I leave Hazen at 7 AM. Mike rides with me as far as the town of Beaulah. There, he wishes me luck and turns back home. I am back on Route 200 West. I thought that I was going to do a century, but 20-30 mph westerly winds kill my plans. I also didn't reckon on the steep rolling hills upon the feet of the Killdeer Mountains.
Somewhere between the Killdeer Mountains and Grassy Butte, a village situated at a crossroads in the North Dakota Badlands, I realized that I had crossed into the western wilderlands. There was no sign. It was just a realization that materializes after so much sensory information. I had to swerve around tumble weed. The names of towns I passed through seemed more earthy and wild. Killdeer. Grassy Butte. Dunn. They were not the names of men who had settled and tamed the land, for the land was tameless, as if the names of men could be blown away and only images remain, anchored in time and space long enough to be drawn on a map.
Then I came upon the Badlands. There was no warning except for an earthy gash or scar of earth exposed to sky. As I cycled on a valley opened up on the north upon my right. I saw as through a window a glimpse of a barren maze of eroded hills, valleys, and dry river beds. It was as if the sun had boiled the water out of a mighty river watershed, and the rain and wind has eroded the earth that was left behind. It was as if the wind had been so strong that it scraped away the surface, leaving only slivers of shrub and grass. The hills were striped in various earth tones, a different color for every age of the world.
A funny thought popped into my mind a I coasted down yet another hill. I was in cattle country and it had been a long time since I've had a steak. If I am going to ever eat beef again, then this would be the place to do it. Then I looked up from my low crouched position. Black and white cows were looking at me. They had stopped their grazing as if I had affronted them with my squeaky gears and thoughts. Whoops. Sorry guys.
So it was with thoughts of prime rib and sirloin beef grilling in my mind that I walked into the Bar X in Grassy Butte, North Dakota. As I crossed the threshold, my eyes adjusted to the dim bar haze, and for a split second I can almost hear a needle scratch the record of my life before it found its groove again. There was bar, a table, and pool table. People where clustered around the bar and table. They wore white hats, large belt buckles, wore tight blue jeans, and when they walked I heard jiggling which drew my attention to the floor where they trod. Spurs. Gulping away all awkwardness I strode forth with an empty stomach running on fumes and phantom steak. Then I saw the menu and the only thing remotely resembling my vision in the barrens was a hamburger.
After sitting down and waiting for dinner I tried to act nonchalant about all the wildness. The cowboys were loud as if they spent the majority of their time in vast open lands where cross-pasture conversations were the norm, and shouting above and through the wind would never replace pagers or cell phones. Swearing was just another way of getting your colleague's attention, "Hey you sumbitch, get that rope!" They were talking shop, and later I would find it had been quite a long couple of workdays in the office.
As I sat there waiting for dinner and listening to the ruckus, a woman wearing blue jeans, a black halter top and a bandana sat down beside me and introduced herself. Lacy Fischer had just returned from a forty mile cattle drive from her parents' Killdeer ranch to Grassy Butte. It had taken them three days to guide the cattle here. She pointed out all her friends and family in the bar that were celebrating their yearly paycheck.
After introducing me to her friends Shane and Sheralee Dalezal who had helped her family in the cattle drive, she invited me to her father's ranch for dinner. Having the stomach of a hobbit, and not quite satisfied by a Bar X's burger. I accept.
Before heading back to the ranch, the Dalaezal's round up their horses and put them in their trailer. Lacy told them that one of my goals was to go work on a Montana ranch and learn horsemanship. Sheralee leads her horse Nancy out of the corral and asks if I would like to ride her.
"Bareback?" I gulped. "Okay."
I got on Nancy and for a precious few seconds I wondered how nice it would be to exchange my bike for a horse. I would have a companion. Somebody to care for and somebody who would care for me. We would ride west, get a job ranching in Montana, and then after the passes are free next summer we would ride south and come back to Williamsburg. It would be like The Horse and His Boy. Then Nancy took off cantering towards the road. Maybe she had sensed my dreams. But the jostling shook them out of my head like Legos out of their box, and suddenly horseback riding without a saddle did not feel as comfortable as a sleek, racing bicycle seat.
Back at the ranch I meet the horselord of the Badlands and patriarch of the Johnson family. When Lacy told her father that she was bringing a "biker" home for dinner Milton Johnson in a grim voice the sound of water trickling through gravel said, "He'd tie him to a tree and let me loose in the morning." After he realized I wasn't "one of those environmentalists" he welcomed me into his house with a firm, leather grip of an handshake. His wife, Betty Lou, told me to help myself to a table laden with country cooking. I told Shane that this was quite a feast. No, he said, this was just thrown together after a hard day's work.
The ranch is tucked away in a vale on the outskirts of the Badlands and just west of the Killdeer Mountains. It is below the windlash which sweeps the cracked flatness of the lands above. A muddy stream flows through the valley, and rattlesnakes bask in sun on piles of rocks and boulders. Beyond the ranch, if you follow the stream which flows north in a meandering journey, lies the entrance to a deep cloven maze of canyons and vales, home to deer and coyote among arid thriving foliage, sage brush, and scrubs. At night, beyond the glare of forlorn porch lights, stars gleam and a full moon shines white, its radiance seems to keep the clouds, black upon a night-blue sky, at bay.