Alaska Sojourn!
Tom's Updates, Days 4 & 5

Twenty Miles of Bad Road
by Tom Bowman

The thunder had died away sometime in the wee hours, and we rose to a fine sky and sun in Rapid City on the fourth morning of our Sojourn. The Lazy J Kampground lies on a hill overlooking the plains to the east and Ellsworth Air Force Base away out on the plain. On the other side of the hill lay the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, our first destination of the day. In the morning "upload" from the office's fax line, we learned that there were severe weather warnings for the day in the northeast corner of Wyoming and the Black Hills, and that would make a lot of difference.

Gutzon Borglum carved and blasted and shaped the faces on Mt. Rushmore as a commemorative to famous presidents (no, Virginia, not IBMWR Prezzidents, but a little more on that later), and today it lies as one of the most famous places in America, if not the world, drawing thousands of visitors (many of whom were up early and crowding the parking lot even at 0900). After paying the obscene $8.00 parking charge, we trooped up the promenade and took the obligatory photos, and then got Passports stamped. Back in the parking lot, the first thing I saw was an enormous thundercloud building over the Hills right where we were planning to go, the Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, SD. After quick consultation, and realizing that this is a long trip and its success won't rise or fall based on a single place, the decision was made to detour. That is where the twenty miles of "bad road" comes in.

The State of South Dakota must have a different "operating system" when it comes to deciding how to do road construction. For some reason, they have decided to grind up nearly the entire road surface from just north of route 44 to Lead, leaving what must be the spookiest surface I've ever ridden on. Imagine that a drunk has taken a giant garden tiller and run it up and down the road, weaving side to side and grinding the asphalt into what resembles the interior of a egg carton - large knobs alternating with holes. When riding on it, one's bike bobs and weaves like and NFL tailback: not much fun. To add insult to injury, the DOT also stationed flagmen at strategic points with instructions to hold traffic until at least forty or more vehicles were waiting. I imagine that the instructions also include waiting until all the engines have been turned off in frustration. Yeesh.

It's a long way from Spearfish to Cody. I-90 is a grind, endless concrete out through the plains. Thankfully, we didn't have to do the whole thing that way, as we detoured up north to Devil's Tower, where Ian had a "close encounter" with coincidence. Devil's Tower is one impressive place, and the sun shone on it as we rolled in. It's the remains of an ancient volcano's lava flow, and the material around it eroded away until nothing is left but a vertical mass of granite. It's been climbed something like 30,000 times since 1937, but I have absolutely no idea why. Neither did the tourists, but they were making a career out of peering hopefully at the thing, hoping for a glimpse of someone blithely climbing.

From Devil's Tower, on to Cody, jumping off point to Yellowstone. After an overnite there, we rode the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway over Dead Indian Pass. As we climbed, the temperatures dropped until we were in heavier stuff and at one point it actually looked like snow. The Nez Perce Indians led the U.S. Cavalry on a merry chase up this canyon along the Yellowstone River in 1877, after which Chief Joseph uttered his famous statement "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." A great bike road! We entered Yellowstone at the Northeast Entrance at a station manned by perhaps the gruffest ranger I've ever encountered. The road from there to Roosevelt Lodge is gnarly, broken up by potholes and sections under construction. I wouldn't recommend it for anything but GS'es. After a quick stop at Mammoth Hot Springs and brunch in Gardiner, MT, it was on to Kalispell/Whitefish for the nite, via Montana 83 through the Lolo and Flathead National Forests. Why were the Indians of the area called "Flatheads"? I've always wondered about that.

Oddities and obscurities for the ride:

  • Two huge elk were crossing the road as we turned onto the Chief Joseph; they acted like they owned it, and only rolled their eyes when horns were blown.
  • The mere hint of a grizzly bear to be seen draws tourists faster in Yellowstone than an announcement of free beer at a rally.
  • Lots of 'range stock' in the area, and they frequently are out in the road, doing their thing (which can be slippery)
  • The big brown horse in Toston, MT, was scratching the place between his eyes on the top of a fence post, head almost horizontal to the ground, his tail going around in big windmill circles.
  • Some strange devices in the fields around Clearwater Crossing, MT; like a cross between a seesaw and a catapult, thirty feet high and somehow associated with hay. Twenty points to anyone who can tell me what the hell they are?

Today's ride: Whitefish, MT, to Banff, Alberta. Tune in later, film at eleven.

Tom Bowman, from the road…..

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