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Whether it's taking a daily ritual from expected to extraordinary or discovering the wonderment and beauty of anew travel destination, J.R. McCabe elevates the everyday with timeless taste and comfortable confidence.
“You’re what?!” I exclaim. My husband just told me he’s about to pick up a hitchhiker in a state on the other side of the country that we’ve only been in for seventeen hours. That’s Sergeant McCabe. Fearless, impulsive, and prone to adventure. After six years I still can’t figure out if it’s the NYPD in him that makes him unfazed by what most would consider treacherous encounters — having experienced so many moments beyond the threshold of danger — or if it’s just the Bronx in him that gets a little bored when a day is too ordinary and finds he needs to insert wacky characters and unusual happenings just to feel at home again. Either way, I’m staying on speaker for the remainder of this ride as a witness to this extraordinary early morning event.
“Hey buddy, how ya doing? Where ya headed?”
“North Carolina! That’s on the other side of the country,” responds the Sergeant.
I listen in for the next twenty minutes as Pat subtly interrogates the man in the passenger seat. Inquiry without intimidation. Questions that come off more as curiosity than confinement. He’s a master at it. The gentleman in question is forty-seven years old, an Army vet of the Gulf war, originally from Wisconsin but most recently in Montana. He is trained as a structural engineer but has spent the past few years traveling on a bicycle around America until his bike finally broke beyond repair yesterday.
“There’s a pawn shop two blocks from our hotel. I’ll drop you there. They’ll have something,” says Pat.
“Well a bike shop might be better,” suggests the hitchhiker.
“Honey, can you check if there’s a bike shop in Rapid City . . . oh, my wife is on the phone.”
I quickly Google his request, eager to have this man out of my husband’s car as soon as possible, so I can release from the incessant visions of some sort of weapon altercation about to ensue at any moment.
“Yes, there’s one on Jackson but it doesn’t open until ten,” I say.
“What time does the pawn shop open?”
“Well I’ll drop you at the pawn shop and you can check that out until the bike store opens,” he instructs the hitchhiker.
Another Sergeant McCabe trait — he can’t leave a person in peril. No matter who you are, with no judgment, he will always find a way to solve your problem or try to make things better. Seven minutes later he drops the hitchhiker in front of the pawn shop and we resume our usual travel morning routine which consists of him always being out somewhere exploring and me, just having rose from my slumber, enjoying my tea back at the hotel while listening to his tales.
“Please don’t ever do that again,” I request.
“Oh honey, the guy was harmless. I just couldn’t believe he was walking along that highway. There’s nothing for miles.”
“He had quite the story.”
“If that story is even true.”
Every time someone tells Pat a tale that’s his response. He has a hard time believing people. People lie to cops. Can you blame them? No one wants to go to jail. I, on the other hand, tend to always believe even the craziest stories because I am a writer. Words mean everything to me. I believe that when people use words they mean them. More often than not I’m proved wrong, but when a tale is good I’ll go along for the ride. But let’s just leave this tall tale of biking to North Carolina where it is and continue with our own adventures.
With the alleged hitchhiker dispatched and a quick but hearty breakfast at Tally’s Silver Spoon (the upscale diner across the street from our hotel) — complete with some of the best gluten free pancakes I’ve ever had — and we’re on our way to Badlands National Park.
We arrived late yesterday and just before dawn this morning while I lay sleeping, Pat took the thirty minute ride north to Sturgis. When he retired more than eighteen months ago and we started to plan travel for 2020, Sturgis was on the top of his list. An annual motorcycle rally that draws nearly a million bikers each year, it is revered by the Harley crowd as the ultimate pilgrimage for the serious rider. This year, being the 80th anniversary, was predicted to be the best in decades. So in late 2019 we booked the tickets, the suite, and the car and motorcycle rentals for the first week of August 2020. A year ago no one could’ve predicted or imagined the circumstances the nation would be facing with COVID-19. While we’d canceled two other trips planned for 2020, we made the decision to keep this one knowing we’d have to make some adjustments along the way. Today is one of them. Instead of going to the rally we’re going to a national park ninety miles east. But Pat still couldn’t shake the feeling of just wanting to see the famous Sturgis strip this morning — so he went on a solo excursion before sunrise to pay homage to the historical and hallowed ground that has drawn bikers to the Black Hills in late summer for nearly a century.
