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Monday, July 18, 2016

A Path to the Light

"There is light, and beauty up there, that no Shadow can touch."
Samwise Gamgee
Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King

My heart longs to ride to a remote, primitive campsite to join fellow bike packing enthusiasts for a short get-away on Saturday evening. But the world seems to conspire against me.

First, I misread the announcement for the gathering and actually ride out there last week. It's a nice ride and campout, but not the intended social event. Then, family happenings this week, some predictable and some not, detract me from organizing all the food, gear and clothing details. As the load on the week builds, work demands a string of 12 hour shifts, including a 3:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shift on Saturday itself. It doesn't look good.

Limping home from work on Saturday at about 3:30 p.m., I drop everything to the floor and plop onto a couch. Dozing off, I jolt awake to find it now after 4:00 p.m. In addition to my bike being nowhere near ready to go, I'm tired, sleepy, hungry, thirsty and all around worn down. Decision time. The world hasn't won yet, but it's late in the game and I'm behind. I know that's exactly when it's time to go.

After a quick, last minute stuff check, I'm out the door by about 4:30 p.m. Of course, I know neither the weather nor the forecast. It doesn't matter. Tonight, I'm riding 42 miles on primarily gravel roads, mostly uphill, to eat a cold dinner, pitch a tent in the dark, and sleep on the ground. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

There is a light that no darkness can touch.

Spinning out of Rapid City on Nemo Road, I'm almost four miles up the initial five mile climb before noticing the dark clouds directly above, to the right and to the left. Those clouds are really dark. Behind me, the rumblings of thunder start and the wind arrives in force. I slow, then stop, and look up again. Reflexively, I cross the road and turn downhill toward home. The world wins.

But something stops me a second time. I turn around and look up, again. There. There to the West, and a little to the North. There's a break in the clouds. Yes, it's small, not much at all compared to the darkness surrounding me. But, it's there. A thought penetrates my heart. There lies your path. Ahead lies your destination. Follow this path to the light.

A big smile breaks out. Let's go. I restart my climb with hopes of reaching the light before the world crashes down around me. The darkness deepens and the winds howl, but it doesn't matter. I'm moving toward the light.

Moments later, a man driving a public utility truck pulls alongside, motioning me over. He's concerned for my safety, as he's en route to fix some downed power lines already knocked out by heavy rains and thunderstorms just a few miles to the north. I thank him and tell him that I am doing great. I say that my journey lies there, to that small patch of light poking through the mass of angry clouds. And I'll make it to that light, whether or not this nasty weather descends on me first. He looks at me a bit sideways, but leaves knowing that he at least tried to steer me home.

Over the next six miles on Nemo Road, the fast moving clouds and shifting winds confound any prediction of where or when all this violence will strike. But it certainly will, both near and soon. Throughout all this activity, the small patch of clear sky to the West remains. Promising. Unchanging. My hope lies with the light.

As I turn left onto Norris Peak Road, the first dollops of rain strike. Big, fat drops of cold water, leaving splotches on the pavement the size of silver dollars. I reach for my rain jacket, at the ready in my left rear jersey pocket. It stays there. The rains hold.

Just two miles later, I pedal west onto Bogus Jim Road, finally on gravel and more uphill. I'm right at the razor's edge of a major thunderstorm just to the north and another just to the south. I'm now riding pretty much due West, between the darkest of the clouds and directly toward that small patch of clear sky. I hope.

The miles pass slowly, with my weary body hauling a laden bike up a series of long hills. About six miles later, just as I finally crest the last of the climbs on this stretch of gravel, the sun in all its glory breaks out. I made it to the light. The darkness is decidedly behind me now. I made it to the light.

Peaceful evening ride once I found my way to the light.

Joyfully coasting down a short descent, I know that I'll make it to Black Fox Campground tonight. Oh, there's still 20 miles of mostly uphill pedaling on gravel, and it's going to be dark. But I'm going to make it. My path to the light leads me to my destination.

I believe there's a bigger story here. The path is the Bible. The light is Jesus. The destination is God. Follow the Bible to Jesus to experience God. Even then, while here on this earth, there still will be storms to weather and work to do, but your destination is secure. Be at peace.

2016 Pedal Power Camp Out, several hours before I arrived.  (photo by Jason Thorman) 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Fox Sub-24

The concept of the sub-24 is simple.  Some afternoon ride your bike from home to a desired location, camp and ride your bike home the next morning.  It doesn't have to be a monster ride.  Just pick out an interesting destination and route.  Two bike rides, along with a night camping, all in less than about 24 hours.  Sub-24.  Sweet little get-away.

A great destination for a sub-24 from Rapid City is the Black Fox Campground, about mile 176 on the Black Hills BackBone route at the intersection of South Rapid Creek Road (USFS 231) and Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233).  This U.S Forest Service primitive campground is about 42 mostly uphill miles from Rapid City, making for a tough ride out and an easy ride in.

Planted at the northern edge of the central Black Hills, the Black Fox campground is also accessible for a sub-24 from Spearfish, Sturgis and other communities.  With paved, gravel and dirt roads in abundance, as well as some single track, one could piece together any number and variety of routes between the Black Hills population centers and the Black Fox campground.

