I knew that Minot had been severely flooded this year, and that the highway around it had only just re-opened, sparing me a lengthy detour. In fact, earlier in the day, I had pedaled through flooded farm-lands, trees and telephone poles poking their heads out of the unwanted water which lapped the side of the cross-country highway.
As I approached Minot's downtown, something seemed amiss. There were few cars on the road, stores were shuttered, pools of standing water lurking ominously in their parking lots. Finally I reached an army check-point, camouflaged soldiers chain-smoking around humvees which solidly blocked the road. Further along, the road dipped into murky water, disappearing below the flooded river.
"Is there anywhere to get dinner around here?", I asked a soldier.
"No, everything is closed," he responded tersely.
"So, army, wow," I said, "how long have ya'all been here?"
"Just a few days, we're only now letting residents back into their homes," he said, puffing vigorously on his cigarette. "There's a Wal-mart back on highway 2," he said, implying that the conversation was over. He turned his back and walked away.
So much for seeing Minot. I turned around, my heart actually soaring with the thought of a Wal-Mart dinner. The night before I'd had stale donuts, coffee, and a micro-waved sandwich from a dusty gas station on the highway. Wal-mart, once known to me as Decimator-of-Local-Business and Dealer-of-Disposable-Plastics, had now provided $1.25 Odwalla smoothies, fresh-baked bread, bike parts, tent-repair materials, and comfortable benches upon which to enjoy these marvelous consumer goods. Unfortunately, as I climbed out of Minot and into the strip-mall plateau above town, legions of big-box stores passed by with no sign of Wal-Mart, and as the last Target-Starbucks-Blockbuster-BestBuy slipped into the distance, I was confronted, yet again, with a gas station dinner at the last commercial outpost before another great stretch of North Dakota emptiness.
West of Minot, the road meandered through river-hewn hills, turning golden in the day's last light. Yet, it didn't take long for my golden mood to be smothered by the dunk-ga-dunk-ga-dunk of, yet another, flat tire. At a bike shop in Bemidji, Minnesota, a mechanic had fixed my flat tire with such degree of confidence that he offered to pick me up in his car if I should get another one. I had travelled too far for a ride, but I nevertheless left a frustrated message on his cell-phone. Having removed the now-shredded puncture strip which he had installed, I tried to fit the tire back onto the rim of the wheel, but my fingers, exhausted from a week of fixing flats and a day of gripping handle-bars, didn't have the strength to finish the job.
I sat on the side of the road, sweat pouring off my forehead, but simply couldn't muster the thumb-strength necessary. As desperation was beginning to take hold, a kindred spirit on two-wheels pulled his motorcycle to the side of the road.
"Need any help?" he asked.
Understanding my situation, he pulled out a screw-driver, and tried to pry the tire onto the rim.
"C'mon," I said, "you're just scratching the wheel. Why don't you just help me push?"
So we both pushed with our thumbs and the tire inched its way onto the wheel. A success.
Flush with this small victory, and heartened by the kindness of the motorcyclist, I began riding with renewed enthusiasm. Soon it was dusk, scrubland lining the side of the road. As usual, I had no planned stopping point, and simply wanted to go as many miles as possible.
It soon became apparent that there would be nothing but barren steppe for many miles. The cool night was a sensuous relief from the mind-numbing heat of the day, and there was little wind, riding conditions that I rarely enjoyed. So I kept going as dark fell, and a few lights twinkled on along the horizon, somewhere ahead. I decided to keep pedaling until I reached them. This would later prove to be the right decision, though I had no clue of its importance as night fell over North Dakota...