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Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Rancher's Kindness

A hard day on the bike made more comfortable by the kindness of a stranger.

Yesterday I rode the Northern Prairie portion of the Black Hills BackBone - 133 miles of remote roads from NoWhere, North Dakota to Spearfish, South Dakota.  These barely graveled roads immerse one into the vastness of the open prairie, with many miles passing between even the sight of man-made structures, other than an occasional road sign or barbed wire fencing.  A solitary person moving through this land is utterly exposed to the scale and age of the earth, and beyond.  Not to mention the elements of the here and now.
The path ahead.  Into the prairie.
The wind is a permanent resident here.  And now it is a local ranch hand on a Saturday night, full of beer and looking for a fight.  The forecast calls for wind warnings with steady 20-25 mph winds and gusts exceeding 40 mph.  It is all that, and more.

Riding buddy Shaun Arritola and I camp the night before at Picnic Springs in nearby Custer National Forest.  The restful peace of a quiet night in a forested oasis abruptly ends at about 2 am by the belligerent roar of the arriving wind.  It is large and in charge, and here to stay.

At the North Dakota border, mere metal has no chance in the face of an angry wind.
The 6 am start at the North Dakota border brings a heavy blanket of fast moving clouds, shoved by that pounding 20+ mph wind.  No sunrise in sight and no sun to be found all day.  The air temperature of 54 degrees feels much, much cooler, so I start with long sleeve thermals under a jersey covered by a wind jacket, with a polypro cap and glove liners.  Hey, this is August 22.  It should be the heat of the summer.  But those layers never come off.  I only add to them.

A loaded bike prepared for many things, but dealing the wind is both physical and mental.
The forecast calls for WNW winds, so there is at least some component from the North that could push me on my generally southerly route.  Nice, optimistic theory.  Most of the force comes from the West.  On the road, on a bike, that means a stout cross wind when moving south.  In the best case of a steady wind, it is constant work to keep the bike stable and moving in a decent line on the rough roads.  When the wind gusts, I must quickly lean the bike into the wind just to stay upright.  Many times, the gust simply tosses the bike 2-3 feet to the left, while I grind to a stop to prevent falling.

All of that is while riding South.  When the route turns West, which it does off and on for a total of about 18 miles, I'm head down, grinding my lowest gear hard to keep 5-6 mph, less if there's any incline at all.  Despite all that effort, I cannot warm up, even after over three hours of pedaling.  Then the skies darken and the temperature drops to the low 40s.  I start to chill.  There should be a wind break a few miles ahead at the town of Harding.  I'll stop there to add some layers.
A peak of sunshine teases on the horizon.  It's a mirage.  No sun today.  None at all.
Too late.  Horizontal rain abruptly pelts me and, within a few minutes, I am drenched and shivering.  I limp into Harding, which is little more than a handful of vintage buildings, only one or two of which appear occupied.  Maybe.  Then there's one home showing signs of new construction.

Taking Shaun's counsel, I simply ring the doorbell.  A woman answers, holding a cup of coffee and a bewildered look.  I say that I'm out on a bicycle ride, got caught in the rain and wondered if I could use her garage for some shelter to warm up and dry off a bit.  She said, "Well, of course.  I'll open the door."  I gratefully step out of the driving rain into the garage.  Heavy sigh.  No wind.  No rain.  Instant relief.

She took a look at me and my bike and said, "My name's Gayle Penn.  What's yours?  You look like you could use some coffee.  How about you come inside to warm up?  I just took out some rhubard cake.  Would you like some?  Come on in."  Before I know it, I am inside Gayle's new kitchen, drinking a hot cup of fresh coffee and eating a generous serving of warm rhubarb crumb cake.

Gayle is an angel with a heart of gold.  She and her husband Danny had just moved this house into Harding earlier this year and were still finishing the garage.  She has deep roots in the area, with great-grandparents homesteading and following generations staying.  Gayle describes the town's history as a vital stagecoach stop for the Medora to Deadwood line and shows me glass bottles from that time found on her property.  She shares inspiring stories of folks coming together during a prairie wild fire, whipped by 70 mph winds, that nearly consumed the town earlier this year.  I can see her making sandwiches and snacks for everyone.

As I drain the last of the coffee, I absentmindedly glance at my watch to notice that over 30 minutes had passed.  I should go.  It takes another 10 minutes or so before I finally leave, warmed by more layers of dry clothes, hot coffee and warm rhubarb cake and especially the kindness of a stranger.  Thank you, Gayle.

Back on the road, the rain lightens and then stops, but the winds do neither.  Temperatures hover in the mid 40s and I'm cool, but not cold, wearing every stitch of clothing I have along.  The prairie rolls by.  The afternoon passes.  I crest yet another long roller to see the faint outline of the Black Hills on the southern horizon.

Destination Spearfish is at the base of those distant hills.  Bear Butte is on the far left, even more distant.
 I end my ride at Spearfish, about 133 miles from the North Dakota start.  A hard day on the bike, with unrelenting winds, horizontal rain, sun-less skies and endless prairie, all made better with a simple morning cup of coffee with a new friend.