Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Black Hills, Badlands

July 21, 1997

On my way out of Alliance, the land increasingly became desiccated. I rolled into the next small town along the way, and as I was taking five at a shelter in a park, a horde of kids converged on me. I'm talking like twenty kids. And each kid had twenty questions. The melee went something like this:

"What is this for?"
"That's my tent."
"Draw bugs bunny!"
"What's this for?"
"Those are called—"
"Hey do you know what."
"—Aerobars, they're for going faster—"
"Draw bugs bunny!"
"Mister. Mister. Do you know what!"

Soon one of the kids was warning me that another kid was a thief and I should watch my stuff. Meanwhile the horde cavorted on picnic tables and rode their bikes around the park like little anarchists.

It was clear I wouldn't get to grab a nap here. I said goodbye to the kids and headed out of town.

…only to look behind me and see them following on their bicycles, as though I were some kind of pied piper. A reluctant, unpaid pied piper who might be doing the town a favor if I led them off a cliff.

I'd left the slower ones behind, but they were still on the road, and a few of the daredevils were showing off by riding at top speed.

Then I noticed rollers on my six. They were just watching over the kids, but it was starting to feel like a parade. Ranching and herding are life skills in this part of Nebraska.

I made it out of town at last, genuinely terrified that someone was going to get hurt and I'd somehow be at fault.

On this tour, I'd already seen one kid on his bike try to match my speed on the sidewalk, only to crash and start wailing. And like a brave responsible human being, I rode off at full speed.

Outside of town, terrain changed to piney hills, and I began stopping for rest more often. I stopped at Fort Robinson and had some tasty, inexpensive dinner. There was a museum, park and some sort of theatrical company at the fort, but in my journal I fumed at the one dollar museum fee. I don't know, man, little things like that got to me. I don't know why I didn't camp there; either it was full, or too expensive.

I camped in Crawford, hiding away in the bushes of a city park. It was more of a courtesy blind than a stealth camp. I woke several times to the sounds of someone moving around in the park in the darkness. Distinctively human sounds. I remained apprehensive for some hours, then finally got some sleep.

July 22, 1997

For reasons that are not clear, I rode from Crawford to Chadron, and then north on 385 to Hot Springs. Maybe an improved shoulder? US highways in the western states usually have a full car's width shoulder.

The stretch to Chadron was windy, but I have nothing else written about it. North of Chadron, I picked up a groove but was overtaken by a cyclist. We talked for a while and he offered some advice.

Conversations with uniformed bicyclists spooked me a little, afraid I'd reveal my lack of technical knowledge or mechanical skills, but in hindsight few of them ever cared about that stuff, and most were supportive and a little envious.

On the ride in to Hot Springs, I noticed that the formerly knobby grips on my bike had been worn smooth and required gloves when the sweat was flowing.

I finally approached the dark rise of the Black Hills in the waning light of late evening. I felt a silent awe unfolding, one that I did not feel again until I came upon Yosemite at night for the first time.

A truck stop diner lay situated at the junction into the hills, and I little choice but to stay there till morning. A few miles to go after that through the hills into Hot Springs.

I treated myself at the diner. One of the first things I noticed was the abundance of slot machines. Some drunk guys seated behind me were making a racket, belching and cussing and laughing loudly. They pooled their money to see how much they had remaining for the slots. $60. They paid, tipped a couple bucks and then it was back to the machines to lose the rest.

Truckers often bring kids, and sometimes multiple operators pair up for a trip. I knew I could stake a tent right next to a semi and not get too much attention, if I kept the bike concealed; they would think the tent belonged to a kid or a passenger. I called it camping in plain sight, my second favorite stealth camp technique. Eventually I would get pretty brazen about it. No one ever said a thing. The gentle rumble of idling truck engines combined with the low cost of trucker showers was the best value going.

July 23, 1997

I made the short hop into Hot Springs through a lovely windy road. The second leg of my trek was beginning, and the spiritual revelation of the Black Hills carried me happily forward.

