Monday, October 28, 2013

Sneaky South Dakotan Snowstorms and the Majesty of Mount Rushmore

We lingered over our coffee as we watched the bison graze near our campsite in Badlands National Park. With such a lovely beginning to our day, we were quite chipper as we enjoyed the nice curves between Badlands and Rapid City, South Dakota, until we encountered evidence of the catastrophic snowstorm South Dakota had weathered just a week prior: a pile of dead cattle. Along with the rest of the country, we had heard about the terrible loss of cattle the South Dakotan ranchers had experienced with the first freak snowfall of the season, which had dropped 4 feet of snow on the region, freezing, and in some cases, drowning poor cattle who had not yet developed their winter coats. But the stories we heard along the way in Illinois, Iowa and western South Dakota, gave further indication of how bleak the situation in South Dakota really was… With the government shutdown, there was little to be done to give aid to these farmers so that they could lessen the impact of the damage that nature had done. The devastation was particularly horrible for many farmers because it is not “cost effective” to ensure your herd of cattle because you may lose one or two every so often, but “never” enough to make a claim worthy of the high premiums. Until this storm. Additionally, herds that were covered, were covered under “Act of God” clauses… but in most cases, autopsies on these cattle will show death by drowning, which does not fall under the “Act of God” clause. An awful report spread throughout South Dakota of a rancher who had followed his trail of dead cattle to the very last one, and upon realizing he had lost his entire herd, had taken his own life, in the prairie, next to his frozen cattle. These were somber stories to hear, and driving past pile after pile of dead cattle brought a sadness to our hearts that was thoroughly incongruent with the sunny blue skies and wide open roads we had enjoyed just moments before.

Our first stop in Rapid City was Rice Honda where we picked up the elusive sprocket for the Africa Twin that we’d had to order from Amazon. We restocked our supplies at Target, picked up some maps from Tourist Information, and headed off.

Mount Rushmore by night
We rode out of town as the sun was setting and made it to Mount Rushmore just as they were turning on the spotlights to illuminate the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. What an impressive sight! As the museum was closed, we decided to find a spot to camp nearby and return the following morning to re-visit the monument and its grounds.

As it was dark and getting to be extremely chilly, I was dreading the search for a campsite that I anticipated would take at least an hour. To my great surprise, there was a nice National Forest campground within 10 miles of Mount Rushmore, and so, within minutes of leaving the national landmark, we were setting up camp and preparing to enjoy a hot meal.

The next morning, we awoke to snow flurries, so we quickly packed up before the weather turned any worse and returned to Mt. Rushmore. The museum was well-worth the return visit and made me even more appreciative of what a feat this impressive monument really is. Did you know that each President’s head is as tall as a 6-story building?!

Snowy clouds approach Mount Rushmore
 Although the weather forecast for that day had been clear with highs in the 50s, it was in fact in the low 40s and ominous clouds seemed to be developing in every direction we looked in the sky. We rode through the picturesque Custer State Park and continued on to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although only partially complete, it was breathtaking. 
Crazy Horse
There seemed not to be many coffee shops in this area, so when a wine tasting room was advertised along the roadside shortly after Crazy Horse, we decided to take the opportunity to warm up and see what South Dakota wine had to offer. The chardonnay was actually pretty good. Some of the local hybrids were interesting, reasonably complex and would certainly be appealing to some palates. But grateful to have the feeling back in our toes, we rode on, hoping to make it to Wyoming by dark.

30 minutes later, as the bikes climbed the mountainous terrain, the snow flurries I had been decisively ignoring turned into a full-blown snowstorm. Roel, who I’m not sure has ever driven through a snowstorm, much less ridden through one, was LOVING the snow and was like a kid cheering and giggling as the thick flakes began to stick to his windscreen. I, on the other hand, was not so amused. With such crazy weather changes, the pre-existing snow banks had melted and run across the road. I was terrified that these dark patches would actually be black ice now that it was cold enough to be snowing again. When I was 16 years old, I hit a patch of black ice a mile from my house and wound up in a 2-meter deep ditch. This was not an experience I was interested in repeating, especially with only two wheels!

So, as one does when nervous, I began to breath heavily.

And what happens when you breathe heavily in a helmet? Your face shield fogs up.

How do you clear your fogged up face shield? Well, you open it.

But what happens when you open your face shield as you are riding through a snow storm? Oh, that’s right, these seemingly innocent and gentle little snowflakes attack your eyeballs, causing temporary blindness.

I pulled off the road and had a little tantrum with my face shield wide open. Since I wasn’t moving, the lovely little flakes fell peacefully around me and my motorcycle. And yes, my flowing tears helped to clear my eyes and enable me to see again. By the time we descended from the mountains and the snow had stopped, about a half-inch of white slush had accumulated on my windscreen and I think 5 years had been taken off of my life.

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