A Blizzard In South Dakota

Well stone me, it’s been an eventful few weeks. I’ve had small storms, big storms, off-road adventures, truck riding, cow milking and a degree of local fame. Smothered over the top is lashings of human kindness, with a side order of wonderful peeps.

THE BAIN OF MONTANA

I’ll keep this brief, although the torturous riding was anything but. Riding on gravel is one thing. Riding on sand, sludge, rocks and mud is entirely another. Toss in the added Brucey bonus of ‘who knows how long this goes on for’ and ‘here’s a 30mph cross wind for you’ and I’ll admit things in Southern Montana got a little … frustrating. I maintain that adequate route research had been conducted. I was to follow a network of minor roads and put my good faith in names like ‘Highway 446’ and ‘Old US Highway 10’. Aye, foolish me. Apparently it’s not illegal to call a few loosely placed stones a ‘highway’ (FYI it should be. Who do I need to call?). There was nothing for it but to go British on the gravel’s ass – keep calm, and carry on. Although I did later adapt this to “develop mild Tourette’s, and carry on”.

THAT BLIZZARD

Gravel gravity aside, Montana is an incredibly picturesque state, and I was sad to wave it’s beautiful mountains goodbye. After a brief and illicit tarmac affair with North Dakota I made my way into South Dakota. With the US Government shutdown having scuppered plans to get the full Mount Rushmore experience (Seriously Obaams? How could you. Sort it out already), and warnings of another storm headed directly for the Black Hills, I pedalled East as far and as fast as I could. Apparently, I am yet to master the art of out-cycling weather…

THE WONDERFUL WEICHMANS

The day I met the Weichman family, was actually the worst day I’d had on the bike so far. And I don’t say that lightly. As I rolled into the small town of Bison (population 340), I was in a slump. Overtired, run down and having been passed by a total of 4 cars that day – I was just about on the verge of cracking out the emergency volleyball and naming it Wilson.

To my delight, someone, somewhere heard my weary cries. And as if by magic, Katie appeared. She drove past, waving so enthusiastically from within the car that I feared her whole right arm might just detach and fly into the windscreen. I, being the dignified lady I am, retorted with a wave of equal magnitude. She pulled the car over and we had a mutual exchange of who’s, why’s, when’s and where’s – imagine two overexcited puppies meeting in a park (minus the butt sniffing). Katie offered up a spare bed at her home, and sure enough that evening I was back at Casa Weichman, meeting the family, eating pizza and drinking hot choccy (avec marshmallows).

WE’VE LOST THE BRIT

The following morning I made the most of the unplanned stopover with a visit to Bison High school. Snow wasn’t due until later in the day, so we thought there was time for a trip into town, and the Weichman girls kindly offered the use of their car. After the obligatory turning on of headlights instead of windscreen wipers (high beam, of course), over revving the engine and trying to drive off with the car in ‘Park’ mode, I eventually got on my way. I nipped into the school for an hour and chatted to the 11th Grade kids. There were the usual, although notably more mature, barrage of questions, plus a few specials – like “Do you know Bear Grylls?”. I explained, not personally, no.

When I emerged from the school, the skies were already putting in a big snow-shift. Dorena ‘Big sis’ Weichman called, concerned about me making it home – I assured her, I would drive slowly. She offered some last ditch advice; “If you start to slide, don’t brake, just slide, okay?” Yikes. I drove back at 20 mph, much to the despair of other motorists, thundering along behind me in their sensible big tyre trucks. All was going well (ish) and I was almost at the turn off to the Ranch. Ah yes, the turn off. As it happens, trying to find a dirt road off a highway when everything is white isn’t easy. I was lacking in Spider sense and I missed it.

Five minutes later, my Spidey sense kicked in, and I knew I’d gone too far. I proceeded to accost and converse with a plethora of other road users, including a bus load of school kids – who seemed to think it all rather entertaining. No one could accurately describe where I needed to be, and of course, my phone battery had died. There were all sorts of plans afoot. I moved from ‘sitting tight’ to following willing helper number nine to a house half a mile away. There I met willing helpers ten, eleven and twelve – who knew exactly where I’d gone wrong. Result. They started to give direction, but I was well and truly done. There was no way I was getting back behind the wheel. I instead abandoned ship (car) and accepted a ride home from two 15 year old lads (it’s legal to drive from 14 in South Dakota). Possibly one of the more surreal and unnerving experiences I’ve had, but bless them – they got me home. By the time I walked through the door at the Ranch, it seemed the whole community knew there was a girl from London lost in the snow. The mother of the family had been called, as had the sister, and the older brother was out looking for me. Oooopsy.

RANCH LIFE

For the next 4 days I hung out with Katie no. 1 (21), Dorena (27), Grannie (88), Auntie (98), Ethan, Katie no. 2 and Christopher (18 months). I became a temporary part of one of the most hard working, kind hearted families I have ever met. Dorena and Katie no. 2 would spend all day with Ethan chasing cows through pastures (quite the escapologists are cows), wading in knee deep snow, sometimes in the dark, while Katie no. 1 looked after Auntie and Grannie. Dorena would then come home and (following a three minute sit down) promptly begin cooking dinner, washing up and checking on Auntie. Not once in the 4 days I was there did I see the girls stop smiling. Never did I think I’d meet a match in the eternal optimist league, but these girls gave me a run for my money.

BACK ON THE ROAD

As it turns out, the storm was a record breaker. Four feet of snow fell in just 24 hours and 22,000 people were left without power (although thankfully, and bizarrely, not us). Yet the greatest damage was to livestock. An estimated 20,000 cattle died in the blizzard, a fair few of which I saw slumped against fences on my ride out (sad face). At $1,500 per cow, you can imagine the impact for the Ranchers, and see why fundraising efforts are now underway for the region.

Once the snow stopped, and the highways cleared, I got on my way. The relief to be moving again was coupled with a real sadness. I was riding away from girls who’d genuinely be friends for life. To be given the opportunity to experience a day-to-day so very different from your own is rare. And is without a doubt, something to be cherished. Next time I get frustrated that my inbox is crashing, or that Tesco has shut early and M&S has run out of Percy Pigs – I’ll get a grip on what’s really important, and remember my Bison days with fondness.

The week that followed turned into a mobile ‘host a cycle tramp’ convention, as I continued to stay with friends of the Weichmans in towns further along the state. Each place had the same wonderful small town feel – where residents leave their cars unlocked with keys in the ignition, and their houses open. That said, I did have to bring my bike inside one evening at Glad Valley. But this was only so that Bo the dog didn’t pee on it.

WHERE NEXT?

The storm threw me a little off schedule, so I’m currently pedalling like an absolute nut job across Iowa, Minnesota and bound for Wisconsin. There, I have a few exciting meet and greets lined up, and a tour of the Trek factory… On my birthday (18th of October. Cake donations gratefully received). Winner.

Until next time Five-O gang, adieu.

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