Written By: Justin Julian
Photos By: Scott Haraldson
As we rolled into bumper-to-bumper traffic about five miles from my garage where the motorcycles slept for the night, I was overtaken by the silence my helmet provided. Hustle, bustle and daily chores would have to wait just shy of a week before they were to be of concern again. The Maah Daah Hey trail was the destination for the night—trail numero uno on a list of five IMBA Epic-rated trail systems. The goal: ride each trail 20 miles in five different states, and do it all in just five days. What better choice for our journey than the Horsethief, one bike for every trail?
“Hustle, bustle and daily chores would have to wait just shy of a week before they were to be of concern again.”
Indeed, shortly after the launch of our 2015 Salsa line this 5-5-5 idea brewed up. My best buddy Josh from my college days in Missouri and I both ride BMW GS motorcycles, and we both happen to love the Horsethief. Why wouldn’t we strap those steeds to the back of the motos and ride off into the sunset? After all, we have always ridden some sort of two wheels together, even after I moved to Minnesota. Still, as the years have passed and our respective families grown, the opportunities to get together have dwindled. As the stars aligned for this trip, we knew it was one we couldn’t pass up.
Riding across most of Minnesota and all but 30 miles of North Dakota in one push is a challenge to the human psyche. Early on we decided to hit up all of the “World’s Largest” statues we could spot from the interstate—first, a prairie chicken, then a buffalo, sand hill crane, and on and on. The opportunity to stop for a photo was a welcome break from the monotonous miles.
The last two hours were fraught with rain and wind, and we had one place in mind; camp. With 30 miles to go, we were greeted with a winding red dirt road. The rain had stopped, and we motored through corners as if we were racing the most important event of the season to clinch the points lead. Backs aching, all we wanted to do was get out of our wet clothes, when all of a sudden we noticed the sunset on the gray dirt filled with cracks and crevices. Lush green grasses surrounded the eroded land. The colors of Mother Nature reminded me that you need to get lost on occasion to remind yourself of the things most important in life—some of which I was experiencing right then, riding side-by-side with my best friend in the middle of nowhere.
The day of rain helped determine our campsite for the night—the first one we came to—as it clearly was the highest spot and would make for a solid platform upon which to rest our motorcycles. The campsite was fairly empty, but it was a Wednesday night, after all. There was a pop-up camper next to us with a gentleman who appeared to be in North Dakota for the sole purpose of reaping the new riches of oil. Josh and I shed the wet riding gear and put up our tents. After camp was set, we decided to indulge in the four beers we had stashed in our luggage.
“Riding across most of Minnesota and all but 30 miles of North Dakota in one push is a challenge to the human psyche.”
The campfire was stubbornly burning the wet off the wood, and stories began to flow. After 12 hours of riding and only briefly chatting at gas pumps, we were excited to catch up. Our neighbor decided he did not like the volume coming from our camp and stormed into our conversation. A normal person would have asked us nicely to bring our roar down to a respectable level. Not this man. We apologized and explained we didn’t realize we were being loud, promising to keep it down, but he did not let up that easily, antagonizing us with his curse words all while coming further and further into our camp. I thought, ‘Is this really how our trip is starting?’
The Maah Daah Hey was waiting for us in the morning. In order to stay on track, we needed to be on the trail by 7 AM and pedaling. The trail intersected our camp so we started off and came across another group of campers—cowboys and girls with horses getting ready to start off the day. Their horses grazed in the campsite under small apple trees and in the tall prairie grasses. The fallen apples from the storm the night before were too appealing to give us mountain bikers a second glance. However, one gray and black horse stood between us and the trail. This guy did not like our funny contraptions made of carbon fiber and aluminum. With a loud whinny, he was up on hind legs. This was our cue to get off the bikes and slowly back up through camp in hopes of not scaring the pony any more than we already had.
“Last night’s unseemly encounter had now been redeemed by these wonderful folks enjoying the same trail and natural resources that we were, and the grind of the first day floated away with the dust beneath our tires.”
A stocky gentleman with a mustache that would make Wilfred Brimley jealous came up behind us shouting orders at his steed in attempts to calm him down. The beauty of people is that there are good ones and not so good ones. This was a great one. He apologized profusely and thanked us for our consideration. The horseback crew knew the area and pointed us down the trail to Devil’s Pass. Helpful beyond belief, they even gave us a map. Last night’s unseemly encounter had now been redeemed by these wonderful folks enjoying the same trail and natural resources that we were, and the grind of the first day floated away with the dust beneath our tires.
The trail wandered through tall grass and towers of dirt that had withstood the hands of time. We stayed on track by following seemingly randomly posts branded with symbolic turtles six inches from the top. The term Maah Daah Hey comes from the Mandan Indian language meaning “grandfather,” or “one that will be here a long time,” and the trail symbol of a turtle comes from the Lakota Indian’s symbolic meaning of long life and patience.
