Reader’s Stories: Sunchasing in South Dakota

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Story by: Ralph Dolinsky, CMG reader from Red Deer, Alberta


Our heros prepare to chase after some sun and some good riding.

I double-checked the weather channel and it was confirmed. The sun was wishing us to the south – South Dakota, in fact.

Al showed up around noon riding down from Edmonton, just as I had finished tying up the last of the camping gear to the VTR. It was a perfect day to start the nine-day trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, although I expected most of the time to be spent just getting there from Red Deer, Alberta.

As we headed south past Calgary via the Trans Canada, I could not believe that we were already pushing the speed limits – You have to know this highway and you have to know Al. Four lanes as far as you can see and my buddy on a new CBR 900 that he just finished breaking in. Ahhhh, it all makes sense now… after all, it would be a sin to allow any carbon to build up inside that sparkling new motor.

“Bring on the kitchen sink”! says Ralph.

Now, I have heard about Cyprus Hills but never had the pleasure of seeing them. A rolling prairie with very dry brown grasses sweeping in the wind. Try that vision on for about 4-6 hours, then in the far distance a lush green forest leaping out of the landscape with substantial elevation, accented by a clear lake complete with sailboat. I think we had just found our first night’s camp … or a mirage.

Equipped with one gas station and one restaurant, it was the perfect place to relax … except for the kid at the restaurant. He would not quit bothering us unless we’d perform a world record wheelie to his approval. Of course I obliged. Even a pillion full of gear, saddlebags and a gas can wouldn’t stop me. Heck, if I wiped out it’d no big deal, I would just cancel the rest of the trip because of this little…… NOT LIKELY! Instead we chuckled (I’m sure to his parent’s delight), as he made his BMX bike “vrrrooom” and duly wiped out himself.

The next morning we headed south towards the border. I had anticipated a fun ride through Cypress Hills, which it was … for about 5 minutes! That leaping landscape, where we’d spent our first night, was actually the edge of a natural plateau. The forest quickly disappeared and we were back to the good ol’ prairies. I counted about four trees, total, by the time we reached the border at Wildhorse – No cars, no animals, just four trees. I sure hope that 900 was completely broken in.

At the border we were subjected to the usual barrage of questions and shady looks, but passed unscathed.

We carried on to Havre, then east on 2, to Wolfepoint. South on 13 to Circle and east again to catch I-94. I ran out of trees to count but there was no lack of locusts, which proved to be as painful as a hailstorm I rode through in July of ’99!

These small four to five pound insects made quick work of the clean bikes. The dive-bombing birds chasing the grasshoppers complimented this. Getting behind a truck for protection seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, now I was being pelted with dead birds that were bouncing off of the truck in front, as well. Right behind me, Al was now in a whirlpool of locust, caught in the draft from the truck.

It was a long day of riding and it was starting to get dark, so we set up camp near Medora at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Useful links:

South Dakota
Highways

Black Hills
Tourist info

Sturgis Rally

The air was cleaner, people were friendlier, birds were singing – you get the idea. Another warm clear day looked to be in the works for that morning. The red sun shone at such an angle it gave every speck of floating dust it’s own identity. We rolled up and strapped the gear and we were off.

The area was now mostly flat with the occasional outcropping of small mountains and valleys. The earth had turned to a sandy red colour and the foliage had become quite different. The area starts to hint of ‘cowboy and Indian’ films as we approached the Black Hills. “Straight south on 85 to I-90 then to the Hills” echoed through my mind.

Another thing about the Northwest States…a lot of big cars with little old ladies driving them. Kinda scary if you think about it. When they start checking traffic with binoculars at intersections before they proceed, you’ve gotta wonder. I tried not to think about it, but the continual parade of white crosses every mile or so wouldn’t let the thought drift away.

In contrast, scattered throughout the scenery, were piles of stoves and washing machines and miscellaneous other appliances. Unfortunately I just couldn’t haul a dishwasher home for my wife.

We made it without incident to the “Black Hills”. We could tell we were finally somewhere. The landscape completely changes. Trees come into view and … my god, hills and plenty of them! This could only mean one thing … winding roads!

Heading south now on 85 into Deadwood, we were now traversing from the flatland to the Black Hills. The change was dramatic. In one direction and all you could see was flat desert-like conditions, rotate 180 degrees and see only people, trees and mountains.

Majestic Mount Rushmore… hey, is that Editor ‘arris on the right?