The town of Hot Springs does not give the impression of a tourist trap, although many of its businesses attend that segment. It is a beautiful place for all its Midwestern cheapness.

I rode around town aimlessly, pleasantly. My notes are few: "saw a tour, was going to skip because of the $5 fee but a sympathetic student paid for my admission." I don't remember this, but I am constantly humbled by the generosity of ordinary folks.

In the very next paragraph, I note overhearing a girl say, "I'm going to have a husband that never beats up my kids."

I do remember some events of the evening. As I strolled past a hotel restaurant, I ducked inside from a sudden rain. I secured permission to bring my bike inside and I noticed I was the only customer. White tablecloth.

Aw, shit. No turning back now. Just act like you belong and don't order the cheapest thing on the menu…

For my official celebration dinner, I ordered a steak and a porter. As a working college student, I had never ordered a steak before. I gritted my teeth when I saw the price.

The steak and sauteed mushrooms blew me away. The porter was a perfect complement to everything. After a month of snack crackers and beenie weenies, the gourmet fare fired off pyrotechnics in my brain.

The restaurant closed early, and the waitress offered to walk me to a place where I could camp that night after her friends joined up with her. We hung out for a while and their twenty-something despair was the closest thing to entertainment I'd had in a while. I could sense a subtext being passed around, some decision being made, and eventually they wished me luck and left. I sat at a picnic table for a while, watching the water pass by, desperately lonely all of a sudden. To top it off, it was not a good place to camp.

On nights like this when I couldn't find a decent spot, I wandered around, spending an hour or two at a place sneaking a nap in before moving on. I had never been harassed by cops but I wanted to stay under the radar for as long as I could.

July 24, 1997

I left town in early afternoon, and made another short hop to Wind Cave National Park. After watching a presentation by park staff in the ampitheater, I secured permission for a free camp. I passed the night in good company.

July 25–26, 1997

In the morning, my gear was splayed out in yard sale fashion, as I sorted my rig. I often spent long minutes trying to find little things that had sunk into crevices of tightly packed panniers, and sorting helped allay the inefficiency. Some fireworks and a bottle of brandy were among the mix as a ranger stopped by to make sure I was on my way out. It was, of course, all quite civil, as I'd secured permission, but the message was clear enough. He didn't say anything about the fireworks.

On the fireworks: they were never fired. I don't even know why I had them, but they're right there in my journal. As with the jello in the Thedford event, sometimes people just give you random stuff out of misguided generosity. And sometimes I just buy dumb shit.

As I rode towards the park exit, a large group of bison ambled nearby. I'd heard they would charge bicyclists sometimes. I cussed until it felt right, then pedalled by. I tracked their every twitch from the corner of my eye.

I rode north through achingly beautiful hilly woodland. The air was cool and dry in spite of the season and the recent rain. There are some scenes in HBO's Deadwood series where I'm 100% positive they just stepped off that particular road and filmed.

This segment of my trip had, by far, the most pleasant moments while riding. The traffic was light, the land was beautiful, the temperature perfect, and both water and campsites were easily secured.

I conquered the city of Custer, a mile-high town surrounded by the hills. A middle-aged woman from the east coast was absolutely thrilled by my existence, and twice broke away from her companions to walk up and give me $50 (in installments). The gato monte had marked her prey.

My journal indicates I "spent 90% of it on food" but I assume that means restaurants and beer. I was living for the moment, I guess. I had a clear list of priorities, of which four walls and a roof were dead last.

It's hard not to judge my my choices at the time. Sure, I could have used the money more wisely, but on a solo tour, keeping up morale is vital. Do what it takes to keep that stat bar full up.

I was always writing postcards to friends and people I'd met along the way, and my second day in Custer seems to have been largely devoted to this.

July 27–28, 1997

A few more distractions lured me out of Custer. Several people told me about the Crazy Horse monument, so I plotted a bypass on my way to Rushmore. While checking my map from well off the road, an older couple passed without seeing me. They were riding hypnotically lockstep. When I reached the monument, their bicycles lay against the fence. I added mine to the mix*.

