This trip began with a Senior Moment. I intended to take two days to make the journey from home to the Black Hills of South Dakota with plans to start on the George S. Mickelson Trail the day after I arrived. Everything was set to coincide with the travel plans of my friend Dennis who was attending the big motorcycle rally at nearby Sturgis. Since I was riding the trail by myself I wanted the extra safety of having someone I knew nearby to lend a hand should I need one. Dennis wouldn’t be riding his Harley all the time and he already had a place to stay where I could mooch a few nights when required. For some reason known only to my aged brain, I thought I was starting as planned on Tuesday, August 1st which would have been perfect except for the fact that it was actually Tuesday, July 31st. It only took 150 kilometers of driving for this fact to make its way through the fog bank I use for a brain. In a bazaar turn of fate, Dennis made exactly the same mistake and started a day early as well. It appears that dull minds malfunction alike.
Rather than turn back and wait a day I decided to put the extra time to good use. I now had 24 more hours to make the drive to the trail head and time to see some sights along the way. My first stop was the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The Soo, as most folks call it, is a blue collar town built on ships and steel. Sited on a isthmus of land between Lake Superior and Lake Huron it was naturally positioned to become a transportation hub. However, it is more than its steel, rail and canal locked past. Sitting at the door of Ontario’s far north and blessed with access to boundless hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities it is as much a playground as it is lunchbox and punch-clock. Arriving in the early afternoon, I slipped my bike off its rack and took a tour of the city’s newly reclaimed waterfront.
Along the banks of the St. Mary’s River there is a network of mostly connected walking and bicycle paths that allow you to safely ride or walk while enjoying views of the river ripping its way between two nations. Along the way are a number of docks and boardwalks where you can take in the breeze on a summer afternoon or wet a line with hopes of catching dinner. On your way to St. Mary’s Island and Whitefish Island with their recreational trails, you can pass by the Float Plane Museum where lovingly restored and preserved aircraft tell the story of a land where lakes were the only runways. Paths take you across the working locks of the St. Mary’s Canal to the gravel paths of Whitefish Island and views of the rapids on the St. Mary’s River and a wild environment little more than an arrows flight from the working city. I watched anglers making their casts while nearby kids rode their bicycles and elderly couples walked hand in hand. A tour boat, loaded with camera clickers locked through the old canal on its way down river. It was a peaceful and relaxing spot despite being relatively busy. A pleasant way to pass an afternoon before passing on to Austin, Minnesota the next day.
One night’s sleep and 10 hours of construction delayed driving took me from Ontario, through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin to my second night stop over in Austin, Minnesota. Along the way I saw a sign that drew me in off the Interstate to Sparta, Wisconsin the self proclaimed Bicycle Capital of America. I had to know why this was so and I figured that since I needed a new bicycle pump, this would be a place sure to have a good selection. A trip down Main Street and through the entire business district yielded no bike shops so I decided to stop into the local Museum. Curiosity was driving me to learn just what makes this town claim such an august title. A large Penny-farthing bicycle was rooted just outside so I entered confident that this was the place to find my answers. I expected to be hit in the face with all sorts of bicycle related history when I walked through the front door but no, there was not so much as a tricycle in sight. I wandered around and took in exhibits about the town’s proud history and its heroic war veterans but nothing obvious about bicycles. Not ready to give up, I asked a staff person where I might find some support for the town’s marquee claim. She led me to a twenty four by eighteen inch panel at the bottom corner of a display explaining that Sparta was supposedly the first town in the USA to convert a railroad bed into a bicycle path back in 1962. It was an impressive move for that early a year and they certainly were well ahead of the curve on conserving these wonderful routes for public uses. Still, I think you might need a few more bells and whistles to truly make such a broad scale boast. I also expected the local museum to make a bigger deal out of the topic.
What I did not know was that the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bike Museum was also housed in the same building on the second floor. There was nothing obvious to indicate this at the front door but given my track record for matching the date with the day of the week I am tempted to put the blame on my powers of observation. Still, given the question I asked of the museum staff, I might have hoped that she would have pointed me up the stairs to where the answer to my question and much, much more awaited.
Cheers for Sparta anyway! However, they really need to let museum staff and the folks at the visitor’s center know where the town’s only bicycle shop is located and maybe put it on the town’s map which is on display a stone’s throw from their giant statue of a Gay 90’s guy on a Gay 90’s bicycle!
