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Avoiding Disaster in the Black Hills
Written By: Chad Gillen
The last week of June is a great time to ride in the Black Hills, usually. As long as you avoid the pitfalls of mechanical breakdowns, extreme weather, physical ailments and the law.
The plan was for my brother Jeff (aka The Colonel, UnChad, etc.) and I to ride out to Spearfish for the national Honda ST meet (NatSTOC) at Chris Campground with my girls, Raina (11) and Piper (13) riding along. I reserved a rustic cabin so we could pack light and eliminate tents, cots and bulky sleeping bags. However, my brother convinced me on using his truck and trailer as the girls have no rain gear, and finding youth rain gear in stock ANYWHERE is impossible. He had the bright idea to ride out to the Black Hills three days earlier for a charity poker run, and ended up coming back sopping wet and with a sore behind.
The day before we leave, we get the trailer and figure out how to load the bikes safely. After lunch, we inspect the tires and wheel bearings and find that we have to spend the rest of the day fixing them. Numerous hiccups made the process take forever. The biggest one was having a migraine because Jeff gave me decaffeinated coffee in the morning without my knowledge. Decaffeinated coffee? Why does this stuff even exist? Patience is a virtue and by the end of the day I was running on fumes.
Day one we roll west on SD Hwy 44 and only encounter five minutes of light rain near Parkston. But when we stopped in Winner for fuel, I met an Iowan farmer who had just drove through hail in Chamberlain and it completely dimpled his pickup. We continue to Mission, then north through White River until I-90 then head west to Spearfish. When we cross into Mountain Time Zone the girls are excited because this is the only way to time travel! I really wanted to ride to Spearfish so we could ride through the Badlands, but yet here is another time I miss out on riding the Badlands loop. After unpacking at the cabin, forgetful Jeff realizes he left an entire bag at home that had his riding jacket and rain gear in it.
Day two starts with the girls bottle feeding goats, sheep and calves at the campground petting zoo after breakfast. We ride north to Belle Fourche, and then west to Aladdin, Hulett and then Devils Tower. At Hulett, WY, Raina says she needs to stop. Here we find that her comms speaker had moved when she put her helmet on this morning and was up pressing on her head. What a trooper not to complain until now! Devils Tower is always cool to see – even at $15 a motorcycle. After Devils Tower we roll south through Sundance and to Four Corners, WY. We then run Spearfish Canyon north back to the campground. At Cheyenne Crossing we stop for much needed Gatorade. We stop at Bridal Veil Falls to cool down again, and climb down to the creek where Piper promptly gets her foot wet slipping on a wet rock. It was tempting not to “fall” into the cool water. We get back to Spearfish to eat at Culver’s and enjoy some frozen custard before hitting the campground pool. Afterwards we connect with other ST riders in the dark, as no campfires are burning being it is still very warm out.
Day three’s agenda is to score a Fuzeblock at Blackhillsmoto.com in Belle Fourche at a 20% discount and then ride Needles Highway. A little over a mile north of I-90 on Hwy 85 we get pulled over by the SDHP. I’m puzzled because I had my cruise control set at the speed limit. The trooper informs us that we didn’t stop at the end of the off-ramp before turning right. I’m still puzzled as he goes back to his squad to write a courtesy warning ticket. I said to “the Colonel” the only thing I can think of is that one of us didn’t put our foot down when we stopped. Jeff then says, “Yeah, plus it helps if I would have stopped.” The very nice trooper gives my brother a courtesy warning ticket, but the kicker is that my personal information and Jeff’s bike information are on the ticket. Another person hit with the Chad/UnChad phenomenon.
We get to Belle Fourche and eat a great breakfast at the truck stop and get the Fuzeblock. We ride SD Hwy 34 to Whitewood, I-90 to Sturgis where we stop to get Piper some ibuprofen for a headache. Next we ride Vanocker Canyon Road south to Nemo Road and Norris Peak Road and then Johnson Siding. This is always a great ride as many tourists never take this route. After stopping at Pactola Reservoir we go to a Walgreens in Rapid City for some Sudafed for Piper. We think she is getting a sinus infection from the campground swimming pool water. We still want to hit Needle’s Highway, but stop on Mt. Rushmore Road to wait out some rain. We have to ditch Needle’s Highway as Piper’s sneezing is now causing her pain.
We take 385 north past Pactola again and through Deadwood with ominous storms coming towards us from the west. On the last leg on E. Colorado Blvd we are looking at the darkest sky ever, with huge bolts of lightning piercing through it. We get in the cabin a mere couple minutes before the thunderstorm full of hail hits. Had we been about 20 minutes later in time, we would have been pelted with softball-sized hail. An ST rider from Georgia wasn’t so lucky. His windshield was shattered, along with the rear cowling, and a turn signal lens. He was starting to bruise up by supper time. Later we learned that a tornado went through Spearfish Canyon near Savoy. We eat pizza at the group supper and I win a fork seal cleaning tool as a door prize. “The Dan” from Watertown, whom I had just met the previous night, gives me a set of LED headlight bulbs for my bike!
Day four and the Sudafed and ibuprofen is working for Piper and she feels a lot better. But we gotta stop at Walmart as she lost a hinge screw out of her glasses. Back at the bikes and there is a big puddle under Jeff’s Harley. We freak a little until I smell that it is gasoline and find that he overfilled it just prior. We ride to Latchstring Inn for breakfast. We leave there with forgetful Jeff leaving his stainless coffee mug on the table, and ride south to see all the storm damage. The damaged trees reminded me of the Tunguska, Siberia meteor explosion in 1908 with all of them snapped off about a foot off the ground and littered over the ground. We finally get to ride Needles Highway and the girls love it. We then head to Custer State Park to hit the Wildlife loop, but not without Jeff failing to stop at a stop sign leaving the Game Lodge. Luckily no troopers are around. Now he has two new nicknames, “Foot down” and “SMY, stop means yield.”
We enjoy seeing bison, antelope, and even vultures. We bump into Mark and Deb from Sioux Falls at the burro area, and Deb takes some pictures of the girls with a burro. Sadly, we later learned that one of the burros died from a rattlesnake bite that day. We stop in Custer to get some grub and try to dodge another storm. But from Custer to Hill City we ride in a downpour. I find that my Magellan GPS stays working all the way because I covered every crevice and hole with dielectric grease. The girls use some adult-sized rain pants with the waist hiked up to their chests and it works. The rest of the way to Spearfish is dry, but passing through Deadwood we see all the cars that have broken out windows from yesterday's storm.
The next day we load up and head home with no close calls at all. The girls say they really enjoyed the trip as they could see everything better on the bikes instead of from the back seat of the mini-van two years ago.