Day Sixteen: Pine Ridge
- September 3: Crawford to campsite on Pine Ridge Trail
- Miles: 12
- Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
I woke at 4:30 a.m., just before the birds, as I often do on trail. Ten minutes later, I heard Emily emerge from her tent and begin making coffee.
She’s an old climber girl, I noted in my journal. Knows this kind of life.
We were heading out of Crawford and into the Nebraska National Forest. Rather than force Emily to walk endless miles just to be complete, we had Josh drop us off three miles east of town on dirt West Ash Creek Road. Just after we got out of the car at 6:20, a bloated and bloody sun swelled over the eastern horizon, looking deliciously apocalyptic.
The gravel road rolled up and down for a few miles, running perfectly straight toward that sun, which quickly shrank and faded from red to hot white. To the south, sculpted buttes capped the low, sparsely forested hills of Pine Ridge. Several miles in, I made a foolish error, once again failing to look at a map and taking us on a wrong turn that cost us a mile of extra walking.
We turned south to follow West Ash Canyon into the hills and after a couple of miles stopped at a fenced spring flowing with clean, cold water. Emily had a blister, a mean monster between two toes on her left foot. It looked painful, but she didn’t complain and just kept walking, like a true thru-hiker.
During our rolling conversation, she’d told me about the connective-tissue disorder she’d developed about five years earlier. The illness had not just interfered with her once vigorously physical life, but also affected her confidence. That will happen, I guess, when you can dislocate a shoulder simply by swimming.
I knew she was in pain, but she later told me that the thru-hiker ethic — just keep putting one foot in front of the other — and walking with weight felt like a way to both build strength and confidence to become the active person she’d once been.
Not too long after our break at the spring, we approached a small Forest Service picnic area just before the West Ash Trailhead of the Pine Ridge Trail, which we planned to follow east. I suggested we stop for a break and when we turned the corner, we were genuinely shocked to see Josh’s gray car, wearing a coat of white dust. He was napping in the front seat.
Truly unexpected magic, the best kind — Josh @ picnic area! I enthused in my journal that evening. Chips, salsa, Gatorade, fruit. So outstanding. He’s our angel!
We lounged there beneath the nickering cottonwoods for awhile, eating, drinking and laughing.
Man, I could really get used to this leisurely hiking style, I thought.
Then Emily made a suggestion: I’d told her about Tom and Carol Foster, whom I’d met at the museum in Crawford, and she wondered if I’d be willing to take a little detour to see their place. She wanted to get an interview with some locals. And why not? We had Josh, our angel/sagwagon, and the Schoolhouse B&B was less than a mile away.
We found the place using what I remembered from Carol’s laconic, country-style directions, “Just keep going down the road until you see the big red barn.” She was out, but Tom invited us to chat on the porch. Guinea fowl and chickens pecked around the yard while a series of cats and dogs wandered by for a sniff or pet. Carol soon got home and brought everyone iced tea. Emily recorded Tom talking about the land, the idea of a long trail coming through, and more.
Cool idea. Nice place. Could be a trail stop, I wrote.
After touring the barn and old schoolhouse, where guests stayed, and after saying goodbye drove back down the canyon to the trailhead. There were two stock tanks there, one choked with algae, but thanks to Josh, there was no need to water up.
It wasn’t as hot as the day before, but still plenty warm as Emily and I climbed from the canyon up to the broad, grassy plateau whose trees had nearly all been torched in the 2012 West Ash Fire. Up top, I was surprised how difficult it could be to follow the Pine Ridge Trail, which was prominently marked on Forest Service maps but obviously seldom used. Brown posts marking the trail seemed to disappear just when we needed them most, and frequently there was no tread at all through the tough, tall grass.
Emily and I saw a few deer and antelope bounding away from us and kept our spirits up through continued conversation and even singing to one another through an increasingly insistent breeze. She regaled me with John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” and I returned fire with Michael Burton’s old-timey “Night Rider’s Lament.”
At one point, as the trail began to descend into a dry canyon, we could see no brown posts. Instead of going all the way down to find we were on the wrong path, I dumped my pack, took off my shirt and ran back up the hill to the last post, then searched along the canyon rim, north and south. But I found no sign of the trail.
This was irritating as hell. I tried to call Steve, but he didn’t answer. Then I realized I had Tom Parker’s number, and he’d told us he knew the area by heart. Tom answered, and when I described the small house and windmill nearby, he knew exactly where I was.
“Go down into the canyon, but before you get to the bottom, look to your right and you’ll see the Forest Service posts heading south,” he said.
I jogged back to Emily, who was waiting patiently in the shade of her sun umbrella.
“When I saw your butt sweat as you ran off, I thought, ‘Oh that poor man!’” she said, having imagined a brutal case of chafe beneath my sodden, salty shorts.
I laughed because I could: Amazingly, I did not have any chafing.
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I’m a sweater!”
Tom steered us right, and we might well have missed the southward turn if not for his directions. We followed the posts along the bottom of the shallow canyon, then into the mouth of a draw leading back up to the plateau. There, again, the markers were misleading, taking us up the flank of a steep hill before petering out.
“Look at that,” I said, pointing to a post in the bottom of the draw below. “Why send us up this hill if we’re only going back down? I would have stayed down there if not for these lying posts!”
We clambered down to the gulley bottom and followed it up to where it spilled out onto the plateau. It was 4:30 and the wind was now gusting to 15 or 20 miles an hour. We lost the trail again — no posts, no tread — but I’d looked at my sources and as best I could tell, we needed to skirt along the east rim of the canyon over rolling, grassy swales studded for a half mile to a windmill. But I could see that Emily was beat. It had been a long, bush-whacky afternoon even for me, and I didn’t have a blister the size of a grape between my toes.
“How about we find a spot to camp up here?” I said.
We stomped along through the grass for maybe a quarter of a mile and pulled up in the shade of a lonesome ponderosa. We pitched our tents and I hung my soaked shorts and shirt on the skeletal branches of a burned tree nearby. After we’d rested a bit, we slogged through the grass to the windmill, which, alas, was not running.
Back at camp, we considered dinner. Emily had scored some high-end freeze-dried camp meals and we decided to cook and share a fancy egg thing. It did not turn out well, half-burned, half-crunchy and half stuck (yes, three halves, that’s how unsuccessful it was) to the bottom of my little titanium cook pot. But we ate some and laughed about our culinary un-prowess.
By the time the sun had disappeared in the west, the wind was picking up.
Night turned crazy windy. By 3 a.m.-ish a stiff, west wind was blowing 25 or 30 knots, working hard to press the Skytrekker flat, I wrote later. Slept only fitfully after that.