Death by Bison
So, this is how I die.
Mauled to death by a herd of angry bison. A sole, lifeless, Lycra-clad body gored by hoof and horn marks, beneath mangled steel tubes, clutching an empty squeeze bottle.
I should have heeded the sign:
“Beware of Bison. Do Not Approach. Bison can weigh over 2,000 pounds and can accelerate to more than 30 mph. And during breeding season, NEVER stand between a baby bison and the mother.”
But what choice did I have? I was alone in North Dakota, cycling through the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was a cold, rainy day. No people around. I was miles away from anything, hurtling exhausted down a long, wet, impossibly steep grade when across the pavement appeared a large herd of wild bison.
I pressed the brakes hard, a flume of water pinwheeled from the rims, and I came to a shaky halt. The raindrops pelted horizontally from one side. The bison stood their ground, looking curiously at this odd intrusion. No one moved. It was a bison-cyclist standoff.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been in trouble.
I’ve been doubled over vomiting and hypothermic in 113-degree stifling heat, alone and desperate on Missouri’s Katy Trail.
I’ve been blown off the road from a hurricane as it made its way up the coast of New York.
I’ve been run off the road by an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer in Nevada as it screamed past and hugged the shoulder.
And I’ve been chased away from possible rest havens with foreboding, hand-scrawled signs that warned: “This place protected with ‘biten’ dogs and automatic shotguns” (Arkansas), and “Prayer will get you to heaven. Trespassing will get you there faster!” (Florida).
These are but a few of the adventures I happened upon during my quest to complete a 100 mile “century” bicycle ride in each of the 50 US states. With a rubber wedge up my keister and two tired legs powering me forward, I’ve seen America up close and slow – slow enough to say hello to passersby, hear the birds, see the wildlife, and narrowly outrun leash-less yard dogs.
The quest has produced remarkable highs. I have summited the highest peak of the East, the Assault up Mt. Mitchell in South Carolina. I’ve journeyed at dawn up the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park Montana. I’ve ridden the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Appalachians of Virginia, the Colorado Rockies, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, and the Olympic Range of Washington.
I’ve survived rides with ominous-sounding names, like “Mountains of Misery”, and “Blood, Sweat & Gears.” I rode a century that was all hill – it began at the start, summited at the finish, 10,000 feet of climbing later, and included a section called The Dragon with 318 hairpin turns. Flower memorials for motorcyclists who’d taken the road too fast downward punctuated the roadside.
My life can be chronicled by the quest. When I met my wife, one of our first dates was looping a midnight course at a “Howl at the Moon” charity ride.
We were married in Hawaii, and for our first anniversary, we completed a tandem century on Oahu – the middle part of a charity Ironman event that we stroked, pedaled, and shuffled together. Tandem bikes – aka “divorcycles” – can be rough on couples with poor communication. But we learned the secret – be a team, steer in unison through obstacles as they come, and if you want to stay strong and keep romance alive as the miles go by, stand up together when one of life’s potholes is about to jolt you.
When our son was born and still a baby, he couldn’t travel and we didn’t want to be away from him for long, so we proved we could make it from the lower 48 to Alaska and back in under a weekend. We put our little guy to bed Friday night, kissed him, thanked the grandparents for babysitting, caught a redeye from New York to Alaska, and arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning and drove to the start of the Fireweed Bicycle Race across the state.
I completed a century against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Alaskan range, dodging horseflies, moose poop and the antlered furry mammoth that produced said poop. We then drove back to the airport for a redeye return flight. We were home to play with our little guy by Sunday afternoon.
When our son got a bit older, we added a Wee Hoo, a ride-along attachment, so he could join in the fun. I completed an urban century ride through the streets of New York City with our toddler in tow during the first part. He would ring his bell to greet other cyclists and fulfill his self-appointed drill sergeant coxswain duties by shouting “faster Daddy,” especially when I wasn’t keeping pace to his satisfaction on the hills.
The quest took me back home. I completed a ride ending in the town where I grew up, and we camped the night as a family under the same stars I spied as a child.
The quest brought our extended family – now spread out across the country – a little closer. I rode the flat, windy roads in Florida to see my mother as she doted on her first grandson. I rode to see my sister, down the Pacific Coast Highway of California, and to see my brother, up the rocky, lighthouse-dotted coastline of Maine.
The quest even brought me world-class competition. I am one of the very few cyclists in the world that has beaten seven time Tour de France champion (vacated) Lance Armstrong in a race while he was in his prime. It was in fact his own event – a LiveStrong century in Philadelphia, and I outrode Lance that day. Truth be told, I only outrode Lance the first 25 miles, and then only because I started over an hour early ahead of him. Lance quickly caught me going up a hill, with his lean silhouette of muscle and lungs, while I was the huffing, puffing portrait of an asthmatic Michelin Man.
I completed the fifty states century quest with an icing-on-the-cake 51st – a family trip to DC, where we toured museums and the nation’s monuments. The next day, I completed a unique urban adventure called the Fifty States ride, where riders sought out all the streets in and around DC named after each of the fifty states. It’s a notoriously tricky ride, with hundreds of turns to find all of them. I, however, was confident in my cartography prowess and innate sense of direction.
