Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day Thirty-Nine: Which Way to Wall? (Pickup adventures redivivus)

Today's ride was from Rapid City, SD (referred to solely as "Rapid" by locals) to Wall, SD (our entry-point for the Badlands), but we almost ended up in Disaster-ville.

How did such a thing come to pass, you may ask? Well, it was a little bit of indecisiveness and miscalculation on our part (I'm using the "our" as I'm pretty sure that Bob willingly acquiesced to all questionable judgments in this sad tale).

I had mapped out two different ways to ride to Wall. One was 60 miles and pretty much a direct shot due East that hewed fairly closely to the Interstate (I-90), with the advantage of shorter mileage and plenty of refueling options along the way, but with the disadvantage of not promising much scenery.

The other was longer, at 78 miles, but by heading Southeast, would hit Sage Creek Road on the Western edge of the Badlands. That was enticing because that is the road the Park materials direct you to for the greatest chance of seeing wildlife (e.g., bison), and it might enable us to cut a day from our itinerary (as I mentioned in a prior post, we're kind of racing to get to Minneapolis by August 4th to meet our wives, who have already committed to the airfare). The reason is that my direct route contemplated spending two nights in Wall, and using Day 1 to do a shortish, 30 mile loop out to the West along Sage Creek Road, and Day 2 to do the fuller Badlands Loop road, on Route 240, out to the East. So if we could sneak in Sage Creek Road on our way in to Wall, we could dispense with Day 1. The downside? Well, 78 is a lot of miles, the services along the way were questionable (one store definitely existed at the 23 mile mark, but it was not clear if a trading post in Scenic, SD, at the 43 mile mark, still was in operation) and, perhaps most damning, Sage Creek Road is all gravel -- 22 miles of it!

So, being the sensible guys we are, the night before we decided (after a fair amount of waffling) to do the direct 60 mile route. The gravel at the end of the day on the longer route was pretty influential in our thinking.

So we headed out today from Rapid on a nice bike path, pretty soon hit the frontage road for I-90 and, after about 10 miles came to Old US Highway 14, which was going to be our main road East to Wall, mostly paralleling I-90. Ho hum. Unfortunately, Highway 14, not withstanding the innocuous "Old" before it that promised (at least to this mind) little use and slow going, was a busy, 65 mph, 4 lane divided highway with no shoulder. Oops. Well, how long would we have to be on it? Maybe we could "finesse" it. Oh. 27 miles. With another 10 miles after brief interludes on other roads.

That looked ugly -- in fact, so ugly that I think it caused our brains to misfire (if you must have a scientific explanation). We consulted Google Maps, and saw that it was not too late to cut South and hit up with the main road (Route 44) that was the basis of the 78 mile option. If we first backtracked about a mile. So we did that. With very little discussion. And with even less thinking about the distance, the gravel or the lack of services. Just that very ugly "Old" Highway 14 blotting out all rational calculation.

It didn't take long to realize that, gosh, this might be a mistake. First, by not taking the 78 mile route from the start, we ended up taking two sides of a triangle to get back to it, which added about 7 miles to the ride -- turning it into an 85 mile day. Second, because we thought we were taking the shorter route, we got a relatively late start to the day, at around 8:30. We would have been on the road at around 7:00, if not earlier, if we had decided in advance on the longer route. And third, it quickly became wickedly hot. It was 102 degrees by the time we straggled into Scenic at around 1:30 (now representing the 50 mile mark of our day).

Fortunately, Scenic -- although it doesn't appear to have much of anything else -- has an open Post Office (with air conditioning) and a functioning well water pump outside where we could refill our water bottles. The trading post also existed, and was open -- although based on its stock of the oddest knick knacks, one has to wonder for how long. There, however, we partook of their small supply of ice cream sandwiches and lemonade to refresh ourselves a little, and pondered our options.

We could ride 35 more miles in the blazing heat. With 22 miles of it on gravel. We asked the trading post owner how bad was the gravel? Oh, there's no way I would ride a bike on it, she said. We asked the postal clerk the same thing. That would be crazy on your bikes, she said. Hmmm. The pickup option -- yes, the truck kind again -- began looming in our minds. That is, if we could figure out how to manage it in this desolate little town (whose population size might have given Ingomar a run for the money).

The trading post owner, Kim, kindly called her brother-in-law, Tom, for us, since he had a pickup, but when he finally showed up to suss out the situation it was clear that (a) he didn't really want to drive to Wall for us and (b) we wouldn't be able to get our bikes in the pickup bed with all the paraphernalia he had in it. But while we were waiting on Tom, the trading post received an actual live customer, who arrived in a pickup truck with an empty bed. Hmmm.

It turns out that our savior (this time) was named Ryan, a supervisor with the South Dakota DOT, working on the endless amount of road repaving in the State (did I mention that the last 10 miles into Scenic was all through road construction that forced us to ride on recently-tarred, melting in the heat, tarmac that I was sure was going to make my tires explode?). Turns out Ryan was on a break, is an avid mountain biker and took pity on us foolish road bikers. He couldn't drive us all the way to Wall because he still had to get back on the job, and he also shouldn't be seen giving us a ride in a DOT truck, but he could get us most of the way there, at least past the gravel. And he did exactly that -- dropping us off about 8 miles outside of Wall (just before another work zone where it wouldn't have been cool for him to be seen giving us a lift). Thanks, Ryan! You were a life-saver today. And, for those keeping score, Ryan (like Monte in the pickup adventure before him) also refused any "gas" money. I think Bob and I are accumulating a lot of paying it forward to do.

As for the gravel road? Well, the only wildlife we saw were prairie dogs. But it was definitely rideable and not as bad as some we've encountered to date. But 22 miles of it, in that heat, with our degree of tiredness, would not have been fun or particularly safe. And as for the town of Wall, the thought of spending two nights in it quickly became relatively unappealing after spending about 10 minutes in it (notwithstanding the famous Wall Drug store that still offers the free water and 5 cent coffee that got it started). So it will be one day in the Badlands after all, and we'll do the main Route 240 loop starting bright and early tomorrow.

Here are today's route and metrics (the straight line, which is not included in the mileage, represents the "gap" where Ryan gave us a lift):


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