Hello, legs. Into the Black Hills: Fort Robinson State Park to Hot Springs, SD
Wednesday May 15, 2013, 69 miles (111 km) – Total so far: 1,268 miles (2,041 km)
The High Plains. Boundless grassland, gently undulating hills, and a silence so enveloping you can hear your heart beating in your ears if the wind has momentarily ceased its continuous rush.
I love this silence. In our western society, it is hard to find silence. Normally, silence this full and deep can only be found filling the ever-deepening cracks of failing interpersonal relationships. Several times in the first few hours today, I just stop and stand in the road, listening to the nothingness. I peer out into the nothingness. And it fills my soul.
While some people may find this quiet, and this isolation, unsettling, it is exactly what I need. As a kid, I used to love foggy or snowy days because it muffled the sounds of engines, tires on pavement, and all the other noise so hard to escape in Midwest, middle-class surburbia. As a 23-year-old, I did an 8-day solo backpacking trip in Nevada. I did not see or hear another human, or human-produced sound, for 7 days. I did not speak for those 7 days. That trip remains a life highlight.
And so I travel through the Ogallala National Grassland this morning, assisted by a 10-15 mph tailwind. From Crawford, Hwy 2/ 71 travels north northwest on a road surface begging for attention. In this far-flung corner of Nebraska, the traffic is minimal, and even that may be an overstatement.
For the first hour, I climb out of the sediments of the White River group, through the Arikaree group and back onto the Ogallala tableland. In that hour, I’ve travelled about 55 million years. When the tableland sediments were laid down, Nebraska was a vast grassland. It wouldn’t have looked too much different than today. Well, except for the huge rhinos grazing the land back then instead of today’s pronghorns.
I just cannot get enough of being alone in a landscape so silent and empty. All the nothingness is something to me. It is energy; it is peace; it is a feeling that I’m alive and whole and so lucky to be alive, right here, right now. I also love the feeling of being so finite in a vast landscape. It reminds you of how unimportant you are in a universe that is infinite. I call this ‘the zone of speckness’. I’m well and truly in the zone of speckness this morning.
Eventually, we fly downhill off the tableland to the South Dakota border. We ride with the wind at 27 mph. If the road wasn’t so rough, we’d fly even faster. The rush of wind and the road to myself makes me so happy, I grin as big as Verne. Life is good this morning.
At the border, a beat-up pick-up pulls to a stop in the middle of the road. The handbrake is jerked on. Out of the driver’s seat hobbles an old man with lines etched in his face as deep as the inter-dune depressions I’ve ridden through in the Sand Hills. He is so thin – his collared, plaid shirt hangs off his shoulder bones, and his belt is the only thing holding up his faded and worn jeans. His boots look so well-worn that they’ve got to be as comfortable as house slippers. His glasses are large and round, as if he’s had this same pair since they were brand-new in 1985.
He hobbles over to the tailgate and leans against it. He cocks back the cowboy hat on his head and asks me if I’m okay or need anything. His voice is soft, and as worn as his clothing. I tell him that I’m fine, I was just taking a picture of the South Dakota sign since I’m entering a new state.
He says he has a lot of admiration for cycle tourists. He doesn’t think it would be something he ever could have done, even when he was younger and fitter. But he loves seeing us out there on the road.
I tell him he would have been fine, that it’s mostly mental. There really isn’t much remarkable about touring. It’s just getting up and going for a bike ride quite a few days in a row.
He asks where I’m heading. I tell him I’m aiming for Hot Springs today; the rest of the tour is a wiggly line around Wyoming. He perks up when I say I’m heading to Hot Springs. He wants to know how long it will take me to get there. I tell him I don’t know – depends on too many external factors – but I’m guessing about 3 hours.
He frowns. He’d wanted to meet me there and take me out to lunch, but it will be too late for lunch when I arrive. He then asks where I’m staying. I say I don’t know.
And then it all comes forth in a jumbled, sad and sob-worthy story.
He has an apartment in Hot Springs I can stay in. It’s right on the river. He has the key with him. He can give it to me and give me directions. I can just leave the key on the table when I leave. He can’t bring himself to stay there much. He doesn’t like it in town. And he doesn’t like being alone. His wife is divorcing him, and he’s actually heading into Hot Springs to talk to the lawyer now. He hates lawyers. All he knows is ranching, but that’s all over now. The drought, the divorce, the kids taking sides, his age.
He continues for a bit. I feel so sad for him, I want to give him a big hug and tell him lies about how it will all be okay.
