The alarm on my cell phone beeps but I am already awake. It is still pitch dark outside. It should be the other way around: bright outside and me still fast asleep. It hasn't been like that for the last couple of days. I am way behind on my sleep. I can't recall last time I slept at least 6 hours straight. I step out in the cool air and I take a few pictures of the world enveloped by the first daylight.
The moments before the sun rises that soon follow are truly amazing. The sky appears a grayish-blue to the west, but when I look back over my right shoulder I see clouds reflecting orange and purple, mixed in with the ripples and bands and layers of the cloud cover, towering 25,000 feet above me and stretching hundreds of miles back over the country I have just finished riding through. It's the definition of stunning. And then, within 15 minutes, the incredible show disappears, gone again until the cloudy morning breaks. This is me, sleepless in Badlands. Too freaking excited to stay in my smelly motel room. I want to see the world. I stand in the middle of the gravel parking lot staring at the sky like a captain on a vessel looking for land. Daylight breaks finally and I have no choice but to wait until 7 when the motel people will open the office where I can leave my bag so that I can ride around the Park without the weight.
Les mauvaises terre a traveser, bad land to travel across, the French trappers used to say. 244000 acres of spectacular landscape. The Sage Creek Rim Rd is the best route to enjoy the Park, desolate, solitary, untouched and with plenty of overlooks along the way. I can only go as far as the road allows me to, I miss a few miles because of the loose gravel. The formations are simply stunning. The banded colors shift in the sunlight, from dramatic and clear to suffused and hazy. The light shines unhindered over the formations and creates a variety of tints. In a few minutes the sun disappears and I find myself riding under a sky that threatens rain. Heavy clouds hover on Badlands and the dark light makes this place look even more mysterious. The air is warm, I did not realize that summer in South Dakota can be so brutal. I ride almost 50 miles in the Badlands Park, traveling by bike through this weird and incredible landscape is the best way to let it reveal its beauty to you. I ride through buttes, peaks, gullies and the sweeping prairie. At first glance this place seems very inhospitable, winters are very tough they tell me. Many homesteaders have come and either moved farther west or have died. The Sioux had a tough time crossing it and Sitting Bull died right here, right in the Badlands. And the buffalo? I don't see any.
In 1800, there were 70 million buffalo in the US, in 1895 only 800 left. Go figure. Natives? In 1850 they numbered two million and in 1890 they were reduced to 90,000. The Sioux, or Lakota, used to dominate this region. Buffalo are a tourist attraction and Indians are prisoners in their reservations with poor living conditions. Cattle replaced buffalo, wheat fields replaced prairies and gasoline-powered vehicles replaced horses: "Welcome to the New Wild West, each man for himself"! Now there are 30000 buffalo and 300000 Indians in the US. I don’t see trappers, drovers, buffalo hunters and miners anymore. I see tourists, elderly citizens, casino addicted and travelers all around. The Old West is becoming the New West, gold has been replaced by oil, the products might have changed but the rules of the game remain the same. This is what I have learned today: Badlands Park contains mixed-grass prairie, the area is too dry to support trees and too wet to be deserts. There are 60 species of grass in the open prairie and the animals that live here include: black-tailed dogs, muledeer, antelope, buffalo, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Enough of facts.
I know I have to get going and leave the park soon but I love this place too much. Badlands is surreal, is magnetic, it's sexy, it's breathtaking, it's just awesome!!! The scenic road meanders through sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and beautiful spires all blended with the vast mixed-grass prairie, this is the ultimate road trip, this is bad-ass west that gives me so much joy. After 3 hours I decide to head back to the motel, pick up my bag and take on the 75-mile trek to Rapid City. It is a long way but I have to make it, there are no motels until Rapid. As I cycle out of Badlands my eyes are glued to the scenery, I want it to be seared on my mind forever. I breathe in and out with so much impetus that I get almost dizzy and as the road weaves in and out of escarpments I know that Badlands is mine, forever. This is the path to make something count: make it yours, make it original, create something, a surprise, a feat, a 1850 mile bike ride just to see what you want to see. You have a dream, go for it, period.
