It was my first non-race, non-training-related, honest-to-goodness mountain bike tour in nine years. My friends who didn't know me back then hardly believe me when I tell them about the time I rode the 100-mile White Rim Trail in Utah over three days and nights, truly struggling to finish each day's 33-mile ride and eating massive Dutch oven dinners at night. Some were equally confused about my reasons for embarking on a trip to North Dakota to ride the Maah Daah Hey trail over four days. North Dakota is one of those prairie states (i.e. boring and flat), and aren't four days an awful long time to travel a mere 96-or-something miles on a bike? Well, maybe, yes, but that was really the point — a nice, relaxed camping trip with friends. Not everything I do needs to be filed away as "epic" or "training for epic." That's not who I've become in the nine years since I dropped into the White Rim with zero experience or training. I can still kick back with the best of them.
And it was a fun group to kick back with — my good friends from Banff, and their friends from Calgary and Canmore and British Columbia. There were eight mountain bikers and two runners. Sharon and Percy were out for their first vacation without children in seven years. Michelle had completed an Ironman but claimed to have not been on a mountain bike since 1993. Ryan was a professional photographer who hammered the steep climbs so he could set up his equipment for shots from the top. Dave and Brenda were the trip organizers, and the only ones who had ridden the trail before. I was the only American, the one who found myself explaining the conundrums of health insurance and fumbling through kilometer and Celsius conversions in my own country.
Dave and Brenda set up a shuttle service with Dakota Cyclery, who ferried all of our supplies gear to each day's destination so we could carry almost nothing and eat fresh produce and meat for dinner. Brenda and Dave planned this trip six months ago, having no idea that the winter that followed would bring beyond-record snowfall, floods and heavy rains. The Little Missouri grasslands were inundated and the bentonite soil had been reduced to a sticky, generally unrideable version of wet cement. The owners of Dakota Cyclery didn't outright discourage us from embarking on the trip, but they did make it abundantly clear that if we chose to set out, we might not make it very far. Since trail damage was not a concern (bikes have nothing on the elevated rate of erosion in the badlands), we decided we had traveled too far to not at least try.
We had to completely rearrange our trip plan, starting from town rather than the north end of the trail, and set up an extra shuttle to ferry everyone around the reportedly uncrossable (10 feet deep and rising) Little Missouri River. Heavy clouds hung over the moist grasslands and patches of snow from a recent blizzard clung to the hillsides. All of my more epic mountain biking experiences have led me to fear sticky mud over all other conditions, and I was admittedly a little bit nervous. Maybe we were embarking on an epic after all.
The narrow trail was soft and sticky, but not enough to stop wheels from turning. Still, there were a surprising number of knee-deep streams to cross, and a lot of extra weight to haul as the mud clung to wheels and frames. But what was even more surprising to me was the variability of the terrain. I expected rolling grasslands, similar to the kind I had once pedaled through in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. I knew there'd be badlands as well, but I didn't anticipate the deep gorges, multicolored rock and otherworldly formations that peppered this little-known corner of the northern Midwest.
Of course, there was plenty of prairie, too, which is what makes the Maah Daah Hey so unique. The trail drops into rugged canyons as colorful and uniquely formed as a Utah desert drainage, then rises into hills carpeted in grass and flowers beneath an expansive Midwestern sky. Not to mention it's nearly 100 miles of continuous singletrack, a rare thing indeed. It's not often that bike-friendly singletrack can actually be used to go anywhere. That's one reason I'm surprised there haven't been more efforts to "race" the Maah Daah Hey.
It was a chilly day, with moderate winds and temperatures in the high 40s. I felt cold all day despite several winter layers, probably because I am used to continuous efforts rather than the stop-and-go of casual group riding.
The stops were enjoyable, though, and the scenery was continuously surprising and gorgeous.
And the best part — we had it all to ourselves. Western North Dakota is wide-open and sometimes vastly empty, a beautiful kind of space to explore in the modern world. The Dakota Cyclery owners assured us we were the first group on the Maah Daah Hey trail this season, and were likely the first people to through-travel the trail since the harsh winter ravaged the region. This fact made us feel a little bit like explorers — like the Lewis and Clark nostalgia that saturates this region — setting out to discover a trail that might just take us all the way through to the other side.
