Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the
"Big Ride," a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American
Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory
health. This is the fifth in a series of letters that began in Washington
State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers
of America, Wilker offers a unique view of America from across the
handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with
Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.
Across America - Leg 4
Hi from Rapid City . . .
We left Billings on July 4th and
rode an easy 54 miles to Hardin, Montana, near the Wyoming border. The
ride was very pleasant, on a newly paved road through green prairie, large
prosperous looking ranches and then on to wide-open BLM (Bureau of Land
Management) land with spectacular cliffs and mesas in every direction.
There was virtually no automobile traffic since the highway runs parallel
to Interstate 90.
Many of the riders were decked out in 4th
of July costumes and the mood was very festive as we rode into Hardin
accompanied by John Philip Sousa music from the Big Ride's loudspeakers.
Tiny Hardin is a hot, arid town on the Burlington Northern Railroad line.
We had a choice between the local rodeo and a visit to Little Big Horn,
where Custer met his end. I chose the latter.
Little Big Horn is a National Park with an
army cemetery in use from Custer's time through the Vietnam War. The
battlefield extends over many miles of rolling grassy hills, with stone
markers identifying key locations from the events of June 25 and 26, 1876.
Our docent told us that after the Civil
War, the western migration of easterners and recently arrived Europeans
accelerated, and the Northern Plains Indians were seen as standing in its
way. Congress ordered huge reservations set up in the Dakotas, Montana and
Wyoming. Indians could hunt on certain federal lands, but they were
supposed to live in more narrowly designated areas. These restrictions
proved impractical, because whole tribes had to travel huge distances to
hunt buffalo, deer, or antelope, in effect living on the land. A
spiritual, charismatic leader named Sitting Bull briefly succeeded in
uniting many of the tribes against the new law.
In January of 1876, President Grant sent in
three Army units to the Little Big Horn area to engage a large group of
hunters and warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The first unit
after having spent 40,000 rounds killing 13 Indians, ran out of ammunition
and had to withdraw.
Custer's unit was part of the 7th
Cavalry, and as he approached the Little Big Horn Valley he split it into
three groups; two were assigned to his two Majors, and the third, about
200 troops, were directly under Custer's command. In the next two days, in
98-degree heat, Custer's group was wiped out to the last man.
The soldiers were outclassed by the Indian
warriors in size, training and, surprisingly, equipment. Custer's troops
were small in stature, averaging 5'8" and, except for a handful of
officers and NCOs, were inexperienced immigrants who took the job for the
$13/month paycheck. The Northern Plains Indians, by contrast, averaged 6'1"
in height, were trained as warriors since the age of 10, and were highly
skilled in combat. The Army carbines were no matches for the Indians'
Winchester repeaters. Moreover, braves had become skilled at crawling
under the line of fire to get within bow and arrow range - and some 800
of them did just that. It was an eye-opener to have this story interpreted
for us by Indian narrators.
The next day on our ride, a 93 mile leg
from Hardin to Sheridan, was through rolling hills often so green they
looked like a golf course for the Jolly Green Giant. To our right, we
watched the snowcapped Big Horn Mountains turning pink with the rising
sun. It was a great morning to be alive.
The only downer was an accident involving a
pace line just ahead of our own. When a ranch dog attacked the lead bike,
a rider behind him hit the brakes, a no-no in a pace line, causing Rob and
Emily's tandem to crash. Emily was hurt and in a lot of pain when we
arrived a moment later. By luck, one of the riders in her pace line was a
family physician from their hometown of Atlanta, so she had immediate
attention and was placed in a van that was following close behind. After
some stitches at a local hospital, she missed only one day of riding.
That day - July 6th - turned
out to be the worst day on a bike I have ever had. Back in Seattle, not
appreciating that date was the longest ride on the entire route, I had
volunteered to drag the Big Ride's small Burley cart filled with the
"Chain of Hope." This is a list of reasons why the riders are
making the trip and the names of the many people, alive and dead, to whom
the ride is dedicated. Several strong riders took pity on me and agreed to
help: Joel from Bolton, MA, Randy from Newport, CA, Mike from Fort
Collins, CO, Mark from Boston, Charlie from Santa Fe and Howard from
The temperature was already over 100
degrees as we stopped in Spotted Horse, WY - it's in the Rand McNally
atlas even though it consists of one building, which houses a saloon and
all-purpose store. People from our ride stretched out on the ground in the
shade of the saloon and under the one tree we had seen over the past 20
miles. We still faced over 60 miles in to a hot wind over some of the
longest, if not steepest, hills so far on the trip.
Our exhausted Chain of Hope team eventually
got to Gillette, and after showers and dinner, in gratitude I took them to
the local watering hole for beers. Inside, we were met by a bunch of coal
miners who called us bicycle wimps, saying the only real bikers in
Gillette ride Harley-Davidsons.
Not all of us agreed with that view, but in
our condition we were aware that if one of those guys touched any of us,
we'd probably all fall down. So we stifled any insights we may have had
comparing their lives to ours.
The next day was an easy ride from Gillette
to New Castle, WY, through largely desolate flatland. We saw countless
trains, one with 10 diesel locomotives, coming from the largest coal mine
in the US, which is in Gillette. That night in New Castle we camped next
to the switchyard where trains were being assembled and rerouted all night
But the night also provided a welcome
respite of another kind. Driving a rented car, Mike took us to Bosco's,
an Italian restaurant in Casper. Our meal, including a pretty good
Sangiovese, was worth the 300-mile roundtrip.
Yesterday we pedaled 81 miles out of
Wyoming and into Rapid City, SD, the most beautiful ride so far. It
started with a long 1200-ft climb to the top of a 5,000' pass in the Black
Hills, with scenery right out of a western movie. As the highway narrowed
at the top, we assembled in groups of about 25 for the ride down, followed
by a van to hold back the traffic because the road was considered
dangerous. We descended in a peleton (biking lingo for a close pack of
riders) through Custer State Park, passing herds of buffalo and antelope,
riding below copper orange cliffs and in parallel with trout streams and
gorgeous lakes. In the same National forestlands as Mount Rushmore, Custer
is famous for its campgrounds.
At the end of a long descent and after a
refreshing cappuccino, we moved on to another series of descents to the
plains. We rode into Rapid City in high spirits, and not just because we
were about to have a day of rest.
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Notice: This information is current as of
Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or
visit the websites above to determine any changes to the