The front wheel wobbled in front of me in the narrow dirt and rock track. There was only an inch or two of clearance—or so it seemed—between the thick rubber tire and the sides of the track. The wheel in front of mine steadily moved straight ahead, and further away from me, but every time I tried to correct my drunken progress, I bounced from one edge to the other. How was I ever going to keep up with my friends or keep from falling over?
My tire rammed into the grass embankment and over I went. Bike and all. I wasn’t.
I hadn’t been on a mountain bike, riding a single track, in about ten years. The last time had been with the same friends when they lived in Colorado. Early adopters of mountain biking, they’d put me on a front suspension bike and introduced me to clip in pedals. On the first trial spin around their neighborhood, I tried to jump the curb and ended up half way on, half way off, still stuck to my pedals, and with a rip down through the entire center of my t-shirt. But somehow I managed to figure it out after that and I’d followed my friends like a gangly fawn along Rocky Mountain trails, over boulders and roots, through mud and small streams. They taught me one of the most important lessons in Mountain Biking, if not in life, look where you’re going. I also got better at pushing my heels quickly out and away from my bike, releasing my shoes from the pedals. It particularly came in handy when I was heading for a rocky drop-off on one side and there was a thorny bush on the other. I clicked out of both pedals at once and landed straddling the frame with my feet on the ground to stop myself. Just in time.
Fortunately, the ground was more forgiving on the grasslands of western North Dakota. I was just going too slow to push my heels away and click out.
Uh. “Guys . . . hey, guys! I fell! I’m back here….wait up!”
Nothing. They were gone. I got one shoe clicked off, wiggled around under my bike, and the other clicked out. I brushed some dry grass and twigs from my shorts, set my bike back in the track and pushed it up the hill in front of me until the ground leveled and I could more easily click back in.
My friends were up at the top of the hill, after all, waiting for me and chatting. I just hoped it wasn’t about wishing they’d left me back at camp. But that’s not fair to my friends. They are hugely generous people, and they were pulling out all the stops to make this a great adventure for me. After they’d moved from Colorado, back to their home state of North Dakota, the motivational factors of cheap direct flights from NYC and outdoor adventures were in shorter supply. I love my friends, but we bond best in the great outdoors which we all dearly adore.
A year or so ago, they began mentioning the Badlands, which in my east-coast ignorance I assumed were only in South Dakota. No, they patiently explained, they extended up into the north as well. Some were part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park where bikes weren’t allowed, but a large part of them were in the National Grasslands and one could hike, bike, or horseback ride for over one hundred miles on The Maah Daah Hey Trail.
I’d never heard of the Maah Daah Hey (say it fast ‘Ma-da-hey), but the Badlands sounded cool and I thought I could still get my butt onto a mountain bike again. As a sweetener to the deal, my friends had just bought a small RV that hitched to their pickup. We’d have hot water for showers and a fridge for beer.
Beer, in fact, was the first stop upon my arrival to the Bismarck Airport. My friends’ Tundra was waiting curbside with two bikes harnessed to the bed rails. I jumped in the back seat with my luggage and off we went to Laughing Sun Brewing Co. for a couple of growlers to go and a side of excellent ‘shroom’ pizza to stay at Fireflour Pizza next door. Craft beer and artisanal pizza are fairly recent North Dakota offerings, so I timed my visit well.
I had also timed the weather well. North Dakota is the Siberia of the United States and it can snow in September. But it was in the hazy 80’s when I arrived, and still balmy by early evening when we stopped for fuel in Belfield, ND, the intersection of Interstate 94 and Highway 85, part of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway.
The gas station was hopping with guys in worn jeans and cowboy hats, girls in tight pants and hoodies, and teenage boys looking for a snack after football practice. Excepting the brimmed hats, it all seemed pretty ordinary to me, but my friends explained that business was slow and sparse up until a few years ago, when the oil and gas boomed. We’d already seen plenty of evidence along the Interstate. Some rigs were under construction, and others were already completed with the pumpjacks in place and nodding back and forth like big chickens pecking at the earth. There were so many rigs that while passing one, you could spot the next up ahead.
It was hard to know how to feel about them; they provide a good living to many North Dakotans and their neighbors, and my many electronic gadgets certainly use plenty of the juice they procure, but I didn’t get the same sinking feeling when I saw the fields of wind turbines a few months earlier in the Mojave Desert. On our way back to Bismarck at the end of the weekend, my friends pointed out what looked like an enormous white wing on the bed of an eighteen-wheeler heading west. It was a blade for a wind turbine. And I truly hope that more of those are the wave of North Dakota’s and our country’s future.
My spirits lifted, however, when we turned off the highway and onto the dirt road toward our camp. The landscape quickly changed from fairly flat to rugged and rolling, with glimpses of canyons on either side of the road. I realized that we were up on a mesa as we dipped down through some curves toward the valley below. I rolled down my window and breathed in wild sage and the musk of dry grasses. It smelled very different than the damp green and gray of the east. It smelled western.
