Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer


The Wildest Road In The World - Custer State Park, South Dakota, USA

Friday, December 01, 2017

The steady thump of three Harleys' exhausts rattle windows of the Red Garter Salon as Jim, Peter, and I ride out of Keystone, South Dakota, heading for Custer State Park and one of the wildest roads in the world.

Locals said Iron Mountain Road could never be built. Surveyors gave up on finding a way through impassable high ridges and deep ravines of the Black Hills. But Governor Peter Norbeck was not to be beaten. In 1918 he fought a way through, personally forging a trail by clambering across stony hillsides on horseback and hacking through impenetrable scrub on foot.

The road builders reluctantly followed, seemingly just pouring the asphalt over the landscape. State 16A, Iron Mountain Road zig-zags up steep hillsides, bends around rocky bluffs, and clings to the edge of cliffs. There was no cut and fill of the slopes to moderate the gradient, no blasting of boulders to clear away obstacles. Where the path was constricted, the construction crews parted company to lay lanes in different directions around the obstruction. In places, this extraordinary road splits in two to pass either side of rocky outcrops: at others, lanes diverge around trunks of giant trees only to rejoin a few yards further on.  Yet the most amazing demonstration of road builder’s ingenuity are the pigtail bridges. Created like corkscrews, these timber trestle constructions twirl up inaccessible slopes where there is insufficient space for normal bends.

The builders of Iron Mountain Road threw the rule book out of the window, along with standard conventions for curves and the ground rules for grades. It is the resulting unpredictability that makes this road so exciting — and scary.

I’m raring to tackle this challenging road as I race up the hillside, exhaust booming, kicking down to second gear to conquer the challenging grade. Then it’s down again to first to negotiate a hairpin bend so sharp I’m down to walking pace. I pick up speed only to slow once more approaching a series of these incredible pigtail bridges. Channelled onto a tight curve, I spin around like washing in a dryer to be thrown out along a short straight, and then swing into another corkscrew turn twisting the opposite way. 

Halfway up the mountain, with my head dizzy from spinning around three pigtail bridges, I fly through a series of sweeping curves chiselled into the steep mountainside. Suddenly, around a blind bend, a wall of solid rock blocks my way. I hit the brakes, almost skidding to a stop, only to notice in the nick of time a narrow opening cut into the cliff face. It is no wider than a garage door, but there is nowhere else to go. I point the bike at the gap in the rock and disappear down a dark, damp tunnel.

No sooner have I steadied the bike and adjusted to the dim light than I shoot out the end of the tunnel, bursting into bright sunlight to speed along a chasm so narrow I could almost reach out and touch both sides. I have to pull the bike upright and lean away from jagged rocks jutting from the cliff wall.

Flying on downhill entering a lush forest, the road weaves between solid, unyielding, stands of trees.  Damp leaves litter the road, lying in wait in the shade ready to send my bike sliding. I could slow down, but my heart pounding and adrenalin pumping, I am caught up in the excitement of this wild ride. White-line fever takes control, overruling reason as I hurtle around hairpin bends, career down steep grades, and swerve between the trees on a mad downhill dash towards the valley below. 

Racing out of the forest into a clearing, the tortured contortions of the tarmac unwind and my reckless pace moderates. The road rolls onto a wide, grassy flood plain fringed by walls of dark green pines, where a river lazily meanders between muddy banks. My pulse steadies, tense muscles unwind, and I lean back in the saddle to roll along a black strip of asphalt that now snakes over the gentle contours of a calmer and more tranquil landscape.

Buffalo roam these peaceful pastures, and right now, they are ambling across the road directly in front of me. Half a mile ahead, a herd of thirty or more is blocking my way. Slowly riding closer I see a massive bull is leading the herd. He must weigh over 1,000 pounds, his shoulders draped in a shaggy mane and head crowned by a lethal looking pair of horns.

I draw to a stop and wait for them to wander across. However, Peter, impatient as ever, wants to press on and keep moving. I pull over to let him pass to challenge the bull and take his chances. Peter advances towards the herd sounding his horn. He is presuming that these wild buffalo are as docile as the domesticated cows on the farm where he grew up. Peter is about to test his theory in a high-stakes game of chicken.

The herd stop and stand their ground: the bull staring menacingly at the advancing motorcycle. Should I rush forward to intervene or get my camera out to record Peter’s last moments? A deadly confrontation draws closer.

Peter forges on fearlessly, hundred yards, fifty yards — the bull doesn’t budge, he just lowers his lethal horns. I stop breathing. Jim pulls alongside, clearly concerned and ready to ride to the rescue. Less than thirty yards and closing, neither buffalo nor biker is willing to give ground — both acting recklessly bull-headed.

Thankfully, at twenty yards the contest comes to a peaceful end. The bull shrugs his immense mane, turns slowly, and ambles off the road, leading the herd onto the pasture. Triumphantly Peter rolls by, granted free passage with a disdainful stare from the rightful ruler of this domain.

Tall stands of pines cast long shadows as we roll back into Keystone tired and contented from a truly memorable day riding the wildest road I have ridden anywhere in the world. That evening, after a few beers in the plush crimson velvet surroundings of the Red Garter Salon, Peter boasts of facing down the fearsome bull, and then reasserts his dominance over the wild beasts of the plains by devouring a buffalo steak.

               © Stephen W. Starling

The Wildest Road in the World is an extract from Stephens latest book, ‘Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream: a 5,000 mile motorcycle adventure searching for the real America’, which is now on sale from bookstores, on-line and from this website, for details click here

The book contains route maps, planning itineraries, and descriptive travelogues so you too can enjoy the thrill of riding some of the best back-roads in the USA — including the wildest road in the world. 


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