“I am not a fan of heights, especially when I can see the edge of no forgiveness.”
Devil’s Pass seemed to be what was left over of a sliver of land that bridged two sections of the Earth together. I believe it was safe passage back when settlers with covered wagons headed west for a new start. I couldn’t imagine riding a horse across there as I peered down the straight drop off that surrounded the trail. I am not a fan of heights, especially when I can see the edge of no forgiveness. “Time to turn around and head back,” I exclaimed; it was as good a time as any.
We pumped a bit of water at the camp to clean the day’s dirt off of our legs, loaded up the bikes and headed south to find something to fill the holes in our bellies. We stopped at a small diner that looked like it was once a farm equipment storage or welding facility, and wolfed down some of the favorite local cuisine while chatting with an amicable local named Merle and his two sons.
It wasn’t lost upon us that the once wide-open expanses surrounding Maah Daah Hey were now speckled with oil pumps. Merle shared his own perspective, which he shared with many, about how the oil boom is both a good and bad thing for the area. His general impression seemed to be that, of course, it was good for those with a stake in it—if you owned land, you stood to make a lot of cash. But the majority of North Dakota’s residents are dealing with the newly busy roads and trucks everywhere, and Merle, for one, didn’t seem to appreciate the disruption.
Sturgis, South Dakota, would be tonight’s camping spot, right smack dab in the middle of their annual Bike Week. What would these Harley folk think of two BMWs with mountain bikes mounted to their backs? We would soon find out.
Our travel plan basically consisted of riding first thing, then traveling to our next campsite by evening. We’d made it to our Shady Grove camp the night before with looks and stares and thumbs up. When it came to our bikes’ setup, people were surprised, stoked and inquisitive at almost every stop we made. Leather-clad Harley riders enjoying all that Sturgis has to offer would stop us and tell us tales of their cycling adventures. Some still rode, some recalled their youthful journeys, and some wished they’d had more. It is funny how the bicycle and the motorcycle can bring people together easier than any car, truck, bus or train ride.
“Leather-clad Harley riders enjoying all that Sturgis has to offer would stop us and tell us tales of their cycling adventures.”
The night was uneventful. About every hour or so, someone would idle into the campground that housed more than 2,500 Harley riders and decide that the two BMWs needed to know they were present. Josh and I joked about this “loudest pipe contest” as we prepped for the that morning’s ride.
At 6 AM, not many people make themselves present. We snuck out of the campsite on our bikes and cruised through the empty streets of Sturgis that were no doubt packed just four hours prior. We rolled down the main drag with only a few old timers there to capture the best table at the local diner. As we rolled out of town we got a wave from the sheriff and off we went. The Centennial trail was our next stop and just a 17-mile ride from our last night’s camp.
Centennial is another 90-plus mile point-to-point trail. The scenery was completely different here—the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota are much rockier and heavily forested. We started off by climbing up to the top of Bear Butte. The riding was more technical here than on the Maah Daah Hey. We set a good pace and decided to go further out on this trail, taking the gravel road back to our motorcycles.
From Sturgis, we were Cheyenne-bound, so we packed up and headed out before noon. Anyone who’s visited Sturgis knows just how remote it can seem outside of Bike Week. Lunch was at another local diner on the edge of town with dollar bills tacked to each of the walls, stuffed and mounted moose and bear throughout the room and an old-fashioned jukebox buzzing in the corner. All of the patrons were leather clad and looked tired from whatever the night before brought them. Another burger, some more fries, a little water and a nice restroom to freshen up in, and we were off. No dilly dallying was an unspoken rule that was not to be broken.
The most beautiful section of tarmac of this trip started here. Through Deadwood and the Badlands, this was a winding and gorgeous ride spent passing groups of Harleys when the lanes split for slower traffic. The blacktop was smooth and fresh. The valleys hit us with rain. Nothing lasted more than a fifteen minutes but, none the less, Harley riders covered the shoulder of the road as riders scrambled to remove their leather and put on their rain gear. Josh and I came dressed for the occasion and motored on.
We rolled into camp around sunset.
Day four started at Curt Gowdy, which is just west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. We camped the night before near the horse corral there, due to the fact that the sites were all full. The whole park was amazing, and this is a trail I am vowing to come back to, made of singletrack that winds among large rocks and crawls over even larger slabs. The rocks were like sandpaper, providing traction galore. Gowdy provided another completely unique set of trails that followed a couple of streams that then dumped into Granite Springs Reservoir. The trail had a nice elevation change that ran mostly through forest. Hats off to the trail builders here; they did it right.