“I just wanted to see it. I came all the way here. I had to see it,” he tells me as we hit the highway.
“Was anyone there?”
“Just a handful of cops. It’s small, like five blocks of these two main streets. It’s like a fair. Food, tents, stuff like that.”
“Well do you feel better now that you’ve seen it?”
“Hell ya. I couldn’t come all the way here and not see it.”
I can tell by the tone of his voice that he means it. Pat isn’t one to get caught up in disappointment. Deciding not to “rally” because of current conditions isn’t a big blow. Crowds aren’t his scene. He had enough of them while on the job. A pre-dawn stroll with Sturgis all to himself was all he needed to feel satisfied.
The ride to Badlands from Rapid City is a long, straight highway with nothing but corn fields, sunflowers, open road, and tremendous sky in the vista. We’re about an hour east on SD-44 when we spot the official Entering Badlands National Park sign. We pull over to take a picture, joining a few other vehicles and a handful of curious prairie dogs propped up on their hind legs close by. When we get back in the car I notice that my phone has lost signal.
“No more signal. Last time I looked we had about thirty minutes left,” I say.
“We’ll be fine. I see it over there, is that it?”
In the distance are beige mountains, just barely recognizable beyond the clouds. With no phone or car GPS we’re just going to have to go with our instincts. We drive ten minutes down the road and see a sign that reads Leaving Badlands National Park.
“How is that possible? We just got here,” says Pat.
“I’m so confused. That can’t be right. Let’s just keep driving and see. It’s gotta be down here,” I respond.
We drive ten more minutes and become even more perplexed. There’s nothing. By nothing I mean just miles of dry, straw-colored hills, blue sky, and shy, sneaky prairie dogs.
Pat makes the call to turn around and go back to the first sign.
“Someone there has got to know where they’re going.”
When we arrive back at the sign we encounter a biker taking a quick water break. Pat approaches him in earnest.
“We’re trying to get to Badlands and we don’t know where we’re going. Do you have any idea where this place is?”
“According to the maps I studied this morning, should be straight down this road another twenty or thirty miles,” he responds confidently.
“Okay, well we’re following you ‘cause we’re from New York. We have no idea where we are going.”
Put my husband in the middle of the South Bronx and he can name every deli, store, housing complex, street, precinct, and subway stop for miles. But in South Dakota the sheer lack of any sign of habitation has him all out of sorts.
When we finally arrive there is no mistaking the majesty of Badlands. The dusty rose and white sand structures hit you with their deep and ancient power. They seem to be endless. Breathtaking in their beauty, nature’s sculptures inviting you to be here, alive, in this moment. We make the loop, having arrived in Interior on the south side, driving slowly, stopping along the way to get out of the car for pictures and more moments with these regal beauties knowing there are few places on earth we’ll ever encounter that can compare.
The next morning, just after nine, we approach Mount Rushmore. The monument appears like a postcard from the US-16 W highway. The visage of the four famous faces jut out from the stone as if to greet you.
“There it is!” exclaims the Sergeant.
The faces from the history books — uncolored by political agendas and rhetoric — are a glorious site to see. They are quite simply a testament to the truth of what our country was built on — independence, liberty, and hard work. We park in the cylindrical attached airy garage placed perfectly perpendicular to the monument. Just a hundred feet away begins the “Avenue of Flags,” the grand walkway that leads visitors toward the base of the mount. Each flag proudly flipping and flying as if the spirit of America itself has caught them up in a frenzied salute. We take the obligatory snapshot and head for cover from the beating sun.
Black Hills National Forest
The next morning we’re up by six, pick up breakfast to-go from Tally’s across the street — a couple of egg and cheese sandwiches on gluten free bagels — and hop on I-90 W for the thirty minute ride to Sturgis. We’ve signed up for the annual Mayor’s Ride, a three-and-a-half hour ride through the Black Hills led by Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen. There’s about a hundred bikers when we arrive at check-in located in the back parking lot of the Community Center on Lazelle Street. We’ve got just enough time to get our wristbands, inhale breakfast, pose for the group photo and then it’s kickstands up and we’re off.
