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Dear Friends: Some wrap-up material, and some stories not previously conveyed.
STATS: I rode 43 days in 11 states, and covered a total distance of 2533 miles. This works out to an average daily distance of 58.9 miles. If one factors in the few designated half-days as half-days, then the mpd bumps up to 60.2. But I admit that is splitting hairs. I had an overall average speed of 11.3 mph, and stayed in 11 private homes, only two of which belonged to people I knew beforehand. I didn't bother tallying all the sundry things which I tallied last time; but without question the preponderant item of road kill was birds of all sizes and sorts. The question of poison runoff comes to mind; but by and large what I saw did appear to be impact damage rather than anything chemical. I had NO flats and no mechanical problems of any kind. I clearly took far better care of the bike than I did of myself.
I'd like to tell you a bit more about South Dakota, because it was a real eye-opener for me. I think I'd been in the state about 2-3 miles at most when a young man on a mountain bike hauled up next to me to talk about cycle touring, which he was about to undertake with a friend. We rode together in minimal traffic for perhaps 15 miles, stopping mid-way for a cold drink, and did lots of yakking. He was about to begin his last year of college, in computer science. I asked what his plans were after that, being young and single with a very marketable degree. He said there were terrific jobs available right there in Sioux Falls, and he could take his pick. "Brad," I said, "You can take that degree and go almost anywhere on this planet with it. Don't you have any desire to see some of the rest of the world?" He thought about this, and replied that all the things he loved to do in his life were available right where he was, so why go elsewhere? I admit I had a LOT of trouble with this, coming as I do from a mobile society. Several days passed before I could honestly say that it was I who was out of step, not him.
In Sioux Falls I stayed with a couple in their 70's, LONGtime cyclists and tour leaders, and simply delightful people. They had each grown up on farms in the greater Sioux Falls area, and had essentially stayed put. Sioux Falls, at a population of 120,000, has a symphony orchestra and all the trappings of a city of "culture."
The very next evening I stayed in a Mennonite home ("...but we're not your horse-and-buggy Mennonites...") southwest of S.F. (I had been in Amish/Mennonite country since mid-Ontario.) This was also delightful, as well as astoundingly enlightening. They are not cyclists, but are on the hospitality lists because their daughter used to ride a great deal. As I rode into this little community following directions they'd given me, I saw that one of the streets bore their last name. And as I subsequently paged through a book about the community, I saw other names that I'd seen on street signs. These are people who are truly rooted. Like my young friend of the previous day. Mrs. W. and I conversed about a wide range of subjects, from children to music to history to theology. I quickly learned from that same book that the history of their people, the Hutterites, in leaving the Ukraine and coming to the New World, was almost identical to the experiences of the Jews who left the Ukraine a generation later. We compared notes back and forth on that, and the similarities were eerie. She admitted that I was the only Jewish person that she was aware of knowing---a responsibility I wasn't sure I wanted to carry---and inquired about practices and beliefs. She told me of the communalism and consensus beliefs of her life, and of her grandparents (and her husband's) who had been among the original European settlers of that land, those who first cleared and broke and planted those fields.
After dinner Mr. W. showed me his latest undertaking. In his retirement he had become a lapidarist, and has a full shop in the basement. (I have, incidentally, fallen in love with basements. THAT is where true identities show. The basement in Sioux Falls was unbeliveable!) He also showed me a large display of jewelry he has made with his stones, and invited me to make a selection. My eye was immediately drawn to a pair of earrings, simple teardrops of solid, opaque white. He told me about one item, and another, and another, and finally I had to ask about the white ones. Those are marble, he said, and told me this: In 1923 his grandmother opened an ice cream parlor and confectionary shop in town...this LONG before electric refrigeration. The shop had a marble countertop, as they all did then, to preserve the cold of the ice cream. In the Depression the shop failed, and Grandma took the countertop home to serve as a plant ledge on the side porch. Many decades later, a nephew then living in the house pulled the countertop out (in order to screen in that area as a playroom), and dumped it in the back yard, where Mr. W. found it. He broke off a few large hunks and hauled them home, and is slowly fashioning his grandmother's ice cream counter into jewelry.
Needless to say, those marble earrings were my choice; and they are the treasure beyond words that has come to me from this journey and has rooted me also, in this very small way, to the archtypal soil and to an immigrant experience not my own but universal nonetheless. It seems to me that life in the Upper Plains (and possibly elsewhere as well) is informed by a baseline sense of continuity and endurance, concepts which have precious little currency in our very mobile edge-of-the-continent society. That kind of presumed stability is very beguiling to me, though I quite honestly don't know if I could really live that way. And I'll probably never have the opportunity to find out.
