The Trail is the Teacher: Living and Learning on the Appalachian Trail, the story of my 2016 thru-hike of the (then) 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail is now available at Amazon a both an e-book and paperback.
Writing about books, hiking, the Battle of Tarawa and more
I’d never heard of the Great Plains Trail until the summer of 2018, when I flipped to the last page of a Backpacker magazine and started reading a story about the trail and its founder, Steve Myers, who lived just a few miles up the road from me in Longmont, Colorado.
More route than true trail, Myers had been steadfastly working on the GPT for nearly a decade, happily plotting out the best way to take walkers and bicyclists from far-west Texas to the Canadian border across plains haunted by ghosts of wagon trains, Indians and cattle drives.
“This can be done,” Steve said. “This isn’t the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) or the AT (Appalachian Trail). This is going to suck in some places. But this trail is going to give you something so unique and so brand new that you won’t be able to explain it to anybody.”
Anyone hoping to walk the entire route would have to cover more than 2,000 miles and, regardless of the time of year, endure extreme weather, whether blistering heat, ferocious thunderstorms or blizzards. Water would often be hard to find, places to pitch a tent few and far between. No trail angels, no trail families, no hostels. A lonely pilgrimage, yet the epitome of adventure. I was smitten.
I’d spent the vast majority of my life living in the Rocky Mountain West, climbing 14ers, exploring the otherworldly landscapes of Utah and even working as a cowboy in New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana. The mountains were just out my back door, and from the age of 6 I was playing in the shadow of Boulder’s famous Flatirons.
It wasn’t until my first fishing trip to Lake McConaughy in the sandhills of western Nebraska, at age 12, that I fell in love with the plains, with their long miles of open grassland and infinite blue skies. So many Americans imagine the middle of the country as flat and numbingly dull, a tedious expanse of parched brown emptiness or nonstop walls of corn and wheat, punctuated occasionally by towns no sane person would want to visit, much less live in.
It may look that way if you’ve only blasted across the plains on I-70, I-80, I-40 or I-90. But at 80 mph, you’re missing out.
I emailed Steve, saying I’d love to be involved with his dream, if he’d have me. He graciously accepted and we’ve met many times since; I’m even on the board of the Great Plains Trail Alliance, as of October 2019.
In late 2018, the GPTA was gearing up to promote what it was calling “the pilot trail” of the trail, a 300- to 350-mile section in South Dakota and Nebraska that could potentially be hiked straight through. I knew instantly that I wanted to walk those miles, traversing the Black Hills, where I’d done my first backpacking trip as a Boy Scout at age 11, and to experiencing the stark beauty of western Nebraska at 3 mph.
Only one person, Luke “Strider” Jordan, has walked the Great Plains Trail from end to end, in 2016 (though the route has changed since then). If I walked the pilot trail, I would be the second person to tackle a sizeable chunk of the route.
Late May brought terrible flooding to western Nebraska, as well as snow, hail and tornadoes to the whole region, scuttling any thought of hiking in late spring. In June, Steve called to say that a reporter from Omaha Public Radio was interested in joining a hiker for a few days for a story on the GPT. Soon, he put me in touch with reporter Emily Chen-Newton, who was eyeing late August to early September for a three-day hike with me. I winced: 300+ miles beneath blistering sun in potentially 100-degree temperatures was far from ideal. But I could hardly blame Emily: First, she had to cross a wee event off the calendar — her wedding.
Thru-hikers bitch a lot, and not without reason. It’s hard, physical work hauling a pack for 15, 20 or even 30 miles a day, months on end. It’s often painful and every day brings some new inconvenience — rain, chafe, getting lost. But long-distance hikers also must learn to be flexible. I was in.
While Emily began her training in the Omaha heat, I started poring over maps, online resources and Steve’s recently completed “databook” with information about the pilot trail. I bought National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps for both the northern and southern Black Hills, and got materials from the U.S. Forest Service about the Ogalala National Grasslands and Nebraska National Forest.
