While it seems like a brief interlude compared to the vast arc that was our journey across Montana, South Dakota was still a significant crossing. When we made out way to Rapid City, we experienced the fog swathed beauty of the Black Hills National Forest, the kitsch of Custer, South Dakota, and the   circuitous path through Custer State Park. We also happened to take a left turn directly into another devastating headwind for the final twenty miles, but even that could not void the first impression we had of the state.

Climbing up a long grade through the Black Forest National Forest. Wildfires here took out many of the trees, revealing the minimal beauty of bare rock face.

The Big Riders were hosted at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, a school with some lonely, ugly architecture, but how could I complain when there was hot food and real mattresses. (Actually, by this time I’d grown quite accustomed to my adjustably inflatable Pakmat Aerobed, and an unforgiving college mattress was feeling a bit second rate.) Nonetheless, we were treated with cable coverage of the Tour de France, a rental van to take to Mount Rushmore, and another 24 hours of reprieve. My friends needed to strong-arm me into coming to Rushmore, as I was usually loathe to do anything that required more than the minimum amount of energy on my rest days, but I’m glad they did. Our trip to Rushmore was delightful. I don’t know why I was under the impression that it would be too far away to appreciate, but I’d been wrong. The mica schist found at the site was also the same seen in Custer– gorgeous shimmering outcrops that bore tough little Ponderosa Pines. One did not need a geology background to appreciate how cool the rocks were here.

Ben, Camilo, and I perch for a picture before the immortalized.

Upon departure from Rapid City, we hurtled toward our next rest stop in New Ulm, Minnesota, riding long days from Kadoka, to Pierre, to Miller, to DeSmet. While the Badlands were incredible, I was struck by how briefly they perforated the prairie– at least the way we transected them. The mountains opened up into unspoiled prairie, though it eventually became paved with the same GMO corn and soybeans that so much of the Midwest is paved in. The scenery became a little less interesting to me, as it started to look familiar. St. Louis is surrounded by the same. Without the stunning vistas to distract me, my thoughts turned inward.

A quiet moment on the route through Badlands National Park.

There’s no really good way to communicate how a ride like this can begin to change you. All I know is that I was warned by Big Ride alumni that the ride would change me. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it– of course it would change me– I’m riding across the country! I’d be thinner, prouder, more confident. In South Dakota, what I started to find is that the ride began to puff away layers of dust that had settled on me while I whiled away a few years in St. Louis. I’m nomadic at my core, and even my periodic adventures, farming in Sweden or filming a documentary aboard a jaunty sailboat on the open ocean, or even a seven week bike trek could not satisfy my urge to move about.

In the process of blowing away dust and cobwebs, the ride unearthed long buried anxieties– chiefly anxieties about succeeding in graduate school, after a life-alteringly bad experience in 2004. As the layers came off, I realized that the ride wasn’t changing me, but was returning me to a more original, shinier state. This process was not pretty or easy. It was a moody business, upsetting the order of things in my life, an order I’d accumulated over years in St. Louis. Thankfully, I could not have asked for a more supportive group of people as I processed my revelations.

In some ways, South Dakota feels like the start of the real Big Ride… the ride that I’m still on, tumbling toward a still unknown destination. I never really thought I’d be thankful for the monotony of the cornfields, but in retrospect, it was a blessing.

It’s amazing how thought-provoking soybeans and corn can be, though I can’t say it’s because they are fascinating themselves.

 

There are all kinds of things on the Big Ride that you just can’t prepare yourself for. In one day you can go from hammering from the back of the pack to the front, crossing the thousand mile marker just south of Hardin, Montana, enjoying all the heady adrenaline that accompanies such achievements, to crawling desperately along in 110 degrees of road heat toward a check point (rest stop) that just won’t seem to come when you need water the most. The stretch between Billings, Montana and Rapid City, South Dakota was the most challenging yet. Five days of high heat, 0% humidity, wildfire smoke, unparalleled headwinds, and climbing.

Some of us had been joking that we were all contestants in ‘The Hunger Games’ before that week. It wasn’t until after that 27 mile stretch between checkpoints in the searing Montana heat that it occurred to me that– hey– maybe we are! The Game Makers were cranking up the heat, moving checkpoints further away and turning up the high winds.

When we rode from Gillette, WY to Newcastle, WY, we experienced about 85 miles of 20-30 mph headwinds. In the last twenty miles we were worn to the point that we’d ride to the next mile marker and stop to rest. Never had a well-placed gas station stocked with chocolate milk and Gatorade seemed so much like an Oasis. We Big Riders love our gas stations and the goodies therein.

