The Real Beginning - Day 2 - June 13, 2015 / by Walter Kitundu

It’s hard to leave the comfort of family. Today is the day I leave behind what I’ve seen and head out into the countryside to face unfamiliar roads, unpredictable conditions, new faces and places. To be honest, I’ve had a slow start. But after my niece Mary performs a safety check on the bike, Lilly gives me a heartfelt sendoff!

My plan is to get to the middle of South Dakota to a town called Chamberlain, on Interstate 90. I’m hoping to get off the Interstate highways for at least half the day by taking highway 50 through the Yankton Reservation. This is a line I picked out on the map because it looked interesting, passed Lake Andes (lakes often mean birds), and because I’m interested in the current realities of indigenous people, which the main roads tend to ignore, and I guess I’m seeking interaction and experience.

One of my main goals for this trip was to learn and seek out stories that aren’t represented in the guidebooks and tourist attractions that celebrate a carefully cultivated version of history that relegates Native Americans to a purely historical role as noble nuisance, bit players in the founding of a nation. The erasure makes me want to take detours to trouble that narrative whenever I can on this trip through North America. As a non-native person who has both European settler and Tanzanian indigenous roots, the cultural acceptance of genocide and marginalization on this scale rankles me, but I acknowledge it isn’t my history. It just resonates with me as a brown person and my curiosity isn’t fueled by some twisted touristic motivation but by an enduring sense of solidarity.

That said, my first stop is a sporting goods store to get some dehydrated food and a tiny swimmer’s towel that will pack small on the bike. Approaching the store I’m offered the chance to sit on a bronze bench and take a selfie with a founding father. Just the kind of whitewashed ahistorical experience I’m trying to avoid. This is the midwest so inside I’m greeted with patriarchal bumper stickers, taxidermied ungulates, a bevy of firearms, and a display case full of samurai swords… makes sense. The camping section is on point though and I grab some freeze dried stroganoff and discover the little towels are something I must have imagined.

Enough dilly dallying, get on the damn bike already. I make my way out of the western suburbs of Des Moines and onto the blurring rhythmic straightaway that is I80. It’s a slog when the heat is rising and the bike hasn’t quite settled in beneath you. Plus I’m strangely tired today. It’s like the adrenalin of the first day has worn off and left me drained.

After the first rest stop I’m back at 70 miles per hour and it’s 1pm and a brown blur appears in the green streaky area in my peripheral vision. It’s a deer hurtling toward the interstate. I roll off the throttle and brace for evasive action but the deer comes to a pinpoint stop at the edge of the road, pauses, and then leaps. The timing was such that the leap would have been disastrous if it were into the road but luckily for me and the deer, she leaped back into the grass and disappeared. So much for a lack of adrenalin, the new spike lasts me a few miles as I play back all the possible scenarios and reassert my belief that watching for animals is not just a dusk and dawn responsibility.

Once past Omaha and heading north along the Iowa-Nebraska border the heat and monotony begin to take their toll. Despite singing maniacally into my helmet I am really drowsy and feeling off. I take a break at a rest stop and eat an energy bar, drink a bit, but the strange feeling persists and eventually I make it to Souix City and wander around the one way streets feeling more and more out of it before deciding to pull into a restaurant. Some air conditioning, a lemonade, and a big salad bring me back to life and I’m feeling reasonable an hour later. This day is dragging on.

I’m bolstered by the almost immediate arrival in a new state, South Dakota. I stop at the Vermillion Visitor Center and the attendant is warm and welcoming as I evade the heat and fill up my camelbak. He tells me of the wonders of Highway 50 and says it’s how many bikers get to Sturgis, a slower back road option with more interest than the superslab. Frankly I’m relieved to get back down to sub 80 mph speeds. I haven’t adjusted to the pace on the SD interstate and it always feels like I’m pushing my luck just hitting the speed limit. I’m also glad the road I picked out weeks ago has some biking relevance and history. I can’t wait to amble through the small towns and farmland but at the moment I’m still feeling strange and depleted.

