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Sunday, August 6, 2023

BackBone Grande (Days 7 & 8) - Prairie Gold

From Spearfish, the BackBone Grande drops out of the Black Hills and spills into the sprawling prairie toward the state line just 100 miles due North. But, NOOO! We don't take a straight line. We meander here and there for about 150 route miles to discover prairie gold hidden in plain sight. 

Best of the best. All the way across South Dakota. 

Rolling along on Gilbert Road toward the town of Buffalo on a hazy summer morning.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Day 7 of the first through-ride of the BackBone Grande starts bright and mostly clear from our manicured tent site at the Spearfish City Campground. To access a nifty gravel road right out of town, the route here actually goes south for a couple of miles, away from North Dakota. We spin up the paved Spearfish Recreational Trail, cross over Interstate 90, and reconnect with gravel on Lookout Mountain Road, less than a mile past a Walmart parking lot. With that little southward swerve, we quickly escape the concrete jungle.

For the next 6 miles, we roll up and down a valley dotted with some homes and small ranches. The city of Spearfish lies just over the ridge to the west, but it is far from sight and mind. This looks and feels like we're already out there in the remote countryside.

Lookout Mountain Road is mostly a solid gravel road, but the last few miles often are torn up by those interpreting the "IMPASSABLE WHEN WET" signs as a monster truck challenge. Yes, when wet, the road is a mess. But even when dry, it delivers deep ruts to trap the inattentive. Take it slow. Embrace the change of terrain.

Lookout Mountain Road in June 2023. Not too bad, here.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Well, now. Rolling ruts on Lookout Mountain Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

We roll through pasture land into the small town of St. Onge, best known for its daily cattle auctions. The locally popular St. Onge Bar offers a cafe and pretty well stocked C-store, but remember the name. It's a bar. It doesn't open until 11 am.

We pass far too early for that. So, we spin through town, water up at the St. Onge Livestock barn, and head right into cattle country. Just north of town, the notoriously muddy MMR Sale Barn Road is surprisingly rideable, notwithstanding our wet spring. We then cruise through the green countryside on solid gravel roads in the building heat of the day.

Rolling pastures along 196th Street en route to St. Onge.
(image by Paul Brasby)

With the Black Hills in his rear view mirror, Paul flies across MMR Sale Barn Road.

With a turn onto Crooked Oaks Road, we suddenly find ourselves weaving through groves of scrub oak trees that extend for miles around. These trees are not common in the Black Hills, although they certainly are prolific here for some reason. Their broad leaves paint the landscape in deep green. Imagine riding through here in the fall.

We pass a sign for the Snoma Finnish Cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. As usual, there's more to the story. In 1885, about 40 families from Finland settled there as farmers and built a town they called "Suoma," which is Finnish for "Finland." However, the U.S. Postal Service misread the name on their handwritten submission and dubbed the town "Snoma." Today, only the cemetery remains.

Scrub oak trees along Crooked Oaks Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Into the Northern Prairie on Brooker Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Hopping onto pavement, we ride through Fruitdale, a town of less than 100 people and no retail establishments. About a mile later, we turn onto paved U.S. Highway 212, which borders the Belle Fouche National Wildlife Refuge. Camping is available there at the Rocky Point Recreational Area, but we're riding further north today.

For the next 20 miles or so, we ride Arpan Road along the east side of Belle Fouche Reservoir and then Brooker Road to the north. There's some pavement and some good gravel, both plowing alongside hay fields and irrigated cropland. This is a rhythm section, after the rolling hills and rougher roads earlier. It's also the real start of the wide open prairie, where we are completely exposed to the elements.

Warming up in the Northern Prairie, where the Black Hills fade into the horizon.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Heartfelt marker for the Geographic Center of the United States.
(image by Paul Brasby)

In the growing heat and wind of the day, we turn north on a primary gravel road marked "Old U.S. 85." The upcoming 47 miles essentially are due north with practically no cover. We are completely exposed.

Today, the winds behave, but the heat acts up. As the day starts to wear, long, straight sight lines of rolling hills extend to the horizon ahead and, soon, the horizon behind. Miles drag. We slowly spin up to a utility crew installing some wire, grateful for the break. A worker's offer of water and shade instantly transforms him into a Trail Angel.

Refreshed a bit, we briefly stop a few miles later at the "True Center of the Nation," a geographic curiosity that a local rancher proudly proclaims with hand painted signs and a hand built monument. The rancher even allows public access to walk across a bit of pasture to an identifying survey marker adorned with an American flag. It's all such a wonderful slice of Americana.

