Prairie to Mountains

One of the greatest things about doing a motorcycle trip out west, as opposed to, say, flying out and renting a bike, or trailering the bike behind your car, is that every day gets better than the last. It’s like the spring in Scandinavia or Alaska when you’re on one long rocketship ride up. In that case the daylight is getting longer – and your sensation of having free time growing greater – every day until you stop seeing darkness altogether. And on the trip west, each day the air gets fresher, the towns get fewer, the scenery gets more spectacular. You’re totally stoked each day, you can’t imagine anything topping what you’re experiencing, and then it still takes a step up.

Today was our first day back on the road after Päivi’s mishap, but we were optimistic because of how good the route looked. We’d start out by crossing the Missouri into the Mountain time zone, carry on through the increasingly dry and hilly prairie for a while, then dip south into the Badlands before swinging back north and west up into the Black Hills. Three major ecological zones in one day of riding – not bad at all.

The beginning went fairly well – we headed up into the grassy hills west of Pierre in optimistic spirits. Hay-making was apparently the thing here, as in many places we could see the rolled bales sitting in the fields, sometimes dotting out seemingly to the horizon in the case of some of the larger tracts of land. Every now and then we’d hit a field of sunflowers. Some of these were just spectacularly, gargantuanly large as well. Farming is just done on such a ridiculously large scale out here. It makes the valleys full of corn back home look like humble backyard gardens. Rolling hills of wheat. Sunflowers. Soybeans. It’s hard to believe humans can eat all of this. Here is the breadbasket of America.

Eventually things started to dry out a bit more, and occasional cattle began to make their appearance. The first hints of being out west were beginning to assert themselves. We stopped at a corner gas station to have our lunch, chatting with a small group of Harley riders returning from – you guessed it – Sturgis. While this was happening a guy got out of a pickup truck towing a horse trailer, wearing a cowboy hat. Yes, Virginia, they really do still wear those things out west.

We left and veered south for a while to hook through the badlands. The feature that gives this area its name consists of columns and mounds of what looks like rain-melted rock-dirt. All sorts of questions spring to mind. How did the rest get washed away? Why doesn’t the remaining part that we see wash away, since it seems like a few good rainstorms would finish it off? Why is all of this occurring only in this small area, while everything else around is just normal prairie? Unfortunately the National Park brochure had very little to say about any of this.

After the badlands we headed on a long, hot journey west across a pretty much uninhabited area. The road wasn’t much inhabited either, and we were really relying on our bikes to pull us through to another place of civilization. Though when they did we were only too glad to be heading out of it: Rapid City, SD. I guess we weren’t desperate enough for civilization yet to enjoy stop-and-go traffic on busy 4-lane roads.

However once we headed out of there (on Route 44 as we’d come in) things started to get interesting again. Right away we were climbing up and winding around: into the Black Hills. The Black Hills, treasured by the Sioux, coveted by the gold-seeking white man. It was another broken treaty in a long string of broken treaties when we took the Black Hills, and the battles over the Sioux homeland were one of the closing chapters of the American conquest of the west. This topic is for later, and for now I’ll say it was very refreshing to come up into the mountains after the hot, dry prairie. Here there were trees, water, and cool air. And the roads were pretty enjoyable too. Highway 385 especially was an amazing road, where we came upon it – a tortuously twisting tunnel through tree-lined slopes.

We camped at the Pactola reservoir in idyllic conditions.

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225 miles.

About ABR

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5 Responses to Prairie to Mountains

  1. J.B. Robert says:

    Wonderful pix.

  2. mer says:

    I agree. Really been enjoying the photos.

  3. ABR says:

    Thanks, it’s actually not that easy on a motorcycle trip. Usually when you see something interesting you’re already passing it (and it’s a big pain to turn around and go back), and on the other hand when you deliberately decide to stop it almost always turns out to be one of the most boring areas or poor examples of what you were looking for. Plus stopping at all breaks the rhythm and can start to cut into the mileage..

  4. H. Robert says:

    How did you get the picture of the gopher? That’s a National Geographic worthy picture. What camera are you using?

  5. ABR says:

    That’s not a gopher, it’s a prairie dog. :-) And these guys were relatively tame so it was just point and shoot!

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