And while the week was challenging, we were rewarded with spectacular views in Custer State Park, The Black Hills National Forest, and The Badlands National Park. We have also been rewarded with a strong basis for comparison. Most days will never measure up to our ride to Sheridan, WY or our ride to Newcastle, WY. And if they do, we’ll know what to expect and how to handle it!

Wildfire smoke blanketing one stretch of our epic 112 mile ‘longest ride’ from Sheridan, WY to Gillette, WY.

You can’t tell from this photo but it was 105 degrees (probably closer to 115 on the road). The Gamemakers were also busily making water scarce on this day. Hardin, MT to Sheridan, WY

This is what you do when there is an unrelenting 30 mph headwind over 85 miles. It doesn’t matter how prickly and unforgiving the grass is; you sit.

 

And in spite of all the challenges, it’s beauty like this that made it all worth it. Grasslands heading into Rapid City, SD.

 

It is Day 12 of the Big Ride Across America. I’m perched on a balcony in Billings, Montana, catching up on all manner of things that get lost in the hurried shuffle of this trip. When you roll steadily from one town to another day after day, it’s easy to lose things. It’s easy to lose a phone call to a loved one, or time to stretch, or your wallet if you’re not careful.

I hear it’s hot all over the U.S. right now, although it’s that blistery scorched heat of Montana that we’re enduring now. We rode 92 miles from the sleepy agritown of Harlowton today and after three other long days on the road we are all ready to enjoy our rest day. Riding across the sage-dotted, crispy grasslands of central Montana, I often felt like the place was ready to burst into flames. I felt like bursting into flames half the time. You cannot drink enough water in this parched environment, nor can you keep enough sunblock on your fair freckled skin.

At this point in the ride, we’ve broken into groups that travel at a desired pace. There are those that move quickly across the road and stop seldom. There are those that move slowly and stop seldom. Then there are those of us that move more slowly AND stop often! I have been thinking about my knee injury– a strain of the quadriceps tendon in my right knee– and how fortunate I was for that to have happened. Since I got back on the bike on the way to Odessa, WA, I have learned to worry less about arriving early or keeping up, and instead break often for ice cream sandwiches (huckleberry ice cream sandwiches in Montana), slow down for hilarious and conversation, and I take more pictures than I know what to do with (passed a thousand today!).

Huckleberry ice cream sandwiches are the best!

My knee is almost completely better at this point. I didn’t quite believe Carla when she told me that riding my bike 80 miles per day would actually help my quadriceps tendon heal, but she was absolutely right. I started weaning myself off ice and pain killers naturally and now I only deal with a bit of stiffness in the joint in the morning. It feels fantastic about halfway into the ride every day.

As I’ve said before… the organization and food on this ride is just fantastic. Last night we had a catered dinner by the forthcoming Cafe Chinook in Harlowton, MT– owned by Liberty and Todd King— that consisted of handmade salsas, local tortilla chips, tossed salad, and grilled flat breads. Tonight we had a delicious dinner catered by Beyond Basil in Billings… grilled Montana ribeye, grilled salmon, quinoa salad, potato salad, and apple pie. We have been spoiled!

Beyond Basil’s deliciousness

Feeding frenzy on the Cafe Chinook salsas

It’s dark now on this balcony. The stars are up and thankfully the lights of Billings aren’t able to overpower them. I’m thankful for my rest day, thankful for my supporters, and ready to drift off.

Tired bikes on the way to Avon, MT

When I first started thinking about doing this ride, food was the one thing I was most curious about. Would I be eating peanut butter and jelly and spaghetti every day? Would I get enough of it? I have since learned that the food is one of the best parts of the experience. We have dined in Montana Café’s, University dining halls with unlimited food and options, we’ve been giving $12 cash and sent into town, and even our camp breakfasts are always plentiful and varied.

Yuji Zhao, our resident 18-year-old enjoying his four plates full of food in Spokane, WA

I’d had a preview of what my hunger might be like during training—waking up hungry and all, but nothing came close to what we as a group feel on an hourly basis. I wake up starving, sometimes when I still need sleep. On my first rest day, I woke up at 5 am, ate 800 calories at Starbucks and then went back to sleep for 3 more hours. Sometimes I need to eat something at 9 or 10 pm, after I’ve already gone to sleep. To give you an idea of what we eat in a day, I’ll use yesterday’s century as an example:

5:00 am: Morning in Thompson Falls, Montana. 70 calorie snack to tide me over to breakfast and also so I can take my first dose of pain killers for the day.

