Conquering Fear: Mt. Rushmore- a quick 3,116 mile solo ride
This trip may seem a bit random to some, so let me explain the motivation briefly:
Last year (2011) I’d wanted to get out on the bike for a nice long road trip and I’d started planning out a route to Mt. Rushmore, as it was a destination I’d not been to and one which I felt I should see at some point. It felt like a long enough ride which would get me through new terrain and territory I’d not yet seen. Unfortunately I had to cancel my ride due to ice in the passes, flooding in the lowlands, and tornadoes throughout a good chunk of the two possible routes I could take. Of course, canceled plans only seem to set the idea deeper in my head and make me more determined to do it this year around the same time (just prior to tourist season).
So this year I started planning early, finding that perfect week of time to go: before the busy on-season, but after the winter storms as well. Settling in on the week of May 19 – 26th, I started to make plans in earnest. Come to find, my sister, Kally, is dating a fellow who lives in Deadwood, just at the top of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Ah, serendipity. They offered to put me up for two nights, upon which I jumped as it meant not having to fight tourists for lodging around Keystone. I can’t begin to explain how appreciative I am of their hosting me for two nights….
That said, my entire plan consisted of leaving home Saturday morning, getting to Deadwood Sunday evening, and riding Mt. Rushmore on Monday; after that, the only other plan was to get home before having to go back to work on the 29th. How’s that for a wide open plan?
Remember what I said previously about my fear of doing? Well, Saturday May 19th I swung my leg over the saddle, backed out of my garage, and rolled on the throttle to start doing, even though I didn’t have anything near a complete plan set. Heck, I wasn’t even sure where I’d be spending that first night…
Here’s the route I took, exemplified by Google Maps, and then more clearly via my Garmin mapping program (click the thumbnails for larger versions):
Day 1: Up at 5.30am and out the door by 6.30am. On I-84 for a good stretch directly east, then a hard left to go North up to Spokane, Wa. / Couer d’Alene, Id. via US 182. When I stopped in Kennewick, Wa. for gas, I noted the 9/11 memorial was a block away, so I opted to roll by and take a few pictures as I’d forgotten they’d erected a memory to the fallen using a few beams of the twisted debris. Quite a powerful thing to see just how damaged and warped those beams are, and then to translate what that really meant.
On a fresh tank, hot off a gas stop in Couer d’Alene, I rode through what I will call simply the most beautiful portion of my entire 3100 mile ride. The mountains in east Idaho and west Montana are simply stunning. I noted at the end of the day that the scenery reminded me of Alaska, only shorter. Of course I don’t have any pictures of any part of this stretch.
I guess this is as good a time as any to admit I have a problem: I’m addicted to putting miles under my wheels. I don’t like stopping. Were I to stop for pictures, I’d have never made it to Mt. Rushmore. Second to not stopping is a more practical side to not having pictures from many parts of the trip: the best views and photographs I see while riding are in areas without turnouts or any other safe way to stop. So I just keep riding on and bank the memories.
As it turns out, the ride is exactly 700.6 miles from my garage to the front door of Comfort Inn in Butte, Mt. which I’d noted via my trip meter at 4.30pm, nearly exactly ten hours of hard burn on the highway. I’d actually stopped to check and determine if I could make it to Billings, Mt. this first night, but opted to stay in Butte and save my body the extra 220 miles. Plus, contrary to many of my other long rides, I didn’t want to do any night-time riding if I could avoid it. Since I’d be riding through a number of open ranges, this just felt safer as I’d have better visibility to see if a steer, dear, or bison was about to cross my path.
Day 2: Early to bed and early to rise again…. back on the bike and moving at 6am, knowing I had another long, hard burn of highway miles ahead of me, I wanted to make sure I arrived in Deadwood, SD relatively early enough to make dinner easy. Still following I-90, I dropped into Wyoming and snapped a few shots of the border since it was a gorgeous day and the sign seemed to play so well with the countryside around it.
I did try to stop a few times as I was able, in order to snap a few pictures along the way. What these photos don’t really show you is how empty the highway was as I turned eastbound again and rode for an hour without passing a single vehicle going the same direction. Normally I’d pass a semi or a car here and there, but there were a few stretches of twenty minutes to an hour where I was the only vehicle on the road within sight ahead or behind me, and very few passing me going the other direction. Quite an eerie feeling that I assume would only be exacerbated by dusk and nightfall.