We made our way from Deadwood over Strawberry Ridge, heading south on 385. This is a premium spot for riding. Bikes own the road down here, and no helmet laws seem to apply. Great lengths of winding road throughout the forest and plenty of stops available to take in the natural beauty of the area. We stopped and set up camp at Sheridan which is close to Hill City (for food and supplies), yet somewhat separated from the crowds. It also proved to be a great location as base camp to explore all of the surrounding areas. We spent the next few days visiting the usual historic sites, such as Mount Rushmore (we were the only Canadians)!

If you didn’t know, the Black Hills National Forest exists on a massive plateau. Half of this plateau has eroded into hills, lakes, spires and a tremendous amounts of caves. Whoopee!

Jewels Cave offered some great tours. Al was small enough, but barely brave enough to squeeze through the 10″ x 18″ concrete test block that would have allowed him to take the spelunking tour. I unfortunately had a far too large upper body to fit through. Thankfully, in this case, I could take the elevator.

We managed to go on an “old tyme” guided tour equipped with candles that were stuck in old paint cans. This was a good option for the frugally budgeted. The guide cautioned us about screaming or having flashlights as it can hurt the ears and eyes of the resident bats. Ironically the first sighting of the wee creatures produced a girlie yowl and an intense beam of light to locate the offender.

Sure is perty, in’ it?

The one thing I must share is that I like twisties almost more than caving, and found some. Let me tell you, riding past Jewel Cave dishes out some hard-core corners to test any iron on.

After a few days of stinking up the tent we decided to wrap around Yellowstone National Park to head home. We took 16 straight east to I -90 and headed toward Buffalo, Wyoming. We had to make a decision here to take the interstate to Yellowstone or the less travelled yet easy to follow 16-20-789-16-20-14, look at a map and you will see what I mean. The numbers agreed with us so the second choice through Powder River Pass won out. It was a little cool at 9600 feet but the scenery was fantastic.

We finally reached the Yellowstone tollbooth, only to find that they we doing some major construction on the roads here. Now, we don’t mean a little bit of line painting or tar strips, this was a major relocation of the road. Al didn’t seem too impressed with the prospect of getting dirt on his new CBR.

By the time we reached the Fishing Bridge campsite, neither of the bikes were recognisable as sport machines, being completely covered with mud and weeds.

Yellowstone dilemma: will Yogi Bear & Bubu snag the bikes?

The next day it was clear towards the pacific, so we left the West gate of Yellowstone after a hearty breakfast and headed north to Great Falls. Al and I encountered interesting riding between Helena and Wolf Creek along Holter Lake. This was the only spot on the entire trip it decided to rain lightly (so much for our weather theory), but dried out not long after.

Once we reached Great Falls fate decided for us to stay the night. Remember that brand spankin’ new CBR? I recalled hearing how bullet proof these engines were so I was surprised to have my riding buddy cut in front of me on the Interstate to turn off to the first gas station in town.

“What in the hell is going on?” I asked. Turns out Al’s oil light came on and the heat gauge shot through the roof. We screwed around in the parking lot to find out the cause, fairing and gear spread all over like a yard sale. The bike didn’t sound well, lots of interesting clanks and rattles emerged from deep inside. Al got on the pay phone to the Honda dealer across town and some how convinced this guy to drive over to check out the problem at 4:50 pm.

Our new found friend and mechanic showed up and had that grave look on his face once he listened to the bike. A great pause ensued before he said, and I quote, “It’s basically f***ed”. I thought Al was going to pass out. I’m sure that he must have dislodged his retinas by rolling his eyes so far back into his head.

I have nothing but good to say about the Honda Dealer in Great Falls. The ailing bike was loaded onto a truck and I followed them to the shop. Free indoor storage for that night and the bike was to be checked out in the morning. The Honda guy dropped Al and his gear off at the nearest motel with me following behind. Great service for after 5 pm, I thought.

Local folk’s idea of a new and improved home-grown fender…

We of course stayed in the worst motel available. The door looked as if it had been kicked in several times before, and I came to the conclusion to use my sleeping bag on the bed, as I could not bear to sleep in a “party bed”.

We spent the remainder of that night eating in a fine burger joint, and watching cable TV. Al then made arrangements for his family to rescue the bike and our gear from the USA.

That morning it turned out that the oil pump in the CBR had let go for some unknown reason. We spent the rest of the day closely examining an American ZR7 while waiting for Al’s dad to drive his truck 7 hours to pick us up. And no, I’m not wimping out again, I just thought I should share some driving duties back to Canada. Hey, only a true friend would sacrifice a flat, straight, bike ride home.

I spent the next two days calling Al, mentioning how good my bike was running to him. So smooth and silky. His bike was eventually fixed under warranty a few weeks later.

Well, it has been a while since that fateful trip. Wonder where the sun will be shining this year?

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