Friday 25th November – Ride of the Setting Sun

The snowless atmosphere of camp gave me a false impression of warmth. It was as cold as ever this morning (sorry if I sound like a broken record, but it really is quite cold, -6oC in the van this time). It was nice to have a heated bathroom to retreat to at least. A woman came into the bathroom as I was brushing my teeth. She smelt of smoke and had a raspy voice. She asked me how long it was to highway 50 and when I said I didn’t know, she was very disappointed and gave me more information about her trip, as if that would help me understand where highway 50 was. Ummm… “Have a nice day!” She was still talking from behind the stall as I walked out.

I drove about an hour to get to Devil’s Tower National Monument. Grateful that National Monuments accept Annual Parks Passes so I didn’t have to pay the $10 entry fee, I drove up to a beast of a rock, protruding right out of flat ground. I’d seen it coming a long way off from the highway. It rises over 280 meters high and the walk around the base is 2 km, so I’d say it’s just under that in circumference. It is huge! Another feature built of hexagonal columns I marvelled at it.

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While the visitor’s information centre did its best to drum up excitement about the feature and the park, there’s nothing much to do here if you’re not a climber. Sadly, it’s not climbing season, so no one on the rock, but I’m inspired to come back here and climb. There must be a route between every column, a hand jammers delight. Apparently there are 200+ routes. I’m sure in summer the place is absolutely sprawling with climbers. As I walked around the base, I studied the cracks and picked out my route on the west side, probably one of the easier choices. It would be something to stand on top of this thing.

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Prayer cloths, hung in the trees around Devil’s Tower.

History tells us this rock was formed by volcanic activity then erosion of surrounding soil over time, but I prefer the tribal story of how it came about. Seven little girls were being chased by attacking bears so they climbed onto a low rock in an attempt to escape. Their prayers for safety were answered and the rock carried them upwards to safety.

My face cold from the wind I retreated to the car. I drove out of the park, looking back at the tower as I went, scheming my next year-off chasing summer around the world climbing. This would have to be a stop on that journey.

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Quick check that you know how to climb before getting on the big rock.

In a field at the base of the tower, there is a community of prairie dogs. There’d been no sign of them when I driven up, but with the sun out, they’d come out of their holes in the ground to frolic. Strange looking things, they’re like overgrown rats, only cuter and funny as hell when they run. I ate morning tea from the car while I watched them half-scurry, half-hop around, especially one pair who were having a persistent disagreement, one chasing the other off his turf, but the intruder unwilling to relent. Their fitness wasn’t great but when they did manage to connect with each other, their speed multiplied as they formed a perfect ball and somersaulted along. Very entertaining!

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Prairie Dogs!

Without snow, the scenery was more bland as I drove east towards the Wyoming-South Dakota border, but it was still interesting. I drove through a town called “Aladdin” which had me singing Disney songs in my head for a while. There were many towns like it, with very aged buildings and populations in the double digits.

I entered South Dakota and got more cheap petrol in Spearfish ($2.06 this time!) then after a couple of tries, found the Alkali Creek trailhead. While I wasn’t sure riding was something I wanted to do while at Devil’s Tower because of the cold, when I’d stopped for petrol, it was pleasantly cold so was feeling more encouraged.

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As I drove up to the carpark, a rider was coming towards me with his trail dog. He stopped to make sure his dog would stay behind him so I stopped and asked if he was local and if this section of trail was a good idea. He said it was and that I could go beyond the 4.5 miles he was intending to do. He also pointed out the start of the trail which was helpful, it would have taken me a while to figure out otherwise. I took my time and had lunch then got my stuff ready. I rode off just before 2pm, it was getting late in the day already!

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I started out riding through a field, then got into the forest and got climbing. It was a 4.5 mile climb, then a 0.5 mile descent then another 5 mile climb to a clearing. I was doing the Centennial trail, which stretches for 111 miles south to north and I was at the north tip. I ran into Jack, a local to South Dakota, at the bottom of the short descent. He was doing the same thing I was, riding out and back from Alkali Creek. He was all smiles, thoroughly enjoying his riding. A retired guy, he lives the warmer months in South Dakota, then when it gets old, he heads to Arizona where Sedona is his pick of all of America. I was glad to hear it. He would normally be in Arizona by now, but the fall has been so nice he’s still here riding! He told me to get going so I could make it to the clearing and back before dark.

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The second climb was annoying. It’s really not my style of riding to climb for ages, just to come down, especially when you go back the way you came. I much prefer an up-down-up-down loop. Anyway, I pressed on. Near the peak, I stopped for a pee and nearly packed it in, but decided I was close so should get to the end, even though I was past 3:15pm, which I’d decided would be my turn around time. I chased a white-tail deer along the trail as I continued and I’m glad I did. The sun was starting to set when I reached the clearing and it was a nice lookout point to get to at the end of a ride. Someone had written a message in the snow up there, oh the powers of communication.

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I hung around for a bit then got going back before I got too cold. I stopped to don my jacket before long. At least the downhill was easy going. It was relatively straight trail so nothing technical, but nice to just take the bike for a ride instead of pedalling it as I’d been doing the last 1.5 hours. About 10 minutes into my return trip my rear tyre blew. I swear I have such shit luck with flat tyres. Didn’t really accommodate for this in my timing! I had a spare so changed it out no trouble, but it meant I didn’t really get to enjoy my descent, since I was cautious with my tyre, not carrying another spare or any patches. No matter, I watched the sky turn pink out of the corner of my eye as I sped through the forest, my eyes playing tricks on me as the light dimmed to twilight.

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I crossed under a highway at the end of the ride and the tunnel was properly dark, so much so that I was riding completely blind through the middle part of it. I could see the light at the end (no pun intended), but had no idea what my tyre was rolling over. Such an eerie feeling, I just hoped there weren’t any errant rocks or potholes, which there weren’t.

Best thing about the ride, the trailhead was in BLM land so it was also my camp for the night. I was happy to be back at the car, just as the last of the pink shades faded from the sky. I was in high spirits, dancing around to my music as I got changed into more warm clothes, stowed the bike and organised the van for the night. I sat in bed and enjoyed a beer while watching a TV series, pleased with the days’ work. I’m addicted to the tired feeling you get after a long ride.

Someone pulled up near me around 8pm and again, with my light on and curtains open, they must have seen me. They stopped and turned their lights off and were here for around half an hour before they left. Probably harmless, but I didn’t like that half hour, it always makes me wonder. Are they going to sleep here tonight? Are they just looking for a remote spot to smoke/shag/do drugs? Good intentions? Bad? I went to the bathroom as soon as they left. Relief!

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