With no effort of our own, just by where we were directed to park upon arrival, we happen to be at the front of the pack — just behind the Mayor’s crew and Sturgis Police. Pat’s used to the police escort drill, but not to being on the other side, so as we ride passed halted traffic and cruisers blocking streets with lights going I can tell by the way he’s in control of the bike that he’s happy to finally be the guy who all the fuss is for.
“It’s cool riding in a group, right?” he yells back in my direction through his helmet.
At this point you’re probably saying to yourself. A biker? Pat’s a biker? Jenn’s a biker chick? I would’ve never pegged that. That’s so not her brand. Well for those who may be lost here, let me pause to explain “my brand.” My brand is about experiencing life in fullness — without labels, without the “I like this. I don’t like that,” or “I am this. I am not that.” I have learned that when you live in labels you miss out on a helluva lot in life. So here I am, on the back of a steel gray Harley Davidson Road Glide in the Black Hills National Forest, for one simple reason — I’m living life.
Pat grew up in an Irish immigrant enclave in the Bronx. Translation — no motorcycles in sight. He got the bug for riding through the NYPD. They trained him to ride, he got his motorcycle license, and was pulled for NYPD detail for major events. He’s been on a bike ever since — about twenty years. I’ve ridden shotgun a few times since we started dating, an early evening cruise over to Rye beach or a quick trip back to the old neighborhood. But today is different.
As we approach the winding roads that lead us into the Black Hills National Forest, I relax into my position and take in the power of the park. As the leaves sway softly in the wind and the entourage rides steady, assembled in staggered formation, it’s as if the trees are speaking to us. They seem to say, welcome, we’ve been waiting for you. When you’re sitting on the back of a motorcycle for three hours you have a lot of time to think. What I keep thinking, or more accurately, feeling, is just how freeing this sensation is. The obligations and responsibilities of everyday life — in my case a looming bar exam, a subsequent impending move, starting a new career — seem so small compared with the power, freedom, and soulful connection I feel riding through this magical and eternal place. I understand now why bikers are drawn here . . . the call of the road, the woods, the air, that feeling that there is no where else that matters, nothing else that needs to be done. In the woods, on a bike . . . life feels whole.
The group comes to a halt just before we are set to enter Custer State Park and we have a few minutes to grab some water and chat with our fellow riders.
We quickly learn that the couple in front of us, Rich and Nancy, have been riding these hills for twenty-seven years. He’s a contractor, she used to be the head of tourism for the state. A lovely couple, likely in their early sixties, whose calm presence is paired with surprising gregarious demeanors.
“Did you see that group of three we just passed back down the road fly fishing?” asks Nancy.
“Yeah, I did catch that,” I respond.
“That was our governor, Kristi Noem.”
“Pretty light security detail.”
“That wasn’t security, those were locals. This is South Dakota, she doesn’t need security,” she answers with a slight chuckle and a wink.
Being here is refreshing in so many ways. The simple way of life, the immediate kindness and warmth of the locals, and the manner in which they approach the current state of affairs we’ve all been living under for the past five months. South Dakotans are smart about the virus — but they carry it in a gentler, more trusting fashion. A stark contrast to the hyper vigilant and at times downright fearful mode exemplified by life in the Northeast. Just as we’re set to mount our bikes again — I overhear the two couples in front of Rich and Nancy talking about their decision to come to Sturgis this year.
“What is really boils down to is people aren’t afraid of catching COVID,” says a 6’7” lanky guy as he throws on his helmet.
The other couple pauses, already on their bike, waiting for him to finish his thought.
“They’re afraid of dying,” he adds, throwing down his visor, revving his motor and speeding off to join the pack.