Austin, Minnesota is definitely a bicycle friendly town. Miles and miles of human power only paths take you just about anywhere you could want to go. It is home to the world headquarters of the Hormel Corporation, processor of meat in all its glorious forms from raw to Spam in a can. While you might have expected such an operation to have been located closer to the source of pork and beef, you would be overlooking an important fact. In the early days of meat processing the ability to keep it cool or frozen was important to the processing process. Minnesota has plenty of cold and Hormel took advantage of that fact coupled with its excellent rail connections and middle of America geography.
With Hormel providing a strong economic base, Austin has maintained a lot of Main Street curb appeal. Local stores flourish along with many parks and recreational opportunities. Everything looks clean, neat and well maintained and walking or riding through the business district is a pleasure. There is even an entire museum devoted to Spam! Monty Python, eat your heart out.
So long as meat is on the American table and Hormel is willing to and use Austin to put it there, this town will do well. Local residents can surely get their cardiovascular money’s worth if they make full use of this city’s network of safe and smooth bike paths.
My plan was to stop by Deadwood and pick up my trail pass from the nice folks at their Visitor’s Center. I arrived a little after 1pm and the town was already in full on Sturgis motorcycle mode despite the rally not starting in nearby Sturgis until the next day. Streets were beginning to be blocked off to make way for the flood of Harleys and other bikes that were already gathering. Deadwood is just a short roar of the tailpipes from Sturgis and acts as a surrogate host city for the rally. Having wall to wall casinos and saloons makes it a draw for the biker bunch even without it being the place where Wild Bill Hickok ate a lead sandwich. More about this later. While completely out of place with my pedal powered mountain bike, the folks at the visitor’s center were eager and helpful in getting my pass and supplying me with a map and other information about the George S. Mickelson Trail. The price was a bargain at $4 a day and $15 for a year.
Another hour’s drive through the Black Hills brought me to Keystone where my pal Dennis had a motel room that I was going to share. Finding a motel anywhere within a hundred miles of Sturgis is a neat trick any time during their big rally so I was happy that Dennis had a spare bed for me to crash on. I arrived a bit before check in and was deciding how to spend the next hour or so while waiting for the room when the desk manager asked if I had jumper cables. “Sure,” I replied and asked who needed a boost. He said that some guy had a dead battery on his bike and was unable to roll start it on the nearby hill. He was now stuck at the next motel down at the bottom waiting for a tow truck that would likely not be coming anytime soon. He said just look for a guy standing around with a forlorn look about him and blue Harley. Back into my Honda and down the hill I went.
I saw the motel and the blue Harley right away and looked around for Mr. Forlorn. Sitting in the shade nearby was some older dude who was talking on his cell phone. I did not recognize him until just as I started to lower my window. “Hey Dennis got a problem?” I asked. He looked up, not recognizing me for a second or so, and after a quick, “hey Bobby” launched into a dejected diatribe about motorcycles, the American Automobile Association, himself and other unsavory topics. It seems that his new Harley had this security feature that flashes the lights when the key is not in the ignition and if the bike is shaken or moved. It had been doing this for the past two days and 1500 miles, draining his battery at the same time. AAA would not jump start him and would only tow him to a service shop if and when they could get there. The Harley dealership in Sturgis was swamped in service calls and would also take quite a bit of time to arrive. No problem, my trusty, although rusty jumper cables were at hand and after getting his seat removed with the help of borrowed screwdriver, we were hooked up and ready for…nothing.
His battery was truly dead; as dead as a battery could be and my Honda and not too trusty cables were not up to the task. After 10 or so tries we admitted defeat and headed off to the nearest place to buy both some decent jumper cables and a battery charger. One and a half hours and number of dollars later were were back and ready to try again. This time we allowed his battery to charge off my Honda’s generator for about 30 minutes before giving his starter try and lo, like magic, his engine fired to life with that distinctive throaty roar know to all Harley owners. Time for dinner and an adult beverage or three.
I arrived at the trailhead in Deadwood as early as I could get there hoping to get a parking spot nearby. The large lot was already fairly fill with the vehicles and trailers used to haul the hundreds of motorcycles already in town. Luckily my Honda Fit is small and can be tucked into even the most unlikely of parking spaces. A few minutes to unload the bike, attach my panniers, take a look at my map and I was off for the first 60 or so miles of my ride.