I promptly got lost no less than 25 times. But like the great explorers Lewis and Clark before me, I managed to find my way through (relying on critical text advice from my Sacagawea wife, who’s the only reason I made it back alive). I texted her when I was a mile away from the finish and pulled in to find she and my young son standing on the corner, holding a hand-written ‘Congratulations, Daddy’ sign. I was brought to tears, a culmination of all the effort, trials, and tribulations, with their love and support making it all possible.
Over 5,600 miles. Like riding from DC to San Francisco and back. Over 300,000 feet of cumulative elevation. Like climbing Everest 10+ times.
I kept t-shirts from all these adventure rides, and framed and hung them. Some days I just sit and stare, each one triggering a rush of memories – the feelings, sights, sounds – all as vivid as the day itself. Together, they form a sort of lifetime scrapbook.
I recently watched a program on a science channel which described how the brain forms memories. Bastardizing layperson terms, the program basically said that the more we put ourselves out there, through effort, pleasure, pain, failure, and triumph, the deeper those memories embed. The normal, day-to-day over time is lost, but these extraordinary experiences remain, vivid and alive. And as we are shaped and formed by our experiences and memories, these journeys frame who we are.
So, to finish where we began: there I was, in a bison standoff. I was exhausted from the miles I had ridden so far, and the weather was bad and worsening. The thought of climbing back up the hills I had just descended was more than I could bear.
I waited to see if the bison would move on, but no such luck. I thought about trying to incite a stampede, but scenes of dummies being tossed like ragdolls at Pamplona kept me from trying out that scenario. So, I decided on a heart-pounding, spectacularly ill-advised plan. I would become one with the bison.
I dismounted from my trusty steel steed. I grabbed a water bottle in one hand, spout open, ready to, I suppose, shoo away a 2,000-pound goliath with a cooling mist – amidst a driving rain storm, no less. Smart.
As I tiptoed gently ahead, I heard myself intoning “Eeeeeeeasyyyyy does it,” and “Good puppies,” in soothing yet panicky tones, trying to keep everyone calm.
Look them in the eye. Don’t look them in the eye. Appear bigger. Shrink smaller. Punch them in the snout. My brain was flooded by every wild animal encounter show I’d ever seen. That last one I’m pretty sure had to do with sharks.
So, I just kept moving. Slowly. Cautiously. Not sure if bison were herbivores or carnivores, and hoping that they weren’t set off by a pheromone mixture of stupidity and panic. As I edged closer to the herd, a miraculous thing happened. They moved. Ever so slightly. Just enough to clear a path for me to walk down the middle of the pavement.
I heard distant drumming, and for a moment I thought I’d tapped into mystical Native American spirits, until I realized it was my heart pounding in my ears. I could smell their damp fur. I could hear their curious snorts. I could see the wisps of air as they exhaled. With a few more steps, I suddenly saw open road ahead. I continued to tip toe until I had reached a safe distance, and then turned to look.
The herd had closed back in on the road, parting just long enough for me to pass. A warm feeling came over me. Was it my oneness with nature and these majestic creatures? Nope, I think I wet myself.
But it was an extraordinary moment. One in a series of extraordinary moments that remain brilliantly alive to this day as part of a quest to complete a century bicycle ride in each of the fifty states.
Sicard 50 State + DC Century Challenge
- AL: Cheaha Challenge
- AK: Fireweed Great Alaska Century
- AR: Hot Springs Century
- AZ: Tumacacori Century
- CA: Pacific Coast Highway Century
- CO: Circle the Summit Century
- CT: Rocky Neck Century
- DC: 50 States Ride Century
- DE: Amish Tour Century
- FL: Round Okeechobee Century
- GA: Clarksville Century
- HI: Ironman Revisited
- IA: Raccoon River Valley Century
- ID: Heart of Idaho Century
- IL: Bike the Drive Century
- IN: RAIN (Ride Across Indiana)
- KS: Wicked Wind Century
- KY: Misaligned Minds Century
- LA: Ride for Water Century
- MA: Farm Ride Century
- MD: St. Michael’s Century
- ME: Lobster Ride & Roll Century
- MI: Great Lakes Century
- MN: Twin Cities Century
- MO: Katy Trail Century
- MS: Gulf Coast Century
- MT: Glacier Park Century
- NC: Blood, Sweat & Gears Century
- NE: Road Rage Century
- NH: Prouty Century
- NJ: Twin Lights Century
- NM: White Sands Missile Range Century
- ND: Badlands Century
- NY: Saranac Lake Century
- NV: Alien Century
- OH: TOSRV Century
- OK: North Pole Century
- OR: Ride the Gorge Century
- PA: Livestrong Philly Century
- RI: Tour de Newport Century
- SC: Assault on Mt Mitchell Century
- SD: Big Mick Century
- TN: Cherohala Challenge Century
- TX: Hotter N’ Hell Century
- UT: Salt Lake City Century
- VA: Mountains of Misery Century
- VT: Long Trail Century
- WA: Seattle Century
- WI: Unity Ride Century
- WV: Casa River Century
- WY: Jackson Tetons Century