There’s a real good reason we went so far but didn’t make it anywhere today. Actually, there are several good reasons. The least of which being that our quintessential awesomeness put us so far ahead of schedule that we have to find ways to kill time before meeting Johnny Hunter in Wisconsin on June 1st. Our path through South Dakota is designed for maximum inefficiency, zigzagging up & down, and taking the scenic route wherever possible. It was always part of our plan to set up camp somewhere near Rapid City, stroll down to the Crazy Horse & Mount Rushmore National Monuments, then set up camp again somewhere near Rapid City before heading east. Our plan was just thrown for a loop when our warmshowers contact ended up sounding like a total bummer.

We headed down to Pactola Reservoir, seven or eight miles south of the Sugar Shack. We took the first sign that we saw, a downhill road that led lakeside, to a marina that does nothing but rent boats and posts “no camping”. Confused and slightly distraught by the fact that we might be stranded on some false advice, we inquired about camping from the lady in the trailer next to the office. “Oh, the camping’s on the other side of the lake. You’ve got to go back up the road, over the dam, and it’s a few miles down.” Back up the road is something you never want to hear, particularly at the end of the day.

Back up the road and a few miles down, we found the entrance to Pactola’s actual campsites. Again, it sloped downhill, twisting & turning around the shores of a deep turquoise lake, the setting sun reflecting the pine covered shores off it’s a golden shimmering surface. The road went on & on, sometimes climbing back up, until we finally found Circle A, where camping was free for some reason tonight. A few RVs were set up, and a few fires were already going. As we got closer, there were actually a *lot* of RVs set up – at least a dozen – and a little bit of music, too. Free camping is always a great thing, but it seemed odd that this many people were out so early in the season. The unofficial start of summer wasn’t until next weekend, and it was still a little chilly, to be honest.

We slowly and silently rolled up to an available campsite, inevitably catching the eyes of a few from this early group of campers. They drew themselves out to the road like the dwellers of a forgotten land rarely drawing the attention of the outside world, wondering why these odd travelers with no campers were coming up at this dusk hour. Our presence was known, but our silence and scale was mysterious. They ambled towards us in groups of one or two, around our age. They held beers in their hands as they asked what we were up to. They seemed happy. Before we could stop our bikes, they were dragging out coolers, offering us beers of our own. They were friendly.They were here by the dozen. And apparently, they’ve been here this weekend for 22 years.

The Pactola Lake Annual Fishing Tradition Weekend Unofficial Camping Something Thing had been going on for over two decades. Trailers full of beer, meat, and potatoes filled up Circle A, and lifelong friends brought their sons once their sons were of age. Every year you were there, you’d get a fish pin to put in your Pactola cap. After 10 years, you got a bigger, gold pin. After 20, you got a gold & diamond pin, and you had to get a tattoo. Only one person there, Kenny, had the tattoo. His son, Kenny, was going to have to get the tattoo in two years. These guys didn’t seem as dedicated to casting line as they did to throwing back beers and singing unsolicited acapella Karaoke by the fire in the middle of the night. That part made it hard to sleep, but the fact that either of our hands always had a beer in them, courtesy of them, made passing out quite a bit easier. We told them all about our trip and the generosity we’d already seen, including Dana buying us Sugar Shack burgers. “Wait a second… did the guy walk like this,” one asked as he plodded one leg forward, dragging the other, and swirling the rest of his torso to meet up with his legs. “Yes. Yes. That’s totally the guy!” I said. “Yeah. Mr. West.” He gestured to the rest of his group, “did any of you guys go to Central? He’s a Math teacher there.” “Oh yeah! Mr. West! He’s a great guy. A really great teacher.” These guys were incredible. I wanted to come back to the Black Hills sometime in the future from the minute we rode into them. Now I know the exact date I want to come back in a year from now.

We stayed up later than usual with them, seeing far more stars than any night before. Andy & I thought we were seeing the Milky Way or the Northern Lights, but it turned out just to be clouds. Still, it was great to sit by the lake & stare at the sky. There were too many guys for us to remember all of their names, but they did all sorts of things. Cop, FBI agent, Hiking Archaologist, Nuclear Physicist, Pharmacist, Printer, Gun Engraver, Buffalo Wrangler, Miltary Radar Specialist…. And that’s barely half of them. A good half dozen of the rest worked for the guy who engraves guns (rendering them useless, but heirlooms. Any hunting magazine will have an ad for his business). They all were excited to have a bunch of New Yorkers there – and New Yorkers who showed up on bikes and meant “bicycles”, not “motorcycles”.

As the night wore on, we developed our plan for the next day. The Pactola guys were so cool, we knew we were coming back to this exact spot after the day’s ride because we wanted to hang out more. There was breakfast to be cooked in the morning, and a huge dinner to be had at night. They also said they’d let us set up camp on one of their sites to avoid the next night’s fee. A round trip back to Pactola was perfect. It was beautiful, and we had a bunch of destinations in the Black Hills (Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore are there). To sweeten and seal the deal, they convinced us to drop all of our bags at our site so we could ride through the hills without the extra 60 pounds of luggage. The routes they’d advised us to take were a bunch of squiggly lines on our maps. Whenever there are squiggly lines, it means there’s a lot of climbing to do. Not doing it with our panniers full was going to make a world of difference. “If anyone messes with your stuff, we’ll… we’ll… we’ll shoot ’em!” Perfect.

After a day of riding, we ran into them taking their group photo in front of a bar 5 miles from the campsite.

After a day of riding, we ran into them taking their group photo in front of a bar 5 miles from the campsite.