The trail out of Deadwood is smooth packed stone dust as is most of the George S. Mickelson Trail. It mostly follows the old rail bed of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad from Edgemont in the south, northwards through the Black Hills to Deadwood. As it leaves Deadwood and starts on its long uphill grade into the Black Hills, you can still see the old rails peeking through the stone dust for the first few miles. Over the next fifteen miles you climb steadily up a two to four percent grade while climbing just over 2000 feet. I found it to be the most strenuous part of the ride due to the steady pace needed throughout the climb. What it lacks in steepness it makes up for in distance but is still well within the abilities of most people in decent physical condition on bikes with climbing gear ratios. The compensation is some fantastic scenery along the way.
This first leg of my ride was by far the most scenic and interesting. The Black Hills are spectacular with vistas and interesting sites along every mile. The trail is well maintained and serviced by shelters, water pumps and historical information plaques at regular intervals. Old mines poke up along stream banks and ghost towns appear as you round a bend. Most of the land is private and cows sometimes graze along the trail in the high pastures. There are gates in these areas and although they are self closing, they sometimes need a bit of help. This section passes by the old Bulldog ranch which served as a stagecoach stop, bootlegger’s depot and “entertainment center” of the adult variety. Stop and read every sign, it is well worth the time it takes.
Just around milepost 90 my journey took a positive turn with the beginning of a nice nineteen mile long downhill grade to the Durmont Trailhead. The scenery became more open pasture and occasionally ran alongside the roaring thunder of Highway 17 with it groups of touring motorcycles. It was still a mostly quiet and peaceful journey with far less effort per mile traveled.
Between Rochford and Mystic I passed through four tunnels blasted through hill tops as the old railroad route moved back into hill country. There was bit of up and down riding in this section with the up side winning overall. The ghost town of Mystic appeared as I rounded a stream side bend and it was time for lunch break and a refill of my water bottles. After a few hundred calories it was back into the saddle and upwards for another five hundred feet of so before the last downhill glide into Hill City and a stop to pick up something for dinner. Another 11 miles along the twisting Old Hill City Road took me to Keystone, my friend Dennis, a hot meal and good night’s sleep. Thankfully, the Old Hill City Road is mostly downhill to Keystone!
Dennis is great friend. Knowing that I had another sixty mile day ahead of me, he offered to save me another eleven uphill miles to where I left the trail at Hill City the day before. A quick ride up and over those hills took me back to Hill City and the George S. Mickelson Trail where we said goodbye and I put foot to pedal. The day started gray but was comfortably warm as I hit the uphill miles to Custer City. If you are used to other rail trails, you may have surmised by now that the George S. Mickelson Trail is of a different breed. Do not expect a long flat ride. In fact, there are very few flat sections and the hills, while gradual, are long and demanding. Added to this is the fact that you are riding at no less than 3500 feet above sea level and joining the mile high fraternity a number of times along the way. Be forewarned.
George S. Custer led what some would call an expedition into this area back in 1874. Others will have another name for it and I will leave the politics out of this blog and keep my opinions to myself in the interest of staying on topic. However, he did discover gold in them darn hills and launched a gold rush in the process. You can still see remnants of old mines and the works of present day optimists throughout the 109 miles of the trail. The entire history of this region rests upon the earth and what can be extracted from within its depths.
My first stop was at the top of my first long climb and under the underpass into the Crazy Horse Memorial. I had been here before so there was no need or desire to stop in again. It is a daunting project undertaken by private funds and donations to build a mountain sized monument to this Oglala Lakota warrior who helped put a few arrows into General Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876. It represents the combines vision of Chief Henry Standing Bear and Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. If you decide to go there is an extensive museum describing the project, its status and history as well as containing information and displays about the Lakota culture. If you actually want to view the monument any closer than you can from the parking lot, there is a bus ride up to it for a few dollars more than the seven or twenty four dollars you already paid depending upon you mode of transportation. I decided to view from afar.
From the memorial it was mostly downhill miles to Custer City which is touristy, but interesting place with some nice places to browse if that sort of activity is to your liking. It was at flood tide with motorcycles on this day so I gave it a quick pass by. However another eight miles took me to Pringle and one of the strangest sights along the trail. Just off the trail along a dusty side street you can find what may be the world’s largest collection of old bicycles. Bicycles, tricycles in every style, size and color have been heaped into a small hill of metal, wheels and gears with an honor guard mound of still more bikes on either side. You can walk a short path through a wheel studded gateway around and even into the pile if you dare. In a state where monuments tend to be on the large side this one could truly use some explaining. It remains a unique mystery to me for now.
South of Pringle the trail flattens out and becomes a bit less interesting until after the Minnekahta Trailhead at milepost 16.2. Still the scenery was pleasant and my path was decorated with clusters of small yellow moths that broke apart and fluttered around me every so often. With this portion being a “false flat” in my favor, I made great time with easy pedaling.