Anticipating a hot journey, I overcame my long hesitation and finally decided to buy a hiking umbrella, settling on Six Moon Designs’ Silver Shadow. I also was excited to try out a new tent, Six Moon Designs’ Skyscape Trekker, and the latest version of Altra Timp shoes, both of which I’d received to review for The Trek hiking website. Other than that, I planned to stick with gear that had served me well since I began long-distance hiking in 2015 on the Colorado Trail.
After rejecting a 22-hour Greyhound ride for $71, I rented a car one-way for just $81, then take a shuttle from Rapid City to Bear Butte. The drive would allow me to scout some of the route through Nebraska or even stash water.
At long last, I got a ride to DIA on the morning of Monday, Aug. 19, collected my minivan (cheaper, strangely, than a car), and headed north to Cheyenne. I hit Scottsbluff, where I would end the hike, by early afternoon, and was soon sending pale clouds of dust into the cornflower-blue skies as I rumbled along the washboarded back roads of Dawes and Sioux counties that I would soon be walking. Driving with the window down, I regretted my “ounce foolish” decision to leave my new sun umbrella behind. But how bad could it be? I’d never used one before ….
I lucked out at Rapid City Regional Airport, catching a shuttle to Sturgis after waiting just 15 minutes. For an extra $10, the driver, a Sioux man drove me to the entrance of Bear Butte State Park. I stood there marveling at the butte, sacred to many Indian tribes in the region. Although it was 6:30 p.m., I made a snap decision to hike up the butte now, instead of waiting until morning.
The first 125 miles or so of the Great Plains Trail pilot trail follow South Dakota’s Centennial Trail, which terminates atop the butte, much as the Appalachian Trail ends in Maine atop Katahdin. The trail was created in 1989 in celebration of South Dakota’s first 100 years as a state.
The air was warm, but a pleasant breeze made for comfortable walking as I headed north through a sloping pasture. The trail turned east on the skirts of the mountain, winding in and around several cool, shallow draws, where I spooked several whitetail deer.
After about a mile, I reached a small shelter and water fountain, where the trail steepened as it headed north and east. I passed countless colorful bits of cloth tied into small bundles filled with tobacco, an Indian ritual to honor ancestors and dead loved ones. I saw no people, and felt exhilaratingly alone as I followed the path into the mountain’s shadow.
The trail gains about 1,500 feet from where I started, cutting across the side of the mountain and skipping along narrow ridges, providing spectacular views of the plains to the east, which were already beginning to turn from golden-green to purple with the onset of evening.
I reached the summit in just over an hour, as the westering sun painted Bear Butte’s western side in a gilded, bloody light. Looking east, I realized that this was literally the last mountain until the Adirondacks in northern New York. I also plucked five ticks off my legs.
Heading back down, I was surprised to see a small figure running up the trail. Soon, I startled a middle-aged Indian woman as she rounded a corner; guess she thought she’d been alone, too.
By the time I reached the entrance to the park, the sun was long gone, leaving only a strip of pale blue on the horizon to interrupt a cloak of darkness. I walked about a half mile on the reservoir road, and pitched my tent while battling a cloud of marauding mosquitoes swarming to my white headlamp. I soon discovered that they paid not the slightest attention to the red lamp. Good to know.
I filled a 20-ounce water bottle in the nearby lake, struggling to keep the many tadpoles from committing suicide. But after treating with trusty Aqua Mira drops, the water tasted like swampy swill. I ate a Clif bar and a packet of tuna, then tried to read. But it had been a long day by car, shuttle and foot, and after dropping the Kindle on my face two times, I put it aside and fell instantly asleep.
As usual when I’m starting a hike, my sleep was erratic. I finally gave up around 5:30 a.m. and started my morning routine: put in contact lenses, eat something, brush teeth, pack.
By 6 a.m., I was walking west on the campground road when I should have been retracing my steps to the highway to rejoin the Centennial Trail at the southeast corner of the lake. In the first of many such inexcusable instances on this trip, I didn’t bother to check Steve’s “databook” or “Hiking Centennial Trail: A Guide to Hiking South Dakota’s Centennial Trail” by local residents Cheryl Whetham and Jukka Huhtiniemi.
