Day Ten: In a Sunburned Country
- August 28: Edgemont, S.D. to Forest Service Road 930, Ogalala National Grasslands, Nebraska
- Miles: 27 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
What a brutal day! I would write at the end of this day. Brutal, but memorable, I would add now.
I woke in the chilly morning, the ceiling of my tent dripping with condensation. It was still dark when I headed out to begin a 9-mile roadwalk on Highway 471, so I donned my headlamp and was on high alert for oncoming traffic. To my surprise, I saw only a handful of cars and trucks.
I knew that I was starting a very different stage of my walk, one of long, straight roads, little civilization and an almost complete absence of humanity — and water. The road climbed up through a few miles of canyon country before topping out to reveal impossibly open vistas in every direction, endless open fields and pastures leading to distant, shadowy lines of hills.
As I approached the tiny settlement of Provo, I could see the remains of the ordnance depot, aka Fort Igloo, off to the west, looking properly ghostly. The town was occupied, but I never saw a soul as I passed by yards filled with junked vehicles. Turning east, I followed 471 for about a mile before reaching the dusty white track known as Edgemont Road.
Pulling off near the top of the first small hill, I dropped my pack and donned sandals. I had found that my hot, sore feet responded well to switching throughout the day. But, worried at a couple of hotspots on the balls of my feet, I slapped on two strips of Leukotape, the miraculous adhesive tape I swear by when on a long walk.
I knew I’d be following Edgemont Road for 11 or 12 miles as it headed south. What I didn’t know was that it would undulate constantly, rolling up and down over small hills and swales through natural grasslands and cultivated fields with nary a tree for miles around. And after a couple of warm, but not hot, days of walking, by mid-morning it was clear I was in for a blazer.
I’d packed four liters of water, but was soon grateful knowing that Steve had stashed two one-gallon jugs of water for me at my destination over the Nebraska line, because I was sucking it down like crazy as the heat continued to rise under a ruthlessly cloudless sky.
It’s impossible to adequately describe how hot, tired and, at times, despondent, I became that day. I marched and marched, staring at an endless, undulating serpent of waterless, dusty road that threatened to steal my sanity.
Typically, I’m not much of a stopper when hiking. I like to put my head down and just go; that’s even how I got my trail name, Pony. But on this day, when I desperately wanted to stop and rest, there was simply no place to do it. The margins between road and fenceline bristled with prickly growth and there wasn’t enough shade to cool a cricket.
After about 16 miles, trespassing into a field to take shelter in a few meager inches of shade next to a five-foot tall, cylindrical hay bale. I sat heavily on the stubbly ground, puncturing my butt on a sharp haystalk before tossing out my Z Lite pad and huddling next to the bale. I hunched there for a half an hour, eating, guzzling my rapidly dwindling, tepid water supply and dreading the rest of the day.
The Great Plains Trail Alliance designated this pilot trail from Bear Butte to Scottsbluff, and it is doable. But due to the long miles between available public lands or campgrounds, the pilot trail forces you into some pretty hefty miles. Let’s just say it’s not for beginners.
Before packing up, I peeled the Leukotape off the soles of my feet. Because it comes in fairly large rolls, I’ve always wrapped some around a toothbrush or bottle, to save weight. But now, perhaps because of the extreme heat, both sides of the tape were sticky and had collected a layer of grit that was making things worse. I put my shoes on, this time without socks, hoping the switch would calm my sore, hot, swollen feet.
Fueling up in that hayfield had perked me up quite a bit. But a couple miles down the road, I was dragging again. It’s hard to understand why, but my brain — perhaps everybody’s brain — yearns for variety, and staring down that endless white line toward an impossibly distant horizon for so many miles and hours had become a psychological torment.
I found myself thinking, as I often do on long hikes, of Frodo and Sam in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tale, “The Lord of the Rings.” I summoned up memories of their pain and suffering as they stumbled and staggered through the final brutal miles across the blasted plains of Mordor. Call me silly, childish or whatever, but as always, two fictional hobbits made it easier to keep putting one painful, throbbing foot in front of the other, on down that endless road.