Half way between Minnekahta and Edgemont I came upon the Sheep Canyon Trail Stop and the site of an old trestle bridge so rickety that it was said that engineers would hop off the train before crossing it and only jump back aboard once safely on the other side. Sadly, that trestle is gone today replaced by a safer and far less interesting earthen breastwork across the canyon. If you look closely at the canyon walls you can see small tunnels blasted through to allow ranchers and their cattle access to the rich grazing lands at the canyon floor.
The town of Edgemont looks as though it has see better days. It is primarily a railroad town located at the end of a segment of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad network, the largest in the USA. Here, crews on this freight line lay over for the night in a local motel that is completely devoted to their needs. This is so much so that despite it being listed as a Travelodge and sporting a Travelodge sign, I found it hard to get a reservation there. Yes, they were open and yes, they had room available but they seemed reluctant to take a reservation. The person I spoke with was adamant that no reservation was needed and that I could just show up anytime. She went on to say that they were not your typical motel and that the rooms were small. Knowing that motorcyclists from around the world descend upon every room within a hundred miles or more of Sturgis during the annual rally, I was determined to have one reserved to ensure that I would not have to sleep in some cow pasture or under a bridge. With reluctance she took my reservation and it was well that she did.
I arrived mid afternoon on a Saturday. There was not much motorcycle activity in this dusty little town but I was told that the Fall River County Fair was on at the local arena. From the outside the Travelodge looked like a motel but inside had a look more common to a college dormitory. There was a small reception window, a long bench loaded with duffle bags and coolers. A large, dorm style lobby with comfy chairs and a big screen TV was just around the corner as well as a locker room. Once the desk clerk was rounded up I tried to check in. She seemed confused that I would want to do so and I was told by her and some railroad workers who happened to pass by that this was not a motel but only a place for railroad workers to stay. There was only one other motel in town and with the fair and rodeo being on I doubted my chances of finding a room there. I was just about to ask where there might be a cow pasture or bridge I could use for the night when the desk clerk decided to call her counterpart who worked the window when she was off. Her name was Debby and she knew all about my request and reservation. Why yes, they did offer rooms to more than railroad workers and in fact they had a policy of not turning anyone away so long as they had a room available. She had a nice room put aside for me and the key was in the cabinet above the phone. For little more than the cost of a campsite I had a comfy bed, a spotlessly clean room, hot shower and the prospect of a good night’s sleep.
My dining options seemed limited when I rode down Edgemont’s dusty but interesting main street. There was a place called the Victory Steakhouse and little else open that afternoon. Near to the motel were two gas stations with some groceries and food as a sideline but I had little appetite for reconstituted gas station pizza, roller dogs or whatever they served at the Fresh Start Casino and Cafe. A short walk with some music courtesy of the Fall River County Fair took me back to 2nd Avenue, the Victory Steakhouse & Lounge and my best meal of the trip; Thick juicy steak, salad bar and fries. All a calorie burning old guy could want with a lot of friendly folks to make the experience complete.
One last interesting fact about Edgemont: If you are looking for a place to wait out Armageddon or the zombie apocalypse, you may want to plan a visit. Just south of town sits an 18 square mile compound formerly know as the Fort Igloo Munitions Depot. Inside are 575 hardened concrete bunkers now owned by the California survival company Vivos, comprising Vivos xPoint “the largest survival community on Earth.” For as little as $7,500 (US) down you can have your own, personal bolt hole if you are willing to share some space with others. Or you can spring for a $25,000 down and $1000 per year personal cavern rated to withstand a 500,000 pound blast or brain eating hoards. While you are waiting for the feces to hit the fan, you can relax in this vacation mecca and have a great steak dinner at the Victory Steakhouse. Hurry, these babies are going fast!
A good night’s sleep brought me to a gray and misty morning to begin the longest and most uphill portion of my journey. Breakfast options appeared limited to a choice of the Fresh Start Neighborhood Market or go hungry. The early morning clerk at Fresh Start was bright, chipper and quite interested in my cycling garb. He had a relative who was into all sorts of bicycle stuff so we talked while I munched my microwaved egg sandwich and pastry. While the food was not great, the price was right and the guy at the register sent me off with good wishes and a full belly.
I decided to skip the first few miles of the trail since it was little more than an undulating, rutted, dirt track between a railroad siding and US 18. The nearly non-existent early Sunday morning traffic and the smooth wide shoulders made Highway 18 a fast and easy choice. The railroad siding was occupied by a three mile long collection of autorack style rail cars complete with a gallery of graffiti. Most of these artistic endeavors were the run of the mill, kid with a spray can variety but a couple stood out as having some artistic merit. Unfortunately, such museum works are difficult to display properly and do not get the sponsorship and support of mainstream art.
