That climb out of Blue Bell: Hot Springs to Custer
Thursday May 16, 2013, 40 miles (64 km) – Total so far: 1,308 miles (2,105 km)
Some days you amaze yourself with what you can do. And some days you just meet your expectations. I think today was a mix of both.
I’m out of breath and feeling unfit before I even get out of Hot Springs. There is a short, steep hill on the way out of downtown that kicks my butt before I’ve even had time to warm up. But, luckily after this, it’s just a long, gentle, continuous climb to a gap, before descending into Wind Cave National Park.
The trees creep down the high hills onto the rounded slopes of grassland below. I suppose this mix of ecosystems is a bit like a junior-high-school dance. The grassland (girls) languish about in the foreground, catching your eye. The trees (boys) advance slowly in the background, staking territory in a long process of forward movement and retreat. There’s a bit of mixing about the place, but it’s a challenge to achieve a savannah, or a bunch of couples on the dance floor.
Give the kiddos some time. My memory of college parties is that alcohol lubricates the mixing, resulting in plenty of DNA mixing occurring in quiet corners, back bedrooms and out on the back porch. Ah, how fun were those days! Give the trees some time, too. Succession occurs over time – wildfire the greatest obstacle to grasslands becoming forest.
I eventually climb into the forest, too, spotting my first bison in a creek down below the road. Wind Cave NP has a spiral bridge, where the road curves back on itself in a loop to gain altitude, just so it is not outdone by Custer State Park. It also has some tall bridges to cross and plenty of deer out for the morning. There is a long descent back down to grassland and the entrance to the state park.
The landscape in Custer State Park is similar to Wind Cave, though the hills rise taller and the valleys narrower. It is a landscape of easy aesthetics. It is pleasing to the eye. It does not challenge your sense of space or distance. It is not so grand as to take your breath away. It is just… pleasant. It is park-like, and there is considerable research that suggests we like park-like landscapes for both evolutionary and cultural reasons. It would be hard to find someone, I think, who said they didn’t like this landscape. There is nothing foreboding or scary about it.
The only thing scary are the bison. At least at first. They laze about in small groups near the road. The first few times I have to pass by them, I’m a bit scared and cautious. I keep thinking, “do they sense fear? Will they rush me if they think I’m afraid?” They never do, but they do keep a close eye on me when I ride by, their big heads and big eyeballs following my movement.
By the time I make it to Blue Bell – a conglomeration of campground, riding stables, convenience store and lodge – I’m starving. I go in the lodge looking for food. The prices are reasonable so I splurge for a real meal to get me up the hills to come. My legs are already tired, and the big climbs for today are still to come.
The staff are all new and just finding their feet, but I do get a huge serving of blueberry pancakes that taste excellent. I felt a little out-of-place in the fancy dining room, but since I was the only one there, I guess I set the standard for dress code!
After brunch, the climbing begins. It is gentle at first, the road curving and winding through a narrow valley edged by tall pines and sparse undergrowth. The steepness increases gradually, such that it doesn’t look too steep going forward. You have to look backward to see that you are actually climbing a pretty decent grade.
Then, as you come around a corner, you can see a long, steep grade all laid out before you. To the west, there is a large, stone firetower and a bunch of antennas on top of the ridge. To the right is another ridge of fairly young pine – it almost looks like they’ve been planted after a fire. If they haven’t been planted, nature has done a good job with the rows.
I don’t know the grade on this hill, but I struggle a bit. I have to stop and rest every few hundred feet between the mid-point and the top. I keep laughing at and to myself. I’m sure there are staff members up in that fire tower looking down at me crawling up the hill as slow as a slug without any slime for slithering. I wonder if they are taking bets about how long it’s going to take me to reach the top, or if I ever will. Maybe they’re betting how long I can go between putting my foot down for a rest. At least at the midway point, a UPS driver roaring down the hill honks and waves as he goes by. Much to my embarrassment, he’s done his delivery and caught me again just as I reach the top. I look up to the firetower and wave. There’s gotta be some money changing hands up there when I finally reach the summit.
Of course, then we get to fly down the other side through heavy forest and some sharp switchbacks. Yippee! Then, once we reach the bottom and turn left, we have another long, but not nearly as steep, climb to the Galena Divide at 5,000 and some feet. The downhill has given me an adrenalin surge which gives me the energy to climb this section without many rest breaks.
Finally, we fly downhill to several lakes and finish the day climbing and coasting rollers through the Ponderosa forest. Because Custer State Park requires reservations for all of its sites in all of its campgrounds, I’m not camping in the park. The $7 reservation fee plus the camping fee makes it just as expensive as private RV parks with facilities just outside of the park boundaries, so to me it’s a no-brainer. I’m going somewhere with wifi, water and showers for the same price. There are several Forest Service campgrounds in the area that don’t require reservations, but there is no water yet, so I spend a couple nights at Custer Gulch RV Park between the park entrance and the town of Custer instead. The owners are friendly, give me a discount since I’m solo, and try to help me with my day-ride plans for the next day. I’m quite happy with this decision.
I ride the 4 miles into town – more hills – to get food. I settle on Subway for dinner. I get plenty of snacks and drinks to fuel the big day-ride tomorrow. I’m proud of all the climbing I’ve done today fully-loaded. I’m amazed it wasn’t harder than it was, and that I climbed pretty well the whole day. But at the same time, I knew I could do it, so I haven’t really exceeded my own expectations.
In academia and the corporate world, this is what they call ‘continual improvement’ – which basically means you can never rest, because there is no best, only better. The goal posts continually move with each achievement. Try as I might to give all of society’s expectations the flick, I’m still driven to do the best (better) I can, no matter what I do.