All dressed up and ready to go.
This is not a secure, undisclosed location.  Endurance cyclist, bikepacker and all-around good guy Dave Kent informed me that fellow cyclist Robert Cota selected the Black Fox campground to host a unique event, the Pedal Power Camp Out.  Next weekend, he plans to reserve camp sites at the Black Fox campground and has invited folks for a "mass bike pack camp out."  For two nights, folks will ride into, out of and home from Black Fox from wherever to wherever, on whatever, and camp together.  It's a bikepackers rendezvous!

I learn of the Pedal Power Camp Out late in the week.  Not needing much encouragement for such a ride, I throw together gear and food on Sunday afternoon and finally, at about 3 p.m., strike west on Nemo Road for Black Fox.  No, I did not intend to scout a route for the big event.  I misread the invitation as being this weekend.

Uphill on Bogus Jim Road, leaving Pennington County roads for the significantly less maintained USFS roads.
Too busy and excited to check the temperature, let alone the forecast, I soon find myself spinning my lowest gear up sun baked Nemo Road.  My goodness, how hot is it?  My on-bike thermometer reads 104, then 108, then 110.  When I finally crest the initial 5 mile climb, it's 114 degrees.  Oh, man, here we go again.

Surely, higher elevations will mean lower temperatures.  So, I eagerly turn onto Norris Peak Road at about mile 10.  Surely is wrong.  I reach gravel at Bogus Jim Road and keep climbing on increasingly steeper and rougher roads.  Surely is still wrong.  A short descent onto U.S. Highway 385 offers some relief, but it's illusory.  The downhill wind just draws out what little moisture remains in me.  Then I'm back on gravel on Rochford Road for more climbing.  It's late afternoon and still over 100 degrees.

A primitive road off of Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233)
During one of my frequent stops along this stretch, a couple on an ATV stop to make sure I'm okay.  Another example of folks on remote roads taking care of each other.  A few miles later, that same couple is loading their ATVs onto a trailer and the woman calls me over.  It's Deanne Cogdill of New Underwood, SD and she's full of questions sparked by my jersey.  What a blessing.  Hope to ride with her soon.

Finally, a quick descent lands me near an access to the Mickelson Trail that Shaun pointed out a couple of years ago.  Eager for a change, and for the possibility of some shade, I hop on it for the final 4 miles into Rochford.  Much cooler riding on a rails-to-trails trail paralleling a creek.  I douse my steaming noggin under the water faucet at the Rochford Trailhead and then enjoy a Coke at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon.  It's Open Mic Sunday and local musicians are on full display.  And I'm closing in on Black Fox.

Ready for a sunset, and dinner.
The final 8 miles up South Rapid Creek Road (USFS 231) are a real treat, even though I'm hot and tired.  Good Black Hills gravel. Temperatures now in the mid-80's.  Steady uphill, without steeps.  Following a meandering stream up a valley lined with conifer-stuffed hills.  Maybe a big part of it is that I'm not chasing a race goal or a time cut-off.  I'm just riding into camp.  Best part of the ride.

Rolling into the Black Fox Campground, I find it empty, but for a couple of Spearfish teachers camping with their grandkids.  I enjoy talking with them for a bit, but they had not seen any cyclists all weekend.  I figure I missed the party, but not its spirit.  I set up camp, test some equipment and food for a makeshift dinner and call it good.  Very good.

Cruising down South Rapid Creek Road on the early morning ride home.
Up at first light, I make some coffee and pack up.  Am I glad that, at the last minute, I had thrown into my pack a polypro stocking cap, long sleeve top and glove liners.  The thermometer now reads 44 degrees.  That's right.  70 degrees cooler than the high temperature on yesterday's ride out here.  It's still 44 degrees when I ride out of camp at about 6:30 a.m. wearing every stitch of clothing I brought.

As it turns out, at my relaxed speed, it's a comfortable temperature that's slowly rising.  And it's a relaxed effort for the initial 8 mile gradual downhill to back to Rochford.  Cattle and white tail deer graze in the meadows as the sun gradually chases away the last shadows of the night.  But that's not all.  A herd of over a hundred elk purposefully move along an aspen grove.  At the first sight of me, they all bolt for cover in the conifers above.  No hesitation.  Just like that, they're gone.  Every one.

By the time I stop to take this, most of the 100+ elk in this herd had already skedaddled into the trees.
The few uphill stretches pass in the mild temperatures of early morning.  Mostly it's cruising downhill for the return trip to Rapid City.  I briefly consider a side trip to scout out some primitive roads and ATV trails leading east out of Steamboat Rock towards Black Hawk.  But, remembering the effort expended yesterday in the heat, I return to my senses and take gravel and paved roads home.  Good decision.

Early morning sun along Nemo Road, less than 10 miles from Rapid City.
Altogether, that was about 42 miles in 5+ hours out to Black Fox and about 42 miles in less than 3 hours home.  A long, hard effort out there and a short, relaxed cruise home.  That's a nice sub-24.

Now if I can repeat it all this upcoming weekend.  I'd love to share the experience with fellow bike packers.