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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.

Bicycling 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 Miami.

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 long.

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 information.