The other day, while riding down an especially busy stretch of Missouri state highway (with no rideable shoulder, to boot), we asked ourselves whether more people think us brave or foolish for riding our bikes across the country. We didn’t know. Needless to say, we sometimes think of ourselves as both brave and foolish, often oscillating between the two. Another brave and foolish pair that has been on our minds quite a lot over the past few weeks (and who may have also wondered this same question) are the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to “discover” the lands recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. They traveled for two years (1804-1806) on keelboats and on foot, up the Missouri River from St. Louis, over the Bitterroot Mountains, and then along the Snake River in present day Idaho to the Columbia River in Oregon, which led them to the Pacific Ocean. They returned on a similar route.
The legacy of Lewis and Clark’s brave and foolish journey has certainly been on our minds the last few weeks, as we have loosely traced their path backwards from Bismarck to St. Louis using Adventure Cycling’s Lewis and Clark Bicycle Trail maps. And now I can finally say: we made it! We survived! We have finally arrived in St. Louis! We are nowhere near done with our trip, but we find it a great accomplishment to make it here. We’re celebrating by spending a couple days in St. Louis with very good friends, resting, eating, drinking, making merry, and readying ourselves for the next step of the journey.
The landscape that Lewis, Clark, Katie, and Jeff traveled through is colloquially known as the flyover zone, or the Corn Belt. Lush river valleys and vast agricultural areas abound, whirring with cicadas, grasshoppers, and velvet rolling bluffs. The Missouri River is always present, whether in the form of shimmering, expansive dammed lakes further up the channel or in the form of a fuzzy strip of green in the middle of cornfields further downstream. Sometimes when I squint through busy highways, industrial agriculture, and concrete, I can almost imagine the landscape that Lewis and Clark traveled through in the 1800’s. It’s truly beautiful country. Putting ourselves in the shoes of Lewis and Clark has been surprisingly easy, as we find similarities in travel all along the way.
The first is our speed in travel. I’ve commented in previous posts on how wonderful it has been to take in the country slowly and carefully. Appreciating the landscape goes hand in hand with bicycle travel, as we not only see but feel the changes in terrain and topography. Like Lewis and Clark, who were employed to learn the landscape along with its plants and animals and people, we have time and space to take it all in. We’re sitting in a bicycle seat all day, after all! And like Lewis and Clark, we immerse ourselves in the landscapes in order to bring back stories to share with our loved ones back home.
Speaking of sharing stories, the most memorable moments of traveling in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps has been crossing lives with people who live on and cherish the land here. I’m sure that Lewis and Clark felt this too, but part of the deal with traveling into unknown country is meeting people who live very different lives from you. They crossed paths with natives who had thousands of years of history with the land. We have crossed paths with those who live on the land as cattle ranchers, cultivate soybeans, work as the town clerk in a city of 250 people, and in many cases have lived our their whole lives within 30 miles. Regardless of perceived differences, we have often been reliant upon the local knowledge of people we encounter to inform us of routes, roads, or weather. In other words, we must carry humility and openness in our handlebar bags, because our safety and efficiency of travel is dependent on it.
We spent about 10 days traveling through South Dakota, from the rolling bluffs rising dramatically from the wide and often dammed Missouri in the north to the more populated and greener channel in the the south, where the river runs narrower and slower and more windy. We crossed the channel where the Army Corps of Engineers have captured the water’s great strength in big concrete dams, forming waterways like Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case. When we crossed, strong side winds whipped us into shape if we dared look off into the long expanse of shimmering water.
It was one such day that we planned on crossing Lake Francis Case twice- once at Snake Creek Rec Area and again at Randall Dam. From morning until evening, we planned on traveling the land trapped between the snaking water. There was possibility of rain, and we could feel the system approaching through a strong headwinds that kept pushing us back the way we had come. Sure enough, we got caught in a passing shower that soaked us as we left Burke, SD on our way to Bonesteel, SD. And as the afternoon wore on, the strong headwinds insistent, we looked back suspiciously at another system gaining behind us that looked a lot more menacing. Would it pass behind our backs or come straight at us, catching us in its downpour? We had just stopped for the second flat tire of the day when it became unmistakable: it was surely coming our way. The sky was darkening all around, a menacing twister of a cloud was forming, swirling in the north close by, and lightening was beginning to send its fiery tendrils within a mile of where we stood, helpless and immobile on the side of the road.
Minds in a flurry, big drops of rain began to ping off of our helmets and thunder rippled closer and closer. We didn’t know what to do. Do we pedal back to a gas station we just passed in Bonesteel or try to go against the wind to the wild unknown up ahead? We had just decided to back track when we noticed a man standing next to a big white pickup across the road, trying to get our attention. “Hey! Where are you going?” he shouted our way, his message barely mistakable in the whipping wind. “We’re trying to get down the road! We’re trying to find shelter!” we shouted back. “Did you know there’s a tornado warning up north? It might be coming this way!” he insisted. “But we have nowhere to go! We were planning on going all the way to the river!” It was like we were trying to defend ourselves in some way, pointing our our vulnerability in the face of danger. “Here! Get in my truck! You need to get out of this storm. It’s about to break! We can figure the rest out later.”
So with that, without much further thought behind jumping into a stranger’s car, we ran ourselves and our bikes across the busy highway and into the idling truck. Seemingly the minute we closed the doors and started bouncing down the rural gravel road to his ranch, the sky erupted, sending lightning and rain and deafening thunder upon the fragile land. And these are the circumstances upon which we met Daniel and his father Dave, who raise cattle, corn, and soybeans on hundreds of acres of family land. They have both lived their whole lives on this ranch. That night, they housed us, fed us their own corn-fed beef, and offered Budweiser as the storm raged all around, dropping two inches of rain throughout the course of the night. We talked about livelihoods and market rates and family and travel and hobbies. Somehow we managed to only mention the President once.
Behind what could have been a traumatizing experience was immense gratitude for a kind passerby who didn’t want to let us poor pedal bikers get caught out in a gnarly storm. Luckily, Daniel was fresh from a few days at an agriculture conference in Omaha, where he had learned about how to read storms. He told us how important it was to his profession to keep his radar app open at all times. That night, as we tried to sleep through the pounding rain, I wondered how many times Lewis and Clark were caught out in it. How many times had they been subject to a thunder storm out in the channel of the river, while lightning struck a nearby bank? How many times had they recognized the power of nature, realizing there was nothing they could do to control it?
It is this release of control that we’ve had to learn as well. This storm in Bonesteel, SD and another in Springfield, SD and another as we passed over into Iowa just north of Sioux City caused us to pause and consider our trajectory. “Should we just stop?” we asked ourselves during storms when our spirits were lowest. Who were we to think we could continue, when nature could forcefully immobilize us at the drop of a hat? Why were we even going to St. Louis in the first place, straight through the Midwest and its unpredictable weather right after the driest spell the region has seen all year? Why should we still continue?
But we did. Undoubtedly, Lewis and Clark thought much the same as they kept paddling into the upstream unknown for much of a year. There were certainly days that took them down as well, forcing them into their tents until the skies cleared. There were certainly days that they also questioned their purpose- I’m sure they also considered turning around, even if they didn’t admit it in their diaries. This is the nature of being both brave and foolish, finally admitting your humility.
But the sunny tailwind days are what has kept us going, the days when we think we can ride forever. You know the ones- when puffy, white clouds float in the sky over shimmering hills and a gentle wind pushes at your back as you glide along a wide shoulder- these are the days that make riding our bikes alright again. These are the days that got us here. And these are the days that will keep getting us down the road, even if our radar apps tell us that there’s a 15% chance of rain…sometime in the future.