Monday, August 31, 2009

2009.07 - A North Dakota State of Mind

A North Dakota State of Mind

A few weeks ago I made inquiries about what to visit in North Dakota. It is the last of the 49 land-locked states for me to visit, and I'd been putting it off forever because it's not one of those places you pass through on the way to somewhere else. At least if you don't live that far north. Anyway, I rec'd a few suggestions and I conjured up a plan to ride all the way up to Manitoba and Saskatchewan over a four-day weekend. I did the ride last Friday through Monday, but it didn't go quite as planned. All told, I clicked off about 1,500 miles with about 200 of it on dirt roads.

Realized the first day that I'd forgotten to get a Canadian insurance card from my insurance company. Called them up and figured they could email one to me and I could print it out somewhere along the way. They told me our northern neighbors would only accept an original. So, I stopped at AAA to see if they could write me a short term policy. Also a no-go. So, the first day saw Canada crossed off the list. Later on I realized it would have been a near iron butt experience to get that far and back in 4 days anyway, so no disappointment on my part.

The first day I rode from my home near Black Hawk, CO (About 40 miles west of Denver at 9,200' to Custer State Park in South Dakota. I managed to throw in about 75 miles of dirt and gravel roads on this stretch, although they were pretty straight affairs as is the way on the great plains of Wyoming. Spent that night at a campground in Custer State Park. If you've never been to that park I highly recommend it. Scenic, excellent curvaceous roads, excellent campgrounds with HOT showers. Had a hellacious series of thunderstorms move though in the night that didn't finish up until about 9am the next morning, so packing up and eating breakfast were soggy affairs.

There were breaks in the clouds however as I started out on day 2 with one of the most excellent roads I've been on in a long time. Iron Mountain Road (US 16a) heads north out of the park and winds it's way up to Mt. Rushmore. It has the absolute tightest reducing-radius curves I've been on in a long, long time. There are a few one lane wide tunnels, and two sections where the road has to make 360 degree turns as it crosses over itself on massive wooden trestles. And to make it more exciting, the road was still quite wet from last evenings storms and the battered trees deposited their leaves and branches at strategic points on some of the curves.

Since I'd been to Mt. Rushmore before, I decided to stop again and donate $10 to their huge parking structure and snap a couple of pics. Really, all I wanted to do was purchase a decal to slap on the side of my embarrassingly black "Adventure Rider" panniers. By now, the sun was in full bloom and the day looked to be good one. From Rushmore, I headed north and a little east, once again managing to add about 50 miles of dirt road to this ride. That put my total at about 125 miles, so I firgure it's OK to tell everyone that this is a dual-sport ride. I had to summon up some courage and use my feeble skills however as one 20 mile section of the road was getting is surface redone in a nice thick coat of fresh P gravel. Pucker factor increased, but I managed to keep the wheels under me and quickly learned that when the front end wants to wallow, slowing down in gear was NOT the way to go, and speeding up required too much courage. I discovered that pulling in the clutch allowed the front wheel to come back under control nicely. I figure this is because the other two options involved pushing the front wheel through the deep gravel, whereas coasting did not. That's my theory anyway, and since I didn't crash, I'll stick by it.

A couple of views of "The Rushmore Four"

I finally arrived at the North Dakota border around 2pm and took the obligatory snap of the welcome sign. As you can see by the lack of photos in this "Illustrated" ride report, my biggest failing is that I hate to stop. Especially at this juncture as all the cars and trucks that I had laboriously passed over the last hour caught up and re-passed me in surprisingly little time.

The border, at last

Since "Oh, Canada" was out of the plan, I decided to spend the night at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Honestly, until I did some Google-mapping a few days before, I'd never even heard of this particular park. As luck would have it, it is quite a nice little park and I found a good campsite near the river. Of course, being a National Park, there are no hot showers here, just mosquitos and gnats. The little town of Medora provided me with a few cans of beer to help me spend the waning hours of the evening along with a good book. It was quite a sight as I passed over interstate 94, which separates the park, to see absolutely no traffic on it. I crossed over it a few times that late afternoon and early evening and I think I saw only one or two vehicles on it. Boy, I wish it were like that back home!

Theodore Roosevelt national Park

This evening, I was spared the nocturnal lightning and thunder show, but was awoken before sunrise by the ungodly number of song birds who woke up before me. I've been a lot of places in my time, but this was the loudest, heartiest morning serenade the winged ones have ever given me. I finally gave up at about 5:45am and started packing up.

I was out of the park by 6:45 and had a nice country breakfast at one of the cafes in Medora. Since my carefully laid-out plans to ride further north were now null-and-void, I used breakfast time to decide where to ride next. The muses directed me to head west into Montana for a bit and then back south once more. I spied another good section of dirt road on my map, and decided that this was the way to go. Conveniently, it would lead me back into Wyoming a few hours later about 30 miles from Devil's Tower National Monument. Yes, another place I've been before. To be precise, I've been there 4 times already in the past 20 years or so! Once each on a Honda VF750 Interceptor, a BMW K75, A Ural Patrol, and now I'd be adding the F650 to the list. Hey, it's a beautiful place, and I could score another decal for the side of the panniers!

