Bike Tales: Badlands

“Oscar” – Vale, South Dakota August 2014

This is my bike, “Oscar.”  From time to time, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my time in the saddle.

Some 87 miles or so southeast of Sturgis, South Dakota lies Badlands National Park. Consisting of almost a quarter of a million acres of largely untouched prairie land and some of the most dramatic rock formations I have ever seen, Badlands National Park is, in a word, stunning. I know there are a lot of National Parks I have yet to see, but Badlands is one of my favourites.Badlands National Park

The four of us arrive at the Badlands late in the afternoon, hoping to experience a phenomenon reported to be just this side of heavenly. It is said that when the setting sun backlights the hills, it repaints the pink and gold and mauve formations in shades of blue and green and purple. But you have to get there just before the sun sets. Unfortunately, we arrive about an hour too early. Still, it’s Badlands National Park and we’re on motorcycles and the sun is warm and it’s a beautiful day and a beautiful place to ride. What more could a biker want?

Definitely do-able.

Definitely do-able.

The road through the park climbs and twists, dives, loops, sweeps and soars, almost mimicking the spires and eroded buttes that define the park. I wouldn’t call it technically demanding, but it certainly makes for a fantastic ride. Trust me, those twisties set THIS motorcycle chick’s heart to fluttering. I follow my friends through a park that is almost eerily empty of visitors. It feels like we have the whole place to ourselves and that suits me just fine as well.

On the eastern side of the park, prairie grasses ripple and bob in the wind, looking almost like waves rolling across the harbor. I wonder if that’s why they called some of the wagons that made the westward migration “Prairie Schooners”? I can see the similarities between a wagon making its way through the prairie vegetation and the vessels that skirted around the islands of my father’s home back in the day.

Badlands National ParkHere and there, a shallow canyon, perhaps the remnant of a long-dried creek bed, cut into the prairie and the grasses swirl in strange eddies before the south wind. For the most part, the prairie lands of the eastern side of the park seems relatively benign.

This side doesn't look too intimidating.

This side doesn’t look too intimidating.

And then the road curves, bringing my gaze to the west side.

Can those peaks get any sharper?

Can those peaks get any sharper?

Deeply eroded buttes. Spires and pinnacles that claw at the sky, almost trying to drag cloud and heaven down to earth. Hard-packed soil, rock, jagged edges, deep crevices, every surface cutting into the sky or into the earth. Here, the wind bends and groans trying to manoeuvre around formations that will yield only reluctantly and only after years and years of pounding. This would be like the ice pack that seals the harbor each winter.

I don’t know if many settlers traveled this route to get to destinations further westward, but if they did, I cannot imagine how their hearts must have crashed upon seeing this terrain. There is nothing easy about this side of the park. The grades are steep, the footing uncertain and the heat teetering on unbearable. Even with the convenience of a modern road, there is nothing to blunt the sense that Badlands National Park can still be a very dangerous place to be.

Badlands National Park - 2015

The sun is beginning it’s slide towards sunset. Too early to see the pinnacles and spires transform but not too early for a breathtaking sight like this.

The prairie is just over my left shoulder.

The prairie is just over my left shoulder.

In the daylight, there is no shade to be found. The first time we had ridden the Badlands, my jeans had felt like they were baked to my legs, welded onto my calves by the heat from Oscar’s tailpipe. With no relief from the scorching heat, it had been a toss-up whether we faced greater harm riding without jackets and helmets or with the threat of heat exhaustion just lurking over our shoulder. Even this year, late in the afternoon and with the sun beginning to dip below the tips of the highest spires, the heat radiating from rock and asphalt sears legs already roasting from the heat of motorcycle exhausts. It is a ride as exhausting as it is exhilarating. The ride back to Sturgis promises to be just as demanding, for all that we will be making the trip in the dark and the temperature will plummet once the sun disappears behind the Black Hills.

The road crisscrosses the park, meandering back and forth between the benign and the dramatic. First the cool greens of the prairie and then the glaring golds of the buttes and pinnacles. On one side, deer and antelope. On the other, rattle snakes and buzzards. It is beautiful and terrifying each in turn until it becomes an exquisite blur of visual glory.

I can't imagine getting through that with a wagon and oxen.

I can’t imagine getting through that with a wagon and oxen.

Badlands National Park - 2015

Oscar and Friend

As expected, the ride home is almost as brutal as riding in full daylight. The wind has swung around from the north, and where the highway crests the hills or where it bridges the gaps between the hills, the wind cuts through my jacket, setting my teeth to chattering. I crouch as low over my gas tank as I can, hoping my windshield will deflect the cooler air.

Much like my 50 mile ride in a downpour at last year’s Rally, I find myself concentrating on things that help take my mind off how miserable I feel, like the way the very last of the sunlight kisses the top of the hills, frosting them in pale gold, or how the wind is not so very strong for all its chilliness. I focus on the rumble of Oscar’s little 650cc engine, smooth and consistent. I glance down at my speedometer. 90mph. A new record for him. Somehow, it makes me feel better that my bike, the smallest of the four, is managing to keep up with bikes more than twice his size.

We get back to our home away from home on the outskirts of Sturgis somewhere around 9:30PM.  I’m exhausted and fall into bed.  It’s been a good day.  Exhausting but good and I don’t need much rocking before sleep overtakes me.

So what did I learn on this ride?

  • Contrast is so under-estimated.  I couldn’t appreciate the sun’s warmth until I knew the kiss of the cool night air.
  • Sometimes, it’s the tension between the pairs of opposites that makes the interplay of the two more powerful, more beautiful than the individual elements in isolation.
  • Sometimes you have to be willing to get uncomfortable if you want to find something extraordinary.

Happy trails, friends!

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