Day Seventeen: Alone Again
- September 4: Pine Ridge Trail to Hough Road (walking); Lake Minatare (yellow-blazing)
- Miles: 6
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
The wind was still insistent when I gave up on sleeping and started organizing my gear at around 4:30. Emily was rustling around in her tent, too. I donned a long-sleeve Merino wool shirt and my on-its-last-legs Frogg Toggs rain coat — at $25, still the best rain protection I’ve ever had — to keep warm as I fought the wind for possession of my tent.
The Pine Ridge Trail remained fickle as we set out just after 6 a.m. At the windmill, I could not see the next post, and the foliage leading southeast was thick, tangled and completely untrodden, so far as I could tell. So, we marched off, high-stepping on a course skirting the edge of the next shallow canyon, hoping to pick up the trail before it dropped into East Ash Creek Canyon.
In character, the PRT presented various difficulties, especially a lack of tread, leading to a goodly half-mile of ‘weed whacking,’ I wrote later. I could tell E wasn’t having much fun, and I don’t blame her. The uneven ground is hidden and must have been hell to walk on with that blister and her sore ankle.
After a bit, we did spy a distant post, which we followed to the next and the next, around the southern tip of the canyon, then down into the East Ash Creek drainage. As we descended, the tread became clear and the windblown, burnt-matchstick terrain gradually became more lush and protected from the wind. On the downside, there were intermittent patches of poison ivy.
We found the creek running with clear water and filled our bottles. When we reached the road, the east-side doppelganger of West Ash Canyon, we had a decision to make.
The databook suggested following Pine Ridge Trail a couple miles east before following a Forest Service track to Highland Cemetery, and following busy, dusty, no-shoulder Table Center Road for six miles. Tom had urged us not to walk on Table Center Road, and I agreed, having driven it on my way to Rapid City and decided it would be dusty and potentially dangerous. He suggested we follow East Ash Creek Road up to the top of Pine Ridge, then go south on less-traveled dirt roads. It would add several miles to the next available campsite, at Box Butte Reservoir, but it would be safer and more pleasant.
I chose Tom’s option, as much as anything to see if it was a viable alternative. After what felt like a long hike up on the road to the top of the ridge with a finicky, sometimes stiff breeze swirling around us, Emily and I popped out of the woods onto Table Road. Now unimpeded by trees, the wind flailed away at us as we marched east, then turned south on Hough Road. My eyes were soon full of dust and grit and I could sense Emily slowing down.
Not far down the road, I stopped and asked what she wanted to do. Having hiked more than 30 miles over two days and change, much of it in pain, she was ready to wrap it up. She called Josh and we hunkered down in the long grass at the side of the road, trying to hide from the wind.
Now I faced a decision. Beyond Box Butte lay what I expected would be the least pleasant two- or three-day stretch on the pilot trail, 38 miles of roadwalking to Alliance, either done in one mind-numbing jag, or broken into a 10-mile jaunt into Hemingford followed by a 30-mile day to Alliance. From Alliance, the databook called for another foot-killing day, 40 miles on dirt farm roads to Lake Minatare.
While I would have been proud to say I’d done it (even Luke “Skywalker” Jordan, the only person ever to have walked the complete GPT, from Texas to North Dakota, hadn’t; the route had been different when he hiked in 2015), I certainly didn’t need to. Meanwhile, Josh and Emily had agreed to give me a ride to Alliance or Lake Minatare if I wanted.
I kicked the can down the road for the moment, deciding to yellow-blaze to Box Butte, cutting this day short by a whopping 20 miles. I’d still be able to scout Tom’s route — which, I was realizing, was a pretty long haul — then decide whether to camp and walk to Alliance.
If not for that miserable wind and dust, I might have said goodbye right there, but in the end, I was glad I didn’t. We drove Tom’s route — a 25-mile day from the East Ash Trailhead; certainly doable, less crazy traffic, but still plenty of dust and an additional 8 miles of walking — and then had a blast swimming in the wind-whipped green waters of the reservoir, a fitting end to Josh and Emily’s journey. I just couldn’t face all that roadwalking, so they kindly agreed to drive me an hour out of their way to Lake Minatare, where I’d camp before walking into Scottsbluff.
This meant cutting my walk short by two or three days. But I’d had an incredible, challenging adventure through the Black Hills and across the savannah, and it didn’t seem likely that 80 miles of asphalt and dust through farm country would improve the experience all that much. I called the Scottsbluff-Denver International Airport shuttle and made arrangements to be dropped off east of Longmont on I-25 two days hence.
Going home at 6:45 Friday morning. One more day of walking, I wrote that night.
And so, after a celebratory beer at Lake Minatare, I hugged Emily and Josh and watched them drive away for their eight-hour drive to Omaha.
I am now used to the exhilaration of trail relationships catching fire and burning fiercely within days, sometimes even hours or minutes. And yet, the sweet melancholy of separation that follows never stops feeling brand new.
I spent the rest of that hot, breezy afternoon swimming in a deep cove and exploring the nearby woods, where I spooked several whitetail deer. I fell asleep that night to the croaking of countless frogs and insects keening in cottonwood branches high above.