I toured the trap, got turned off the by the business end, and got out.

Editorializing about Crazy Horse (not a journal entry)
The Crazy Horse monument is a sophisticated tourist trap with three cash extraction angles:
  1. Heavy-handed guilt-induction (we did terrible things to Native Americans so give us money)
  2. Art-forward open donation (we are making art, so you can give us money if you like)
  3. Philanthropical investment (look at these social works for Native Americans we might build someday, so invest your money)
At least in 1997, they really hit you over the head with the donation pressure.
As a private venture, it doesn't represent Native American interests.
I didn't have this opinion in place at the time, but I don't support blowing up mountains to make giant statues, regardless of whose face is on it. Aesthetically and environmentally, it is harmful.

On my return, the two bicyclists I'd seen earlier were sitting nearby eating bagels and peanut butter. They were an elderly couple with extensive touring experience; this was their fourth. They were in their sixties. I would later recognize their faces in a magazine where they were interviewed.

They were professionals that acted as though they were out for a casual Sunday ride in the park. They had their heads wrapped around every aspect of their tour. And did I mention they were in their sixties?

Every time someone says "Do it while you're young", I tell them about this couple.

There are many bits of my journal that are missing context. Somewhere outside of the monument I stopped at a bar and grill. I'm at a grill right now watching four guys play horseshoes. Such a waste. Why would I write that? Note to self: don't write random stuff that future you might puzzle over for half an hour. Another note to self: Compose a list of all the journal entries that read like buried leads; maybe I'll remember them later.

Speaking of charities, a waitress gave me a ton of free food and only charged me for one pancake. She and her boyfriend were living in a tent at the lake that I camped at. At least, so I have written; I don't remember any of that. It must have happened after I left Mount Rushmore, since it was already dark and I would have looked for the first spot to camp.

To rewind a little, I rode to Mount Rushmore and did the thing. My thinking these days is that it's really not cool to blow up a mountain because you want to put someone's face on it. But at that moment it happened to be a fine light show. However, I was reaching peak tourist tolerance, and I was ready to hit the pedals hard.

* If you are not familiar with road bikes, they don't have kickstands. There are plenty of times such a thing would have been useful, but it would be a disaster waiting to happen for a fully loaded touring bicycle. So instead we lean them against things that won't fall over.

July 29, 1997

I headed to Rapid City and left behind the hills. The prairies opened up, but not the clouds. Overcast and rain all day, and quite cool. Most of my notes revolve around food. I hit several little touristy shops for entertainment value. I got back on the road and headed east on state 44. Outside of town I met another touring cyclist, this time a guy my age from Minnesota. He was riding a mountain bike heading to Washington state, carrying a huge tent and a fancy stove. We agreed to camp along the road at the same spot.

I felt a bit remiss; I hadn't been cooking much, but then, I didn't really know how to cook besides rice and beans. Moreover, cooking was such a frustration in windy areas (which includes the entirety of prairies both high and low). Until I started using the Jetboil years later, I never cooked much.

So we swapped our best injury stories over the last of the brandy, and called it a night. I had tent envy with my little pup. He was paying in spades for the weight of the tent on his mountain bike, though.

One experience common to both of us was an increase in aggression, sometimes surging when we had been at it a while. Both of us had mild temperaments when not bicycling, but after days on the road we were easier to provoke. Biochemistry, man.

I had fitful sleep. It rained intermittently, and seepage was a problem.

July 30, 1997

I said good morning and goodbye to my westbound counterpart, and headed east. The weather was cool and I hadn't packed any cold weather gear. In spite of the season, it had been raining quite a bit. Rain I could handle, but the cold was just uncalled for!

I made a general store and bar in Caputa. Lots of locals and very sociable folks. I was already out of cash on hand again, but found a five dollar bill tucked into my checkbook.

The temperatures dipped into the lower 50s (in freaking late July) but the rain was still light. It was a ways to the Badlands. I knew it would be a hard day, but I was not prepared for what came next.

