I’m at camp making a final assessment of gear and doing one last pack as final preparation to embark on an overland bike bird hunt. These National Forest campgrounds can often see a lot of use. But, in late fall when the nights get cold, camp company is sparse. As I’m pushing essentials into different corners of the pack I notice a pickup roll to a stop at my site.
I’m hesitant to pay it any attention because I don’t need the distraction from this final pack — I really don’t want to forget anything crucial for the success of this hunt. But the pickup isn’t going anywhere, so I make eye contact and see that it’s an older gentleman who has rolled down the window. I guess it’s just a local looking for some conversation, so I stop the packing and head over to meet my new friend.
When I get to the window I expect conversation about the weather and why I’m in the midst of packing. But I’m having a hard time understanding this man — his speech is affected by what I gather may have been a stroke sometime in the past. After wrestling with comprehension I figure out this old-timer would like me to follow him because he needs my help with some kind of trailer. It seems plausible. But these are strange times and the skeptic in me has some reservations about following someone I just met and can barely understand to an undisclosed location where I don’t have cell signal. But I agree to those terms, because I still want to have faith in humanity.
I jump in the truck and leave the bird dogs as sole guardians of all our gear. I use my satellite messenger to send what must’ve seemed a cryptic message to my buddy Alex — it’s the license plate number of the old guy’s pickup.
After tailing down a gravel road for a few miles we turn into a drive. He pulls in front of a trailer loaded with a four-wheeler and we have another discussion where I get the full gist. We spend the next few minutes trying to work through our fragile communication system so that it’s compatible via his rearview mirror. That only gets us to within six inches of having this trailer hooked to the old guy’s pickup.
The trailer is too heavy for me to move myself. Luckily I notice a couple ranch hands near the yard who see our struggles and come for the assist. They get a decent chuckle out of the story and I jump back in my truck and return to camp to complete the task of packing.
At sunrise the following morning Alex and I depart for an overland bird hunting adventure through the Little Missouri National Grasslands — ahead lies 160 miles of bike trails and 20 nights with bird dogs in tents. Alex has signed on as the support crew for the first leg of the journey — what we have mapped as 35 miles of trail.
Alex and I learn lots of lessons over these first few days: surface water in non-existent because it’s been a dry year, a straight line mile on a map does not represent trail distance accurately (all those little curves add up), you can’t carry enough calories to replace what you burn, and that running deficit gets brutal. At the completion of Alex’s portion of the journey and his duties of support crew, we have a pit stop in the historic town of Medora. It’s the only town across the entire distance and offers a chance to reassess and refuel.
We end up at a local watering hole and proceed to order a large pizza, each. The bar is crowded and our gluttony doesn’t go without notice. A couple ranchers ask about our apparent starvation and we strike up a conversation about the past few days and the nature of the trip. They pretty quickly surmise we are insane yet harmless, so they buy us a round of beers and cheer us to complete the pizza challenge before us. They also share additional intel on potential water sources, the kind of information that isn’t in books or online, generational knowledge.
Before we head back to the tents for the onset food coma, one of the ranchers suggests I take down his number in the event I need anything over the coming days. I scratch down “AJ” and the digits on the back of the receipt without much thought. It’s a nice offer but I have little expectation of needing it — between my satellite communicator and over-preparation, I’ve solved most eventualities for the remainder of the trip.
Alex and I spend the next couple days modifying the original plan, caching more water and chasing birds before he heads for home and I’m left alone on the trail north. For a number of days, the fat biking follows the plan with added water and revised distances that reflect the conditions on the ground.
But then comes a particularly grueling trail day through tight canyons with repetitive climbs and descents. I am ground down to a bitter callus in unseasonably hot temps. I have had enough OF EVERYTHING — sleeping on the ground at massive calorie deficits for multiple nights takes a cumulative toll. I wasn’t having fun. Instead of an adventure this started to seem like a prison sentence and my attitude reflected it.
Long, curse-laden arguments ensue with the Maah Daah Hey, Teddy Roosevelt, Mother Nature, any mythical foe within hypothetical earshot. You’d think those arguments would be easy to win because of the difficulty of direct rebuttal. On the next steep uphill, the foes collectively reach down and snap my bike chain.
Physically exhausted, two and a half miles from the closest road, 110 pounds of gear — sometimes an attitude adjustment requires an ‘OH SHIT’ moment. It’s happened to me before on other trips, but this one seems particularly pronounced. I’m here because of MY doing. This is MY fault. It’s easy to point somewhere else, right up to the metallic snap of a bike chain.
I begin to shuffle through the gear for the chain repair tool that I know is in the trailer. Except it’s not. Somewhere between planning, packing and re-packing the chain repair tool didn’t make the cut and no amount of digging through the gear will make it appear.
I pull out the map and start working through contingencies. Off-trailing isn’t an option in this section of badlands; there’s no shortcut to civilization. Actually, there’s not much civilization — dirt roads and oil rigs. I’ve got to make it to that road. Once there, I can stash my gear and try to hitchhike to my staged vehicle. Traffic is a rarity this remote. Finding someone willing to allow a disheveled hiker and two filthy bird dogs to hitchhike seems unlikely. The closest route to the truck is 16 miles via road. Hiking light, that’s not impossible, though certainly a challenge while not running out of water.
There’s one other option: I walk to the top of the hill where I pickup a single bar of cell signal — it’s the only service I’ve had for three days. I dial AJ. I’m not sure why he picks up, but he does. He’s on horseback working cattle about 60 miles away. I briefly explain my predicament. He agrees to meet me at a pin I drop him at the road and apologizes that he won’t make it for a number of hours.
No apology is needed. It’s particularly hot this day, so I strip down to the bare essentials and begin lead sledding the bike and trailer, a smile on my face the entire time. It’s not a quick push out, but I make it to the agreed upon extraction point. I’m as tired as I can ever recall. The next couple hours waiting give me opportunity to reflect on this day and this trip.
As the sun edges towards the horizon, I see a cloud of red dust headed my way from the south. AJ pulls up, hops out with a big grin and hands me a pizza and a gallon of water. He helps me load the bike, gear and dogs into the back of his truck and I crush that pizza on the road to my vehicle.
After getting my bike repaired and waiting on the heatwave to pass, I jump back on the trail to continue the trip north armed with a new perspective.
One afternoon near the end of this journey as I’m sitting outside the tent I get a text from AJ:
Was working cows at a neighbor’s yesterday and one of the guys was telling a story about this retired neighbor, who enlisted the help of a guy from Ohio, staying at a local campground. The retired guy needed help backing up a to a trailer? Was that you? Was kind of a funny story about our neighbor.
My faith in humanity has been temporarily secured. But small acts of kindness in the badlands may have a more lasting impact.
Catch the full season of Way Upland and ride along with us on the trail across North Dakota.