Tales from the Trans South Dakota Race
Tom Woods discovered beauty and wonder while racing through an area that’s often disregarded as “flyover country.” Read on for his story of buffalo encounters, friendship, and random acts of kindness in the Great Plains during the Trans South Dakota Race…
Words and photos by Tom Woods
At 7:00 a.m. on July 20, 2019, eighteen of us lined up on our bikes in front of the Buffalo Jump Saloon & Steakhouse in Beulah, Wyoming. Our mission: traverse the state of South Dakota from northwest to southeast on our gear-laden bikes.
The first day was difficult, and filled with climbing and descending on gravel roads, jeep tracks, rough singletrack, bits of highway, and tough stretches of hike-a-bike. In the early evening, after mangling the rotor of my front wheel on a rocky downhill, I limped up a steep hill into the city of Lead, where fellow racers Kenny Young, Sarah Marcikonis, and Paulette Kirby graciously waited for me. After eating, Sarah and Paulette continued on to Hill City. Kenny and I found a hotel. We had gone a mere 60 miles. Not an auspicious beginning.
The next morning, Kenny and I were on our bikes by 6:15 a.m., riding into a heavy thunderstorm. Eventually we became separated. Forty miles later in Hill City I went to a bike shop, which turned out not to have a replacement front rotor for my bike. I rode without a front brake the rest of the race. I pushed on to Mt. Rushmore, the beautiful Pigtail Highway, and Hermosa, trying to catch Kenny. At a truck stop, I checked trackleaders again: Now Kenny was 15 miles behind me, and Sarah and Paulette were 10 miles ahead. Sunshine, an all-too-brief section of pavement, and pleasant gravel roads lay along the route heading east. As afternoon blended into early evening, clouds of aggressive mosquitoes emerged that discouraged stopping. The vistas were spectacular, including glimpses of the glowing Badlands in the distance.
Darkness arrived, and the route turned onto a gravel road heading into the Badlands. Soon Sarah and Paulette’s lights appeared, and we rode one big hill after another. In the darkness we became separated again, and I continued riding beneath a bright purplish moon. Cruising on gravel around a downhill curve, I nearly collided with the rear haunches of a large male buffalo. He sprinted out of the way just in time as I hit my brakes. He looked me directly in the eye, feigned a slight charge while snorting loudly, then turned around and ran up an embankment. I felt exceptionally stupid for being in such a remote area at night among large, dangerous, wild animals. I rode on, much more cautiously and alert than before. Soon it became obvious that I was riding through multiple groups of buffaloes scattered among the sagebrush on both sides of the road. Big male buffaloes lying on the ground made low frequency, menacing, guttural noises similar to what I imagine disturbed dragons would sound like. I continued pedaling as quietly as I could to leave them safely behind me.
Half an hour later I arrived at a point in a gravel road where buffaloes were crossing behind and in front of me. I stopped. The buffaloes passing some 50 yards in front of me were mostly females, their calves, and a few juvenile Praetorian Guards. Then it dawned on me that I had unwittingly penetrated the outer layers of the herd to its precious core of females and calves. While waiting for the herd to pass, an aggressive and alert juvenile male spied me, peeled off from the group, and headed straight for me, first at a canter, and then at an alarming lope. My brain powerfully resisted computing what was happening. I was terrified when I realized that he was not going to stop coming at me, so I jumped off my bike and positioned myself on the other side of it. The young male buffalo drew up to within a few feet of my bike, and looked me right in the eye so close that I could see stars and the moon reflecting off his eyeball. Whether I liked it or not, inter-species communication had begun. Then he deftly turned and tried to kick me a few times while bucking like a bronco. Up until this moment, I had no idea a buffalo could do that. After a few dodged kicks, the young buffalo stopped, turned around to face me, and looked me in the eye again with his head just a few feet from mine. He was magnificent. I remember being surprised by the beauty of the finely wound strands of black hair lying along the back of his head, and around his eyes and face. His hair, whiskers, and the folds of skin on his face and chin, glinted bluish purple in the moonlight. He was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. To my relief, after an uncomfortably long time staring me down, and probably after deciding that I was not a threat, he turned away and trotted off to rejoin his people.
I waited a few minutes for the rest of the herd to pass, and while doing so felt even more foolish than I had after my first stupid buffalo encounter earlier that evening. I had no business being in the Badlands disturbing these noble wild creatures at night, who after all just wanted to be left alone on this land that has been theirs from time immemorial.