6:00 am: Breakfast at Minnie’s Montana Café. 3 slices of French toast with butter and syrup, bacon. Orange juice. (I have a hard time riding on a really full stomach first thing)

8:00 am: First checkpoint. 1 sleeve of clif shot blocks, nuun tablets in both water bottles, can of Orange Juice

10:15 am: Lunch stop. Greek yogurt with honey and granola, a banana, 1 sleeve of clif shot blocks. Lots of water. Can of Orange Juice. Tanka bites (dried bison and cranberry—donated by a friend of a Big Rider!)

12:00 pm: check point. Loooots of water. It’s getting hot and we’re at the bottom of a long climb. 2 Clif shot energy gels with caffeine.

2 pm: top of long climb, 20 miles to go to Missoula. Lots of water, some Gatorade, a few more shot blocks.

3:30 pm: In camp, bottle of Hammer Recoverite, chex mix and pretzels

5:30 pm: Dinner! Loaded baked potato, bagel with cream cheese and butter, grilled chicken breast, ice cream sandwich

I was a little short on fruits and vegetables during my day yesterday, but there is nothing worse than having to go urgently when on the bike. I’ve found that most vegetables make this a problem, so I’m trying to be judicious about my veggies. The day we rode to Sandpoint, ID I was lucky enough to have a baked sweet potato at the lunch stop. It was fantastic!

Everyone here is figuring out what works for them on the ride and the things we crave. I haven’t visited a fast food restaurant yet—haven’t had to! The ride is just so well organized and we are so well taken care of. I can’t recommend this trip enough!

Breakfast at Minnie’s Montana Cafe!

Today we rode 76 easy miles from Spokane, WA to Sandpoint, ID, crossing into our second state of the Big Ride Across America. It must be hard for some of you to imagine an easy 76 mile ride, but all things are relative. The last ride we did was across the high desert plains and then the wheat fields of Washington with a vicious headwind trying to send us back to Odessa and their wretched locker room showers! It’s amazing though how high spirits are considering the challenges we have already faced. Everyone is hurting by now. My knee injury was really just the start. Molly, who has the most wonderful smile, the mental toughness of a lioness, and the kindest heart, has to leave us after she crashed on Day 1– requiring surgery in her hand so that she can maintain the ability to articulate her thumb. She’s hoping that she’ll rejoin us once the hand is cast, and we are hopeful as well. Others have sore muscles, sore knees, tight backs, numb fingers and toes. In spite of all of this, the camaraderie and moral support that flies about has been phenomenal.

We enjoyed our first rest day of the trip in Spokane, and filled our day with foam rolling, amateur back rubs, pints of Ben and Jerry’s, bagels, noodles, food, food, food, and plenty of sleep. We also bathed our bikes to remove the dust and grit of eastern Washington and prepared them for another day of riding.

Today’s 76 miles were mostly flat, winding along the Pend Oreille river. I was often struck by how much the rolling, evergreen swathed hills and granite outcrops along the road reminded me of my first home: New Hampshire. They were red pines, not white, and the air was decidedly drier in spite of the rain, but it was enough to make me smile (and to ease off on the picture taking for some reason!). We were rained on, lightninged on, rodeo paraded on, and sunshined on by the end. We rolled into the beautiful community of Sandpoint with smiles and growling stomachs.

As for my injury, it is improving. My hamstrings and glutes are acquiescing to my demands of more power to make up for what my quad cannot do right now. My left hamstring cramped quite a bit on the ride into Spokane, but today it was not as problematic. I was able to see a physical therapist in Spokane, the partner of Big Rider Molly, and she brought me special tape to secure my patella properly. It is magic. As soon as it was taped I no longer experience pain walking and my pain riding is diminished. I can stand up for a few pedal strokes.

Tomorrow is an 88 mile day as we enter Montana. I’d like to say I can’t wait… but I think I’d like to eat some more and sleep first!

The Big Ride has been incredible so far. Full of dizzying adrenaline-fueled highs, laughter that pierces the high desert plane, and more delicious food than you can probably imagine cramming into your digestive tract. I have also been subjected to its fiercest challenges already, injuring my knee on the first day.

We rode away from Seattle Pacific University on a misty, chilly, perfectly characteristic morning, bundled in our fluorescent rain jackets, stocked with snacks and water. I could not believe that I had started to ride and would not stop for seven weeks. For the first 2/3 of the ride, I felt fantastic, notwithstanding my first flat (the first of the Big Ride) in Redmond, WA.The winding road carried us through fuzzy temperate rainforests that looked made up for the screen, all the way up to the deafening roar of Snoqualmie Falls. We merged onto Interstate 90 to cross Snoqualmie Pass. This is where things took a turn for the dangerous, and perhaps the worst.