PART TWO: A day and a half after leaving the W's, I made a stop at White Lake, S.D., and thus began what I must call Harley Tales. I had been warned as early as Mankato, MN, and again at Sioux Falls, that I was riding into Sturgis Week; but I was blissfully unaware of the personal implications of that information. When I emerged from the gas station shop at White Lake, on the frontage road, there were two men with Harleys at the gas pumps. They were obviously not happy, and were grousing and moaning about the elevated prices on the pumps and various other things. When they saw me watching them they stopped, and one saw fit to apologize. They were upset because of the prices, and were SOOOO tired from having sat on those blankety-blank bikes all the way from Alabama. As he spoke, I could see his eye pick up my bicycle in the background, and then register the fact that there was no other vehicle in the station. ---- That yours? he quietly asked with a nod. ---- Yep. ---- Where you comin' from? ---- Boston. (I'd learned to use easily recognizable names.) ---- (even quieter yet) Where you goin'? ---- San Francisco. ---- WELL THEN (booming at full volume), what the hell are WE bitchin' about???? And then everything became fun and giggly, and they felt better and we parted friends and were all energized by the exchange.
That was the beginning. Twelve miles later I got onto the interstate, where I stayed for the next four days and essentially joined the brotherhood of the two-wheeled riders. We waved and did thumbs-up along the road, and schmoozed at the stops. They became my social context, and I knew beyond doubt that if I had a problem lots of them would stop to help me. Oddly, it happened the other way around. At one point I spotted two bikes and riders on the shoulder, one of them on the ground monkeying with an engine. Father and son, it turned out. I coasted to a stop, and asked if I might be carrying something they could use. "Well, " said the dad, "What I really need is a coil. Think you've got one of those?" I pointed to my black bike-lock cable, coiled up and sitting on top of my load. "That's as close as I can come." Good laughs on that. But another rider had stopped ahead and was coming back to assist them.
At breakfast one day I spoke with a pretty woman who looked for all the world like a schoolteacher, neat and prim and well-groomed. She was travelling with her husband and two of his friends, and was piloting her own Harley for the first time and was VERY proud of herself. They'd come out of Minneapolis, so we talked about Stillwater for a while, a favorite place of hers, also. And at the quick stop before heading into Kadoka, an elderly, stooped, thin local came shuffling right up to my face, drew himself up as well as possible, and announced in a loud voice, "YOU'RE the only REAL biker around here." Which made everyone in earshot guffaw.
I stayed on the interstate all the way to Rapid City, even though there was frontage road for a goodly portion of the distance. I liked the context and the camaraderie; and more important, the side-road overpasses provided the ONLY shade available to stop in. Frontage roads had nothing. I was unaware of the fact that I was slowly poisoning myself, even though I knew I felt rotten by the time I got to RC. I chalked it up to excess fatigue at that point. As I wheeled the bike through the parking lot of the RC Motel 6, one of the bikers tending his steed in the "Bike Washing Area" offered to wash mine next. "Hell, yours is easy...no chrome!!" I gave some thought that evening to how fun it would be to go the extra 30 miles north into Sturgis proper, and cruise through the rally on a bicycle. But there would be nowhere to stay or camp or eat or pee for a good hundred miles thereafter; and I was SO tired anyway. But yes...it WOULD have been funny.
South out of RC they were still with me, albeit now heading the other direction. At the cafe in Chadron, Nebraska, a BIG white pick-up was sitting in the parking lot, with a BIG aqua Harley in the back and a BIG black poodle in the cab. All my worlds wrapped into one. From Chadron to Lusk, WY (1 1/2 days) I was Harley-free, but in Lusk there they all were again, a main access route into the Black Hills and Sturgis. But by Lusk I was in rather bad shape and no longer cared. And it was in Lusk that a visiting home healthcare worker pointed out that the Harleys were the culprits causing my debilitated state. Add a whole lot of carbon monoxide fumes to an altitude of almost 5000 feet, and suddenly it all began to make sense. There was just no way that my oxygen-deprived system could muster the energy and stamina to deal with the grasslands and the desert, so dismay and fatigue took over.
In Lusk, incidentally, I was staying with the postmaster, part of the great postal network that H. was setting up for me. When I decided to change route and go to Cheyenne, I had to call all those contacts and apologetically beg off. That was a real loss. One could say that I rode not wisely but too well. That it was the wrong pace in the wrong clime. That it was too tree-less and too me-ful. All of the above, plus fires, heatwaves, distances. I had no resources left with which to cope. But I am riding again now at home, and I'm even singing again while I ride (which was simply out of the question those last few days). There's more tree shade on the pavement along a 2+ mile stretch of the SR bike path than I found in the entire state of South Dakota and the portion of Wyoming that I rode; and I'm thrilled to again be able to recognize a landscape.
I phoned the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce to get some attendance figures for the Harley rally (in my Lusk letter I'd used the figure 50,000), and the number I was given was 840,000!!! Eight hundred forty thousand motorcycles spewing fumes. And there I was, huffing and puffing and deeply inhaling it all, for days on end. So I made the right call. Had Dan not been coming by, I'm not sure what would have transpired; given all the sleeping I did in his truck, I think I was probably even less able to drive at that point than to ride. But all's well that ends well. And am I singing, "Why, oh why, did I ever leave Wyoming"? Not even once.
© 2000 BFZ
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