I pedaled hard to get away from the buffaloes, out of the Badlands, and to the motel room waiting for me in Wall, South Dakota. When I arrived, fellow racer Pete Yerger was patiently waiting for me in the parking lot, saddled up and ready to ride after a nap. We talked a bit, and Pete, the understated and always modest but exceptional athlete, rode silently off into the night. The elderly motel manager told me I was lucky the young buck buffalo had not killed me. I took a shower and went to sleep after sending a text to Kenny letting him know I was in room 17, and there was a second bed waiting for him. Just don’t wake me up. That day I had ridden 170 miles from Lead.
Day three started at 8:30 a.m. No Kenny. As I started to pack, I received a text. Kenny hadn’t seen my text from the night before, and had slept in the weeds at the edge of a baseball field a few blocks away. We ate breakfast at Wall Drug and got out of town a little late, heading for the town of Philip. It was hot and windy. Kenny got a flat and temporarily lost his valve core while effecting the repair, but soon caught back up with me. In Philip, we stopped at a Subway, ate and drank, and fell asleep on the benches inside the nice air-conditioned building. Seven minutes later we were awakened by loud country music blaring from the ceiling speakers. It was the owner’s invitation for us to leave his Subway and get back outside into the heat.
Except for a few spigots, a long stretch lay ahead of us with no water or supplies until we reached the Missouri River. We pedaled until around midnight, when we reached one of the designated ranch locations where a water spigot was supposed to be. Kenny rooted around and found the spigot, and we filled our water bladders. Later we discovered that it was the wrong ranch, and we were lucky no one shot us. We continued on until 1:30 a.m., and made camp in a small gravel turn off. After finishing my sandwich, I fell asleep instantly.
On day four, we awoke at 5:30 a.m. Kenny told me a dog had been barking at us all night through the adjoining fence. I heard nothing (but had been wearing ear plugs, and taken an Ambien). Beautiful rolling gravel roads and big hills were ours all the way to the Missouri River and Ft. Pierre. At a riverside park, race directors Joe and Tina Stiller took care of us in supremely gracious style. We had delicious grilled hamburgers, and took showers. Trackleaders revealed that Sarah was only 40 miles behind. We also learned that Paulette had been disqualified because of a tracker malfunction. At the river’s edge, we got into inflatable rafts provided by Joe, and paddled down and across Lake Oahe to the east side of the Missouri River. A few blocks away, we unexpectedly encountered fellow racers Stan Prutz and Ron Newsom, who seemed disconcerted that two Clydesdales had caught up to them.
Soon we were pedaling toward Blunt, and pavement shortly gave way to gravel. Moths and gnats became overwhelming as darkness descended. I got a flat, but re-inflated the tire and continued pedaling so the sealant could do its job. We got to Blunt just as its only gas station was closing at 11:00 p.m. Luckily, a kind woman let us buy food and drink anyway. We camped in the center of town and got in a fitful night of sleep, despite a strong wind.
Day five began at 7:45 a.m. We packed our gear, and went back to the gas station for homemade breakfast burritos. As we were getting ready to leave, out of nowhere a refreshed-looking Sarah Marcikonis pulled up on her bike, and told us she was happy to have caught us! We chatted with Sarah as she ate and resupplied. Then we headed out into a brutal headwind of 15 to 40 mph that would dog us to the finish. Our objective for the day was far-away Wessington Springs. To get there we would have to traverse another long section without resupply. Luckily, Joe and Tina Stiller intercepted us mid-afternoon along a lonely gravel road, bearing Coca Cola and bananas. Then we continued onward, keeping our eyes peeled for water spigots at designated mileage locations. We found none of them.
In the early evening, I emerged from a muddy and unrideable path onto a gravel road to find a nice-looking house. I knocked on the door, and a kind older woman said yes, you can wash the mud off your bike and get water from the outside hose. Then she sent her 5- or 6-year-old grandson outside. He hopped on his little bike in the driveway, rode up to me, and said, “What’s your name, where did you start, where are you going, and what do you do?” He wanted answers, so I told him everything he wanted to know while he rode in circles and I cleaned my bike. The young boy had many questions and was unusually engaging. It was obvious he would do well in the game of life. Soon Kenny and Sarah arrived, and they efficiently cleaned their bikes and got water. We thanked the woman and her grandson, and took off into the descending darkness and unrelenting wind.