If you were to know me, you would know I hate touching people, and don’t even like hugs from friends and family all that much. So it says a lot about how ‘touching’ is this old man’s story, if Nerd Em wants to give him a hug. I have no doubt that every soft-spoken, sad word is genuine. I almost feel guilty for feeling so happy and alive in this landscape of solitude when this old man, who’s got to be in his early 80s and who absolutely belongs here, feels so lonely and dejected.
But I can’t accept his offer of a place to stay. I can’t carry his sadness or see it on display in a lonely apartment in town. It reminds me too much of Nigel. And I don’t have the capacity to deal with that today. I wish I were a better person, but my ability to help emotionally needy people has been all used up in the past 5 years. So I thank him profusely for his offer and his kindness. I wish him well and tell him that I hope things get better somehow. He wishes me well and gives me his phone number, telling me to call if I need anything at all.
He hobbles back into his truck, puts it in gear, and disappears around the corner. I stand there for a few minutes feeling like crap, like I should have figured out a way to ease his loneliness and repay the generosity he’d just shown to a stranger. Of course I don’t know the whole story, or even the whole of this half, but who divorces their spouse when you hit your 80s? Wow – that all just brought me back to earth.
As if the wind has sensed this complete change of internal groove, it completely swaps around, too, so that now I’m heading into 10-15 mph headwind. And so it goes.
South Dakota looks a lot like Nebraska to start. Then we begin climbing into the Black Hills. Slopes of pine start to encroach on grassland and the road climbs away from a creek and up onto steeper, rolling hills. Eventually, the road descends to the creek again, but the wind is strong enough, I have to pedal downhill.
More climbing. We meet up with the creek again. We pass by the cascades where you can go swimming (looks like you can camp here, too) and start our first big climb in the Black Hills. We ascend a canyon that has been burnt in the Alabaugh Canyon fire a couple years ago. Many houses were burnt in this area; one person was killed; two firefighters had a lucky escape after having to deploy their emergency shelters.
The crew and I stop at a picnic area mid-way up the canyon’s long and steep climb. It’s a nice little spot – even after the fire. My mood returns to happy, after brooding for many miles about how I could have been kinder to the old cowboy back there on the border.
It is mid-afternoon before we finish climbing to a ridge, then flying back downhill to Hot Springs. The highway 71 junction with Hwy 385 must be the back way into town. There are no directional signs, no welcome signs, no nothing. So I stand there for a few moments pondering what to do. I see quite a few cars heading down the road opposite, so I just follow them downhill into town. This is the back way in, too. The road just ends next to a trailer park, across the street from a motel. Down the road is a DQ where I order a hot fudge sundae and find some tourist maps to help me plan my time.
I head up to the Mammoth Site. Again, I’ve come in a back way on a dead-end street and have to go cross-country to get over to the buildings. It’s a bit expensive to go in, but this is what the ride is all about, so I fork over the money and go get nerdy.
The site preserves a sinkhole where more than 59 Columbian and woolly mammoths became trapped when they got too close to the edge, fell/slid in, and could not climb back out 26,000 years ago. Women will be happy to note that all but one of the fossils found so far have been male – it appears women of all species are a bit brighter than the men, right? Hehehehe. You know I say it in jest.
The excavation area really is astounding if you get your head right into it and take yourself back in time. They’ve only excavated about a third of the site, so it’s interesting and exciting to think about how many fossils are left to find. I really enjoy my time here, and in the other exhibits about the Ice Age. Glad I stopped.
After this, I head over to the library – actually using a front entrance this time – to see if I can download my photo memory cards onto a USB stick. The library in Hot Springs is quite new and is a truly amazing place. It looks like a big lodge from the outside. Inside it has a huge stone fireplace you can read by, incredibly high log-beamed ceilings, separate areas for teens, kids and research, and a warm and inviting feel.
The women at the front desk assess my request and take me back to a research room so I can use one of those computers. Upon leaving, I ask about the library. One of the librarians tells me the fund-raising story and shows me pictures of the old libraries (they long ago abandoned the tiny Carnegie library and have even been in a church at times). I donate a few dollars to the cause and congratulate them on achieving a library so beautiful in a town this size.
What a great day – travelling through 55 million years of deposition in a hour this morning, enjoying all the silence and solitude of the High Plains, being reminded of how fortunate I am by the sad story of a High Plains cowboy, riding my first day in the Black Hills and then stepping back into the Ice Age. It’s been a very full day. Time to rest before more climbing tomorrow – I may just be the luckiest chick on earth to be doing this ride.