Last summer my dad got the crazy idea to try biking from our house in Chanhassen, MN to Rapid City, SD and to take me along with him. I had never gone on a bike trip any larger than a day trip, after which there was plenty of time to recover. I didn’t really realize what I was getting into until I was already in it, and by then I was so used to the work and the routine of the day that it didn’t seem that extraordinary. Now, looking back on it, I can hardly believe how un-impressed I was with what I was doing. But, then again, I had other things on my mind; biking through the plains in 80 degree weather wasn’t exactly a walk in the park!
The first four days were awful. It was unbearably hot out with the sun glaring down at our backs, my muscles were nowhere near used to this intense of a work out, and to top it off we had 20 mile an hour headwinds trying to blow us back home. We soon realized that the best way to travel would be to leave before the sun came up, and stop in the early afternoon before the hottest part of the day; then if we needed to we could wait and travel in the early evening when it became cooler. Because of our unorthodox hours, we essentially lived off of granola bars and very large dinners; if we were lucky we’d have fruit on the road as well! Even so, after those first few days, however, I adjusted to the work load, and was able to look at the country around me. What I saw then was breathtaking. From our bikes we could see for ten miles in any direction it was so flat. At first it was only ploughed fields since this was early summer and the corn hadn’t grown yet, but about halfway across South Dakota we entered the grasslands. Endless expanses of waving grass with barely a tree to interrupt the continuity – of all the paintings and photos I’ve seen and the descriptions I’ve read of the plains none have come close to encompassing the grandeur and serenity of those grasslands. As beautiful as the scenery was, I was even more interested in the towns we encountered.
In our travels we stayed off of the freeway, traveling across back-roads that ran parallel to it instead. As a result we went through very small towns, sometimes no bigger than 100 people, but the culture was worth it! What few people realize is that the western states have a culture unto themselves. The West begins with the grasslands, where the Ranchers begin to appear. Imagine sitting at a gas station, eating a granola bar, and a man passes you wearing a ten-gallon hat, jeans, cowboy boots complete with real spurs, and a tee-shirt reading “I didn’t ask you to dance, I said you look fat in those pants!” This is not a person you would see strolling down the cobble-stoned streets of New England, or even in the snows of Minnesota. We also attended a rodeo, not the commercialized bull-fighting kind, but the small town kids showing their skills on horseback. It was very much like a community track meet where each event takes its turn and the people cheer as their neighbors gallop by in the barrel race. The brave souls that rode the bucking broncos were greeted with especially loud applause.
As well as meeting locals and seeing what life is like in the West, pedaling across South Dakota was a great chance to learn about the history of the land, of the people. Two particular sets of people we found out about were the pioneers and the Native Americans. The pioneers we studied through experience. My dad and I crossed the plains on bicycles; these good people would have crossed mostly by foot since the wagons were barely big enough to carry supplies. We were able to carry clean water, non-perishable food, and were assured at least one big meal a day while the pioneers had to deal with undrinkable water, spoiled food, and shortages of supplies. What they accomplished is simply astounding, and that they would have the strength to leave everything behind to cross this unforgiving terrain in hopes of a better future is tremendous. The Native Americans we studied more conventionally. On our way home from Rapid City we stopped by Crazy Horse Memorial. In my opinion the Crazy Horse Monument is far greater than any other national monument I have seen in its extensiveness. Going through the exhibits about the many tribes’ histories and traditions, speaking with a Native American artist whose forefathers had for generations been religious leaders to the tribe, seeing the statue itself! It was definitely one of my favorite days on that 3 week trip.
The most rewarding experience of this trip was the experience itself; touring the country without resorting to the stereotypical tourist with the big SUV and the cheesy camera stops. My dad and I were able to see the country and the people living in it without the film of commercialism. Locals sat next to us in the cafÃ©s and told us about their lives and families as if we were their neighbor. It was truly amazing, and I am ever so grateful that my dad came up with the hare-brained idea!
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