2014 Nebraska – Day 18 – Vermillion, SD – Niobrara State Park: New chain and the hope of smoother shifting

Thursday June 5, 2014, 86 miles (138 km) – Total so far: 855 miles (1,377 km)

We’re flinging down the miles this morning. Vermillion to Yankton is a straight shot on a divided highway with a huge shoulder. The road traverses the floodplain well away from the river, so there is nothing distinctive about the scenery. This could be rural agricultural land anywhere. A tailwind is giving me a good push under cloudy, featureless skies.

The shoulder and the tailwind disappear on my approach into town. However, I find a bike path taking off from the south side of the road and follow that. The crew and I wind along the path past the sewage treatment plant and some industry before popping out into a riverfront park. It is still early; few people are out and about. The guys and I check out the interpretive sign boards and the old double-decker bridge that is now a pedestrian/bike path, then we head north on back streets to find the bike shop.

The guys go for a ride in Yankton, SD.

Yankton’s bike shop is located within the large Ace Hardware store. I started the tour on an old chain and had planned to replace it sometime after Des Moines. The chain has been skipping in certain gears since Audubon, and I’ve been unable to remedy that by adjusting the derailleur. Time for a new chain, for sure.

Mike, the mechanic, is very knowledgeable and says he can whack on a new chain for me right now. Great! I tell him about the trouble I’m having with the indexing, and he notes the shifting issues, even after he’s put on a new chain. His assessment of the rear cassette is that it is still okay; there isn’t much sign of excessive wear, in his opinion. Further assessment would take more time, and I don’t want to impose any more on his time. So I tell him I’ll play with the shifting as I go, now that I’ve got the new chain, and hope for the best.

I’m impressed that they will just drop what they are doing to help out a touring cyclist. He says that is their policy if it doesn’t involve major work. He doesn’t have any desire to tour, but he enjoys seeing all the groups that come through. In the busy season June-July and September, they see about a group a week. He says groups are more common than solo riders, and I’m only the second solo woman he’s ever seen.

I thank Mike for all of his help, and then head over to a nearby McDonalds to check wifi – I don’t eat there very often, but I’ve sure been in a lot of them drinking iced tea while I check the weather! There are several museums and touristy things to see in town, but I’m not feeling overly nerdy today. There are no storms in the forecast, so I feel like I want to throw down some miles instead.

So off we go on the bike route to the edge of town where we pick up a bike path that takes us out to Lewis and Clark Lake. The waters are impounded by Gavins Point Dam, completed in 1957 at a cost of $51 million. The main purposes of the dam are flood control and power generation.

The guys on the shores of Lewis and Clark Lake. They are always on the look-out for habitat.

There are miles and miles of campgrounds along the shore run by the Army Corps of Engineers. I weave along through the campgrounds on the bike path, wondering how these neatly manicured lawns, massive RVs with outdoor furniture set-ups that must cost as much as an indoor couch, paved electrical sites and flush toilet facilities have become the western world’s idea of camping. It feels so sanitized and boring to me. I can’t wait to get beyond all the consumption.

There is a steep hill up from the shoreline on Highway 52 to 50. Along the way are many mansion-like homes with commanding views. A group of guys is re-roofing one house. They yell out a variety of things at me – most are derogatory but complimentary. I do believe they’d be disappointed and retract their comments if they saw me closer, however.

Highway 50 is busy but has a large shoulder, as it passes through long hills of pasture and corn. I turn off on Highway 52 again which has no shoulder, steeper hills and less traffic. Most everybody is giving me room when they overtake. The headwind I picked up at the dam is strengthening. But the sky, the sun that’s popping through the lifting cloudiness, the green grasslands and the fields of short corn all make for a pleasant ride.

The corn is still on a Verne and Kermit scale.

I stop in Springfield – tired of the headwind. I head down to the state park along the shore of the lake. Here the shoreline lacks the manicured neatness found back near Yankton. Long reeds grow close to shore. A couple scraggly cottonwoods near the toilet block provide a bit of shade. I’d thought about camping here tonight, but there is not much in town and this area is not overly attractive, so the plan is to head on after I have a snack.

A man pulls up in an older, fading Pontiac Grand Prix. He gets out, coughs, heads to the toilet.

Afterward he walks over to me. I’m consuming food in the gross way that touring cyclists do – all about shoving food in with little regard for manners or errant crumbs. As he walks up, I try to chew down the massive quantity of bread and cheese in my mouth while dusting all the crumbs off my shorts. He smiles as he approaches.