I spoke to a couple of early-rising locals in the parking lot at the main camping area who told me about the woman I’d seen on butte.
“She works at the visitor center and runs up every night after work,” the woman said.
Tramping around the west side of the lake, I followed a distinct trail across a dike, then turned left into a small picnic area. I used the privy, hoisted my pack, and confidently walked back to the “trail,” which promptly disappeared into thick grass.
Finally, after walking in circles in search of the trail, I pulled out the guidebook and realized that I should have gone back out to the road and picked up the trail on the other side of the lake. Now, I could either follow the paved road east to the parking area, or bushwhack a short distance through heavy grass and sedge.
“Shortcuts” and bushwhacks on trail seldom go well, and I usually avoid them, no matter how tempting. This time, I ignored that bit of wisdom and found myself wading through dense, sharp hummocks of grass. Though annoying, my choice was not disastrous, and after climbing a barbed-wire fence, I was back on the CT.
Steve’s directions had warned that some route-finding might be necessary over the next five miles or so, as the trail headed southwest toward Old Fort Meade. Many of the flexible brown fiberglass posts sporting a CT bison-skull silhouette and “89” had been knocked flat by cattle, who no doubt found them excellent scratching posts.
It was a spectacular morning, warm and sunny with a few clouds and a slight breeze. I love walking over open ground, and thanks to a rainy summer, the pastures were still green. The trail was often less distinct than countless cattle tracks leading to stock ponds or salt licks.
And, of course, there were the cattle themselves, all black Angus (the breed also comes in red). Contrary to myth, domestic cattle are, by and large, timid creatures, despite their size. You don’t want to come between a cow and her newborn calf or anywhere near fighting bulls, but cattle usually spook easily and turn tail. These cattle were especially skittish. The first bunch of around 100 I passed began running up and over the next swale even though I was a good football field away. When I came around the swale, they spooked again, bolting down the hill and away to the northeast.
Just past the pond, I climbed over a stile and followed the barely visible CT up through a shallow canyon, then turned west upon reaching the plateau. I passed stock tanks that would make good water sources, so long as you treat or filter.
I made good time across the prairie and soon crossed Bear Butte Creek, emerging onto the concrete Sturgis Bike Path. I scurried across Highway 79 and stopped on dirt Cemetery Road, west of Old Fort Meade State Recreation Area. Here, once again, common sense failed me.
Neither the databook nor “Hiking Centennial Trail” was specific about where to pick up the CT. But the guidebook mentioned that the trail followed the Dakota Hogback to the west, so despite the lack of a marker, I started up a trail heading west. I’d climbed about a half a mile when I came to a post with several faint numbers carved into the side, none of them “89.”
Unwilling to accept that my climb had been in vain (look up “sunk cost fallacy”), I continued on as the trail dipped into a small, lush draw and ambled up the other side to a lookout. Pulling out my phone, I saw that I was now considerably west of Fort Meade, and was on a trail leading back to Sturgis.
Irritated at myself, but also at the lack of clear signage, I jogged back down to the dirt road and started walking south. According to the Nat Geo map, the road should intersect with the trail not too far south.
This would not be the last time I was frustrated with signage on the CT. In many places where the route was obvious, the trail was extraordinarily well-signed — albeit with at least five different styles of markers. But often when I could have used a hint, no sign was visible. I was only when I looked that I realized I should have picked up the trail at an unmarked trailhead parking area.
After bushwhacking about 50 yards back to the trail, I passed a refurbished stone stable and the old fort cemetery before turning southeast-east, along an open ridge offering spectacular views of Bear Butte.
The day had warmed quickly, and I realized I needed to do some chafe prevention. Atop the ridge, I slathered my nether regions first with a coat of Vagisil — a true miracle cure for chafe — then several swipes of Body Glide. I strapped on my new Xero Z-Trail minimalist sandals to air out my feet for the next 10 miles or so.
