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.
Aiming to meet Emily and videographer Josh LaBure on Sept. 1 in tiny Crawford, Nebraska, I would start hiking southbound from Bear Butte, just outside Sturgis, South Dakota, on Aug. 20.