Rapid City and West River Riding...
In the parlance of South Dakota, people either live 'east river' or 'west river'. The river in question is the Missouri which roughly splits the state in half. East river is mostly flat, farm land while west river is rolling ranch land plus the Black Hills and the Badlands. Rapid City is the regional hub of the western part of the state and the gateway to the Black Hills and to Badlands National Park. It also happens to be the location of my alma mater, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. So I took a couple of days off in Rapid to visit a few of my old college haunts and to get a flavor for what has changed and what remains the same.
After more than 20 years, I think more has changed than has stayed unchanged. Much has changed on my college campus. The dorm where I lived as a freshman has been torn down and a new dorm built to connect with the student union. The only thing remaining from the old classroom building where I took most of my liberal arts classes is an arch to commemorate the early days of the school. A new classroom building sprang up where we used to play frisbee and hacky sack. And construction projects abound all across the campus. Alumni Director Tim Vottero was kind enough to give me a tour of the changes happening at Surbeck Center where workers were frantically working to finish the cafeteria before hungry students show up in the fall. The electrical engineering building looks much as it did in my day, but few of the professors that challenged me remain within. One that is still associated with the school, Dr. Larry Simonson, now works with the SDSM&T Foundation and spends much of his time traveling and staying in contact with alumni across the country and the world. Larry generously bought me lunch one afternoon and quizzed me about my trip. That was a pop quiz that I think I passed!
As for the rest of Rapid City, it mostly looks the same. M Hill and Dinosaur Park still dominate the skyline to the west. The Hotel Alex Johnson still rises above the rest of downtown. The Hall Inn is still selling beer by the pitcher and quart to thirsty college students. The road to Star Village still looks steep enough to ski down on a snowy winter's day. But 20 years makes everything seem to shrink. What used to be a long drive to west Rapid now seems a short hop, even on a bicycle. The downtown area that used to be the big city to me now feels like a quaint little neighborhood. But the vibe of downtown has definitely improved. It would have been rare to spend a Saturday night there back in the 80's. Now it seems like the place to be, with many restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Walking a few blocks from dinner back to my hotel, I heard the music of no less than three live bands coming from clubs and cafes along the way.
After leaving Rapid City, I spent three days crossing west river country, arriving yesterday at the Missouri River and the state capitol, Pierre. The highlight of the ride was Badlands National Park. Though separated by only 70 miles, there couldn't be a bigger contrast between the lush green forests of the Black Hills and the barren sandstone peaks and hoodoos of the Badlands. The thing about the Badlands that amazes me the most is the changing colors over the course of a few hours. At mid-day, the peaks are almost white. You can barely see the layers and striations in the rock. But near sunrise or sunset, the place comes alive with reds, browns and purples. Check out the pictures in my South Dakota album, as it's a place that I can't do justice to in a written description.
I was also lucky to find a wonderful bed and breakfast on the edge of the park. Amy and Phil Kruse built Circle View Ranch on top of a butte with a 360 degree view. On one side is the Badlands, stretching as far as you can see from the east to the west. On the other side, a creek winds it's way through the Kruse family's ranch. These are industrious people who make the most of what they have. It's a real working ranch with 130 head of cattle, some chickens, a few horses and a border collie named Hank. They will take you on a trail ride if you so choose or build a roaring pit fire so you can spend the evening outside under the stars. On a cool, quiet night out here, I had the best night's sleep of the trip. Amy's breakfast was also a 'best-of-trip' - blueberry pancakes made from wheat grown and ground at the ranch, fresh eggs, homemade granola with honey from the neighbor's beehives, and, of course, coffee, juice, potatoes, bacon, yogurt and fresh fruit. Yum! I'm getting hungry just writing about it!
Warning, the rest of this post is pure whining...
After leaving the Badlands, the rest of the route to Pierre has not been fun. From Rapid City to Pierre, I covered 200 miles in three days, not because I was in a hurry or because I wanted to, but because there are so few towns out here with any services. The distance would have been OK, but there is barely an inch of flat terrain in the west river area. And then there's the wind. The prevailing winds in North America are supposed to be from west to east. But apparently Mother Nature is on vacation or she got bored with the norm because, I've had a steady headwind out of the east for the last two days. I don't know what it is about riding into the wind, but it makes everything more tired and sore - not just my legs, but my shoulders, my feet, my hands and wrists, and my butt have all hurt more in the last two days than at any other time on the trip.
There, got that off my chest! Now it's on to my hometown!