About a mile up the road, we encountered the young boy’s mother sitting in the passenger seat of an old pickup truck that was carefully picking its way along a rough B-road. Her pre-teen daughter was driving the pickup, peering cautiously over the dashboard. Further on, the wind cranked up several notches. On-cue, clouds of insects appeared above the road as darkness settled in.
Around 12:30 a.m., Kenny and I came across a thoughtful elderly dot watcher sitting on her ATV at the side of the road with a few supplies. Kenny got there first and snagged a banana. When I arrived, the generous dot watcher said, “I have two apples and one banana. Should I save the banana for Sarah?” I said no, and gratefully took the banana and fed it to my stomach. I’ve felt bad about that banana ever since. She told us Wessington Springs was 17 miles away. We knew Sarah was some 10 miles behind us, not carrying a tent or sleeping gear. We were worried about her, but also tired ourselves. We wanted to get to our motel room.
The ride to Wessington Springs was dark, windy, and brutal. At 1:45 a.m. we descended into the town, hidden from view from the surrounding countryside by a strange concealing fold cut deep into the prairie. A brightly lit small grocery store on an empty and desolate Main Street beckoned us. Through the windows, we could see Cheetos, ice cream, candy bars, and Coca-Cola. The doors were locked. Surreal country music played over the outdoor speakers above our heads. We went to the Travelers’ Inn down the street, where our motel room doors had been left with keys in them. I sent Sarah a text that her room number was 3. Kenny and I took photos of one another in our unbelievably filthy condition before we showered and went to sleep. My dinner was a Rice Krispy bar. Kenny had half of a Snickers bar.
On day six, the three of us woke up mid-morning and headed to a restaurant for breakfast. Then we rode again into the still-persistent and strong easterly headwinds. Kenny and I talked strategy. We weren’t far behind Stan and Ron. We decided that until we reached the finish, we would take only short dirt naps. We made it to Mitchell around 4:30 p.m. after pedaling through hot sunny cornfields, and carrying our bikes through a waist-deep swamp. Four local teenage dot-watching boys greeted us on their mountain bikes in front of the Corn Palace, and asked us about the race and our bikes. Then we left to eat and restock.
Kenny and I had become disgusting, smelly, filthy, ravenous cyclists. Our air-conditioned interlude over lunch was interrupted by a sudden text from Sarah: Where were we? A few minutes later Sarah pedaled up and joined us inside. She’d just had a telephone discussion with her husband, and decided to quit trying to keep up with us. She said she would stay in Mitchell for the night to get some much-needed rest. We told her no one had anything on Sarah Marcikonis, and that tomorrow she would almost surely break the women’s record.
With mixed emotions, we left Sarah in Mitchell, and headed out once more into the sun, the heat, and the wind. The topography had changed dramatically. We were no longer in the West, and had entered the prairies of the Northern Plains. As we rode into the evening, we found thousands upon thousands of frogs on the gravel roads, soaking up the heat left by the sun in the dirt and stones, waiting to feast on the insects that would soon appear above them at sunset. The frogs proved maddeningly difficult to miss. There were also many ornery clumps of skunks along the road, and a few sauntering coyotes. We pedaled into the night, eventually reaching the hamlet of Menno around 1:00 a.m. Nothing was open. Not a soul was stirring in the town. We pressed on and took our first short but cold ditch nap around 2:00 a.m., followed by a second around 4:30 a.m. Both were disturbed by busy mosquitoes.
On day seven, the sun rose early and the headwinds persisted. The roads seemed to be deteriorating as we entered full-fledged farm country. Kenny had a large horsefly crawl up inside his ear and screamed. I stopped to check his ear. A hunk of flesh was missing where the fly bit him, and was now bleeding. Later that morning a series of big horsefly bites appeared all along my right side from shoulder to stomach. They had bitten through my jersey, and the bite marks persisted for two weeks afterwards.