Leslie and Angela were in good spirits, having set out with the intention of running a trail marathon a day for four days straight and moving at about the same average speed as the mountain bikers. They were able to start at the actual beginning of the Maah Daah Hey Trail through the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Since bikes aren't allowed in national parks, a different trail diverts cyclists 14 miles around it before the two rejoin.
I had a chance to venture into the national park on my evening run. The mountain biking was for fun. The running was because I actually do need to train for the Tahoe Rim Trail Race. Doing both on the same day proved to be a lot of fun ... and difficult. I ran ten miles on day one. It was farther than I originally planned. As soon as the trail entered the national park, it climbed along a narrow rim above sweeping, Grand-Canyon-like views of the colorful badlands. I was swept with an invigorating sense of euphoria, and felt stronger with each passing mile. Just over five miles in, I came across a massive bull bison grazing next to the trail. The ridge dropped off steeply on both sides and there was no easy way to get around him, so I felt I had no choice but to turn around. It was just as well, because I already had been out nearly an hour and stood a chance of missing dinner (I did, but luckily my friends saved me a couple of burritos.)
Day two began infuriatingly early. I discovered that not only was I the only American in the group, I was also the only night owl. Morning people just don't seem to believe me when I say that I don't feel tired at night, no matter how early I woke up in the morning, and it's often an impossible struggle to fall asleep before midnight. The sun set around 8:30 p.m. and everyone was generally in bed by nine. I passed time by wandering around camp trying to find pockets of cell-phone reception, reading the one copy of the Bismark Tribune I brought with me, and listening to rationed minutes on my iPod. I begged my friends to let me miss breakfast, but they still roused me by 7 a.m., half-packed and ready to go before the sun even hit the tents.
So I usually felt sluggish and crappy until the ride was nearly over, but at least the sun came out on the second day. We also started to see the first signs of spring — patches of green grass, song birds, and flowers. Most of the hillsides were still gray and brown, but new color was emerging at an astonishing rate.
The early starts also gave me plenty of time for my afternoon run, although I did also have to race the early dinner times (my friends are certainly going to razz me for whining when they read this, but it is truly difficult to adjust your usual sleeping and eating routines just because you're on vacation.) On day two I set out to explore a section of trail we would have to miss because of our requisite river shuttle. About three and a half miles from camp, I came across a massive landslide that stripped the hillside in two chunks and devoured at least a quarter mile of trail.
Suddenly struck by a sense of adventure, I decided to pick my way across it and see how long it took to get to the other side. The slide happened recently enough that the mud was still very soft and wet. If I planted my foot in the wrong spot, I would instantly sink to my knees or worse. I nearly lost a shoe several times and once had a frighteningly difficult time extracting my buried leg from the sludge. Still, I was determined to find a way across the quagmire. I veered down to the toppled trees and picked by way through the brush, being very careful to stay out of the leg-sucking mud. After about 20 minutes of struggle, I managed to reach the other side and travel two more miles before turning around to take a similar route back. I returned to camp to tell my friends what my scouting trip revealed, and let them know we were very, very fortunate that we didn't have to ferry bikes through this spot.
I just barely made dinner on day two, and was starting to feel a bit guilty for sleeping through breakfast prep and then running through dinner prep, essentially doing nothing for the group. I took up dish duty in a feeble effort to make up for my absences, but it reminded me how accustomed I've become to individual efforts over group vacations. I generally would rather throw together a few hastily prepared sandwiches and give myself more time to ride, run and sit by the fire than go to the effort of preparing big meals. But I was certainly grateful to partake in the spoils of the delicious meals, and grateful to my friends for putting up with my shenanigans.
At sunset, Percy and I climbed up to the top of the plateau to catch a full view of sunset. We were richly rewarded for the third and final physical effort of the day. I sat in the grass for more than a half hour, peacefully content and filled with a satisfying sense of bliss. Whether I'm struggling to finish a 100-mile snow run or relaxing in the midst of a mellow bike tour, these are ultimately the rewards I'm seeking. I was in love with the quietness of North Dakota, happy to simply be there, at that simple but perfect moment.