Ryan, getting his thermostat started
It didn't take long for the cyclists to get a generous lead on us across the prairie flats. The moment we hit the first technical descent and the first section of Badlands - a mini-canyon - we caught a fleeting glimpse of our friends on the rim of the canyon. Surprisingly, we weren't that far behind. The chase was on.
Our first day had provided us with glimpses of only a few Prairie Wild Flowers. Mostly, there were a few Prairie Crocuses and Moss Phlox. The flowers, like us, were solar-powered. By the end of Day 2, different colors were starting to appear on the desolate landscape.
I looked at the common Buffalo Bean which a whole new set of eyes. After seeing the herd of Buffalo the day before, I was envisioning a historic prairie landscape covered in giant herds of Buffalo, grazing on this omni-present Prairie wild flower.
But, the highlight of my day came towards the end of the day when I came across a snow patch close enough to the trail. After only 2 days, I was filthy - and now I was filthy and salty. Angela averted her gaze when I jumped into the snow bank and started joyously scrubbing myself in unmentionable places. Oh, for small pleasures!
And then the landscape changed, yet again - and the prairie sky revealed itself in amazing and wondrous ways.
To top it all off, our campsite was cozy and sheltered, the surrounding scenery was beautiful and the temperatures were warm enough to enjoy a great night in camp. We cooked, we ate and we laughed - and then we enjoyed yet another Prairie sunset.
Normally, there's a river manageable river crossing on the Maah-Daah-Hey trail, but the unusual weather had the river flowing and flooding in spots all over North Dakota. So, on Day 3 the good folks at Medora Cyclery shuttled us around the Little Missouri. The shuttle turned out to be a 96-mile van ride all the way back into Medora, across the Interstate bridge and back to other side of the river a mere 10 trail miles from where we took out. It took us hours. Essentially, it left us with a very short day on the trail so Jill, Michelle, Ryan and Keith decided to take a break from the bike and run the trail instead.
Me, Keith, Jill, Michelle and Angela
Mostly, I ended up walking most of the way with Keith. It was nice to take a day "off". It was a gorgeous day, but I had some sharp, angry pain somewhere in my calf muscle where my Soleus muscle meets the Achilles tendon in my calf. Ouch. Time to rest up. Note to self: maybe 46km only 5 days earlier before a big multi-day running trip is a little silly. D-oh.
Winter White, meets Prairie Sun
By the end of Day 3, the wind was howling across the prairies - and we took shelter in the most well treed corner of the campground. We built our own little oasis in the trees and fired up the biggest bonfire you've ever seen. It's the best part of camping, yes? For our last evening, we amalgamated all of our junk-food and binged until we passed out in a sugar-induced coma. Ugh. It felt like a hangover the next morning. I love food. Good and bad.
Day 4 was a long and lovely 26 miles. Because everyone was anticipating a long day on the trail, the group was packed up, fed and up and at it pretty darn quick. By Day 4 of camping, we also had it dialed as far as the daily cooking, packing and organizing of gear.
We started our day with a muddy creek crossing and as soon as we climbed out of the first coulee, we got hit by the prairie wind. Wind was the theme of the day and we got battered by the relentless crosswind and headwind. The cyclists even got blown over a few times. Angela, who spent most of her day quietly cursing - was on fire and for most of the day I followed her backside as she sped along. The trail was very runnable and ridable - and I was thinking we were going to be a long way behind the cyclists.
I was having a great day - after 3 days of running on tired legs, I was finally feeling good! The prairie landscape was continuing to come to life every day. Every day, I would discover a different wild flower popping out of the desolate landscape and the earth was becoming greener underneath our feet. Clusters of pink Three-Flowered Avens started to appear, Yellow Long Fruited Prairie Parsley, Prairie Buttercup, Purple Vetch, Chickweed and Pink and White Wind Flowers all magically appeared. On the first day, I had identified only 2 flowers in bloom. By the end of our short trip, the prairies were coming to life. As well as the flowers, we had seen the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play...
Did I mention the Ticks, the Rattlesnake and the Cactus? All of the flowers and Mega-Fauna aside, there were some nasty little beasties and sharp things out there. My legs got shredded by the sagebrush and the ticks were particularly numerable. We all shared the mutual paranoia of the prehistoric blood sucking critters. Ticks are just creepy.
The incessant wind continued to howl all day, an invisible stress pounding in my ears. Despite the wind, I was loving this day, this place, this adventure.
We were only seven miles from the finish when we came to a trail junction, the Maah Daah Hey Trail or the newer Cottonwood Trail. Dakota Cyclery had recommended the Cottonwood as the "better route" with the recent bad weather turning the Maah-Daah-Hey into a giant clay mess. So, off we went.
As our trail plunged down into Cottonwood Canyon, we had fun slipping and sliding our way down the singletrack. When we hit canyon bottom, the recent rains had erased the trail in a quagmire of landslides and clay. It was there that we caught sight of the cyclists, pushing, pulling and struggling with their bikes trying to cross the creek. Before we knew it, we were on them - and passed them traveling at a much quicker pace. It was awesome to see them and it certainly lit a fire under our butts. All of a sudden we were moving, fast and smooth and putting in distance between us and the cyclists.
Slogfest: Michelle pushes her bike in the mud
While it certainly wasn't easy traveling, it was easier than pushing a bike through the mud. The Cottonwood trail was a mess: huge sections had been washed away and tumbled off the hillsides. Entire sections of trail had been swallowed by the earth. On other sections, we were bogged down in shoe-sucking mud.
It took us almost 2 hours to travel the last 7 miles. The adventure continued as we descended the last kilometer - a beautiful trail descending downwards through more badlands. As we crashed off the trail to avoid another section of washed out trail, Angela scared a rattlesnake lying in the grass. It added a little jolt of adrenalin to our descent, as we cruised to the bottom. One more muddy creek crossing greeted us and we joked that "It ain't over 'til it's over!"