Peter is tall and thin except for a small paunch which suggests middle age. His black hair is combed back and ragged in the back. His eyes are a bit bulgy, as if he met with some surprise earlier in life and has never quite recovered. He has a Nebraska Cornhuskers tshirt on and khaki shorts. He squints at me into the sun.

“So where you from? I seen you riding into town”, he questions.

“Ah, I live overseas, but I started this tour in Illinois a few weeks ago. I started in Vermillion today. I’m heading west out to Montana,” pre-empting the second question of ‘where you going’.

“Oh, you look like a real serious cyclist. How far do you go in a day,” he asks, as if someone has given him a printed copy of the standard six questions.

“Anywhere from 20 to 100 miles. I guess I try to average around 50.”

“I don’t ride a bike anymore. I got my licence, you know, then that was it for bicycles.”

“Yeah, I think a lot of people are that way,” I reply.

“So do you camp or stay with people or what,” he asks, as he continues the standard six.

“I camp a lot of the time. I stay in motels if the weather is crap or I need to charge my electronics or call overseas.”

“Do you travel with anyone or are you alone”?

I’m always careful with this question, and answer it in different ways according to whom I’m talking. This guy doesn’t put me at ease, but he’s not really creepy either.

“Sometimes I ride with people, sometimes I ride alone”.

“So do you have a boyfriend,” he asks.

Okay, guys, there are a lot of ways you can register on the creepy radar. Solo female travellers have highly honed creepy radars. The biggest thing I use to register you as creepy is your body language: are you fidgeting; do you touch your face a lot; do you avert your gaze when you ask me personal questions; what are your arms saying – crossed means you don’t approve of me. Stuff like that. I also look at your eyes. Sociopaths hide evil very well; they blend in and you can’t see evil in their eyes. But every day, average folks, cannot hide evil. You can often see malicious intent in people’s eyes, regardless of what they are saying. Of course, I use what you are saying, also. Does what you are speaking match what your body language is saying? Beyond that, my creepy radar depends on context, what you’re wearing, whom you’re with, your vocabulary, and other things I can’t quite qualify. Intuition over many years of travelling solo is very important, too. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.

But one way you can raise a teeny bit of alarm on my creepy radar is to ask me if I have a boyfriend as your first question after the standard six that everyone asks. That really isn’t an appropriate question anywhere in the conversation – let me bring it up – but putting it right at the front end rings some alarm bells for me. Not loud bells, but definitely a tinkle.

I say, “yes, more or less.”

“Oh, isn’t he worried about you?”

“Yes. He’s a truck driver. He’s seen what awful things can happen on the road. But I don’t think he worries about me too much in the day-to-day stuff that’s not traffic-related”.

“Why not”?

You’re starting to go creepy, buddy. I reply, “Because he’s got big problems of his own to think about. He knows I can look after myself.”

“Oh, man, if you were mine, I’d have to learn to ride a bike again. I’d have to go with you to look after you”.

If you were mine? Really? If you weren’t on the creepy radar before, you are now, buddy.

So please, men, if you meet a solo female touring cyclist, don’t ever suggest that they need to be looked after. And don’t say “if you were mine” under any circumstance. It is just creepy – you are being possessive of something you don’t have. It’s incredibly off-putting.

There is an awkward silence, as I look at Peter with stony eyes. He tries to recover.

He says, “So are you hungry”?

Of course, I’m hungry. I’m always hungry. On a bike tour it’s a trait as constant as hair colour. But Peter is now starting to register on my creepy radar, so I say, “ah, no, I’ve just eaten. I was just finishing up when you came.”

“Oh,” he says in a flat and disappointed voice. But he is not deterred for long.

“Well, I was just thinking, you could come back to my place.”

Silence. I don’t say a word. So he quickly continues.

“I’ll cook you a very nice lunch. I’ve got all sorts of stuff. Are you vegetarian or do you eat beef”?

Oh, buddy, I would not go back to your place if a tornado was approaching. You would have to be knock-out gorgeous with a big dick, chef qualifications, and not be registering on my creepy radar for me to even consider it. And even then, maybe not. I’m not really that kind of gal. But there is just something about you that is weird. It’s not just what you’re saying. It’s something else, too. My gut is never wrong, and my gut says I need to get away from you.

