Tuesday, October 11, 2011

741 Steps

I turn my back to the wind
To catch my breath,
Before I start off again.
Driven on without a moment to spend
To pass an evening with a drink and a friend

                                                            (Neil Peart – “Time Stand Still”)

Preparing for Departure
It isn’t very often Mary or I go out for an evening, let alone a day.  Sometimes we get so consumed by life’s everyday challenges we forget to take pause, to stop and share in the love we have for each other.  Life has been passing us by a lot lately, with Mary’s health having issues, I working two jobs, trying to maintain some semblance of sanity in an otherwise insane world. So it was with the first weekend of October.  We had been so busy and so stressed with life that we had become oblivious to our need to get out, to enjoy each other.  Fortunately, a friend stepped in and provided us with a weekend escape, a chance to enjoy the company of friends, to share a fine meal, to “pass the evening with a drink and a friend” as it were.

Mary at the USS South Dakota
That first weekend of October we met up with some friends in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  This trip would give us a chance to get away, and it would provide a springboard for which I could realize my dream of riding through the Black Hills of South Dakota on my Harley.  No rallies, just me on my bike.  We anxiously hit the road, and made the trip to Sioux Falls, stopping only for gas.  As tired as we were that first night, we  savored every moment together, relaxed by a fire, struck up conversation with others who passed by.  Our friends having not yet arrived, we took some time that Saturday to enjoy a quiet breakfast and find a few sights to take in, but soon we returned to our hotel, and waited for our friends to arrive.  The first couple arrived by midafternoon, and the other friends would arrive soon after.  We lost ourselves in conversation, hugs, the sharing of gifts.  Although tired, our friends were ready for the evening.

Mary with Exeter,
The Travelling Bear
We took a limousine to a Brazilian restaurant.  This was a festive place, loading up on South American style cuisine, and loading your plate with meats and veggies at every turn.  The manager was even taken by our playful spirit, going so far as to serve us himself, bringing a delightful drink for each of us to share in the evening. Toasting the evening made us all realize how fortunate we were to share in the evening.  We returned to our hotel full, but anxious to continue our evening by the fire pit Mary and I had enjoyed the previous evening.  As we sat at the fire, a young girl and her parents were making smores, and shared some with each of us.  We talked for hours not even caring about the time, but eventually the evening ended, and as we hugged we gave thanks to each other for a spectacular night. 

From left:  Barry, Cassie, Michelle, me, and Janna

“You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime.”

                                                            (Burt Munro – “The World’s Fastest Indian”)

My brand new 2011 Ultra Classic
ElectraGlide Harley Davidson
aka Marilyn, posing in Spearfish Canyon
For many years I had wanted my own Harley motorcycle.  I remember as a teenager asking my mom and dad to buy one, and the reaction I got from the mere thought of me on a bike.  I remember our neighbor had a motorcycle when I was 9, and I never stopped asking him for a ride.  As I set out that Sunday after warmly embracing my wife, setting off on a four day journey through the Black Hills, I remembered the long road I had taken to make this trip a reality.  Guiding my bike onto the freeway I could feel myself shaking, almost shedding a tear for the realization of a dream.  My trip would take me to Rapid City, staying with a friend’s son who was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base.  Then four rides from Rapid City – Devils Tower, Wyoming, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, and Spearfish Canyon all in the Black Hills, and finally The Badlands National Park. My schedule was tight, but I had planned this trip to maximize my riding and my stops.  The hardest part would be crossing the 400 miles of prairie between Sioux Falls and Rapid City.  As I arrived in Rapid City, I sensed my trip with a deeper appreciation that my goal was coming true.

Me at Devils Tower
I headed out Monday with my first goal of Devils Tower.  An enormous natural statue of rock, this monument has been the stuff of legends.  I recognized it as a symbol of what my ride would become.  It was clear and sunny, and I was ready more than I could have every hoped.  I stopped briefly in Sturgis, South Dakota, which has become a mecca for just about anyone with a motorcycle these days.  Noting the endless stream of bars, eateries, and tourist traps, I quickly marked this destination off the list.  The rally that is held every year here brings hundreds of thousands of bikers from around the globe, but today, I was the only bike in town really.  After I “toured” that tiny town, I continued west to Sundance, Wyoming, and then pulling northward to Devils Tower.  The views of the tower were impeccably breathtaking.  At first it hung low, but as I rode closer, the horizon became filled with its beauty.  I entered the park at the base of the tower, and rode to the visitor’s station, where I picked up my very first passport stamp, a small but precious prize serving as a reminder of my trip.  I spent two hours taking in the view, getting those much needed pictures, and speaking with other visitors who were there.  I noted that as I arrived, I was trembling with excitement, a sure sign that this trip would be well worth the wait.  Soon, though, I was forced to pack my camera up, and head back to Rapid City.  I barely remember my ride back, as my memories swelled from my visit, but I also knew the nest day would be even better.

