Days Thirteen to Fourteen: Up with People!
- August 30-September 1: Crawford, Nebraska
- Miles: 8 (plus uncounted town miles)
- Elevation gain: 1,000 feet (going up and down the hill to motel)
The next day, Saturday, Aug. 31, I had ambitions to walk the four miles from the motel to Fort Robinson State Park and back, but there was no way. My right ankle and lower shin were stiff and extremely sore from the exertions of walking some 100 miles in full summer heat over the previous four days. I’m not good at sitting still, but I forced myself to stay in bed until 8 a.m. before hobbling back down the hill. There was no place to eat breakfast, but I bought a decent cup of coffee, then walked a few blocks to the city park check out the “Rock Show” I’d seen signs for.
I chatted with several rockhounds, including an 82-year-old man who looked (and, I’m guessing, felt) better than I did. Upon hearing that home-made pie was on offer up at the Crawford Historical Museum, I limped back to the main street. I chose peach, with a dollop of whipped cream, and it was good.
Members of the historical society, all considerably older than I, answered my questions about their town and the surrounding area with alacrity. At some point, I mentioned my most recent book, “Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II,” about my grandfather, Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., who was killed in 1943 in the battle of Tarawa and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and my participation in the remarkable archaeological mission to recover the remains of some 500 U.S. Marines and Navy personnel still buried on a tiny Pacific island.
“Tarawa? My brother was at Tarawa,” one man said, wanting to know more.
As I explained, a woman across the room said, “Oh, I have a friend who’s involved in that.” I assumed she was mistaken, but asked her friend’s name to be polite.
“Steve Cassells,” she said. They went to college together at nearby Chadron State College.
“Wow! Steve’s a friend of mine. In fact, I was the one who got him involved with History Flight,” the non-governmental agency doing the recovery work, I said. Steve is a semi-retired archaeologist and college professor, and he’d supervised field crews on Tarawa several times.
The woman, Carol Foster, and her husband Tom seemed utterly nonplussed by what I considered an amazing coincidence. When I told them about the Great Plains Trail and where I was headed next, they invited me to veer less than a mile off trail in the Nebraska National Forest southwest of town and visit them at their Schoolhouse B&B.
On the way back to the motel I detoured to a gas station, where I was disappointed to find no sunglasses or sun-protecting lip balm for sale. I did, however, fill a couple cups of crushed ice, which I dumped into my water reservoir and strapped to my shin back at the motel, having concluded that I’d probably strained my peroneal tendon.
Sunday morning, my shin was much better. I’m not always very smart about the value of rest and recuperation, but this time I’d done something right.
I felt good enough, in fact, that I decided to pack up my gear and walk the eight-mile round-trip to Fort Robinson, since I wasn’t expecting Emily and Josh until mid-afternoon at the earliest. I found Jim to settle up.
“You can just give me $40,” he said. “I like to support people who are living life a little differently.”
That meant $20 a night, cheaper than most hostels on the Appalachian Trail. I thanked him profusely before heading up the highway. On my way out of town, I stopped at the Dollar General I’d been too sore to walk to the day before and bought sunglasses, sunscreen and SPF 30 lip balm.
I will never be so stupid about sun protection again, I swore in my journal.
The walk to Fort Robinson on the rails-to-trails White River Trail proved to be the perfect easy workout for my sore leg and tired feet. I ate a remarkably cheap breakfast of coffee, eggs, hash browns and toast, then spent nearly an hour poking around the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Trailside Museum of Natural History and its remarkable “Clash of the Mammoths” exhibit, featuring the skeletons of two prehistoric behemoths discovered locked in a death battle.
Back in town, I wandered the “rock show” again (Emily was surprised to learn there were rock concerts in tiny Crawford when I mentioned it in a text) and got an earful about the great “agate debates,” a tiny, internecine squabble among southern Black Hills rockhounds. A woman I’d met the day before gave me a gift of plums from a tree in her yard, a most excellent bit of magic.
As the afternoon wore on, I waded in a small fountain in the park, then lay reading on sun-dappled grass. Josh and Emily arrived at 5:30. She came at me with open arms and despite the fact that we’d only ever spoken by phone, she felt like an old friend. With her profusion of fiery red, curly hair, stylish glasses and enormous smile, she beamed out good vibes. Josh, friendly and quietly sardonic, would be our chauffeur over the next three days.
Hit it off right away, I wrote of Emily that night. We were both chatty, high-passion, high-energy, theatrical types, and I recognized her instantly as “trail family,” the kind of wide-open person I love meeting among the hiking community.
Emily had arranged for us to stay at Our Heritage Guest Ranch, a working ranch and B&B on Toadstool Road, not far from the geologic park. But first, we stopped to eat at the Sandcreek Cookhouse, a quirky with a meat-oriented menu and lots of cute cats.
Dusk was purpling the eastern sky by the time we got to the guest ranch, where owner Jean Norman said Emily would sleep in the house and Josh and I “in the barn.” I expected to be shown to a cot with a horse blanket and figured I’d be wearing my headnet to defend against a truly insane onslaught of mosquitoes. Emily declined the offer to sleep in the house like a delicate flower; she wanted to hang and chat with the boys.
The “bunkhouse” in the barn was nothing like I imagined. Air-conditioned, clean and rustically appointed, there were two beds upstairs and one on the main floor. No mosquitoes! It was only when I showered that we knew we were actually in the middle of nowhere. The water from the well was so infused with sulfur that when I opened the bathroom door, Emily and Josh assumed I’d just endured some appalling gastric event. We laughed at that and lots more until far too late, given that we’d called for breakfast at 6 a.m.
In bed, I considered how much I’d relished all the human contact of the past couple days — rock hounds, historical-society people, barflies, and especially Emily and Josh — after nearly two weeks of persistent solitude.
Always enlightening to relearn that maybe I’m not quite the loner I think I am, I wrote before turning off the light.