When we last left our group of cyclists they were entertaining themselves by using a tape measure to determine the winner of a contest....no you pervs, they weren't measuring THAT! It was their bellies, remember?
From Minnesota we moved on to South Dakota where we had our first up close and personal experience with the prairies. Now if you've grown up surrounded by trees (keep in mind I come from Pennsylvania, which means Penn's woods, ergo lotsa trees) it is a rather amazing thing to suddenly be in country where the only shade is under a cow. First I was once again stunned by a view my eye simply could not take in, an endless sea of grasses and grains. Oh yeah! O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...NOW I get it! All you had to do was find a slight hill and you could watch the wind ripple the waves across the prairie. It really was a magnificent sight.
That being said, SD was one of the most difficult weeks for the cyclists. Believe it or not, cycling across the continent is not an entirely unheard of activity. It's just that the vast majority of cyclists travel from west to east so they are moving along with the currents of the Jet Stream. We were going 'backwards' and SD is where folks could really feel the work of moving against prevailing winds. It was wearying for them and the intense sun and 90+ heat did not help matters. During the trek across SD several of the cyclists took turns having Gus pedal their bikes (he'd gotten the itch AND we were seriously getting on each other's nerves by then) while they rode with me in the car. We also encountered our first SD traffic jam!
If you recall, the car was a Chevy Citation, not exactly luxury cruising but there was no pedalling involved so it was a break. There was also no AC involved so it was still beastly hot. As I said, SD is where we first encountered the vastness of land. It's also where we first discovered the sparseness of population. It was nothing to drive 50-100 miles between towns of 300 people, interminable prairie between them. One particularly oven like day Kristen was riding with me and we were desperate for a break from the heat. We decided that at the first farmhouse with trees next to the road we were going to stop and ask if we could just sit under the tree for some shade, no other request. We drove on for rather a while and finally spotted a place with a couple of kids playing in the yard and we pulled over to ask for one of their parents. They brought their mother out and we explained how we were travelling with the group of cyclists and dying for a bit of shade and made our request. Mom eyed us a little bit saw the PA license plate and decided that would be ok. We thanked her profusely and sat down in a tiny slice of blissful shade. The kids kept playing, occasionally looking over to see if they had an audience in us, then slowly started coming over to talk.
After a little conversation, the girl asked if we'd like a bit to drink. We were parched but declined, not wanting to ask anymore than we already had. She insisted and brought back a couple tall glasses loaded with ice. ICE!!!! Man, that was a luxury. Even with a cooler, it didn't seem to keep long in the car. After a while, Mom came back out to check on all of us and we sat and chatted about where we were headed. We told her the plans long and short term. She was a little concerned about where we planned to stop for the night and informed us if at all possible it would be best if we pushed a bit farther to find a place with more available to us. We agreed that maybe we should alter our course but we'd need to tell the cyclists. The way we communicated where we'd be staying in those pre-cellphone days was by leaving notes on the first sign into whatever town we'd agreed to stop in for the night. Gus and I would find lodgings go back to the town limits and tack up a note saying where to find us. Each cyclist would put a tick mark on the note as they came into town and the last person would take the note down. Knowing how exhausted the cyclists were already, Kristen and I didn't want to make a unilateral decision. We asked Mom if we could just stick around until the first wave of friends came through so we could consult with them, make sure they understood the situation. She said that was fine and invited us to come inside the house and enjoy the blessed AC. We offered to help around the house if there was anything we could do for her. She declined.
We talked the afternoon away and finally the first wave of exhausted riders came through and the alterations to plans were agreed upon. At this point, Mom not only invited, she all but demanded we stay for dinner. Again, I knew what it was to feed this hungry mob and I could not ask that of anyone. She told me that was nonsense and pulled out a mountain of hamburger and began grilling. She grilled as long as the cyclists ate and kept insisting we have more. During dinner she said she was calling her friend from the local newspaper over to meet us. I guess we were big news in that part of the world. We helped her clean up and I asked if I could please leave some money with her to help pay for all that food. She'd hear none of that. The friend came, took pictures, and interviewed us. Mom took the location of what would be our first mail drop in Wyoming and promised to send us copies of the paper. We thanked her and pulled out, once again amazed by the incredibly gracious generosity a complete stranger had shown us all.
South Dakota had some other unique stops and sights. One morning at dawn we drove west toward the Badlands. Seeing the sandstone mountains lit up by the rising sun behind us was unspeakably beautiful and no picture I took begins to do justice to the shifting electric colors. We spent a couple nights camped out in a town park and later had people tell us that was a terribly dangerous place to have slept. We spent another night in the home of a priest on a reservation. He was quite an amusing character. South Dakota is also where those of us from the east coast began to have our eyes opened to the reality for Native Americans, the discrimination, racism and poverty that occurs. It's just not an issue that's really understood well on the east coast because there aren't large populations of Native Americans here.
Being able to travel slowly across the country and meet and observe people provided an education about geography and culture than nothing else could have. Even the perspectives on trees was an education. I met one lady who said she had lived 'back east' for a while and she just had to return to the prairie because she felt so claustrophobic being closed in on by all the trees in Pennsylvania and New York. By that time I was just aching for a forest so it was with much joy that we entered the Black Hills National Forest and I got my 'tree fix' as we visited Mt. Rushmore.