Mount Rushmore
My next day had two stops planned.  The first would be Mount Rushmore, a remarkable statue carved into the stone mountain face of four presidents.  This was an obvious choice for anyone visiting the Black Hills.  My trip would only take about 40 minutes, but on this day I would stay in the park for four hours.  Again, as I retrieved my cameras, my hands were shaking again from the sheer excitement and thrill that my third goal had been met, and I had arrived safely.  After retrieving my second passport stamp from the Park Office, I walked into the viewing area, where I got a clear and unobstructed view of the statue.  It was a week day so the park was not full, but this day was a clear warm day, and the view was perfect.  I absorbed every detail, relished every picture, even spoke with those mingling in the amphitheater.  As it turned out, an older retired couple with their friends from, of all places, Dubuque, Iowa were there as well, and we spoke for several minutes about the trip, the park, and the experiences of getting there.  I almost wanted to stay longer, but quickly realized that I had one more stop planned.  Walking back to my bike, I looked out beyond the parking lot, and the view was so clear you could actually see The Badlands.  After packing up, I made my way out, made one more stop for pictures, and rode on to my next visit.
Crazy Horse Memorial
About 14 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore is a new memorial being carved in another mountain called Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the realization of a dream of Chief Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux chief who presented the idea to a Polish descended American named Korczak Ziółkowski. At first the idea seemed implausible, but eventually, Ziółkowski began work on the project in 1948. Working alone, he gathered the tools and the supplies he would need to start. An old air compressor, a generator, jack hammers, dynamite, all paid for with his own money. His effort started by building a ladder of 741 steps, and each day he would start with climbing those steps, going down to restart the compressor, then back up, sometimes 9 or 10 times a day. Ziółkowski passed away in 1982, but work on the statue continues today, The memorial, however, is not a national park. It receives no government assistance, no monies, or grants from any government agency. Instead the work is all privately funded, and continues today in the hopes that the dream of Chief Standing Bull thru the efforts of the entire Ziółkowski family will be realized. While I didn’t stay as long, I was deeply moved by the effort of that one man in Korczak Ziółkowski, and what the early days of his work were like climbing each of those 741 steps every day. As I packed and rode off, my only thought was what this world would be like if more of us could make that kind of effort.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic View
My last day in the Black Hills was on a ride through Spearfish Canyon.  This is a scenic ride through some of the beauty that lays in the Black Hills.  I was in no particular hurry this day, and made many stops and spent a lot of time just taking it all in.  I could almost feel a supernatural presence guiding me through each curve, and could almost hear native chanting in the cliffs above.  I felt as if I was being watched by the masses of native Americans who hold this place in such high regard.  It was a truly surreal experience, and after I stopped at the south end of the canyon, I struck up a conversation with other Harley riders who said the same thing.  There is a spirit about that place, and I could feel that spirit around every turn.  One rider suggested another route for the path leading to Rapid City.  Nemo Road takes you into the eastern side of the Black Hills, and many of the valleys are used today for cattle grazing and horses.  This road would test my skills as a motorcyclist, so I took it slow at first, then gaining confidence in my skills and the machine I pushed a bit harder, taking curve after curve a little better and more skillfully.  As I coasted down the last stretch into Rapid City, I was covered with sweat, but smiled as I realized that my goal had come true.