So I say, “Oh, Peter. That is very kind of you. I really appreciate your invitation. But I really need to get going if I’m going to get enough miles in today. Thanks for your offer though.”

I get up and start closing up my panniers. He runs his hand through his hair and says, “okay. You just seemed like a real nice girl and I wanted to be nice to you. But okay, have it your way.”

Creepy. Just effin creepy. He sounds like we’re breaking up after a multi-month romance.

“Yeah. I really need to get on down the road. Take good care.”

And then I’m off.

Some miles down the road, as I’m pedalling up a long climb out of a creek bottom, I see a cyclist approaching the top of the hill. He’s on a recumbent and he looks like he’s got panniers. He stops just over the crest of the hill and watches me spinning my way up slowly into the wind. Once I get to him, I cross over to say hello.

And so I meet Charlie Rempels (or Remples, I’m not sure). Charlie is a big-time extrovert on his first-ever tour, heading north at the moment. I’m the first cycle tourist he’s come across on his tour; he’s mine, too.

Meet Charlie. He’s the first touring cyclist I meet. We’re not on any ACA route. He’s doing a big loop out of Denver and heading north.

We establish where each of us was staying when the strong storms hit the other night (he was in a town that was damaged but was staying indoors so wasn’t hurt or stressed). He talks about all the people he has met, how he manages to find free places to stay by talking to people (should I tell him to look up Peter?), how he loves staying plugged in and posting stuff on facebook. He and I could not be more opposite, but it goes to show that there is no right or wrong way to cycle tour, and regardless of your style, there is an immediate rapport with others in the touring family.

We brief each other on what we can expect down the road, and then we pedal away. I have a long gentle climb into the wind across the fields of corn. The domed blue sky is filled with little, puffy white clouds that seem to hang motionless in the air above. Shadows scooting across the road are the only indicator of their movement.

It was one of those blue sky, puffy cloud sort of days, though the headwind is getting stronger as the day goes on.
Looking back from where we’ve come. Our short jaunt in SD is almost finished for now.

I then get a long downhill to the Missouri River floodplain. This side of the river features 100-foot tall cliffs of Niobrara chalk. I stop at the overlook and read my roadside geology notes. These cliffs are equivalent to the white cliffs of Dover in England and have a similar origin in that they were both laid down in open seas in the Late Cretaceous 80-88 million years ago. The chalk is composed primarily of calcareous platelets produced by algae. Around the world, widespread algal blooms in the extensive shallow and warm seas of the Period resulted in these chalk deposits.

We zoom down over the bridge that spans the wide floodplain and various braids of river. Then there is a milled surface to vibrate along all the way into the town of Niobrara. I stop to top up snacks and drinks from the supermarket, then push on into the wind to Niobrara State Park west of town.

Niobrara. Interestingly, Nigel has a family friend that was on the Australian ship at the time of this incident.

The heat and wind have worn me down, and the long climb up into the park takes the last of my energy. The woman at the visitor centre says there is no one else tent-camping, so I can just take whatever site I like. There are some crazy hills, one is so steep it even has a name, on the one-way loop that takes you through the tent-camping areas. But the woman must see the fatigue in my eyes because she says, “if you’re careful, you could just sneak in the back way on the loop, then you could avoid the hills.” Thanks, she didn’t have to make that suggestion more than once!

I roll down the road the back way and take one of the first sites. They are really nice spots – all very private and tucked into the hills and trees. Some are very forested; others more open. I choose an open one, because the mosquitoes are full-on, even in the sun.

I get my stuff hand-washed and have a chat with the ranger when he comes by. He’s impressed with my intended route and asks where I was when the storms hit. When he hears I was camping at Ponca, he says, “well, you’ll be happy to hear we are not expecting storms. I lost my windshield in my car with that last one”. He tells me they get 5-10 groups of touring cyclists a year, usually, most doing a cross-country of some sort. He’s a teacher at a local community college, but does the ranger gig in summers. He tells me he’ll be back around later to do a final check-through for the night, so please holler if I need anything.

The tent campsites at Niobrara State Park are really nice and secluded. But man are there some hills to get there.

I retreat to the tent so as not to donate too much blood… and immediately fall asleep. The day has been long and hot. But I cannot imagine being anywhere else in the world right now. I love this bike touring thing – even on the days with heat, headwind and hills and a creepy guy interrupting my lunch. I’m so grateful to be out here on the road.


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