We pedaled on to Viborg and found a café around 8:30 a.m. There, a waitress told us that Stan and Rob had left the café only 10 minutes earlier, worried we might catch them. Dirt napping was working. We ordered a big breakfast. It was already really hot outside, even though it was relatively early in the morning. Thankfully, the café was air conditioned. We were covered in bag balm, slobs of the nth degree. When we finished eating, I proposed to the waitress that if I gave her a $20 tip in addition to a tip for the food, could we kindly sleep for 30 minutes on one of the bench seats at the rear of the café? A look of terror flitted across her face, but she recovered quickly and said the lunch crowd would be arriving any minute (it was 9:30 a.m.), and that they could not spare a booth or table. Just then, The Angel, Gloria Peterson, walked into the café. She was a dot watcher and friend of the Stillers, and offered to let us nap on her living room floor. Gloria guided us to her nearby home, got us set up with pillows, blankets, and towels, and left. We took showers and had a two-hour nap. Then we emerged from the Petersons’ air-conditioned sanctuary into the mid-summer 95-degree-oven of southeastern South Dakota.
The headwinds were still whipping. It was just too hot. We pedaled out of Viborg, and then up and down innumerable big hills on an assortment of gravel roads, paths, and hike-a-bike sections until we came to a truck stop in Beresford. While we had chocolate shakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and meatloaf, we were surrounded by four engaging teenage employees. They enthusiastically told us about their adventures ditch hopping the local roads in pick-up trucks at night, and much more. Listening as a father, I wondered about all the things my sons had done that I would never know or hear about.
We went outside to resume riding around 5:30 p.m., but it was still mercilessly hot and humid. Kenny said he forgot something, and went back inside. Grateful, I removed my helmet and used it as a pillow as I tried to take a nap on the sidewalk in front of the truck stop. I heard a pickup truck pull up behind me. A voice announced, “My name is so and so, and I am the postmaster of such and such, Iowa. Today is my day to do good deeds.” By this time Kenny had returned, and I had rolled over onto my belly so I could see the announcer of good deeds while he pulled a cooler from his pickup bed. “Gentlemen, do you want a chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla ice cream sandwich?” I told him we were terribly sorry, and while we genuinely appreciated his offer, we had just finished eating inside and could not eat another bite. The good-deed-doer harrumphed, said nothing, got back in his truck with a look of mild disgust on his face, and left in a huff. We had inadvertently ruined his plan to feel good about himself that day.
We stiffly crawled onto our bikes, and left the truck stop and tiny neat Beresford behind, pedaling through another endless series of hills, B-roads, paths, and hike-a-bike sections. By the time the sun was beginning to set we were once again surrounded by insects and frogs. A lone skunk would not leave the left side of the gravel road ahead of us for about a quarter of a mile, and sprayed us as he stubbornly dawdled along. The gravel roads turned into unending washboards. The countryside was beautiful, but too hilly for abused and tired legs. We were getting pretty grumpy. I had no idea they made hills like this in southeastern South Dakota, which looked strikingly like Bitburg-Trier in Germany. We went around many “Road Closed” signs while staying on route. Around 11:00 p.m., Kenny checked his phone messages. His daughter had just texted him and said we were only five miles from the finish. My GPS said otherwise.
Two hours later we reached pavement, and miraculously Joe Stiller was waiting to escort us into Sioux City on his nifty BMW motorcycle. Feeling like kings, we followed Joe to a casino and stumbled off our bikes. The liquor store was still open. I bought beer. Kenny bought wine. We sat down and enjoyed our beverages. We were done. Sixth place in 6 days, 17 hours, 22 min, and 27 sec. Sarah Marcikonis would finish the next afternoon, breaking the women’s record by more than a full day.
Driving home to Minneapolis the next morning was a strangely and unexpectedly emotional experience. Something profound had happened. The portals of the universe had been opened briefly. I was given the chance to go through them, and have a look around. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to experience this journey with my friend Kenny, the hilarious, decent, and intelligent Newfoundlander. Between Wyoming and Iowa we discussed at least 746 different topics in overwhelming detail. At least 14 of them we revisited repeatedly. We met many good people along the way who reminded us of the good solid core that lies within humanity. Those people, and the earth and its creatures, reminded us of the mystery, beauty, and wonder of the universe. I had been renewed in spirit, mind, and body. Thank you, Tina and Joe Stiller. Thank you, South Dakota. Thank you, Kenny.
About Tom Woods
Tom Woods lives in New Mexico with his patient wife Lora and Norwegian Elkhound Isabelle, near his daughters Miranda and Sarah, but far away from his sons Bill and Douglas, both avid cyclists who live in Vancouver, B.C. Tom has enjoyed cycling since he was four, and works as a patent attorney specializing in medical devices following careers in geophysics, engineering, and petroleum exploration. Tom believes that bikes will change the world.