I am truly surprised, looking at the time stamps on my photos, that I reached the end of that southward stretch of Edgemont Road by 12:20. That means I’d hiked some 19 miles in about seven hours; a good push, to be sure, but I’ve done more miles in less time over more challenging terrain. It must have been the heat, deep into the 90s, and the monotony that left me feeling so battered when I reached the junction that turned me west — hallelujah! — on dusty, for a few miles before I headed south into Nebraska.
There was no sign to demarcate the state line as I crossed a small stream at the border, but I took comfort upon seeing a ranch a half mile to the west. I could always go beg for water, if I had to.
But, as it happened, I’d gotten a mild second wind. Crossing borders and other micro-horizons tends to have that effect on me. And while I was still painfully hot and sore, I knew I only had a couple of miles left to go before I could stop for the day. What’s more, I passed several small, milky pools to the side of the road, where to my astonishment I saw many hardy frogs perched on white-gray mud. I filled and treated a bottle of milky, murky water, just to be safe. It tasted, unsurprisingly, like frogs and mud, but it was wet, and I was grateful to have it.
I stepped across a cattle guard past a sign for the Oglala National Grasslands at 2:30 p.m., fretting about whether or not I’d find Steve’s stash, which had become ambrosia in my imagination. Not long after, I literally broke into a jog when I spied two plastic jugs resting in the tall grass atop a hill so small it was barely worth the name. A small sign reading “930” stood just beyond, the number of the Forest Service “road” where I planned to camp.
Atop the swale, all the day’s grim discomfort was instantly neutralized by my exuberance over getting there. But as I swigged mouthfuls of loving water, a hot breeze carried the unmistakable odor of rotting flesh to my nostrils. Turning, I saw a pile of offal heaped in the blazing sun no more than 10 yards away. A riot of flies rose from the stinking mound with each passing breath of wind, then settled back to feed on their delightful bounty and, no doubt, seed it with the next generation.
Disgusted, I scooped up both jugs and headed down the backside of the hill, scouting for the small hollow Steve had described, where a tent would not be visible from the road. Fortunately, I pitched my tent far enough from the hillock that I caught only occasional whiffs from the heap of guts throughout the afternoon and night. After chugging nearly a half-gallon of water, I poured some over my sun-fried head. I stripped off my clothes and hung them on the tent to dry. When I checked the small thermometer I’d attached to my pack it was 98 degrees in the shade.
I was more than a little heat-crazed. I often chat with myself while hiking, but I was carrying on whole conversations, debating how long it would be until the sun slipped below the western horizon and stopped torturing me (many, many hours) and crouching in grouchy paranoia at the approaching dust cloud of a passing truck. When it turned onto Forest Service 930, I scurried and squatted, wearing undershorts, sandals and a bandana tied around my head, a half-mad soldier hiding from the enemy. When the truck backed out and left a few minutes later, I pumped a fist in the air and let loose a triumphant yelp that would have made Tarzan proud.
Then I fell into the tent, knowing I needed to get out of the sun. It was brutally hot, so I zipped up the door facing the sun and draped it with drying clothes, hoping to create some shade. It didn’t work very well, but I was happy to be on my back, dozing here and there for the next couple of hours. When I fully came to, my nether regions were singing with the prickly pain of chafe and even worse, my lips, nose and cheeks were aflame.
Sunburned? Me? I thought. I know it’s foolish, but I almost never use sunscreen, and hadn’t had anything close to sunburn since hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2016. I’d fancied I was almost immune, but I’d never walked nine straight hours beneath a ferocious, late-August sun on an open savannah before, and I was dead wrong.
Over the next week, I would vow to never, ever leave my face, especially my lips, unprotected from sun again. It was painful to talk, eat, drink, smile, or do anything at all with my mouth for many days. I applied Vagisil to the chafe, which helped immediately, and applied A&D diaper-rash ointment to my face and lips, the only treatment I had. It tasted gross, but at least it was something.
I tried to snack, but it was painful, so I mostly lay in the oven of my tent sweating and half-hallucinating. Throughout the night, I woke to the slightest sound, the passing of harmonizing coyotes, the faint crunch of some delicate creature’s feet in the crispy grass, the occasional rumble of a vehicle blasting up the road, some ranch hand returning from the bar in town….
I felt like a lone wanderer in the otherworldly place I now called the Great Nebraska Savannah. Burned, battered and exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help but crack (literally, painfully) a smile in the dark.
Well, I wrote later in my journal, I wanted a different kind of experience, and I got it.