After returning to camp, we again packed up and were back on the road by 11 AM. This day we would get to ride two trails. The first stop would be Buffalo Creek, west of Denver just outside of Pine, Colorado. Enroute we stopped in Denver so I could pick up a cruise control for my BMW. My wrist developed a wicked cramp in Wyoming, where the highway speeds bumped 85 mph. As we left the dealership, the hardest rains of the trip began.
We blazed down the winding mountain highway in the pouring rain. Too wet to let the motorcycles really eat the tarmac, we took every corner cautiously, hoping it would be the last. Incorrect GPS coordinates took us an hour out of our way and led us down a rustic fire road that eventually dumped into a loose gravel parking lot. A hiker and his son came out of the trail and were eager to help us find our way. With a map spread out on the hood of their car we found our destination, it however was on the other side of the mountain pass. We strapped our helmets on and headed out for Buffalo Creek.
“We blazed down the winding mountain highway in the pouring rain. Too wet to let the motorcycles really eat the tarmac, we took every corner cautiously, hoping it would be the last.”
Wet and tired we battled our bikes down the muddy mountain road. As if someone was looking out for us, the rain slowed to a drizzle as we pulled into Buffalo Creek Campground. One pass through had us thinking all of the sites were taken, but Josh, on a hunch, rolled through a second time and found us the last spot at the campground. We were tired, tensions were high, and tempers were short…but we had made it. We decided it was time to relax, set up camp to cook some dinner. Going from wet motorcycle gear to sweaty mountain bike gear wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list in our minds right then, but the trail called, and belly full, I was ready to ride.
First we needed to find the trail. A group across the road had mountain bikes parked outside their pop-up camper, another set of friendly folks who would give you the shirts off their backs if you’d ask. They lent us a map and gave us a perfect route to follow. Josh and I strapped headlights on and prepared for a long evening in the Rockies. It began with a hellish climb, a two-mile death march straight up, but our reward was a most epic downhill, long and flowing. Night rides are great for recharging your batteries; your senses are heightened while you navigate by feel down the trail. You always feel like you are riding twice as fast as you really are when darkness surrounds you and covers the trail. As we got closer to the bottom we heard the rushing of a river or a creek. Suddenly a flash out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and a mule deer bounded into the weeds next to the me. I worried it would come over to the path of least resistance and take me off the trail in his haste, but like that he was gone. We hit the ‘T’ in the trail and rolled up a doubletrack to get back to camp.
After a dry night in our tents, we were off: Leaving Colorado with the beautiful mountains to our backs, this day’s journey was taking us to Wilson Lake, Kansas, to the Switchgrass singletrack trails.
“The highway seemed created with just one purpose—to get you across the flat and straight state.”
Kansas and I don’t hold much love for each other; that might be a story for another time, but the day droned on from Denver to the border to the small towns with single pump gas stations and energy drinks. The highway seemed created with just one purpose—to get you across the flat and straight state. Your mind can easily take over and play dirty tricks on you. The heat was ticking up degree by degree with every mile passed. My eyelids became heavy, so I ran my bike up next to Josh, who was leading this segment, and sent out a hand gesture asking to stop. I needed a break and some more go-go juice—a truck stop on the horizon was more like a modern-day oasis housing no fewer than four convenience centers, showers and a restaurant.
The sheriff came upon us as we finished our ride; he, too, had to see how the bikes were attached to our motorcycles. He was a super-nice guy, but our conversation was cut short so he could go chase down some folks illegally cliff diving.
Now we had to make a choice. We had been on the road since 6 AM, and it was now 7 PM. Should we ride all the way back to Josh’s house in Kansas City or camp here? The five trails in five days goal had officially been achieved, but staying at Josh’s would complete the circle of him and me riding these motorcycles together—just like old times. With a flick of the switch, engines fired up, and we were off. Destination: Kansas City.
The sun set, and the temperatures cooled. A super moon would guide us home along the dark, empty interstate; fuel and truck-stop food helped keep us on track to hit our end goal.
Most people I know enjoy a vacation where you sit around on a beach and read, or do other things people do when they relax. I haven’t learned to appreciate this style of holiday yet. To me, full throttle with not even an hour to spare each day makes for a darn good trip.
“To me, full throttle with not even an hour to spare each day makes for a darn good trip.”
Our map said we would ride 2,483 miles; we ended up riding 2,490 miles by the time I pulled back into my garage. We rode between 80 and 100 miles of singletrack, based on the maps we collected along the way. Most importantly, Josh and I shared a trip that continues to strengthen the bond between us. These stories will build up like so many others before them so one day we can sit around a campfire and tell our children about this modern-day adventure that we accomplished together: Five Days, Five States, Five Trails.