During the unrelenting ascent up the Pass, one of my fellow riders got a flat tire. We’d been sweating our way up the climb and the temperature had dropped to 50 degrees. It was raining. Two of us rode on to avoid hypothermia, but we had to call mechanical support to pick up the other two and they were very nearly hypothermic by the time Gene arrived. After I-90, there was the 7 mile climb up Denny Creek Rd. My knee was aching, so I stopped often and spun up in my little ring.

The last seven miles of the ride were absolutely excruciating. The climb had aggravated my quadriceps tendon and it was swollen. At the time, I was worried that I had ruined my knee, such was the pain and that my Big Ride was about to end. I was worried that I’d have to SAG the next day. I cried while I was rained on, pedaled with my left leg exclusively and made my way to the campsite in Easton, WA.

Somewhere along the line, I made my peace with riding in the SAG. And then I made the most of it, using it as an opportunity to document my fellow riders, who are all amazing and amusing. I helped at checkpoints, I packed up the lunch stop. I had a wonderful time with my ride leaders and Gene, our mechanical/medical crewman. My knee received alternating doses of Advil and Tylenol, ice, and plenty of elevation and compression.

Today I rode SAG for the first 40 miles and was able to talk to a physical therapist, who recommended a McConnell taping (which worked instantly to relieve the pain) and said that she’d rather me ride easily depending on my hamstrings and hip flexors more than sit in a van all day. I’m also to ice 3-5 x day, continue with my anti-inflammatory drugs. Shortly after hearing this news we chanced upon the lunch stop and gear truck.

So excited was I that I could bike again that I changed inside the gear truck, had my knee taped by future-doctor-Ben in the McConnell pattern and set off on the final 40 miles toward Odessa, WA. It was not easy, my left leg grew tired of compensating and my right hamstring and hip flexor grew tired of doing all the work. The scrubby scablands were long and fairly unchanging, and a brisk headwind slowed our journey. Still, the joy I felt riding again was thick, and I am happy to ride to Spokane tomorrow…77 miles of flood scoured channels and sage on a sunny, dry, 89 degree day.

We finished tonight with local beers, rich chicken enchiladas, spinach salad loaded with bacon and chevre, and rice and beans. A feast for a stalwart crew!

Pictures to come when I start my rest day in Spokane tomorrow night!

Rainier: The Mountain Boss

Seattle has an otherworldliness about it– from trees that look just a bit too fuzzy to be real, to the way Mt. Rainier rises up from amongst its peers and lords over them, to the impossibly steep streets that dive down toward the water front. I don’t know what is more surprising, those steep streets or the volumes of bicyclists living amongst them. Where Saint Louis feels comfortable like a big bowl of homemade mac & cheese, Seattle feels a lot like the lemongrass sausage pho I enjoyed last night– a little exotic.

The city has a lot of elements that I appreciate. The evergreens are a welcome sight after my years in Lake Placid, NY and northern Maine. The water that surrounds the city is gorgeous, shining between rows of buildings. It’s always surprising when you take a turn and then you’re plunging toward the water on one of those wild streets. The mountains though. Oh how I love the mountains.

Climbed up to the top of Seattle Pacific University campus. It was a hike. This is the reward!

I had the fortune of meeting up with my fellow Big Rider Sarah Briskin on the flight over. Sarah was flying in from Boston, and it was wonderful to be able to commiserate in the way only two people getting ready for a ride this long could. We have a lot to do today– fetch our bikes, put them back together, pick up last minute but vital items for our trip (pillow, toiletries, etc), and head to a BBQ at the home of another Big Rider. We also get to meet everyone!

We are staying at Seattle Pacific University in their dorms. I forgot how unforgiving dorm mattresses can be. The pillow provided isn’t much better either. I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t just throw down on the floor on my Aerobed Pakmat and start acclimating to that. I have a view of Lake Union, however, and while I’m a bit sleepless right now (it’s past my wake up time in CST, but a wee bit early still in PST), I am tempted to go for a stroll on this crisp, cool Seattle day.

I am so very excited to be here, so fortunate to get to be a part of this cause and this adventure. This is a very special experience and while I knew that before, it’s really starting to come into focus. I am going to be making lifelong friends.

I don’t know what tree bears these flowers, but they smell FANTASTIC.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.