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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 3) - Crossing the Northern Prairie

A three year old daydream takes shape as a small group of friends gather at the Picnic Spring Campground for an early morning launch of a three day 300+ mile bike ride of the Black Hills BackBone.  All systems are go, but we know that everything must come together to successfully cross the starkly exposed northern prairie from NoWhere, North Dakota to the foothills of the Black Hills near Spearfish, about 133 miles away.  That's a lot of open country to cross in the middle of the summer.  Part 1 - An Idea Takes Shape.  Part 2 - Gathering.

Shaun Arritola, me, Dave Litzen and Rob Sorge at a Dakota Marker near the start of the Black Hills BackBone.
Our future's so bright.  (photo by Corinne Sorge) 
We awake before first light, with countless stars still filling the night sky.  No need for alarm clocks.  We're stoked to start this adventure.  We purposefully putz around with bikes, clothing, gear, food and water, while Corinne brews fresh coffee.  Now, there's a good start to the day.

Super Support Corinne Sorge fires up the stove to brew fresh coffee.
Before long, we load the shuttle trucks and pile in for the twenty mile drive to the border, beginning with a sparsely graveled near-road winding down a forested hidden valley.  As the morning sky lightens, we see that this is where the deer and antelope wake up to go play.  Rounding a corner, we drop into the vastness of this prairie, where we will spend the rest of a long day.

Always amiable shuttle driver Jonas Arritola patiently waits for us to unload bikes.
With Shaun in the background is North Dakota, not that it looks differently to the South.
We bee-line to the border, marked merely by a wind-shredded 45 mph speed limit sign sporting a "0" mile tag.  To the wind up here, that's not a limit, just a suggestion.  Fortunately, both winds and temperatures are mild this morning, as the sun breaks the horizon.  The forecast looks about as favorable as one could reasonably expect, but it's early July, so we know eventually it will be some degree of hot and windy.

More than ready to roll at the start of the Black Hills BackBone.
Notice the nearly vertical grass, showing practically no wind.  (photo by Corinne Sorge)
From the start line, we scan the prairie to spot a Dakota Marker, one of a series of quartzite columns embedded every one half mile along the entire length of the North Dakota - South Dakota border.  In addition to that historical significance, a replica Dakota Marker is the traveling trophy for the rivalry football game each year between the North Dakota State University Bison and South Dakota State University JackRabbits.  Now, that's a start line with personal meaning, since we have a daughter who is a varsity cheerleader for NDSU and another daughter who was a varsity cheerleader for SDSU.  Dakota Marker Start Line.

Here it is!  Out here!  We found it!  A Dakota Marker!
Time to ride.  It's about 50 degrees, there's a mild breeze from the NorthWest, and nothing but blue sky as we turn pedals shortly after 6:00 am on Table Mountain Road at the North Dakota border.  Our final destination lies over 300 remote road miles to the south at the Nebraska border.  But not today.  Today, we hope to reach Spearfish at about 133 miles, but we'll see what the day brings.

We spin easily over the early miles of gently rolling prairie with exceptionally long sight lines.  The swiftly rising sun reveals a cloudless sky filled with promise.  The only traffic out here is the prolific pronghorn antelope, who gracefully prance away as we sail through their territory.  The light wind always seems to be a bit of a cross wind, no matter our direction.  But it's still cool and the hard packed, lightly graveled roads feel fast and lively.

No limits.  Rolling through the vastness of Harding County on the Black Hills BackBone.
After a brisk paced four hours or so, we turn into the remnants of the town of Harding at about mile 47.  It's late morning, with rapidly rising temperatures and growing winds.  We're getting hot, dry and hungry.  Good time for a break.

Right on cue, there's Corinne and the Support Truck, with ice, cold drinks, food and everything else we need at the ready.  We replenish and restock, grateful for the support.

As we sprawl across the road shoulder, a rancher pulls up towing a trailer full of critters, wondering what's going on.  She lives "just down the road" and is a "next door neighbor" with Gayle Penn, the Harding rancher who saved my day on the first solo attempt of the BackBone in 2015.  A Rancher's Kindness.   Moments later, as we're about to pedal off, here comes Gayle hustling down her driveway, flagging us down.  Called by her neighbor, Gayle rushes out to meet everyone and to hear how we're doing.  Of course, she invites everyone inside, "out of this heat," for cold drinks and snacks.  But with temperatures rising and miles remaining, we reluctantly bid farewell after a delightful chat.  Corinne lingers a bit longer to fill all our water reservoirs with fresh, cool water from Gayle's deep well.  Thanks, Gayle!

