North Dakota part 2 – that is how I best remember the journey west from Bismarck to the stateline with Montana, with a few standout features – riding a US Interstate; the railroads; an open-air musical in a most surreal setting and junior rodeo.
The Interstate in question is I-94. It begins life in Port Huron, Michigan (north east of Detroit on the shores of Lake Huron), skirts the southern tip of Lake Michigan, heads north west through Wisconsin and Minneapolis to Moorhead/Fargo and then west in a straight line towards Billings in Montana, the western terminus. I-94 is 1,585 miles long and by the time I reached Billings I had covered many more miles than this one road itself and ridden around 200 miles of its length. Our paths had crossed more than a few times on my journey north.
Despite my initial misgivings, Joel assured me it was perfectly okay to ride the Interstate because North and South Dakota and Montana are, apparently, the only three states which allow cyclists to ride the hard shoulder.
After a lunch stop in New Salem, a small city proud of its dairy farming industry, we turned onto a short feeder road and joined I-94 for the first time. I must confess to being a little nervous at first because the shoulder was not more than 3-4 feet wide and there were rumble strips placed inconveniently in our line of travel, vehicles passed by at high speed and the blast of air from passing trucks was very unnerving to begin with. Things settled down soon enough and I was then able to appreciate the extraordinary landscape of North Dakota through which this part of I-94 travelled.
Surprisingly (for me anyway), at various stages of I-94 we passed a few other long-distance cyclists riding in the opposite direction (east to west). One of these made a daring crossing from the eastbound carriageway to stop and chat with us on the westbound side.
His name is Thomas Cole and he explained that he was riding the entire perimeter of the USA, a mammoth task! In fact, as I write this edition of my blog he is in Baltimore County, Maryland. Thomas is travelling with his ‘service dog’ Charli in a crate attached to the front of his bicycle and together they are “Bicycling around the country raising awareness for service animal access for invisible illnesses.”. Thomas blogs at velocauserider.org and on Facebook. Good luck with the rest of your journey Thomas.
The more we cycled through North Dakota the more frequently we encountered the railroad and locomotives hauling huge quantities of coal, oil or sand. Joel explained how the cities of North Dakota sprung up following the introduction of the railroads and the strong connection of the economies of those cities with the railroad and the various industries, including farming.
The trains run day and night and the unmistakable sound of the hooter is never far away (two long blasts, a short one followed by a long one). We camped the city parks on our way through North Dakota and these were often within 100 yards or so of the railroad; the ground rumbles and shakes as the trains pass and you always know when they are coming, warned by the advancing hooter, even at 4 o’clock in the morning!
One Sunday morning Joel was keen to show me around a Benedictine Monastery, Assumption Abbey, based in Richardton (Stark County, North Dakota). The abbey has a school attached to it and Joel told me that many of his friends had been sent to this school for their education. Unfortunately, we were unable to tour the Abbey but what I saw of the building was most impressive.
Our plan for the day was to head back to I-94 and make as much progress west as we possibly could. Before we reached I-94 I spotted large numbers of trucks towing horse boxes heading towards an arena where a big crowd of people was gathering. Inquisitively, we diverted from our planned route and discovered it was a junior rodeo gathering, the North Dakota Junior High Rodeo Division. Not having seen a rodeo event of any kind before I was naturally interested to learn what I could. Boys and girls in separate events, showing their skills in lassooing on horseback or riding a bucking young cow with varying degrees of success, many landing painfully on their backsides. It was staggering to observe the size of the horse box trailers, often with a mobile home attached, and the sheer number of these on view. I recalled similar feelings of awe when I passed the Lebanon Valley Auto Racing circuit in New York state a few months before.
Back on I-94, with our next destination Medora, we cruised with the benefit of a strong tailwind for once. Soon the general landscape changed rapidly in appearance from vast open plains to something that looked more like a moonscape, a clear indication that we were entering the Badlands of North Dakota. We pulled into a viewing area on the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and it was then I was able to witness with my own eyes a most amazing view:
We then rejoined I-94 and headed down into the valley for a campsite in the city of Medora. We checked in and pitched our tents. As I headed to the bathroom to freshen up for the evening show Joel had booked us to go and see I approached an RV and three ladies sat outside drinking rather refreshing looking glasses of rose wine:
They called me over and caught me by surprise by what they said:
“You must be the English cyclist?” “Yes” I replied. “We knew you were coming” they continued prophetically. “Eh, how did you know that?” I asked with increasing curiosity. “Tony told us you were on your way here” “Tony?” I said, and thought ponderously for what seemed an age, and then the penny dropped: Tony turned out to be Tony Rucinski I first met three weeks previously at the Adventure Cyclists Bunkhouse in Dalbo, Minnesota. The last I had heard of his whereabouts until two days previously was that he had been delayed in Fargo by serious bike mechanical issues. We had kept in contact intermittently and then only to exchange the briefest of messages, so I was pleased to find out that he left Medora that very morning before Joel and I arrived. We made contact and arrangements to rendezvous in the city of Glendive the next day.
“The rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the west!” is how the Medora website promotes the Medora Musical. Based at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre up in the hills overlooking the rugged Badlands the show is a Western style musical and a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt former President of the USA. The show begins as the sun sets, the last rays of light illuminating the stunning hills which form the backdrop to the stage. It is high octane entertainment, as you would expect from something so American; story telling and energetic music, enthusiastic singing by all cast members and generally good fun:
Medora sadly brought the adventure through North Dakota to an end. I say that with sincerity since I was at one point in time seriously minded to bypass the state altogether in my quest to cross the mountains to the Pacific coast and keep to my schedule of reaching Santa Cruz in California by late September. I’m so glad to have stayed the course for many reasons and not just because I saw with my own eyes some of the most amazing landscapes on earth (the Great Plains and the Badlands in particular).
In times of reflection (there have been many many such moments since returning home) and when I look back on my journey across the USA, I find that the North Dakota section represents a very significant turning point in the entire ride and raised my confidence levels by several rungs. I learnt to trust my own judgement with a much greater degree of certainty.
So, in conclusion, North Dakota wasn’t my ‘favourite’ place, nor the most ‘memorable’, and neither did it meet, exceed or fall below any expectations I may have had before I set off on the ride. It simply was as it was, long days of solitude on highway 34, vast panoramic views stretching as far as the eye can see, friendly waves from passing drivers and especially the many Harley Davidson bikers on their own long tours, stiff headwinds, what felt to me like a pressure-free environment compared to the hustle and bustle of our own small island, and full of surprises. I’d go there again.
Next time: ‘Big Sky’ Montana and decision time!