You may notice in the pictures above that I am running with two GPS receivers. It may seem silly and redundant at first, but I can assure you, having two was a great luxury which allowed me to compare/contrast routes and times on the go (or rather during gas stops) as well as providing a deeper sense of trust in my chosen route when they began to disagree and I could determine which GPS to follow for the time being. Plus, there were a few times when one GPS lost satellite contact, but the other was able to remain tracking my progress, twice at critical turns in the Black Hills and Yellowstone respectively.
Heading into the east side of Wyoming and then into the west side of South Dakota, the Black Hills seem to pop up out of nowhere. Rolling into Deadwood around 2.30pm I had to chuckle at the large amount of motorcycles I began to see as I crept through the town at a painful 20mph.
Just outside of town, I encountered my first real challenge of the trip: Chad, Kally’s boyfriend, lives off of a forest service road. I’d never really ridden on dirt before, so this was a new experience for me and the bike as I learned how to handle her over (admittedly hard pack) dirt for the next two miles to the house. Confidence boosted, I pulled in to the driveway, met Chad, said hello to Kally, and unloaded the bike. The rest of the afternoon and evening was quite relaxed, with a brief jaunt out to a local bar for a damn good burger and beers; well appreciated after 9 hours of riding and another 565 miles under the tires.
Day 3: Slept in a bit today, which was quite nice. Knowing I had a much shorter trip ahead of me, I was able to settle in a bit and just enjoy riding without a tight (albeit self-imposed) deadline. Today was the pinnacle of my trip idea: Ride Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills. I was excited to get back in the saddle. The night before, we’d sat around chatting about which roads to ride and what to see outside of Mt. Rushmore, and I am happy to have gleaned Chad and Kally’s knowledge of the area before I rolled out, as I had a great idea of my options, even though I didn’t have a solid plan after seeing the monument. Kally joined me at the mountain and ran around for a bit snapping pictures, chatting, and generally having a great time.
I picked up a boony hat for myself, as has become tradition when I visit national parks / monuments on my bike. Heading out, after a final quick run down of the possibilities with Kally, I turned out to the west to make a wide loop on the Needles highway and back in to Keystone via Iron Mountain road… but, since the Crazy Horse monument was just another 11 miles south of the 87 turn, I opted to swing by, since I was in the area. This monument still has quite a way to go before completion, which judging from the present state and progress up to this point, likely won’t be in my lifetime. So, I snapped some pictures and headed back out for some fun on the relatively quiet roads (another benefit to going before tourist season).
I figured that on this ride, I’d be wearing down the middle portion of my tires mostly, so I took this opportunity to dig in to some corners, have some fun, and wear down the edges of my tires too. This ultimately turned into a warm (82 -84 degrees) 250 mile day through the Black Hills as I wound my way through the twisties to get to the tunnel everyone had told me I needed to see…
After shooting the tunnel and pig-tail bridges, I noted it was still early in the afternoon, and I had no destination other than back to Chad’s in mind… so I opted to head up to Sturgis just to be able to say, “I rode my bike to Sturgis”. Amusingly enough, since Chad had to work all day but wanted to ride, we ended up back in Sturgis for dinner at The Knuckle on our bikes, having taken another fun road over the hills to get there and back. Then, of course, two obligatory pictures of Kally’s dog, the cutest Corgi-mix I’ve seen: Rango.
Day 4: Deadwood to Jackson in one fell swoop. Wow, what a long ride this was. Only a short 510 miles by my estimation, but likely the hardest 510 I’ve yet ridden thanks to the fabled Wyoming winds. Because of my bike’s design and full fairing, in heavy cross winds it acts as a sail, so for approximately 200 miles I was riding at a 60 degree angle leaning to my left just to maintain a straight line on the highway.
I’d left early in the day again, this time heading out around 6:45am, and after the winds, I was happy I had time in the evening to relax.
