Day 20 – Glen Ullin, ND to Bismarck, ND

Av – 13.9 mph
Dis – 58.15 miles
TM – 4:11:44
Asc – 1463 ft

It was Day 20. I had been riding almost three weeks at this point, and the day broke bleak and grey. There was a heavy mist in the air and a wind so cold it felt like it was blowing right off the Arctic ice caps. At least it was out of the northwest. That meant only about four miles of headwind as we climbed to Interstate 94 and a welcome turn east with a relative tailwind.

The plan was to maintain our easterly bearing on I-94, attempting to mitigate the rolling hills of Hwy 10, and turn south to Hwy 10 at the Judson exit and on to Dad’s place. He had a pick-up bed style camper with tow racks Dale and I intended to use that night, about fifty miles away. It afforded me the chance to visit as well as give us a relaxing, blessedly short sixteen mile day on Day 21 the rest of the way to Dale’s house.

It wasn’t really raining yet. We bundled up in a few layers with long sleeves and cycling tights, said our goodbyes, and rolled through town on our way to I-94. We stayed single file, dealing with the headwind, and our own personal demons in our own ways, as the gap between us grew and shrank a hundred times over. The turn east brought welcome relief from the headwind. We road side by side then. This particular stretch of of interstate was relatively new and had wide, comfortable shoulders. We started talking about the ride the day prior, Dale’s aches and pains, another two days on the road, and that’s when Dale confessed his sins.

He had been plotting with Jodi the whole time they were sitting on the couch at my aunt’s house. He went on to explain the deal was he would call her in the morning with how he felt and, if need be, she would come and snatch him home, far from his misery of cycle touring. He also told me of his intentions for that night, having Jodi take him home to sleep in his own bed and later join me the morning of Day 21 to finish the tour.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had ridden over 1400 miles over nineteen days, and my best friend was going to abandon me after barely fifty miles. I went from disappointment to shock to anger in a flash.

“The only way you’re sleeping in your own bed tonight,” I said, “is if you pedal your ass there.” I hadn’t been so mad at Dale since he stole my English homework in 12th grade. He admitted he was feeling much better that morning than he did the evening before, but still produced a dozen reasons why he needed to sleep in his own bed. I refused to hear any of it.

My Mood was worsening with the weather. I was on the verge of stealing Dale’s cell phone and dragging him, bound and gagged, the rest of the way whether he liked it or not. Luckily, the weather intervened.

First, only a few icy drops of rain were falling. Then a few more. And a few more. The wind was driving the droplets right through my clothes and I was soaked through to my skin, and mostly numb, on my entire left side. We were barely a mile from a rest area, almost twelve miles from Glen Ullin, and I pulled quickly away from Dale to escape the divulge!

We rolled our bikes through the double doors and into the spacious rest area lobby. It was dry and plenty warm, two things we were thankful for. We immediately began changing into dry, warmer gear for the next push to Dad’s once the rain stopped, and had wet clothes hanging limply across every available heating vent in the place.

Rained out west of New Salem, ND

I was busying myself at the internet kiosk when a man marched into the lobby, went straight to the supply closet, and busted out a large assortment of cleaning supplies. He didn’t cast up so much as a sideways glance as he busied himself with a mop and bucket in both bathrooms. In a matter of minutes, he was in the lobby, swabbing up the water trail from the double doors and directly to our feet.

“You can’t have your bikes in here,” he said without looking up or missing a beat. “Take them outside.” I half expected some Podunk, red neck accent but got none. I was, after all, a bit too far north for that.

“We were just trying to dry off and warm up.” I replied. “It didn’t make sense to pull dry clothes out in the rain.”

“Well, those bikes can’t be here. Get them out.” I always found it interesting how people of authority, even the rest area mop guy, made rules up to better suit their thirst for power.

I was almost home and really didn’t want a stroke of a rest area mop guy on hands, so I gave Dale the nod and we rolled our bikes out the back door and under an awning. Damn it was cold. I fished my wet weather shell out of my panniers and walked back inside.

The man continued to mop up the puddles that had accumulated around our bike tires while I stewed on several very witty remarks of sarcasm in my mind.

It didn’t take long before his curiosity got the best of him and he asked the details of our trip. Without hesitation, I spilled the story in less than a hundred words, detailing my trip from the ocean over the Rockies, across Montana, into Glen Ullin, and finally here. When he heard Dale and I were Glen Ullin natives and realized he knew our families, his demeanor immediately changed.

“Stay as long as you like!” he exclaimed like we were old friends after a war. “Take your time, use what you need, and dry off. The weather’s terrible today!” as if I needed permission to loiter at a rest area. He made it sound like there was tea and strumpets being served by Hooter’s girls. I graciously “accepted” his undying hospitality and waved farewell as he left, apparently with more shitters to mop on his morning agenda.

We stayed there awhile longer, doing the best to chase the chill from our bones and crunching numbers for the day. We were due into Dad’s place by 1630, leaving us over three hours of day light to cover the remaining sixteen miles to Dale’s if we so choose. We decided to play it by ear based on how Dale felt when we got to Dad’s, but I still had no intentions of letting him sleep in his own bed without first pedaling there.

With reluctance, we zipped up tight and rolled back on the interstate to the icy winds. We stopped again in New Salem, grabbing some hot chow to warm our guts and discuss taking Hwy 10 sooner rather than later. It was Dale’s idea.

