We planned. We packed. Then the day arrived for us to head west.
Michael Lehmkuhl and I were heading to the 17th Annual Mickelson Trail Trek, a 109 mile ride down the length of the celebrated rails-to-trails project in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
When we arrived in Custer and checked in at the Rocket Motel (Elon Musk stayed here during his cross country Tesla Model S road trip) and unpacked all our gear. We hopped on our bikes to go do the early bird registration thing and I promptly almost went over my handlebars in the motel parking lot. So that was fun.
I blame my super aggressive front disc brake.
Early registration brought our first logistics roadblock. The Mickelson Trail Trek is a strange beast, structured in a way that you need to be moving your car around so that you can ride to it. It's all a little to confusing to communicate here, so I'll just say this: We opted to wait until morning to move the car down to Edgemont, SD that night because we were starving and wanted a beer.
With that settled, we went to work on a couple of really fantastic burgers and some beers from Bitter Ester's Brewhouse. With a bright and early departure (for one of us, because only one person is allowed to move the car), we turned in pretty early not really knowing what was ahead of us the next day.
In the morning, Mike drew the short straw and did the drive down to Edgemont, experiencing lots of fantastic country music on the school bus that brought him and the other riders/drivers back to Custer to start the ride. Upon his return, we made some last minute adjustments to the gear, and got ready to go.
We hit the ride at a comfortable 19mph and tore through the race. Oh, it's not a race? That's right. We tore through the 600 other people who were out for a nice leisurely ride. It was kind of crowded. There was a lot of "on your left" being shouted, and not a lot of "moving over" happening. I think Mike was a little underwhelmed by the overall experience.
SOMETHING WENT WRONG
We got about 15 miles into the 44 mile Day One, when Mike pulled up a bit.
"Hey, you don't remember me handing the car keys to you, do you?", he said.
"Uhh, no, I don't think so."
"This is not good.”
After spending a few minutes emptying pockets and turning packs inside out, it became obvious that we had a big problem.
The keys were back in Custer. The car was in Edgemont. We were halfway in between.
“I hate to say it… but I think we need to go back,” he said.
I was quick to reply, “I think it’s time for Dr. Feelgood.”
So after pulling back a few deep swigs of our respective libations, we turned back the way we came. North. The opposite direction of the car.
BACK TO CUSTER
We passed everybody that we had worked our way past when we were heading south, this time with slightly more sheepish looks on our faces. Day One of the Trail Trek is predominantly downhill in the first section, which is why that day has the most miles. Of course, this meant our return trip was instead predominantly uphill. This added to the moment, no doubt.
As we rolled into Custer to get the car keys, we made quick tracks to the hotel, grabbed the keys and took 15 minutes to refill bottles, grab more snacks, and charge our phones.
We rolled out, stopped to pick up a couple Red Bulls for later and hit the trail again.
We went with pace, but not as much as previously. After all, a 75+ mile day is a much different beast than an 44 mile day. I had never ridden that far in one day before. So we tried to find a nice efficient cadence that would keep us moving briskly but without a lot of energy expense. As we rolled into Pringle, the site of that morning’s snack break, we found a ghost town of sorts. The staff had packed up and moved on down the trail to prep for the riders later on. We made jokes about how they didn’t wait for us and rolled on, in order to preserve a little mojo for the climb on the south side of town.
Eventually we passed our turnaround point, a spot on the side of the trail that we had been about 3 hours earlier. Not taking the time for a memorial of any sort, we moved on, eager to hit new ground. As we worked our way south, we did take the time to shoot a few photos of the scenery.
As we worked our way through the hills, we wondered whether we’d catch any of the late departing riders from that morning. It’s not a race, but to us it was, on some level at that point.
BAD WATER IS STILL WATER
A few climbs later, a little weary and saddle-sore, the hills rapidly gave way to the foothills that mark the transition to the plains. No shade, middle of the hottest part of the day, with less scenery to admire and 25 miles to go. It was a bit of a grind at this point. We stopped on a rickety old bridge to drink Red Bulls under the shade of the rail, then worked our way to the railroad stop that had served as a lunch spot for the other riders. Nobody to be seen, and for good reason. It was 4:30 at this point. With a few more jokes about how they didn’t wait for us, we filled up our depleted water bottles from a ground pump at the site. Interesting sidenote, the rail stop had closed down because the water was too poor of quality for it to work in steam engines. We drank it anyway.
As we worked further south, we climbed into the next range of hills, which revealed the highlight of the day.
The canyon caught us by surprise. We were really rolling now, benefitting from the somewhat unexplainable boost that Red Bull can give you when you’re spent. We rolled around the corner, into the sun, and "Whoa!". We stopped and took it in.
Absolutely gorgeous area.
The trail continues over a trestle bridge that has been filled in with dirt because it was so precarious. Rumor has it, back when the trail was a railway, the engineer would stop the train prior to the bridge, walk across to the other side, then have another engineer send the train across un-manned. The train would roll across slowly and the engineer on the far side would hop on and stop the train so the others could cross and re-board. That must have been some kind of sketchy bridge, if you’re preferring to send an unmanned train across the bridge because that’s the safer option.
Regardless, it’s all backfilled now. And a pretty sight, nonetheless.
Sheep Canyon is partially included in the Black Hills National Forest, partially owned by a rancher from Edgemont, and partially held by The Nature Conservancy. (We did a little research.) We plan on following up to see what we could do to fat bike through that beauty. It’s just stunning.
As we pulled ourselves away from Sheep Canyon, we rolled through some beautiful high plateau landscapes, complete with cactus and rocky fields more reminiscent of the southwest than South Dakota. A huge descent awaited us on the other side, the end of which dumped us into Edgemont, after a few relatively boring flat miles.
We made it.
First things first. Burgers at the Victory Lounge with beers. Food never tasted so good, after 77 miles, a missed lunch, and nothing but beef jerky and energy bars to subsist us.
And with that, we planned our next excursion, hoping we could make it there prior to sunset.
Our sights were set on the Black Hills Ordnance Depot. We finished up our beers and headed further south to see what we could see.