I had a general idea of my route, as I’d chatted with Kally and Chad the night before and pretty well settled on a route taking me back through Sheridan and into Cody before dropping down into Jackson from Yellowstone. Keeping my eyes open, however, I noted both the hills in the distance and the signs pointing me to the ‘fastest and safest” route to Yellowstone which headed south and west rather than north. Not knowing what was in store via either route, I opted to follow the signs and play this one safe. At a gas stop just at that critical juncture, I asked a local who’d also stopped and he advised the south route without any prompting, noting the north route roads may be rough on a bike. I took that as confirmation that my route change was the wiser choice.
Imagine how tickled I was when hours later in the middle of the Wyoming plans I stumble across the Wyoming Whiskey distillery! I had no clue it was there until I ran up on the billboard just after having passed a sedan on the two lane highway…. which likely made the car behind me curse a few times and/ or think I was out of my mind as I hit the brakes and made the quick left turn down the gravel road to take the tour…
Sadly, they don’t yet have product available for sampling, but they are running their 34 foot continuous column still and producing a lot of distillate which they are warehousing and aging to appropriate specifications as one would expect. But hey, what serendipity again! Had I chosen the north route, I’d have completely missed this new distillery! Plus, the stop gave me a brief respite from the winds and enough rest to feel refreshed after the tour.
During the next gas stop in Thermopolis, Wy. I chatted with another local who was just heading out of Jackson (about 80 miles away at this point) who had noted that as they were leaving, a storm was coming in. Taking that as my cue, I high-tailed it out of town and into the Grand Tetons in an attempt to get in to Jackson before it really hit. I must have made it in between storms because when I got to Moran Junction to head south into Jackson, I was still dry (for the most part) and started seeing views like this forcing me to stop at multiple turnouts to take pictures in the process getting my favourite self-pic of the trip (the middle shot below).
Day 5: Knowing this was going to be another short mileage day at 464 miles, but with some additional challenges and lots of opportunity to stop for photos, I headed out early once again. I’d kept track of the storms the night prior, and knew I would be heading straight into some “fun” through Yellowstone. Waiting it out wasn’t really an option though, as the forecast just got worse the closer to the weekend. (As a reminder for those playing along at home, day 5 is Wednesday, May 23rd.) So, I had a window of opportunity here, and needed to take it… packed up the bike and headed out again at 7am. This time heading straight north for a good portion of the 450+ miles ahead of me. It was a quick ride back up to Moran junction (fun side note: Moran is my birth surname prior to being adopted into the O’Donnell name).
As I’m waiting on queue to pay my $20 entrance to Grand Teton National Park, one of my fears comes true: snow. It was starting light, but I also knew I had quite a few miles ahead of me that would take me into even higher elevations. As I pay my fee I ask the ranger what the roads are like, and he indicates that it is likely slush through most of the west passes, but that hugging Yellowstone lake should keep me out of most of it. This was good news to me as it was the same route I’d already decided up, so it fit nicely and didn’t call for a quite re-route. Over the next 30 minutes to an hour, the weather simply got progressively worse, to the point where I intentionally put myself a few yards behind one Jeep, and in front of another… figuring if I went down on some ice, at least I had a 50/50 chance someone would see and stop to help. But in all honesty, that wasn’t the scariest part, what really scared me was the unknown. These were unfamiliar roads, I had only GPS maps to guide me, and I had no clue what kind of weather or road conditions lay ahead of me. two hours in, and I knew if I ran across a road closure forcing me back the way I came, I may well be in trouble where fuel was concerned… One road closure could have likely put me in a tight spot. Here’s what my windscreen and helmet looked like just after paying my fees at the Moran Junction gate, and again later in the ride… luckily the snow didn’t get much worse than this. But this was enough to put the fear in me.
The weather is a fickle mistress, though, and seemed to smile upon me as much as she scorned me this day, as I was treated to some gorgeous sunlit scenery as much as I was tormented with cold and mild snow flurries.
Oh, did I mention? I realized when the temps got down to 37 and kept going until they bottomed out (thankfully) at 34 degrees, that my heated grips weren’t functioning? Always pleasant to discover that little fact when you need them the most. Of course, as it turns out, that wasn’t when I needed them the most, as 37 degrees at 20mph is actually far more tolerable than 44 degrees at 70mph. Lessons learned I guess. In either case, I was able to get through it all without damage to bike or limb, and even got some nice pictures to remember this bit of the ride as seen above.
