Friday, June 16, 2023

An overnight loop in North Dakota

 Before I dive in, just a quick preface of what my trip is all about. North Dakota is just the start of it. I’m sort of just taking a couple weeks to travel around to any place I feel like out west and ride wherever I want to. I had some rough plans when I started, but they’ve since changed, as it always goes. I do really enjoy writing, so I figure I’ll make a post about each section of the trip.

Up first was a bikepacking loop in North Dakota. I left my house at 3:55am on a Friday morning, and by 10 o’clock at night (central time, so 11 o’clock back home), I pulled off at a rest stop on I-94 in eastern North Dakota to sleep in my car. I slept well, and the next morning, I finished the last few hours of driving to Medora, ND.

Once in Medora, I got some breakfast at a local restaurant, visited the bike shop to pick up some last minute things, and assembled my bikepacking rig out in front of the shop. The bike shop, Dakota Cyclery, was actually really cool. They had a shop cat (as opposed to a dog), and two friendly women were running it. I even chatted with a stranger who stopped at the bike shop, and he told me about how he biked from Chicago to Arizona or something in his past. I think it’s pretty amazing that so many people have so many awesome journeys like that. After last summer on the Great Divide with Will, I definitely feel like a part of that category. I didn’t do it for the storytelling aspect (although that is a positive aspect), but for the personal satisfaction with having accomplished a dream. But I digress.

Doubletrack near Medora

I got my bike packed and headed out on my route. First up was a little bit of pavement out of town, followed by some gravel, and then some chunky farm path doubletrack. There were several muddy creek crossings, all of which I had to negotiate slowly whilst not dropping my bike in the water. After a while, I made it back to another stretch of gravel, followed by more doubletrack, and then gravel all the way to the campground which was the southern terminus of the Maah Daah Hey Trail.

Southern terminus of Maah Daah Hey

The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a national scenic trail that runs 155 miles in length. There are no climbs over 400 feet or so, but there are innumerably many punchy climbs that take their toll. It’s well over 100 feet per mile.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail

When I got to the southern terminus of the Maah Daah Hey, I was expecting to fill up water at the campground spigot. However, the water was apparently turned off. There was a friendly group of people in the car who first saw me with the non-working spigot and offered me some water. Being the idiot I am, I declined, confident that there was another working water spigot nearby. I was wrong, and the people had left.

I started out onto the Maah Daah Hey with limited water, and the next water supply being 30 miles of grueling singletrack away. Right from the start, I realized I had severely underestimated the difficulty of fully loaded singlespeed mountain biking. Even my 32x21 gear felt extremely hard with a 50-55 pound bike. I was cooked 10 miles in. Luckily, some Swedish Fish (aka Dahn fuel) revitalized me and I pressed on. Around 20 miles into the trail, I came across a water cache box with a jug of water labeled “trail angel water, take if you need”. I drank a little bit of that water and topped off my one bottle, and then left the rest for someone else. The water not only helped me physically, but it also made me mentally confident of the riding ahead.

Pretty cool badlands section

Finally, I reached the next campground. I filled up my water and settled into a camp spot with my bivy. As I was sitting around eating food, a kid from the campsite next to mine came over to chat with me.

He asked me all sorts of questions - what was I doing? What kind of tent is that (it’s a bivy)? - and we talked for a while. He was like a modern version of Opie from the Andy Griffith show. Soon, the kid’s friends came over to visit me as well. Unfortunately, they weren’t like Opie. They were all a little, for lack of a better word, off. Except for Opie. He was cool. Their parents also seemed pretty off. Opie even left his pocket knife at my picnic table while he biked around, then he came back and got it.

Looking over the Little Missouri River

I went to bed in my bivy not knowing what a bivy was like to sleep in. Honestly, it was pretty nice. I slept fine. The only problem is the condensation from my mouth-breathing dampens the sleeping bag quite a bit.

The next morning I set off north on the Maah Daah Hey, determined to make it to a general store in Medora some 20 miles away. The riding was hard and I was tired, and I began to make some decisions in my head. I didn’t exactly feel like making a death march on the Maah Daah Hey only to have to ride 80 miles of boring pavement and gravel back to my car when I was done. So, I decided, I would continue past Medora on the trail, and then turn around and take gravel back to my car, just enough to get an 8 hour ride in for the day and maximize trail miles. The route would end up being a 150 mile overnighter.

It’s worth me noting (mostly for my future reference) that my biggest mistake was failing to set a goal for the route. I’ve talked to Will a lot about this, and he always tells me you need to clearly make a decision of what you want the trip to be like before you start. What that means is, if you want to race a route hard, then go into it 100% knowing that’s what you’re going to do. Or if you’re going to tour a route, then tour it. Don’t go into something with uncertainty.

Almost reminds me of alpine riding

The loop in North Dakota really made me realize that Will is totally correct, at least for me and him. I came into the route not knowing if I’d ride 14 hours a day or 7 hours a day. “Go on how I feel”, I’d tell myself. That just sets you up for failure. When the singletrack riding became extremely difficult, the notion of grinding 14 hours a day became daunting. Since I wasn’t really committed to going fast or racing it, I had no urge to push me to make myself suffer that much. So, that’s why I decided to cut off the northern part of my route. My big lesson learned is: always set extremely clear goals before a bikepacking thing or any bike ride. No matter how much you want to switch your goals during the trip, don’t do it. Of course, if you’re planning to race and you don’t feel like racing, then I guess you’re gonna quit. Probably a sign you weren’t ready.

Very green on the trail

That being said, the route was still a lot of fun and I’d consider it a success. Sure, I didn’t finish the whole thing, but I also didn’t have to ride 80 miles of pavement at the end. Plus, I got 15 hours of riding in 2 days, which is solid, and it absolutely destroyed my legs, so it was definitely a challenge.

Got some hikers to take a picture so I have proof I was actually there

But I digress. When I got to Medora the morning of the second day, I grabbed a bunch of food and drinks from the general store and then headed on my way. However, I was impeded by the Little Missouri River. It was much too high to cross, so I had to backtrack into down and jump on Interstate 94 for a mile. After the interstate, I was on the Maah Daah Hey for another 35 miles or so. It wasn’t quite as hard as the stretch the day before, but it was close. Perhaps I just knew what to expect. By the time I reached the gravel, I was ready to be done with the trail. The gravel ride back was 27 miles, and although that doesn’t seem like much, at the time it felt like much. The whole time I was listening to music from Will’s iPod Nano, and during that gravel stretch, the music at least kept me steady. Finally, I reached Medora and stopped again at the general store for ice cream and a Dr. Pepper. Very nice. Apparently, someone got their purse stolen at that store just hours earlier, and a cop was there interviewing people. It’s funny because when I called the bike shop a couple weeks ago, the lady made a point to say Medora is extremely low crime.

The gravel stretch back to Medora

At the general store, I chatted with an older fellow who came up to me. We talked for a while about all sorts of things, but a few things stand out. For one, he was an oil rig truck driver, meaning he drives the big rigs way out into the vastness on dirt roads. Pretty cool job. But also, he was quick to make a point that if you aren’t conservative, you probably shouldn’t move to North Dakota. He threw that in there after mentioning it being a good place to live. It was a friendly remark though, very genuine and certainly not threatening in the slightest. He also brought up his vast gun collection of over 40 long guns and many more handguns. Interesting fellow.

After I finished my chat at the general store, I drove to a campground to get a shower and then found some random dirt road in the National Grasslands to park my car and sleep for the night. It was a unique, shall we say, camping area. The interstate was within view and I just sat in my folding chair on the road (it was closed with a barbed wire fence, no one was going in) eating my dinner of freeze dried chicken Alfredo. It was actually a pretty cool evening, and I played my guitar to serenade the free range cows all around me.

That seems like a good stopping point for now. I’ll pick up where I left next time.

My campsite near I-94

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