After paying homage to this exhibit it was onward and upward to the Cow Patty Trail. This delightful section of the Mickelson Trail has been carefully paved with bovine excrement lovingly deposited by the herds of cows that use this section as a shortcut between one pasture and the next. They also seem to have a strict don’t poop where you eat policy. Dodging the pies made for an interesting, skill testing exercise.
My ride started at around 3500 feet above sea level and would continue its gradual climb over the next 50 miles eventually reaching just under 6000 feet in elevation. The trail looks most flat at times but my legs spoke of a different reality. No single effort was difficult but the grind of the relentless uphill eventually results in fatigue. By the time I passed through Pringle at milepost 32 I was ready for an energy boost. What could be more appropriate than to pop open a can of Pringles in Pringle? While taking a break I was able to swap tales with a fellow bicycle trekker heading the opposite way.
While the ride was the literal definition of an uphill grind, there was still plenty to make it a great experience. Along the way I passed a herd of Buffalo, numerous wild sunflowers, an old car left to rot where it stopped as well as a number of interesting building in various states of disrepair. Even though it was a Sunday, the trail had very little activity either due to the gray skies or the fact that the big motorcycle rally scared other tourists away. If so, they missed a great day for riding and some great sights as well. The only down side to the day was losing my fifty year possession of an official Boy Scout eating utensil set somewhere near Custer City. Anyone who knows me will know that this priceless heirloom has come close to being lost on a few occasions only to be rescued from oblivion by a lucky find or a dedicated daughter. This time its departure was final and no amount of searching was able to bring it home. May whoever found it get their fifty years of service before passing it on to another.
Another night with Dennis at his Keystone motel and it was time to finish up this out and back ride. Dennis trailered me back to Hill City and the trail once again saving me ten extra miles of uphill highway bicycling. I was looking forward to what I thought was to be a mostly downhill ride. Unfortunately, I was not looking at my map or I would have known otherwise. When you are riding your memory can play tricks on you. You remember in detail your uphill struggles and tend to forget those long gradual downhill false flats. However, much like the previous day, this section had a deceptive long and gradual uphill section not cataloged in my brain. Starting at Mystic and continuing for just about nineteen miles is a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation. Fortunately, much of this is through the most scenic portion of the trail with rocky gorges, mountain streams and scenic vistas to make it seem effortless. For a time I stopped and watched a couple of trout fishermen try their luck for something other than gold in a cold, clear mountain stream and shared beaver stories with a couple of amateur natrualists I met along the trail. Further down the trail I passed signs both old and new that gold fever once and still occasionally infects the local economy.
At long last I reached the high point of the trail and my anticipated long, speedy descent down into Deadwood. Deadwood was in full on Sturgis Rally mode with motorcycles and people crowding every venue from local antique shops to the bar and casino strip. On this strip there are no less than three different drinking establishments claiming the honor of being the Old No. 10 Saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot. Back when old Wild Bill bit his bullet the actual saloon was known as Nuttal & Mann’s saloon. It burned down in 1879 but the one in the picture stands in the same spot where the old Nuttal & Mann’s saloon once dished out drinks and death. One of the other “Old No. 10s is said to have the actual chair Wild Bill was sitting in and other decor from the original Nuttal & Mann’s but it may be just another way to separate the rubes from their rubies. Also featured prominently on just about every other sign and tee shirt was the “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights. Two pair was definitely a losing hand for old Wild Bill. After an hour or so trying to walk the crowded sidewalks of this town I decided that there was no food, drink, casino or souvenir shop that was worth the jostle of going in to. Still, it was an interesting sight and if there was any manufacturer of motorcycles not represented in the armada of machines parked in every conceivable space, it is a brand unknown to the modern world. This old gold town was now making a living from iron, steel and a lot of human flesh.
With my bike loaded I drove off to Keystone and my last night in the Black Hills. Dennis had been enjoying his rides and covering far more countryside than I could while I was gone. Even so, we each enjoyed the Black Hills to the same degree in our different ways. If you decide to ride the George S. Mickelson Trail, I can offer nothing but encouragement. It was worth the time and the couple of thousand miles it took for me to get there as well as the effort required to pedal it in both directions. Hats off to South Dakota, former Governor, George S. Mickelson and all those who created this wonder filled experience.