After a quick gas stop and bite to eat in Livingston, Mt. it was another hard burn on the highway to Missoula, Mt. where I’d decided to bed down for the night, thus making an easier ride home the next day than the first day had been….
Day 6: Due to a poor night’s sleep, this ride turned in to a harder highway-burn home than I’d anticipated. I’d figured the last 575 home wouldn’t be as tough as the first 700 miles out… I was wrong. Back on the road at 5.50am, I was eager to get this last bit done and over with and get back home. The prior day’s ride took a lot out of me, and coupled with a poor night’s sleep as well as a turbulent weather report, I knew the ride ahead wouldn’t be as nice as when I’d started this ride six days prior. What I hadn’t expected was a few slight flurries again in the west hills of Montana as I headed back into Couer d’Alene. At highway speeds, this made for a pure endurance run right from the start. Three hours later and I took a rest and ate breakfast at the same gas station in Couer d’Alene as I had lunch at coming the other direction. This time, however, I was focused on warming up not cooling off. The rest of the ride was thankfully uneventful. While the terrain south of Spokane and west across the Columbia river is stunning, it is highway I am familiar with, which at the end of a long ride is tantamount to boring; my sole focus being to get home and take a long hot shower. Mission accomplished Thursday afternoon at 3:30pm PDT as I downed some Aleve and let the ride wash over me as I soaked in the steam from the shower at home.
– During this ride, I realized that regardless of my intentions when I get off the bike I’m exhausted and have no energy to write while in my hotel rooms for the evening. I’m actually quite saddened by this realization since it means the (admittedly quite brilliant) blog posts I’ve written in my head during my ride are lost for eternity. Of course, most of them are long gone after 20 miles down the road and likely would have never made it even if I did get to writing in the evenings of my ride. I guess that’s the problem with riding to clear your head… when its clear what was in there is gone!
– It is likely now safe to say without jinxing the entire ride: Not once, over the course of 3100+ miles, did any other driver attempt to kill me. I was shocked when I realized this about 2/3rds through the total ride. On my other 800 mile rides down to SoCal, I encounter no less than 5, more often 10-15 times when I need to physically avoid death because someone tries to turn in front of me or merge into me. But not on this ride. Not a single incident requiring me to take any action to avoid being hit by another motorist. Shocking I tell you. Shocking.
– It is also safe to note now that over the same 3100+ miles, I only saw a grand total of 10 police/sheriffs/state trooper/highway patrol vehicles. Four of which were clumped together in two pairs of two in the middle of I-90 somewhere between Butte and Couer d’Alene. Again, compared with the 5-10 I normally see on my 800 mile trips down south, this seemed like a small number given the far greater mileage. Not that I’m complaining, though, as all the officers I did see either didn’t give me the time of day, or just waved as I passed… no literally, I passed one in Wyoming at about 74 mph, have him a friendly wave as I did (he was doing about 68mph) and then another friendly wave as he overtook the semi I had just become stuck behind.
– You may have also noticed that I glossed over at least 75% of my road time here. This wasn’t by accident. Not that there wasn’t gorgeous scenery all along the way, but rather, there is literally hundreds of miles of ride time which were just high-speed sweeping curves into straights, over and over again. Not to say these miles were boring, not by a long shot… but they are miles which don’t lend themselves to interesting blogging or road journaling. These are the core miles of the journey though, the reason I get out and ride. These are the therapy miles, the time to get into and out of my own head, to enjoy the whine of my tires on the tarmac, to let the wind noise drown out all the junk from my brain and focus me back into the important stuff. The destination is important to me, but only in that I need a good end goal to get me on the road… once on the road, though, that goal better be a long ways off, as I don’t like stopping and I need a lot of time in my head while I rack up those miles under my wheels.
– All in all, the trip was a rousing success: no catastrophes that I couldn’t easily deal with. Nothing rattled me, nothing got me worked up, nothing got me stressed (outside of a few miles fearing icy roads). With only a vague plan and very few expectations, I found that any ‘problems’ weren’t problems at all, just changes that can be easily adapted within the overall plan. Likely a deep lesson to be learned in that last bit….
At the least, I returned home exhausted but quite refreshed and invigorated. Just what I needed from a ride such as this.
Full Gallery of all images from the post above: