From Crazy Horse, I headed five minutes south to the sleepy Black Hills town of Custer. At 5,000 feet above sea level, itís cold this time of year. When I wake up this morning, there is frost on the bike. But the sun is shining brightly and it warms up quickly. I certainly canít complain about the weather. Iím glad Iím not in the Southeast where Hurricane Floyd is bearing down and trashing the Bahamas. I canít believe the size of this storm. On the weather channel, itís non-stop Hurricane Central. I hope some of the places Iíll be visiting in November will still be there.
I head west a few miles down the road to Jewel Cave National Monument for my first stamp of the day. I notice that both the Rand McNally Map and my GPS have the location of the site marked north of US-16. But the signs point me south. The maps are wrong, but Iíve seen this before. No big deal, but I find it interesting.
Jewel Cave is the third largest cave in the world. Exploration began about 1900 when two South Dakota prospectors heard wind rushing through a hole in the rocks in Hell Canyon. They dug the hole and found a cave full of sparkling crystals. Over the years, cave exploration grew. In 1959, Herb and Jan Conn began a series of 708 trips and 6,000 hours of exploring and mapping. In 1980, after discovering more than 65 miles of cave, the couple retired.
Today the caveís known boundaries exceed 100 miles and more is discovered all the time. The chambers are filled with exquisite calcite crystals and rare formations. But I wouldnít know about any of that. I get the stamp and bolt. I just started my day and donít feel like being underground for a couple of hours. Besides, I was in Mammoth, the worldís largest cave system, a couple of weeks ago. I want to ride.
The Black Hills are an amazing place to be on a motorcycle and I can see why the Sturgis Rally has grown to the behemoth that it is. Besides the killer curvy roads, there is so much to see and do in a close area. Four National Parks sites, towns like Deadwood, Custer, Lead, great scenery and wildlife, and donít forget the Woodcarving Museum in Custer. Okay, maybe you could skip the museum.
I head down to Wind Cave National Park. But donít let the parkís name fool you. There is much more to the place than its underground geological wonders. A diverse mix of wildlife, including bison, pronghorn, elk, and prairie dogs, dwell in the 28,000 acres of rolling grasslands, pine forests and ravines. I particularly like watching the prairie dogs in their town. They're cute little suckers and this prairie is covered with them. They alarm each other to my presence with a chipping noise as they scurry about their holes. The prairie dogs actually serve an important purpose as they work the grass. It has been discovered that bison that graze near the towns are healthier due to the more nutritious meadows.
Speaking of bison, I get to see a wondrous sight as I cross the road at Bison Flats. A herd of hundreds of buffalo are crossing the road. I keep my distance and watch them stroll across the plain for about 20 minutes. Among the parkís foremost missions as wildlife sanctuary was the restoration of bison to the Black Hills. Starting with 14 bison donated by the Bronx Zoo in 1913, the herd numbers over 350 today. I think some might have been used as extras in the film "Dances With Wolves" which was filmed nearby.
I stop for lunch in Chadron, Nebraska (yes, if Chad and Ron had a childÖ), and then head west across the Nebraska plains. There is nothing here. It is an extraordinary experience to ride through these rolling hills and just feel free. I love this feeling of solidarity and openness. I especially enjoy being alone like this out here in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing but the bike and me, connected as one. Cattle stroll huge open ranges and windmills spin in the soft breeze. Horse tail clouds sit in a deep blue sea of sky. I'm thinking of nothing but how good this feels. The road sweeping up and down. The sun sparkling through the golden wheat. Iím digging this.
Two more stamps and the day is done. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is considered one of the worldís outstanding deposits of mammal fossils. Scotts Bluff National Monument is a massive promontory, rising 800 feet above the North Platte River. For pioneers on the Oregon/California Trails, the bluff marked the end of the "Great American Desert" and the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. Between 1841 and 1869 at least 350,000 people joined wagon trains which passed by the marker of Scotts Bluff. I ride the road to the top for a view over the plains and the setting sun. Itís been a great day of discovery and travel.
Fran Crane has died. I never knew her but I knew of her. She was considered the best female long distance rider in the world. In 1988, Fran and Mike Kneebone set the record for visiting 48 states with a time of six days, thirteen hours and twenty-one minutes. That record stood until Ron Ayres broke it last summer. Fran had many fans and was loved by many people.
On Thursday, while completing the final leg of the Iron Butt Rally, Fran had a single vehicle accident near Cedar City, Utah. She was airlifted to a trauma unit in Salt Lake City, where her husband Walter rushed to her side. She had sustained a bad concussion but was conscious and lucid. Fran was expected to be out of the ICU and in a private room by Saturday, but that morning she was mistakenly given an incorrect I.V., which contained a blood thinner. Fran slipped into a coma and was pronounced brain dead on Sunday morning. Her organs were given to five different individuals throughout the country.
My heart goes out to Franís friends and family. It is such a shame that she was killed by a thoughtless mistake. But Fran was doing what she loved doing most in life when fate came to her door. Riding a motorcycle is a dangerous activity, but so is crossing the street at 23rd and Park in Manhattan. Life is not worth living unless you take some risks, and Fran had a great life. It is such a tragedy that it ended so thoughtlessly, so soon.
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