As I leave the Park the sky darkens even more and I know what's coming. I haven't had a little challenge for a few hours so something was bound to happen! Heavy raindrops hit my helmet and make a little thud every time they do so. I stop to plastic-wrap my cell and my wallet, I don the rain jacket and I just hope that it won't be a storm. The rain is strong enough for me to get wet quickly. What's worse it is that water collects on the road and the rolling tires make the water splash all over me, my ass and my feet are soaked without minutes; visibility is not ideal; oncoming trucks cover me with debris and water me like a movie star in a photo shoot. The shoulder is wide but the top is black tar and smooth, deadly combination, it is so slippery that I chose to ride inside the lane. The sky is flat and featureless gray and I am thinking that there must be a severe thunderstorm watch in effect. My intuition proves right, in a few minutes the nearby sky booms. I am screwed, there is no shelter anywhere, by this time I am 20 miles from the Park and 50 from Rapid. I am in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go but west. I take my chances and hope that the brunt of the storm will miss me. Lightning sparks and the rain turns heavy. Long crashes of thunder pass across the sky from west to east, rolling by like a freight train 15 seconds at a time, one after another. If this thing gets any closer I am in real trouble. Luckily it doesn't, the storm misses me by a few miles but the rain does not and I ride for 50 miles into a thick rain which sips into my bones.
Despite the rain and the low visibility I manage to ride well, averaging 17 mph on a relatively flat road that drops into the valley of the Cheyenne river and gently rises onto a green plateau from where I can make out the faint skyline of the Blue Hills. I stop for a few seconds to drink water and I am immediately surrounded by mosquitoes. I take off instantly but it does not really salvage my armor as at least a couple had enough time to sink their needles into my sunscreen-covered, sweat-drenched skin. I push on with my head high checking the movement of the clouds but nothing offers a clue to their trajectory, they hang still in a sky that looks more like a Turner painting. Zero wind today. Plenty of rain. Very weird for South Dakota. I take it baby, I take all zero wind days. I push through the miles and I try not to look at the odometer but I can't help it: 90, 95, 100. I know I am safe. I am tired but with only 15 miles left to Rapid and the darkest clouds dissipating rapidly I can ease up and relax. I take my rain cover off and after making sure that my belongings are dry I ride the last miles into the busy urban area of Rapid City. The traffic of the city knocks me down a notch. By 4.30pm with 120 miles covered I am in town, not bad at all for today. I go straight to the bike shop to wipe the chain and put pressure in the tires. The guy at the shop is very courteous and offers me a map with a good road to follow tomorrow. I leave the bike store with a smile on my face. By now the sunlight shines almost brightly and after a quick spin through historic downtown I find a hotel at the highway junction at the north side of the city.
Rapid City could be a pretty town if it weren't for its outskirts that grow irrationally and unplanned. It's very difficult to travel around by bicycle. It's autocentric in spread so walking is out. For cyclists, the road surface is horrid. Wide and deep grooves, ledges, potholes and rough surfaces are everywhere. The traffic lanes are narrow and bicycle lanes don't exist. The combination makes getting around hard. Drivers cut me off several times. In their defense, I'll guess they're seen few bicycles on the road. The downtown area is charming though. At every street corner stands a real-height statue of each President. Pretty tacky but hilarious...yes, why not?!
A little confession: I was worried because until to two or three days ago, until I hit Iowa, I could not find all the motivation needed for this race to be completed. I came very close to quitting at least twice. However, these last three days have been really good and despite some headwind and the rain today, I think that I have found my groove, I think I have found almost all the motivation to keep going. Getting up early is not a struggle anymore and I do look forward to the day ahead. Tiredness hasn't really set in yet; I do feel exhausted when I end my day but I know that my sore legs will recover in time for the next day. I am not even halfway but I feel I have surpassed the halfway line. In two or three days I will be in the mountains with cold and lots of climbing but that it is something that I look forward to. Of the three highlights of the ride one is done: Badlands. The other two: the Beartooth Highway and Pacific Highway are still to come.
This journey is a more personal, "introspective" and selfish, if you like, than the previous two. Of course I feel so privilege to draw back the curtains and have a worldview into the people that I would never otherwise meet. But meeting people, or discovering America as a society, are not the primary motivation for my ride. This time is about finding the path to my happiness and with the goal of helping Charity:Water and contributing, in small part, to the outstanding work that they do I feel I am doing the right thing for me.
The clock hits 10 PM and I should crash now. The alarm goes off in 7 hours. First stop tomorrow: Mt. Rushmore.