And the Badlands look western with their prairie grass valleys and sunset colored cliffs and buttes lined with black coal and red clay. But they sure didn’t look bad to me. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective though, as the Lakota Indians called similar terrain in South Dakota “Mako Sica” which has been translated as “land bad”, perhaps because it was difficult to traverse.
The Maah Daah Hey trail was made to traverse these ‘badlands’. Maah Daah Hey in the language of the Mandan Indians, means roughly ‘grandfather’ or ‘something that has been or will be around for a long time.’ And once I set my bike tire onto the trail, between the golden and feathery September grasses, I certainly hope that remains true. I’ve been in some beautiful places before, but that first autumn morning took my breath away.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing affecting my breathing, as I quickly realized on the uphill climb out of the valley. While I’m in pretty fair shape from squash, running, and regular gym visits, I hadn’t been on a bike much over the summer. Pedaling uphill while negotiating a twisty narrow trail was sucking the wind out of me, and my friends were soon out of sight. I spent the next hour or so bumbling along and wondering if I just wasn’t cut out for this single track stuff. I would click in, pedal a few feet, start bumping the sides of the trail (imagine riding in the gutter of a bowling lane, only uphill and over roots and rocks), bash my tire or foot into something, and then try to whip my shoe off the clip in time to catch my fall. Sometimes I did. Often I didn’t. Fun, huh?
If my friends had been closer, I might’ve waved my sweaty bandana and surrendered. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking (okay, whining), why don’t they wait up for me? We were riding up and down and over some gnarly track, and they were biking along as if I could handle it all.
Funny how that treatment (and I thank them for it now, whether conscious or not) works. My desire to keep up—as best I could—took a lot of energy. I had to pedal faster, which I started to realize kept me steadier then when I was going slow. And concentrating on the trail ahead didn’t leave my brain much room for internal whining. Plus, the views were stunning. A few other groups of cyclists passed us (thanks to my slug-like pace), but otherwise we were usually all by ourselves in this sweeping and stunning landscape. The only other time I had felt so small and in awe of such grandeur was in Mongolia.
As the day wore on I fell less and sometimes got close enough to my friends to figure out how they were dealing with the terrain. Evan had recently returned from a masochistic five-day mountain bike ride in the Rockies, so this little jaunt was small potatoes in comparison. He kept a steady pace no matter what the pitch, and while I didn’t have his lung capacity, I started using my gears more aggressively so I was ready for each incline before it began. During a snack break, he mentioned moving my torso forward on my bike on those uphills, so that the front tire had more traction. Feeling your front tire slip and spin on a dicey hill is a downer, and alas I wasn’t the only rider that day to experience this. Evan’s wife, my friend Ganya, was cranking up a narrow rocky hill in front of me when I saw her front tire slide a bit and bounce off some roots along the trail’s edge. For a moment, it looked like she was going to push past, but then that front tire went up in the air and my friend was falling back in between two scruffy trees. Next thing I know, she’s tipped completely over like a beetle on its back, the bike hanging over her, still attached to her shoes. Evan and I both dumped our bikes and ran over to pull her out, but then we all regretted that one of us hadn’t snapped a photo; if we hadn’t seen it, we wouldn’t have believed it.
Falling is not something either of my friends do very regularly, however, and Ganya is a pro at riding downhill. Yeah, you might think that’s easy, but when you’ve only got a foot’s width of trail and drop-offs on one side, sharp rocks on the other, you’d jam on your brakes and call my friends crazy. They are, but they also know that a little speed can take you a long way. You’re less likely to tip over, as long as you maintain enough control. And getting your butt back on your saddle, even behind your saddle, keeps that back tire down and a lot less likely to flip you over the handlebars.
By the end of the day, I was starting to get the hang of it all. And my internal conversations had moved on from ‘what the f#@k am I doing here??’ to ‘this is the most fun I’ve had in years!’ On the last mile back to camp I sped around curves, pumped hard up the hills, and lifted off the saddle on the last downhill so that the bike absorbed the bumps but not my now fairly sore bum. I was very happy to coast into camp and start peeling off my sticky bikewear.
About a half an hour later, we were all changed, mostly dry, and pouring our first of many goblets from the growlers. “Cheers,” I said, “here’s to the first day on the Maah Daah Hey.”
“So you want to do another?” my friends asked, showing for the first time a little doubt as to whether I’d be up for it.
“Definitely,” I said. “I just figured it out. Tomorrow will be much more fun.”
And it was. And a lot of other things, as well. But that’s another story.
For much more information about biking and camping on the Maah Daah Hey trail, click here. We went on rides from one campground (and had to double-back each day), but there are cycling guides who will transport your gear from camp to camp. Dakota Cyclery out of Medora, N.D. was supporting a group of guys who shared their homemade moonshine with us one evening. Given their interesting evening activities, I hope they all made it home in one piece!