I put on my jeans and long sleeve shirt for some extra warmth, but they were not intended for riding. Outside of town they became quickly soaked. As I rode into the outskirts of the Pine Ridge reservation, I was chilled and something wasn't feeling quite right. The road was lightly traveled with the occasional pickup passing by, but the landscape was desolate. Sparse grasslands and ranches, and abruptly rocky hints of the badlands to come.

The rain picked up, and it got cooler. The winds crazy powerful and icy cold. I had never experienced anything like this in the dead of summer. The chills began to cause me to quiver, and then shake. My vision was blurring. Hypothermia?

I stuck my thumb out and tried to wave down a pickup. A few passed and none stopped. One of them waved.

Could I find a shelter to get out of the rain and start a fire? Far off the road I saw a ruined farmhouse. I rolled my bike to the fence and just left it there, taking my lighter. I climbed through the barbed wire fence and stumbled to the house across the prairie. It was a shack, not a house. The roof was gone, but I was able to place some boards in such a way as to get a bit of cover. However, everything was soaked. My fingers were so disabled by the cold and wet that I couldn't even spin the lighter. I got the matches out and broke a few before getting a light and then, nothing. Nothing would catch fire. I tried splinters, boards, sticks. Just rotten waterlogged everything.

Somewhere in my panniers was a magnesium starter, but nothing would even catch. Meanwhile, more rain, violent shaking. I gave up. Did I mention it was freaking July?

Every time I watch a bushcraft video where they start a fire in the wilderness while it's raining, I have flashbacks. I need to make my own Youtube video where I try to start a fire when everything is wet, and nothing works. "So you see, if you find yourself in the wilderness and everything is soaking wet, you will probably die. Please like and subscribe."

I made it back to the fence where I had leaned the bike. I wrested the bike from the fence, tearing my bedroll in the process. Whatever. I struck out for the road, determined to get someone's attention. I could feel my strength fading.

Finally I saw a truck approaching. I stuck out my thumb and stared down the driver with focus. It worked! He pulled over. Oh, thank God, it worked!

Soon I was on a bench seat with a great big indian. A most excellent human being. Between long stretches of silence we talked a little. He was taking cedar to an artist on the "Res". I couldn't read him well, but he cracked a great big grin when we talked about Sturgis. He also suggested I should try selling art at the pow-wow. Hmm. Finally, he dropped me off at Scenic. I was eternally grateful.

Scenic is a small town on the boundary of the res and Badlands National Park. I ambled into a general store, soaked to the core and still a little stunned. A man followed me in and grabbed my arm. "Friend," he said, "You're staying with us tonight."

The rain continued to pour for hours. In my second rescuer's house, I found shelter, laundry, and food, and my god, no end of stories. I filled pages of my journal days later. They are a private family well-known in the area, and out of respect I won't post anything on the Mean Nasty Internet. God bless them, and that's enough.

July 31, 1997

Riding through prairie and buttes intermixed with the wicked geological formations that give the badlands its name, I finally reached Badlands National Park the next day. I had little money and just plain begged my way past the entrance fee on the premise of passing through, as it effectively blocks the highway. Of course, as soon as I was out of sight of the ranger box, I pulled off into a walking exhibit, and tried to take a nap on one of the less visible benches. There were lots of tourists, and one of them must have ratted me out, because I was rustled up by a ranger who told me I wasn't allowed to ride my bike there. I attempted to explain I was walking it, not riding it, but the distinction was lost on him. I had no kind words after that, and of course I was acting like an entitled brat. It had been part of my original goal, and here I was, being expelled.

I rode past some stunning views and made for the next town. The skies were still bleak. Overcast, cold, grey. I'm not sure exactly where I ended up, but it was apparently a campsite 10 miles off the main road.

I met a motorcyclist living the life who said he made a decent living doing window cleaning. He'd set up shop in town, buy supplies, then work the scene until he felt like moving on. He often stealth camped, which is a bit harder for a motorcyclist. He was headed for Sturgis.

From the interstate came the roar of others of his kind. They descended on Sturgis in great numbers, filling the highways with their potato potato sounds.

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