We ride another 10 miles to end our day's ride of about 70 miles at the Battle Creek Wetlands Project, a Bureau of Land Management tract of land with a small reservoir. We purposefully set camp in the lingering heat. We're cooked. And the forecast for tomorrow looks brutal.

By the time the sun lightens the sky on Day 8, we've been riding for several hours.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Harding County horses brighten our morning.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Tomorrow's forecast calls for moderate southerly winds overnight, but then a ferocious front is set to blast into the area between 05:00 am and 06:00 am with monstrous North-NorthEasterly winds at a steady 25 mph and gusts over 50 mph. I've endured weather like that up here in the past. It is not something with which to trifle. See, A Rancher's Kindness (2015).

What to do? From the Battle Creek Wetland Project, we face 31 miles of practically due north riding on rolling county gravel roads offering zero protection from the elements. We then turn east for 15 miles on more lumpy prairie gravel, before a final 5 mile jaunt due north into the town of Buffalo. Under that forecast, that's a lot of open prairie to cover in the wrong directions.

We carefully consider our options. We desperately need some rest from a long, hot day on the prairie, but also need to cover as many miles as early as possible. We decide to set alarms for 01:30 am and turn pedals by 02:00 am. If the forecast holds, maybe we can cover at least those first 31 miles due north before the front slams us.

Paul gathers himself before the next upwind, uphill climb on Gilbert Road.

Another grind up another hill on Gilbert Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

It works, until it doesn't.

As planned, we pedal by 02:00 am, spinning into the dark, up and down good county gravel. In the cool night air, we're too focused on knocking out the miles to think about being tired. So, we spin. The first half hour flies by at a pace to reach that 31 mile turn well before 05:00 am.

BAM! Our relatively mellow start slams into a solid wall of wind. Like a runaway freight train, that massive front blows in at 02:45 am, a solid 3 hours ahead of schedule. And, just like that, a 25 mph wind howls right into our faces.

Oh, man. We're only 7 miles from camp, leaving 24 miles to ride due north directly into this wind before we turn east. That's too much to think about, as effort amps up and speeds slow to a crawl. I mentally aim for Harding, an old stagecoach town now mostly abandoned, that sits 17 miles away. At our labored pace, that's still hours away.

Unique rock formations revealed along Gilbert Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

As Gilbert Road winds through a few wind breaks, Paul starts to feel the finish line.

This is a grind. The horizon gradually lightens, lifting spirits a bit. Not so the relentless wind. We eventually spot Harding in the distance, but even the long downhill into town is a struggle. Seeking cover for a wind break, we head for an old church at the north end of town. 

Even though it's only 5:30 am, we catch the attention of Steve, who lives across the street in a one room log cabin. He strolls over to join us for coffee and snacks, regaling us with tales of local lore. He notes that he was the mayor of Harding at one time, but now the entire town is just him and one neighbor. After a break far too short, we fill our water bottles at his cabin and ride back into the gale.

It doesn't get any easier. We keep pedaling. The final 7 miles to our easterly turn on Gilbert Road takes every bit of another hour, making it about 4 hours to pedal those 24 miles into that wind. No, that does not include our time stopped in Harding. Yes, it was hard, physically and mentally.

Here in South Dakota, we've got both kinds.

Turning east turns that wind into a stiff cross-wind, which normally would be a challenge in itself. Today, it feels almost like coasting downhill. We joyfully cruise 15 miles of Gilbert Road through big cattle ranches and a variety of unique geological formations. This country continually surprises.

Gilbert Road runs right into paved U.S. Highway 85 for the final 5 mile grind into the town of Buffalo. We're tired and hungry when finally pulling in, even though it's only 10:30 am. We find a cafe still serving breakfast and consider the day over pounds of food and quarts of coffee.

North Dakota lies about 40 route miles away, so we could take a nice break and go for it yet today. But then what? There are no solid camping options at the border, the wind continues to howl, and more rain is coming soon. And we've already ridden 51 tough miles today over a long 8.5 hours, yesterday was no cake walk, and we have no relevant time constraints.

We then learn of a town BBQ  and "Redneck Olympics" fundraiser for local middle school basketball teams that night. Well, alrighty then. It's an afternoon nap before a night on the town of Buffalo. 

We'll ride to the border tomorrow.

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