Harding rancher Gayle Penn meets and greets the crazy cyclists pedaling through her town.
Gayle is an angel with a heart as big as the land she calls home.  Great to see you again, Gayle!  (photo by Corinne Sorge)
We roll generally south on primo prairie gravel, as the mid-day temperatures rise well into the 90's and the winds build well into the 20's.  Notwithstanding the great roads and gentle grades, we spin every bit of four more hours to cover the next 42 miles to the "true" Geographic Center of the United States at about mile 79.  Now, we're hot, tired and due for a long break, for which Corinne delivers made-to-order Subway sandwiches, chips and ice cold drinks.  Man, it's hot.

That last hot, windy stretch takes its toll on all of us, but especially on Shaun, who has already ridden more miles outside today than he has in total all year.  He plops down in a small patch of shade, assessing his day.  Shaun wants to keep riding, and I know he could ride into the evening and well into the night.  He would make Spearfish, but it would be late.  By this point, Shaun has ridden all the roads unknown to him, knows well the roads ahead and wants to ride as much as he can on Day 2 and on Day 3.  He reluctantly calls it a day.

Shaun is not alone.  Everyone is beat.  We try to refuel and rehydrate, but mostly just want to lay down and cool off.  There's little respite in this treeless expanse.  We sit about eight miles from U.S. Highway 85, where Corinne turns right toward Spearfish and the BackBone route turns left toward Brooker Road.  We ask Corinne to wait for us there.  That would be about 87 miles, which may well be the end of everyone's day.

Geographic Center of the United States about 79 miles into the Black Hills BackBone.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)
Those eight miles drag.  But when arrive at the highway, Rob is feeling better, Dave is feeling OK and we convince ourselves that temperatures will drop soon.  So, Rob and Dave ride off toward Brooker Road.  I stay awhile to talk with Shaun, who is upbeat and positive, despite the disappointment of ending his ride for the day.  Without hesitation, he offers to assume the Support Truck duties to allow Corinne to head to Spearfish to check into the BnB and prepare dinner.  What a awesome teammate.

Rob and Dave by now are well onto Brooker Road, which offers seven and a half miles of chunky gravel over a steady series of small rollers.  Welcome to gravel grinding, boys.  But, for the first time that I've been on that road, we find two tracks to ride in and feel a stout tailwind.  What has always been a real slog transforms into a seven and a half mile cruise.  That was nice.

I finally catch Rob and Dave on Arpan Road, which eventually turns to a short stretch of pavement near Orman Dam.  They're running on fumes.  Rob is overheated.  Dave is dry heaving.  Both manage to keep turning pedals, but stop whenever they find the occasional shade.  We decide to maintain in survival mode for a run to Fruitdale, still about six miles off.

Somehow still turning pedals on Arpan Road over 100 hot miles into the Black Hills BackBone.
Soft pedaling into Fruitdale, we regroup.  I believe that we probably could ride the remaining 20 miles to Spearfish, but it would take several hours on the increasingly hilly and technical roads.  We then would arrive so late that we would miss the evening at the BnB with our Support Team and may even jeopardize the day tomorrow.  So, we call it a day at 113 miles and about 12 hours, including all the pit stops, and call Shaun for a shuttle.

Roasted by the heat and beat up by the winds, we collapse at a quaint BnB in Spearfish Canyon to a feast of Texas brisket cooked up by Corinne and Lori.  My wife Colleen surprises me by joining us from Rapid City for the evening.  It all makes for a relaxing evening with friends.  We're tired, hungry and thirsty, but in good spirits, relieved to cover the exposed northern prairie on a hot summer day.

We'll return in the morning for those twenty miles remaining to ride to Spearfish and deal with the repercussions tomorrow.  Tonight, we rejoice and recover.

A first hint of the Black Hills on the hazy horizon of a hot summer day.
We ride most of the day before seeing this.

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