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Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the "Big Ride," a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory health. This is the fifth in a series of letters that began in Washington State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Wilker offers a unique view of America from across the handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.

Bicycling Across America - Leg 5, Hi from New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Hi from New Ulm, Minnesota . . .

We are in the Nation's heartland, more than halfway through our trip across America. South Dakota has been a wonderful surprise, all the more so for a stay with Father Brian Christensen, a nephew-in-law attached to Diocesan Headquarters in Rapid City.

Brian was a B-1 bomber pilot at nearby Ellworth Air Force Base when he decided to become a Catholic priest. After a number of years of study (he had already graduated from the Air Force Academy), he was ordained last year. The rectory where we stayed might have been a bit plush for Martin Luther, but the respite was welcome indeed to a tired cyclist. And Brian's tour of the old part of the city and its surrounds was worthy of the best travel agent.

On Sunday we rented a van and traveled back up into the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monuments. The latter is particularly fascinating. A work in progress, it was designed and started in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski, winner of a prestigious award at the World's Fair a decade earlier. Blasted from the mountainside on a scale that dwarfs Mount Rushmore, it's not even close to being completed.

Today, Korczak's widow and seven of their ten children continue the project. Mounted on a great horse with a flowing mane, Crazy Horse points out over the immense valley. The monument will bear the inscription: "My lands are where my dead lie buried," the Chief's reply when asked where the Sioux land is now.

A famous Sioux warrior born in what is now Rapid City, just a year after the Battle of Little Big Horn he was bayoneted in the back on his way to being imprisoned. Just 36 when he died, he has become a martyr to the Native American cause. So far the only part of his monument to be finished is the face.

On Sunday evening, Brian and I had a good Italian dinner while the Big Ride campsite was recovering from a torrential downpour (which, fortunately, I missed.) Afterward he played in an ecumenical softball game. I'm glad to report that the wine apparently did no harm, as the Catholics beat the Baptists with Brian at shortstop and getting a couple of hits.

On Monday morning, the Big Ride was back on the road for the trip to Kodoka, SD, which included a passage through the Badlands National Park. The Badlands, which resemble the remnants of a huge dried up lake, can also look like a shallow version of the Grand Canyon. A thunder storm added a mystical edge to an already otherworldly experience. With huge thunder clouds and lightning in the near distance, the sights were fantastic.

I started with Howard, but his wheel broke and he had to be sagged (picked up by one of the support vehicles), so I finished the trip through the Park pretty much alone.

As I rode out of it onto a high prairie, the rain became more intense. I was able to get on a pace line made up of Olivia and Adriana (class of 2000 from U. of Penn). We rode at a good pace past many riders on into camp. There is an advantage to arriving on the early side, because you are then able to get the best camp site, which usually means finding the very limited shade, if any.

The next two days of riding were over relatively nondescript terrain compared to what lies behind us, but the towns have been memorable. Tuesday afternoon, we arrived in Pierre, pronounced Peer, the state's capitol with a population of about 12,000.

The two highlights there were camping within a stone's throw of the Missouri River, and visiting a truly great Italian restaurant near the capitol. As we walked along the river back to our tents, the sun set and the moon came up on a perfect scene of Norman Rockwell families strolling along the river all around us.

As special as we all thought Pierre to have been, the next town surpassed it. After an easy ride (74 miles is now easy) we found ourselves in Miller, SD. Called "The Fountain City" after the main feature of its tree-filled park, Miller turned out most of its 1,700 residents in welcome. The mayor gave a generous speech, there was lots of music from a church band and a jazz band, haircuts were offered free (I got a trim), and we were treated to a good, all-American home cooked meal. We even had a cattle auctioneer lead us in bidding on Rusty Burwell, our ride director.

For the last two years, the Big Riders have voted Miller their favorite camp site, and I think the town has got it again. But the next town is also definitely in the running.

On Thursday, after my fastest ride so far (close to 20mph for 78 miles over flatland , with a pretty good tailwind), we arrived in DeSmet, named after a Jesuit missionary and the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote Little Town on the Prairie, based on life in her town. Once again we had a great campsite with trees to shade us from the 90-degree heat. I got a good spot since I was one of the early arrivers, albeit one of the most pooped.

For us now completely one-dimensional simpletons, the highlight of our stop here was the sports bar, where about 40 of us watched a classic climbing battle on TV between Lance Armstrong and the great Italian cyclist, Marco Patani in the Tour de France.

On Friday, we rode 83 miles across the border into Minnesota. Virtually at the state line, the land changed from wide open prairie to rich, deep green farmland, replete with traditional farm houses, barns and silos. These are not the gentlemen farms of Duchess County, NY, but real working farms. Nevertheless, they are impeccable, with perfect rows of corn, alfalfa and soybeans, and a lawn in front of every farm that would do a greenskeeper proud.

We were welcomed at the border by members of the Minnesota Bicycle Club, some of whom had ridden down from Minneapolis. One couple had met on the 1998 Big Ride, gotten married and settled there.

My own personal highlight of the day was in Brookings, SD, where Charlie from Santa Fe and I were interviewed on live radio. A local Don Imus wannabe took a shot at New York and me in particular for being a lawyer from NYC. I assured him I never sued anyone in SD, and never would. At our next water stop, one of the riders in our group reported that she heard Charlie and me on the radio as she rode along, and that we didn't sound like total idiots. For safety reasons, we're not supposed to listen to music or the radio, but a number of riders do anyway.

Finally, on Saturday we arrived at New Ulm, where we are having a welcome day off after more than 500 miles without a break. A neat little city settled by Germans in the 1850s, New Ulm has managed to keep alive its Bavarian heritage. After riding 90 miles that day, many in our group were pumped enough to hit the annual Heritage (i.e.beer) Festival, with local and Bavarian oompah bands. Phil, our oldest rider at 79, turned out to be great dancer and stayed up with the youngsters to the wee hours. He reported this morning that he was accosted by an "old Gal" of 78 whom he had a tough time shaking.

I skipped the Heritage festival to have dinner with one of my law partners and his wife who drove down from St. Paul. We never once mentioned the firm or work. I think that must mean something. It certainly added to the pleasure of the evening...

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Notice: This information is current as of Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the web sites above to determine any changes to the information.