Devils Tower Landscape

One-Zero Zero One-Zero Zero-One
One-Zero Zero One-Zero Zero-One
In distress

Marilyn at Devils Tower
As with all things, I realized my trip was almost at an end.  Because the weather had been so good, I didn’t look at the forecast much until after I returned from Spearfish Canyon.  Rain, wind, and severe storms were forecast for western South Dakota.  That forced me to make two decisions. One I would be forced to skip my ride through the Badlands.  This was an important goal in my trip, but I also realized that being caught in a thunderstorm in that area could be dangerous.  There is simply nowhere for a motorcycle to hide in that kind of weather in that area.  My second decision was to try to make it back to Cedar Rapids in one day.  That meant riding 700 miles alone across three states.  Ordinarily that would not be a problem, but on the day I left Rapid City, that would become impossible.  I was not even 50 miles east of Rapid City and began running into heavy winds blowing from south to north across the highway.  Some winds gusting as high as 50 mph in places.  This wasn’t in the Rapid City forecast, but later checking saw that it was in the forecast for points east of there.  In my haste to get home ahead of the thunderstorms I failed to check the forecast where I was riding through, and was now caught on my bike in the middle of a windstorm that covered almost the entire area lying west of the Mississippi River.

Marilyn and I at
Profile Viewpoint,
Mt Rushmore
Riding in high wind can be a dangerous proposition.  I had just traded in my Heritage Softail for a much newer, and bigger, Ultra Classic Electraglide.  In high wind, the bike became a sail.  It took almost all my strength to keep the bike upright and straight.  In some places I literally locked my right arm out straight against the right side handlebar grip while holding the left grip in place and steering on the left side.  The wind was blowing the bike all over the road, and semi traffic made things even worse.  My body was literally being pummeled by the wind as if Rocky Balboa and Muhammed Ali were punching my body almost mercilessly.  My helmet kept rocking back and forth from the gusts, and at times it sounded like Neil Peart himself was using the top of my helmet for a drum set. I could go 140 miles on a tank, low mileage for my bike, but I found I needed the rest every two hours to keep up. I took some comfort in crossing the Missouri River, but by the time I reached Jackson, Minnesota, I had ridden thru rain, wind, dust storm, tumbleweed clouds, and flying cornstalks.  I was exhausted, I knew it, and I still had a bit over 200 miles to go.  Fortunately, a little wisdom, and coaxing on my cell call to home made me realize the old adage “discretion is the better part of valor”, and rather than continue riding towards home, I found a Super 8 hotel close by, got a room, and collapsed.  I nearly skipped dinner, but also knew I needed to recharge a bit.  A walleye dinner at the local diner, followed by a nice hot shower helped.  I knew, though, the next day would be the same.

Sunrise at Jackson, Minnesota
The next morning I set out towards home.  I had a decent breakfast of a bowl of cereal, a banana, and some orange juice.  Pulling the bike upright, I noted the sky was filled with a beautiful sunrise.  The wind, however, had only subsided a little, and I was back to wrestling with wind and machine.  The trip home seemed like days, but in reality only took a bit over four hours.  A quick stop for gas and a Gatorade in Mason City helped to recharge my energy, although a rather arrogant woman in a brand new Cadillac SUV reminded me that some people have no grasp of what they do.  Apparently she wanted my Harley out of her way, parking a scant six inches from my front tire in the line at the pump, and then gunning her engine and honking her horn until I got out of her way.  I guess some folks are just born that way.  Pulling back onto the highway, I was thankful I didn’t confront her, but a little upset she almost hit the bike.

Coming up to Mt Rushmore
Finally about noon time I made it to my exit for home.  I was worn out and dog tired.  I had accomplished so much on my trip, but the ride home took most of the fun out of it all.  As I pulled into the driveway at home, Mary and I met with a warm hug.  It had been a long trip, but also the realization that I had accomplished a goal.  I didn’t even unpack the bike, rather leaving it in the garage packed.  There is a thankfulness you feel after a long ride, and I remember telling my wife “Thank goodness I am alive”.  The winds I had ridden through were dangerous.  I could have been hurt, but I also knew that I had just proved to myself I could adapt and overcome those obstacles.  I had realized that no matter what challenges lie ahead, it’s how we meet those challenges that means the most.  It’s the journey, not the destination.  There will be more trips, more goals, more riding, indeed more tales on the trails.  I am lucky have such a family who understands those desires to travel, but even more important to support and help me achieve those goals.

We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we've established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep. It makes everything else in life so wonderful, so worthwhile.

                                    (Earl Nightingale)

Peace & Love Everybody!