When my alarm goes off my eyes are wide open and my blank stare is fixated on some random point in the white ceiling. I haven't slept a wink. This seedy motel is full of road workers and last night they came in late beer-filled and with lit-up cigarettes trudging noisily through the hallway. They were up and about at 5 am with all the doors open and the TV on blasting across the whole place. Add to that the bleach stench oozing from the plastic floor and my anxiety to get going before sunrise and what you get? A sleepless night.
I leave this fleece-bag of a motel with a faint daylight which is barely bright for vehicles to see me. 6.15 is the earliest start that I've had and I have lots of miles ahead today and an uncertain night but what keeps me motivated is the reward at the end of all of this: Badlands. Let's go man, let's go.
Daylight glows at the far end of the sky as I clip my cleats on and I start down the road. It is warm already and today we are expecting temperatures up to 97F and winds from SSE. The downtown clock warns me that it is already 75F. The heat does not concern me too much, it is the wind and the road surface that really trouble me. The sound of my wheels rolling against the road seems to echo in the silent stillness in this early morning hours. The day is dawning and I feel I'm the only person in the world. Road work shatters my illusions and for a few miles I dodge road resurfacing. I stay on route 44 which will take me all the way to Badlands. I sail through the first 50 miles. It turns out to be the best bit of my whole ride. I see maybe ten cars for like three hours. Mesmerizing, hypnotizing road. It is a spectacle for the senses. A razor straight line, fields on each side and a huge sky above, nothing else. My eyes glued to the road like my life depends on it. It does actually. I feel like I am staring America right in the eyes. It is a relentless ride the whole morning, I press on for miles without resting, without sipping water, I am a man on a mission. I surprises myself that I have all this energy left and that my legs feel as light as they do. Adrenaline must be a good cure. I finally decide to come back to planet earth, ease up, slow down, take my camera out, snap away. I am singing Merchant’s Carnival all morning, I can’t get it out of my head and I cannot agree with you more Natalie. I am mesmerized by what my eyes have seen. I wish I can remember this moment forever. I wish I could remember every single second of this ride. Why will I forget?
Knowing that I will be riding through deserted land I carry in my bag a few hours’ worth of food and water. I am not hungry but after 4 hours of riding I devour four granola bars, that's eight bars actually. I lay the bike on the grass and I sit on the side of the road chewing avidly while the wind caresses my face and the total silence of this immensity hugs me from all corners. It is so desolate that I might as well sit in the middle of the road without the threat of being run over by a passing vehicle. I feel humbled by the vast lonesome beauty of this region. I guess I just feel lucky to be alive to see this. I could scream out loud and nobody would hear me. I feel serene and calm in this empty space. I am not in hurry to go anywhere but I know that I have got lots of miles to go before I am in dreamland. This is dreamland too. The air suddenly comes alive with the sound of a gentle breeze whipping the grass and the occasional tree that springs out of the ground. And just like that the wind subsides and the whole place falls quite like an empty movie theatre. From the horizon to the sky, all of it is hushed like a magic trick. There is clarity all around me which is unbounded, uncompromising. This open land releases an unquantifiable amount of clarity about anything, about the cycle of life, birth and death, the inevitability of decaying. The scope of my understanding is suddenly expanded beyond my comprehension to the point that it unsettles me. I lose my reference in this vastness and I catch a glimpse of how ridiculous any ideas that refute evolution as the only reasonable set of events behind it all, religion included, might be.
My senses are alarmingly heightened; I ride with an unprecedented spring in my legs. I feel awake despite maybe three hours of troubled sleep last night. The untouched beauty of this landscape is contagious. The pristine splendor of such a pure landscape makes me wonder whether I should leave all my possessions and move out west. Before I can find an answer to this childish thought the wind picks up again. And the temperature soars. Within an hour I am down to my last water bottle and I resist the temptation to kick it back in one gulp. I've gotta come up with something quick. In the middle of nowhere, behind a few trees I see a group of shack houses, they look more like trailers with the base made of cement. I walk to the door and cautiously say "Hi!". A face appears behind a dusty net, a Native American man not older than 35 waits for me to say something: "I am sorry to trouble you but do you think I could refill my water bottles? His smile reveals maybe three upper teeth but his joviality makes me love him right away, he points at a tap at knee-height that sticks out of his wall. " You saved my life, I am so thirsty". The next gas station is in the outpost called White River, only 15 miles up the road but in this heat and with the amount of hills that I am climbing Luigi ain't gonna make 15 clicks without water. I say thank-you with an embarrassing smile, the man lives in total squalor. Two skinny dogs sit on his muddy steps with flies around the eyes. The dogs stare at me like I am about to give them their first meal of the week but I ain't got nothing and I smell pretty bad too and flies begin to swarm around me in a heartbeat. My clothes are soiled and dirty and I actually fit right in. This part of South Dakota that I am cycling through is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. According to data, this is one of the poorest counties in the US with more than half of it population living below the poverty line. The land used to owned by the Lakota Oglala Sioux but the discovery of gold in 1870s made sure that the Natives were kicked off their land and were either killed or thrusted into a Reservation.
I barely stop in White River where a couple of Native Americans politely ask me about my trip while I sip water at an old unused gas station. As I move west the land becomes rugged, dry, hilly and as far as I am concerned it gets better and better, it is a country that contains a kaleidoscope of lights and tones and angles, it is for me a land of magnetic beauty. Its contours are otherworldly, its features are unique and its nuances enthralling. I am a few miles away from the first real jewel of my trip, a place that has lured me for years, since as a 14 year old daydreamer, I saw Dances with Wolves. That’s right, this piece of movie magic was shot in the Badlands of South Dakota and after more than two decades of fantasizing about it, I am at the doorstep of the real thing. And after 9 hours of tough riding under a sun that keeps beating down on me like there's no tomorrow in the flickering horizon I begin to make out strange shapes and forms that stand tall on the flat land. The scenery is utterly unique, the sheer walls and spikes that rise abruptly from the earth pierce the air and create such a distinctive jagged skyline that I cannot believe my eyes. I have no hesitation to admit that this is the best moment of the whole ride so far. This is what I was looking for. I am warned at the visitor center that there is no shade anywhere in the park so before I strike out in the wilderness I’d better be prepared, lots of water. My watch reads 4 pm and the loop I want to do is 56 miles. With more than 130 miles in my legs even with this amount of adrenaline still pumping in my veins I decide to postpone the magic ride to tomorrow morning. I still ride a few miles inside the Park just to get a sense of how incredible this place is. I take pictures and ride back to the tiny village of Interior, where to my surprise there are two motels. I am supposed to be tired but I feel super psyched. With the extra hour that I gain entering the mountain time I have plenty of time to write the journal and to do the laundry. That was much needed! I am slightly troubled by the weather forecast, scattered storms tomorrow. I sit on the edge of the bed after a fantastic shower and I move the worn-out curtain that barely keeps the light out in my motel room and between two long rows of rooms I see the jagged skyline of the Badlands formations. I just want to go now. Wait, sleep first, get strong and tomorrow, come rain or come shine, Badlands will be there waiting for you.