Feeling renewed, I followed the ridge, then headed down into a shallow valley — where, again, the signage was iffy. But after only a couple hundred “sideways” (i.e. wasted) yards on a cow trail, I turned back. Where a clear sign was needed most, at the intersection, there was none, but as soon as I was clearly on the CT, there were signs aplenty. I was already getting hep to this trail’s signage quirks.
After crossing the road again, the trail headed uphill into open pine-oak forest, gaining about 600 feet over the next mile and a half. From the ridgetop, you can see Sturgis off to the northwest and hear the roaring hiss of traffic on I-90.
I like to think I’ve gotten smarter, or at least less impulsive, in the outdoors since I was a young man. But I’m still susceptible to immature impatience. Planning this walk, I’d assumed I would be able to jump right into 20-mile days. Now, after hitting the 10-mile mark atop the Dakota Hogback, I was already feeling a little beat. The descent toward the Alkali Creek Trailhead was arduous and hot. When I got there, I shucked off my pack, peeled off my sandals, and stuck my head under a water faucet before parking in the shade to eat peanut butter and tortillas.
Steve’s databook had this as the stopping point for the first day, but it was only 11 a.m. I was hot and tired, but there was no way I was going to pull up after just 12 miles with that kind of daylight left. But I did unfold my trusty Z Lite sleeping pad — No inflating! No deflating! No leaks! — and, defying an impulse to go-go-go, allowed myself the luxury of an hour-long break.
A woman and her dog Eddie emerged from an RV near where I was relaxing. She had retired early to travel the country in freedom, and was fascinated by the idea of walking 300 miles. She gave me a Ziploc full of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, one of my go-to salty snacks. It was the first of many small instances of truly unexpected trail magic — the best kind — I would encounter over the next couple of weeks.
Believing I might have as long as a 25-mile water carry, I cameled up (i.e. drank as much as I could stomach), then filled up my bottles and reservoir with more than four liters. After washing my feet, I strapped on my sandals and headed off. Heading west on Old Stone Road, as described in the databook, I soon crossed beneath I-90 to the entrance of the Black Hills National Cemetery. Following the railroad tracks north, I saw no signs of the trail.
“What the hell?” I grumbled.
Assuming another CT signage glitch, I followed a faint track over a rickety stile then continued along a dry creek bed, not at all certain I was on the right track. By the time I reached the back fence of the cemetery, I was sure I was not.
I pulled out all my sources and determined that the trail was at least a half mile north of where I stood. Instead of heading west on Old Stone Road to I-90, I should have picked up the CT right where I’d left it, then followed Alkali Creek, which passed under the highway about six-tenths of a mile north of the cemetery.
Rather than hike a half mile or more to the road, then at least that much north, I decided to bushwhack for a half mile or so back to the CT. My shortcut was certainly shorter, but it was also more aggravating. After marching through tangles of high, unmown grass and scratchy undergrowth, my shins were bleeding, but I finally spied a CT sign.
For the next three-and-a-half miles or so, the trail was well-marked as it climbed some 1,500 feet through dry ponderosa-pine forest. A pair of mountain bikers came rattling down the hill, the first people I’d seen on the trail.
I topped out on a ridgeline at about 1:30. I was hot, tired and my feet were throbbing. I had walked only about 16 miles, but I was ready for food, water and rest. Anyway, because I’d climbed Bear Butte the night before, I was about four miles ahead of schedule for the first day.
A word on schedules, spreadsheets and planning for long-distance hikes: While planning can be fun, it rarely squares with reality (in my case, I usually hike farther than I’ve planned). I advise new hikers not to assume their plans will hold up once their feet hit trail dirt.
But on this hike, I had a real deadline: Meeting Emily in Crawford on Sept. 1. I could hitch or otherwise bail out if I got behind, but that felt like cheating. So having four miles in my “plus” column on day one felt good.
