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Bungee riding in Nebraska
Badlands or bust: Episode 2
The colors of the Badlands are remarkable. - photo by Bill Rezak

Editor's note: Bill Rezak, a retired college president who lives in Gainesville, took a motorcycle journey earlier this year through southwestern South Dakota. The following, in four parts, is the tale of his travels.

One man's motorcycle ride to southwestern South Dakota: Episode 1 of Badlands or Bust

If you read the first episode, I made it to Hannibal, Mo., and satisfied my Mark Twain curiosity after the first three days riding to the Badlands of South Dakota.

On Friday, July 10, I took off from Hannibal heading west across Missouri on U.S. 36. I rode all morning in a light rain, donning my rain gear before doing so. It was straight, flat and boring farmland - not that farmland is boring, mind you, but the scenery didn't change all morning. After lunch, I traveled northwest toward Council Bluffs, Iowa.

I rode east of the Missouri River, between it and the beautiful Loess Hills. Council Bluffs was named for the historic meeting that took place there in 1804 between Lewis and Clark and the Otoe and Missouria tribes. I spent the night there after covering 325 miles on my fourth day out.

The next morning, I crossed the Missouri River to Omaha, Neb., and picked up U.S. 275. Just outside of

Omaha, I encountered the first mechanical problem of my many rides.

Harleys are noted for loosening nuts and bolts due to vibration, although they are a lot better than they used to be. I was riding along at about 60 mph with my feet up on the cruise pegs attached to the engine guard (read: crash bar). As I came to an intersection, I brought my feet back down onto the floor boards to be able to brake and shift. When my foot landed on the left floor board, I found it on top of something that wasn't supposed to be there.

A glance down confirmed that it was the gear shift lever, which attaches to and activates the shift linkage. Oops, not a good thing!

I realized how fortunate I was that the shift lever was resting on the floor board and not somewhere a few miles back on the highway. I pinched the lever beneath my foot and scanned the roadside for a turnoff. I was able to coast to a wide spot in the road, still in fifth gear.

I examined the shift lever and found that it attached via a splined shaft to the rest of the shift linkage and was held firm by an allen-head set screw. Fortunately, I had a complete set of allen wrenches with me. "No problem," I thought - at least until I realized that the screw was stripped. It wouldn't lock the splined shaft onto the rest of the linkage.

Since I was on the outskirts of Omaha, I thought about trying to get to the local Harley store for help. I even called them on my cell phone - but they wouldn't be open for another hour.

I didn't want to waste an hour hanging around Omaha, so I put the shift lever back in place, carefully missing the spline, and held it there with my left foot. I found that I could shift and not risk loosing the lever if I keep my foot pressed against it. Off I went, the only problem being that I couldn't make use of my left cruise peg to stretch my leg.

Duct tape always comes to mind in these situations, but I was worried it would leave a gooey residue on the chrome. By the time I rode to West Point, Neb., I had the solution. I stopped at a local hardware store and bought a Bungee cord. This I wrapped around the shift lever and then attached to the frame of the bike. Off I rode to test it.

I kept my foot next to the lever for the next several miles with no problem. Then I placed it up on the cruise peg once more. It was hard not to keep glancing down to see if the shift lever was still there, but it held. I then resolved to see if I could make it through the entire trip.

I did, feeling very resourceful.

As I traveled west in Nebraska, I picked up U.S. 20, which runs east and west in beautiful upstate New York where I grew up. It is a gorgeous New York route, passing through rolling farm country, sometimes paralleling the Erie Canal.

I was delighted to see that this lovely byway is as pretty in Nebraska as in New York, albeit without the hills.

In Nebraska, the road is lined with mile after mile of corn fields. It's easy to understand, riding across Nebraska, how America can feed the world. Corn grows to the horizon in every direction; there must be millions of acres of it in Nebraska alone. Beef cattle graze where corn is not growing and 18-wheelers cruise the highways carrying cattle to the railhead. Grain elevators are everywhere.

I had lunch at the Westside Restaurant in O'Neill, Neb. This restaurant is not exactly on the main drag to anywhere - probably why it was so good. I reached Valentine, Neb., in the late afternoon, after traveling 305 miles.

The next day I got up to greet more rain. So, on with the rain gear and off toward Badlands National Park, where I had a cabin rented for five days. The rain stopped and the sun came out just as I arrived at the end of this 135-mile jaunt. I thankfully removed the rain gear and had a Sioux taco salad for lunch at the Cedar Pass Lodge in the park.

It was too early to check into my cabin, so after lunch I took my first cruise around the park. "Wow" is all I can say.

The cabins in the national parks in which I've stayed are quite funky. They have no telephone, TV, radio, microwave, refrigerator nor newspaper — just a bare-bones room and bath. That was quite enough for me. The surroundings are what I came for and they were splendid.

The Badlands were underneath a shallow ocean a few million years ago. Therefore, the only fossils found there are those of sea creatures. When the ocean eventually drained into the Gulf of Mexico, the soft sandstone mountains of the Badlands became exposed. Nothing can grow on these soft surfaces because they are so steep and erode so quickly, hence, the name "Badlands."

At the foot of the Badlands mountains/hills is prairie land inhabited by buffalo, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, all of which are dependent upon one another.

The prairie dogs eat the tall, coarse grasses. This allows the buffalo to get at and to eat the short, more tender straw-like grasses. The buffalo, in turn, take care of the prairie dogs by fending off fox and coyotes that prey on them. And lastly, the nocturnal black-footed ferret is able to sneak up on the prairie dogs at night, so that population (which is prolific) doesn't grow too large.

The southern portion of Badlands National Park is on the Lakota Sioux Reservation. These Native Americans never gave up their dream of returning to their ancestral hunting grounds on the Great Plains. Today, many live as their ancestors did, with the life-sustaining buffalo providing food, clothing and shelter.

South Dakota National Public Radio (I travel with a small portable radio) broadcasts feature a daily segment, "Native American National News," which chronicles Native American issues of the day. The Lakota Sioux are a proud people — I was fortunate enough to meet a few.

Bill Rezak retired in 2003 after 10 years as president of Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y. Prior to that, he was dean of the School of Technology at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. He and his wife, Paula, moved to Gainesville, and Paula was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2004. She passed away in late 2006, but not without maximizing her time on her motorcycle.