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.
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.
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.
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.