What a scary welcome. The captain warned us that there would be some turbulence as we crossed the barrier of the Rocky Mountains from the west, but the effect of the thunderstorm is still intimidating. The plane is shaking and rattling in every joint. It feels like we’re sitting in the epicenter of an earthquake, and our stomachs are protesting. We make it through 15 minutes later, however, and smoothly touch down at Denver International Airport. Outside it’s already dark, and as we ride into town the Rocky Mountains are highlighted by lightning every couple of seconds.
It’s all over the next morning. The mountains are beautifully illuminated by sunshine, as if nothing happened the night before. As soon as we can we pick up our rented bikes, mine a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide®, and take off. After the clearing rain the Rockies seem to be within our grasp. The temptation to go straight toward them is great, but that will have to wait for the second leg of the journey. First we want to experience the landscape of the prairies.
Once there our eyes and minds relax, and nothing disturbs the sound of our bikes. North of Sterling, NE, the area changes: Flat land is replaced by green, rolling hills topped with farmhouses, their metal roofs glittering. Scottsbluff is our stop for the night. It is a typical working town, simple and authentic, with endless coal trains and four roaring locomotives. I like the place.
Our first sight of the new day has its prototype in the old world – the famous prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in southern England. Carhenge, near the town of Alliance, is not quite as old but is similarly impressive. A dozen cars are arranged in a circle, rammed vertically into the ground, others mounted on top like crossbars. The plains as a backdrop complete the surreal scene.
A Fascinating Discovery
Later we arrive at the Black Hills of South Dakota, and as we enter Wind Cave National Park we suddenly see antelope and bison standing beside the road, a very peaceful sight. As we learn in the visitor center, the Wind Cave bison herd is one of only four free-roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. The others are in Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains in Utah, and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.
In 1881 brothers Tom and Jesse Bingham heard wind rushing out of a 10-by-14-inch hole in the ground. The story goes that the force of the wind was so strong their hats would blow off when they got close. They had discovered Wind Cave, one of the largest caves in the world. About 120 miles of passageways have already been explored, and the expedition is still ongoing today. The wind is caused by atmospheric pressure: When it is higher outside than inside the cave, wind rushes into the entrance, and the other way around. The cave is massive and the openings are relatively small so this natural fan is quite amazing. Above the ground is the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States, which continues into Custer State Park. Herds of bison spread over the green meadows, and at times, over the roads, as we ride through.
Fortunately Highway 16A is mostly free of large mammals, but we need every bit of our concentration to negotiate the tight corners. For obvious reasons this road is closed to large vehicles. Riding up the pass is a blast, and a surprise waits at the top. Suddenly the forest opens and offers a great view over the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, our next goal. Going down 16A is even more spectacular: narrow tunnels carved out of the rock and three corners with 360-degree loops.