Things change for the better as soon as I head west on Highway 50. The pace is relaxing and although it’s getting late in the day, I’m in no hurry. The light becomes golden in the late afternoon and suddenly I’m rejuvenated. The rolling farmland is lush and green and the miles begin to fall away as I approach the Yankton Reservation.

It’s still hot and I’m riding with my suit unzipped to increase ventilation but it isn’t just air that gets in. From time to time I ride through backlit clouds of insects as they scatter across the road. One cloud holds an unlucky bee that strikes my neck just under my helmet at 60 mph. The initial impact isn’t bad but moments later I feel my neck catch fire and realize I’ve just been stung. Now I’m frantically flailing about with a gloved hand trying to brush away the bee while standing to allow the wind to help dislodge the creature, right hand on the throttle and front brake scrubbing off the speed - all the while remembering that the last time I got stung by a bee I broke out in hives.

The sting is pulsing and after a while I figure the bee must have been blown off. Six miles later I arrive in Lake Andes to find a rather desolate and quiet town. At an intersection I jump off the bike and shed my suit in the heat. I’m not sure how the sting will affect me and I’m a little shaken at the possibility of an allergic reaction so far from the main road. As I shake out my shirt the bee that stung me drops unceremoniously onto the ground having stowed away in my t-shirt for the last 10 minutes. Luckily they can only sting you once. My instinct was to crush it underfoot but I figured the bee was having a worse day than me so it wandered off dazed as I caught my breath.

A car pulls up with a woman and two men and they asked if I’m ok. I tell them I’m just resting and that I’m heading to Alaska. They perk up and ask me if I want to party. Now my eyes clear up and I see that they are not in the best shape. Clearly drunk and or high, they are looking for something I’m not interested in giving them. They are pretty insistent and it seems like there is a critically important backstory to this trio that will remain a mystery. I start to feel spooked for the first time on this trip.

I finally mention I have a long way to go tonight and they relent but they won’t leave. One of the men says “let’s go” but the woman behind the wheel says she wants to watch me leave because “he’s damn sexy.” The awkward meter is now off the charts and I get back on the bike as quickly as possible without looking like I’m rushing at all. It’s already running. I took care of that when I started to feel like I might have to make a run for it. I leave the inebriated locals and get back into the wind and ride toward the setting sun, my neck still warm from the sting, my suit zipped tight, and an eye on my mirrors in case they change their minds and decide the party is still on.

The sun is lower still and the light is deeply golden when one of the telephone poles on the right breaks the pattern. The jagged top reveals itself to be the outline of a Great Horned Owl that dives toward the east and swoops into low level flight, powering across the field aiming for the encroaching night sky. A diving owl lifts all spirits - unless you are a mouse, snake, skunk, bunny, or any number of small delicious creatures. 

Soon the sunset gets beautiful and I stop to take some pictures. The cows are fascinated with Nyumbu, my bike. It means wildebeest in Swahili and it’s the only name that stuck. Now this wildebeest is surrounded by cousins and the darkness is falling fast.

I emerge onto I90 and head west toward Chamberlain but it’s a little farther than I was hoping. I’m tired again and it’s dark and I’m terrified of meeting any animals on the road. I push my speed to 70 (the limit is 80) and I’m being passed in the dark by semi trucks, conflicted about whether to keep up with them for safety (and a quicker arrival) or stay slow for safety in case of animals, and because I haven’t acclimated to cruising at 80 fully loaded just yet. I ping-pong between the two strategies, tailing trucks and cars for a while as they pass me, imagining them as a shield against the encroaching hordes of creatures, and eventually slowing back down when they accelerate toward 90 mph.

Mercifully the sign for Chamberlain appears and I make it safely into town and pull into the first inviting motel I see. It’s a good fit and by the time I lube the chain, unpack, and settle in it’s nearly 10pm. A late night steak dinner at the bar next door and I call it a day. Day 2 has been a weird and long one. It started off so difficult before becoming really interesting and fun. It just goes to show you that a bad day can change into a good one at any time. This soothes my optimistic soul and has me excited for tomorrow’s ride.