Dusk is fear: a heard of bison in the middle of the road; these 2000 pound, slow-moving, pre-historic beasts that do not acknowledge my bicycle or my existence. Dusk is wonder: the first elk I’ve ever seen, in a herd of 40, quietly grazing as the world slows to sleep around them. And, eventually, this same dusk is relief: I reach Wind Cave National Park.
I find the campground. There are a dozen empty campsites and I am not a picky camper: I choose the one closest to the road, the bathroom, and the stacks of firewood. I go back and forth about whether I should pay to camp, and decide against it. A car rolls in with plates from New York. They choose the site right next to mine and I smile. Human interaction?? Could it be? After they park, they walk past. We chat for a minute. They are from the city I live in when I’m not biking. Their beards, apathetic tone, reluctant and scarce smiles, and all-black attire remind me of a familiar home that I don’t miss. I want to talk to them, simply to hear my voice talking to someone else, but know I am irrelevant.
I turn to my nightly tasks. I load up on firewood; as I build my fire and cook my dinner, the thunder starts. My chili starts steaming just as the sky cracks open and the rain pours out. I shove all my things into my waterproof bags and grab my food. I leave the fire burning, hoping that it will burn despite the rain, also hoping that it doesn’t burn my tent down. I run over to the bathroom and sit under the awning with my fiery hot pot of chili.
I close my eyes. Sustenance. I can breathe. I eat slowly. My body hurts and I am so hungry but I move deliberately. I embrace this moment: at the end of the day, slowly scooping a spoonful of fire-heated dinner into my energy-depleted body, alone, watching and listening to the South Dakota rain pour out of an angry sky. I startle at the lightning and hear the thunder almost immediately after and I accept that my unpredictable fate is determined by forces I do not even try to understand, like lightning and fire and rain. It happens almost every day: a moment that reminds me why I am biking, that makes every moment of pain and frustration and work worth it. I inhale.
A mouse dashes by, I jump to my feet, I finish my food standing up. I decide that the rain has stopped, I curse the fucking mouse because what if it had touched my leg?! I grab my things and I go to my campsite. Earlier that day, I faced bison in the middle of my path and kept my cool. Now, though, a mouse’s proximity makes my heart race and I freak out.
The rain stops. I pitch my tent. The stars come out. Under the Milky Way, I stand near the fire stretching, watching the lighting fire off in the distance over and over again. It’s like a light show just for me—so many flashes of light and no idea where they’ll come from next. It’s gorgeous and breathtaking and I can only even see it because of how flat the land stretches. I’ve never seen anything like this distant prairie lightning.
In the morning, I assess: the bike’s tires held up all day yesterday. I did add more air once, but otherwise they were fine. I finally check the tire pressure, testing my theory that Dave set me up: it’s back down to 30 psi. In conclusion, he likely did not. I just have a slow leak. I mentally accused a kind, white gentleman of sabotaging my day when it probably had nothing to do with him. Dave didn’t screw you over. Your bike did.