The thought lingers in the mountain air as we travel into Custer. I understand why bikers are so often misunderstood. People think they’re rowdy, rough, cavalier, even reckless . . . and maybe some are. But the decent and interesting souls I’ve met so far have been some of the most welcoming, helpful, kind, and nonjudgmental people I’ve ever encountered. The other day in Badlands when we lamented to a biker about not being sure how to get out of Badlands park . . . and Pat joked about being screwed if we ever got stuck at night in a place that dark and barren for miles and miles . . . an old time biker responded: “We’d getcha out of here. There’s always some of us in the park. You’d never have to worry about that.” By us he means bikers. There’s a strength, a loyalty, an unspoken code of protection that they all live by. To an outsider it may look like a fierce and exclusive group but to an insider, as we’ve been these past few days, it’s an extraordinary display of honor and basic humanity. Perhaps the zen biker was right — it’s not the disease people are afraid of, just like it’s not really the bikers they’re afraid of, it’s the unknown, the uncertainty. What scares people about bikers is their ability to live in freedom not fear, to go after it, take risks, trust that they’ll be okay. If everyone wasn’t so worried about dying, maybe then they’d learn how to really live.
Within twenty minutes we’ve settled into our seats at the official lunch site, the State Game Lodge. We enjoy a homemade repast of BBQ brisket, baked beans, cole slaw, cookies and watermelon, more chats with the tried and true crew who’ve been doing this ride for years, and then it’s on our way to the twisties and tunnels of Iron Mountain Road headed back up north to home base.
“How is it that you can’t open a window?!” says Pat.
We’re staying in the presidential suite of the Alex Johnson Hotel, a historical spot now run by Hilton. Six presidents — including FDR, Eisenhower, and Reagan — have apparently laid their heads in this room on the penthouse floor. The windows are sealed shut. As legend goes, in the early seventies a bride jumped to her death on her wedding night from the window of room 812. Her ghost, the “Lady in White” as she’s called, is rumored to haunt the eighth floor to this day. Apparently the woman stood to inherit a large sum of money, which leads this retired Bronx cop to suspect foul play.
“She was pushed,” he declares. “Now we all have to pay for it. Who do they say was with her? Where was the guy she married? Not in the suite on his wedding night? Hmmm . . . ”
I try to contain my laughter, as his affliction of being perturbed at the inability to enjoy the fresh South Dakota mountain air is real, but the fact that he’s trying to solve a cold case from nearly fifty years ago is comical.
“Let’s get out of here and go for a walk.”
“Good idea,” I respond.
We stroll the streets of downtown Rapid City, which is comprised of about six square blocks with statues of presidents on every corner. The city holds a quiet and understated mid-century charm that can be seen in the enduring architecture and old-school signage. We pop over to the Silver Lining Creamery for a late day treat. Lavender honey ice cream for me and key lime pie for the Sergeant.
The next day we’re up early again to join a group of locals for another three hour ride. After living in New York for so many years, the city that never sleeps, it’s eery to wake up in a city so silent and calm. There are no cars, no people, no action on the streets as I look down from our ninth floor perch. The solace mixed with the 1950s buildings evoke a bygone era and I feel as if I’ve traveled back in time. That is until the Sergeant’s voice jolts me back to the haunted happenings of 2020.
“Did you change this temperature?”
“I set it to seventy-two and every night it goes back down to sixty-nine.”
“Must be the ghost,” I joke.
“You think so?” he responds, seriously.
“Ya never know.”
After half a day cruising through Spearfish Canyon and the town of Deadwood the Sergeant is ready for a nap and I squeeze in some studying for the bar exam. Three hours later, with Pat still snoozing, it’s up to me to figure out dinner on our final night. I opt for Tally’s sister restaurant, Delmonico Grill, just around the corner from the hotel on Main Street. After a five minute walk and twenty minute wait I head back to the suite to find the Sergeant awake and hungry. We waste no time diving into this delectable steak house dinner. The filet is divine and the baked potato is fluffy and tasty perfection.
The next morning, as we pack up and say goodbye to sweet South Dakota, I’m awash in gratitude. Here’s to making long-held dreams come true in spite of the obstacles life throws at us. Here’s to the company of good people and the enjoyment of delicious food. Here’s to the mountains and forests whose subtle majesty carry the whispers of the great spirit encouraging us all to embrace the here and now and live in the mystery of adventure.
P.S. Be sure to watch my Instagram Story Highlight “South Dakota” for the visual companion to this post. ⛰