Just after I crossed trail #139, which leads west to Sturgis Reservoir, the CT began its descent from the ridgetop. I started looking for campsites and soon settled on a patch of silky, green-yellow grass in open ponderosa forest. After inspecting the trees for widowmakers — branches that might snap off and crush me — and clearing away a few dozen pine cones, I made camp.
After eating, drinking and hanging my sweaty shorts and shirt from nearby limbs, I lay down on my pad and promptly fell asleep. I am not a day sleeper, but clearly I needed the rest.
It had been a much harder day than I’d expected. That was my fault, on a number of counts. Still, counting Bear Butte, I’d walked 22 miles in less than 24 hours (not counting my various bushwhacking adventures).
Dang, I wrote in my journal. Am I really that old and feeble? Hope I feel stronger tomorrow.
Counting the nap, I must have slept well over 12 hours by the time I woke around 5:30 a.m. But in my efforts to revive, I had drunk more water than I should have, and now faced an 18-mile walk to Dalton Lake on less than two liters.
It was 6:15 when I reached Bulldog Gulch, where, to my great surprise, there was a small pool of clear water just to the right of the trail. I laughed out loud, cameled up, and took on three liters.
As it turned out, there was no need to carry that much water. As soon as I started up the other side of the gulch, I heard a lovely trickling off to my left. Then my right. Then my left. Bulldog Gulch ran freely with cold, clear water, which bubbled intermittently to the surface for the next mile or more.
Guess the shuttle guy was right, I wrote later in my journal. I don’t think I’m going to have water problems after all.
The climb out of the gulch included some 1,000 feet of elevation over three miles, a gentle-enough grade, then the CT trundled down some 500 feet through ponderosa pine-oak-birch forest. Although Whetham and Huhtiniemi’s Centennial Trail Facebook page indicated that Elk Creek, “Can be raging, high water or dry,” I found it running beautifully with clean, clear water. After dutifully removing shoes and socks for the first three crossings, I finally gave up and started stomping through knee- to thigh-high water. The creek bottom was pleasantly cool and I was pleased to see a leopard frog and a very fast snake of unknown species.
I switched to sandals before starting the next climb, which switchbacked gently and offered expansive views of the high, rocky cliffs looming over the creek; seen from below, they hadn’t looked so imposing.
The 12 miles from Elk Creek to Dalton Lake included another 1,500 feet of fairly easy climbing. The landscape was pleasantly varied, including glowing birch forest, a cluster of rock outcroppings rising as high as 50 feet and a brief view of Black Elk (formerly Harney) Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
The 800-foot descent to the lake followed a series of switchbacks, the final one of which offered enticing views of the water before continuing a good half mile west. By the time I got to the small, blue lake, I was hot and eager to swim. There were perhaps a dozen people scattered around the shore, all fishing. I dropped my pack on a dock and hung my shirt to dry.
“Do you mind if I take a quick dip right here?” I asked the cluster of people on the dock. “I don’t want to scare away the fish.”
“Ain’t no fish to scare away today,” one older man said. “Go for it.”
“You’re going to swim?” another woman said, her expression one of genuine horror.
I slashed into the inviting blue and came up spluttering; the water was considerably colder than I’d expected. I splashed quickly back to shore and reclined on the dock to dry out.
I’d come close to 20 miles and it was only 2:30 p.m. The weather looked good, but 15 of the next 16 miles of the CT were open to off-road vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes, and four-passenger “side by sides,” aka UTVs). Staying at the U.S. Forest Service campground at the lake cost $18, which seemed like a lot, but I decided to stay.
“I let hikers stay in the picnic shelter over there for $9,” the camp host said when I approached to pay. “There are some pieces of carpet to sleep on.”
The shelter was open-sided, but if a storm did blow in, I could just shift around to the leeward side. It was perfect. By not continuing on, I would lose the four “bonus miles” I’d banked, but the price was right.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
I cooked one of the Mountain House meals I’d brought and immediately got a stomachache. Fortunately, the camp host was willing to sell me a bottle of Coke, which helped. I read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Tunnel in the Sky” until the sound of chuckling creek water sang me to sleep.
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