Plan made, breakfast digesting, and the road beckoned. I hit the trail. The southeast edge of Montana is a really beautiful area. I'm glad I rode through it. Nothing but miles and miles of rolling hills and tightly wound circular hay bales as far as the eye could see. Once again, my ignorance doesn't allow me to fathom what on earth they need all that hay for?! It looked to me as if this were the nation's secret national hay repository stockpile. Bemused, but still headed south, I moved on. Disappointingly, my map was a little outdated, and those bastiges had paved a good section of the dirt road that I'd chosen to travel. I chalked up about another 30 miles or so of grave and dirt before being spit out across the border into Wyoming once more.

The last stretch of dirt road in Montana

The roads in the area near Devils Tower are in very good condition and also feature many nice elevation changes and a good volume of curves. I stopped at the park entrance and partook of lunch at the blood-sucking tourist trap that doubles as a campground. Bad food, bad service, but only $9 for a cheeseburger (Add $2.50 for the deluxe cheeseburger, which includes tomato, lettuce, onion and french fries!). After choking down lunch and scoring another decal for the bags, it was southward bound once more.

What are those lights in the sky? What's that strange music?

Tonight's destination, I decided, would be Guernsey State Park, a few hours to the south. The ride there was once again spectacular. Curves, good roads, and hardly any traffic at all. The past three days had all been like that for most of the day. Just the way I like it, but, oh so infrequently found. The closer I got to Guernsey, the windier and and cloudier it became as the usual afternoon thunderheads began to take their evil shape in the sky directly above where I was heading. (You know why Wyoming is so windy? It's because Nebraska suc. . . Oh, I won't go there. . .) Miraculously, nothing more than a few huge raindrops fell on me as it seemed every huge sweeping curve brought me in an end run around one thunderhead after another.

I arrived in Guernsey about 5pm on sunday afternoon. Not much going on there outside of the National Guard airport (C130's and Blackhawks visible all around). I rode over to the park and the nice attendant, noting that I snuck up on her on my BMW "Not like those Harleys" she said, benevolently decided to charge me half-price for entrance and camping this evening. $10.00 U.S. bought me the whole ticket. "Besides" she told me "The place is really empty because we're "Silting the reservoir" (Whatever that means) "so the water level is really low". "Only the hardcore campers are out here now." What she didn't mention is that the water level was not the only thing "really low" so was the general maintenance and cleanliness of the various camping areas around the easst side of the park. Barren too. I was going to suck it up anyway and decided to head back into town to see if I could pick up a few beers to help take the edge off in camp this night. When I rode into town however, I saw this really inviting mom and pop motel right next to a good looking bar/restaurant, and my plans changed in a heartbeat.

My wallet greatly lightened by the cost of a motel room (Plus the $10.00 "discount" fee I donated to the Wyoming State Park system), my bike unpacked, my body showered, I plopped myself down in the bar and enjoyed a few Fat Tires as I ate a really good piece of prime rib. This took up most of the rest of the evening, and I headed back to the motel to do my daily chain lube, when I came across an F650 admirer in the parking lot. We talked for a few minutes about KLR's vs F650's and even about his friend's Ural. What, another Ural? Those things are getting too popular, it might be time to sell mine. Our conversation was beginning to labor on, and the beer I brought back from the bar (Oh, I can't let you out the door with an open container sir! Well, maybe this one time. . .) was getting warm. Luckily, the heavens began to unleash their nightly rain dance and we both went our separate ways. I to my room, my beer, and a little telly, and he to wherever he came from. . .

The last day began a little soggy as last night's T-storms lasted quite a while and things didn't dry up by morning. Today was going to be a windy one also. I managed to fit in the last of the back roads before I was forced to slip onto I-25 to head south through Cheyenne and sneak back across the border into Colorado. I spent quite a while battling shifting side winds and then head winds, and then side winds again. All the time wondering why it never seems to be strong winds from behind. Hmmm?

I jumped off the interstate as soon as I could and used those wonderful parallel farm roads to work my way south and west until I finally picked up U.S.34 which runs up the Big Thompson canyon all the way to the town of Estes Park (Remember "The Shining"?) and Rocky Mountain National Park. Again, I've been there a million times as it's only an hour from my house, but it was too early in the day to head straight home and besides, there's a really good restaurant on the north side of town that serves breakfast all day and I hadn't eaten a bit since I woke.

For one last time on this trip I would slink into another tourist shop to pick up a decal to slap on my panniers. Now it was time to jump on my last highway to home. Colorado Route 7 is known as the "Peak to Peak" highway and it runs for some 40 miles south from Estes Park and right past my little mountain subdivision. And there is not more than a 1/4 mile stretch of tarmac that is straight in all those miles. Being a Monday, it was thankfully also lightly traveled (Can be a pain sometimes on weekends) and I enjoyed those last, curvy miles very much as the afternoon thunderheads began to form overhead. In one final bit of good timing, I navigated the last dirt road mile to my home with the first big, fat raindrops pinging on my helmet. No sooner had I rolled up the driveway had the heavens opened. I ran into the house to the slobbered greetings of my retarded labrador retriever and my wife. Yeah, they were both a little slobbering.

It's great to travel, especially such a good motorcycle trip, but it's always good to arrive home.


Dan K.
Balck Hawk, CO

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