“Old 10 is better sheltered from this wind,” Dale said around a mouthful of pizza. He was right, of course, but the wind wasn’t my concern.

“You want to trade the wind for the hills? Can you hack it?” I had my doubts.

“Sure, yeah. I’m feeling pretty god right now. Better than I thought I would and a lot better than last night.”

“Well then, let’s do it.”

And that was that. Hwy 10 was a much better option given the situation and Dale was hanging in there pretty well. We made great time once removed from the buffeting NW wind and made it to Dad’s earlier than expected. Dale did some sole searching.

“I really don’t want to stay here,” he chimed. “Me neither.” I agreed, “but you know, you have one option now: ride home. You’re not getting picked up.” I felt a hint of anger deep inside me.

“I know. I know,” he said. I want to make it back tonight. I can do it.”

“Well, all right!” I exclaimed. “Let’s roll!” Dale produced his cell phone, informed Jodi of his change of schedule, and were on our last leg of the journey. I felt good and was glad we didn’t stop too long.

Maybe it was the knowledge of being so close to completion that was improving my mood, but the day seemed warmer and brighter than ever. We stuck closer this time, chatting lightly back and forth through the hill sides paralleling I-94.

The miles passed easily when over a hill, I spotted a familiar sight: Dale’s GMC Sierra. I scowled at Dale.

“What the hell is this?”

“I don’t know!” he stammered. “Jodi knows I’m riding home.”

She rolled to a stop next to us, rolled down the window, and stuck her head out.

“Hi boys! I’ve got some knoephla soup here for you.” The thought of hot soup on such an ugly day was heavenly, but Dale and I weren’t on the home stretch yet and I didn’t need bloated bellies slowing us down. We declined and Dale began swapping gear from within the GMC. Jodi handed him a new hooded sweater and he handed her back a couple of things, back and forth and back and forth. He was lightening his already paltry load. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“You know what Dale? Just throw all your gear in the back. You won’t be needing it anymore.” I was done fighting with him. He threw me a cautious glance.

“You sure? You could throw your stuff in here too you know.” He was already unloading as he spoke.

“It wouldn’t be right. I’ve come this far with everything I packed. I can finish this.” He continued stripping gear off his bike. “One thing though,” I said.

“What’s that?” He looked up.

“Now we ride at my pace.” I clipped in and pedaled away, leaving Dale to hastily throw the rest of his gear in the pick up and try to catch up. I didn’t see him again until Mandan. I stopped at the city limits and looked back down the road. I could see a small speck moving in my direction with agonizing slowness. I knew I had burned Dale down. I had almost three weeks of hard conditioning under my belt and Dale’s sporadic town rides were no match for my abilities. He was dying.

But to my surprise, he simply caught up to me, grabbed a few mouthfuls of water from his sports bottle, and pushed ahead of me into Mandan. I followed, letting him set the pace. Midway through Mandan, we stopped on the sidewalk so I could take a picture of the Lewis and Clark hotel sign. It was then that Dale confessed his agony. I threw him a Snickers to pump some sugar into his blood and offered up some encouraging words.

“We hit the bike path a few blocks away, crossed the Missouri River into Bismarck, and we’re home free from there. I’ve got just over an 11 mph average right now and I don’t want to blow it. You think you can manage that?” I searched his face for signs of collapse.

“Sure. Sure. No problem.” Dale’s face was pale and his eyes were distant. He was sucking convulsively on his water bottle and staring blankly down the road.

“Great.” I said, resisting the urge to snap my fingers in front of his face. “We’ll roll when you’re ready.” I feared that time might never come.

With obvious effort and shear determination, Dale carefully stowed his candy bar wrapped, clipped in a pedal, and rode away. He was a man on a mission now. I knew these 100 miles he rode with me would be the benchmark for effort and discomfort possibly the rest of his life. I understood his suffering now would make him appreciate everyday living, but somehow I doubted he realized it yet. His mind was pedaling an inch at a time.

I lost Dale once more on the Mandan side of the bike trail, stopping for almost fifteen minutes, and thinking he had deviated from the route in favor of a shorter path. But, true to form, Dale eventually rounded a turn and pulled up next to me with an exhausted look.

“I’m dead. I’ve just got nothing left. I had to stop back there.” He sounded a bit incoherent.

“Yeah, I thought you took the strip. I was looking for you.” I tossed him another candy bar. “Eat up. We got one last push and we’re done.” He didn’t look too excited about the news.

Fitness level aside, Dale faced two real problems on this tour: he had pushed himself too hard too soon early on in the season and his knees were shot, and he hadn’t figured out how to truly pace himself. He would race down the hills pushing the biggest ring he could grab in hopes of making it as far up the side of the next hill as possible. I knew all too well it was a recipe for disaster, as I myself did that very same thing my first couple of days on the tour. Once Dale’s knees began hurting, his cycling took a back seat to his at-home physical therapy, and his fitness level suffered even through the summer months. I finally understood Dale’s earlier apprehension, horror rather in joining me on the tour. He was in for the challenge of his life.

I forgoed my 11 mph average, kept to Dale’s pace along his side, a tried idle small talk to keep his mind off his predicament. His demeanor improved considerably. We crossed the Missouri River over the Expressway bridge side by side. I could see the Bismarck welcome sign like a flashing beacon in the night. It was the unofficial end to an almost 1,500 mile bike ride.

Home at last!

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