Day Twelve: Dusty Roads
- August 30: Toadstool Geologic Park to Crawford, Nebraska
- Miles: 23
- Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
I woke before sunrise to find the ceiling of my tent soaked with condensation.
Decided to hang out to let tent dry, thinking (ha) I had a ‘short’ day ahead of me, I wrote later in my journal. Drying was smart. Day was not short.
To my surprise, by the time I got going around 6:30 a layer of thick, gray clouds had begun to drizzle rain on a moonscape I’d thought of as harsh desert. But cloudy and cool, even wet, was just fine with me after the last few blazing days.
I shouldered my pack and returned to the enigmatic sign, then began following four-inch brown Forest Service posts marching away north, per Steve. The next mile was like walking on the moon as I crunched across the cracked gray landscapes, crossing several washes and passing through a couple of gates before heading back into the grasslands. I soon came upon another brand-new USFS Great Plains Trail sign:
I stood there blinking for a moment, then started laughing and shaking my head as the truth slowly dawned on me. I shrugged off the pack and tugged out the increasingly battered databook pages to confirm, realizing that if I’d been smart enough to do that at any point the day before, I would have saved myself a lot of hassle.
Reveal: All my puzzlement was answered when I reached the Great Plains Trail sign — duh! I was supposed to turn off Orella @ FS918 but had in my head to go all the way to Toadstool Rd., I wrote in my journal later. And there I was, stumping along, wishing for a ‘shortcut.’
I was supposed to have turned off Orella Road to follow FS918, a little-used track, 1.7 miles south to the sign I was now looking at, which would have pointed me east to the campground. Instead of sauntering those beautiful 3.1 miles to end my day, I had tacked on a gratuitous 2.5-mile dirt roadwalk. And now I’d added about 1.5 miles, since I was taking a roundabout way to Hudson-Meng instead of the more-direct Bison Trail.
It was what it was, but I spent the entire day itching to get to town so I could text Steve and disabuse him of any (understandable) notions that I’d lost my mind or was simply stupid.
I got to the Hudson-Meng interpretive center at 8:05 a.m., happy to be making good time but disappointed to learn that it would not open until 10. But no way I was going to sit around for two hours with town beckoning.
As I walked up the hill leaving the site, I did my best not to stir up the cows and calves who insisted on running in a panic alongside me, then dropped down to Milo Road. I’d expected a long, waterless slog, but this lonely dirt road snaked across three nice little streams and passed a stock tank within a mile. Just to be safe, I drank a liter and filled it at the stock tank.
The route south by southeast toward Crawford was much cooler than I’d imagined, winding through alternating stands of pine and oak and pastures, rolling up and down hill after small hill. Looking at a map later, I realized that I was on the north side of Pine Ridge, a long escarpment between the Niobrara and White river drainages across northwest Nebraska, petering out just across the South Dakota border. With its pretty forested buttes and canyons, the ecosystem was similar to the Black Hills, and it was beautiful.
Flecks of rain made for a refreshing stroll on Milo Road. But by the time I reached Rimrock Road some five miles south, the clouds had broken up and the temperature was sneaking upward. As I walked along, I saw something hanging on the barbed-wire fence to my right, but couldn’t make it out until I stood in front of it. It was a deer, dangling with its hind legs tangled in the wires. The little buck must have become trapped while attempting to leap over. I felt terrible imagining his suffering as he hung there dying.
I followed Rimrock through the hills, and by the time I’d reached Moody Road a hot wind was whipping up dust from surrounding fallow farm fields. I’d switched from shoes to sandals and back again, without much relief for my tender feet, finally accepting the discomfort as part of the price of getting to town.
The last miles of the march were grim and frankly ugly. My eyes were constantly filled with windblown dust, brutally uncomfortable when wearing gas-permeable contact lenses. In the final approach to Crawford, Dodd Road lay between two raised fields, simultaneously focusing the hot sun and accelerating the wind. The mini-gulley was thick with fine dust and sand, making every step arduous.
To distract myself, I considered my three upcoming days walking with Emily from KIOS public radio in Omaha. I needed to come up with a plan that was both fun and doable, which took this dust-choked grind through barren fields out of the running.
Still bugged by my mistake the day before, it occurred to me that since Josh would be available to drive, Emily and I could start our first day at FS918 on Orella Road, then walk into Toadstool and take the Bison Trail to Hudson-Meng, following the actual GPT route. From there, we could walk as many miles as we liked through the rewarding Pine Ridge terrain and Josh could scoop us up before we reached this Mordor-like final approach.
Having settled on that plan, I called the Crawford Inn & RV Park. A harried-sounding guy named Jim answered. He said his manager had just quit, and most of the rooms were rented by long-term to highway and railroad workers. But if I didn’t mind sleeping in an unfinished room — “I haven’t finished up the drywall,” he explained — I could have a room for $40, a steal. I thanked him and said I needed to eat before walking up the hill to the motel.
Fried, sore and gritty, I felt sorry for the Angus bulls standing in the intense sun as I walked past the livestock auction. I got to what appeared to be a major intersection of another small town that had seen better days, with several closed and boarded-up businesses visible over the next couple of blocks. But there was a grocery store on one corner, a bar on another and the Tailgate tavern on another.
I slouched through the door, self-conscious about my odor and appearance, and took a seat in a Naugahyde-covered booth. I rarely eat meat when off-trail, but I was ravenous and deeply appreciative of the green-chile burger, fries and very large Pepsi the waitress set down before me. I texted Steve as I ate.
Oh, man. You must think I’m stupid, insane or blind — or all three, I wrote. I’ll call you later to explain all my dumb questions and comments yesterday at Toadstool.
He laughed when we talked a little while later.
“You did seem a little confused,” he said.
After walking the half-mile to the motel I stripped down and cleaned up — Best shower of life? I asked my journal later.
Back down the hill, I tossed my apocalyptically foul gear, including my rapidly disintegrating Altras, into a machine at the coin-op laundry attached to the Corner Bar, then bought some groceries at the unexpectedly well-stocked D&S market across the street. I had a $3 wheat beer and shared, chips, cheese and salsa with two older women who were clearly regular customers.
“You come from where, now?” one asked, halfway in her cups.
“Bear Butte, South Dakota.”
“You walked that whole way?”
“But … why?”
Crawford, population 953 (and dropping, according to U.S. Census figures), was to be my home away from home for the next two days while I waited for Emily and Josh.
I’m happy. That’s 3 really tough days in a row. Feet pounded, sun hot, lips burning, a thousand skeeter bites, poison ivy, a lot of miles, I wrote in my journal that night as reruns of Gunsmoke played on the TV in my comfy, half-drywalled room. But glad to have done it.