The force of some of these mid-Western storms is unbelievable, and they move with a speed and power more awesome than anything I've known before. Twice now I have seen the front approaching from the south and had to weather it out in a well-placed barn. Others have come at night and left me thankful that my tent was pitched low and under cover. The greatest devastation however was to be reserved for my final night before rolling into Sioux Falls.
Dreaming of my day off in Sioux Falls after riding 420 miles in just over 5 days I pedalled into Little Rock, a tiny town with one of everything it needs - nothing more, nothing less. A lot of the towns I passed through in the state were the same; every building must be essential and efficient, otherwise it simply would not survive. Aesthetics are not a priority; a pretty building is no more functional than the most basic looking of structures. It's certainly an effective system, and after passing through the first few places I began to be able to navigate new townships in a matter of seconds based on prior experience. Little Rock was no different, and having found the library shut I went into the grocery store to ask the approximate distance to the next town (plus the opportunity for some popsicles, my favourite time of day.) I was quickly told there was a storm warning out, but for more details I would have to ask at the bar. There I found it was a tornado warning which I learnt meant conditions were favourable for twisters to form and touch down (as opposed to a 'watch' where one has been sighted, and is under surveilence.) Not keen to risk the 22 miles to Rock Rapids under the circumstances, especially with nothing but corn and beans inbetween, I made plans to camp in the town park. As I asked the bartender about where I could find the park, a local homeowner struck up a conversation. He was impressed with my trip thus far, and offered me a place in his house. With the storm coming, I didn't feel like messing around with tornados, so I accepted. A genuinely kindhearted guy with a real trusting attitude, he took me back to his homestead and let me spend the evening with him, his girlfriend, her kids and a buddy of his. Good-natured people cross my path frequently on this tour, and my host for the night in Little Rock was as obliging as they come.
As we sat outside drinking beers in the hot evening, the storm gradually rumbled into life. The lightning started with a magnificent blaze illuminating the shape of a thousand clouds. Thunder followed soon after, and the sky darkened. The radio reported tornado warnings for our county and all those surrounding it. We watched as the sky worked itself into a frenzy, and the new reports got worse and worse. Everyone was advised to take cover inside, and told to be ready to head for their basements at a moment's notice. Cautiously we remained outside under the cover of the garage, surveying the heaven's turbulent spectacle. I have never seen anything quite as surreal as clouds dropping into spirals and beginning to spin. To the south we kept our eyes peeled - many spirals formed, but none touched down. The radio broadcast announcements of tornadic damage in Sibley, just 3 miles west. With the sky now unashamedly raging furiously the lightning was persistent in it's violent flashes, and forks struck all around. It seemed all around us was getting hit but somehow we were dodging the bullet. Twice everything went calm...a bad sign I am told. The sudden still was unearthly. I could only stare into the clouds in wonderment at the display of dominance.
I felt guilty even thinking about taking photographs. It didn't feel right to snap any of the houses that were completely totalled, but I did take a couple of some of the lesser damaged homesteads to provide a pictorial aid to my story. I wanted to stay and help, but I didn't even know where to begin. I believe that material possessions are just that, raw matter that we can live without, but it's so easy to say that without having to act upon it, and I am enormously attached to some of my things. It was absurdly hard to get rid of all my belongings that didn't fit on my bike when I left New York, but at least that was my choice. These people just get hit by nature, and have to deal with it. It's a rough deal, but the real power in this story seems to come from the way in which these communities pull together in times like this. I don't mean that to sound as corny as it maybe comes across - I really am in awe of how robust residents in areas like this can be, and the way in which one person's struggle becomes everyone's. This journey has taught me a lot in such little time already, but what I have discovered on a personal level about smalltown America is something really special, and I hope at some point I can effectively divulge my enlightenment to a larger audience -via my footage or some other medium. It truly is remarkable.
My notions of my own wanderings seem somewhat transformed recently. At stages I have felt the journey is futile, merely pushing myself through ludricous situations for what is maybe nothing more than self gratification. I have felt insignificant and helpless in the face of an Almighty power much greater than I. When I see an event like the aftermath of this tornado I am reminded of how much else there is going on in the world outside of my personal bubble - it can be easy to get caught up in the world of 'me and my adventure.' Taking time to reflect today I can see that many of these sentiments are reactionary, and not necessarily accurate. It's natural to get preoccupied with my own day-to-day events and decision making processes, and in fact it's essential to be like this for a time in order to use correct judgment. Hopefully it does not come across as a self-indulgent journey to the people I encounter. I do have pride in my expedition, and I do believe it serves a purpose. The most exciting thing is that the objective is constantly morphing and mutating, and I feel honoured to be able to absorb everything I am experiencing. Despite my failure so far to edit footage on the road, I am managing to shoot some, and hopefully the eventual videos will help spread some of what I am learning to appreciate. There are things out of my control, and I have to accept that. It's part of the challenge, and part of the reward at the end. It's also at the root of much of the excitement, as well as the trepidation.
The next few weeks promise more of the same - inconsistent weather and roads, emotional highs and lows, tough decisions and things I will never forget. I am headed west from Sioux Falls through South Dakota, taking a loop through the Badlands before heading north into the Black Hills. Rapid City will provide brief respite, then the Devil's Tower will mark the start of my route to Yellowstone National Park. The naysayers have stopped their talk of bears for now (that won't start again till Yellowstone); presently it seems all I have to worry about are Coyotes, snakes, charging Bison, and further stormfronts.
Sounds like a blast, guess I should go to bed; I'll never be able to outrun a Bison on four hours sleep.